Valencia

 

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I have a love love relationship with Spain and Spanish life in general. Smart 13 year old me jumped at the chance to learn the language at school so I could forever visit and enjoy the culture. Prior to this trip, I had already been to Spain a few times: Malaga, Grenada, Barcelona plus islands Menorca, Ibiza and Spanish speaking Cuba.

So when deciding on a sisters holiday for Summer ‘16 (June 19-24) and Valencia came up (coincidentally also my favourite Insta filter), I was excited to explore a lesser known part of this fab country…and boy it didn’t disappoint.

We had a simple easyJet flight there from Gatwick and took the metro directly to our accommodation. We had booked to stay in another Airbnb. This pristine 2 bed flat still remains my favourite Airbnb of all time and our host Nerea earned her status as the fourth sister! We lived near many fresh food markets and Mercadona (supermarket) so often cooked to economise.

We started our holiday at Tapearte with paella and sangria. After lunch, we took a leisurely stroll to explore the surrounding attractions, first starting at classic Spanish department store el Corte Inglés. Our next stop (max 10 minute walk from our place) was the infamous Ciudad de las artes y ciencias. The city of arts and sciences includes the science museum in which you can wander around some parts for free, a palm tree greenhouse, beautiful art structures and more.

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Assut de l’Or Bridge

We continued our walk to Turia Gardens which is a long stretch of greenery, parks, water features and cafe hotspots. Perfect for cycling and people watching.

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We found the beach the next morning..a solid 25 minute walk from our place. Playa de la Malvarrosa is a gorgeous sandy beach which has many activities going on from sunrise to sunset.

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After the beach, we continued to explore and soon found ourselves in the centre walking through squares naturally!

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Jardins De Real

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Iglesia de Santa Catalina

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Churro heaven!

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Llotja de la seda – Views from inside further below

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Lounging outside Museo De La Seda

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Plaza de Torros de Valencia – bullfighting arena

In the evening we went to High Cube…literally a floating cube by the seafront! A cool club to visit in the summer.

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The next day, we visited Valencia Central Market which is large and mostly indoors (important for keeping cool!) It has beautiful architecture as well as an abundance of fresh food, drinks, souvenirs and more.

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We visited Llotja de la seda aka Silk Exchange. It’s a impressive gothic building, previously used for silk trade which made it very important centuries ago. It’s only a couple of euros for entry (or €1 for students…and free on Sundays!) and inside the complex it has various buildings including a small chapel, grand hall and a cute orange garden outside!

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Afterwards, we just carried on strolling through Valencia..on a sunny day it is just pretty side street perfection!

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Our next big stop was Torres de Serrano. This impressive tower was once part of the ancient city wall. It’s a bit of a workout to get up here but once you are, the views are  amazing!

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Our incredibly busy day was not over yet. We passed through Palacio de Benicarló (old gothic palace now used for Parliament), Plaza de la Virgen (main sights here are the Cathedral of Santa Maria, the Basílica de la Virgen de los Desamparados and the Palace of the Generalitat) and Valencia cathedral which lives in Plaza de la Reina. By this point, we were in need of ice cream and shade!

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Valencia Cathedral

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Helado!

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After a full on day of exploring, we had a well deserved sunset rest on our fave beach.

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There were still a couple of places to visit despite our epic few days of exploring! We had a great day visiting Oceanogràfic – a huge aquarium complex very close to the City of Arts and Sciences. It has every form of aquatic life to look at and learn about and a very popular dolphin show. We bought youth tickets for €24.20 online the day before.

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In the evening, we went back to Plaza de La Virgen for paella, sangria and to hang out in the square which has plenty of restaurants, bars and evening entertainment. We found ourselves back at our favourite floating cube afterwards for the last time!

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Our last touristy activity on our final day was to visit L’Almoina (archaeological museum). You walk through visualising how Valencia was built up through the ages until the modern day. Also €2 entry or free on weekends and bank hols.

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Nerea our lovely Airbnb host invited us to the beach in the evening for the San Juan festival..this celebrates the beginning of summer with the whole city coming together to eat and drink around bonfires and then at midnight, you jump across 9 waves for luck! It was crazy and the best way to end our amazing trip.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this and have been persuaded to visit Valencia this summer! It is seeped in art, culture, history with friendly people, beautiful sights and quality classic Spanish cuisine….a trip for everyone!!

 

J Xo

Accra,Ghana

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“Welcome”

I am of Ghanaian origin but was born and have lived in London my whole life. So I was excited to visit the Motherland and get back to my roots during Easter 2016! African countries often don’t get the appreciation they deserve so I was ready to see it from all angles.

Ghana is in West Africa and is well known for its gold (previously known as Gold Coast), azonto, friendly people and semi jokes rivalry with nearby neighbours Nigeria. It is a relatively safe country with good education (so good that Mugabe studied here!).

I flew with British Airways which goes from LHR to Accra (the capital of Ghana) nonstop in 6 hours. These flights are quite expensive in peak times so worth shopping around. I had to get a visa too which I did via the Ghanaian embassy in London. Cedi is the currency of Ghana (incredible exchange rate)..best to get it in Accra.

As with the rest of the continent, mosquitos and their sidechick malaria dominate the streets so it’s really important to get your malaria tablets and nets before you fly! And you must have an in date yellow fever jab too..

I stayed with family in East Legon during my trip so can’t comment much on accomadation.  However there are plenty of hotels and homes on Airbnb to choose from. Alternatively, if you have a Ghanaian friend (easily identified by their charming nature) then I would recommend joining their family for excellent hospitality!

