Summer 19 in Europe – Birthday in Ayia Napa

Having a birthday in June makes it the perfect time to travel abroad as unlike the UK, most Northern Hemisphere countries will be consistently warm/hot, prices are still fairly decent and places are lively but not too hectic. This year, I decided to travel for my birthday and we found ourselves going to the party town of Ayia Napa in Cyprus!

To get to Ayia Napa, you have fly into Larnaca airport – as well as Larnaca and Ayia Napa, you can also get to Nicosia, Limassol, Protaras or Paralimni from here.

There are small airport buses which cost €9 one way to the cities and run every hour at various times. Ayia Napa is about 45 min drive away and there are 2 bus stops to get off at depending where your hotel is…you’ll likely get off at the main square.

Cypriots drive on the left hand side of the road which is a nice surprise for any Brits wanting to rent cars. You can rent other various modes of transport to get around town including quad bikes popular with the guys!) We rented electric scooters for €2.50 an hour which was perfect for checking out our local beaches on the first day.

Where to stay

Bellini Hotel – the hotel is yards away from Toga strip club so you’ll never have to worry about directing your taxi driver!!! It’s a lovely and quiet hotel (important for recovering in the day) with a pool and was reasonably priced for the time of year. It’s 15-20 minutes walk to town and the strip plus close to many restaurants and the beach so was perfect for us.

I was solo on my last day so checked into Seasons hotel right by the main square which is adult only and quite boujee. I got upgraded to a suite (dressing gown and slippers included) due to poor cleaning of my original room so kudos to the receptionist for responding to well to that.

Beaches

Cyprus has beautiful beaches and there are so many to choose from whilst in Ayia Napa. Nissi beach is the most well known and for that reason is super busy so here are other alternatives we checked out during our stay:

Pernera Beach – this has a path along which you can ride your scooter down to the beach. It’s small, intimate and great for relaxing before a big night out.

Makronissos Beach – this is pretty family friendly and much bigger than Pernera. Sun lounger and umbrellas hire cost €2.50 each for the whole day..absolute bargain!

Landa Beach – we spent my birthday here checking out the watersports. We went literally coach surfing which is a fun way to get an adrenaline rush on the water (for only €10).. Other options include jet ski and paragliding..they only accept cash for these activities so come prepared.

Blu Hotel is situated on Landa beach and we wandered in to found ourselves at a corn on the cob party and then got to enjoy their stunning poolside!

Food on the beach isn’t the best and pricey for what it is so come prepared with snacks!

The beautiful outdoors

I managed to find a couple of beautiful spots around town which you have to check out if you get the time:

Love Bridge – this is a naturally formed rock bridge which is supposed to make your wishes come true if you stand on it whilst kissing bae. Don’t worry if you are baeless as it is still a beautiful to appreciate!

Sculpture Park – an open air park and features a large number of sculptures with the sea in the distance which is beautiful. The park is free to enter and is a 2 minute walk up the hill from the Love Bridge.

To get to these attractions from town, take the 101 bus to Marina Hotel bus stop and the 102 from the opposite side of the road to go back to town (costing only a few euros round trip).

Cape Greco National Forest Park – I didn’t get a chance to visit this but check it out if you can as all the guides say it’s amazing for hikes, seeing animals in nature and just unwinding. It’s quite a way from the town centre so would need at least half a day to get the most out of it.

Culture

My travel mission is to find culture wherever I go so this party town was going to be no exception!

Ayia Napa monastery – This is in the centre of town and it’s free to wonder through parts of the grounds of the monastery. The other part is being restored so I can only imagine would look great once reopened. However I did learn a bit about its history… it was originally discovered in the 10th century when apparently a man was led to the icon of the Virgin Mary here and the cave was turned into a holy site. Over the centuries, the church dedicated to her and then the monastery was built and has survived into the modern day.

A little further on is said church which has a very beautiful car park depicting portraits of angels and holy people. The inside is small but very extravagantly decorated.

Thalassa museum – a great place to learn about the rich history of Cyprus, the importance of its geography e.g. Venetians using Cyprus’ ports to access Eastern Mediterranean (Famagusta, Larnaca), its close proximity with the Middle East and the fact elephants and hippos used to live freely on the island! For me, the biggest surprise was Aphrodite’s connection to Cyprus… I won’t give too much away.

It’s €4 entry for adults or €2.50 for students.

Food

My top tip for eating around Ayia Napa is to actually eat Cypriot food as it is so good! Other cuisines can be done well, especially around the town centre. Here are the places I ate at which stood out for me:

Passaggio – we had dinner at this Cypriot place near our hotel which was incredible. I recommend the meat meze which was €17 pp..for 3 people, the 2 person menu was more than enough!

En Yevo tavernaki – another traditional restaurant which is also perfectly instagrammable. I had vine leaves stuffed with rice and pork mince, chips and salad, freshly made lemonade for €13.25 plus I was given complimentary fruit afterwards. The service here is A1.

Los Bandidos – an incredible Mexican place on the strip which has fun vibes. They give you a large Mexican hat when you sit down which was cute. We had chimichangas which were made really well and their strawberry daiquiris are the one. This was for my birthday dinner so they gave me a free birthday drink and a dance!

La View – which describes itself as a fusion restaurant and one thing they fused well were all the flavours they chose! Plus the restaurant overlooks the whole town so is perfect for dinner just before sunset.

Party

One of the main reasons people visit Ayia Napa is for the partying of course. We witnessed everything from hen dos and wedding parties to post exam partying to all the birthday celebrations (including mine of course). There’s plenty of ways to party at night and during the day:

Boat party – everyone should try this at least once! We did the Fantasy Boat party which €55 for half a day. The drinks on board were very cheap outside of the included hour and there was plenty of dancing and jumping into the sea.

The strip is the main place to party and has many bars and clubs to check out whilst you’re there. The bars we went to were Igloo Bar, Hollywood Boulevard, Napa Square Bar, Ambassadors Bar, and Havana Lounge (in order of liveliness). Club reps will be out offering you various drinks deals for each place and entry will be free. Drinks are cheap too considering it’s in Euros!

Also along the strip are clubs, all of which have an incredible playlist and good vibes. Black and White seemed to be the most popular and entry was €10. Castle Club is a close contender where we managed to negotiate €5 entry. We were there for the opening night of Sin which was free as part of their promo…it was chaos that night but I’d be interested to see how it fares alongside the other clubs as it gets going.

In the rest of the town centre are plenty of nice bars to check out away from the madness if you need to. These tend to be a bit more expensive however. I had drinks on the second night of my birthday celebrations at Pepper Lounge Bar where you can also do shisha.

Ayia Napa final words:

There’s no denying that it’s a party town so a lot activities are geared towards that. However I was pleasantly surprised to find other cultural and nature activities which you can do to escape from this. The good thing is that it’s on the mainland so you can go to another more authentic or less touristy part of Cyprus easily during your stay. For me, it was a fun 5 days but at times felt like the younger sibling to Ibiza (which is for hardcore partygoers..check out my post on it here).

Comment below your thoughts on Ayia Napa and if you plan to or have visited any party destinations this summer!

J Xo

1st time in Scotland: A Glasgow Weekend

 

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My first ever trip to Scotland was just last month, April 2019, to Glasgow – the most populated city of Scotland. How have I lived in the UK all my life and not travelled to Scotland I don’t know but I’m glad I finally made the journey North!

There are a few public transport options from London to Glasgow: by air, train or sleeper train. It’s definitely worth exploring all of them as the cost difference can be huge, with overnight sleeper trains being very cheap. I took the Virgin train from Euston to Glasgow Central as I was only going for a weekend and it was the most convenient.

I was visiting an old uni friend so I didn’t have to pay for accomodation or transport! We love friends who live in beautiful places that you can visit 😊

So I was very impressed that Glasgow really does have it all…

Beautiful views:

My first taste of Scotland’s beauty was with Dumbarton castle which is an incredibly old castle with a long history dating back to the iron ages. It sits on volcanic rock overlooking the River Clyde and if you climb 500+ steps, you get an incredible view over the river!

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Our road trip continued to Luss in the Loch Lochmond National Park where we spent the next couple of hours on a gentle stroll through the village to the beach, ending up on a faerie trail, a mini pilgrimage (!) and eventually made our way back for food. There’s plenty of opportunity to buy authentic Scottish gear in the village shops including the lovely tartan print, shortbread and hilarious greeting cards.

The easiest way to get here is by car, parking is cheap (£2 for 2 hours) and the views driving up are insane.

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The evening took us on a stroll along the River Kelvin and to Kelvinpark (where the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum can be found) as we made our way into the city centre. The areas are named after Lord Kelvin, who the temperature unit is named after.

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Rich history and culture

In my Dublin post, you may recall that I touched on Irish whiskey vs Scottish whisky discussion. There’s a bit of rivalry about who invented it first (the Irish say they did), then the Irish put an E in it to separate themselves from the Scots! So I had to see what Scotland had to say for itself.

We visited the Clydeside distillery and unfortunately missed the last tour of the day which starts at 4pm! So the jury is still out on the whisky rivalry..!

However we did stay for a Flight of whisky (4 different whisky to taste) and oatcakes chutney and cheese – £16. 

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The whisky burn 😂

We visited the People’s Palace which is in the East of the city. This was recommended by the lovely Effy of effyshowslife who grew up in Glasgow so I knew it would be good! It’s an incredible museum which showcases the good and hardships in life of Glaswegians through the ages and at different stages of their lives. It’s free to enter (donations are welcome) and will leave you with the most heartwarming sensation at the end!

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The Centre for Contemporary Arts is an art gallery, cinema, exhibition space, vintage shop, bar, cafe etc all rolled into one. A nice place to go and explore and see what inspires you!

And make sure you stroll around the city centre as plenty of gems can be found!

Amazing Food

My first foodie experience here was our Friday evening tasting menu at 111 by Nico. For an incredible £28, we had a surprise 5 course meal plus more for wine. London could never!! (Make sure you book in advance!)

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We had lunch at Luss Seafood bar during our visit to the National Park on Saturday: Cullen skunk soup (a classic of the area), and a Seafood platter for £24 in total! 

