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

 

 

Black History Month 2018: Events and Reflections

October is Black History Month (BHM) in the UK and it is a time to reflect on the past but also be proud of how much black people have accomplished and contribute to British life. During this month, I’ve checked out some great events, contributed to blog pieces looking at the experiences we have faced in travel and school life and really enjoyed the positive energy that has surrounded it all.

My first and very unexpected BHM exhibition was at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor. I visited on a work trip and upon arriving at this gorgeous stately house, I noticed many photos along the downstairs corridor of black and Asian young people with their families. It was titled “Where I came from” from Bill Knight’s work for Rare Recruitment, which helps young BAME and others from under represented backgrounds get good jobs. I spotted a pic of Bishop Karowei ( a medical doctor and now the first black Bishop of Woolwich who I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this year) and his son which my mum enjoyed a snap of and quickly responded that we would look so good on that wall too ha!

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Antony and Cleopatra – this Shakespeare classic is being shown at the Olivier Theatre in Southbank. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was particularly impressed by the diversity of the cast and how race didn’t dictate the casting for roles. The Beyoncé lemonade dress reference made when Cleopatra hears of Anthony’s betrayal was iconic but sadly went over most of the audience’s head due to the demographics! This highlighted to us that black people need to be getting out into theatre and art spaces more as we can relate to more than you may realise!

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Ralph Fiennes as Antony and Sophie Okonedo as Cleopatra

Michael Jackson On The Wall. This exhibition was on at the National Portrait Gallery (ended on 21st October). It exhibited a series of art of the King of Pop depicting different areas of his life through paintings, videos and more. I particularly enjoyed the pieces that reflected on his importance as a black man not only to the Western wold but African countries too and how his legacy will continue. It’ll be on in Grand Palais, Paris from the 21st of November if you happen to be in town!

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Todd Gray visited Ghana in 2008 with pictures of MJ and asked people to pose with them as if they missed him and were calling him back home

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“Billie Jean is not my lover”

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“Who’s bad” shows MJ dancing with a street gang in New York and the canvas has other black legends names on it such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks

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Ebony magazine’s 2007 cover of MJ

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Andy Warhol paintings of MJ

Black British Travel Meetup – Autumn Edition. I first joined this travel tribe back in May and since then, I have met the most amazing people both online and offline and we even took over Facebook London in the summer! This meetup didn’t disappoint with great food from Kwaku’s kitchen, networking, games and a panel who shared their travel experiences and how to maximise ours. Thanks again to Hannah and Doyin for another top evening..the next one will be in December so stay tuned here!

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I was invited to the Jo Maxwell Show Season 2 premiere. This talk show showcases the lives of black women (and men too) living in the UK. Season 1 was on YouTube and Jo has managed to get her second season on both voxafrica and fametv channels! I hope you guys tune in as it promises to be a great series and who knows, we could have Britain’s Oprah in our midst! Catch up on her work here.

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Black Girl Fest – it only started last year and was an instant success so I was very excited to check it out this year. It happened at Shoreditch Town Hall and the Protein Studios. The day was packed with seminars on everything from social media strategy, finance, politics of hair and beauty to the marketplace which showcased so many talented creatives and their work plus an evening of music and good vibes. Being around all these successful and beautiful black sisters really moved me (especially connecting with my fellow travel ladies) and I hope this event continues to grow every year. Paula and Nicole have literally created black girl magic with this!

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A few things I treated myself to!

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My travel ladies ❤️

During this month, I’ve been asked to feature in a few blogs which is always an honour. The first is by Johnny who did a great collab piece of travelling whilst black featuring a few of my faves. It’s such an interesting read and can be checked out here.

Next was a piece I wrote for Bankra on my private school experience as the only black girl in my year which can be found on their website here. It was quite a personal piece for me to write so I hope you enjoy it!

Travel power couple who have successfully travelled to 100 countries together will be featuring me on their website (Road to 100 countries) from the 5th of November. They have a wealth of knowledge on how to travel smart on any budget so check them out on the socials.

And finally I was lucky to win a free ticket to melanin journey’s “Take me to Senegal” event which is happening on the 1st of December. An evening filled with Senegalese storytelling, culture, music and good food.. come join me and get your tickets here.

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So I was having a casual discussion about BHM and some great questions came up – “Do we really need this month?” “Shouldn’t we be putting these events on throughout the year, learning and reflecting about our history at any time instead of relying on October to be our “woke” month?” And these are all valid points!

So let me know what you think about this and if there are any great exhibitions/events on in November and beyond so I can check them out!

 

 

J Xo

Central America Reunion in Bergen

 

This August bank holiday, I spent the weekend in the beautiful Norwegian city of Bergen, hosted by the Norwegian girls that I had met during my Central American tour (check out the series here). It’s fairly easy to bond with like minded travellers when abroad but to actually stay in touch and successfully organise a reunion only a few months later? I was impressed with us!

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Street art in Suchitoto, El Salvador 

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Continental breakfast! 3 Norweigans and a German 

The easiest and cheapest way to fly to Bergen was with Norwegian airlines – a bit of Bank holiday inflation but outside of this, easily less than £100 return. After my nightmare 21 hour delay with Norweigan Airlines on my way to Costa Rica, I was quite apprehensive this time round. However it was a painless flight and they have free WiFi which genuinely works. Bergen’s airport has a question mark after its name but the Norweigans couldn’t explain why…I’m interested if anyone ever finds out!

Bergen is a beautiful city surrounded by many mountains, fjords and made up of islands too, 2 of which the girls lived on. After being picked up from the airport, we spent our first night in the quiet area of Fjell, in chez Tellnes.

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Morning views in Tellnes from the outside porch

We spent the majority of the weekend in Askøy being hosted at Mareyn’s house.  I loved how the Norweigan homes have letterboxes or doorbells with each family member’s name painted on so the household could be identified. A great idea in a safe feeling community but not something I expect to see in London anytime soon!

The girls’ neighbourhoods were separated by a bridge which has gorgeous views overlooking the other islands.

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It’s fairly easy to get into the city centre via bus from Askøy and they even run through the night. However a scenic alternative (until 6pm) is the 25 minute ferry which costs 37NOK one way (same as the buses).  Skyss Billett is a useful app to buy your public transport tickets with.

Norweigans are super fit and all about the outdoor life so the girls took us for “walks” read “HIKES”. You can tell this as everyone walks around in fabulous athletic wear. Our first walk/hike was up Fløyen mountain. From the harbour and fish market, it’s a 2 minute walk, if that, to the start of its trail. The routes are signposted well and you’re spoilt for choice on which to use. Our way up passed through some residential areas, an athletic track and even a nursery in the forest. Half an hour later, we were treated to an incredible view over Bergen! It had been raining so bad the whole way up but luckily it cleared whilst we were at the top!

 

 

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5 minutes into our hike

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Much better at the top!

 

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A quick alternative to get to the top is via the Fløibanen funicular but the hike is the best option if you can!

As well as a restaurant and souvenir shop, we also spotted a troll! These mythical creatures have been in Norwegian and Scandinavian folk tales for centuries and although I’m sure no modern day Norwegian believes in them, it’s nice to see they still have fun with it!

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The forest route on the way back down (tippetue) was stunning with beautiful trees and waterfalls.