My first day in the Motherland was Easter Sunday so I spent the day getting used to the heat and being paraded around my relatives…This African heat is no joke! But it was close to the start of rainy season so there were a couple of days where we had immense rain and lost power!

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Man’s hot

My touristy activities began the next day and were spread throughout the week. Touring is best done with a driver/tour guide as public transport isn’t quite there yet. However if you’re feeling brave, there is the option of travelling on trotro to fully immerse yourself amongst Ghanaians. The roads in Accra are quite hectic though! From farm animals casually strolling around to people (including children) trying to sell you things in traffic, a distinct lack of traffic lights and large potholes, it was often a bumpy ride! But as long as you travel in a big car with a conscientious driver and good a/c , you will be okay.

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We passed the Flagstaff House (Ghana’s version of The White House) towards the Independence Square. Ghana gained independence from the British Empire on March 6, 1957 (ahead of most of the continent). So there’s no language barrier with tourists as almost everyone speaks English as well as their tradition tongue.

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Behind the Square

The tour continued to the Accra Sports/Ohene Djan Stadium..mostly used for football matches, including during the African Cup of Nations back in 2008 when Ghana hosted it! There is a big love for football here plus pride for some of the country’s more well known players who have made it abroad.

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Accra Mall is a great place to go shopping but also to eat and people watch which was fascinating. Everyone moves at a slower pace and in a more relaxed way than in London shopping areas! All the clothing brands here were original…I loved the mix of traditional kente print and western styles. You can also buy accessories, groceries, toiletries, electronics and change your money to Cedi here. They even had a version of Nando’s called Barcelo’s…and the chicken was definitely better!

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When bae’s chicken has arrived before yours…

 

The next day was quite emotional for me as I went to visit the house of my late grandma. She had lived with us on and off in London for years so we were close.I had never been to her house in Accra whilst she was alive so it was weird to meet her neighbours and imagine her sat out on a chair with them all gossiping away!

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After this, I visited the Artists Alliance Gallery which has many great displays inside showcasing Ghanaian talent.

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Miniature model of trotro…minivan public transport in Ghana. Today’s aren’t quite as fancy as this

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Mask on

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Another very important place to visit is the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum. It’s a beautiful memorial park and museum dedicated to this revolutionary man. He was the Prime Minister who led Ghana to independence and was then elected as its 1st President. His story is very interesting and can be read about in the museum with great photos.

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We visited Jamestown (Old Accra) which was important during colonial times and still has a large fishing community today. It has a non functioning prison and light house from which you get an amazing birds eye view of the area. The area is quite derelict compared with other parts of the city that I had seen.

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Views from the lighthouse

 

Not satisfied with shopping at the mall, I also visited Oxford Street! As well as some shops and markets, there are also restaurants and ice cream parlours to enjoy.

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You can take a girl out of London…

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Who knew Oxford St could be so pleasant?!

 

For the duration of my trip, it had been far too hot for me to enjoy a beach day..so when it became cooler and overcast for one day only, I took advantage and visited Labadi Pleasure Beach. It is a huge stretch of beach with the fancy parts attached to the Labadi Beach Hotel and the rest available to the public. Within it, there are a few restaurants and stalls to get drinks plus the opportunity to ride horses across the beach or just chill on a sun lounger to music.

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My family’s house was close to The Aknac Hotel which is really cute! Non staying guests can visit to swim in their pool and enjoy the bar….I took full advantage of this on my last day.

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As this was mostly one big catchup, I didn’t get to explore the nightlife as much as I like to when abroad. Depending on where you’re staying, there are lots of open bars and restaurants to see you through the night. Ghanaian cuisine is amazing..classics include jollof rice, banku, kenkey, fufu, plantain plus lots of meat so wherever you go, your tastebuds will be impressed. Of course you can get other types of cuisine too…and yes I did find a Chinese restaurant(!) called Noble House Chinese which DID NOT DISAPPOINT! Also do try fresh coconuts from street vendors (I can verify that these are tasty), all the fresh fruit and veg and the chocolate!

There are so many more places to visit depending on your time and budget including Elmina Castle, Cape Coast ( where you can visit their castle, Kakum National Park and take in the sea views), Volta Region (true natural beauty), and Kumasi (in the Ashanti Region..lots of interesting history from the Ashanti Kings to Colonial times),  Mole National Park for safari and more.

I hope you will consider visiting this amazing country and let me know what you think!

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J Xo

New York City

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I’ve always wanted to visit the Big Apple as it features in every film ever (plus one of my favourite TV series Gossip Girl! ) So I was super excited to experience the magic for myself a couple of autumns ago with my other half. The forecast was cold but sunny which was okay for what we had planned.

We flew with Virgin Atlantic from LHR for the absolute bargain of under £400 each return!

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I really wanted to live in the Upper East Side, Manhattan for the week and the most cost effective way to do so was via Airbnb (my first time using it). The married couple we stayed with were great hosts and it felt comfortable sharing their flat.

After we arrived at JFK and go through security relatively painlessly, we went into the subway…amidst the confusion of which platform to use and then having to run for the train, I manage to lose my handbag…

…PANIC ENSUES.