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Did you really visit Scotland if you didn’t try haggis?! I had my first taste at restaurant and bar Oran Mor – with tattis (potato) and neeps (parsnip) in whisky sauce. The texture is very soft and it’s very rich so it gets a bit much after a while. Verdict – tasty as long as you don’t think about it!

There is also a vegan option available.

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Argyl St Arches is a food hall under the train tracks which is a great place to grab a bite to eat and do some food shopping on the weekend. We ate this delicious chicken wrap with halloumi from sharwarama.

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Coro chocolate cafe is the place to visit for anyone with a sweet tooth! Every possible dessert is available (mostly chocolate with some variants).

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Hot white chocolate with white chocolate flakes and marshmallows

Other typically Scottish sweet treats to try here available cheaply at any supermarket are shortbread of course, irn bru fizzy drink and tablet (like fudge but sweeter!).

Lively nightlife

The nightlife in Glasgow is honestly so wild yet can suit all tastes. We started our Saturday in the West End which is a little boujee but I’m here for that! My favourite bar was a gin bar called BeGin – where I drank jinzu gin and the Hyndland pink lady gin cocktail..SO good! 

Hillhead bookclub is another cool venue filled with hipsters for an alternative scene. In between bars, we came across many fun Glaswegians who added some flavour to our night!

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So that’s my short, sweet summary of my fabulous Glasgow weekend. It was a great intro to Scotland and I can’t wait to check out more of the country!

Do share below your experiences of Glasgow or any comments you have…I would love to hear them!

J Xo

A Bloggers Day trip to…OSLO!

 

The undisputed Queen of European day trips, Caroline of TravelEatSlay, put together a day trip to Oslo in April which I had a great time being part of! If you haven’t been on one yet with her, I highly recommend keeping an eye out on her insta for upcoming trips!

I’ve visited Norway before, to the lovely town of Bergen and knew their prices are a bit mad so how bad could 1 day been right?!

Here’s what we got up to and also some tips on how to do a successful European day trip:

Step 1: If you’re planning to go with a group, make sure the squad is fire! You need people who are fun, fairly time disciplined and have enough energy to survive the inevitable fast pace. Caroline managed to recruit this all female slay group which included:

Lulu and Abi of @flightsandfeelings

Liza of @spontaneous_travel

Elle @ellemacuk

Montana @becomingmontana

Meka @meka.montana

Tatum @travel.with.tatum

Taboka @aruzamt

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Step 2: Maximise your day time spent there

This means getting the earliest flight possible and coming back on the latest one. We took Ryanair from Stansted at 9.15 and flew back at 22.45 so took the National Express coach leaving Liverpool Street at 6.40am and getting the 00.20 one back! As you’ll only be travelling with a small bag, no time is lost waiting for luggage..a win!

Step 3: Strategically visit the main sights (with food pit stops in between)

To minimise travel time, we went to the furthest away location first and worked our way back to the centre as it was easiest to get to the airport from here.

So our day started at Vigelandsparken Sculpture Park (the largest sculpture park in the world by a single sculptor). It’s an impressive place with statues showing the naked human form in all its glory. It’s also where we treated the Norwegians to some black girl magic…see below!

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Next we went downtown, passing some impressive street art to the food hall Mathallen Oslo which has food and drink selections from all the world. I had the carbtastic bacon langos (Hungarian Street food) and ice cream dessert.

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We made it to the National Theatre and Royal Palace which are within a block of each other. It was surprisingly very easy to climb up to the Royal Palace and enjoy the parks surrounding it, Here is where the first of the bad weather caught us so we swiftly took cover whilst it passed.

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National Theatre

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We caught the end of a marathon!

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The Royal Palace

Next was Aker Brygge, the harbour where there are many restaurants and bars plus a shopping centre. Here you can take a ferry ride which would be lovely in good weather! We made a drink pit stop to the Lannister which serves many good coffees (including a couple GoT themed ones) plus alcoholic bevs.

 

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A short bus ride away was our final stop of the day : Oslo Opera House. This is an impressive building and can be enjoyed for free inside and on the roof for a panoramic view of the city. It’s right by the central station so was the perfect location to make our way back to the airport from.

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Step 4 – Spend your money wisely!

Everyone knows that Norway is expensive…even my Norwegian friends admit to this! But it is possible to spend within your lane by following these next few tips:

Free entry is your friend! Everything we went into was free and those that weren’t, we admired from the outside (also due to time pressures). If there’s something you really want to visit, check out which day is best for potential discounted prices or any deals.

Eating in the food hall means you could tailor your lunch to your pocket without feeling the pressure from anyone else. Also carrying snacks and a refillable water bottle in your bag is so useful.

A transport day pass (covering buses, trains, trams and ferry) within the city centre was a great buy. Getting the train to and from the airport is outside of this…don’t buy the fast airport express which we made the mistake of doing as this is double the price of the “slower” train which was slower by less than 10 minutes!

Duty free is also your friend in Norway, especially when it comes to alcohol!

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Step 5: and finally, create great memories of the day!

Here’s a full expense breakdown of my Oslo trip:

Ryanair return flight Stansted-Oslo – £30.98

National Express Coach return tickets – £16.10

Oslo Airport Express to Skøyen Stasjon – £17.54

All transport Day Pass for zone 1 (city centre) – £9.66

Lunch – £14.68

Non express train single from Central Station to Oslo Airport £7.34

Drinks to turn up from Oslo Airport duty free £5.73

Total spent: £102.03

Do check out the other blogs on our day trips written by flightsandfeelings and ellemacuk!

Have you ever done an international day trip? Or if not, would you consider one now? Let us know!

 

J Xo

 

The craic on St Patrick’s Day 2019 and tips on how to celebrate it in Dublin!

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St Patrick’s Day falls on the 17th March and is widely celebrated in many places around the world. This is partly due to Irish ancestry being found in many countries plus a nice curiosity people have about Ireland.

However I’ve recently become interested in how a country celebrates its Patron’s day/national holidays and try to visit during these festivities. I wanted to learn firsthand about the story of St Patrick plus the Irish know how to enjoy their themselves so I knew I was in for a treat!

We flew to Dublin with Aer Lingus from London Gatwick. Aer Lingus is actually the second largest airline in Ireland after Ryanair! When we arrived, the airport had been decorated in the flag colours of Ireland with green lights everywhere which was fun to see!

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Getting from the airport to the city centre seemed easiest with Uber following a night flight. They are strict about which area to pick up your Uber’s from versus My taxi and others. Just to note, my taxi is cheaper than Uber by a few Euros.

As expected, accomodation is much pricier during this weekend than any other time of the year. We stayed in an Airbnb which was only a 20 minute walk into the city centre (check it out here and use my referral code for £25 off a booking!)

Saturday was our day to explore the city and learn more about the history of Ireland. We had booked a free Sandeman’s walking tour (the best way to do both of the above). On our way to the meeting point, we passed St Patrick’s Cathedral which has lovely gardens surrounding it for when the weather is dry and sunny (quite a rare moment in Ireland!)

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Our tour lasted 2.5 hours and started at the City Hall with our guide Adam, before taking us to City Hall, Dublin Castle and its stunning gardens, Chapel Royal, Christchurch Cathedral, pit stop at Oscar’s Cafe Bar for a mid tour drink, past Trinity college to Temple Bar and ending our tour at the Molly Malone statue.

Here are a few interesting facts I learnt from our tour:

The Irish flag is tricolour: green to represent the Catholics, orange to represent the Dutch Protestants and white represents the union of the two.

St Patrick was actually British! He was originally brought over by Irish pirates in his youth, working as a slave for a few years before managing to escape back to England. He then went back to Ireland (acting on a vision he’d had) to spread the catholic religion. He apparently used the shamrock to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity and eventually became a Bishop in Ireland. There’s plenty of folk tales about him including that he banished snakes from Ireland!?

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Statue of St Patrick

In 2011, 3 important world leaders visited Dublin: Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and Dalai Lama!

Dorcas “Darkey” Kelly – was the last woman to be burned alive for “being a witch”. There’s a pub named after her in the city.

The unofficial song of Dublin called “Molly Malone” is about a fictional character but regardless, there’s a whole statue dedicated to her!

”What’s the craic” – means what’s happening, what’s going on, wagwarn etc etc. The craic is 90 means it was amazing – named after the 1990 Euro Cup which Ireland took part in. If the craic is 0 then wow, that’s a big insult. There are no gradients of craic apart from that!

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Freezing outside the beautiful Dublin Castle

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The gardens surrounding Dublin Castle

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Other touristy but very fun things to do when in Dublin is to go on alcohol tours!

Firstly the Guinness storehouse is an absolute must. It’s a self guided tour which takes you through the long process of making Guinness, the advertising of Guinness through the years and even food recipe ideas. We paid €29 each and it’s advisable to book online to save queuing for too long outside. A free pint of Guinness is included which can be redeemed on any floor. If like me you’re not very keen on it, then redeem your free drink on the 2nd floor in the Taste more section where you get 3 beers! This was the most fun area where we were treated to Irish dancing! And at the top, Gravity bar offers beautiful views over the whole city.

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Gravity bar views

My second recommendation is an Irish whiskey tour. We visited the Irish Whiskey Museum – €16 for an hour guided tour (with our fab guide Ross) on the history of whiskey making and the rivalry with the Scottish whisky! The price included 3 tasters at the end!

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The St Patrick’s Day parade takes place on the Sunday and was one of my highlights of the weekend. It starts at midday at Parnell Square and makes it way through the city centre. We caught it on the descent down from Christchurch cathedral at 1pm. The parade lasts an hour and the further away you are from the starting point, the more likely you are to get a front standing position. 2019’s theme was storytelling and it was interesting to see a mix of marching bands and people dressed up in various costumes.

 

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Food and drink

The Counter – is a build-your-own-burger place which is very delicious and perfect for all tastes!

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The Thursday cafe – a lovely place for an Irish breakfast and other breakfast items. I had the classic millennial avocado toast which tasted so fresh!