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Our second mountain of the weekend (back in Askøy) was Kolbeinsvarden. Now this is a beast and we didn’t make it anywhere near the top but just up to Brikafjellet. It was still very scenic from this point but if you did go all the way up, I’m told you get a 360degree view of all of Bergen.

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Bergen’s city centre is picturesque with plenty to explore. There’s a row of colourful houses by the port called Bryggen. Today they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site used for restaurants, museums and even a club (also with galleries and cafes in alleyways in between) but they were once very important in Bergen’s history. They were wooden houses used in trading from the Middle Ages with Bergen exporting fish and its oils in return for flour, grain etc which were stored in these houses. At one point, many Germans (part of the Hanseatic League) were living in the area and trading from their office (which may explain the use of German words on many items as spotted by Laura).

A few of the Bryggen “houses” are currently being renovated but all should be done by next year!

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The port is gorgeous to stroll around to check out the insanely huge boats, the market and from there, you can check out the rest of the city.

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View of Fløyen from the main square (the port is to the left)

One of the main purposes of the weekend was to attend Kygo’s Kids in Love Tour. He is a Norweigan DJ and plays all over the world including a residency in Ibiza’s summer season of course. He’s from Bergen so the atmosphere was amazing as any homecoming night is. Hearing the sound check from the top of Fløyen the day before was quite surreal! He performed in Koengen which is an outdoor venue, next to medieval fortress Bergenhus Festning. Luckily for us, the rain stopped just as the music started!

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Pre Kygo pizza at Svingen…look at how wet our jeans are from outside!!!

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Eating and drinking out in Norway is expensive so we did plenty of home cooking over the weekend. Our breakfasts and lunches involved a lot of bread, cold meat, cheese and fruit which seemed typical here. The “Norwegian Taco” – tortillas filled with meat, salad plus grapes and mango salsa is apparently a weekend family favourite.

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And if you think buying drinks in supermarkets is cheap..it isn’t! Minimum 40NOK for a single can of cider (which is basically £4 but that could get you about 3 cans in the UK!). So to get around this, Norweigans stock up on duty free alcohol. If you are to go out to a bar or club, this is still your best option! But don’t worry about looking smart..as long as you don’t have wellies on, you can get into most places (even wearing a raincoat yes).

I had a great weekend visiting the girls and exploring my second Scandinavian country (Denmark being my first last year). I love how friendly every single person was and even the airport security guard who had a nice chat with me as I loaded my bags and wished me a pleasant journey home! Being from London, I’m used to quite grey rainy conditions but don’t we half moan about it! Whereas here, they accept it is their life and it doesn’t stop them from smiling and wearing those bright yellow raincoats!

Few final tips for visiting this area:

Find accommodation early! Lucky for me, I stayed with the girls but you’ll likely choose to be in the city centre so this is key for getting the best deals.

Bring your hiking gear as it’s the best way to see the city. And a raincoat and wellies if you have them.

I would avoid getting out cash as you’ll end up with a large amounts of notes for not much money.

And finally, do not even entertain the idea of a taxi (unless you’re in a big group or being bougie isn’t an issue). My taxi to the airport cost £50 for a 20minute journey. It was an early flight back and we had all been drinking from the concert so I couldn’t be driven back…plus being a Sunday morning, the buses weren’t reliable. So make sure you think about this when booking your flight times!

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The mystery remains unsolved!

I will definitely be back in Norway in the future! If you have questions or comments on Bergen, do let me know below.

 

J Xo

 

Summer 18 in Europe – Bloggers in Belgium

 

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Bruges main square – from left to right, me, Ella, Yasmin and Caroline at the front

I did a wild thing back in the summer which resulted in this trip. I sent a tweet to my travel twitter asking for company for a trip to anywhere in Europe. I was pleasantly surprised when I got 3 responses and the next thing I knew, we had booked a girls trip to Belgium! My travel pals were Ella (heyparadis.com), Yasmin (yasmintells.com) and Caroline (traveleatslay.com) . Bearing in mind that we were essentially strangers prior to this trip, there was no telling how it would pan out. Luckily for us, Ella had grown up in Belgium so knew all the places to hang out and appreciate Belgian culture…we were in a treat!

We travelled in the last week of July with the Eurostar from London St Pancras directly to Brussels Centraal Station. This was my first time taking this train (a getaway of firsts it seems)! They advise you to arrive at least an hour before your train takes off and I would do so as the queues were crazy so we just made it! The trains are quite nice and fares are cheaper if you’re under 26. We also invested in a 10 trip train ticket for anywhere in Belgium which is €77 for adults or €52 for under 26s.

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We stayed in the student town of Gent which is about a 30 minute train ride from Brussels. Gent is a lovely, quaint town and was a great place for our base due to its affordability. We stayed in a great studio which was a short walking distance to the city centre but also right next to a tram stop (options are key!)

The day we arrived was the last day of the Gentse Feesten (Gent Festival) which was on from the 13th – 22nd July. This year was its 175th anniversary. The whole city is transformed into food and drink stalls with different music stages to suit different tastes and ages (my favourite being Pole Pole which showcased hip hop, salsa and turned into a club night).

There are a lot of traditions which are observed during the festival. One interesting one is the men walking around town in white shirts with nooses around their neck. These are the Guild of Noose Bearers who commemorate the Revolt of Gent to pay their respects to the rebels who were paraded through the streets in this way when they were caught. A less historical but fun tradition was Belgians wearing pink elephant hats (the pink elephant is the symbol for their delirium beer!).

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Nie neute, nie pleuje” a motto we saw around town which translates as no whining, no folding.  It essentially means that you can’t complain and have to keep going!

We also had our first taste of a Belgian beer (Hoegaarden which also comes in fruity flavours – €2.80 for one!!) and Belgian fries from a fritkot.

After the festival, we did plenty more sightseeing around the city.

Gravensteen castle is a gorgeous medieval castle which we passed by most days. It was previously home to the Counts Flanders until the 14th century and is now a historical landmark. Fun fact – you can get married here for only €600 per half an hour!

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There’s a trio of buildings which are best photographed in golden hour. They are:

1. St Niklaas Church. It features the beautiful monochrome and gold designs with pieces of art hung up which seems to be classic in Belgian churches. It is free to wander around inside.

2. Belfry Tower. It is where the dragon was supposedly kept to keep watch of the city. It’s free for kids and those with a city card, €2.70 for 19-25 year olds €8 for 26 and over. It has 4 levels – the first one is reached by stairs and with the other 3, you have the option of a lift. Each floor has a different display and explanations relating to the tower and at the top, you have an incredible view over Gent.

3. St. Bavo’s Cathedral (Sint Baafskathedraal) – a magnificent building which is free to enter. It had one of the most extravagant altars that I’ve ever seen. In the crypt, there are displays of priests clothing and old cups etc. For €4, you can enter to see the blood of Jesus too.

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A chilled way to see the city is on a boat tour! It only costs €7.50 for an hour or so and the multilingual guide share plenty of knowledge along the way. On the day we did our tour it was a scorching 38 degrees so they provided us with umbrellas for shade!

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Generally a lot of time is spent along the river, either with a drink during golden hour or just messing about as we did in the pics below (don’t try this at home guys!!)

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This was all Ella’s idea!

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If you love street art like me, you have to check out Werregarenstraat or “Graffitistraatje” which is an alley with graffiti. So many artists have contributed and they are all super talented for sure!

