Orlando… the theme park state

Orlando

As a child, a holiday to Orlando in Florida was always the dream location. After all, what child wouldn’t want to spend two weeks going from theme park to theme park and eating extreme quantities of food?

So as an adult you’d maybe think my desire to do such a trip would have dwindled somewhat. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

At the time of writing, I’ve travelled to Florida on five separate occasions – with the last two taking place without my parents.

And it was in these past two trips – when I had greater control on the itinerary – that I was able to see more of what Florida, as a whole, had to offer.

The history of Orlando itself – from a tourism point-of-view – is mainly linked to the the recent past.

The area grew rapidly from the 1960s into the first decade of the 21st century and is now one of the most-visited cities in the world; primarily due to tourism, major events, and convention traffic. During 2018 for example – and before the pandemic – the city drew more than 75 million visitors.

The two largest – and most internationally renowned – tourist attractions in the Orlando area are the Walt Disney World Resort, opened by the Walt Disney Company in 1971, and located about 21 miles (34km) south-west of downtown Orlando in Bay Lake, and the Universal Orlando Resort, opened in 1990 as a major expansion of Universal Studios Florida and the only theme park inside Orlando’s city limits.

That’s some of the stats, but what should you know about Orlando before packing your bags and heading to the Sunshine State?


Florida is home to some of the world’s best theme parks

Travelling to the United States from the UK is a fairly simple affair. Many things are the same (e.g. the language) which makes acclimatisation easy. However, there are still a number of areas that require some adaptation.

The first thing to note is the climate.

Orlando has a humid subtropical climate like much of the deep southern United States. The two basic seasons in Orlando are a hot and rainy season, lasting from May until late October (roughly coinciding with the Atlantic hurricane season), and a warm and dry season from November through April.

During the height of Orlando’s humid summer season, high temperatures are typically around 32–34°C, while low temperatures rarely fall below 22–24°C. The average window for 32°C temperatures is April 9 to October 14.

Overall, the area’s humidity acts as a buffer, usually preventing actual temperatures from exceeding 38°C, but also pushing the heat index to over 43°C.

Over the years – when I’ve travelled to Florida – it’s been in the timeframe of July to November and have regularly felt the top temperatures on offer. Thankfully, air conditioning is widely used so it’s easy to escape the humidity when required. Even during my one trip over a Christmas and New Year, the temperatures were still fairly warm and t-shirts and shorts were very much the clothing to wear to stay comfortable.

For those with fair skin (like myself) pack lots of sun lotion! You’ll need it to avoid getting burnt; especially if you plan to go to one of the water parks or spend time in a swimming pool or by the sea.

Aside from the sun, however, it’s worth remembering that Orlando is prone to some huge downpours of rain, often exacerbated with some quite spectacular thunderstorms. These downpours can leave you soaked through very quickly. Yet, with the humidity, they can feel quite nice and you’ll not spend long soaking wet as the warm air dries you pretty quickly.


A view of Orlando on Google Maps
A view of the state of Florida on Google Maps

The next thing to note is the currency.

As you’ll probably be aware, Orlando uses the American dollar. At the time of writing £1 got you around $1.20. This is a long way off the times – which I still fondly remember – when £1 got you closer to $2: happy days for a British traveller.

Currency is easy to come by and can be got at all bureau de change shops in the UK before leaving or from cash points in the States. Make sure you also pack a credit card with you as American hotels, car rentals, shops, bars and restaurants rely heavily on their use.

A final thing to remember when it comes to money in the United States is that tipping is a must!

Perhaps more-so compared to other countries, tipping is expected in the US at pretty much every turn. Aside from the restaurants where you would expect to leave a tip (especially given the low-pay staff get) tips are regularly given to taxi drivers, hotel staff, bar staff and pretty much any person who helps you in one way or another.

You occasionally hear of horror-stories where tourists leave a restaurant without leaving a tip, only for the staff to come chasing them down outside and demand they pay one. While this has never happened to me or anyone I’ve been with, it does happen but is easily avoided.

Another thing to consider is the power points within America to ensure your devices stay charged up.

For the USA there are two associated plug types; types A and B. Plug type A is the plug which has two flat parallel pins and plug type B is the plug which has two flat parallel pins and a grounding pin. USA operates on a 120V supply voltage and 60Hz.

A final thing to note is around crime. While most trips to Florida will go by without a concern, crime can be an issue given the large number of tourists the state welcomes each year.

With many people carrying significant amounts of cash with them, pickpocketing and more serious crime is a possibility. It’s therefore important to remain vigilant and to keep your possessions where you can see them when out and about. Basically, if you are sensible then chances are you’ll be fine and I’ve personally never experienced any issues in Florida during any of my trips.

With all that in mind, it’s now time to go and make the most of what Orlando and Florida have on offer.


Getting there

Clearly to get to the United States from the UK – and indeed most of the world – you’ll need to fly. From the UK, the flight time is quite long; averaging between nine and nine and a half hours depending on wind direction. Before boarding, therefore, make sure you pack lots of things to keep you entertained as part of your hand luggage.

Saying that, given this is a trans-Atlantic flight, you’ll most likely get at least two meals served to you and have a wide variety of films, television shows and music to choose from no matter who you fly with.

Most flights to Orlando will arrive in one of the two main airports servicing the city; Orlando International Airport (MCO) – located just to the south of the city centre – or Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB) – which is located further north of the city.

While I have once flown into Sanford, the majority of my visits to Florida have seen me arrive at Orlando International Airport as one of the 40 million passengers passing through the airport’s gates each year.

Leaving from London – you’ll likely leave from London Heathrow (although there are seasonal flights from London Gatwick) – while there are also flights available from Manchester and seasonal flights from Belfast International and Edinburgh.

There are two main flight providers from the UK to Florida. The first is British Airways and the second – and my preferred choice – is Virgin Atlantic.

From my experience, the service you get on a Virgin flight is superior to British Airways for this route and their are plenty of options onboard to keep you entertained during the trip.

If you were to book flights alone for a trip in October, then you can expect to see return prices around the £600 – £700 mark per adult which isn’t too bad.

However, I’ve always done flights as part of a larger package and, for this, I’ve used Virgin Holidays for my past two trips.

By doing it this way, I’ve combined the flights with the costs for accommodation, car hire and 14-day tickets to all the theme parks and waterparks (minus the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens parks). It may not be the cheapest way to do the trip but it makes life easier as everything is organised in one place.

While I no longer have the prices that I paid on my last trip, I’ve done a search for a two week, mid-October to early November vacation staying at the Avanti International Resort (see where to stay section below) with an economy car and 14-day passes for all the Disney parks and Universal Studio parks. This came to a price of £5,655.71 for two adults (or £2,827.86 per adult) with £1,400 needing to be paid upfront to secure the booking.

It’s a lot of money – especially given you’ll also need to book tickets for SeaWorld and Busch Gardens separately – and there may be ways to do it that work out cheaper – but for ease, this really is a great way to get yourself Florida-ready.


Tickets like this can be purchased as part of a package deal and are used to gain entry to the parks for consecutive periods once first used. This ticket was for Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and entry to that year’s Halloween Horror Nights

Where to stay

The array of accommodation options in the Orlando area is immense!

Some families may opt to splash out on a Disney hotel and be on top of all the action, while others may also fork out for their own private villa in one of the more residential areas of the region.

In the past, I’ve been in both of these options and they can be exceptionally good in their own way. However, for those who are looking to try and keep costs a little lower where they can, there are some perfectly good mid-range to cheaper accommodation options on offer also.

The first of these I’ll mention is the Avanti International Resort (which I believe at the time I stayed there was branded under a different company and known as the Econo Lodge).

The motel-like resort offers spacious rooms and easy-access to parking. Located just off International Drive, this was the first place I stayed in Florida having booked and organised the trip myself.

As previously alluded to, this booking came part of a package with Virgin Holidays and suited our needs while we were in the area.

While the decor at the time was extremely dated, I’m led to believe, from the pictures I’ve seen, that since the establishment has changed hands and brands, the rooms are much more vibrant in colour and style.

The resort is four blocks of accommodation which surround a communal swimming pool; a great place to cool off after a busy day out and about.

While there was no breakfast on offer at the accommodation when I was there, being in the heart of International Drive, there are plenty of nearby restaurants and snack places to try out.

It’s also conveniently located for all the main theme parks and is especially close to the SeaWorld and Aquatica parks.

A really good option, if offered, as part of a package.


A standard room – as it was at the time – at the Econo Lodge; now been upgraded and known as Avanti International Resort

If a motel doesn’t float your boat then slightly more up-market, yet affordable option was the hotel complex I stayed in during my trip in 2015; the B Resort and Spa.

The towering hotel is situated near Lake Buena Vista on the edge of the Disney complex and is walkable for the Downtown Disney area.

The high-rise hotel is a clean and sauvé looking affair and its staff are friendly and attentive to your needs.

Inside the main reception hall there are plentiful seats to relax as well as a connection to the adjoined restaurant which serves plenty of food at breakfast time.

The focal point of the hotel is the exterior lift which takes guests to their desired floor while giving them an ever-increasing view of the area.

The rooms are large and tidy. Each comes with its own TV and wi-fi connections and has a stocked mini-bar (although you’ll have to pay for any items you consume).

If you get a room on one of the top floors, you’ll also be afforded great views out each morning as you set about planning your day.

As with most hotels in Orlando, there are plenty of parking spaces available for guests and the hotel is also well air-conditioned.

Again this hotel was booked as part of a Virgin Holiday’s package – although I do remember we were originally booked into a different hotel (whose name I cannot remember) but were swapped into this one shortly before we departed.

As with all hotels, you can book these yourself but costs are likely to differ to those achieved through a package.

A last thing to note is that the vast majority of hotels in Orlando will charge you a room tax fee that is payable at the time of the stay. This is often a set amount per day, per room and for my last stay equated to $12 a day which, multiplied by 14, is a hefty fee to cover ($168 total). Don’t be surprised when you’re asked for this and budget it in to your holiday expenses before heading out.


Night time view of the B Resort and Spa lit up
Inside a standard room at the B Resort and Spa
Looking up at the B Resort and Spa from the car park
View out of the hotel room window

Getting around

For me, there is really only one way to get around in Florida; and that’s to hire a car.

This can be made simple if you organise your car hire as part of a package or you can search around and see if you can find a better deal from one of the other car hire firms (there are plenty to choose from at Orlando International Airport.

To give you an idea, from a quick search I did, if you were to book a standard car in advance of arrival in Orlando, for a two week duration, you’ll be looking at around £720. However, this may increase if certain insurances are not included.

Make sure, when you book your car, you do include the insurance. I got caught out on this in the past – when I first travelled on my own to Orlando – when I thought that I’d got a great deal on my car hire.

At the time I’d left out the ‘optional insurance option’, but all this meant was that I was delaying when I had to pay it. The option seemed to be that either I pay the extra insurance (above the basic cover I had taken out) or I don’t get the car! When you’re stood in the airport car hire office and this is your option, you pretty much have to do as they say.

Also make sure you have a suitable credit card with you (as they’ll take a deposit from it when you take a car out) and your driving licence. Without these, you’ll not be getting anywhere near a vehicle.

That aside, having a car in Florida really gives you freedom to explore the wider state and visit places on your own timescales. It saves waiting for shuttle-buses to the various parks and means you can get to places to eat and drink that are away from your accommodation.

I also found that the few times I walked out of the hotel grounds to go to a local restaurant or bar that the local people in Florida really didn’t expect to see pedestrians. Even for a short walk across the road, I’d find taxi horns beeping at me asking if I needed a lift somewhere! Guessing this is because I was staying in the heart of the touristy part of Orlando and that taxis saw an easy fare option.

It has always amazed me that you can go to other countries and just by spending a bit of money and showing your UK driving licence, you can take a car out on their roads; often with minimal idea of the local laws. So with that in mind, there are a few basic things to remember when driving in Florida.

The first – and most obvious – thing is that they drive on the right-hand side of the road in the US. While this may feel slightly weird for a UK driver on their first trip to the States, you get use to it pretty quickly and join the flow of traffic.

The second thing to remember is that the roads around Florida are huge with multiple lanes. One of the biggest that most visitors will experience is the Interstate 4 (shortened to I-4) which runs all the way down to Tampa. Keep your car to the right lane while you’re getting used to things (although keep an eye on cars joining the road from that side) and slowly build up your confidence.

Also to note is that your vehicle headlights must be on all the time from dusk to dawn and when it’s raining and foggy.

All front seat occupants must use a seat belt even if your vehicle has an air bag. Also, it’s illegal to drive in Florida if any occupant under the age of 18 is not wearing a seat belt.

Keep in mind that some interstate highways have tolls in Florida. This includes Alligator Alley, Bee Line Expressway, and the Florida Turnpike.

The cost of tolls depends on the section of the toll-road you’re using and your destination. The Florida Department of Transportation prices tolls by miles and the number of vehicle axles. As you drive, you will see the toll amount and the next toll booth that you can use to pay tolls.


While this car may look a little like a hearse, it was a decent and easy automatic car to drive around the large road networks

You can pay with cash at manned booths and get change. At unmanned booths, you’ll need the exact toll amount. However, some areas don’t accept cash.

On one of my trips I had the issue of accidently going down a toll-road shortly after arriving in the country and didn’t have the correct change on me for an unmanned toll-booth. I had to go through the toll (setting off all the cameras) twice to get back to the road I needed to be on. As I left the toll for the second time I also had to take a small envelope from the booth that gave instructions as to how I needed to pay my fare. This resulted in me – for a couple of days – looking for somewhere locally to pay what I owed. In the end I had to do it in a seven-eleven convenience store.

This was a number of years ago now, so the rules around this type of thing may have changed and been updated to allow fares to be paid online. Ideally, just always have the right money on you.

Also it’s OK to turn right at traffic lights even when they are on red so long as the road is clear. If you’re at the front of the queue in this scenario and not moving then the locals will start honking their horns at you which may be confusing if the light is red and you don’t know the rule.

Final thing to remember is that if you are using your car to go from theme park to theme park then you’ll have to pay for parking at each park, every day (unless you get a ticket option where this is paid in advance). Note that parking in the parks is not cheap and you’ll be spending a fair few dollars (think it was around $25 per park when I was last in Orlando, so is likely to be more now) just for the joy of getting to the park in the first place.


Car parked in the car park of the B Resort and Spa

Top sites

The first thing you think of when you think of Orlando is, of course, the theme parks.

As previously mentioned, I’d suggest getting your tickets for the parks as part of a package, but if you’d rather shop around one source that is good to use is Floridatix.

On this website there are ticket options for all the major parks in Orlando and Tampa and, depending on the deal you are offered with Virgin Holidays, you may find that this is a more cost-effective way to book your park tickets.

Just by adding the unlimited 14-day entry to all the Disney parks, the three Universal parks, SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens I got a price of £953 per adult.

No matter what way you choose to get your tickets, the one message I’d urge is to definitely buy them before leaving the UK. If you pay for park tickets on the door of each park as you go to them, you’ll end up paying a lot more money in the long run.

The focal point of any theme park orientated Orlando trip is to the six Walt Disney World Resort parks.

The iconic one of these is also the more child-friendly park; Magic Kingdom.

The park is split across six lands; Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Main Street USA and Tomorrowland.

Kids will enjoy meeting the various Disney stars that are spread throughout the park while also embarking on rides including a whimsical boat trip past a jubilant chorus of children from around the globe in It’s a Small World or firing lasers to earn points and defeat the evil Emperor Zurg as they journey through a galactic space battle in Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin.

Adults are well catered for too, with a number of thrill rides including a rip-roaring rocket into the furthest reaches of outer space on Space Mountain or racing through a haunted gold mine aboard a speeding train on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

There are countless other rides to experience also and I’d give a special mention of the park’s lesser known ride The Carousel of Progress which is a quaint and sedate look at Walk Disney’s view of life in America in the past and how he thought we’d all be living in the 21st Century.

The next Disney Park to explore is Disney Hollywood Studios – formally known as MGM Studios.

The two must-try rides here are right next to each other. The first is the terrifying, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Enter the rickety, elevator-style lift, strap yourself in and prepare to discover what lies beyond the darkest corner of your imagination. 

The other must-see is the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith where you race along the darkened freeways of Los Angeles in a super-stretch limo.

Also make sure you spend time exploring the new land called Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge; a themed area inspired by the Star Wars franchise.

Perhaps the park that is often the older generation’s favourite is that of Epcot.

Split into two parts the main ride section is home to some superb additions to Disney’s repertoire.

Here you’ll find Mission: SPACE – a thrilling simulated NASA-style mission to Mars – and Test Track – where you design a virtual concept car and put it to the test on this thrilling, high-octane attraction.

Take the time also to try The Seas with Nemo & Friends and to explore the famous ball at the front of the park that is home to the inspirational ride; Spaceship Earth.

While all of these rides are musts on the agenda, the first ride that anyone visiting must head straight for is Soarin’ Around the World.