Cafe Topolis – an Italian restaurant, very classy and nice ambience. The salmon and sautéed potatoes were banging.

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Temple Bar – this is actually the name of the whole street as well as the infamous pub. The area is touristy and prices reflect this. On Saturday night, we had drinks and karaoke at Norseman Pub which is free to enter and a bit easier to get into than Temple Bar, which we left for another time!

 

St Patrick’s day night out – We booked a Sandeman’s pub crawl which took us to 2 bars (starting at Grand Social at 7pm where we had live music), and ending at Copper face Jacks Club, all entry included plus 2 free drinks at the first stop and shots. The whole city centre is lit up green at night during St Patrick’s weekend which seemed to put everyone in a good mood.

Final Dublin tips

As Ireland is part of the EU, you pay with euros but confusingly they have the same plugs as the UK so leave your European adapters at home!

Irish people are so friendly so feel free to ask them about anything and they will definitely try and help.

There’s a lot of history involved so make sure you visit a couple of museums if you get the chance, many are free. Over the weekend, they close quite early so we unfortunately didn’t not have time in our schedule.

St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland are affordable and fun with enough planning. Book the cheapest flights you can find, get accomodation sorted early (slightly out of the centre centre but walking distance will save you the most), balance eating in and out, book the alcohol tours in advance to save a little and definitely go on an organised night out for queue jumps and cheaper club entry overall!

Golden Hour at River Liffey

Would you visit Ireland during St Patrick’s Day? Or if you have, did you enjoy the experience? Let us know!

J Xo

 

 

 

Colombia x Wind Collective: Why you should visit Colombia in 2019

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After a great solo trip in Panama in Feb 2019 (check it out here), I flew Colombia to join The Wind Collective on their group trip, which I promise you is like none other you may have been on before. You quickly feel like you’re travelling with long time friends and the vibe is on point from day one!

Colombia is fast becoming one of Latin America’s hottest destinations to visit and if you haven’t been already and love good food, rich culture, beautiful weather and people then now is the time to go! Here is what I got up to during my week here…

1. Bogotá which the capital of Colombia, is where we started our tour. From London, you can get a direct flight with Avianca who I’ve flown with before to Peru and have found to be great so far.

We stayed in 2 different hotels at the start and end of the trip. The first was Hotel Monserrate and Spa which is located in La Candelaria (cool area with beautiful street art, great bars and restaurants). The hotel stay included a complimentary varied breakfast each day, spa access and unlimited free popcorn in the lobby!  Our second hotel was Black Premium Hotel which was super nice and worth staying in to treat yourself.

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I found the city itself wasn’t the prettiest part of Colombia and is quite cold, as it’s fairly high in altitude and has a mountain overlooking the city so come prepared with extra layers. Also do not underestimate how big Bogotá is! Getting around longer distances is easiest and probably safer with taxis. Uber is available but is not very legal and not always reliable but that’s for you to decide which is best!

City Walking Tour

I’m a big advocate of these as I love learning the history of a new place and how it shaped the present plus tips on the best places to visit, eat and drink are always welcome! Ours was included in the tour price.

It started in Plaza de Bolívar de Bogotá (Bolivar Square) which houses the first cathedral of Bogotá, the capital building (which took 80 years to build) and town hall as well as street vendors and more.

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Our tour continued past the male emerald traders who convened on the streets to Parque de los Periodistas (Journalist’s Square). From here you have an incredible view of Monseratte mountain. Also found here is the National tree of Colombia which was used to create palms for Palm Sunday. It is now in a conservation project to protect the trees from diminishing.

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From here we went on a street art tour through La Candelaria which ended at Plazoleta Chorro de Quevo, a cute square with some markets and vendors plus free shots being offered!

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A painting of a Panamanian woman

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Cerro de Monserrate

This is the mountain which overlooks the city. It’s over 3000m above sea level so some people may experience some altitude sickness here. If you plan to hike it, you need to be back down before dark so the latest we we’re told we can start hiking up is around 1pm (season dependent no doubt) . We had planned to visit for sunset so took the train up to the top (21 pesos return – same price for the funicular).

The views from here are incredible and truly make you appreciate nature. You can also visit a church up here and wander around the gardens. It gets even colder up there so come extra wrapped up and grab a hot drink from the mini shop at the top.

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Incredible views from the funicular on the way down

Catedral de Sal de Zipaquirá (Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá)

This is one of the most unique cathedrals that I’ve ever seen on my travels! It was built underground in salt mines, by the miners as a sacred place for them to worship and it is still used for regular Church services today. It has the largest underground cross in the world which is very impressive. You pass through 14 stations of the cross, to the dome and central nave plus other areas of the cathedral. It’s an hour and a half drive from Bogotá so can be booked as a half day tour (the actual cathedral part is self guided).

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View overlooking the central nave

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Hands of Hope

Food and drink

I’m a big foodie when I travel so thankfully Columbia didn’t disappoint in that department! As expected, there’s plenty of great meat and fish dishes but actually there’s plenty to accommodate veggies and vegans around town. Here’s a round of of some favourite places I ate at in Bogotá:

Capital Cocina y café – a cosy restaurant in La Candelaria area. I recommend having the fish for mains as those who ordered it had the best meals!

Abasto – this was my favourite restaurant in Bogota. Most of us ate the asado de tira which was a delicious steak!

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Fulanitos – this was my second fave restaurant in Bogotá. It has incredible rooftop views over the city for those who love a good view! Here is where I tried limonada de coco (coconut lemonade) which is like a virgin pina colada and so delicious. The plantain with guacamole for starters was also amazing.

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Andres Carne de Res – a really lively restaurant which becomes a full on party quite early on in the night. Booking in advance is essential! It’s normal for people to be dancing salsa whilst others are still eating but after 11pm it becomes more of a bar atmosphere.

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Presea bar – a rooftop bar with a very popular pole in the middle of the dancefloor. Really good playlist and fun vibes.

Colombian coffee is obviously one of the best in the world so you’ll be spoilt for choice here. A Colombian woman I met in Panama City recommended the Juan Valdez cafes as a great starting point to check out coffee so here you go!

2. Cartagena

A completely different energy compared with Bogotá and I absolutely loved my time here. The old and touristy part is the colonial town and has a large Afro Colombian population who were so welcoming. But also the modern city which resembles the Miami skyline is seen across the wall and the differences were very stark. Interestingly I had watched the Netflix series “Siempre Bruja – Always a witch” which is set in Cartagena and was cool to see the set in real life!

We stayed in Casa Las Indias which was a lovely villa in the centre of the old Colonial town. We were very well looked after and had delicious and varied breakfasts each day which is important!

Here’s a summary of our time in Cartagena :

Boat tour & Rosario Islands – probably the wildest day of our trip. The price was also included in our trip but I know thee are many options around on hiring a boat/booking a similar tour.

We partied on our boat which took us to the island for more partying (with millions of other boats). For lunch, we were served delicious lobster for 60 pesos. Many vendors will come to your boat to take food and drink orders so it’s quite a boujee day out.

This was also the first time that I rode a jet ski! They cost 50 pesos for half a hour (for the jet ski) so going with a partner will reduce the costs.

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Bazurto Market Tour – a truly heart-warming morning spent exploring this local market. We ended up dancing in the middle of the meat market with some of the Colombian aunties and uncles which was amazing!

This super talented 15 year old boy makes bird cages in 1.5 hours typically. He was taught by his father and is carrying on the family tradition

We also met local artist Runner who designs all the rave posters in the area. He’s moved on from his previous life and is now an inspiration to the kids in his area. He also spray paints clothing and any other merchandise you desire for a reasonable price.

Salsa class @ Crazy Salsa – where we learnt salsa, bachata and champeta. Salsa is obviously from Cuba and Bachata is a dance originally from the Dominican Republic involving 3 steps plus a hip and tap motion on the 4th beat. Champeta is a Colombian dance with black influences from those who lived in Cartagena and Palenque. This class is a great way to learn a few basic steps to impress the locals with!

Cartagena walking tour – a nice way to get to know the old city and learn about Cartagena’s history, a lot of which involves the slave trade and how this influenced the local population. It took us beyond the wall to Getsemani – the cool, artsy neighbourhood in Cartagena which is worth a visit just to walk around and take it in all if nothing else! Its streets are filled with beautiful art, the square is where everyone hangs out (and you can get killer 10 pesos rum and mixers!) and there’s plenty to eat and drink around.

A statue depicting a Palenquera – see next paragraph for further explanation

3. San Basilio de Palenque

This town has significant history as the first free town for African slaves in the Americas. A man called Benkos Biohó, who was a Prince in his home country of Guinea-Bissau, was captured as a slave and brought to Colombia. He escaped with other slaves and founded this town.

Benkos Biohó. His outstretched right hand is said to point towards Africa

Palenqueros today still try to appreciate their African roots and the town looks familiar to those in the Motherland. It’s so heartwarming to have the locals come up to you and chat and enquire about where you’re from as a fellow black person. In Cartagena, the black women dressed in colourful dresses with fruit bowls on their head are from Palenque. However I would highly recommend actually coming out here to get an authentic experience.

The best way to learn the history and see the main points of interests of Palenque is to have a guided tour. We booked in Cartagena and had a local called Victor who took us round. Another good guide is via Alex Rocha and the Experience Real Cartagena tours.

At the end of the tour, we had lunch at Victor’s house which was INCREDIBLE!

Food and drink

A lot of seafood was eaten in Cartagena! If you like seafood then it’s the best thing to have as it’s very fresh. Otherwise there are other authentic restaurants (plus well known chains) to satisfy everyone. Here’s a few of my faves:

Espiritu Santo – this is THE place for authentic and very cheap Colombian food. My whole meal and drink cost £17.5 pesos!! And it was the best meal I had here…thank you to the local man who recommended it!

Their artwork on the wall is lovely too!

La Casa de Socorro – in the Getsemani area. A very delicious restaurant- the seafood spaghetti was tasty!

Babar club where we had one of the best nights out in Colombia! The DJ in the outside dance floor put afrobeats on for us and we became insta famous that night!