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Brussels

The capital city of Belgium and of the EU. We spent half a day here wandering its beautiful cobbled streets. Did you know that many famous cartoon characters such as Tintin and the Smurfs are Belgian? You’ll see murals dedicated to them around town.

Galeries Royales St Hubert is a gorgeously expensive shopping mall with designer shops and also great chocolatiers.  It’s worth wandering in just to appreciate its architecture if nothing else.

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Next up, Grand Place (Grote Markt) which is Brussels’ main Square. Here you have the Town Hall, the King’s House, the Museum of Brussels plus a few pricey touristy restaurants. The square has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for 20 years! As you can imagine, it’s incredibly busy but worth a visit to check out the golden designs.

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I did not expect Brussels to have the most bizarre monument I’ve ever seen. It’s called Manneken Pis and is a little boy having a piss. And there isn’t a real story behind it as confirmed by Ella and a passing tour guide!

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We ended our afternoon at Place des Martyrs or Martelarenplein – Martyrs Square. It is slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of the city so is a great place to chill. It has great historical significance as there’s a crypt here where many who died in the Belgian Revolution are buried in.

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Antwerp

This is a cool city and is the heart of fashion and diamonds in Belgium. It also had the most fancy train station of all the places we visited this week! The name means “throwing hand” and this is related to the legend of the giant who would cut off your hand and throw it into the river if you refused to pay the toll to enter the city!

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Antwerp train station

We went on a walking tour around the city starting at Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal or Our Lady Cathedral (a Roman Catholic one). One of its towers is still being built but it’s an amazing building nonetheless. There is a fee to go inside if you fancy a tour. Outside is a statue of an orphan boy lying down with his dog – nello and patrasche. It’s a sad story as they both eventually died of hunger in the cathedral!

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Next up was the Market Square which has the statue of the giant throwing a hand!

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St Peter’s Church was the first Belgian Church we went inside to check out. Don’t let the simple outside fool you as inside has beautifully monochrome with gold designs. Also they had incredible art pieces inside – here it depicted Jesus’ life story painted in a series by various painters.

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St Peter’s Church backyard – no pics of the inside as we didn’t want to rebel the no pics rule!

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Chilling after a long day on our feet!

Spa

This was the longest train journey from Gent, taking a good few hours each way. Spa is in the South which is predominantly French speaking compared with Dutch in the North. Spa is the hometown of spas (as Bath is for Baths). It is also where the Belgian F1 race takes place!

It is a small town which can be seen in a few hours. From the tourist centre, you can get a map which gives you a route to follow to see the key points.

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A mini Louvre!

There is a funicular which takes you up to one of the spas and offers great views of the town. (€1.50 one way). The climb up is quite quick but it was so hot that we only walked down to ease the sweating (10 minute walk down).

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There is a tourist train which for €6 takes you through the forest to the natural springs. You can collect some water to drink from Source de la Gérontère. Spa Baristat is the source for sparkling water.

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Source de la Gérontère

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Brugge

This city is picturesque and was one of my favourites along with Gent. Within the city wall, all the old architecture is preserved and it’s so cute! Brugge is known for its lace and artisanal chocolate.

We walked through Minne Vater Park to pass through the nuns place before getting into town. This city is perfect for a boat ride as you can appreciate it all in one go (€8). Another popular way to see the city seemed to be on sedgeways.

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Within the nun’s complex

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We bought the majority of our chocolate from here for a decent price of 20 pieces for €10. The free tasters were a perk too! I tried rose chocolate for the first time and I’m sadly not a fan..it’s not quite its own flavour but let me know if you’ve ever had it.

We sat for lunch in the main square and were treated to live music by buskers.

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A beautiful Church to visit here is Basilica of the Holy Blood which is free to enter.

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Featuring our angelic tour guide

Food and drink

The classics:

Belgian fries (not French fries FYI) are delicious and will come with most meals. You can also buy them to take away from fritkots.. try it with this delicious spicy mayo.

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Belgian waffles are heavenly! Holiday calories don’t count so feel free to enjoy. The best ones we had were from yoghito in Gent train station.

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Belgian chocolate is a must!

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We also tried the traditional Belgian beef stew which is served with fries and is so delicious! This one was at De witte leeuw restaurant by the river in Gent.

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Belgian beer is tasty and very cheap! I’ve already mentioned the Hoegaarden and delirium tremens which I tried but also the brugse zot (local to Brugge).

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Breakfast:

We ate 3 times at Le Pain Quotidien for breakfast! We had tried most of the menu by the time we left Belgium. My favourite was the Manhattan – smoked salmon, bread, soft boiled egg, ricotta cheese, juice and tea for €9.99.

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Gust is a cool brunch place to come to in Gent (booking is highly recommend). I had the green waffles below (made with courgettes). They also have more typical choices such as American pancakes, eggs etc.

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Brunch at Wasbar in Gent (a restaurant where you can get your laundry done whilst eating!). Various bagels and side salads with the most refreshing drink for a sweltering day!

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And finally, the mother of all meals during our trip. We went to Amadeus which is an All you can eat ribs (YES) place. The ribs are fire but that jacket potato with the butter is on another level. And it’s just under €18 for this! We only managed 2 rounds!BF613F67-F92D-4870-8C9E-0D77FF4C0BD7

So our Belgian trip was filled with great food and drink, culture, sunshine, lols, the usual travel drama and plenty of content creation. Travelling with fellow bloggers means you have an understanding for photo time and you learn so much about everyone’s travel styles. I can’t wait to read how the others cover this trip too!

Have you ever done a bloggers trip before? If not, I hope this inspires you to plan one!

 

 

J Xo

Summer 18 around the UK

 

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It is well known that us Londoners can find it difficult to appreciate anything outside the M25 and this is a shame as the rest of the UK does have a lot to offer! I did try to visit a few places this summer but my to do list is long and I plan to do better in 2019!

Beaches

There are plenty of lovely beaches in the UK which people often disregard due to cold weather but this year wasn’t an excuse! Even from London, there are many you can visit on a day trip:

Brighton Beach – one of my favourite beaches in the South for many reasons. The pier has entertainment for all, the beach bars and clubs are a lot of fun and you’ll soon overlook the fact that it’s a pebbled beach. And Britney performed at Pride there this year so that says it all really! The city itself is great to explore and very easy to reach on the road or via train from London Victoria.

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On my most recent visit here, I also visited Worthing Beach which is about 25 minutes drive away from Brighton. If you plan to stay in Brighton for longer than a day or so and are looking for cheaper accommodation, this could be your answer.

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Dymchurch Beach – this lovely sandy beach in Kent is an hour and a half drive from London. This year was perfect for sunbathing here everyday (but should be done before 5pm when the tide comes in fully) . A very short walking distance away is an English heritage site, a funfair and a delightful afternoon tea spot called Mary’s Tea Room.

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Dymchurch Martello Tower – these were forts built to protect the coast of the UK

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Mary’s Tea Room

Festivals

British festivals are down to earth and usually wet and muddy…but not this year! I went to Parklife in Manchester which runs over 2 days in June. It isn’t a camping festival but being the North, you can stay in the city for a decent price (but I’m lucky to have friends up there). The line up was amazing – N.E.R.D, The XX, Lourde, Sampha and Giggs to name a few. If you’re bougie like us, you can get VIP tickets for an extra £20 which gives you access to less crowded bar areas, a disco tent and much better toilet and water filling experiences! It’s a great alternative to Wireless Festival in London.