This breezy, airborne adventure gives you the feeling of hang-gliding above the breath-taking wonders of the world but to experience it, you need to get to it as the park opens. Everyone heads straight for this ride and queue times quickly get above two hours in peak times. It’s also not the quickest of rides for the staff to get people seated so head straight here on arrival.

Away from the rides you can then take a walk around the World Showcase.

The World Showcase is the park’s largest neighbourhood, reminiscent of a permanent world’s fair dedicated to represent the culture, cuisine, architecture, and traditions of 11 nations. The nation pavilions surround the World Showcase Lagoon, a man-made lake located in the centre.

During my last visit here, they were also doing a special food-fair; with stands set in each of the 11 nations providing tasty treats to eat and drink.

The final main Disney park to explore is Animal Kingdom.

The newest of the four main parks is home to a number of Disney’s best rides including Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, Dinosaur and the Kali River Rapids.

Showcasing some of the world’s most beautiful real-life animals, this park also dips into the the fantastical with its recently opened Avatar-inspired land where you can ride the highly exciting Avatar Flight of Passage.

On top of these four theme parks, there are also two Disney water parks; Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.

These two water parks are great fun and offer loads of slides and rides for thrill-seekers as well as relaxed areas for those who wish to sunbathe.

At Typhoon Lagoon, test your nerves on the massive Humunga Kowabunga slide or race your friends and family down the Storm Slides.

There is also an opportunity to swim with some real life sea animals here in the park’s Shark Reef.

Considered one of the most unique attractions at any Disney park, Shark Reef provides guests a five to ten minute snorkel across a manmade lagoon brimming with rays, small sharks, and tropical fish.

At Blizzard Beach you’ll need to have nerves of steel to take on the near-vertical drop of Summit Plummet.

Plunging 12 stories almost straight down, you’ll rocket through a darkened tunnel and into a massive spray of white-water after a 360-foot-long, high-speed descent.

Afterwards, make time for the Snow Stormers, Slush Gusher and Teamboat Springs to bring your time with Disney to a perfect close.


The famous Disney castle at Magic Kingdom
Do you dare ride the Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios
Epcot has a great deal more to offer – especially for the older visitors
Taking a ride of Expedition Everest is a must at Animal Kingdom
Taking a ride of the Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress
There are lots of child-friendly rides to experience at Disney’s Magic Kingdom
Getting ready for Disney Typhoon Lagoon

Not everything in Florida needs to be Disney-centric however, and no trip to Orlando is complete without a visit to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.

These two theme parks provide a more adult experience than the Disney parks. Movie buffs – particularly in the older Universal Studios – will enjoy the opportunity to be a part of some classic films and take in a show with their favourite characters. It’s a living cinematic experience.

The rides are pretty incredible too. Kids will love taking a magical bike ride with ET as he escapes the group of scientists looking to study him before helping everyone’s favourite extra-terrestrial get back to his home planet. After that who wouldn’t want to join Will Smith and his Men in Black team as you shoot your way through the streets following a massive alien attack. It’s such good fun! As a hint – even though they tell you not to hit the red button in the car in front of you, make sure you do at the end for a massive score bonus!

Sadly, Universal Studios has said goodbye to classic rides like Back to the Future (a simulator where you would chase Biff in a bid to save the future) and Jaws (a calm boat ride around Amity Island until a certain shark reared its ugly head). They have replaced them with the enjoyable Simpsons simulator and Diagon Alley; as part of the park’s huge Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansions. More on that in a bit.

The one thing Universal Studios used to be short on was roller coasters. This issue was addressed back in 2009 with the opening of the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – a 51m, 65mph X-Coaster that lets riders pick their own personal music to listen to while being spun, dropped and flung in all directions.

The flagship part of the Universal complex now is their impressive homage to Harry Potter and all things Hogwarts

Now, while I’m personally not a fan of the Harry Potter books (yes, I’m a muggle) nor a fan of the films, even I was amazed by how the park transports you into this wizarding world.

They have also come up with the ingenious method of transporting guests from one park to the other using one of their newer rides; The Hogswarts Express!

The Hogwarts Express is located just outside of Diagon Alley at Universal Studios and at the entrance of Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure.

Suitable for all ages, The Hogswarts Express is where you simply board a train and take a journey as though you’re travelling to Hogwarts itself. The journey lasts around seven minutes, and families are able to sit together in a cartridge and enjoy the cinematic action taking place through the train window (which is really a very clever TV screen).

Once you exit the train you suddenly find yourself in the opposite park to the one you started in. Fantastic!

That brings me on quite nicely to Islands of Adventure. This is a park geared more at the thrill-seekers.

Again, here, there are a wide range of Harry Potter-inspired rides including the fantastic Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, but there also areas of the park dedicated to other film genres, styles and fun gimmicks.

Some of my favourite parts are near the entrance to Islands of Adventure. Here you’ll find the Marvel Comics-inspired area (again I’m actually not a fan of the Marvel films – hope I’m not alienating too many of you with these remarks).

Top of any riders agenda should be The Incredible Hulk – a zero to 40mph in two seconds thrill ride – and the scary Doctor Doom’s Fearfall which throws riders about 50m into the air before dropping them back to the ground.

Also, don’t miss the amazing water rides in Toon Lagoon including the Popeye rapids ride where it is physically impossible to stay dry and the super-speedy Dudley Do-Right Ripsaw Falls.

While still dripping wet, take a step back 50 million years or so into Jurassic Park and try to avoid the hordes of Velociraptors and the menacing T-Rex as you escape, by boat, from the dinosaur-infested park.

Since my last visit, they have also opened a new section – back in 2016 – entitled Skull Island; a King Kong-inspired land. I’m personally looking forward to trying this area’s sole attraction, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, during my next trip to the park in the future.

Now the scary bit. The ticket prices.

If you buy the tickets on the door it will cost you a small fortune. Nobody does this. You can buy, at the time of writing, a three-park explorer ticket – valid for 14 consecutive days from the first time it’s activated – that gives you access to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – as well as Universal’s Volcano Bay waterpark – for £275 per adult.

However, I’d advise shopping around for better deals when you are looking at booking or by doing it as part of the previously mentioned package.


A view up at the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket at Universal Studios; a ride where you can choose your own music to listen to
Harry Potter themed attractions are now scattered over both parks
Dr Doom’s Fearfall at Universal’s Islands of Adventure
Kids (and adults) who love Marvel will adore the Marvel Super Hero Island in Islands of Adventure
There are quite a few rides in Islands of Adventure that will get you totally soaked
Even non-Harry Potter fans will be impressed with how the parks have laid out The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Keeping an eye open for that stray T-Rex while braving the huge drop on Island of Adventures’ Jurassic Park River Adventure

It’s worth point out also that if you visit Universal Studios around Halloween time each year then you should stick around for the infamous Halloween Horror Nights evening events.

These thrilling spectacles see Universal Studios transformed into full-on horror films, full of ghosts and ghouls and everyone’s favourite movie serials killers. For those brave enough, you also get the chance to step inside the numerous horror houses set-up that bring some of the scariest films and TV shows to life.

The Halloween Horror Nights alone are well worth a trip to Florida in October / November time.

During my trip in 2015, there were houses dedicated to The Walking Dead, Freddy Vs. Jason, An American Werewolf in London and The Purge (as well as others).

Queuing for entry to each house, scares are around each corner and I found myself jumping and screaming my way around the attractions as the actors jump out on me from the least expected places.

Run every year – and with a different selection of films inspiring the attractions – these Halloween Horror Nights are never the same and make even the toughest of people curl into a ball or run for the exit.


Universal Studios Halloween Horror Night 25 signage from my visit a few years ago
Hoards of zombies on the streets of Universal Studios make it a very different place after dark
The actors really get into their roles on a Halloween Horror Night
The atmosphere of the park changes when the light starts to dim and the fog comes in

The next two parks are often bundled with tickets to Tampa Bay’s Busch Gardens but are both situated in Orlando. These are SeaWorld and the Aquatica water park.

It’s worth noting that SeaWorld has been subject to some rather damning headlines in recent years due to the sea animals they have in captivity. This alone may put some off spending their time and money here (understandably) but for those who do still choose to go will be entertained by some really spectacular theme park rides.

Once upon a time, SeaWorld was rather short on rides, but this is no longer the case.

It’s newest edition – Mako which opened in 2016 – is also Orlando’s tallest, fastest, longest and only hypercoaster.

Reaching a height of 200 feet (61m), a maximum speed of 73mph (117km/h), and features a track length of 1,450m (4,760 feet) this ride will be an exhilarating experience for all riders.

There are also other rides to try including the floorless Kraken rollercoaster, the free-flying Manta rollercoaster and the part rollercoaster, part water ride Journey to Atlantis.

Children will enjoy seeing the animals and can get close to penguins in Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin and beluga whales in the Wild Arctic.

Similarly to both Disney and Universal, SeaWorld also has it’s own water park and for me, the best one in Orlando.

Aquatica, has loads of water slides to try including the drop tower Inhu’s Breakaway Falls, the Taumata Racers and the newly opened Reef Plunge.

I spent hours here running backwards and forwards between rides as well as taking a drift around the park’s lazy river.

A water park not to be missed!


The SeaWorld Lighthouse welcomes guests to the park
Manta is a thrilling ride at SeaWorld
A sea lion sunning itself in on of the parks enclosures
Guests can pay to feed some of the animals including dolphins

While Orlando is home to the vast majority of the visitor attractions, no trip to the Sunshine State would be complete without making the drive across the I4 to Tampa on the west coast of Florida for a day out at Busch Gardens.

The park is owned and operated by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment and welcomes over 4 million guests through its gates every year.

The park has many high-octane roller coasters and thrill rides. Chief amongst these is the formidable SheiKra; the first Dive Coaster in North America. There is also Tigris, the tallest launch coaster in Florida and Montu, which was the tallest and fastest inverted roller coaster in the world at the time of opening. Special mention should also be made to Kumba that features a total of seven inversions across the three-minute ride.

Situated throughout the park there are also many other rides to enjoy including the incredible drop rides like Falcon’s Fury which currently stands as the tallest free-standing drop tower in North America. This huge ride reaches a maximum height of 335 feet (102m) and then drops riders – face down – for five seconds of scream-filled free fall; reaching speeds of 60mph.

Despite all these amazing rides, the main focus of the park these days is Cheetah Hunt which opened back in 2011.

This ride aims to give thrill-seekers the experience of being a cheetah as it chases down its prey. One of it’s key features is the multiple launches it operates during the course of the ride – three in total. The first launch takes riders out of the station from zero to 30mph in 1.8 seconds. Later on, there is a second – and faster – launch which takes riders to 60mph in 2.4 seconds while a third a final launch takes riders to 40mph in 2.1 seconds.

With a host of dips, dives and long straights running almost the length of the park itself, Cheetah Hunt offers something slightly different for all roller coaster fans.

It’s worth remembering that Busch Gardens is more than just a theme park. It is also a working zoo which is home to many different species of animals that you can see during a visit.

Animals remain a key feature for Busch Gardens, with the different sections of the park being themed after different parts of the world.

Rides also make full use of the animals’ habitats, showcasing them to the guests. Rides like Rhino Rally – a safari-themed attraction – and the relaxing train ride that takes you around the full circumference of the park give visitors a break from the adrenaline-fuelled thrill rides on offer.

Like all parks in Florida, tickets can – and should – be purchased online before you travel as part of a package.

Busch Gardens tickets often are linked to Adventure Island waterpark in Tampa and Aquatica waterpark and Seaworld Orlando. To purchase a 14 consecutive day unlimited ticket for all of these parks you’re looking at approximately $199.99 per adult (about £150).

While it’s a lot of money to pay out per person, each park on their own makes for a series of entertaining days out during a Florida holiday.


I’ll be honest, I’m still yet to brave Falcon’s Fury at Busch Gardens
Busch Gardens in Tampa offers a wonderful mix of beautiful wildlife and exhilarating theme park rides
Cheetah Hunt is one of my favourite rides at Busch Gardens

Away from theme parks and on to sport.

I’ll be honest, I was never a huge fan of the NFL. It always felt like the games were far too stop/start and I found it hard to understand how a sport that technically lasts for one hour could go on for over three and still be entertaining.

Yet, I also wanted to get the experience of American sport live and the closest team to Orlando that were playing at home during my trip was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – an hour and 10 minute drive west from Orlando down the I-4.

Playing out of the Raymond James Stadium – situated on the North Dale Mabry Highway in north-west Tampa – Tampa Bay Buccaneers can welcome over 65,500 fans to their games if full to capacity.

At the time I saw them play (in 2015) – in a game versus ‘local’ rivals Jacksonville Jaguars – the Bucs were not a real contender for the end-of-season Super Bowl Championship match.

Yet since then – and following the recruitment of superstar quarterback Tom Brady – Tampa Bay have added a second-ever Super Bowl win to their names following victory in the 2020 final when they beat the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9.

Games are divided into four, 15-minute quarters and while there are a fair few stops between plays, you don’t really find yourself noticing as there is always something going on; be it the cheerleaders doing a routine or the pirate ship to one side of the stadium distributing merchandise.

The rules, for a first-time fan, can appear confusing and I found that trying to work out what they were by reading about them ahead of the game just made it seem more impenetrable.

My advice is to not get hooked up on trying to understand every rule. Often, the rules become more apparent and understandable just by seeing the game in play. Nothing beats live examples.

Also, arrive nice and early and purchase a parking space in advance. Before my trip – and via the Tampa Bay Buccaneers website – I purchased my match ticket (now priced at a minimum of $110 per adult ticket or £91 – although prices increase considerably for better seats) and parking (around $30 per car or £25) at the same time.

I found tickets easy to get on the website, but I suspect this will depend greatly on the match.

Around the surrounding area, there are a number of fields where the club uses as parking lots. On a game day, fans tend to arrive early and set up BBQs out of the back of their cars. You may have heard it referred to as tailgate parties and this forms a big part of the NFL experience.

Arriving in our parking lot, there were loads of cars with huge gazebos and BBQs in full swing; it’s quite a sight to see.

Once we were ready, we made our way to the stadium by following the crowds. One thing to not do is to take any bags with you that are not transparent. You won’t be allowed in with them. Only clear bags are allowed for security reasons and also expect to be frisked before entry.

That said, the atmosphere inside the stadium was very friendly. Fans from both sides mixed happily together and made for a great first-time NFL experience.

Before finding our seats, we made sure we grabbed some Tampa Bay merchandise from one of the outlets around the ground and got some food and drink inside. Unlike football matches in the UK, you can grab some beers in the stadium and take them to enjoy at your seat.

As I didn’t know how much we’d enjoy the game, I didn’t want to buy the best seats in the house and so opted for the most affordable. And while we were up at one of the highest points it gave us a superb view of the match.

One thing I found quite surprising being a football (or soccer as it is in the US) fan, was that a lot of fans didn’t even bother to take their seats for the first quarter. Perhaps this is one of the downsides of the sport. What happens early on in the game doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the final outcome.

That said, I wanted to see the whole spectacle so stayed from the first kick all the way to the last.

Finding myself getting into the game a lot more than I ever expected to (helped by the fact that Tampa Bay won the match) I have since watched NFL games when they come to London and would look for tickets the next time I’m in Florida.

You don’t need to be a huge sporting fan to appreciate the game. The spectacle itself is worth the entrance fee and you may find yourself a long-distance fan after attending. Bucs Nation!


A view in a packed out Raymond James Stadium ahead of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game
Outside the stadium with the mast of the club’s famous pirate ship sticking above a stand
It’s always fun to grab some merchandise while at an NFL game
Fans from both teams mix and the atmosphere in my experience was very friendly
Once inside the stadium and in the concourse area, you can get a great array of American sporting food favourites

My final pick is a slightly slower paced one but also unique for Florida; snorkelling with manatees followed by scuba diving with the American Pro Diving Centre.

There’s only one place in North America where you legally swim with manatees, and that’s in the Crystal River area— located about 90 minutes north of Tampa, on the west coast of Florida. The headwaters of Crystal River are known as Kings Bay, where the water temperature is a consistent 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year-round.

This was an extremely early start to the day as manatee snorkel tours (you’re not allowed to scuba dive with the manatees as they don’t like the bubbles the tanks make) start at 7am, 8:30am or 11am. Wanting to hit the first tour of the day, we set off at around 5am from Orlando in the pitch black and headed across state.

After arriving in the car park early, at the front of the dive centre’s reception, we waited for someone to arrive to open up. Soon enough American Pro Diving Centre employees arrived and took us inside for our briefing and to kit us out with all the equipment we’d need.

At the time of writing, the manatee tours cost $68 per adult or you can pay for a combination of both the manatee tours and Crystal River scuba diving tour for $99.50 per adult with additional costs for equipment hire.

The manatee tour gets you up close and personal with these curious and playful manatees (although the dive centre does warn that the number of manatees you’ll get to see will vary depending on how lucky you are).