Townhouse rooftop is amazing for sunset drinks!

We linked up with creatives who happened to be in town too!

Alquimico Bar (The Alchemist) is nice and not to be missed! The drinks here are a bit pricier than other places but worth it for the atmosphere.

El mirador de la boquila– the beachside restaurant owned by one of the tour guides from our market tour. Our lunch was included and his hospitality was A1!

*Wind Collective specials*

As well as all the culture and fun as I’ve described above, their trips have an extra flair in a couple of ways.

Firstly with a creative phoot shoot which is fun for us and enjoyable for the locals. We dressed up in double denim and ended up dancing with a few Palenqeuras and doing a routine from our dance class on the streets which went down well!

Taken on the rooftop of our villa!

And secondly with their “Giveback sessions” which focuses on identifying people who are doing good in their community in a number of ways, meeting them to learn more and then shedding light on this so that others can support them.

In Cartagena we met Alex Rocha and his family in the local community centre in San Francisco, who provide some academic lessons and life lessons to the local kids who would otherwise not receive a good education. It was amazing to meet the kids and heare about their future aspirations (shout out to all the girls who said they want to be doctors!). We also brought supplies such as stationary which they appreciated. You can find out more and how to help on http://experiencerealcartagena.com .

 

Colombia tips

It’s useful to travel with a mixture of card and cash as some places still won’t take card. Colombian pesos have a big denomination so exclusively taking cash will be a lot! Also, people leave off the thousands when they talk about money..so 10,000 pesos will be 10 pesos. So don’t get confused about that as I did in the first few days!

Be prepared for the potential different climates if visiting more than one part of the country. It’s also important to suss out the different areas and be streetwise as although the country has changed significantly over the past 20 years, not everywhere is completely problem free.

Try and check out Medellin if you can. We didn’t go there on the tour but guys had been prior to Bogotá and loved it!

Spanish is easy to learn a few basic phrases which will make your travels a little easier! It makes meeting and connecting with locals more fun too which I highly recommend doing as they were so friendly and welcoming and I’m still in touch with them months later!

I hope this blog has inspired you to check out this amazing South American country! Comment below if it has or if you have any experiences from Colombia to share 😊

 

 

J Xo

 

4 days in Panama City: A solo travel guide!

 

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Panama was my final Central American country as I had visited the others in my Best of Central America tour, starting in Costa Rica exactly a year ago today! (Check it out here).

I spent 4 days solo in Panama City in Feb 2019. Panama City is the capital city, is generally safe and has a very cosmopolitan feel to it with international banks and high rise hotels juxtaposed with the beautiful colonial old town and neighbourhoods in between.

I flew into Panama’s Tocumen International Airport (the largest airport in Central America) via Avianca, with a short layover in Bogota, Colombia. It is then easy and cheap to get into the city centre via Uber.

Accomadation

I stayed in Tryp by Wyndham Panama Centro which is a lovely hotel and affordably boujee (£165 for 4 nights). It has a free rooftop pool, sauna and gym, happy hour drinks deals and breakfast which you can pay extra for. The views of Panama city from the rooftop (and my bedroom) were worth the money alone. From my previous posts, you’ll see that I often stay in hostels and this is a good idea especially when solo travelling. But I really fancied treating myself this time which is needed every so often!

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Rooftop views from Hotel Tryp

Exploring Panama City and beyond

Casco Viejo

*Interesting fact* This is where the old town was relocated after the original one (Panama Viejo) was attacked by English Pirate Henry Morgan!

It has the classic Spanish colonial feel to it and is also where most of the best bars and restaurants in town are located. From my hotel, I took the metro to 5 de Mayo and walked to the Old town. The area surrounding this metro station is apparently dodgy (I learnt this afterwards ha) so just be streetwise in the day.

Just by the station, you’ll find the Afro Antillean Musuem which looks like a small black American church. It’s $1 entry and explains the 2 waves of black migration into Panama and how the difficulties they faced in society.

My tour started at Plaza de Santa Ana, a square which was previously used as a market and for bullfights before it became a park. There’s a church and park benches but not much else was happening so I quickly moved on.

From here, I ended up by the coast where you could see the city centre skyline across the canal and were surrounded by more beautiful greenery.

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Cathedral Plaza houses La Cathedral Metropolitana (the main cathedral in the city) plus open markets where you may see dance performances. The cathedral is open to enter for free and has an important shrine dedicated to Saint Mary of La Antigua (the Patroness of Panama).

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Other places nearby to check out are: the beautiful yellow Palacio Bolívar and the church next to it, Iglesia de la Compania de Jesús, Arco Chato (the Flat Arch) and as many pretty side streets and colonial buildings as you like! The beauty of this area can be appreciated just by strolling and taking it all in.

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Panama Canal

This is probably the most visited tourist attraction in the city and rightly so. It connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean across the isthmus of Panama, which makes the location key for transporting goods. Crossing the Panama Canal means a ship crosses these seas in 8-10 hours as opposed to almost 2 weeks it would take to go around the continent!

I visited Miraflores Lock which is one of 3 locks of the Canal which costs $20 for adults. The visit includes a museum which explains how the Canal was built and the struggle that Panama faced to gain authority over it from the US. There were a lot of workers brought in from the Caribbean and other parts of the world and the devastation faced with tropical diseases and fighting for their rights to be in Panama after the Canal was completed is interesting to learn about.

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There is also a cinema showing a short film which looks at the development of the Canal through children’s eyes during the different Ages.

The ideal thing to see whilst here is the actual passing of ships through the Canal. It happens in the morning and the afternoon but I found it hard to tell online exactly when they passed. I caught the afternoon one which started at 1.30pm. It was amazing to see the process in real time and how different sized ships go through.

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Ancon Hill

This 25 minute hike will take you to a great view over the city. It’s free to go up and there’s a house turned café for tourists which sells drinks, snacks and offers toilets if needed. Due to its location, it’s a good place to combine with your Panama Canal trip (as your ticket for the Canal allows re-entry. So if you arrive and the boats aren’t due to come for another couple of hours, this is a great way to break up the day).

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View from the top of Ancon Hill

 

Panama Viejo

The original old city of Panama which was the first settlement of Spanish on the Pacific Coast. Due to poor defences, it was attacked by pirates and abandoned for Casco Viejo.

It’s $20 to enter and you visit the museum and ruins (including those of the cathedral) around the site. I enjoyed the museum a lot as it’s super interactive and takes you through life of Native Panamanians, how this changed with subsequent invasions and it touches on the Canal too.

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San Blas Islands

These paradise islands, officially known as Guna Yala can be visited on a day trip or overnight trips. I chose a day trip as I only had 4 days here and wanted to maximise my time. The day is tiring so overnight trips is an option if you want to relax more!

There is a lot of flexibility with booking as it can be done via your accommodation a couple of days before you go. The tour consists of an initial car ride to the sea which takes an hour an a half in a 4×4 due to the roughness of the road. You need to bring your passport as there is a checkpoint where it’ll be checked.

You then go on a boat ride to visit the different islands. We visited 3 islands including Isla Perro Grande where we spent the most time, enjoyed fresh fruits including coconuts and the sea. My favourite part of the day  was being in the ocean where we spotted beautiful starfishes (estrellas del mar).

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The Guna Yala flag has a black swastika on it which is confusing at first and I was on the trip with a group of Jewish girls so didn’t know what to say. But it’s important to know that their Revolution occurred 94 years ago and so obviously has a completely different meaning.

Food and drink

Tántalo – this is a great place for lunch, dinner, happy hour rooftop drinks and a night out! The bar and kitchen is attached to a hostel in Casco Viejo and a must visit for one of the above. I had lunch here and also attended the Wednesday night Latin night which was a lot of fun.

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I met these two lovely Colombian girls who live in Panama

El Trapiche – I had an incredible breakfast here called desayuno centario (flour fritter topped with fried eggs, pork cracklings, grated cheese and creole sauce) as below.

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Arepas Vía España– generous portions of chicken, rice, plantain and salad for $6!

New York Café – for amazing breakfasts. I had the pancakes, scrambled eggs, sausage and watermelon juice which was filling and fairly priced. I have to say, all the fresh juices in Panama are to die for!

Everyone recommends Hard Rock Café for a drink and great views over Panama City. I didn’t go as my hotel offered the same views but it’s one to check out if you’re staying elsewhere!

Useful tips for Panama

Although Panama has its own currency (Panamanian Balboa), it is like for like with the US dollar. Meaning you can pay in dollars (paper and coins)..you may be given change back as a mixture of the 2. Card payments all appear as USD.

Uber is your friend when it comes to getting around! It’s so cheap and all the drivers are lovely. Although there is a metro system, it’s not very extensive or leads you to walk though less populated areas and I felt this was a safer option, particularly at night.

And finally little bit of Spanish goes a long way! I think this is a great Central American country to solo travel around for all the above reasons so check it out and let me know what you think!

 

J Xo

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Valentine’s Day Travel Special: Where in the World have you felt the most love?

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One of the important factors in deciding where your favourite place you’ve travelled to is how much love you felt there. This love can come from those you travelled with, the locals you meet or even just the general feeling in the air.

I reached out to some incredible bloggers that I follow to share their experiences of where they felt love around world and I guarantee this will give you some travel inspo for 2019!

 

1. A home away from home

Abi and Lulu on New York, USA:

It’s no secret that our hearts have been firmly captivated by this particular concrete jungle. We defend it as if we were Mayor. As Croydon (South London) natives, we get more than enough postcode war practice so we’ll never take a bad word against the Bronx, our honorary home borough, lying down.

Our winter 2014 visit stirred a raging internal warmth that we have found incredibly hard to match from anywhere else. Our summer 2016 visit exuded a vibe so tantalising that two weeks just wasn’t enough. We found ourselves being our happiest selves in NYC, and try to bring these versions of us home and everywhere else we travel to.

New York, why do we love you? Let us count the ways – well, we already have and we struggled to cut our list down to 10. Our fondest travel memories were birthed at your core, our big sweet cinnamon apple. Until we meet again, our love!