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Being fabulous in the disco tent

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N*E*R*D – my favourite performance!

The Great Outdoors

You’ve probably seen the lavender fields all over Instagram but did you know that some existed in the UK too?! I visited the Hitchin Lavender Farm which has both lavender and sunflower fields! As the season is almost over, it is now free to enter (open until the 16th of September) .

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Cambridge – a great place to visit to have a picnic in the sun, go punting on the river and appreciate the beauty of its colleges. I spent half a day here in July (with no photos to show for it sadly!)

Plans for further warm weather and 2019:

*To visit Stonehenge – on Summer Solistice is the ultimate dream!

*A summer visit to the Peak District. I saw its beauty in the snow last year so I’m looking forward to see it in its green glory.

*Cornwall – on a sunny day, it looks like a foreign beach! It is quite a few hours drive from London and well anywhere else in the country really so has to be done as a proper holiday.

*And finally to appreciate Ireland, Wales and Scotland in warmer weather.

 

Where has been your favourite UK place this summer? And any for your bucket list in the coming year?

 

J Xo

My summer 18 hotspots – London

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All smiles as the sun shone extra bright on my birthday

I absolutely love living in London and particularly in the summer time when there is  endless amounts to do. And with this year’s heatwave, we’ve had a dreamy couple of months! In between my Central America tour (see Latin America ) and a couple of getaways in July (see Europe ), I managed to check out a few places (mostly food related FYI) below.

Some events and places are still open in September and others can be saved for next year. For the most up to date activities to do all year round, Timeout is an absolute treat.

Rooftop Bars

Summer in London would be nothing without its rooftops! Here are a few of my faves:

Bussey Rooftop – the rival Peckham rooftop to Frank’s cafe (insta pink perfection) which also offers stellar views of London. Their food is simple and decently priced compared to most rooftops (I loved the hotdogs served in a brioche bread) and they often hold great events up here including their rooftop cinema which is still happening this month (and you can buy bottomless popcorn as part of your ticket!!!)

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Madison’s Rooftop Terrace – this place wins with its views. It overlooks St Paul’s Cathedral on one side and London Eye to the Shard going around. You have to look smart when you come here (no trainers or sporty looking clothes) but don’t let that put you off as the vibes upstairs are chilled. Mid afternoon is the best time to come for the best seating and shortest bar queues but golden hour is also ideal for pictures. The drinks are Central London prices but really you’re paying for the view.

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Bar Elba – this is in Waterloo and has some of the cutest wall art as you climb up to the top. The views aren’t the greatest but the whole place is very picturesque. And it’s  next to Tonight Josephine bar if you need a millennial pink fix.

Tip: Join their mailing list for a free cocktail when you go!

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John Lewis – for Summer of Sound on the Roof. This is great for some rest bite from the mayhem of Oxford Street. It has a gin bar and chill music with DJs especially on weekends. On until the 30th of September.

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Outdoor/open space dining:

Another classically London thing to do. This year was perfect for it and hopefully the next few weeks will allow more of this:

Coppa Club – this restaurant in Tower Bridge is home to these incredible pods! Until Sep 30th, you can hire one (for free, up to 2 hours for max 8 people) and have food and/or drinks with amazing views of Tower Bridge and the Shard. They do split the pods if your group is smaller than 8 and walk ins are possible. The food here is delicious so it’s worth a visit.

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Dinerama, Shoreditch – we came here to watch a World Cup match and it was good fun. The bar is outside and then various food stalls within the complex and upstairs if a private event isn’t happening.  A less crowded alternative to Boxpark.

Peckham Levels – in this previously abandoned car park behind the cinema, it has been transformed into a dining and bar experience with pop up restaurants. On the weekends, they have a DJ and dance floor which is good fun.

Brixton Market – inside this market place are many quirky shops and stalls plus restaurants. Brixton’s community is traditionally Caribbean so I recommend trying out traditional dishes such as jerk chicken, rice and peas etc.

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Jerk chicken crepes from Senzala Creperie inside the market

Pop Brixton – a complex with food stalls, bars, marketplace and even a barbershop! They sell food from around the world (so far I’ve had the steak and chips, bao buns, Venezuelan empañadas and churros) and it’s all delicious! Entry is usually free.

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Empañadas from the Venezuelan food stall

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Sassy cidre – a pop up outside St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. This French cider brand teamed up with others during the summer and sold many delicious ciders for a reasonable price. Sadly the pop up is over now but do keep an eye out for them in bars around London (and France!).

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Casa do Frango – this Portuguese restaurant near London Bridge has to be one of my favourites this year! It has a lovely light, open space and you’re sat on benches next to fellow diners which is a nice experience. The menu is tapas style and every single item we had was on point. Plus we tried green wine which is quite light and slightly bubbly. 10/10 for their customer service!

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Grilled prawns, grilled chorizo and black olive mayo, potato sourdough bread

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Piri piri half chicken, African rice (with chorizo, plantain and peas), chips (batatas fritas) and Montanheira salad

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Pastel de anta and vanilla ice cream and chocolate mousse with pistachio crumble in the distance

Treat yourself dining

Although I am all for finding the best/free deals, sometimes you just have to go an extra mile to treat yourself right!?

Sushi Samba – this gorgeous fusion Brazilian/Japanese/Peruvian restaurant offers an incredible view over the city of London. The combination of flavours are quite unique and everything on the menu looks delicious. Expect Central London prices with a few omg items!

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El Topo Samba rolls

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Oblix at the Shard – now this is perfect for celebrating occasions or just a bougie evening in town. It’s only a third of the way up the Shard but the views are exceptional, especially at night.

Brunch at Sanderson’s Hotel – I love this place as the outdoor dining area is surrounded by flamingos, a waterfall and the prettiest floral swing. Brunch is varied and wallet friendly. They also do a Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea which sounds intriguing!

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Afternoon tea at Richoux – this restaurant in Piccadilly serves delicious afternoon tea and you can get great deals via groupon!  Their scones and cakes are more generously sized than most places and their tea selection is on point.

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Treats at Aubaine Selfridges – located on the 2nd floor of Selfridges is this beautiful cafe. Main courses can vary in cost but drinks, tea and cakes are decently priced! The window seats round the corner are the best for your insta shots.

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Sipping on my summer fave – aperol spritz

Green Spaces

In such a hectic city, it’s nice to be able to enjoy time away from it all and reconnect with nature:

Kew Gardens – home to all kinds of plants and flowers from around the world too. They have many resident displays and often seasonal exhibitions too (the latest one being the Down Under II series (plants from Australia and NZ) which is on until the 16th of September). It is such a big complex that you’ll need to spend most of your day here so bring some snacks and drinks to enjoy!

Parks – London has many parks to escape the city stress. There are often outdoor activities going on into September too. Some of my favourite ones are Primrose Hill (epic views of London from the top), Greenwich Park, Battersea Park and Holland Park (especially the Japanese inspired Kyoto Gardens).

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Kyoto Gardens in Holland Park

Riverside

The great thing about living in a city with a river is enjoying all the activities that occur around it!