But when you do find them, these wonderful, gentle animals can come up to the surface for a friendly petting and an occasional belly rub.

After leaving the dive shop, we were taken by mini-bus to the entrance of the river where we boarded a small boat. Once everyone was onboard, we set off looking for manatees.

Soon enough we found one swimming on its own and carefully, one-by-one, we made our way into the water. The manatee was shy at first as he suddenly found himself surrounded by people. You are instructed to let the manatee approach you rather than trying to approach it. This way you won’t frighten it off.

The water is also full of vegetation that the manatees love to eat so after learning we were not a threat, this gentle creature came up to get some food and in doing so allowed us to pet it. A truly magical experience.

Back on the boat, and to top off our manatee tour, we then made our way to a different site where those of us with scuba diving qualifications got to dive down into a small underwater cavern. Diving down about 9m in open water you make your way to the entrance of the cavern. An abundance of fish hang outside the Kings Spring cavern where the divers proceed on the adventure with the dive master into the cavern – flash lights in hand and to a maximum depth of 15m – to see snappers, crabs and fossils.

The dive takes around 30 to 40 minutes and after passing through the cavern we made our way safely back to the surface, boarding the boat before being taken back to the dive shop to collect our belongings and head back to Orlando with many happy memories of our time at Crystal River.


In the water and waiting to go snorkelling
This is the only place in North America where you are legally allowed to get in the water with manatees like this one
Getting read to go diving
The sun rising over the water ahead of an early start
Boats have to travel slowly to avoid hurting the manatee
Not a clear shot, buy taken while diving inside a cave and heading up to the opening shown by the light in the top corner of the picture

Where to avoid

As with many states in America, there is the possibility of being the victim of crime – both petty and violent. This isn’t to say that it is likely to happen but instances against tourists do occur.

I remember arriving in Florida on my first trip without going with my parents. After collecting my car from the airport I pulled over in a car park not far from the airport in order to get my bearings before heading to my accomodation.

It was late at night there was only one other car in this car park; a large hummer with blacked-out windows.

Now it could be me being paranoid and it could be from watching too many TV shows, but when a big car appears to wait for you to pull over in the car park, then start slowly driving towards you with its lights off, I fear the worst.

I quickly turned my own car back on and headed out of the car park hoping that would be the end of whatever could be about to happen. Fortunately it was, and the other car pulled over again into a different space as I drove off.

My lesson from this was to be aware of the neighbourhoods you are in and – like you would in any new place – find out which places are less salubrious and are not visited by most tourists; and then avoid them.

It’s worth noting that Orlando has a violent crime (murder, rape, robbery, assault) rate of 8.28 per 1,000 residents. This is higher than the national average for violent crimes.

Scary bit over, and again it’s worth remembering that most visits to Orlando and indeed the United States will take place without any hassle. But it’s always worth being aware.

Away from safety issues, a trip to Florida can be full-on and there are always loads of options of activates and places to visit will be thrust upon you that promise to keep you entertained.

However, not all of them are worth a visit.

While this section could be filled with countless tourist-traps, I’m going to list three that I’ve visited that I wouldn’t return to.

The first of these is Gatorland located on S Orange Blossom Trail to the north of Kissimmee.

Gatorland promises to be the “The Alligator Capital of the World” and claims there isn’t a better place to see alligators and crocodiles of all sizes, from babies (known as grunts) to the 14-foot monsters that call the marshlands, home.

The entrance of the park is fairly iconic as you enter the ticket sales area and gift shop through the inviting jaws of a huge alligator head.

The positives of the park are that they have the largest collection of extremely rare white leucistic alligators, a free-flight aviary, a petting zoo, a one-of-a-kind animal show, a thrilling zip line called the Screamin’ Gator and new Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure.

For me, however, their are better ways to spend an afternoon in Florida. Firstly, the tickets cost – at the time of writing – $32.99 plus tax which, for the size of the park feels rather costly.

Secondly, I’m not a big fan of these places that use their animals to preform tricks or to be used as photo opportunities.

There are a number of shows at Gatorland where keepers sit on the back of these wonderful animals, hold their mouths open or make them jump out of the water to grab a dead chicken. While they claim that none of this causes harm to the animal – a claim I could not comment on, on it’s validity – it feels at best, mean spirited towards these gorgeous creatures and at worst slightly cruel.

Also there were options for guests – to pay money – to sit on the back of these animals too (this was the case for the last time I visited anyway). In these instances the animal will have had its mouth bound closed which I just couldn’t agree with. What I found worse was that some people, who were parents, were paying to put their small children on top of these animals so they could get a photo! Madness!


The entrance to Gatorland is one of its main attractions for a photo
Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of alligators within the park
The park has a number of ‘shows’ where park keepers feed these magnificent animals

A second one that I’d skip is Ripley’s Believe It or Not on International Drive.

Visually impressive, the building appears to be sinking on one side of it and – when compared to the other buildings that surround it, you can see why families may be drawn to its doors.

And to be fair to it, there are interesting parts to a visit here.

Established in 1918, Ripley’s is inspired by stories of people and places that are incredibly hard to believe, but undeniably true!

Ripley’s in Orlando boasts of having 16 unique galleries and hundreds of displays on offer. It says there are artefacts, interactive experiences, and just plain weird stuff sure to entertain the entire family!

This version of Ripley’s tries to keep things local with a whole section dedicated to showing guests just how weird Florida can be with exhibits such as an ancient alligators and a shrunken head owned by Ernest Hemingway.

You walk through the exhibit halls looking at various displays and reading the information on offer but you can do little else beyond grabbing some fun Instagram photos.

But again for me, the biggest minus is the ticket price. Tickets for this attraction – that can be seen in an hour or two at most – cost $27.99 per adult or $18.99 for a child aged between three and 11. For me this is a pretty expensive cost for something that’s a bit of a gimmick and can be seen elsewhere in the world.

Ripley’s opens at 10am every day and closes at midnight (with last admissions being permitted entry an hour before closing).


The slanted Ripley’s Believe It or Not house is actually quite visually impressive
There’s a fair amount to see inside including a model of the world’s tallest ever man
There are lots of models within the attraction but not much else to do beyond look at them

My final pick is Medieval Times.

I remember first visiting Orlando back in 1996 with my family and seeing signs for this dinner show and being desperate for my parents to take me. Sensibly, they never did in the three visits I did with them.

However, on my fourth trip back – and first one I paid for myself – I decided to buy tickets for a night and experience the show.

Perhaps it’s that I’d played up in my own head just how good I believed this should be which meant I was disappointed. Perhaps it’s that now, as an adult, seeing people dressed as knights on horseback and taking part in staged jousting just didn’t have the same excitement for me. Perhaps it’s that the food was really not great quality. Or perhaps it’s that tickets cost $65.99 per adult to see the show.

I’d guess it was a combination of all these factors.

Driving into the arena’s car park – located off W Vine Street in Kissimmee – you’re welcomed with the sight of a “medieval castle”.

Parking wraps around the castle comfortably making it an easy stroll over to the drawbridge and through the castle entrance. A plus point is that parking spaces are plentiful and free!

The castle gates open 60 minutes prior to a showtime which allows plenty of time for photos, to grab a drink and to explore a little.

At the check-in desk you get given a crown to wear during the evening. The colour of your crown shows which competitor you’ll be cheering for during the evening’s session.

Guests will then be called by the colour of their crowns. If you look closely above the doors to the arena, you will notice banners that match each Knight’s colour, you can find your door by looking for the banner that matches your crown.

After finding your seat, food will soon arrive. The meal usually consists of some sort of roast chicken and corn-on-the-cob style food (vegetarian options are also available). The food is rather bland at best and – you won’t be surprised to read – not the best you’ll ever eat.

The first bits of food and drink will be met by the lights dimming and music playing as the two-hour tournament gets going. During the show you’ll see jousting, swordsmanship, hand-to-hand combat and displays of horsemanship and falconry.

As the evening draws to an end, you’ll be guided out of the arena and back to your cars. While it may prove to be entertaining for children and family groups, it’s probably one that most adult visitors can go without.


A typical dinner-show at Medieval Times
The entertainment is average while the food can be rather bland
A view down the length of the arena with seating and tables on either side

Great places to eat

The way I sum up meals in Orlando is this. A lot of restaurants will go for quantity over quality.

That’s not to say there are not good places to eat in Florida, but for the majority of tourists they’ll end up either eating in their hotels for breakfast and in the theme parks at lunch.

Also for fast food, their is an abundance of McDonald’s, IHOPS, Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks, Pizza Huts, Subways and Taco Bells to choose from which will keep you ticking over when you need a quick bite.

My top tip is to have a hearty breakfast in the morning which can, more often than not, see you through the day when you’re out in the theme parks so you avoid paying the extortionate prices for food (aside from a few snacks to keep you going).

But for those who are looking at places that may be worth a visit outside of the parks, I’ve got two suggestions to search for; one for breakfast and one for dinner.

The breakfast suggestion is a place called Friendly’s which is located right next door to the Avanti International Resort – on International Drive – mentioned higher up in this blog.

During my stay at the resort I went to this small dinner a number of times and each time they lived up to their name.

I remember breakfast plates being large and full and coming with a side of American-style pancakes.

Options include steak and eggs, waffles, hash browns and omelettes and even Philly cheese steak wraps. Most drinks, once ordered, were refillable and I never left here feeling anything other than fuelled up for the day ahead.

Prices, from what I remember, were extremely reasonable as well and the staff serving always greeted you with a welcoming hello and made sure you got everything you wanted during your meal.

While my breakfast suggestion, for me, is typical of what you can expect in Orlando, my dinner suggestion is a little different.

Many restaurants in the area will offer a buffet style meal where you order a set-dish and then you can visit a large buffet to fill up on a wide selection of other dishes.

This is great to do a few times but, after a while, I found that I was getting slightly bored with this.

So after a bit of searching I found the Ethiopian restaurant, Nile to try out.

This small restaurant is situated just off International Drive. The restaurant is amongst a number of other bars and, from the outside, looks to be in a rather questionable bit of town.

However, inside the restaurant – which was founded in 2006 – you receive a warm welcome from the owners before being seated at one of their tables.

Nile proudly serves an array of authentic, and mouth-watering dishes with signature house spices and serve dishes ranging from beef, lamb, poultry and fish to others that are suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

The menu is not only extensive but also well priced and the dishes are flavourful and filling.

And in true Ethiopian style, you eat the food using your hands rather than traditional western cutlery.

It may not be traditional US cuisine, but getting a taste of Africa in North America really adds something to any trip to the Sunshine State.


Useful links

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Holidays

Avanti International Resort

B Resort and Spa

Floridatix

Walt Disney World Resort

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

Halloween Horror Nights

SeaWorld

Aquatica

Busch Gardens

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

American Pro Diving Centre

Gatorland

Ripley’s Believe It or Not

Medieval Times

Friendly’s

Nile

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Zürich… take time out in this Swiss haven


Zürich

Switzerland has – for as long as I can remember – been very much on my to-do list, but far too readily shunted down the agenda in place of other destinations. It was time for Holly and I to put that right.

The difficulty came, however, working out where in this land-locked nation to spend our time. Do we go for the de-facto capital Bern (Switzerland doesn’t have an official capital city which is one of its many quirks), or do we head for quaint city of Basel in the north-west region of the country?

In the end my decision was to go to neither of these and instead head to the picturesque city of Zürich.

Zürich is the largest city in Switzerland and the capital of the canton of Zürich. Switzerland is split into 26 cantons that each are a member state of the Swiss Confederation which make up the country as a whole.

As of January 2020, around 1.8 million people call the Zürich metropolitan area, home. Both Zürich Airport and Zürich’s main railway station are the largest and busiest in the country.

The city is situated with a stunning mountain backdrop while sitting atop of a beautiful lakeside vista. This idyllic city has seen settlements from the Neolithic and Bronze Ages found around its lake, with many other finds from different eras also being uncovered.

In fact, Zürich’s origins as a town date back to 15BC, when the Roman town of Turicum was established to oversee trade passing through the Alps.

But aside from its beauty and its history, this city offered us, as travellers, another great reason to pick it over other Swiss locations. It’s proximity to the Principality of Liechtenstein (more on that later).


The city of Zürich

So what should a first time traveller to Zürich know before setting off to this Swiss canton?

The first thing to note – more for interest than practicalities – is that Switzerland is a landlocked country in the heart of Europe with five different borders (France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein).

If you plan to hire a car – or get on a train – to go to any of these countries then make sure you keep your passport with you to avoid any issues when crossing in and out of Switzerland. The one main exception to this is passing into Liechtenstein as there is no hard border here, but I’d still advise taking your passport with you in order to get a passport stamp put into your document at one of the local shops or tourist information centres.

Knowing what type of weather to expect in Zürich during a visit is key to ensuring travellers remain comfortable.

Zürich itself lies in the temperate climate zone and has four distinct seasons. In winter, temperatures occasionally drop below zero and can be rainy and cold (although not always snowy), while hot summer days can record temperatures of over 30°c.

Our visit was during April so we had a very mixed forecast. To one extent the weather would be comfortable t-shirt weather, while at the other end there were a few rain showers in the making and a chilly wind. It made packing that bit harder. On top of this, we also wanted to venture out of the city and into the mountains during our trip. This meant that we were going to need hats and coats to stay warm and dry.

If you go at a similar time of year then I’m afraid the best bet is to pack for all eventualities. It’s unlikely you’ll need shorts but a warm coat and long-sleeved tops and trousers are a must.

The next thing to think about is the currency. The Swiss franc is the official currency of Switzerland as well as in Liechtenstein. At the time of writing, £1 sterling would get you around CHF1.22.

Traditionally, Switzerland has been very cash-orientated over the years with many transactions taking place in hard currency. However, this is beginning to change and we found, on more than one occasion, stops and restaurants wanting card payments only. Therefore, travellers need to make sure that take their credit cards with them when they head out.

If you are travelling from England, then there is only one time zone difference to take into consideration with Switzerland being one hour ahead of the UK. This means you’ll lose and hour on your travel to the country but gain it back when you return.


Zürich as shown on Google Maps

One thing you learn about Switzerland very early into a trip is that they don’t like to follow the trends of other countries! A prime example of this is their plug points.

Switzerland uses type C (2-pin) and Type J (3-pin) plugs. (Type C 2-pin plugs also fit J sockets.) Most power sockets are designed for three pin round plugs. The latter of these two plug types is almost exclusively used by Switzerland and Liechtenstein and is the more common one – in my experience – to find in the country. Therefore, make sure you take the right plug converters out with you before you travel in order to keep your devices charged up.

Holly and I failed to do this and had a mad panic early search in the local shops in Zürich to find a plug converter as this had totally slipped our mind in our pre-departure preparations.

Aside from this – and just to make life simple – Switzerland has four national languages to contend with.

The main one of these that is used is German which is spoken by 62.8% of the population. The second is French (22.9%) which is mainly used in the west part of the country near the French border. The third is Italian (8.2%) which is used a bit in the south near the Italian boarder while the fourth national language is Romansh (0.5%) and is spoken locally in the south-eastern trilingual canton of Grisons.

While English is not a staple of Swiss life, a lot of people we came into contact with had a very good grasp of the English language and when our poor grasp of German let us down, they quickly jumped to our rescue in our home tongue. Many restaurants in the city will also have an English-language menu for you to read if you request it when you sit down.

As ever, I always think it best to at least have some of the basics of the local language to hand. So just knowing (in German) the likes of hello (hallo), goodbye (auf Wiedersehen), please (bitte) and thank you (danke) can be a massive help.

Now all there is to do is enjoy everything that Switzerland has to offer.


Getting there

Getting to Zürich is an easy task from the UK with flight times from London being in the region on of an an hour and 45 minutes to a maximum of two hours.

As a major hub of Swiss aviation, there are plenty of flight operators who fly in and out of Zürich with many going to destinations in the UK including London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London City, London Luton and Manchester

The main choices to fly from the UK are the Swiss airline, Swiss International Air Lines or the budget operator, EasyJet.

For our trip we chose to fly with the latter as prices and times were best and we could travel from London Gatwick.

It’s worth saying up front that you’re unlikely to find extremely cheap flights to Switzerland. However, if you’re looking for a cheap location to go to then it’s best to go somewhere else.

For £258.92 we booked two return flights to Zürich – including speedy boarding – for our April trip.


Flying into Zürich on our EasyJet flight
You get some stunning views of the Alps as you approach Zürich

Zürich Airport is the largest international airport of Switzerland and – pre-Covid-19 – around 30 million people would traverse through its gates each year. And while that figure is beginning to recover, recent statistics at the time of writing suggest that figures are only around a third of that in the immediate years of the pandemic.

The airport is well located for getting in and out of the city and is around 13km – or eight miles – north of central Zürich.

There are three runways that service the three main terminals within the airport known as terminals A, B, and E (also signposted as Gates A, B/D, and E). These are linked to a central air-side building called Airside Centre, that was built back in 2003. 