We get off at the next stop and take the train back…I figure that I must’ve put it down on the seat at our original platform. Luckily it had been handed in to the ticket booth upstairs but the lady couldn’t keep it due to security fears of unaccompanied bags. So it was going through the system to lost property and we had no way to get it back that night. Our saving grace was that my phone was in my coat pocket and my boyfriend had our passports in his bag…but all my cards, keys, our mate’s camera, my jewellery (which I ironically keep in my handbag in case something happens to my suitcase) were gone.

This was the first time I’ve had such a disaster abroad so I was absolutely gutted but we tried to not let it spoil the trip. Our amazing hosts gave us pizza and much needed drinks when we finally arrived 4 hours later than planned.

The next day after we had sorted out money, we had a tequila burrito brunch for my boyfriend’s birthday then took a leisurely stroll to Central Park. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn’s day so both New Yorkers and tourists alike were out in force. We saw dancers and singers entertaining, artists drawing passerby’s and a slightly awkward engagement photo shoot. I was given a spontaneous massage by a small Thai woman (she literally reached up to my shoulders and started massaging) ha! But most importantly, we found where Blair and Chuck got married…to those of you who appreciate this, I was seriously living my GG dream.

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We ended his birthday at Dive Bar surrounded by locals…alcohol in America isn’t as cheap as in the UK!

The next day, we took the subway to Times Square 42 St so we could go to Macy’s and surrounding shops, check out the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Broadway and Times Square! We were at Times Square during sunset and it was surreal how the sky was getting darker but we were oblivious for ages due to the brightness of our surroundings. Unfortunately we hadn’t looked early enough to book a decent Broadway show.

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The evenings in New York are even more magical..I just couldn’t get enough of the lights. After dinner and a cheeky cake from Magnolia bakery, we spent time in and around Rockefeller Centre. 

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So we had the most incredible privilege of being taken on a personal tour of the United Nations HQ…what?!!!! We got to mingle with delegates, see the various conference areas, sit in a couple of talks and experience the breathtaking views of New York. Honestly, it was such an inspiring building and had good vibes from everyone we met!

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Another thing I managed to tick off my bucket list was to watch a live basketball game. We had bought tickets for the New York Knicks vs Charlotte Hornet game at Madison Square Garden(!!!) $65 each from a resale on Ticket Monster. It was such a great game and I loved how much energy Americans have. It was also cool to see Carmelo Anthony play live again, having first seen play him as part of Team USA whilst I was a London Olympic 2012 Volunteer in the Basketball Arena (oh yes!). We finished the night at a nearby Irish pub called Foley’s.

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One place that we had to visit was the 9/11 memorial which was absolutely stunning. It had been tastefully done and everyone was so respectful of it.

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We then wandered through the financial area, passing the infamous Wall Street and made our way to the Battery Park which faces the New York Harbour. You get a great view of the Hudson River and Brooklyn Bridge. However this was the only grey day of our trip so it wasn’t so cute!

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Later that night, we went to Cielo club in the Meatpacking District after popping (cheaper) bottles at our Airbnb and a mini bar crawl…good area to come for a mixed and fun crowd.

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On our final full day, we had to pay our respects to the Lady of the City. As our tickets for the Statue of Liberty tour were in my bag which was still lost, we decided to go on the free ferry which goes to Staten Island and back. You get a decent enough view of the Statue of Liberty so it’s great if you’re not bothered about climbing up it. The sun was out again so she looked beautiful.

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New York exceeded my expectations.. and although the trip started badly, the friendliness of New Yorkers, the amazing sights the city had the offer, our lovely Airbnb hosts and the HUGE portions of very tasty food made it all worth it. And yes, bagels from New York really are the best! I also indulged in supersized Chinese, and Indian meal at Ruchi, so many burgers, ribs, fries and shamefully a Maccys.

I would love to return when it’s warmer (and I can keep hold of my bag) to enjoy a rooftop bar, see a Broadway show, visit Brooklyn and experience the city like a local.

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A week after we got home, I received an email from the MTA to inform me that my bag had been found…all that time spent talking to the local police and visiting MTA’s lost property office in between our activities had paid off. When I finally received it a couple of weeks later in the post, EVERY SINGLE THING was inside! 🙏🏾

Anyone else been to New York or planning to? I would love to hear all about it!

 

J Xo

 

Amsterdam

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Amsterdam is ALWAYS a good idea..so good that I’ve actually been twice.

The first time was on my 20th birthday for a spontaneous post summer exams adventure with 2 of my Uni besties. £44 for a return coach trip from Leicester to Amsterdam. We spent exactly 24 hours there with no place booked to stay..so we ate plenty, stopped for “coffee”, wandered around the city, Vondelpark and watched Holland play in the UEFA Euro Cup in a pub. During the night, we went on an epic bar crawl and had to sit outside in the Red Light District from 4am until our coach was ready to leave…good times!!

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My second visit in autumn of 2015 was short but not so crazy…!

I flew with 2 pals on British Airways because free vodka and crisps…now no longer a perk on their short haul trips unfortunately. We stayed at Meininger Hotel Amsterdam City West which was a bit outside the centre so we got buses to town which took 15-20 minutes. Lovely hotel to stay in though with a great buffet breakfast, bar and lounge and really nice ensuite room for the 3 of us.

Our first activity was a canal tour..there are so many to choose from depending on what you want to see. Ours was a guided tour with headphones in which you choose your preferred language. Despite it being grey and miserable, we were feeling cute and the city was too.

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But at times the weather defeated us so at times we cheekily hopped onto a random tour boat to take us to our destinations.