Southbank – this area is perfect at all times of the year to be honest. It stretches from Waterloo Bridge to Westminster Bridge and is lined with food and drink stalls, restaurants and entertainment. The Queen Elizabeth Centre is great for rooftop drinks and the Southbank Centre hosts arts and cultural events (sign up with them to access limited free tickets if you’re under 30).

King’s Cross – a short walk behind the station is Regents Canal and Granary Square which hosted the Summer of Love outdoor screenings of Wimbledon and various films in July. It’s a chilled area to enjoy a drink and people watch or you can hire a party boat along the canal!

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The river bank from Tate Modern to London Bridge and then across to Tower Bridge has always been one of my favourite places. New bars and restaurants pop up all the time plus the views are iconic of course.

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For the Culture

Notting Hill Carnival – takes place on the last weekend of August during our summer bank holiday (the Sunday and Monday). It’s a celebration of Caribbean culture and a huge street party which isn’t to be missed! Sunday is perfect for families and not a crazy time as Monday is the bigger party. It’s free to attend as part of the crowd so all you need are your dance moves, good vibes and plenty of liquid to cool yourself down!

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Greenwich Painted Hall Ceiling Tour – for those of you interested in art and history. The ceiling (and its art) is being restored so until the end of September, you can take a guided tour (£10 for adults) and get close to enough to appreciate it and learn more about what it all means. It’s mainly related to the Navy (as Greenwich is known for) and is really interesting. Opposite is a gorgeous chapel you can check out, the National Maritime museum is across the road and Greenwich Park nearby too.

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The scaffolding to take you up to the ceiling

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Chapel of St Peter and St Paul

And finally, I plan to visit the Michael Jackson On the Wall exhibition this month which is in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s in celebration of his 60th birthday this year…definitely one to check out if you can as it’s on until October 21st.

 

Did you enjoy summer in London? Or do you plan to next year? Let me know in the comments below!

 

J Xo

Summer 18 in Europe – Ibiza Edition

 

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Ibiza is one of Europe’s top party destinations and is well known for its summer season hosted by the world’s best DJs. It is also known to be quite expensive (and this isn’t wrong in some instances).

I first visited back in August 2014 – ironically we flew out on the same day that this article was posted : http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/28472079/top-djs-say-ibiza-is-too-expensive-for-young-people. Givenchy’s Ricardo Tisci celebrated his 40th birthday that week and basically every celebrity was there with him so clearly we were living beyond our student means! However the energy in Ibiza was like not other so when the opportunity arose again, I couldn’t resist a 2nd trip.

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The original Ibiza crew in 2014 outside Ushuaïa, about to see Swedish House Mafia!

This year, I visited in July (the season runs from late May to October). I flew from Stansted with Jet2 for £200 return (bought only a month before travel…cheaper if done earlier, if you fly crazy hours or book with Ryanair). It was my first journey with Jet2 and I was nervous but that all eased when the pilot made a Love Island joke! Their customer service is excellent, everything is easy to navigate on their site and they gave us each a £60 voucher off our next holiday when the return flight was delayed by only one hour!

Whilst in Ibiza, me and my good friend Drew stayed in Hostel Juanita in the old town (£212 each for 5 nights). Staying in the old town is perfect because it’s authentically Spanish and you’re within walking distance of lovely sights, parks and cafes as well as the high street. I stayed in Playa D’en Bossa during my first visit but it was a pricey all inclusive hotel which just felt touristy and offered zero relaxation opportunities so I wouldn’t rush to stay anywhere near there. Also San Antonio is the cheapest area to stay in but is where the rowdiest tourists choose to stay so it’s up to you!

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Old Town strolls

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Another way to save a fortune is to embrace public transport. The buses are cheap, air conditioned and usually play music on board. The journey from the airport to our hostel in town cost €3.50 and this was the most that we paid for a single journey (the party buses which do a loop of all the main clubs all night charge €3 to €3.50 each). Other single bus journeys are about €2.

Food shouldn’t be a big expense out here if you don’t want it to be! We only ate out and spent about €95 on all our meals including drinks at the table. My favourite places to eat at were:

Sa Vida – €25 for a litre of sangria!!! Good for a light lunch tapas style

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Tapas feat Drew’s jawline

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Squid ink croquetas

La Cava – they do filling breakfasts with drinks included for less than €10

Gelato – really nice brunches and/or ice cream too

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Es Noray– one of the many bougie restaurants by the port. Great views of all the yachts whilst you enjoy paella and it won’t break the bank.

And yes, I did have my usual Chinese meal abroad, this time at restaurant Hong Kong…delicious and very well priced.

Nightlife

This potentially will be your biggest spend. Club entries can be extortionate but drinks prices actually go beyond this. People are split on how to do this – if you love a certain DJ and want to see them in a certain place, then some advise booking in advance which means you’ll pay the full price. Ibiza spotlight has the season’s calendar for every club and DJ/artist varying from Calvin Harris, Chase and Status, So Solid Crew to Stormzy’s #MerkyFestival (which sold out before I knew I coming sadly). However we wanted to be flexible and find the best deals so this is what we did:

The only thing we bought in advance was our boat party with Oceanbeat. I bought it for £71 (booked through trip advisor) for the afternoon on the boat, welcome cocktail and cake, beer and/or sangria on tap, another huge cocktail, champagne showers, swimming time and plenty of dancing. Plus an after party and entry to a small club. They don’t tell you in advance which clubs it’ll be but it won’t be a main one so I would buy the club tickets for where you want to go in advance to avoid disappointment.

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In Ibiza, there are plenty of club reps who spend their days on the beach trying to sell you deals for club entries. Often they can save you money but make sure that you’ve done some research to compare prices, know what you want to do and understand their t&cs. We managed to get ourselves free happy hour drinks for 2 hours at one of their bars, entry into the Zoo project, entry into Amnesia to see the legendary DJ Carl Cox AND free entry into Heart for the price that it would’ve cost just to get into Amnesia (€70)!

The Zoo Project – held at an abandoned zoo on Sunday’s in Benimussa Park. Everyone dresses up as animals or mythical creatures, with plenty of glitter for completion. It’s a day rave which finishes at 11pm so no excuse to not enjoy it! You’ll find different stages with different music and dancing (some crowd involvement too) plus their drinks seemed to be the most reasonably priced on the island! If you return your cup to the recycling station, you were given back €1 which had everyone willing to recycle.

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Amnesia is one of the super clubs and it’s worth going to at least one when in Ibiza. Others include Ushuaïa, Pacha, Privilege and more. This is where you’ll see the best DJs and experience a night out like no other!

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If the idea of a super club isn’t appealing, then there are plenty of alternatives which are cheaper or even free. On our first night, we had drinks outside Mambo Beach on San Antonio strip. The best thing to do here is BYOB or buy cheaper (normal priced drinks really) from sellers outside and stand near enough the bars to enjoy the music.

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The San Antonio strip

Top tip for your night out…just avoid buying drinks when in the clubs! Enjoy it at dinner, in your hotel before you come out or on the strip. Water is also pricey but you have to stay hydrated somehow!

Ibiza in the day

This island has so much to offer in the day which can be missed if you’re constantly hungover! It’s worth trying to see a few things whilst you’re here:

Spend time at the beach! Playa D’en Bossa is one of the most popular beaches and with that comes crowds and numerous party sellers. It’s a great place to carry on the party but if you want some chill time, it’s worth going further afield. If you plan to a spend a couple of days at the beach, it’s worth buying an umbrella at the shops nearby to bring along as the beach clubs charge a lot for theirs.