On arrival at the airport, and once through security, travellers find themselves in something of a maze of walkways, escalators restaurants and shops. It’s like you come out into a shopping centre that also has a train station attached to it!

Holly and I found ourselves walking slightly aimlessly for a short time as we looked for where we could catch a train to the city centre. However, this was probably more down to us being poor navigators than Zürich Airport being overly complicated. It seemed that everyone else knew exactly where they were heading!

The airport is a good hub for a lot of things. There are storage lockers to store bags should you need to, the aforementioned train station that takes you into Zürich very quickly as well as a variety of car hire operators (more on them later) that can give you access to areas beyond the city.


Where to stay

Zürich has an abundance of great places to stay as is the case with all major cities. However, if you want to stay near the centre of the city you are going to pay premium prices for both hotels and other accommodation.

For our trip, Holly and I opted for another AirBnB right in the centre that boasted riverside views just opposite the Rathausbrücke pedestrian bridge and above a selection of shops.

The entrance to the apartment was a single door that looks like a business entrance. Inside the door sits the entrance to a lift that then takes you to the sixth floor where the apartment is housed.

For our accommodation we paid a hefty £422.98 for three nights – equating to £140.99 a night. This may seem a lot but for a similar location in a nearby hotel, you’d end up probably paying more.


The view out over Zürich at night from the window of the AirBnB
When you want some privacy – or just to get to sleep – you can lower the blinds fully across all the windows
Quirky artwork on the walls of the AirBnB
It may look like a double bed but it’s actually two singles pushed together. Still it makes for a comfortable night’s sleep

I’ll be honest, the facilities within this compact AirBnB are basic. There was no TV and the whole apartment is a single room with a small bathroom just off the entranceway.

The bed is large and comfortable (although it is two singles pushed together to make a double; so beware of the small gap), and the plugs are plentiful. However, I will remind you again that the Swiss operate on a different plug system to 99.9% of the rest of the world, so make sure you have the right connectors with you before departing. This was something Holly and I didn’t do so spent the first hour or so looking around shops to get a few adapters so our devices didn’t run out of power on the first day!

Small mishap aside, what makes this AirbnB worth staying in, is that it is a short, pleasant walk away from the edge of Lake Zürich and some of the city’s top attractions, as well as a host of fun restaurants, bars and shops.

It also has a stunning apartment-length window that allows you to see great vistas of the surrounding city by day and night. This window into Zürich was how Holly and I started each morning having grabbed some breakfast items from a nearby shop. We could sit by the window eating our morning meal while watching the city slowly wake-up.

It made for a great start to each of our days and got us ready to go out and explore.


Getting around

There are many convenient and easy ways of getting around in Zürich but the cheapest and best way to see the city is by simply walking it.

The city is a beautiful, clean haven to explore and walking its many streets gives you a great chance to see all it has to offer.

A top tip is to head towards the lake and take a stroll around a part of the edge. The views are stunning and the land is relatively flat meaning that it is fairly easy for everyone to meander along.

If you are planning to walk around, be prepared for sudden changes in the weather. Rain does fall on a semi-regular basis a lot of the year and you can suddenly find yourself soaking wet with very little shelter. An umbrella and rain mac can be a lifesaver.


You will see numerous Swiss flags flying from the city’s buildings when walking around Zürich
Walking along the river in Zürich is a treat to enjoy
And strolling through the city’s streets means you can come across beautiful fountains like one which had been filled with roses

The second mode of transport that most visitors to Zürich will consider is that of the city’s superb trains.

There are many routes to take but the one most travellers will frequent is the quick 15 – 20 minute journey from the airport to the city centre (arriving at the city’s main train station; Zürich Hauptbahnhof.

Zürich’s train network is one of the most sophisticated public transportation systems of Europe. From the airport, the network offers numerous train and metro lines to Zürich HB station, which is located in the heart of Zürich. The price for a regular one way ticket for adults is CHF6.80 (working out around £5.83). The waiting time is normally under five minutes between available trains and the whole network operates from 5am until 12:45am.

The train station is located on the underground level when coming out of the arrivals terminal of the airport. Clear signs will direct you to the appropriate platforms heading to the centre of the city.

Also for those wanting to explore more of Switzerland, without hiring their own car, will most likely use this station to get elsewhere within the country.


Large trains like this arrive at Zürich Airport regularly to take people to the city centre and beyond
Holly onboard the train from Zürich Airport to the city centre
Trains to Zürich Airport will be the ones signposted with the word Flughafen
A train arriving at Zürich HB station

While the train – as mentioned above – is an easy way to explore Zürich and Switzerland, for me there is nothing like getting out onto the open road and setting your own itinerary.

Hiring a car can be done directly from the Airport and even though Holly and I only wanted to hire a car for a single day it was easy for us to make the short hop back to the airport from the city centre to pick up our car from Europcar hire.

It’s worth pointing out that there are numerous other car hire desks to pick from, but we went with Europcar as we’d used them before and the check-out is extremely straight-forward.

Hiring a car is slightly costly in Switzerland. For the basic small car we hired for the day, it cost us £51.99 up front, which we paid online to reserve the vehicle, and then a further CHF155.03 (or around £130) when we picked it up. You also have to ensure the car is full of fuel upon your return.

When you go to collect the car you’ll need a few things with you. Firstly, you’ll need your driver’s licence to show you are legally allowed to drive. Secondly you’ll also need a credit card where the company will hold a deposit against your rental just in case you damage the car or get a speeding ticket. If you’re careful, both of these things are unlikely.

Once you’re in the car there are a number of things to remember. Firstly, unlike in the UK, motorists drive on the right-hand side of the road in Switzerland and overtake on the left – which can take some adjustment if you’re used to driving on the left.

The next thing is that the road signs and speeds are in kilometres per hour rather than miles. It takes a little bit to get your head around as speeds feel very different mentally when you’re trying to adjust how quickly you’re driving.

The next thing you need is a motorway vignette. This came as news to me as it wasn’t something I even knew existed before arriving in Switzerland. The vignette is basically a pass that allows you to take a car onto the country’s motorways. Without such as pass you’re not allowed to drive on the motorways and could face a heavy fine.

Fortunately, all hire cars come with a vignette in place so no further payments are required. However, if you are bringing your own car as part of a European bigger trip, for instance, then you’ll need to buy one online (or at the countries border) before you enter Switzerland.

Hiring a car was the best decision Holly and I made ahead of this trip. We were able to explore a chunk of the country and also allowed us to drive to Liechtenstein; a country landlocked between Switzerland and Austria that has no airport nor central train station.

Ahead of the trip, we planned out a circular route that would take in a number of sites (including Liechtenstein). Our route was a 350km roundtrip that started at Zürich Airport and took in the Stoos Funicular, Liechtenstein, St Gallen and back to Zürich Airport (more on those sites later).

After getting away from Zürich Airport – where the roads are understandably busy (unavoidable and not an ideal way to start driving in a foreign country) the roads open up and you get to see some wonderful mountain scenery as you venture further away from the city.

It’s hard to describe how beautiful the Swiss surrounding area is, but those who take a car out will soon see it for themselves.

If you do follow a similar route to the one we did, you’ll be taken towards the Alps. The only way the Swiss have been able to make suitable road networks in these areas are by tunnelling through the extremely solid rock that makes up these enormous mountains. You spend a fair bit of time initially driving through a series of mountain tunnels which sadly obscures the scenery. Yet, when you come out the other side you are quickly reminded of how beautiful a place you are in.


Picking up our car at Zürich Airport for our day of driving
Our Swiss / Liechtenstein road trip as outlines on Google Maps
Driving in Switzerland and Liechtenstein is pretty straight-forward. Looking out of our car window at Vaduz Castle
Getting to park you car in places like this – on the outskirts of Liechtenstein – and taking in the views is a memorable part of the road trip

Back in Zürich, my final suggestion for ways to get around is by using the tram.

While Holly and I never actually used the service ourselves, we saw just how prevalent they are in the city and how easy they appear to be to use.

Run by the Zürich Transport Network (ZVV), the electric trams have rumbled through the streets of the city since the late 1800s. Today, there are 15 tram routes and more than 300 trams plying 172km (107 miles) of track.

Tram and bus stops are clearly signposted, with route numbers listed. Trams going in different directions on the same route will stop on opposite sides of the street or tram platforms.

To give you an idea of costs, a single-ride ticket for those traveling within two zones will cost around CHF4.40 (about £3.70) and are good for one hour, with transfers permitted.


Top sites

You’ll be pleased to read that Zürich is blessed with many great things to see and do which will delight both those who love nature and those more fond of city living.

The first must-see, and must-do, is a trip down to Lake Zürich and then a ride on the lake on the Lake Zürich river boat.

Spanning some 40km, Lake Zürich is a central draw to life in the city with a lot of activities taking place around it or on it.

With the mountainous backdrop visible from the city, the lake is a tranquil and peaceful setting to enjoy.

And while taking a walk around part of it is worth doing, the best way to see the lake and the surrounding views is by getting on it.

There are many spots around the lake where you can get on one of the boats – run by Zürichsee – and a wide-ranging timetable of different length trips to choose from.

For us – and many others staying in Zürich – the easiest place to board a vessel is at the city’s Zürich Bürkliplatz dock. Located just at the entrance to the Lake Zürich from the city centre, this dock has regular trips departing.

There are three main cruise lengths to choose from; the mini lake cruise which takes up to two hours, the short lake cruise which takes a little over two hours and the long lake cruise which can take around three hours.

Prices are extremely reasonable also. The mini lake cruise costs just CHF6.80 per adult, the short lake cruise (the option Holly and I selected) costs CHF8.80 while the long lake cruise costs CHF26. To pay for the cruise, you can either queue up for a ticket or – if like us you are jumping onboard at the last possible moment – you can pay as you board by cash or card.

Once on, there are usually plenty of seats and tables available both inside and outside (depending on the weather) and there will also be drinks and food options available to you which will be served to your table allowing you to soak in the sights.

Each cruise will make numerous stops at different docks to allow people on and off, but these stops are short and give you a few moments to enjoy the scenery and grab a photo or two.


Holly looking out over Lake Zürich from the boat
The lake is a beautiful and restful place to spend a few hours
There are plenty of seats on the boat – both inside and outside – to get great views
The stunning scenery on Lake Zürich

The next thing to see in Zürich is the Heureka Useless Machine.

While this sculpture can be seen as part of the river boat cruise, the best way to see it in all its pointless glory is to take a short walk around a section of Lake Zürich.

Holly and I only came to know of this amusing piece of art’s existence having watched the Channel Four show Travel Man where – for one episode – they spent time in Zürich and highlighted this totally pointless piece of artwork. From that moment on, we knew we had to go and see it ourselves!

The work was made by Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely who has become best-known for his no-purpose kinetic artworks. Heureka one such useless machine.

The statue is located towards the edge of the Zürichhorn waterside park. This is a good 40 minute walk from the city centre and is around 3km in each direction. While you’ll need to have a decent level of fitness to do this, the walk is pretty flat and picturesque. Because of this, it’s not the hardest walk ever (to give you an idea, Holly was a good few months’ pregnant at the time we did this) but offers little shelter if it’s a wet day.

The title, Heureka, is Ancient Greek for “I’ve got it!” This is meant to be ironic. The sculpture, created in 1964, is an allegory of consumerism in advanced industrial societies.

At set intervals the machine spurns into life and churns and churns with no purpose other than pure absurdity.

The sculpture is made from everyday objects like scrap metal and junk. It’s comprised of various tubes, wheels, iron bars, metal pipes, and electric motors assembled together to create an intricate machine when turned on — or rather, the illusion of one.

The sculpture is a good target point for those looking to walk a section of Lake Zürich as it will give you something to aim for while taking in a good chunk of the scenery. Advise here is to keep your walk near the waterside, because if you go to the street there are limited shops and restaurants to look in and the views are far less interesting.

And best of all about this sculpture; it’s a public piece of artwork so it’s totally free to view in all it’s nonsensical wonder.


The Heureka Useless Machine sits near the bank of Lake Zürich
If you time it right, you can see the machine ‘working’
A close up of the machine
Walking down the bank of Lake Zürich to see the sculpture is a pleasant way to spend time in Zürich

The first of the major churches in the city to visit is the Grossmünster Church.

The two towers of the Grossmünster are, perhaps, regarded as the most recognised landmark in Zürich and as one of the four major churches in the city (the others being the Fraumünster, Predigerkirche and St. Peter’s). Located near the head of Lake Zürich, any visitor to the city will not be able to miss this easily seen landmark.

The church is a large and spacious affair with beautifully decorated walls, windows and ceilings to admire.

However, the main reason I wanted to visit this church – as a non-Christian – is that you can pay a small fee (just CHF5 or around £4.27) and climb one of the two towers to see spectacular views of the city.

There are a few things to note before heading to the small door near the rear of the inside of the church – with your ticket – to make the climb. The first thing is that the route is not disability friendly.

The way up – and down – the tower is the same route and the first portion of the climb is a narrow spiral staircase. If you meet someone coming the other way on this you have to squeeze past each other as best you can. Sadly, this meant that a very pregnant Holly wasn’t able to ascend the tower, leaving the climb to be undertaken by myself alone.

The second thing to note – linked to the first – is that if you want to climb up the tower to the top and get a marvellous view of the city, you need to negotiate a almost 200 stairs which are quite old. As a word of caution, elderly people, those with a fear of heights or those with health concerns should be careful; yet once at the top, the effort is really worth it.

The space at the top is a bit cramped but you will have a 360-degree view and it is quite a treat. 


One of the main churches in Zürich is the stunning Grossmünster Church
Once you climb the tower of the church you are treated to wonderful views of the city
The church is a large focal point of the city
Beware, the stairs to climb to the top of the tower are narrow and you may meet people coming the other way

The second religious building worth visiting is on the other side of the river from Grossmünster and is known as the Fraumünster Church.

Located on the west bank of the Limmat, the Fraumünster Church with its green steeple is another one of Zürich’s most prominent landmarks that is particularly recognisable for its renowned glass windows.

The church was built from the middle of the 9th century. Today, many visitors are attracted by the five stained glass windows prepared by Marc Chagall in the 1960s as well as by the the rosette in the south transept. Another significant glass window is “The Heavenly Paradise” (dating to 1945) by Augusto Giacometti in the north transept.

Perhaps even more so than that of Grossmünster, Fraumünster exudes beauty both outside and within.

Yet, like other churches in Zürich, Fraumünster – also known as the Minster of Our Lady – welcomes worshippers for free, but an entrance fee of CHF5 (around £4.27) applies for each person 17 and older not attending a service.

For that entrance fee, you get to look around the church and explore the Fraumünster Crypt that was only made public in June 2016.

The foundations of the crypt date back to the 9th century when the abbey was founded. The crypt comprises of an exhibition on the history of the Reformation in Zürich, the architecture and the local history. All of this is assisted by a multimedia information system that illustrates the foundation fragments of the crypt, and how the church was rebuilt from the original Romanesque construction phase to its present Gothic appearance.


Looking up at the ceiling within the church with the stunning stained glass windows
There are some great artefacts on show within the church’s crypt
Views inside the crypt, that was only opened to the public in 2016
A view down the length of the church

Away from churches, there are a number of great places within Zürich to get a great view of the city.

One of these that Holly and I stumbled upon was the very quaint and charming Polybahn funicular leading up to the Polyterrasse.

This extremely short funicular links the central square – located on the corner of a road named Limmatquai – with the terrace by the main building of the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zürich.

For just CHF1.20 (around £1) per person we took the three minute ride up the hill’s 176m of track.

The system is an ingenious design which has its origins dating back to 1889 when it first opened.

The Polybahn consists of two cars that are connected by a cable. The two cars are designed to counterbalance each other like a pair of old-fashioned elevators. As the car on the left climbs the track, the car on the right descends. They pass each other in the middle, with the left car reaching the upper station as its twin arrives in the lower station. The cars then discharge their passengers, collect new payloads, and repeat the three-minute cycle.

Boarding nice and quickly, grab a place by the window and check out the charming track as you make your way up or down the hill.

Once at the top, Holly and I made our way to the Polyterrasse.

This free-to-view terrace affords great vistas of the city centre and across to the lake.

The Polyterrasse sits in front of the the imposing ETH building – that was constructed back in 1864 – and provides many places for visitors to gaze across the city.


Boarding the Polybahn for the short ride up the hill
One ticket costs just CHF1.20
The view from the Polybahn’s window during the three minute ride
Waiting for the Polybahn to depart and go back down the hill
Once at the top, the view from the Polyterrasse is worth the short trip

As a massive football fan, there was no way I was heading to Zürich without making a stop at the world-famous FIFA Museum.

Purchasing tickets for myself and Holly online before we left for CHF24 (around £20.50) I was excited to take a walk around a museum that celebrates all things football!

Making the 20 minute walk from the city centre to the museum’s entrance – located on a road called Seestrasse – we entered and scanned our tickets through the automated turnstiles.

The museum is then split over a three floors.