 

Jenna on Jamaica:

In 2013, I travelled back to one of my countries, the beautiful Island of Jamaica 🇯🇲. I had not been back for sometime now, so you can imagine the level of excitement that I was feeling.

From the moment I stepped out of the airport and felt the hot sun ☀️ and cool breeze serenade my skin, I knew my time in Jamaica was going to be amazing.

The love I received in Jamaica was real. From the warm embrace I received from my family to the smiles exchanged with strangers in the streets. Home was happy to have me and I was even happier to be there. It is always a nice feeling to come back to your country and feel the love from the people. Jamaica has been the only country that I have ever visited that makes me cry like a baby when I leave, lol.

 

2. Being more accepted in previously challenging environments 

Johnny on Dublin, Ireland:

It’s up there when I think of the warmth, kindness and genuity its natives showed me. From my Airbnb hosts, fellow travellers I befriended when sightseeing, the bartenders who served me at the local bar to the old man who blocked me from crossing the road so that I wasn’t hit by oncoming traffic.

The city never failed in educating me about its history and delivering on the hospitality front. This is all despite Dublin actually having a pretty dark history that includes its war for independence, many of its residents living in sub-standard conditions around that time and suffering from slavery (something me as a black man can strongly empathise with).

The icing on the cake was the cloudless sunny weekend when I visited. I’d say the sun shining on the city alone epitomises that Dublin and the Irish in general look past the darkness and live in hope looking forward.

 

Ibby on Portugal:

Out of 39 countries I’ve visited, I felt the most love here in 2017. I’d been to Portugal before and was discriminated against so my attitude towards the country was mostly negative.

Trying out one of my hobbies this time allowed me to experience Portugal in a fun, exciting way. I was my happy, bubbly self, mingling and meeting new people. I made friends with the opposing teams through bantering and shared helpful tips on focusing on individuality outside of the competitive game.

My personality was noticed by the organisers and recognised for my contributions as I received a lot of love from opposing teammates. The cherry on top was my team went undefeated and won. At the end of the tournament, I bonded with a local who took me around his hometown, showing me some hidden gems.

For anyone reading this piece, I would definitely recommend meeting people who have similar interests and passions abroad.

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Listen to podcasts of stories from his adventures by searching “Tales of Traveller Podcast”. IG: @toatpodcast

 

Kim on Nashville, USA:

A few years ago, my friends and I were in need of a new adventure. So, we packed up a car and drove from Atlanta to Nashville. While there, we stuffed our faces with hot chicken, danced at the best music joints, and even experienced something new together: zip lining.

However, we also faced conspicuous eye rolls on the street and went to flea markets decorated with Confederate flags. No one said anything to us, but they didn’t need to. Being from The South (of the US), we were familiar with this dance. However, it was on this trip that I felt the most loved.

I can’t tell you if Nashville has changed, but the bond between my friends and I did. We leaned on each other and mustered up collective gusto to enjoy ourselves. For us, this trip was about attempting new things and creating unforgettable memories—which is exactly what we did.

3. Love from the locals

Dineo on Mexico:

I recently spent 54 days here and it’s really one of the happiest places in the world. When I travel, I love to interact with locals and make friends along the way. The people in Mexico made my time truly memorable because they have a simple recipe to happiness – a large dose of social contact.

In Playa Del Carmen, I met two girls randomly at a bar. We instantly got along and danced the night away like we had been friends for years, I felt love then and still do now.

I never thought I’d fall in love with a place like I did with the island of Cozumel. The locals are happy, laid back and take life as it comes. They are also helpful and didn’t hesitate to give directions to top beaches or suggestions for the best food.

Mexico is officially one of my favourite countries in the world because I felt the love at every place I explored.

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Central and South America Travels: dineozonke.com  IG: @dineo_zonke Twitter: @dineo_zonke
FB: Dineo Zonke: Travel & Photography

Sarah on South Africa:

With a lifestyle that sees me jetting off on the weekly, I’ve met ALOT of people around the world. I recently went on my first safari in Kruger National Park…everyone had been SO friendly but just as I was wheeling out my Barbie pink suitcase, the love was taken to a whole new level.

One of the ladies who worked in housekeeping at The Outpost Lodge caught eyes with me, shared her beaming smile, I thanked her for looking after us, she picked me up off the floor, squeezed and twirled me around. Then excitedly she asked me how The Queen was and her grandchildren. She told us about Prince Harry and Megan’s wedding, the drama BTS from one of the hotel’s magazine and had a million further questions about the royal family. She left me with another massive hug, humming on her way and we left The Outpost Lodge on a crazy high feeling SO loved.

 

Gary on Paris, France:

The city of love and one of my favourite European hot spots. I’ve visited on numerous occasions and I’ll keep going back because it’s just so full of love!
It’s a global centre for art, fashion and culture and the 19th century cityscape is separated by picturesque boulevards and the River Seine. One of my favourite things to do is to wander around the beautiful landmarks and photograph them all. There’s something special about being at the Eiffel Tower at 6am without another soul in sight. Just you, your travel companion and the creation of yet another awesome Parisian memory.
Strolling the streets of Paris, you’ll see many beautiful restaurants, cafes and designer boutiques. It’s hard to find somewhere that isn’t full of those who have a passion and love for what they do. I’ve created some great relationships in Paris and have felt welcome there from my very first visit.
Paris je t’aime!

Tolu on Dominican Republic:

People always talk about the Caribbean hospitality being second to none and my girls trip to Punta Cana in the beautiful Dominican Republic confirmed this. The people there have such big hearts and were happy to help in any way they could.

On an excursion, we made friends with some of the locals who showed us the ‘real’ Punta Cana and we ended up spending a few nights out with them! It’s not often that you go away and stay in touch with the people you met whilst on holiday but that was the case for some of us. That alongside some of the amazing days out we had puts it up there as one of the countries I fell in love with.

 

4. When strangers become friends

Pelumi on Athens, Greece:

We had just finished a 2 hour walking tour under the sun and I felt so dehydrated, not help by the fact that the lady issue began at that exact moment. I thought I was going to pass out.

Fenia my walking tour guide (an absolutely blessing) walked all the way to the pharmacy to get some pain killers whilst two total stranger from the tour group tried to keep my hydrated and fanned me. I felt like a princess in distress (lol). She came back with some pain killers and called a taxi for me to take me back to the hotel to get some rest.

Feeling a lot better that evening we met up at The National Observatory of Athens for a night tour to watch the stars. We have maintained our friendship to this date.

The Millers on Cancun, Mexico
What makes us fall in love with a destination? One might think it’s the sugar white sand or crystal clear turquoise water, but it’s not.  As all-inclusive travelers one of the most important factors in our opinion is the atmosphere of a resort.  Atmosphere is set by two things, the staff and other travelers.
We fell head over heals in love with Cancun, Mexico for exactly those two things.  The staff always goes above and beyond to make sure we have a great time.
Our advice: engage in conversations with the staff beyond just ordering your next meal or fruity cocktail, you will be amazed at the level of service you receive.
As for other travelers, step outside your comfort zone and make a few new friends.  One reason we continue to go back year after year is the lifelong friendships we have formed with other travelers in Cancun.

 

Davida on Paris, France:

There was Sergio, the Serbian guy whose house we gathered in for endless laughs over hot meals. Charles the Californian who was a kindred wanderer-in-chief, ever ready for arty walks and random happenings in the city. Jamaican sistren, Hanni, who was the embodiment of fashion and faith, always turning heads with her admirable style.

Greek ladies, Maria and Valia, whose infectious energy made everything seem like an adventure from the inside of their warm hearts. American pastor, Ginger, who brought a sense of humour and compassion on Tuesdays when the Christians got together for pizza and prayers.

And then there was me, the Ghanaian Londoner who brought Jollof rice to the potluck while we got our fill of culture and cuisine. We were a motley crew making memories in a new city, thrown together from all walks of life. But for one magical moment in time, we were family – and Paris was ours.

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Travel, Food & Culture blogger wondersofwanders.com IG: @wondersowanders
Twitter: @wondersowanders

 

5. And one of the best feelings ever…being surrounded by love when in love!

Stefan and Sebastien on Key West:

One of the places we fell in love with when travelling was South Florida, particularly Key West. It’s super relaxed, Bohemian and very gay friendly.

There is a terrific gay scene here with bars like 801 Bourbon, Bourbon St Pub and Aqua. They have hilarious drag shows and famous local drag queens to look out for like “Miss Sushi” and “Randy Roberts”.

Key West also has many gay hotels, Island House being the most famous, which is also a day spa with a fun pool party on Sundays.

The stand out highlight for us in Key West, which we loved the most are the stunning sunsets that you see every evening. So much so, that there’s a “Sunset Celebration” at Mallory Square each evening where people gather to watch the sunset and enjoy the street performers.

 

Tenesia and Terence on Aruba:

One of our trips where we felt a ton of love was Aruba! Not necessarily love towards each other (which there was that too), but love from the people! After visiting, we understand why they call Aruba ‘The Happy Island’—it really is a happy place!

Everyone we met there was friendly and helpful. From our Airbnb host giving us a cell phone and a million recommendations to go, to a random guy we met at a wine bar giving us lessons on vaping and having a conversation with us that turned into hours! Even the guy we rented UTVs from gave us recommendations on places to go and what to see!

All the love we received from the locals made us love Aruba even more!! We would definitely recommend it as a destination for anyone who needs/wants to be surrounded by good vibes! xoxo

Gemma and Campbell on Scotland:

Travelling makes you truly appreciate the things on your doorstep. As much as we loved Scotland’s beauty, we weren’t so keen on its weather. Having both grown up loving the idea of travelling, we couldn’t wait to explore the rest of the world. We have travelled to over 20 countries together and since then, our appreciation for our beautiful home country has never been greater.

Those views we used to plan to escape from are some of the most beautiful in the world. Loch Lomond is a popular stop on a Scottish road trip as the gateway to Glencoe and the Highlands. The mountains have been there for millions of years, and will be enjoyed for millions of years to come.

During the toughest times of our University years, they provided perspective. No matter how big you think your problems are, this landscape reminds you how insignificant they are.