We also visited Playa de Salinas (near the salt lakes) which was much less crowded, more scenic and I had the most interesting conversation with some of the beach sellers here. Plus you actually can get street food here such as tamales and empañadas along with cheap cocktails. The beach has plenty to explore and a nudist part if you fancy it.

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Playa D’en Bossa

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Playa de Salinas 1

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Playa de Salinas 2

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Playa de Salinas 3

Visit a hippy market – they happen at different parts of the island all week. I went to the Wednesday one Punta Arabí which celebrates its 45th birthday this year. It’s free entry and has many market stalls, entertainment, music and a dedicated kids area. A great place to get souvenirs and appreciate the local talent.

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Scenic walk to the market

Dalt Vila (Upper Town) is actually a World Heritage Site and a must visit. It’s in the Old Town and is a short steep walk up to the most incredible views of the island. This complex includes a few cafes, cathedral, museums and the prettiest side streets.

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Puerto de Ibiza (Ibiza Port) – where you can go and lust over yachts! It’s so scenic for a walk any time of the day but sunset is the best in my opinion. There are also plenty of places to eat and drink and shop nearby.

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Views of Dalt Vila from the port

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So that’s my 5 days in Ibiza in a nutshell. Ibiza spotlight is so useful to help you plan both the day and night activities! Also for buses, Ibiza bus can guide you on timetables and specific routes if you understand Spanish (although google maps will guide you to the bus stops without always telling you which number to catch). Finally my all time fave app triposo for offline maps. A small amount of Spanish will make your life easier when navigating buses and chatting to local sellers.

To summarise, the total money spent (return flights, accommodation, all food and drink, nights out, transport and souvenirs ) = £865. The full experience of Ibiza in peak season can be enjoyed with planning and smart spending. It really is a one of a kind island with something for everyone!  What are your thoughts on Ibiza? I’d love to hear below!

 

J Xo

 

 

Bienvenidos a Miami

Welcome to Miami!

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After a whirlwind 5 weeks in Central America and Mexico (all posts can be found here), I was excited to finally make it here. Ever since I heard Will Smith’s song, I had been keen to go and be bougie in Miami (although young Jess didn’t know of this term at the time!).

We travelled from Cancun on the 6th of May with American Airlines. Then I experienced my first American wonder with a lyft ride to our Airbnb  for $12 in a shared ride. We don’t have Lyft in the UK but my American cousins told me about it once so I decided to try it. I couldn’t believe the prices and I actually prefer it overall to Uber (hoping it comes to London one day!)

Our Airbnb was the cutest flat and we genuinely had the best host. It was important for us to cook some meals for variety and cost which you’ll appreciate here! My second American wonder was Target which I shopped at for the first time for groceries…again a London version would be great!

So this is what we got up to in our 6 days here:

Wynwood

The edgy and upcoming neighbourhood where we stayed. The buildings and pavements here are full of graffiti and there are so many cool places to eat, drink and enjoy art.

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“I am the work of art”

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“Together we’ll go further”

Wynwood Walls is a free modern art gallery right in the middle of Wynwood. Make sure you check out both buildings as well as the outdoor areas for the full experience.

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Arepa Bar – This restaurant do the tastiest burgers (mine had plantain in, I mean!) Check out their insta page for mouthwatering food pics!

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Beef burger with plantain and chips

Freshii – this is a great place for veggies/vegans and has fresh, healthy food. I had the detox juice with the baja burrito (quinoa, avocado) and Albert had teriyaki rice bowl. The periodic table of fruit and veg is quality!

Cielito – for the coolest ice cream in Wynwood. There’s plenty of scope (pun unintended) to mix and match to create your perfect ice cream.

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The unicorn!

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Wynwood Marketplace – this open area has food and drink on Thursdays – Sunday’s with market and food stalls in the day and finishes with the bar and dancing late into the night.

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Cayo Taco – they serve tacos which looked amazing but I was all taco’d out from Mexico the week before. However we came here for Murk Monday’s which is a free event. There’s a “secret” door through the restaurant which opens up into a cosy club. It was good fun with house music and live drummers!

Wood, Wynwood – lively bar with really good music. It seemed to be open most days, but was the livest on the weekend. It’s free to enter but you have to get in quick to avoid the huge queues.

Miami Beach 

Of course no visit to Miami is complete without its famous beach! The Miami Beach area is actually like its own island with connections to the mainland. The main attraction is its beautiful sandy white beaches but we also tried to see other parts of it too.

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On the beach, we saw many models doing their thing so I decided to create my own shoot!

Lincoln Road – a beautiful street to walk around full of shops and restaurants. Bonus being that it leads straight to the beach! Money saving tip: if you want to hire beach chairs and equipment then go to the beach in the afternoon as they have cheaper rates then.

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Collins Park – It’s a cute spot to sit in and people watch. It has these colourful rocks which I thought looked similar to the ones near Las Vegas!

The park also has statues of various important Latin American men and the story behind them (interestingly each statue had been gifted to Miami by a different Latin American country).

Finally you can visit The Bass here which is an art museum open Wed-Sunday’s (entrance fees apply).

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Jose Martí is a Cuban hero from the 19th century and if you ever visit Cuba, you’ll see so much has been dedicated to him

The Museum of Ice Cream was on whilst we were there so we paid it a visit! $38 pp for entry to various floors with different ice cream flavours and styles, testers and fun facts. A fun place to go if it pops up in your city!
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Bella Cuba – the first of a few different Cuban restaurants that we went to. We had a light lunch here of chicken empañadas, yuca fries, chicken noodle soup and sweet potato fries..no your mouth is watering! Really good prices and plesasant service.

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Tropical Cafe, South Beach. It is SO cheap and their Cuban sandwiches are very filling.

Caffé Di Mauro – a delicious Italian restaurant for those who want a varied food experience. A great place to come for a romantic or group dinner.

Mondrian South Beach Hotel – Come here for happy hour from 5-7pm. I had the love hate cocktail ($9) which has a good kick to it! Enjoy your drinks outside either on the sofas or hammocks for a great view of Miami during sunset. This hotel is fancy af so I felt my best bougie self here!

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Havana 1957 -this restaurant is on the corner of Española Way. We shared the special for $20: chicken, rice, beans, salad and plantain and it was the best meal we had in Miami, hands down!

True to its name, Española Way is a street full of Spanish and Latin American restaurants. Everything here gets really busy so eat at a quieter time of day for the best experience (e.g. late lunch or early dinner).

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Ocean Drive is in the South Beach area and another place you have to visit! The key is to find a rooftop bar during happy hour and people watch – we chose Voodoo Rooftop Lounge for this. You will not be ready for the wild vehicles that we saw being driven!

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Little Havana

This neighbourhood is Cuba in the 21st century. Many Cubans came to live here through the years and have brought their culture with them. Their famous street Calle Ocho (8th Street) has a Latin Hollywood star walk which leads you to the Dominoes Park. Here you will see old Cuban men playing dominoes and smoking cigars. There are also plenty of restaurants and bars to enjoy nearby.