The first of these is Floor Zero and is known as Planet Football. This floor is a celebration of FIFA’s member associations – all 211 of them. Here we spent time looking at the ‘Rainbow’ of national team’s shirt before taking a whistle-stop tour through the history of football in their exhibition called The Timeline.

From here we descended to level -2, and entered the historic heart of the museum. The first stop is The Foundations, which pays tribute to football’s pioneers. That’s followed by The FIFA World Cup Gallery.

What I didn’t realise before my visit was that they actually have the real FIFA World Cup Trophy and the FIFA Women’s World Cup Trophy on display here and we were able to get up close and personal with them (and a glass case of course) to grab some much needed photos!

The final floor is an interactive one and is filled with a multitude of attractions. Known as the Fields of Play, this floor gives visitors the opportunity to hear the impact football has had on society and learn about football in The Lab. This is then finished off with some great fun games where you try and score as many points as you can across a number of different skill-sets.

While this was great fun, I hate to admit that Holly – despite being pregnant – still managed to beat me on this! A very embarrassing end to the trip. With my tail firmly between my legs, we made our way out – via the gift shop – having spent a good couple of hours enjoying the world of football.


The entrance to the FIFA Museum
Looking down on the rainbow of all 211 FIFA nation’s international home shirts
The pride of the museum is arguably the FIFA World Cup trophy itself
At the end of the visit you get to try your skills on the various games

Away from Zürich – via the hire of a car – you can find the magical Stoos Funicular.

The Stoosbahn – also known as the Schwyz–Stoos funicular – is a funicular railway in the Swiss canton of Schwyz. It connects the Hintere Schlattli in the municipalities of Muotatal, Morschach, and Schwyz with the village and mountain resort of Stoos, above Morschach.

At a length of 1.7km (Around 1.1 miles), its track rises some 744m (2,441 ft) up and has a maximum gradient of 110% (47.7°) making it the steepest funicular railway in Europe!

Holly and I only became aware of this engineering feat a few weeks before our trip and quickly made sure we could shoehorn a visit to it during our day on the road.

Arriving mid-morning in Stoos – after taking in the sights as we drove an hour south from Zürich – we arrived at the deserted funicular station at the foot of the mountain wondering if our pre-booked tickets (costing us 22CHF per person – around £19) were going to go to waste.

Parking in the large multi-story car park to the side of the funicular station we made our way inside and thankfully saw the railway was running.

The truth of the matter was that our trip did not coincide with the ski season, and therefore, nobody else was heading up the mountain other than a few local workers.

Boarding the front train carriage – which would be a lot harder if it was busy – we placed ourselves in the window and awaited our departure.

Soon enough we were being transported up the side of the mountain. The incline grew ever more precarious, but the genius design of the train means you don’t feel a thing in terms of the tilt.

Through a tunnel in the mountain, we emerged out of the other side and to our delight were welcomed by a snowy wonderland. Holly’s face lit up like I’ve not seen before when she saw just how much snow we would be in! The one down side of this was that neither of us had dressed for snow – beyond a winter jacket – so our time on top of the mountain would be a slightly chilly one.

Yet it was worth every cold second of it. Departing the train we spent a good hour walking around the deserted ski village while enjoying the snow. It’s not every day you get a place like this pretty much to yourself!

For longer stays here, there are an array of shops, bars and restaurants as well as accommodation aplenty. And aside from the skiing, there are also a number of mountain walks that you can do to varying difficulties.

Making our way back to the funicular station, we boarded the train and enjoyed the views one last time as we made our way back down the mountain, to collect our car from the car park before heading off towards Liechtenstein.


The stunning views from the top of the Stoos Funicular make the trip extremely rewarding
Getting an idea of just how steep the incline is
Holly was delighted to see so much snow at the top of the funicular
Leaving the funicular station to head back down the mountain
On board the Stoos Funicular gives you a great view of the track and the incline
The departure station at the top of the funicular is surrounded by stunning views

As I may have mentioned, this road trip was designed to get Holly and myself to the micro-nation of Liechtenstein.

The Principality of Liechtenstein is bordered by Switzerland to the west and south and Austria to the east and north. It is one of Europe’s smallest countries, with an area of just over 160 square kilometres (62 square miles) and a population of 38,749 (as of 2019).

With no airport of its own (Liechtenstein is one of only a few countries without an airport; with its nearest major airport being Zürich some 130km or 80 miles away by road), to get here you can get a train to one of the countries four train stations (none of which are well serviced or central) or do as we did and drive the 110km scenic journey through a portion of the Alps.

Situated in the Upper Rhine valley of the European Alps, the country itself is very Swiss in nature. They accept Swiss money as their own and a lot of their culture stems from their close ties with Switzerland.

There is also no hard boarder between the two countries. To enter Liechtenstein from Switzerland you can either walk or drive across one of the bridges.

As a lover of these quirky and unique national borders, getting to drive us across was a goal of mine that I was able to fulfil as Holly and I made our way to the centre of the country’s mini capital city, Vaduz.


This micronation is not the easiest in the world to get to, but worth it once you make the journey
Liechtenstein’s flag flying proudly in the city centre

The capital of Liechtenstein – Vaduz – was the main target of our trip to this micronation.

The city, which is located along the Rhine River, has 5,696 residents and the city’s most prominent landmark is Vaduz Castle (more on that in a bit) which is visible from almost any location in the city with it being perched atop a steep hill.

After entering the country we quickly found a small car park to park up before setting out on-foot to explore the city centre.

The first thing that’s noticeable about this city – other that its small size – is that it’s very quiet. The streets were very empty and the traffic was minimal where cars were allowed.

One of the main streets within the city itself – called Städtle – is mainly pedestrianised and houses numerous pieces of interesting street art (keep your eyes open for various sculptures including The African King (a large mask-like face), Grande Cavallo (a pair of bronze stallions) and the Reclining Woman (a large statue of a naked lady just off the main street).

There are also a number of museum’s within Vaduz but, unfortunately, time didn’t allow us to visit any of these during our trip.

The city centre is also a great place to grab some lunch before exploring further afield and there are plenty of eateries to choose from.

As a top tip for Vaduz, pay a small CHF3 (about £2.60) fee at any tourist office within the city and get a Liechtenstein stamp in your passport! As someone who loves getting their passport stamped with a new place, I couldn’t pass up this opportunity as you don’t get anything when you enter the country.

Also as you explore the area, keep an eye out for the Rathaus Vaduz at the north end of the city as well as Das Rote Haus which sits further north still as these both make great photo opportunities.


Looking up at Vaduz Castle from the city centre
The city is littered with various bits of artwork with this piece titled the African King
Looking back at the city from an elevated position with the Alps in the background
Vaduz is a small city and extremely quite too

While the city is picturesque, the main draw of is Vaduz Castle which, to this day, remains the palace and official residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein.

First thing to say here is that this is not a castle you can enter and explore given its functional role in the city. Yet, despite this it is still well worth the climb up the road to go and see it.

Holly and I walked the winding pathway along the roadside towards the castle and made it there within 30 minutes from the city centre. Just as we rounded the final corner of our climb we then – annoyingly – remembered that the parking ticket on the car was about to run out! With Holly pregnant, this meant that I took a quick jog down the hill back to the car. Thank god this was all downhill as I doubt I’d have made it in time otherwise!

I then drove the car back up the road to meet Holly who remained by the castle and parked up just beyond its fortified walls at a small parking spot on a road called Bergstrasse.

As far as I could tell, parking here is free and is used for those who wish to see the castle. There was no obvious place to pay-and-display so this was ideal.

The castle tower stands on a piece of ground that is 12m by 13m (39 by 43 feet) in area. At the ground floor, the tower walls have a thickness of up to 4m (13 feet).

With the backdrop of the Alps, this castle is a spectacular viewing platform. Overlooking the whole city – and out across a part of Switzerland – this made the trip to the region all the more special.

A final ‘treat’ happened when – as we were departing to drive back down the hill – the Prince of Liechtenstein was also leaving which saw us stuck in a small traffic jam as the local police escorted the Prince to whatever duty he was undertaking.

While we didn’t get to see him in person, we did see his royal car driving away and followed it for a portion of our own journey before heading off in a different direction.


Standing on the side of the road looking at Vaduz Castle
Holly enjoying the views over Vaduz and beyond from outside the castle
The drive up to Vaduz Castle as seen from the front of our hire car
Sadly this is as close to the castle as you can get as you’re not allowed inside
The castle is blessed with amazing views all around it

As a football fan (as I previously mentioned) I enjoy visiting all sorts of new football stadiums whenever I can. Therefore I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see the Rheinpark Stadion.

The stadium plays host to the home matches of the Liechtenstein national football team, and is also the home of club-side FC Vaduz. It lies on the banks of the Rhine, just metres from the border with Switzerland.

So while there was no game scheduled to play (much to Holly’s delight) during our visit, I was still able to pull over near the stadium entrance and have a peak around the corners of the gates to take a look inside.

The small stadium holds just over 7,500 fans and is blessed with a perfect backdrop for spectators to enjoy if the game isn’t any good. A must see for all football supporters.


View points of the stadium are limited when a game isn’t being played but you can sneak a view through some of the gaps in the fence
One of the Rheinpark Stadion’s main stands from the outside

The final spot to see is a slightly odd one as – realistically speaking – there is nothing there to see! However, it is symbolically special as it’s one of the few spots on the globe where three separate nations’ borders meet.

The Switzerland / Liechtenstein / Austria tri-border technically meets in the middle of the river making it impossible to stand on but you can get the feel for it all the same.

Leaving Liechtenstein and driving through the Swiss village of Sennwald, we made our way to the tri-border and parked our car on the Swiss-side and down what can be best described as a bit of waste land.

With our passports in our pockets (just in case of any issues) we headed out on foot to cross the Rhine Bridge. This bridge connects the road known as Zollstrasse in Switzerland (where we passed a deserted hut where I assumed a border guard once sat) on one side of the river to the road named Rheinstrasse in Austria on the other.

As far as we could see we were not breaking any rules doing this and there were no border guards anywhere to be seen. Once on the other side of the river we passed a sign that said we had entered Austria.

Further down the road there were a number huts on the Austrian side but as we didn’t want to venture too far into Austria we headed back across the bridge into Switzerland to collect our hire car and be on our way.


Arriving at the tri-border and a very quite bridge is what welcomes you
Technically, the exact tri-border point between Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein sits somewhere in the middle of the water
You can cross the bridge in a car or on foot without having to show your passport

Where to avoid

First thing to point out is that, from my experience, Switzerland is an extremely safe country to visit. While crime obviously exists, if you are careful – as most will be when travelling – and you can keep your possessions safely stored and money secure, then it is unlikely you’ll experience any problems.

So with that in mind, this section will look at a couple of places that could be skipped if time is not on your side.

The first of these is the Church of St. Peter.

This parish church in the centre of Zürich sits near the lake as well as near the aforementioned Grossmünster and Fraumünster churches.

If you have already seen the other two churches then you’ll not be missing much if you skipped this one.

My reasons for this are that, the Church of St. Peter is the least interesting of the trio. For starters, it is the smallest of the three and secondly, the insides, while pleasant, are not very exciting to look at. A plus point is that it is free to enter.

The best way to see this site is from the outside where you can get a view of its 8.7m diameter clock face (although this can be done from other vantage points in the city without having to walk over to the church.


The clock face on the Church of St. Peter is probably it’s most impressive feature
Standing outside the Church of St. Peter
The interior design of the church is minimal compared to the other main churches in the city

My second suggestion of an attraction to not seek out is the Zoological Museum – UZH.

Before I say too much about it, I’ll point out the positives are that it is free to enter, easy to get to (located near the Polyterrasse) and has a good amount of information available on its displays.

That being said, the museum itself – which is a showcase for the University of Zürich and established in 1833 at the same time as the university itself – is quite small and can get fairly busy (around 140,000 visitors come through its doors each year). This makes looking at some of the exhibits slightly difficult and rushed as you jostle for positions with the crowd.

The main attraction inside, is the museum’s 1,500 stuffed animals it has on display. Some of these are enjoyable to look at and read about while others have clearly seen their best days go by. It’s also not a place for those who don’t like, or are freaked out by, taxidermy!

Holly and I spent around 45 minutes exploring the museum before making our way outside. Again, if you find yourself with time to spare and in the area then it may be worth a flying visit. I’d just suggest you don’t select this attraction over doing something else that could be more rewarding.


A mammoth skeleton inside the Zoological Museum
The entrance way to the Zoological Museum in Zürich
There are many stuffed animals within the museum which may put some people off

Great places to eat

As you’d expect, Zürich is littered with great places to eat and wonderful foods to try.

Quintessential local dishes include Zurcher geschnetzeltes (Zürich-style sliced veal in gravy), “rosti” (shredded fried potatoes), “burli” (crusty bread rolls) and Raclette (melted cheese scraping that is then served with boiled potatoes).

And that’s just the savoury food. No trip to Switzerland would be complete without a generous helping of Swiss chocolate (for those looking to indulge, look no further than the Lindt shop – spread over a number of floors – in the centre of the city on a road named Bahnhofstrasse).


Some of the walls are filled from floor to ceiling with chocolate
Holly on her way to get her chocolate fix for the day
Inside the Lindt store they had these cute seats which look like giant macarons

But as well as enjoying plenty of places where you can indulge your inner-chocolate-loving child, there are some great restaurants around the city that are worth checking out also.

There were two restaurants in particular that I was fond of during my time in Zürich. Both were relatively inexpensive (for Switzerland) and both provided enjoyable food and good service.

The first of these was The Butcher.

This burger joint has a number of locations around Zürich but the one Holly and I enjoyed eating at was located on a side road that runs parallel with the river called Stüssihofstatt.

The restaurant prides itself on having ‘homemade’ food and the burgers that you order and plentiful and delicious.

The menu caters to all tastes and has a variety of beef, chicken and pork burgers, as well as a wide selection of plant-based options for vegetarians to enjoy.

Most burgers cost between CHF15 and CHF20 (about £13 – £20 ) and can be complimented well with some of the Butcher fries which are available for around CHF7 (about £6).

For those who make their way through the burgers, leave a little room for one of their delicious desserts!

To give you an idea, for two people to enjoy a burger and fries each, along with a drink and dessert, it cost us around CHF70 (around £60); a fairly cheap price by Swiss standards and overall, money well spent!


The burgers at The Butcher are full to bursting when they arrive at your table
The Butcher is small inside so its best to arrive early to ensure you get a seat
Quirky lighting adorns the walls within The Butcher
The desserts are worth saving room for

The second choice for us was Restaurant Zeughauskeller which is situated on Bahnhofstrasse near the upper end of Lake Zürich.

This large open hall once acted as an armory – having been built in 1487. Nowadays, the arsenal is a peaceful and sociable house and the weapons on the walls are only used for decoration.

Entering this restaurant, the scene before you seems somewhat chaotic. People are seated everywhere and staff carry large platters of food between the throngs of hungry guests – somehow avoiding walking into them and sending the tasty treats everywhere.

Once seated, on the menu you find a good selection of traditional dishes based on recipes that have been cherished and refined for centuries. A wide range of hearty meat dishes, special sausages and world famous Swiss specialities will tempt you to try them and huge glasses of beer are on tap to help you wash it down.

Price-wise, you’ll be looking at a similar bill to that of The Butcher (around CHF70 or £60) for a meal and drinks for two and you’ll certainly leave here full to bursting both from the great food and the copious amounts of drink you’ll consume.


Large glasses of beer are a welcome sight
Holly making her dinner choice from Restaurant Zeughauskeller’s extensive menu
One of the Restaurant Zeughauskeller specialities is a selection of different sausages

Useful links

EasyJet

AirBnB

Trains

Europcar Hire

Tram

Lake Zürich

Lake Zürich River Boat

Heureka Useless Machine

Grossmünster Church

Fraumünster Church

Polybahn

Polyterrasse

FIFA Museum

Stoos Funicular

Liechtenstein

Vaduz

Vaduz Castle

Rheinpark Stadion

Switzerland / Liechtenstein / Austria tri-border

Church of St. Peter

Zoological Museum – UZH

The Butcher

Restaurant Zeughauskeller

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Sofia… the overlooked Balkan city

Sofia

In the centre of the Balkans – sitting midway between the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea – lies the Bulgarian capital of Sofia.

Population-wise, Sofia is the 14th largest city in the European Union, and is surrounded by a vista of mountainsides; with Vitosha to the south, Lyulin to the west and the Balkan Mountains standing tall in the north.

But while the city is surrounded by beauty, the centre itself – by looks – can be seen as rather rundown. With a real lack of charmingly designed buildings, Sofia can appear as a Brutalist cityscape.

But, looks can be deceiving, and there is so much more to the city than its exterior image. And even that is starting to change, with a lot of work taking place to revitalise the heart of Bulgaria making it a more vibrant metropolis to explore.