These lands will always have a place in our hearts.

 

 

The Matthews on Ghana:

It was Christmas Eve when we arrived. As we descended the stairs of the aircraft, the warmth of the Ghanaian air kissed our cheeks. The locals in the airport cheerfully greeted us; AKWAABA! This was much more than a welcome, it symbolized acceptance of foreign customs, friendliness and cooperation. It really was setting the tone for what would be the trip of a lifetime.

Throughout our visit in Ghana, we were made to feel Royal; the accommodations, food, music and experiences all brought on a feeling of HOME. It was the most mystical vibe to feel so connected to a place we were visiting for the first time.

The river of love was overflowing; so much that on New Years Eve, hubby asked for my hand in marriage. This was the beginning of two becoming ONE.

Ghana, we love you because you first loved us!

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Lifestyle + Travel Vlogs IG: @makingitwiththematthews

Wow! I don’t know about you but I’m feeling all the love after hearing these stories! As for me, I found it too hard to just pick one place but I would say one of my recent favourite places has to be Thailand – A1, hospitality, amazing food and it’s just a really happy place to travel to… check it out here
Another huge thank you to all 16 bloggers who agreed to take part in my first collab post! Make sure you check them out on their blogs and socials for true travel inspo for this year.
Let us know in the comments where you’ve felt the most love and why 💗
J Xo

My whirlwind week in Northern Thailand: top tips and things to avoid.

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November 2018 was the month that I finally visited an Asian country. This coincided with my first blogversary of Road2culturedom so I’m glad that I celebrated this way!

Thailand is the typical gateway country to South East Asia so it made sense for me to start here. Due to the flight distance from the UK and incredible prices once you’re there, people will visit for 2 weeks minimum. 1 Thai Baht was worth about 0.04 pounds at the time of travelling so this is great for all budgets. I only had a week’s holiday left for the year and decided to go anyways because no one ever did Thailand in one trip!

I flew with Air China from Heathrow which has a short layover in China before landing in Bangkok. The flights were fairly cheap at £350 return. Thai airways does fly directly if you are willing to part with another £200. Download the app “Grab” for the best taxi prices from the airport and around town.

Bangkok

We spent just under 2 days here, staying at Onion Hostel for one night. It’s central, basic, clean and “breakfast” was included – in reality it was toast and tea! We were next to the flower market, night markets as well as a KFC, Starbucks and Boots.

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A short walk from our hostel was the Rop Krung canal where you’ll find many food stalls at night

In Thailand, the word for a temple is “Wat” and there are so many Buddhist temples to choose from in each city. Make sure that you’re covered up before you go (long loose trousers or long skirts/maxis and a scarf to cover your shoulders. In a few cases, a t-shirt is preferred). If you end up not being appropriately dressed, check out the markets down the road for cover ups.

Wat Pho is the first temple we visited and it’s 100 baht for entry. It’s one of the oldest temples in the city and is classed as a high grade royal temple. It was the first public university in Thailand, is home to the Thai school of medicine and is where the traditional Thai massage began! Within the temple complex, you’ll find various buildings including:

Chedis – usually conical shape but they can vary. They are the most sacred structure within the temple complex, containing relics of Buddha or shrines of Kings or monks. There are many beautiful chedis throughout the courtyard here.

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Bot – ordination hall where Monks are ordained and other temple rituals occur here.

Viharns – these are assembly halls. Viharn Phranorn holds the impressive structure of the reclining Buddha here. It’s gold and 46 metres long! Also make sure you check out the soles of his feet which have been decorated with beautiful symbols.

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Keep hold of your entry ticket for Wat Pho to claim your free bottle of cold water which you’ll be grateful for in the sweltering heat!

Wat Arun – The temple of the Dawn. You get to it via Chao Phraya River on a public ferry for 4 baht per person. The ferries leave every 10 minutes so waiting times are generally not too bad. Avoid anyone who promises a private ferry as it takes 5 minutes to get across and isn’t worth paying any more! Once you reach the temple, you initially enter the complex for free but then pay 50 baht to enter the area with all the gorgeous Prangs (tower with a conical shape, getting narrower towards the top).

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Whilst we were there, a monk asked me to take a picture with him which was nice! You can’t come in close contact with/ touch monks but they are happy to chat with you and take pictures if asked. They are really respected around Thailand and will have their own seating on buses, in airports etc.

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The Grand Palace. We didn’t make it here properly but I’ve heard mixed reviews. Firstly it closes at 3.30pm whereas the other temples close at 5-5.30pm so this will have to be your first stop.  Next it’s 500 baht to visit which is a lot more than the other places. You can’t pay with card unless you’re buying multiple tickets too. They are so strict about the dress code here – you have to be wearing a proper top (a scarf across your shoulders isn’t enough), and if your trousers are tight, you may not get in. Appropriate clothing can be bought within the complex for extortionate prices so go prepared!

I ended up taking a few pictures in the grounds as I couldn’t get in with my trousers but if you do enter, let me know! Apparently the Emerald temple is gorgeous.

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Thai food is amazing and their street food is definitely one to try! You can get a meal for 40thb which is literally £1!

Khao San Road is a party street filled mostly with backpackers. Along this road are multiple food stalls (including the women selling insects!!), juice and alcoholic drinks, sit down restaurants, bars, clubs, ping pong shows and massage parlours. A massage post dancing is quite ideal!

Getting around town is quite hard on foot due to the size of the city so you have a few options:

Tuk tuk. A tourist trap which can be fun if you enjoy clinging on for dear life as they race through heavy traffic! The prices are expensive, especially for smaller groups or during the night.

Taxis especially grab taxis are more ideal if you can!

Bikes/moped – if you’re brave enough to take on Thai traffic.

Chiang Mai

From Bangkok, it’s an hour flight away or over 12 hours overnight on land. If you do fly, make sure you enjoy the culinary delights in Bangkok’s airport…we basically did a food crawl and it’s an absolute treat! Air Asia do feed you as well so bear that in mind!

Chiang Mai is a lovely city and is more chilled compared with the madness that is Bangkok. The city centre is very close to the airport – a mere 10 minute taxi ride which cost 200thb for the 4 of us. Grab taxi doesn’t work here unfortunately.

We stayed in What’s Up Chiang Mai which was a newly opened hostel and one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in! We stayed in the female dorm which had 8 beds and there’s also 2 other rooms which are male and mixed. The rooms access a balcony and outside there’s a pool and lounge area. Their hospitality is A1!

With our amazing hostel owner!

There’s quite a lot to do around Chiang Mai:

Temple Visits

Unlike Bangkok, most of the temples in town are free/cost significantly less to enter. They are smaller but just as beautiful.

Wat Phrah Singh was the only one I paid entry for here – 20 baht. Here you will see Lanna style temple art and architecture. The Lanna Kingdom covered parts of Northern Thailand, Laos, Burma and even China so it’ll be interesting to see the similarities when I visit these other areas.

Inside one of the assembly halls is a monk who will give you bracelets and then bless them your parents which was lovely. On the other side were a row of monks which are so life like that everyone spent a minute trying to talk to them before we realised that they are just statues!!

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Wat Inthakhin Sademuang is a tiny temple near the Arts and Cultural centre. Its outside monochrome architecture is stunning and it has a free onsite museum on its history.

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Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai! Its “chedi” was built as elephants holding up the temple which is a really powerful image as traditionally elephants have been highly respected animal in Thailand.

I particularly loved the “wisdom trees” which had thoughtful phrases and words of wisdom hanging off them.

Other places to visit:

Tha Phae Gate – located in between Rachadmnoen Road and Tha Phae Road. It was once a fortress for the Old City but today is a popular attraction, well located near bars, restaurants, massage parlours. temples, hotels and more. There’s a square next to it which hosts live entertainment on Saturday evenings as well as food markets. Most of the important festivals will host events here including Loy Krathong which happened whilst we were here (see below).

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Three King’s Monument – this is a statue of King Mengrai (the founder of Chiang Mai) friend King Ramkamhaeng of Sukothai and King Ngam Muang of Payao who are thought to have worked together on the city. The statue stands outside the Chiang Mai City Art and Cultural centre.

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Buak Hard Park – a beautiful but small park in the south west of the old city. You can get here easily in the red taxis (which act like an Uber pool and are also cheaper than a tuk tuk) but I hitchhiked with a girl on a moped which was fun! The park is a great place to chill or work out (they offer yoga sessions in the morning).

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Food and drink

Bagel House – go here for all your bagel needs! I had the iced thai green tea with the bagel Thai ranch style – 185 baht in total.

Tapae Gate – for a buffet breakfast for 189 baht (including tea/coffee). The restaurant is connected to a fancy guesthouse so it’s really lovely and the staff are attentive.

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The Night Bazaar is a great place to have an evening snack (pre midnight) . In the food court, I tried the delicious khachaburi which was filled with cheese, spinach and potato for 120 baht.

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Perfect with hot bubble tea!

As Thailand is typically hot, this is the perfect place to indulge in ice cream. Tesco Lotus Express had some interesting flavours like the “unicornetto” below for 24 baht.

Night time

The Night Bazaar is bustling at night and has a great atmosphere. As well as the food mentioned above, it also features stalls within it and outside, selling all you could want from the classic elephant trousers to candles, soaps, ornaments, jewellery and more.

Thai massage – after a hard day of sightseeing, this is the perfect way to wind down. Most parlours stay open until about midnight. We had an hour long oil massage at Giving Tree Massage for 400 baht each.

If you fancy a night out, Las Vegas is the club to be. 100 baht entry includes a drink and here you’ll find a good mix of locals and tourists. It’s hidden amongst residential areas so there’s security to make sure people don’t stand outside making noise which is thoughtful of them.

 

Excursions

A Thai cooking class is an absolute must! I hadn’t taken part in one abroad before but I loved it so much that I’ll try to incorporate them into more of my travels. Your hotel/hostel will have a list of cooking schools they recommend. I went with Smile Organic Cooking School which was 800 baht for 6 hours.