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Old’s Havana – This is a busy restaurant in the area but the service copes well with it. We had the ham, chorizo and potato dish with rice and beans and salad. Plus a cafecito (baby coffee) on the side. Everything was delicious!

Azucar – the infamous ice cream shop with the most beautiful tiled floors. I had the Abuela Maria (guava and vanilla) flavour which is one of their top seller flavours.

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Ball and Chain – You should come here for the free live jazz if nothing else! They also have live salsa before 6pm. We had happy hour drinks here and the pastelito daiquiri was so good (and it came with a guava pastelito).

You may have noticed that I like the guava flavour! This all started when I visited Cuba so it was poetic to enjoy the flavours again in Little Havana.

Cuba Ocho – for salsa! It’s free to enter this bar and their rum and cokes are strong. Everyone else seemed to be a pro at salsa but it was fun to get involved!

Marlins Park – for a live Baseball game. We payed $13 each for front row seats (bought on Stubhub). It was a really cool experience and definitely worth a visit when in Miami!

Tip – It’s only a 20 minute walk from Little Havana so you can combine the two to save travel costs.

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Vizcaya House and Gardens – an old stately home with beautiful rooms and an even more impressive garden. It’s so scenic that people get married here. We saw a few engagement shoots, prom shoots and a potential wedding (the woman came out of the toilet in her white dress and women who appeared to be family members started crying!). It’s $18 per adult entry and is open everyday except Tuesdays.

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King of the House

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There is so much to see and do in Miami that it’s easy to get carried away! However here are a few more tips to make it affordable:

Get your money’s worth in your accommodation! If you have a friend who lives out there then lucky you! Otherwise Airbnb is ideal so you can cook a few meals and have drinks before nights out. If you’re travelling alone, check out hostels in Miami Beach to cut transport costs to the main areas!

Make use of the free trolley in Miami Beach. There are 3 lines to take you around either North Beach, Middle Beach or South Beach and they intersect at various stops.

Buses are okay if travelling short distances but aren’t that cheap or efficient if your route requires a change. So check and compare the cost with lyft as you can car share to make it cheaper.

HAPPY HOUR! Almost every bar and many restaurants offer it so it would be rude not to! Also keep an eye out online for the events happening during your stay.

You can take in so much culture and beauty just by walking the streets of Miami. Little Havana and Wynwood are great examples of places for this but also Little Haiti which we unfortunately didn’t have time to go to.

A final shoutout to Rose (Wonder Where I Wander) whose great piece on Miami helped me plan our trip!

I hope you enjoyed this post! Do let me know your thoughts/previous experiences in Miami or more in the comments below…

 

J Xo

 

 

 

 

Mexico part 2: Sun, Sea and Mayans

 

 

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Mayan handshake – also represents yin yang

Welcome to part 2 of my Mexico travels. Before you go any further, make sure you’ve caught up with part 1 and the Best of Central America Series too (from Costa Rica where this trip started in March, all the way up to Belize!)

So my month long G Adventures tour ended in Playa del Carmen (28th April ‘18) and I travelled to Cancun via taxi ($40USD) which took an hour. The local buses are cheaper of course but I was being boujee as my bag was heavy and we’d had too much fun at Coco Bongo last night! Cancun is well known for its spring break antics but luckily for us, the end of April is outside of this time. We had a week here and had booked 2 different accommodations as we couldn’t agree on one!

First we stayed at Casa Tortugas Boutique Hotel which is conveniently a 2 minute walk from the beach (Playa Tortugas). It is also 5 minute drive away to the start of the Hotel Zone (or a few minutes more by bus – just a minute walk to the stop – for 12 pesos one way and downtown Cancun is not too far in the opposite direction).

It has apartments within a hotel complex with an outdoor chill area and pool, overlooking the lagoon. The family who own it are so lovely and welcoming!

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Communal lounge area

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Sorry gals, only the parrot comes with the Hotel

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Overlooking the lagoon – you can’t swim in it as there are crocodiles! The hotel pool is lovely though.

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¡Salud!

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The lagoon at sunset

For the second half of our week, we stayed in Ocean Dream Hotel in the Hotel Zone. The main hotels and resorts are on this long stretch of road which begins with the clubs and restaurants in the centre and it seems to get more expensive the further you drive along! We were lucky to have a room facing the ocean and a private beach to enjoy! At night, you could see the lit up cruise ships slowly making their way across the ocean.

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Through the door to our balcony

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Incredible views from our balcony

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“Ghost ship” in the far distance

There is a lot to do in and around Cancun so here’s a summary of what we got up to:

Playa Tortugas – Turtle Beach. We visited this on day one as it was our closest beach to Casa Tortugas. It is more local than touristsy which I always enjoy. We were papped by a Mexican woman who wanted to show her son that she had met us…not quite sure who we were supposed to be though!

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Isla Mujeres – women’s island – as it was apparently once inhabitated just by women. The Mayans would send women here from Tulum to pray for 3 days every month (perhaps menstruation related?!). To visit this lovely island, you can take a ferry from a port site (Playa Tortugas had one) for $19 USD pp open day return. The morning ferry has entertainment on board with a saxophone player. They will offer to take your pic before you board…wait until you arrive at the island as a more scenic and free photo op awaits you.

The beaches on this island are so beautiful and quite peaceful relative to crowd numbers. You can also wander through the markets and explore the town on hired golf carts.

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Chichen Itza

One of the 7 new wonders of the World and the 2nd one that I had visited (the 1st being the incredible Machu Picchu in May ‘17). We went with Eknx tours ($75USD pp) which was arranged by Alex, the son of our host in Casa Tortugas.

Our first stop was a small town called Valladolid to visit the Mayan designed catholic church and have a stroll around.

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Then we visited a Mayan arts and crafts centre, had a demonstration of making tortillas and enjoyed a buffet lunch (included in our price).

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As you know from my previous blogs, Jamaica drink was my favourite. However tamarindo is delicious too and here I tried Chaya juice which was very refreshing

Next we made it to Chichen Itza and explored the ruins around it. Our tour guide for the day Rafael showed us around and explained the different ruins before letting us loose to wander. There are many market stalls inside the complex too which was a bit unexpected but far away enough to not spoil the views.

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Sacred Cenote – used for many human and material sacrifices

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The Observatory – designs all around the world have replicated it since

 

If you clap hard enough, it echoes around..the sound is incredible!

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Last stop of the tour was to another cenote for a much needed cool down swim. Cenotes were thought to be passages to the underworld so it was a bit surreal casually entering one. The water is deep inside so less confident swimmers and children should wear life jackets.

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We learnt so much on this tour about Mayan life. For example about Kukulkan (a word that some streets and roads were named after) which is a Mayan feathered snake deity. The Temple Kukulkan is the central temple of Chichen Itza (or El Castillo in Spanish). During spring and autumn equinoxes, the light falls on the temple in a certain way to cast a shadow which looks like a serpent going down it!                       We also learnt about various Mayan sacrifices to please Gods (including that of their best athletes who won competitive games), the original observatory and more.

Tulum

We booked a half day tour to visit the ruins here for $29 USD pp from mycancuntours.com. Tulum is just over a hour drive away from Cancun and the ruins are beautifully located next to the beach. The site is smaller than Chichen Itza so all can be seen in an hour maximum. The full day tours also include lunch, beach time and a visit to Playa del Carmen or another ruin site.