Yet, despite these improvements to its appearance starting to take shape, this capital city is still one that is overlooked far too readily by travellers; with many choosing to make their way to one of Bulgaria’s great ski resorts or to its stunning coastline instead. But by doing this, they are missing a rich tapestry of history with the modern blend of a youthful blossoming city.

Life in the area dates back thousands of years and extensive excavation work conducted during construction of the city’s metro system unveiled a treasure trove of Roman ruins from 2,000 years ago, when the city was called Serdica.

On top of that history, the Sofia of today is home to many of Bulgaria’s finest museums, galleries, restaurants and clubs. It’s now the countries hope that more people look at the city as a travel destination and that the work being done to revitalise its streets make many consider returning to it to explore further.


One of Sofia’s – and indeed Bulgaria’s – key attractions is the Saint Alexander Nevski Cathedral

So what should a first-time traveller to Sofia know before embarking on a trip to Bulgaria?

Well the first thing to note is the weather.

Sofia’s climate is extremely changeable where winters can be relatively cold and snowy (average highs of 3°C) and summers can be hot and sunny (average highs of 28°C).

In summer, Sofia generally remains slightly cooler than other parts of Bulgaria, due to its higher altitude. However, the city is also subject to heat-waves with high temperatures reaching – or exceeding – 35°C on the hottest days; particularly in July and August. 

My trip to Sofia took place in April time when the weather should hit around 15°C but happened to coincide with a mini heat-wave in the region. This meant that temperatures rose to over 20°C with midday temperatures feeling hotter than this due to minimal cloud coverage!

As someone with fair skin, I wasn’t expecting such strong sun at this time of year so went to a local shop to buy some sun lotion.

To my surprise, while everything else in Bulgaria appeared to be extremely affordable (more on this in a minute), sun cream and after sun were priced excessively costing far more than they would in the UK.

Now, I’m not sure if I was just unlucky with this and the few shops I looked in all knew they were locations that tourists frequent so upped their prices, or if this is something that happens everywhere. All I know is that the price for sun lotion did not match my closest expectations of the Bulgarian pricing structure. Not by a long way!

I never got to the bottom of this and always wondered why it could be. That said, my advice is simple. Take your own sun lotion and after sun with you and avoid buying when you arrive.

The next thing to think about is the currency.

Bulgaria is not on the Euro so you will need to use the local currency which is the Bulgarian lev.

At the time of writing the best rate I could see was 2.1947 Bulgarian lev to the Great British pound.

While that may not seem a lot, it’s worth remembering that – aside from the aforementioned sun lotion – Bulgaria is a very affordable country to visit.

In many cases items are at least half as expensive as they would be in the UK. As an example, an inexpensive meal that would cost around £15 in the UK is likely to cost as little as £7 in Sofia while a bottle of water costing £1.35 in the UK can cost as little as £0.62 in Bulgaria.

Beer is even more cost-effective many readers will be pleased to hear. A domestic beer costing around £5.70 in the UK will only set you back £1.27 in Sofia and an imported beer costing £5 in the UK will cost just £1.91.

These prices get even better the further out of the centre of the city you travel. During one day trip out of the city, we managed to buy two cappuccinos and a snack for a total price of around £1.50!

My advice here is to take as much money as you can afford to take with you and enjoy the time in the city. By doing so, you’ll easily be able to afford most things without having to continuously count the coins in your wallet as you go.

One difficulty travellers may experience is the language barrier.

According to the BBC, around 85% of the approximate 8.7m population of Bulgaria speak the official language; Bulgarian. On top of this, a further 2.5% speak Macedonian, which is considered in Bulgaria as a dialect of Bulgarian and not as a separate language.

Other minority languages include Romani, Turkish, spoken by 9% of the population, and the related languages of Gagauz, Tatar, and Albanian.

To make matters harder, they also use a Cyrillic script alphabet; making reading signs and menus that bit more challenging

That’s not to say life is impossible here for an English speaker as many Bulgarians have a grasp of the language even if they are not fluent.

As I may have mentioned before, languages are not my forte, and Bulgarian was never going to be on my to-do list. Yet I still think it’s important to make an effort when you’re in someone else’s country and just having a few words to hand does grease the wheels in your favour slightly.

Simple words like hello (Здравейте / Zdraveĭte), goodbye (Довиждане / Dovizhdane), thanks (Благодаря / Blagodarya) and please (Моля те / Molya te) can get you a long way.


Sofia as seen on Google Maps

Being aware of what type of plug adapters you need for Bulgaria is also important for all your electrical items. In Bulgaria there are two associated plug types, types C and F. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and plug type F is the plug which has two round pins with two earth clips on the side. Bulgaria operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.

A final thing to note is that Sofia is two hours ahead of the UK so, while you’ll lose a couple of hours when you arrive if you are travelling from Great Britain, you’ll gain them back on your return flight.


Getting there

Flying is the obvious way travellers can expect to get to Sofia (unless they fancy a rather long – albeit scenic – drive across Europe) with flights arriving at Sofia International Airport.

Situated around 10km outside of the city centre, the airport with its two terminals was welcoming around 7 million travellers through its doors pre-Covid-19.

Opened in 1937, the airport is now a major hub for many flight operators with numerous arriving from destinations within the UK including London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London Luton, Liverpool, Edinburgh and, seasonally, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol.

Airlines flying in and out of the UK to Sofia include EasyJet, Ryanair, British Airways, Wizz Air and TUI Airways.

When I was looking to book this trip I actually split my flights from London Gatwick to Sofia between two different airlines as it proved cheaper that way.

On the way out I flew with EasyJet (for £129.98 total for two people) and returned with Ryanair (for £70.28 for two people). It’s worth noting that both these prices were pre-Covid-19 and included speedy boarding, and it’s highly likely prices have increased since then.

Flights with these budget airlines are what you’d expect. No thrills and lacking any real entertainment or comfort, but – for the short three hour flight – it’s bearable.


Flying into Sofia you get an idea of the style of buildings that are present throughout the city

After arriving and getting through security, the other aspect of a travellers arrival that needs to be considered is how they get from the airport to the city centre.

Fortunately, there are a number of options available.

Firstly, a taxi can be caught from outside the terminal. It’s worth remembering to make sure you are getting into a licenced taxi. The official taxi operator from Sofia Airport is OK Supertrans, so only use these ones to avoid being ripped off.

To give you an idea, a taxi ride to the city centre of Sofia is approximately 17.60 Bulgarian lev and the journey duration is 25 minutes on average.

If you’d rather avoid a taxi, you can also opt for the metro to the city centre of Sofia. For this, just take metro line M2 to Serdika. A single metro ticket costs just 1.60 Bulgarian lev and it will take 26 minutes to reach the city centre.

If you prefer to travel by bus, there are two buses leaving the airport with direction to Sofia city. Buses 84 and 184 follow the same route and run every 30 minutes on average.

There is also the option of a private transfer which can be booked via Booking.com. This was the option we opted for despite it being a bit more expensive.

We met our driver once we were through the airport and he was waiting for us holding a sign with our names on it. He then took our luggage and led us to a private car, before driving us directly to our accommodation in the city centre. He also was the same driver who picked us up from our accommodation at the end of the trip and took us back to the airport.

This journey was quick and efficient and cost us £31 in total for the return journey and saw us arrive in good time to the city centre to start enjoying our trip.


Where to stay

While I could have opted for a nice hotel for an extremely affordable price, my love for quirky places won out – hence my stay at this great little AirBnB.

What this place lacks in size it makes up for in character.

Located on the top floor of a small apartment complex on ulitsa “Solunska” – right near the centre of the city – this charming AirBnB is deceiving.

I’ll be honest, the building itself – from the outside – leaves a lot to be desired but once you’re in and up at your floor, the style of the place wins out.

From the outside, you’ll notice the door to the building is around the back of the complex, in what can only be described as a bit of a waste ground.

Yet once you close the door to the outside and climb the stairs, you’ll be met by a rather splendid little place.


Looking down the stairs at the living and bedroom area of the AirBnB
The bed is suspended by ropes in each corner
This small staircase leads you to the upper level
Views across the rooftops of Sofia from the AirBnB with the mountains in the distance

Opening the door, you’re straight into the living and sleeping area. The first thing you’ll see is the bed – which is a bit of a novelty as it is suspended from the ceiling by four large ropes attached to each corner.

To the right of the entrance a steep interior staircase takes you up to the ‘second floor’, while a small – but functional – kitchen and a shower / wet room make up the remaining part of the lower level.

A quick point to make is that the toilet is in this wet room and – as the name suggests – it gets very wet in here very quickly, so it’s best to keep any toilet roll in the main room, away from the shower when it’s on.

At the top of the stairs, on the upper level, you’ll be in a small storage space before being taken outside into a roof top terrace and balcony. This has been fitted with artificial lawn on the floor – and walls bizarrely – and is a great space to enjoy food and drinks while looking out over the local area.

This terrace area is a great part of this AirBnB and is somewhere I always enjoyed having a morning coffee and bit of breakfast.

One of the key selling points of this AirBnB is that it’s an extremely affordable base in a really central part of Sofia.

For my stay here I paid £98.28 in total for three nights – just £32.76 a night! So while it may not have huge amounts of space – for this price you can’t grumble too much.

And while that price was in a pre-Covid-19 world (which means, I would guess, that the cost has gone up a little bit) it’s unlikely to rival that of top hotels in the nearby area, making this the perfect spot to enjoy Bulgaria on a tight budget.


Getting around

Sofia is a fairly large city, but for me the best way to see it at minimal expense is by walking.

The city centre itself is pretty compact, so getting around on foot is pretty convenient.

Still travellers do have to remember one important thing when it comes to crossing the road at pedestrian crossings:  don’t expect that drivers will automatically stop, just because you are standing at a pedestrian crossing, especially if it is not regulated by a traffic light. Always look in both directions, before you dare to cross if you plan to make it to the other side!


Sofia is an easy city to walk around
While the payments are plentiful, remember to look carefully when crossing the roads as drivers don’t always stop for pedestrians

And while it is possible to join the numerous cars on the street by renting a car – which can then be used to explore outside of the city (this can also be done via organised tours – more on that latter – so don’t think that getting a car is the only way to explore further afield) – driving and parking in the city didn’t look too much fun from my experience.

So if your feet do get tired – or you have mobility issues – then an option is to use Sofia’s new metro system which is clean, efficient and cheap. There are several stops throughout the city centre, so you can use the metro as a quick way to jump a few extra blocks rather than walking. The metros are especially helpful if you want, or need, to visit the outlying areas of the city.


Top sites

As I’ve mentioned before one of the best ways, I find, to get to know a new city is to take part in a free walking tour.

For Sofia I used the superb Free Sofia Tour.

The Free Sofia Tour covers most of the main things to see in Sofia. From the Saint Alexander Nevski Cathedral (more on that site in a bit) to The National Theatre, it will immerse participants into the city’s rich history.

Taking part in this walking tour will mean you get cover a lot (if not all) the main sites in Sofia of the course of two hours before paying what you think the tour is worth at the end to the ever-helpful guides.

Tours take place everyday at 11am and 2pm and can be joined at a moment’s notice at the starting point in front of the Palace of Justice.


The customary photo taken at the end of all free walking tours

Should you not wish to take an organised tour and explore the city on your own, then a great place to start is one of the city’s primary tourist attractions; Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski.

Located a mere stone’s throw away from the city centre, this stunning cathedral has seen the city develop around it with it now sitting in the centre of a busy roundabout road-system.

With it’s dominating white walls keeping its green roof and golden domes aloft, the Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski has become a focal point and image of the city.

Built in Neo-Byzantine style, it is said to be one of the 50 largest Christian church buildings – by volume – in the world. If it was full, it should be able to host around 5,000 people behind its doors.

The construction of the Saint Alexander Nevski Cathedral started in 1882 but most of the work took place in the early 1900s. The cathedral was created in honour to the Russian soldiers who died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, when Bulgaria was liberated from Ottoman rule.

Today, the cathedral still operates with many Bulgarians attending services here. And despite still being active, visitors are also able to get entry to the inside to marvel at its splendid décor, stunningly painted walls and its blue and gold laden ceilings.

There is no entrance fee, but photos are strictly prohibited inside.


The cathedral is an impressive structure in the heart of Sofia
While it’s impressive to look at, be careful crossing the road to get to it as it sits in the middle of a roundabout roadway system
The domes of Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski look stunning on a sunny day in Sofia

A mere kilometre walk back into the centre of the city, travellers taking a stroll down one of the city’s main streets – bul. Todor Alexandrov – will be welcomed to the heart of Sofia by the imposing presence of the Saint Sofia Monument; also known as the Statue of Saint Sofia.

Designed by the local sculptor George Chapkanov, the 24m statue is the newest in the city – after been erected in 2000 – having replaced the statue of Vladimir Lenin that was once on the same spot.

The statue works as the perfect example of the old meeting the new in the city. Standing on a column in the middle of a busy crossroad, the statue’s golden face looks out upon the Batemberg square, where TZUM – The Central Department Store – the presidency and the Government houses are situated, while also being within touching distance to some of the historic finds unveiled during the metro construction works.

So while it’s fair to say that Saint Alexandar Nevski Cathedral is seen world-wide as the image of Sofia, for Bulgarians the statue of Saint Sofia is certainly the city’s symbol.

As this is situated on the street, there is no fee to view this attraction.


The silhouette of the Statue of Saint Sofia standing tall in the city centre

Nearby, situated within a stone’s throw of the statue, are a number of Sofia’s other key sites in an area known as The Largo.

This part of the city is made up of three main buildings designed and built in the 1950s with the intention of becoming the city’s representative centre.

In this area, visitors will see the Bulgarian National assembly – also known as Party House as it was previously used as headquarters for the Bulgarian Communist Party – the TZUM department store, the Council of Ministers, the Presidency, the Sofia Hotel Balkan and the Ministry of Education.

Perhaps the most architecturally stunning of these is the visually impressive – albeit slightly oppressive-looking – Party House; which was built between 1948 and 1954.

When it was first erected it was adorned with The Red Star – a typical addition to Soviet-style buildings –  which has since been removed with the fall of communism in Bulgaria.

As mentioned, this mighty building with its towering columns was once the headquarters of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and – for a year between 2020 and 2021 – was used again as the National Assembly of the Republic of Bulgaria.

However, following the April 2021 Bulgarian parliamentary election, the National Assembly moved again to the old Parliament House – situated less than a kilometre away on bul. Tsar Osvoboditel –  because the new opposition led-majority viewed the Party House building as a symbol of Bulgaria’s communist past.

These buildings are mainly for observing from the outside, so unless you have official business you’re unlikely to need – or be able to – gain entrance to them. So once again this is a free attraction.


The imposing presence of the former Party House at The Largo is still evident to this day

Also located outside of the National Assembly sits the mighty Tsar Osvoboditel Statue: erected in honour of Russian Emperor Alexander II who liberated Bulgaria from Ottoman rule.

Resting on a stone pedestal, this black granite statue depicts the Tsar sitting atop his noble steed looking towards the Assembly building as if he is keeping an eye on the country’s affairs.

Nearby, in front of the aforementioned TZUM department store, sits a small example of the beauty of the old city radiating through the Soviet-era doldrums. For here, visitors will find the Church of Sveta Petka.

This medieval Bulgarian Orthodox church is a small one-nave building partially dug into the ground. It features a semi-cylindrical vault, a hemispherical apse, and a crypt discovered during excavations after the Second World War.

Dating back to the 11th Century, it is today a monument of culture for Bulgarians and is known for its mural paintings from the 14th, 15th, 17th and 19th Centuries depicting numerous biblical scenes.

Also in the same area – situated in a courtyard between the Sheraton Hotel and the Presidency (part of The Largo) – tourists will find the Church St. George Rotunda.

Surrounded by Soviet architecture, this red-brick structure was built in the 4th Century as a Roman baths. It was transformed into a church during the Roman and Byzantine Empires and is widely considered to be the oldest building in modern Sofia.

This church doesn’t sit alone and is part of a larger archaeological complex. Included here are ancient ruins, a section of a Roman street with preserved drainage, foundations of a large basilica, a public building, and some smaller buildings making it a truly intriguing ancient site to behold.


In the centre of a brutalist communist-era landscape sits fragments of Sofia’s beautiful history

As is the case in many modern cities, Sofia is home to more than one religion. Aside from the numerous churches that adorn its streets there are also several stunningly impressive mosques celebrating Muslim culture throughout the city. One of these that should be visited is that of Banya Bashi Mosque situated in the heart of the city alongside Banski Square.

The mosque was designed by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and completed in 1566, during the years the Ottomans had control of the city.

With its 15m diameter dome, Banya Bashi Mosque’s was actually built over natural thermal spas meaning that visitors can see the steam rising from vents in the ground near the mosque’s walls.

And, just a street or two away from this site, you can also sample the spring water itself thanks to new constructions that tap the water to the surface allowing people to drink or take mineral water home; free of charge. It’s worth noting, however, that this water is warm and has a slightly sulphurous smell to it; so, it is unlikely to totally quench your thirst on a sweltering day in the city or make you want to come back for more!