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Obviously I found a Chinese restaurant 

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It was hard to escape walking through the Red Light District again. It’s a strange juxtaposition of the women posing for work and Dutch people going about their normal lives with tourists who have come here to just stare. I learnt about the different coloured lights used to advertise to various customers’ tastes.

We continued to brave the miserable weather to visit Vondelpark for a romantic walk. It is a huge park full of lakes, trees, a few places to eat and many cyclists of course.

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For the perfect tourist shot of Amsterdam, you must visit the Rijksmuseum..it’s an art and history museum with the well known I Amsterdam sign outside. It is also near  Van Gogh Museum and the designer shopping streets.

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As if we weren’t cold enough, we visited the Amsterdam Icebar at night for more. It’s gorgeous inside but the best part for me was the bar that you defrost in after the tour!

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We really wanted to go to the Museum of Prostitution (Red Light Secrets)..but weren’t sure how it would be. So for some Dutch courage(!), we first went to one of Amsterdam’s most well known coffee shops – The Bulldog.

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These cakes turned out to be too much to handle later on…!

The Museum was actually very interesting as it took you through the history of prostitution, examples of environments that the women work in and thoughts and expectations of some of the women. One unexpected part is where you get to stand in a window to pose as the women would do.

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We managed to eat and drink our way through the city in the short time that we were there…Pancake Bakery being my personal fave.

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Other places to visit but not pictured include Anne Frank House (book in advance/ get there as early as possible as queues are mad), Tulip Museum, Bloemenmarkt, Rembrandt House museum and of course to cycle your way around the city.

Planning to visit Amsterdam in the new year or have been recently? Share your thoughts and tips below!

 

J Xo

Short Summer in Europe

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The year is 2015 and I am fresh out of Uni…I had a month until I started work and I was feeling restless. Despite having very little money and a heatwave being predicted for the UK, I decided to go on a spontaneous solo week long trip to Europe and here is the tale…

First stop…BUDAPEST!

I flew with Wizzair from Luton Airport on the hottest day of that year (1st July)..at least I didn’t have to wear extra layers for the journey! It was incredibly cheap as I was just out of the peak season.

Budapest is a really cool, safe feeling city which is cheap thanks to the Hungarian Forint. Budapest was historically split into 2 parts “Buda” and “Pest” by the Danube River but these days into various districts. They have a much cleaner and more spacious underground system compared with the tube so I used it for longer distances.

I stayed in HBC Hostel. The owner was so lovely and welcoming that it felt like you were staying with a Hungarian family. I arrived on goulash night so was given a free meal and wine…what a way to start the trip! It’s quite a small hostel and definitely not a party hostel but well located and reasonable for a last minute booking.

My first night was spent at a Czech beer festival with a group of Australian girls who had taken over my hostel…solo travel never fails to amaze me!

I hadn’t planned much so I went on a free Budapest walking tour which I had booked through Triposo (THE best app). Tour starts at the Lion statue at Vorosmarty Smer at your chosen time and the guides take you around town in about 2.5 hours. It’s great as it is free (you tip the guide at the end if you feel it’s worthy..which you will), you get taken to the main sites with a mini history lesson and given tips. My favourite sights were Szechenyi Chain Bridge, Houses of Parliament and Castle Hill as you got incredible views of Budapest plus there’s a lot to see up there.

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“I am the way, the truth and the life”…thanks yr 8 Latin!

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Houses of Parliament in the distance

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Chain Bridge

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Matthias Church

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Views from Castle Hill

As fun and culturally important sightseeing is, I needed to relax away from the blistering heat. Budapest has an abundance of thermal baths which you can visit during the day for maxing relaxing or at night for the Sparties. My sister happened to be passing through on her interrail at the same time so we met and went to Kiraly Baths which was perfect for our student budgets. It’s not busy during the week and has enough different pools, steam areas and jacuzzi to fully relax.

Budapest has plenty of nice outdoor spots to relax in during the summer. We came across Margaret Island (Margitsziget) which during the night had music, food and drink stalls with a multicoloured water fountain.

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Sisters reunited for the day

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Also Varosliget is a pretty park to stroll around in during the day. It’s close by to the gorgeous Vajdahunyad Castle and Szechenyi Baths (which is the major one in Budapest).

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Hősök tere

The nightlife here was really fun and had a relaxed vibe. The place to be on a summer night is in a ruin bar. I went to Szimpla Kert which was one of the bigger ones and very popular with other tourists.  Really good music and drinks are quite cheap. My other favourite place was club Instant which has multiple dance areas and again is very popular, both with tourists and Hungarians.

 

I was sad to leave to this gorgeous place after such a short time but my next destination was calling…HELLO PRAGUE!

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Hlavni Nadrazi Train Station

I undertook a mini inter-rail to the Czech Republic (with my mini suitcase). It was the longest 7 hours of my life and the Spanish boys in my carriage were in need of a good shower..!

Once I arrived, I took the metro across to my hostel “Hostel Advantage”. It was bigger and more sociable than the first place… this was actually my favourite of the trip.

Prague was even prettier than Budapest! It felt equally as safe and very easy to get around on foot or via simple metro lines.

It was a Friday night so I spent the first hours in this city eating Chinese(!) and bonding over beers with other travellers. We ended up in a small bar called Alibi..which was refreshingly mainly full of locals, cheap cocktails and friendly staff.

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Found Channing in Prague!

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Traveller tattoo goals!