They pick you up from your accommodation and then the first stop is to a local food market. Here are we are introduced to the main ingredients used in Thai cooking. Next stop is the cooking school. We get to wander around the farm and check out the fresh herbs before we choose our meals for each course and get cooking! I made pad thai, red chicken curry and hot and creamy soup. We also made group spring rolls!

The evening ended with a free Thai cook book.

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Seeing elephants is a popular tourist activity but it comes with a lot of responsibility for us travellers to make sure that we are doing it as ethically as possible. Whatever you do, remember that riding elephants is a no-no! It’s bad for their backs and they are mistreated in order to make them comply with this. There are plenty of animal sanctuaries around which again your accommodation can recommend.

We checked out Dumbo Elephant Spa which was 1600 baht for a half day. The reason we chose this one was to see the 4 month old baby elephant called Ellie! We spent the afternoon playing the elephants, feeding them and then bathing them (although the volunteers seemed to be splashing us more than the elephants did!). They provide the colourful T-shirts plus food and drink once you’re done.

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The Light Festival

The main reason we visited Chiang Mai was for the Lanna style Loy Krathong and Yi Peng “light” festivals. These occur in November each year.

Loy Krathong is celebrated on the full moon night of the 12th month of the lunar calendar. Small floats made of banana leaves and decorated with flowers and candles are lit and set afloat the river as a simple of thanksgiving to the Water Goddess and for good luck. We did this along the Ping River where the majority of people taking part had gathered.

Alongside this is Yi Peng where lit up paper lanterns are released into the sky. This is one of the most magical scenes I’ve ever seen! There is a private party where you pay a lot of money to do this, however it’s completely unnecessary as there is plenty of space along the river bank to release your lantern (for free) and it’s nice doing so with the locals!

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The krathongs (small floats) are available to buy from the markets along the Ping River on that evening (prices between 20-30 baht) and the lanterns cost 50. Bring a lighter if you can, but otherwise people will offer theirs to you or you can buy them for 10 baht each.

Once you’re done, then there’s plenty of food and drink stalls nearby to indulge in.

 

Chiang Rai

Compared with Chiang Mai, this city is smaller and more relaxed. It is a few hours drive from Chiang Mai. We found a tuk tuk driver in Chiang Mai who offered to be our driver for the day. We paid him 3000 baht which is a pretty sweet deal for him and economical for us. The other economical way to get there if in a smaller group/solo is via coach (Greenbus) which goes frequently between the 2 cities. Make sure you book in advance otherwise you’ll end up slightly stranded as I was when I had to go back to Chiang Rai for my flight!

Wat Rong Khun aka The White Temple is probably the most famous temple in Chiang Rai. The pure white design is fascinating and the whole complex is filled with symbols relating to human desires. It costs 50 baht to enter. You can get here from Chiang Rai city centre via taxi or bus from the old bus station.

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There were a couple of gold buildings within the complex too!

Village tribes – We visited the “Union of hill tribe villages and Long Neck Karen” where we got a taster of their way of living for 300 baht. There is a path which goes between the tribes where they are selling items that they’ve made and are willing to interact with you. The Karen tribe are famous for the gold rings which lengthen their necks as a symbol of beauty. Interestingly the women also had these rings on their legs. The process starts from the age of 5 and rings are added every 9 years until she turns 45.

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Chiang Rai city centre is much smaller and quieter compared with the others so is great for a rest day if required. There is a Night Bazaar which has a restaurant perfectly placed opposite the stage where live performances occur and surrounding it is the Night Market which closes at 11pm. One thing to try here are the delicious ice cream rolls which are made to your taste. I had the vanilla, choc chip and pepo (green jelly) topped with caramel sauce…and it tasted amazing!

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So that’s a summary of my week in Thailand! I’m excited to go back to explore the islands next time. If you haven’t been to Thailand yet, make sure it’s top of your list as the weather is great, the people are some of the loveliest that I’ve ever met and the food and culture is amazing.

 

J Xo

 

My first authentic German beer fest – Wasen! And how to plan for next year’s!

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Oktoberfest is the well known German beer festival held in Munich from mid September to early October each year. Oktoberfest like events have become popular in the UK over the past few years but the real German experience has been on my bucket list for a while. However, I was introduced to the perfect alternative which I think everyone should consider – Cannstatter Volksfest or Wasen.

This autumn “beer” festival is the 2nd largest after Oktoberfest and is held in the German city of Stuttgart from late September to mid October. One of the girls I met on my Central America tour earlier this year (read all about it here) was from Stuttgart and so it made sense to catch up with her and check this out at the same time.

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Laura and I in Mexico, on the last night of our month tour

My friend Sarah and I visited Stuttgart from the 12th – 14th of October and we went to the festival on Saturday 13th. Stuttgart is easily reached from London via EasyJet for half the price it would cost to go to Munich during the same period. And only taking the essentials in a carry on will be make it even cheaper… I discovered a very helpful travel packing list on foreignlemonade.com to help with this!

The price of accommodation was also much more affordable, with a fairly central Airbnb for the weekend costing us €88 each.

The S and U Bahn trains will be your best way to get around town (and in and out of the festival). The VVS Mobil app is useful for planning your trip and checking out train times. It can also save you almost €1 per ticket. This didn’t work for me so it’s worth checking this before you board in case you need to use the machines on the platform instead.

Things to do in Stuttgart

  1. Get lost in Castle grounds

European countries boast some incredible castles and Germany is no exception to this rule (Neuschwanstein castle anyone?!) but there are many closer to Stuttgart which are incredible to explore.

Ludwigsburg Castle (looks like a palace but all the Germans called it a castle) is a short train ride away on the S4. Entry is $9 which is well worth it as you’ll see below. I can imagine its stunning to visit all year round but during autumn time, they host a pumpkin size contest which was cool to see. Honestly, I had no idea pumpkins could grow so big!

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On the other side of the castle, we found an actual pumpkin city. There were various statues made out of pumpkins, stalls showcasing different types of pumpkins, pumpkin taster stations, all the pumpkin flavoured food you could imagine and a gift shop, mostly filled with…pumpkin memorabilia!

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A sand structure of Cinderella’s pumpkin turned carriage

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Also found in the grounds of this castle are real life fairytales. As in, they have recreated well known fairy tales and brought them to life with great animations for kids (and “big kids”) to enjoy. You start on a boat ride into the whale where you’ll find Pinocchio and eventually end up at the bottom of Rapunzel’s tower!

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Pinocchio. Riding into the whale

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Snow White and the 7 Dwarves. “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?!”

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“Rapunzel, Rapunzel. Let down your hair!”

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The witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel

The second castle we saw was New Palace (Neues Schloss) which is in the centre of Stuttgart in Schlossplatz. You can’t normally get a tour of it as it holds a lot of government offices but its gardens are nice to sit in and you may see a wedding photo shoot happening outside as we did!

2. Schlossplatz – is a great place to spend a day wandering around the fountains, or doing some shopping nearby. At night, people sit on the steps and drink beers bought from the supermarket. This is allowed and people are civilised with it. To recycle the cans, you leave them next to a bin and it will be picked up by people (who appeared to be migrants to Germany) who wonder around looking for them. When returned to supermarkets, they are given a small amount of money per can which can add up if you take in enough!

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Pre mixed beer and lemonade which is really good!

3. Fernsehturm Stuttgart is the TV tower which offers gorgeous views over Stuttgart and beyond. It costs €7 to enter and you proceed to the lift, which takes you up 150m in 36 seconds. Here you’ll find the viewing points for a full 360 degree experience. When it gets too windy or crowded, you can appreciate the views in the cafe instead.

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Where we ate and drink:

Claus Deli – is perfect for brunch or an ice cream break. The portions are generous and the food is so tasty. It’s popular with locals so I knew it would be good!

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Salmon toast

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You can get charcaol ice cream cone which didn’t taste of much

Bären – for tapas style of traditional German food! There are no descriptions of what the dishes are so just trust the waiters’ recommendations for this! And a pint of German beer to help it all go down of course.

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Schwaben bräu – a outdoor bar. The bar itself is in a little hut and then everyone sits outside around it. It sounds simple but is very popular!

Babel – this is a hipster café where for €12.80, you get an all you can eat buffet brunch (drinks are extra). It’s worth going back a couple of times as new dishes appear just when you think you’ve tried everything. And to keep yourself entertained, there are various board games and books lying around.

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Wasen

The festival is held in a huge fairground with rides, stalls and the beer tents all in one place. The tents are named after the different beers that are served and hold thousands of people inside them!

Wasen is easily reached by train and entry to the grounds are free.There are 2 times of the day to visit if you’re planning to go to the beer tents – the morning session which finishes late afternoon and the second session which starts from 5.30pm until closing time (11pm).

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The queue to get into our beer tent!

In order to get into a beer tent, you will need a wristband. We hadn’t bought wristbands prior to going but luckily our German friends managed to buy them from some people in the crowd. We paid €15 each for a Klauss & Klauss tent wristband . This is just for your entry! Once inside, 1 mass of beer is €10.80 and you can also buy food too. Forget your cards as cash is king here.and exact change if possible is better! We didn’t eat in the tent but had lined our stomachs before and ate after too..in this case, eating is definitely not cheating as the beer will destroy you otherwise! Also I’m not a beer drinker but this tastes really good. And if you’re still not convinced, you can order the beer that comes mixed with lemonade which goes down too well!

The tents are filled with tables which will all have been prebooked. This is worth it for big groups/not wanting the stress of not knowing where to sit. But if you don’t secure this beforehand, quickly try sweet talking people who have space on their tables and you may be in luck!

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The other important thing to sort out in advance is your costume! It’s great to wear the traditional Bavarian clothing – dirndls for women and lederhosen for men but some women wore these too. We were lucky to borrow dirndls from Laura as I’ve heard they can be very expensive. They are magical dresses with pockets so you don’t need a bag (or only a bumbag if you must) to cut down security check time and minimise the risk of losing/having your things stolen. And wear casual shoes as you’ll be on your feet all night! There’s a live band playing traditional German tunes mixed in with a DJ playing more well known tracks. Stay close to a German nearby so they can teach you the steps to some of their songs!