Visitors who wish to go inside the mosque can do so for free.


Multiple faiths are worshiped in Sofia
The mosque can be seen in the background while exploring some of the excavated finds that were discovered while the Sofia metro system was being built

While Russia may not be a firm favourite for many people right now, their influence over massive swathes of eastern Europe cannot be ignored.

Sofia is no different and has felt the impression of Russia over the generations with many reminders remaining in the city today. One such example is that of the Russian Church Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski (again there is no entrance fee to go inside here).

The church is built on the site of the Saray Mosque, which was destroyed in 1882, after the liberation of Bulgaria by Russia from the Ottoman Empire. It’s a fact that you’ll find apparent in much of Sofia. Many religious sites like this one have swapped faiths on a regular basis over the centuries as the dominant religion of the time takes control.

This church is unmistakably Russian. Its tall towers with its golden domes lofted above the green roof make it a dominating sight.

Built in 1907 – and consecrated in 1914 – the church remained open after the Russian Revolution and during the Communist regime in Bulgaria (1944–1989); though priests and church-goers were carefully watched by the State Security police.

While the outside remains vibrant and colourful, the inside has been darkened by years of smoke from the candles that burn day-after-day. The site also houses the remains of Saint Archbishop Seraphim beneath its main floor. The grave of the archbishop – who died in 1950 – is a place that local people visit to pray, and leave notes, asking for wishes to be granted.


The Russian influence on Bulgaria is hard to miss in the city

While this article focuses primarily on things to do in Sofia, it’s worth noting that there is much more to Bulgaria than the confines of the capital city. Travellers – who are looking to get out of the capital for at least a day – won’t go far wrong with a trip east to the beautiful, cultural capital of Bulgaria; Plovdiv – one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in Europe.

A two-hour drive will get you from the capital to Plovdiv, situated on the two banks of the Maritsa River. For those who don’t want to hire a car and brave the – somewhat erratic – Bulgarian road system, then numerous tour companies take busloads of day-trippers to and from Sofia.

For our trip we used the fantastic Traventuria who take guests twice a week (Wednesdays and Sundays) on a full day-trip to Plovdiv and Koprivshtitsa with pick-ups from outside the aforementioned Alexander Nevski Cathedral for as little as €45 per person.

With our guide we were able to see all the top sites of interest during a two and a half hour guided walking tour of the Old Town and the centre of Plovdiv before venturing to Koprivshtitsa in the afternoon – the must-see town nested in the mountains. 

Unlike Sofia, Plovdiv gives a different aspect of Bulgarian life. Away from the hustle and bustle of the busy capital, Plovdiv offers a more relaxed and charming lifestyle to those who call it home.

Historically, the city was developed on seven syenite hills with evidence of the habitation in this city dating back as far as the 6th millennium BCE.

Today, the city is a treasure-trove of history which is now carefully – and seamlessly – blended with the modern day.

A walk around the cobbled-streets of the city’s Old Town will showcase some of this quaint city’s history while must stops include that of the Hisar Kapia – or medieval gate – as well as the Roman Theatre of Philippopolis; constructed around the 1st Century AD.

Marble seats create a semi-circle around the stage, while tall columns – some three stories high – frame the magnificent mountainous backdrop.

While it has been around for the best part of 2,000 years, the theatre was only rediscovered again in the 1970s following a landslide. Serious excavation and restoration programmes would follow to bring the theatre to its current day splendour.

With a belly-full of history, the nearby new town – with its wealth of shops and restaurants – is worth a walkthrough before heading back to your mode of transport and making the swift drive back to Sofia.

The drive back to Sofia will give visitors time to reflect on their Bulgarian experiences. For anyone who’s witnessed these sites and this country first-hand, it remains surprising that Bulgaria is yet to really make a name for itself as a go-to tourist destination despite all it has to offer and affordable prices when you arrive.

Having said that, it is getting more popular. Therefore, travellers considering a vacation to the Balkans should do so sooner, rather than later, in order to enjoy the welcoming and hospitable locals – and their country – before it becomes too crowded to be able to do so.


The cobbled streets of the old town welcome visitors to Plovdiv
Arriving in Plovdiv gives you a very different feel to Sofia
A visit to the Roman Theatre of Philippopolis is a must in Plovdiv
The columns on the stage at the theatre create a wonderful setting for plays to be acted out here
You can get up on stage and get a view the actors would get of their surroundings when putting on a production

Where to avoid

As with many city’s it’s always best to keep a good tab on where your belongings are at any given time.

Bulgaria isn’t the richest of places, so the number of opportunistic thieves praying on tourists may be greater than in some other cities. That being said, I didn’t come across any during my stay and had no issues with any of the local people.

So this is more about how best to spend your time in Bulgaria rather than areas that are dangerous to go to. Listed here, therefore, are some locations that you’d not lose out too much on if you were short of time.

The first of these is the National Palace of Culture.

As Bulgaria further invests in its future by making full use of its past, it’s clear that, sitting alongside Sofia’s wealth of religion and rich history is its blossoming cultural presence. At the centre of this is the city’s National Palace of Culture.

This huge multifunctional conference and exhibition centre is the largest of its kind in south-eastern Europe and is a celebration of Bulgarian life. Beautifully presented, the centre is set in welcoming, yet spacious, surroundings where visitors can potentially enjoy a host of activities including concerts, operas, and ballets.

While this area is impressive to see, travellers only really need to visit here if they have a tickets to see such a show.

A second suggestion is that of the Law Court Building; also known as the Palace of Justice. While this is a fine reminder of Bulgarian’s thirst for justice – with its impressive lion statues guarding its entrances – it offers very little beyond saying you’ve seen it.

Chances are if you took part in a walking tour of the city – or even just spent any time in the city centre – then you’ll have passed this building without even noticing it.


One of the lion statues outside the Palace of Justice

Great places to eat

For those looking for a quick stop for a snack or a coffee, I have two great finds for you.

The first is Confetti Oborishte and this spot – located at ul. “Graf Ignatiev” 4 – is a wonderful spot to grab some gelato.

Served in big portions – this ice cream shop will make you want to keep coming back with its wide range of flavours to try at affordable prices.


A poor quality photo, but you get the idea of the style of desserts on offer at Confetti Oborishte

The second option is the Social Cafe Bar & Kitchen restaurant.

While you can get main-meals in this centrally located establishment (bul. “Vitosha” 16), it’s the hot drinks and milkshakes that made me want to keep coming back.

This welcoming café has a wide selection of drinks on offer but their milkshakes are extremely satisfying. With generous portions of ice-cream on top of thick shakes, these drinks really help cool you down on a hot day in the city.


Examples of the drinks on offer at the Social Cafe Bar & Kitchen

As with all major cities there are a wealth of great bars and restaurants to explore but one that I particularly took to during my stay in Sofia was the Indian Taj Mahal Restaurant.

This delightful restaurant sits just back off the narrow – yet busy – ti avgust street; situated a few roads away from the Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski.

The peach exterior walls and the tiled restaurant name will let you know you’ve found the right place. Upon entry, you’ll either be guided to a seat on the lower floor, or – ideally – ask to be taken to one of the upper two floors where the interior décor is a delight.

The menu is extensive and caters to all tastes with a wide range of curry dishes – at a variety of spice levels – to choose from.

Traditional tandoori dishes make for a great meal and portions are both well presented and plentiful. You will not leave this restaurant hungry!


A meal at the Taj Mahal will leave you full

If you are like me, then you also won’t want to miss out of the the array of naan breads on offer.

Best of all – as with a lot of Sofia – the meal will be inexpensive leaving you feeling both full in your stomach while also not empty in your wallet.

Sit back and enjoy the curry, along with a glass or two of beer, and bask in the vibrant feel that this restaurant – and indeed Sofia in general – has given you during a stay in one of Eastern Europe’s up-and-coming go-to cities.


Useful links

EasyJet

Ryanair

Booking.com

AirBnB

Free Sofia Tour

Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski

Statue of Saint Sofia

The Largo

Tsar Osvoboditel Statue

Church of Sveta Petka

Church St. George Rotunda

Banya Bashi Mosque

Russian Church Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski

Plovdiv

Traventuria

Koprivshtitsa

National Palace of Culture

Palace of Justice

Confetti Oborishte

Social Cafe Bar & Kitchen restaurant

Taj Mahal Restaurant

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Northern Ireland… walking in the footsteps of giants

Northern Ireland and Belfast

As the capital city of Northern Ireland, Belfast is the final piece in the Great British jigsaw.

The city’s name means ‘mouth of the sand-bank ford’. It is the largest city of Northern Ireland – and the 12th-largest city in the United Kingdom and has a population of 343,542 as of 2019 – and stands on the banks of the River Lagan on the east coast.

By the early 19th century, Belfast was a major port. During this time it played an important role in the Industrial Revolution in Ireland, becoming briefly the biggest linen-producer in the world, earning it the nickname “Linenopolis”.

By the time it was granted city status in 1888, it was a major centre of Irish linen production, tobacco-processing and rope-making. Shipbuilding was also a key industry; the Harland and Wolff shipyard, which built the RMS Titanic, was the world’s largest shipyard. 

Yet it’s been far from smooth sailing for Belfast; especially in recent time. The city – as has been well documented – suffered greatly during the violence that accompanied the partition of Ireland, as well as during the more recent conflict known as the Troubles.

But it is also a city that is on the up. With its rich heritage from its industrial past, as well as become a hub of film and TV making (in no small part due to it being a key location for the hit HBO show; Game of Thrones), tourism has been growing in Belfast and indeed in Northern Ireland in general.


A walk among the columns of Giant’s Causeway will be on every visitor to Northern Ireland’s to-do list

During my life to date, I have been to Northern Ireland just twice.

The first was a dedicated trip to Belfast to take in the city and the surrounding area, while the second saw Holly and I visit the northern parts of Northern Ireland – near Derry – as we went to a friend’s wedding just across the border in Donegal, Ireland during August 2020.

So while this blog features Belfast it will be extending it to areas outside of the city’s boundaries that many will want to visit during a trip to the Northern Irish capital.


In Belfast you’ll notice many murals like this adorning the city’s streets

I had a very set idea of some of the things I wanted to see, and do, in Northern Ireland. First and foremost was a trip to Giant’s Causeway to stand among its many columns and witness this extraordinary piece of nature.

Next was to see the Titanic exhibition in Belfast. As a massive Titanic nerd growing up, to go to the place where the legendary ship was built and launched from was a no-brainer.

My final thing was to visit the various sites where Game of Thrones was filmed as I loved the show when it was on (as readers of World Complete will know from other blogs – see Dubrovnik).

But that is far from all that can experience in this wonderful corner of the United Kingdom.

So what does a visitor to Northern Ireland and Belfast need to know before setting off?


Northern Ireland as shown on Google Maps

If you are travelling from somewhere else in the UK, then fortunately you don’t have to worry about issues such as currency (Northern Ireland uses the Great British Pound) and language (English is the main language used in Northern Ireland), while driving remains on the left side of the road, there is no time-zone difference and plug points (plug type G) are as you would find in the rest of the UK.

These similarities make a trip to Northern Ireland that bit easier than a similar trip elsewhere in the world.

Yet despite this, there are a couple of things that visitors should know before setting off.

The first thing is that Northern Ireland’s climate is usually very moderate but – on occasions – can get very hot.

During August, the daily mean temperature for Belfast – for example – sits around the 15°C mark but on hot days this can escalate to nearer 28°C! However, even if the country is experiencing a hot period, it’s best to plan for wet weather in Northern Ireland.

On average, during August, there are still almost 13 days of rain a month which means that a nice day can turn into a wet one very quickly. It makes planning a trip that bit harder as the need for sun lotion and umbrellas can both be called into action at a moment’s notice.

Another thing to note is that – if you are a British citizen – then technically you do not need a passport to enter Northern Ireland as it is part of the UK, but you do need ID to board either a plane or a ferry.

So, while a passport is not needed, I’ve taken mine with for for the trips I’ve been on in order to avoid any complications. If nothing else they can act as my ID anyway.

I’m sure there are other things to note, and I’d always advise doing your research in full about a place before travelling. However, with these simple things in mind then I’m sure a trip to Northern Ireland will be as enjoyable and fun-filled for you as it has been for me.


Getting there

Getting to Northern Ireland is a relatively easy affair and can be done by both air and ferry. However, for the purposes of this blog I’m only going to focus on the air travel as that is how I have arrived both times I’ve visited.

My first suggestion for air travel is for those who wish to use Belfast as their base.

Belfast International Airport is around 13 miles northwest of the city centre itself and is the main focus for flights from mainland United Kingdom to Northern Ireland.

Each year, around 6 million passengers pass through the airport’s gates, although this figure fell through the floor in 2020 (for Covid-19 reasons) with only 1.7 million passengers using the airport!

There are numerous flights – all with EasyJet – that take travellers from London Luton, London Stanstead and London Gatwick, as well as from Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England and Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland.

When I flew Belfast – one June – I took the route from London Stanstead (for just £87.96 per person for a return flight) which took around an hour and fifteen minutes to complete. Once settled into my seat, a good podcast episode was all I needed to see the time fly by.


Flight times to Northern Ireland from England are short and sweet. By the time you are in the air you’re coming back down again

My second suggestion is for those who wish to be based outside of the capital – or indeed across the border in the Republic of Ireland. For that, I’d suggest flying to City of Derry International Airport.

This a regional airport located around seven miles northeast of Derry and is situated on the south bank of Lough Foyle.

Very few flights operate from this hub with only seasonal flights going to Spanish locations while Ryanair also operate flights to Manchester. The rest of their flights arrive in England (Liverpool and London Stansted) and Scotland (Edinburgh and Glasgow) via Scottish-flight provider, Loganair.

This small company operate an extremely friendly and efficient service. During the short flight – that only takes around an hour and 25 minutes – we even got a small snack of Scottish shortbread and drink of water to enjoy which other budget airlines fail to provide. A small gesture, but a nice touch that they certainly don’t need to offer.

For an August-trip – that saw us fly return to Derry from London Stanstead – it cost us £148.84 per person; a price that also included one suitcase below the plane (something we needed as we headed out to Ireland for a wedding). Without this extra suitcase, the cost would have been cheaper.

Again a good podcast or couple of chapters of a book later, the flight was over and we were free to explore Northern Ireland.


Holly walking across the airport tarmac at London Stansted to board our flight to Derry
Holly and I boarding our Loganair flight from London to Derry
The sign above the entrance to the City of Derry Airport

Where to stay

My first trip to Northern Ireland saw me visit – and stay in – Belfast.

In the city itself there are a number of great hotels and apartments to stay in but on this occasion there were three of us travelling and we wanted to stay in the same place.

For our needs we sourced this great AirBnB just on the outskirts of the city centre for just £249 total for a three night stay!

Located in the Quay Gate Apartment building on the corner of Station Street and Middlepath Street, this comfortable apartment gave us a great spot to settle into for our three nights in Belfast.

The apartment has a large living space and kitchen for all your needs and also has two bedrooms and two bathrooms meaning it is suitable for friends to share or for more than one small family to stay in.

Best of all, it’s just a short walk – across the River Lagan – to the city centre’s Cathedral Quarter (perhaps a 10 – 15 minute walk) where you’ll find all manner of bars, shops and restaurants.

A real gem and a great place to pitch-up for a short city break in Belfast.


The living space and kitchen at this AirBnB is spacious and plentiful making a stay here very comfortable
When you’re crossing the river to get to the AirBnB you’ll pass The Salmon of Knowledge statue which will show you’re heading in the right direction ironically

My other suggestion for those looking to stay outside of Belfast is a bit of a cheat. By that I mean it’s not actually in Northern Ireland itself, but just across the border in the Irish town of Donegal.

For the trip Holly and I took one August – for our friend’s wedding – we decided to stay in the wonderfully welcoming Donegal Town Independent Hostel just off the N56 near Donegal town centre.

This find turned out to be a real bargain. For just £186 total, Holly and I stayed in our private room at the hostel for four nights – a mere fraction of the price we could have paid should we have chosen any number of other hotels or AirBnBs in the local area.

Included with that price was free parking in front of the hostel within its grounds and use of the communal kitchen (which included teas and coffees free of charge but we had to supply our own food to consume) as well as our own private bathroom.

So why pick this location to explore Northern Ireland? Well, firstly, Donegal is extremely near the Irish border meaning – if you have a car – you can get in and out of Ireland / Northern Ireland extremely easily.

While the hostel is about an hour and a half drive from City of Derry Airport where we arrived, the beautiful surroundings of the hostel and the kind hosts more than made up for this.

It is well situated for those who want to either explore the norther reaches of Ireland – along the Wild Atlantic Way – or the northern parts of Northern Ireland down to Giant’s Causeway and inland to Omagh.

Upon arrival we were greeted by our hosts and shown to our room, while also being given a few helpful tips about the local area and places to get a good bite to eat and something to drink.