I had failed to plan my day adventures again so another free walking tour for me…this time with Sandeman’s New Europe. We met in the Old Square and spent the morning trying to avoid the relentless heat during our stops. It was quite an extensive tour passing through the old and new Squares, Jewish Quarter, Charles Bridge and surrounding areas. John Paul was our excellent tour guide and he managed to sell me his Prague Castle Tour that was happening later that day. Weirdest moment of the tour was one of the guys being “reborn” through the Preggo Lego.

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Astronomical clock…oldest in the world

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Prague Estates Theatre..where Mozart debuted Don Giovanni in 1787

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“Preggo Lego”

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Pinkas Synagogue

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Vltava River

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After lunch, I rejoined John Paul and a new group for the castle tour. It took 3 hours and in that time you learn a lot of history, about how it was built, its previous residents and more…whilst visiting the different areas within the complex (churches, cathedral, government houses, museums etc). The best part was the breathtaking view of Prague from the rooftops. Prague Castle was hands down my favourite part of the city.

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This old guy collects badges and protests all year round

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St Vitus Cathedral

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St George’s Basilica

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Mario game about to commence…I was chosen to be Princess Peach!

In the evening, I had dinner with 3 new friends that I had met on the tour (a gorgeous Brazilian girl and 2 Canadian brothers) in a super suave restaurant called Art&Food Had. We had a candlelit 3 course dinner (compulsory here) with great wine and a pianist and violinist serenading us in the background…just living our best student lives! The prices were cheap and the alternative art decor was on point.

I was even more sad to leave Prague but excited for my final stop…BERLIN! The train took about 4 and a half hours and was much fresher than the last.

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I was staying in PLUS Berlin which was the biggest and livest hostel of my trip. I was in a mixed 6 dorm with an ensuite…NO AIRCON! Luckily the temperatures were cooler than they had been in Budapest and Prague. The hostel had its own restaurant, bar with happy hour, swimming pool and jacuzzi, social areas and more.

I had to go on a free walking tour as they had become the anthem of my trip. It was another Sandeman one and we started at Brandenburg Gate. The tour led us to the Holocaust Memorial (a very emotional place to visit), Berlin Wall and its memorial , checkpoint Charlie…Our guide Lynsey gave an interesting perspective on the history of Nazi Germany and the problems following the end of the Wars.

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Bradenburg Gate

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Holocaust Memorial

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Where East and West Berlin were divided

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Checkpoint Charlie

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Alexander von Humboldt – “2nd discoverer of Cuba”

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Deponie No 3 was the lunch destination post tour…cheap but tasty German beer and meat is always a winner!

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My hostel was in the East of Berlin so I was a 2 minute walk away from the Shoreditch of a Berlin aka the East Side Gallery…a very long stretch of various graffiti murals which are all insta worthy.

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On my last day I visited the Berlin Zoo which helped me to walk off last night’s effects of happy hour at the hostel! I also enjoyed the free jacuzzi provided when I got back as it would’ve been rude not to.

I flew home after a whirlwind week, having learnt so much about the 3 countries and their histories. I had also indulged in their typical cuisines and partied with some fun people!

I plan to extend my Europe travels next summer..so I would love to hear your tips and experiences in these countries too!

 

J Xo

 

Cuba

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Cuba has become one of THE hottest destinations to visit for many reasons…it has an intriguing history with the States, a very rich, beautiful culture and even more beautiful locals…sights..ha! I spent 6 weeks on this island from April-May 2015 which I still manage to reference in my everyday life as it was that good. It was also the first time I had solo travelled!

I had the privilege of experiencing Cuban healthcare as part of the last module of my degree….I won’t go into that here but you could always visit Medical Women’s Federation if you are interested in reading more. Here I’ve listed some things I enjoyed whilst there…I haven’t included everything otherwise this article would never end!

A great reference point whilst planning your trip and also serves as an offline map once downloaded is Triposo..it’s useful for any destination really!

Practicalities:

Flights: Virgin Atlantic ❤️ 9 hours direct from LGW to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana. For those of you like me who actively avoid connecting flights, this is quite cheap if booked in good time.

Visa: For British passports, you can either go to the Cuban embassy in London and get your visa the same day for a small fee (£15 at the time) or do an online application which costs more for delivery.

Currency – Interestingly, Cuba has 2 currencies. The 1st and most useful for tourists is called CUC. I don’t think it’s available outside of Cuba so change your cash when you arrive at the airport. They like Euros and since the pound is basically worth the same these days, it could save you a bit! The 2nd currency, CUP, is used by Cubans. This is worth much less than CUC and chances are you won’t need it. However it is really important to check your money as you don’t want to pay for something in CUC and get change in CUP! There are ATMs around but it’s ideal to keep as much cash on you as tolerated as not all cards work (especially American based ones).

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CUP vs CUC (from google)

Where to stay – Casa particulares! These are B&Bs within a Cuban household which was a great experience and reasonably priced. I stayed with Sandra and her family in Vedado which is a nice suburban part of Havana…with an en-suite and breakfast included plus tips on surviving Havana as a young woman thrown in for free. The houses are identified by the official blue logo hanging outside their doors. The families who take part in Havana mostly live in gorgeous colonial houses which are a treat to stay in. Hostels and hotels are also available all over town.