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Tulum was an extension of Chichen Itza and was connected to Isla Mujeres for the movement of goods and women. It was then abandoned when there was a drought for 80 years and the many sacrifices to the Gods didn’t work. Kudos to the Mayans for trying for so long!

We passed through the tequila factory on the way back for a demo on the tequila making process and some free tasters to end the day.

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Food and drink highlights:

To balance out our spending on tours etc, we cooked all breakfast and some of our other meals at our hotels or took snacks to the beach, getting cheap food and drink supplies from nearby supermarket Chendrai Selecto. For the rest of our time, I’ve summarised a few favourites below :

Chilis – American style food with quick service. My buffalo chicken burger was very tasty but any chicken dish is good (I did try everyone else’s too!)

Taco Factory – for chicken tacos and my favourite Jamaica drink. A very cheap lunch with a free refill of nachos for your starter.

Casa Tequila – this is a lovely fancy restaurant for dinner and tequila. Their nachos for starters are the best I had on my trip. I also had their pastor (pork) tacos and my favourite Spanish tipple sangria.

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Natura – they serve natural juices and delicious food with a whole lot of flavour. We shared the beef fajitas which were 100!

Mextreme – this is a lively restaurant and gets very busy so I recommend going for a slightly earlier dinner to get a seat quickly. We were given a free starter card outside so we claimed it for a shared platter and then for our mains, the shared taco party which had a variety of taco fillings. The restaurant has live music and pleasant waiters with very sturdy heads…you’ll see what I mean if you go!

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Our creme de la creme waiter Julius Caesar casually photobombing

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A taco party!

Golden Sea Chinese – because I have a little tradition of one Chinese meal wherever I go. Their food was delicious (spicy chicken my personal fave) plus the unexpected entertainment of drunk old Chinese people doing karaoke at their table!

Coco Bongo Cancun – from my last blog, you’ll know that I went to the Playa del Carmen one but I would’ve been a rude host to not show Albert this one. Unlimited drinks and the show plus dancing makes it oh so worth it!

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Carlos’ N Charlie’s – this restaurant/bar is one of the few bars which has free entry. Also their drinks prices are pretty good compared with others. We went on a Friday night which was Latin night so lots of salsa and tequila! We also came here for Cinco de Mayo which isn’t a celebration in Mexico really but the margaritas were tasty!

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Fat Tuesday’s Cancun – another place with free entry and usually has hip hop and RnB playing.

James – you get a beautiful view from the rooftop so it’s perfect for a date night. The view will cost you a bit though so dress for the occasion!

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Top tips for Mexico

Use Mexican pesos where possible as the exchange rate is excellent (especially for us Brits!) If you opt to pay in dollars which most places will accept, your change will be in pesos at a poor rate. My favourite was “buy this fridge magnet for $1USD or 10 pesos (whilst we were there, 1USD = 17 pesos roughly so you do the math). Some tourist tours will quote the prices in dollars only so then you can get your haggling hat on.

Enjoy a drink at your hotel/Airbnb before going out as drinks are quite pricey. A lot of clubs will have an entry fee with open bar for $40 USD and above a night (per person) but we opted for the free entry places instead. Coco Bongo is one place I would recommend paying for though for the whole experience…make sure you check for any discounts on their website (Monday’s are cheaper for example).

Use the local buses to travel around town – for only 12 pesos per person, it’s an absolute bargain compared with taxis (who will ask for tips too).  You can catch any bus to go along the Hotel Zone but to go downtown or elsewhere requires a bit of working out. Bonus is they run throughout the night too!

Be prepared to tip almost everybody – not just waiters (restaurants usually added it on anyways) but taxi drivers were also hinting strongly for this.

A little bit Spanish goes a long way. Even though most people can speak English well, I’m big on trying to communicate with the locals in their native tongue and they love the effort made, no matter how small.

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Thank you for reading my Mexico post and I hope it’s inspired you to visit. I definitely want to go again but next time to Mexico City…maybe in time for El Día de Los Muertos (huge day of the dead festival celebrated after Halloween)!

Any comments and feedback as always are welcome below.

 

J Xo

Best of Central America: 7. Mexico

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Mexico is a country that I have longed to visit for years and the one I was most looking forward to on the tour. I had a few days with my group and the rest of the time in Mexico was with Albert (see part 2).

From Caye Caulker, Belize (where we had spent the past few days), we took a ferry back to Belize City and then another chicken bus to the Belize/Mexico border. It cost $20USD to exit Belize and entry to Mexico was free. However if you are staying there for more than a week, you pay 533 Mexican pesos.

Mahahaul

We spent 2 days in this cute town which is a popular destination for cruise ships. We stayed in Koox Matan Ka’an Hotel which was pretty great. It’s close to the beach, very scenic and has a rooftop area for drinks and a swim overlooking the town.

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Now when you arrive here in the evening, it seems quiet and quaint. However the next day when we went to the beach and 3 cruise ships had stopped here for the day, the madness ensued. The beach is full of restaurants, bars and outdoor massage parlours with everyone trying to get your attention. It is hectic so it’s best to find a spot closer to the sea and escape for a swim or snorkel! We spent the day by El Fuerte restaurant’s beach as the loungers and umbrellas were free as long as you consumed something.

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The nightlife in Mahahaul doesn’t really exist as most things shut down once the cruise ships leave. So we entertained ourself with drinks on the roof of our hotel, overlooking the sea!

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The dream team

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Attempting the infinity pool look with my three new Norwegian sisters

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Our tour guide turned happy hour barman

Playa del Carmen

From Mahahual, the bus ride to Playa took a few hours. We stayed in another Koox hotel here – it looks tiny and unimpressive on the outside but the rooms which were studio apartments were the best we’d had on our tour!

It is a great place to visit the beach, cenotes or even a trip to Tulum or Cancun…this is covered in part 2.

For the best night out OF YOUR LIFE, you have to go to Coco Bongo. It costs $70USD which includes entrance, unlimited drinks all night and the show (we also had a reserved area for the night). I couldn’t do it justice trying to explain how amazing the whole experience.. trust me on this one and we can reminisce about it after you go!

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The balloons were also included..

Food and drink highlights:

El Mahatí during our pit stop in Chetumal. I had chilaquiles (nachos base with cheese, salsa, guacamole, beans, avocado +/-meat and egg) – something to try in Mexico for sure.

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Nohoch Kay Beach Club in Mahahaul – for divine shrimp tacos.

Camaroncito Caribeño in Mahahaul – here I had a huge chicken fajita which was filling and cheap (100pesos – just under £4).

Los Chilakiles in Playa del Carmen – for lunch I had tecanto chicken (you get to choose how spicy or not you want the salsa for each dish) and the next day for breakfast, Mexican style eggs. They serve delicious fresh juices too.

La Patrona De Playa (Playa del Carmen) – pastor tacos (pork with pineapple and salsa…something I hadn’t eaten before but fell in love with instantly). Again a must try in Mexico.

You’ll notice that the tacos are small and soft – this is how they’re done in Mexico. I asked about the hard shells but no one knew what I was talking about!

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And that marked the end of my month long travel with G adventures! I learnt so much about Central America and fell in love with the culture and energy the locals had. Plus I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to tour with!

Thank you so much for following my Best of Central America blog series. Keep an eye out for part 2 of my Mexico travels!

 

 

J Xo