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Stuttgart is a lovely city to visit and coinciding this with Wasen was even better! I hope to make it to Munich one year for Oktoberfest as I can imagine it would also be so much fun! If you’re planning to visit the 2019 festivals of either, I would advise starting to plan it…now! We were lucky to have locals guiding us through it, otherwise it would’ve been quite stressful at that short notice. Get your wristband the minute you know you’re going and consider booking a table too. Then you can start searching for the best deals for the traditional clothing.

During the 3 weeks, there are also parades and various activities that occur so you can tailor which week to visit in. For Munich especially, I would look at getting accommodation and flights as early as you can. The weekdays are a bit quieter if you don’t want to experience too big a crowd, or if you’re the opposite, go on the closing Saturday for a big party. Either way, you’ll likely only need one day to experience everything. It’s best to check out the festival in the day then do the beer tents in the early evening so you end your night on a high and have the next morning to recover!

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Is Oktoberfest/Wasen on your list? Or have you been before? Let me know below!

 

J Xo

 

 

End of summer 18 in Europe: Milan and day trips

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Milan is THE Italian fashion capital known for its beautiful, well dressed people and even more beautiful architecture. We coincidentally visited during September’s Fashion Week which was an amazing experience. Of course the shows and parties were private but there were models and celebs casually strolling around town being papped and it felt almost normal! Plus we ended up in the same club as Chris Brown but that’s a story for another day.

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Spotted our first model 2 hours after landing!

Milan is one of the cheapest Italian cities to fly to from London (with easyJet). From the airport, we took the airport bus express to the central station for €14 return. If you are planning day trips from Milan then it’s best to get train tickets from here in advance. There are 2 train companies and which you use depends on where you’re going so best to ask for advice there.

You can also buy the Milano card here which gives you free transport around the city and discounted museum and gallery entry. We bought ours online so got free entry to the Highlife Galleria rooftop (4th floor) which over looks Milan’s cathedral and the square…pretty epic at sunset. On the other floors, you’ll find a bar which is in prime position with the cathedral in the background (and drinks prices to match) and a restaurant dedicated to legend Pavarotti.

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We stayed in Meninger Hostel which was right next to Lambrate station (train and metro). It meant that we weren’t paying extortionate central prices but were still close to the action. As far as hostels go, this one is very decent and a perfect way to ease yourself into hostel life.

Things to see and do in the city:

Duomo – the cathedral is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen! It is worth getting there early otherwise you’ll be competing with hundreds for that perfect shot. You have a few of options on how to appreciate it further after you shoot: either a paid tour inside plus or minus the roof or attend church mass for free. We went to Sunday evening mass and although it was entirely in Italian, it was fairly easy to follow. Come at least 20 minutes before mass starts so you can get in (and don’t forget to cover up appropriately!)

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Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – the shopping complex next to the cathedral. It contains all the designer powerhouses plus a few boutiques. The shopping centre itself is a work of art so it’s worth visiting just to appreciate this! Here we spotted the most photoshoots (and got papped ourselves!). It was one of the many locations which had the mirror cubes with information inside explaining all aspects of fashion and design (a fashion week feature only it seems).

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Sforza Castle – only a few metro stops away from Duomo, this castle complex is a treat. The museum entry is €5 or free in late afternoons most days. We strolled around the gardens taking in the sites and then found ourselves watching a courtyard performance of opera singing and medieval dancing!

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Parco Sempione is just beyond the castle and perfect for hanging out in sunny weather. If you keep walking away from the castle, you’ll come across the Arco Della Pace (Arch of Peace) which is very similar to the Arc de Triomphe and originates from the Roman walls of Milan.

Royal Palace has many parts to it and is worth checking out an exhibition if you can. We discovered the free Bonalumi art exhibition which featured a lot of bold and striking pieces. Even the picture of the artist was fabulous!

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All the museums in Milan are grand so you’re truly spoilt for choice. We visited Museo Poldi Pezzoli which showcased a lavish stately home, taught us about lace and its origins and so much more. It’s €10 for adults/€7 with a Milano card or €4.50 for students and those under 26.

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La Scala – Milan’s opera house. You can go on a paid tour outside of rehearsal times (no set time, just luck really) if you don’t want to pay for a whole show. The day we visited, the green fashion awards were on which we saw them prepping for but couldn’t wing our way in to!

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Spend time in the Navigli neighbourhood. Did you know that Milan has canals?! Neither did I! This part of town is full of restaurants, bars and club surrounding the canals. The vibe is cool and there’s something for everyone…we saw older Italians dancing salsa at one end and the younger ones enjoying hip hop just yards away.

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And finally find a beautiful Vespa to ride…or match with if you would prefer!

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Eat and drink

My first time in Italy did not disappoint food wise. Even street food was incredible!

La laconda del gatto rosso is one of the restaurants in the designer shopping centre. Although the prices weren’t bad, the difference is in the food tax they add on top. I had la laconda pizza (puréed spicy salami,red onion, tomato and mozzarella) plus red wine. €19 in total but then an additional €4 for tax! And then you add a tip on top!!

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La cappelletta – homely Italian restaurant which was a short walking distance from our hostel (near Lambrate metro station). You can buy a litre of red wine for €7 here!! I enjoyed the best pasta with bolognnaise there.

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Arancini – fried rice balls made from risotto and filled with anything e.g. mushroom, cheese etc which you can buy anywhere. SO GOOD.

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Gelato! To be honest, it doesn’t matter where you get it from as it’ll all blow your mind.

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Rosa & Co for a modern insta worthy feel. This pretty in pink cafe serves plenty of good Italian coffee and sweet treats for decent prices.

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We had dinner in a Peruvian restaurant El Hornero one night and it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area as Peruvian food is SO good (as you know from my Peru blog).

Day trips

If you have time, this is such a great way to escape the city. We went on 2 day trips:

Lake Como. A huge and incredibly beautiful Lake whose beauty can be appreciated on a tour of its towns. We bought specific round trip tickets from the train station via Trenitalia to visit Varenna, Bellagio and Como (for just over €40). Our day started with a morning train to Varenna (either 08.20 or 10.20) which takes an hour. From here, we followed the signs to the castle which was a very steep 40 minute hike but once you get to the top, you have the most insane view of the Lake. Entry to the castle is only a few euros and you are provided with a written guide to help you appreciate it. The walk back down is much kinder!

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We had lunch at the beautiful and bougie Lake facing Hotel Royal Victoria. The spaghetti was delicious and cost €20 plus €5 cover (remember this isn’t a tip) but check out this view!

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Next was the ferry to Bellagio (included in the train ticket). However this part of our day flopped massively. We arrived at 3pm and knew we wanted to get to Como by 5pm latest to explore, get food and see the sunset. Our options for the onward ferries were either a “speedy” 45 mins or the slow 2 plus hours. It cost us an extra €12.60 (instead of €5 as we had been told in Milan) for the speedy one and everyone wanted to get on that ferry so we used all our exploring time to queue instead. Meaning I have no idea what Bellagio looks like beyond its port…let me know if you visit!

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Our final stop was the town of Como which was bigger than the other 2. The main sights we checked out were the Cathedral (another impressive Italian design) and San Fedele Church before indulging in more gelato. Checking out the sunset over the lake will really make this day trip extra special! To get back to Milan, there are many trains from Como’s station which are included in the tour price.

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Verona

The romantic city where Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set. It’s only 2 hours away from Milan by train and easily doable in a day. Our original aim was to visit Juliet’s Balcony and eat good food but then we achieved so much more.

We started with a 4 Church tour (3 churches and a cathedral) which cost €6. Each church offered guided audio tours in every language and is easy to fit into a couple of hours.

Basilica de San Zeno – named after the Bishop of Verona. Originally from Mauritania, he was likely a black man! The church features an interesting bronze door whose art illustrates stories from the bible. It is thought that the crypt is where Romeo and Juliet wed.

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San Fermo Maggiore – Gothic style church which is separated into the upper and lower church. The upper church has many chapels and altars. The most striking piece in this church was the wooden ceiling, shaped like a ship and displays the pictures of over 400 saints.

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The lower church is divided into 4 naves and has many religious drawings over the walls and pillars.

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Basilica de Santa Anastasia – named after the 4th century virgin martyr. It was designed by Dominican friars and took at least 200 years to build from about the 14th century. Inside there are many chapels which belong to royal or important families and all are dedicated to various saints, making it the richest church in Verona. The interior is impressively filled with art pieces such as Pisanello’s fresco (St George with the princess, waiting to slay the dragon).

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Cathedral complex (duomo) – made up of San Maria Matricolare (the cathedral), San Giovanni en Fonte and San Elena. Initially it was the 1st Basilica in Verona, built by San Zeno but it became too small for the population and was later replaced. All the churches were impressive but the cathedral was on a whole other level!

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“By your patience, you will save your souls”

You’ll cross the river at some point during the churches tour and this is the perfect time to pass through Castelvecchio. Literally translates as old castle and is free to wander over its bridge and courtyard. The castle has the smallest love lock bridge I’ve ever seen on my travels so far!

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Juliet’s balcony was a massive tourist trap and quite disappointing. You pass through an alleyway to the courtyard and to get onto her balcony, you have to pay and then queue for your 20seconds on there. The statue of her was being groped as apparently that brought good luck? Anything for a better love life it seems! Oh and Romeo has a balcony too but that looked permanently closed.

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Verona also has a colosseum which you can check out on a general tour or for outdoor shows! Imagine watching a rendition of Romeo and Juliet in this amphitheatre in Verona…culture goals!

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Eating and drinking around here is cheaper than Milan so get treat yourself and maybe get an apertivo in too (essentially happy hour where the drinks include snacks). Here I had the most delicious tiramisu of my life!

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Italy will have you drinking coffee at all times of the day!

So that’s my 5 days in and around Milan in a nutshell. It’s a destination that can be fully appreciated in a short space of time which is perfect for weekend/ day breaks! But I would love my next visit to Italy to be much longer, possibly a trip for Summer ‘19? Stay tuned to find out!

 

J Xo