 

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Casa de Sandra

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Getting around – A lot of Havana can be navigated by foot..most of the central part of town is divided in blocks American style so it’s really easy to get around. For further distances, the classic 50s cars which are used for taxi’s are a great choice. A standard journey is about 10 CUC. There are no health and safety rules in these cars – often no seat belts and the doors are questionable in stability but when in Rome..! If you are feeling really brave, you can take a local bus..they cost 40CUP which is a bargain but not worth it if you don’t understand Spanish.

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Internet – This was an issue 2 years ago and I imagine still is..most places didn’t have wifi so you had to go to a hotel to pay for an hour of Wifi which cost between 7-10CUC depending where you went. They also have wifi cards which I heard were less reliable…it was refreshing to not be constantly connected to the world so take an internet free challenge if your trip is short!

Now onto the important things…Places I visited

Calle de Hamejon – this is a tiny side street where every Sunday from about 11-3pm, Afro Cubans put on a great dancing and singing show in the name of Santeria (type of religion). They will get you involved in the dancing and if you’re lucky to be there for 2 Sundays, you might get a shoutout for returning!

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El Malecon – The infamous wall. It sounds like an anticlimax and if you visit in the day, it kind of is…it’s a peaceful place to sit and watch a few boats go by and Cuban men fish. But during sunset and into the night is when things heat up…Cubans meet here to drink (rum in the milk cartons was weird favourite), sing, dance and socialise. If you drive/walk past at this time, it’s just a row of beautiful bodies. Words cannot describe the vibes you experience there so just go and get involved!

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Museo Del Ron – The rum museum..because Havana Club Rum! This museum will take you on a rum journey extraordinaire and best of all, you get to buy more rum varieties than you knew existed at the end!

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Colon cemetery – Okay this is a weird one because it is a real cemetery and there were a couple of burials going on whilst I visited..but the headstones are incredible and this is a legit tourist attraction on all credible websites…

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Plaza de la Revolucion – ‘Revolution Square’. The May Day parade ends there – This incredible event starts early in the morning (people were gathering at 3am as we made our way home from FAC…see below) and Cubans dance all the way up to the Square. For those of you not visiting at this time, you will see the Jose Marti Memorial which you can go up for great views of the city, as well as graffiti esque art on council estate looking buildings dedicated to two important men in Cuban history: Che Guavara and Fidel Castro.

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Plaza De La Revolución

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Jose Martí Memorial

El Capitolio – in the heart of Havana. It “accidently on purpose” looks just like the Capitol Building in Washington DC. It was under construction at the time of my visit but still made for a pretty picture. Opposite it is the infamous image of Havana with the bright coloured houses. It is very near Parque Central (featuring a statue of Jose Martí) which is a great meeting point…it also leads to Old Havana, el Paseo del Prado, Calle Obispo (with many restaurants and shopping) and more.

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Playa del Este – lovely beach about 25 minute drive from Havana…accessible by bus outside Parque Central (opposite Hotel Inglaterra) for 5CUC or by taxi. It is more popular with Cubans than tourists I found…pack everything you need as there aren’t many shops nearby. There will be men wandering around selling tamales on the beach…these were tasty so do try one!

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Plaza de la catedral  – this square houses the cathedral as well as Museo del Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum), restaurants and plenty of photo ops (for a small fee) in the form of old Cuban women in colourful clothes.

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Plaza de Vieja –  “The Old Square”…full of tourists and Cubans alike wandering about, eating and drinking outside and loving life..my favourite thing there was the random statue of a naked woman sat on a cockerel holding a pitch fork!

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Plaza de Armas – This pretty square with leafy surroundings had stalls selling books and comics every so often which was really cute..also we came across young creatives who were skating, drawing and dancing.

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Basilica menor de San Francisco de Asis...this church has interesting architecture..peep the statues closely when you pass by and let me know… It’s on the way to the rum museum and has another nice square around it because you’re not really in a Spanish speaking country unless you spend all you outdoor time in ALL THEIR SQUARES! 2015-04-25 16.17.45

Morro Castle – it’s a bit of a trek to this fortress but the views of Havana are amazing. During the day you can visit and learn about its history…we visited at night to watch the city salsa from afar.

Christ of Havana – this can be seen from the malecon. It potentially bares some resemblance to the Brazilian Christ the Redeemer. We didn’t venture out to it but it would be another way to take in the views.

John Lennon Park – Cubans have a sweet yet random love for very specific celebrities like John Lennon and Charlie Chaplin (for real)..this park actually has a statue of John which you can sit next to..

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Hotel Nacional – This hotel is fancy AF and has a long history of famous and royal guests. As much as I love to live my best life, this wasn’t an affordable place to stay! However, you can go to their outside terrace and have reasonably priced cocktails whilst overlooking the malecon. This is a perfect chilled evening/date idea!

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Eat and Drink…

I found Cuban cuisine wasn’t as exciting as I expected as it’s heavily based on rice and beans (Moros y Cristianos) and meat. But the paladares (which are non government restaurants) have more varied menus to excite your tastebuds. There are also many markets, bakeries, small shops and supermarkets dotted around the city for fresh produce if you wanna cook….I challenge you to successfully haggle a good price in Spanish! If you are staying in Vedado, Galerías de Paseo is quite a good shopping centre to get your essentials.

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El Floridita – Legend has it that Ernest Hemmingway enjoyed many a daquiri here..hence the inflated prices and saturation of tourists (with money). I would say it’s nice to go inside and have one if you’re feeling flush. But there are better cocktails elsewhere.

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La Bodeguita del Medio – The cocktails here are a tad cheaper than in El Floridita but still as busy..it’s a half open quite edgy looking bar which again is nice to peek inside.

Restaurant with no name – I’m not joking, we never found out what it was called….please let me know if you go and it’s named! It is up the road from El Floridita. There’s a sign outside which translates as ‘Hemmingway was never here’..ooh the shade! This was one of my favourite places to eat..cheap, cheerful and one of the waiters was beard goals (we tried to explain that he would fit into shoreditch with his look but he didn’t know what a hipster was..so pure).

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Cuba Pasion – We came here for early evening drinks which is great if you get a seat near the terrace to view the sunset. It was one of the chicer bars I went to and prices reflect this.

Casa de la Amistad – This pretty millennial pink house has a standard Cuban lunch menu..I ate here alone on my second day before I had made friends. However the waiter invited me to their Saturday night party which I went to once I had company. For only 3CUC you get a welcome cocktail and entertaining live show with a band, singers and performers….plus the crowd got involved with salsa later as is the Cuban way!

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Bar Lluvia del Oro – live music at all times of the day whilst you eat and drink..here for it.

Barrio Chino – great chinese food in this cute side street in ChinaTown. I always end up having one Chinese dinner when I go abroad and I can’t stop myself. I have no regrets.

Cafe Paris – their slushed daiquiris slay! They also provide great live music por la noche 

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Coppelia- this huge ice cream parlour is very popular, especially with Cubans. There’s a good flavour selection with various frills to add to your dairy.  If you spot a very long queue then join it as it’s likely for this..! I joke but it is a bit of a wait..the tourist queue is shorter once you work out where to go. There is a separate pricing for if you’re Cuban or not as they pay in CUP and we in CUC.

Hanoi – their food is so good and they even did paella! Really good and cheap cocktails.

La catedral – if you find yourself in Vedado and want good food and $1 mojitos…and yeah you read that right!

Salsa the night away

If there’s only one thing to take away from this great island, it would be how to salsa (basic steps at least). Every single bar, club, restaurant and every street corner will at some point have everyone salsa’ing away.  Of course, you can go to formal lessons but I found it was way more fun to just join in on the dance floor….

1830 – located by the seafront, it’s an open air bar which has a mega salsa vibe in between the easy live choreography everyone can join in with. If you are female, expect a Cuban man to come and offer to salsa with you..and guys, find a gal and get involved as noone is allowed to sit for too long!

Fabrica De Arte Cubano (FAC) – This was hands down my favourite which was super popular with both Cubans and tourists. It is a club which has a few different dance floors; one is more intimate with the DJ and another in a huge room, plus an art gallery, a cinema upstairs and outdoor areas. It’s a true cultural experience.

La Zorro y el Cuervo – You enter this bar via a red telephone box! We went for a jazz night which was amazing..much less salsa than everywhere we had been! Jazz in Cuba is definitely something to experience.

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Buenavista Club – Now this place is for when you’re really feeling fancy AF. We met these great Americans guys who knew a guy and got us into the show. Of course the salsa and singing which was impressive but I also loved how the audience got involved by dancing and representing their country . But I hear the ticket prices are close to $100…so it is good to check out your options..alternatively you can do you..or make friends with the right kind of people?!

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Corner cafe – small bar/club literally on a corner. We had such a good night here with cheap drinks, salsa plus chart music which went down a treat with the Cubans.

Beyond Havana

I spent my penultimate week outside of Havana visiting a few other towns which if you have the time, are worth checking out…

Trinidad – Is a super cute town and almost as much fun as Havana. You can travel there via bus from Havana which takes about 4 hours..the bus station will have specific times and you can buy a ticket close to the day of travelling. The buses are well conditioned and the route is scenic. I stayed in another casa particular called Casa Patricio (a friend of Sandra’s who she rang up to book me in)..you can find more casas when you arrive also by looking out for the blue logo if you’re that spontaneous and ready to negotiate prices.

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Taxi ride on arrival

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Casa de Patricio

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Rooftop views from Casa de Patricio

My favourite place in Trinidad was Casa de la Musica – it’s an open air restaurant and bar which comes alive at night. The whole town comes to hear the band and salsa the night away of course..and for 1CUC entry. So here is the place to make friends solo travellers!

There’s quite a bit to see in Trinidad so La Plaza Mayor is a great starting place as you can wander from all directions and find museums, restaurants, ice cream parlours etc. Horseback riding is a popular activity they offer tourists here too.

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If you are more time efficient than me,  you could also visit nearby Ancon Beach, Bay of the Pigs etc…your casa host will be helpful with this.

 

Santa Clara – Can be done as a day trip from Trinidad (and I would recommend this) but I chose to stay over to make my round trip easier. The main thing to see here is the Che Guevara Museum which was very fascinating. Santa Clara had the cheapest wifi for only 2.50CUC per hour so I had extra instagram time! Otherwise, it’s quite a small town, with a lot of students and cheap places to eat and drink.

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Varadero – Now this is the kind of resort that you see on a nice travel website to entice people to visit the Caribbean. The beaches are so beautifully white and if you place yourself close enough to a hotel’s beach then you will have the most peaceful sunbathe. There are literally a million all inclusive hotels but I stayed in a casa particular which was close to the beach as beach bumming was my main activity here. This casa was the most expensive of my trip but still very affordable.

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Parque Josone is a gorgeous oasis of greenery, palm trees, lakes, birds etc for when you need a break from the beach. It has a few restaurants and bars inside to continue maxing relaxing.

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Salsa Suarez Restaurant y Bar – This was my fave in Varadero. It looks really posh but the prices are actually decent..and the blue coconut flavoured mojito was a dream. You’ll probably need to book in advance..

La Esquina – classic Cuban food in a cute setting served with live music.

Calle 62..it felt like half of the town (both Cubans and tourists) have flocked here..open air bar, free entry, live band, dance offs..and salsa obviously!

Other towns I didn’t make it to but you could consider visiting are Viñales (3 hours away from Havana..beautiful countryside for horseback riding) and Santiago de Cuba (Cuba’s 2nd city which is literally at the opposite end of the country).

Okay so I’m exhausted! Well done for making it here with me…I have enjoyed reliving my Cuban dream all over again. There’s so much more to see and do out there so let me know what you get up to! And for everyone else, book a flight to Havana STAT!

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J Xo

 

 

 

Christmas in London

Christmas is a magical time of year and especially around London as the festivities start early and just keep on going. In between work and play, I found some time to indulge in it all…after all it is the most wonderful time of the year!

At the beginning of December, all the Christmas lights had already been put up and officially switched on. I had a free afternoon during which I strolled around Regent St, Oxford St and Carnaby St to check out the Christmas lights as they are always impressive..they ranged from the glitter balls and elegant angels to the carnival theme which I particularly loved!

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Carnaby St

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Carnaby St

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St James’

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Oxford St

I spent a great weekend visiting a friend up in Manchester..it had snowed in the few days before my visit so my train journey was so scenic. We started our weekend with a prosecco brunch at Rosylee in the Northern Quarter and then onto the Manchester Christmas markets to get into the mood. Shout out to the super cool girl at the Pringles stall who had us dancing and playing games for freebies. It did start to snow again during the day which got me even more excited for the 25th!

 

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Back home in London, I kept discovering pretty decorations and lights around central London.

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County Hall

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Oxford St

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Door in Chelsea

A slightly less festive tradition I have developed with one of my childhood friends is to go to a London Lions basketball game in the Olympic Village during this time of year. We stopped at Westfield’s Stratford this time to have dinner..we ate at The Real Greek which had a heated terrace to sit in and we had a nice view of Santa’s Grotto and the fake snow whilst we ate delicious Greek food.

 

If you’re into basketball then I would recommend going to one of their games. The tickets are so reasonably priced that we were sat at the front. The crowd was lively and it had a nice family feel to it. Perfect opportunity to experience the copper box arena and stroll around the Olympic Park.

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The Saturday before Christmas was a super indulgent food day. I was once again living my best life now that I was free of work for the holidays!! It started with brunch at Maloko..it’s a quirky cafe in Camberwell, South London. I grew up around here so it amazes me how trendy it has become recently.

The menu features savoury and sweet crepes and caters for vegetarians,  vegans and those who are gluten intolerant. I had the incredible goats cheese and mushroom one with a banana, coconut and lemongrass smoothie.

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Later that day, I went to Selfridges with my family for afternoon tea..yo sushi style! The chefs had made a special menu for this which was so well presented and delicious. Selfridges was beyond festive with the disco balls and live gospel choir singing on the designer floor..pure bliss.

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Our final stop was Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. Now this is a classic Christmas location to visit but I hadn’t been for a few years so there were quite a few new attractions and it seemed bigger than before! You can visit Santa’s grotto, go ice skating, go on multiple rollercoasters, view London up on the viewing tower, eat food and drink beverages from all over the world, shop at the lovely market stalls and more!

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Christmas Day started in a less than traditional way for me this year. One of my friends suggested a morning bike ride around the city on a rented Santander bike (lovingly known to Londoners as a Boris Bike, named after our previous Mayor). There would be no public transport and streets would be emptier…we could actually enjoy being tourists in our own city. London gets a bad rep for cyclist safety and having never ridden along these major roads before, I was intrigued to see what it would feel like.

It was grey, very windy and busier than expected but we had turned up in our matching raincoats from Peru and I had on tinsel, Christmas jumper and Christmassy earrings to get me in the mood! We started our journey at Elephant and Castle which is the closest pick up location of Boris bikes to our houses. For anyone who hasn’t used a boris bike before, the first half an hour is free and then it only costs £2 to rent for 24 hours! Surprisingly, there were cycle lanes for most of our journey..and where there wasn’t, we could use the bus lanes without competing for space!

We rode past the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth North Tube Station and St Thomas’ Hospital to Westminster Bridge where we had our first stop. Here we took a few snaps by London Eye…not the Houses of Parliament though as Big Ben is currently under construction so not so good for pictures for the next few years guys!

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Next was 10 Downing St, the horse guards parade (we had no chance of getting close to the horses) and up to Trafalgar Square.

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Our tour continued up to Regent’s Street and Piccadilly Circus…which was eerily quiet. The floating statues were still at work though even with very few people to entertain.

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We rode on to Leicester Square and then to Covent Garden.

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Finally we rode across Waterloo Bridge to Waterloo and back to Elephant and Castle where the tour ended…total time of 2 hours.

What an amazing way to start Christmas! I was ready lunch after all that cardio and had a super chill and lazy rest of the day….I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas too. Do leave comments below on how you spent the season, whether at home or abroad!

I’m really excited for 2018 as I have so much travel and culture discovering planned…I can’t wait to share them with you all!  In the meantime, I will be publishing articles on my previous travel from the last couple of years to whet your appetites…

J Xo