We quickly became a firm fixture within the hostel as our stay – I’m led to believe – was slightly longer than most people do but we felt so at home that it was a burden to leave when the time came.


The lovely Donegal Town Independent Hostel is set back from the main road in a lovely quiet part of town
The views from the front of the hostel are stunning and, on a nice day, the porch area makes a great place to have some food or enjoy a drink
The rooms are clean and functional and provide all you need for a comfortable stay
The hostel also has it’s own pet cat who enjoys meeting and greeting new arrivals
Wedding ready and waiting for our taxi to take us to our friends’ wedding at a nearby castle

Getting around

First thing to say is that Northern Ireland – like much of the rest of the UK – is fairly easy to navigate by public or private transport as well as on foot where needed.

For a starting point, if you are arriving into Belfast International Airport then you can either hire a car (more about car hire – albeit from Derry – in a bit) or use the very efficient Ulsterbus Airport Express 300a.

Located just outside the main you’ll want there are numerous bus services that take you to various parts of Northern Ireland – as well as into Ireland – but if you are headed to Belfast City Centre then you’ll want to hop on the 300a service.

This service costs around £8 per person for a single journey or £11.50 per person for a return. The 300a service operates seven days a week and, at peak times on Monday to Friday, the service run every 15 minutes!

The journey itself takes around 40 minutes and goes via Broadacres, Castle Gates and then onto the Europa Bus Centre located on Glengall Street – to the west of the River Lagan.

This simple, cheap services is great for those that don’t want to hire a vehicle and are planning to remain in the city centre. However, with a wealth of activates outside of Belfast to see and do; hiring a car may be beneficial.

This was our thoughts when Holly and I flew to Derry.

Firstly, we were obviously not staying in Derry so we needed the freedom to get around quickly and easily and to cross the Irish border.

Ahead of arriving in Northern Ireland we booked the hire of a small economy car – which turned out to be a Volkswagen Golf – via Holiday Autos.

When you go to collect your car, remember to have your full UK drivers licence photocard with you as well as a credit card. Without these, you’ll not get to drive away.

We booked the car for four days at a cost of £106.50 in total – or £26.63 per day. This fee included taxes and unlimited millage with fuel levels having to be returned to full on the return of the car.

If you are planning to drive across the Irish border as we were, however, do tell the car hire company when you go to collect the car. By doing this, they can extend the insurance and protection you have so it covers taking the car ‘abroad’. 

The counter staff will fill in a VE103 form for you, which allows you to take a hire car into a new country temporarily. The car will then be covered for both the Republic of Ireland and the UK making you free to explore both.

Also, the rental company will probably charge a ‘cross-border fee’ when you pick up the car. This fee will extend your rental’s basic damage, theft and third-party protection across the border.  The fee varies by rental company, but it’s usually around £25/€30 per rental.

And, to make matters easy for those used to driving in mainland UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland both drive on the left side of the road (sorry European visitors).

With the hire of a car, it gives you freedom to explore Northern Ireland at your own speed and allows you to enjoy sites – such as Giant’s Causeway – without having to worry about getting on a tour bus at a certain time.


Picking up our rental car from the City of Derry Airport made getting around Northern Ireland – and Ireland – a lot easier than having to totally rely on public transport

Top sites

Using Belfast as a base can open up a number of interesting places to visit within a very short distance of one another. Primary among those is that of Titanic Belfast.

As a child, the story of Titanic always fascinated me. So I was never going to pass up the opportunity to visit this wonderful museum while in Belfast.

This impressive museum and exhibition is located on the Hamilton Docks. This spot is vitally historic as it marks the point where the legendary vessel first entered the water via the slipway (which are still accessible to this day).

The Titanic Experience describes itself as the world’s most authentic retelling of the iconic story. From creation to that fateful night on 15 April 1912, the museum crams huge amounts of detail inside its iceberg shaped walls. And, perhaps appropriately, like an iceberg, there is a whole lot more to the Titanic’s story under the surface than that which has been well documented on television and film.

For £21.50 per adult, we were were able to dive into the history of Titanic and learn more about those on board the great ship as well the background of her tender vessel; the SS Nomadic (which is sat outside the museum in dry-dock).

The experience itself is a self-guided one that takes you through nine interactive galleries, exploring the full Titanic story. It takes around an hour and 45 minutes to do in full. As an added bonus, you also get admission to SS Nomadic outside the museum; the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world which has been painstakingly restored to her original glory!

I’d advise booking tickets online before you visit as this not only allows you to pre-select your timed entry spot, but also helps you to avoid the queues on the day.


The Titanic Belfast building is shaped this way to represent the iceberg that fatefully sunk the legendary ship on 15 April 1912
Inside Titanic Belfast there are lots of interesting exhibits to see and read
There are also examples of items that may have been used on Titanic such as this White Star Line plate
Outside, you can stand on the slipway where Titanic first entered the water ahead of its fateful first – and only – voyage
The views from the Titanic Belfast show the surrounding area where the legendary ship was constructed
You can board and explore the SS Nomadic – which sits in dry-dock and is the only remaining White Star Line vessel in the world

Keeping things light during a visit to Belfast is always important, so what better way of doing that, than a visit to the infamous Crumlin Road Gaol!

The prison was built in the early-to-mid 1800s and it was originally designed to house up to 550 inmates at a time. In its formative years, the prison was said to be the first in Northern Ireland to be built according to “The Separate System”, which was intended to separate prisoners from each other with no communication between them.

As the years passed, however, more prisoners were sent to Crumlin Road and – especially in the early 1970s – as many as three prisoners were placed in each cell at a time.

The prison is located on – unsurprisingly – Crumlin Road, which is situated to the north-west of central Belfast. You can get public transport here, but it is just as easy to walk the mile-long journey.

An interesting fact is, that just opposite the prison – on the other side of Crumlin Road – is the old Court House. Now in a state of disrepair and awaiting redevelopment into something new, this court house has an underground tunnel that runs from it to the prison. It was in this tunnel that convicted prisons would be led to the prison after their trial to conduct their sentences.

While many prisoners would be released upon completion of their sentences, the prison was also one used for execution by hanging.

Yet, when it was originally designed, the prison did not contain a gallows and the executions were carried out in public view until 1901.

At this point an execution chamber was constructed within the prison walls and used until the last of the hangings took place in 1961. In total, 17 prisoners were executed in the prison; the last being Robert McGladdery who was hanged in 1961 for the murder of Pearl Gamble. 

In a slightly twisted set of events, the condemned would be kept in a cell, large enough for two guards to live in as well, that would open straight up into the gallows where they would be taken on the day of their execution, and hanged. The bodies of the executed were then buried inside the prison in unconsecrated ground, against the back wall beside the prison hospital.

While it may not be one for the faint-hearted, the stories on offer here are extremely interesting to read and hear. During a trip around the prison – led by one of their informative guides – you’ll hear about these tales up until it’s closure in March 1996.

As with the Titanic Belfast exhibition, I’d advise booking tickets online in advance of a visit. If you buy your tickets on the day it costs £12 per adult, while booking in advance will save you a little bit; costing just £10.80 per adult.

In total you’ll spend about an hour and a half on the tour – which is a considerable amount less time in the prison than many spent while it was in operation.

For those looking to grab something to eat afterwards, you can stop in at the prison’s own restaurant ‘Cuffs’ for a quick spot of lunch or dinner.


One of the main points of the prison looking down one of its wings
Cells were small – especially when three inmates were forced to sleep in them together
The tunnel that the convicts would walk down on their way from the court house on the opposite side of Crumlin Road to their prison cells
The Hangman’s noose with the names of those who were executed here on the wall behind
Looking down through the – now glass – trap door from gallows from which those being executed fell

Perhaps Northern Ireland’s best known landmark is that of Giant’s Causeway.

This is the first of my suggestions that is located outside of Belfast – but one that can be easily reached by car from the capital or from the northern tips of Northern Ireland. It also features on many tours operated in the region.

Located in County Antrim on the north coast of Northern Ireland, Giant’s Causeway is around three miles north-east of the town of Bushmills and really shouldn’t be missed.

This mind-bending natural wonder is even more puzzling to see in person. The area is made up of around 40,000 interlocking basalt columns – all of which were formed as the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption.

Flanked by the wild Atlantic Ocean on one side and surrounded by the beautiful landscape of dramatic cliffs on the other, Giant’s Causeway is Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site.

For just £13 per adult, you can get yourself a Visitors Experience ticket although it is possible to walk the stones for free if you enter by walking along the cliff top and then down the stairs that take you to the columns.

I’ve been to Giant’s Causeway twice in my life at the time of writing. The first was as part of a wider Game of Thrones tour so meant that I only got to spend around an hour here which isn’t long enough.

The second time I came, Holly and I drove to the site and parked in the car park – at a cost of £5.

The first thing you’ll notice is the large visitors centre which you’ll make your way through with your tickets (if you’ve opted for this option as we did). Inside here there is also a small café, gift shop, toilets and some interesting exhibits about the Causeway itself.

After spending a short time inside, we made our way through the back – showing our tickets to the member of staff on the door, and down the long, winding road to where the stones are; some one mile down the coastline.

While it is a steady descending walk down to Giant’s Causeway, remember you either have to come back up the same way you go down or make your way up the stairs on the cliffside. Either way, going down is a lot easier than coming back!

The views as you walk along the road do really showcase just how beautiful the Northern Irish coastline is. Waves crash into the rocks and cliffs and on a clear day you get great views out towards the Atlantic Ocean.

The sight of the stones will start to become more and more apparent as you make your way closer to where the main cluster is. Once down on the rocks, you can climb up the columns, sit on and observe your surroundings.

There are a few things to keep an eye out for. The first is the Giant’s Boot which is a curved shaped stone set along the coastline away from some of the main columns and another is the Chimney Stacks, set high on the cliff side.

We found that, to get the best value for time here, it’s best to spend a good couple of hours exploring the area. This will give you plenty of time on the columns and allow you to climb up the path onto the cliffs where you can get great views down onto Giant’s Causeway from above. This viewpoint is really not one you’ll want to miss.

Thing to remember. As previously mentioned, Northern Ireland – like much of the UK – has very changeable weather. So if you are going at certain times of year, make sure to take some waterproof clothing for sudden downpours as well as warm clothing to protect against the winds.


The stone columns at Giant’s Causeway are everywhere and tourists flock to climb and sit on the highest points they can get to
It’s remarkable how uniform the columns are and how nature made such neat angles
A sure-fire way to make you feel small is to lean up against some of the larger columns
The views from the cliff-top are worth the climb
Looking up at the cliffs, you’ll be able to spot the Chimney Stacks
It can’t be said often enough. The columns are massive in places

A stop that will also feature on one of the Game of Thrones tours (as it was a site used when filming scenes from the Iron Islands) is that of the National Trust’s Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

Yet, even if you are not a fan of the show – or not planning on going on one of the tours – this site is one that is worth visiting; if you can stomach a bit of a height.

The rope bridge can be found near the Northern Irish town of Ballintoy in County Antrim and it links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickared.

Spanning some 20m, the bridge hangs around 30m above the rocks below; which means for those who have a real fear of heights – or unstable surfaces – this may not be one you want to do.

The only way on and off the small island is by the rope bridge which was first erected by fishermen more than 250 years ago.

The bridge itself is about a 20 minute walk – or around a 1km distance – from the Rope Bridge car park. When you get there, you will notice a wooden hut next to the car park. Parking at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is free but you do have to pay £6.50 per person if you want to cross the bridge itself.

Again, I’ve been to this site twice in my life. The first time was as part of a Game of Thrones tour and was able to cross the bridge after paying the fee. The second time – which occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic – saw the bridge shut for renovations so while Holly and I were able to walk up to where the bridge was, we were unable to cross it and go onto the small island.

That being said, you do still get some wonderful views of the surrounding area during the walk down to the bridge as well as of the bridge itself when you get there.


A walk across the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge is not for the faint-hearted
There is a sense of achievement that can be felt when you make it over however
If time allows – and the people behind you don’t mind – you can grab a quick selfie on the bridge. Just don’t drop your phone
Sadly on my second trip back here, the bridge was shut due to repairs
Without people on it, you can see just how narrow the bridge is
Looking at the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge from a different angle shows you some of the beauty of the surrounding area

Holly posing with the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in the background

Another stop that Game of Thrones fans may recognise from the second season of the show is that of The Dark Hedges.

This beautiful avenue of beech trees – actually on a road call Bregagh Road – was originally planted by the Stuart family in the eighteenth century.

This rather ominous looking – yet distinctive and beautiful road – was intended as a compelling landscape feature to impress visitors as they approached the entrance to the Stuart’s Georgian mansion; Gracehill House.

Some two centuries later, the trees remain a magnificent sight and have become one of the most photographed natural phenomena in Northern Ireland.

This free-to-visit area again can be seen on one of the Game of Thrones tours (more on that in a minute) or – if you have a car – is just a 15 minute drive inland from the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

If you do drive, then there is a large, free, visitor car park provided by The Hedges Hotel located just off Ballinlea Road. This is an easy two minute walk from the north end of the Dark Hedges and there is a marked path to follow near the parking area to get to the trees.

Be aware that this road gets very busy at prime times in the day, so be prepared to be patient to grab the photos you want to take. Also be prepared to accept that it is unlikely you’ll get too many – if any – without anyone else in the shot.

Last thing to note is that you’ll need to remember that this is a normal road. By that I mean that cars can – and do – come down it so make sure you don’t leave anything (or anyone) in the middle of the road while you go off to grab a picture.

As with the Rope Bridge, I’ve been here twice now. The first again was with the Game of Thrones Tour and the second time was in the car with Holly.

Even on my return visit the trees are just as eerie as they were on the first one and it’s really interesting to see how they’ve grown into their current shapes as the years have passed.


Used in a short scene in Game of Thrones, the Dark Hedges have become a hot tourist stop in Northern Ireland
The chances of getting no one else in your picture are remote, but you can find quieter spots up the road
The trees have grown into rather foreboding shapes that line the length of the road
We did manage to find a spot with nobody else around for a quick photo of Holly

My final suggestion is one that has had mentions in numerous sections of the above blog. So if you are like me, you’ll be dying to do at least one of the Game of Thrones Tours during a trip to Northern Ireland.

At the time I went there were two tours available. The first was called the Belfast Iron Islands Adventure and takes you to many locations in Northern Ireland where scenes set on the Iron Islands were filmed.

This tour visits the Glens of Antrim and the dramatic north coast of Northern Ireland. During the tour you’ll visit the Dark Hedges (as mentioned earlier) the Iron Islands beach where Theon dedicated his faith to the Drowned God, the breath-taking Giant’s Causeway (again as mentioned earlier) and the Stormlands cave where Melisandre gave birth to a dark spirit.

One great aspect of the tour is that all the guides were all extras in the show and genuinely love it. As a bonus they also carry Iron Born costumes, metal props and Greyjoy banners in the trunk of the coach which they offer to guests at the location of Lordsport on Pyke Island for a few photo opportunities.

The second tour I did was the Belfast Winterfell Locations Trek and – as you’d expect from the title – this focused more on scenes shot in and around Winterfell.

This tour visits locations associated with House Stark in the early seasons. The first visit of the day is Inch Abbey, the crumbling 12th century stone church where Robb Stark became ‘King in the North’.

Close by is Old Castle Ward; the original location of Winterfell Castle in season one. After lunch, you get taken to the enchanting depths of Tollymore Forest which featured as the Wolfswood where the Starks find the Dire Wolf pups.

A new aspect to the tour – which wasn’t on offer when I did it – is that they now drop guests off at the Game of Thrones Studio Tour so visitors can complement their experiences of real locations with a visit to the real sets!

Each tour takes between nine and ten hours and will see you picked-up and dropped off in central Belfast. For our tour we were met and dropped off outside the Top Shop on Chichester Street – but this location may have changed. In fact, I believe that the current pick-up point (at the time of writing anyway) is the front door of Jurys Inn hotel on Great Victoria Street.

At the time of writing, prices are £45 per adult for each of the two main tours. This does cover all costs for the day however – minus any food and drinks you want to buy as well as any souvenirs – which represents good value.

The days are tiring so be sure to get some good rest the day before you take them as well as on the coach – where the guides often speak to the group about the show or play an episode or two of the hit show on the coach’s TV system.


One of the stops on a Game of Thrones tour is to Melisandre’s Cave where she gave birth to the dark spirit
The location used for Winterfell
Your guides are always enthusiastic, full of information and behind the scenes stories. Most – if not all – worked as extras on the show itself
For those with an inner child, at certain points of the tours you get to dress up and play with swords and axes
A location used in an early scene in season one where the Starks find the Dire Wolf cubs
And if you’re extremely lucky, you’ll get to meet some of the real dogs that were used in the show during a stop
Another stop where the guides get the cloaks and swords out

Where to avoid

Northern Ireland – like much of the UK – is a very safe place for a tourist to visit with the vast majority of trips being undisturbed and trouble free.

Yet as with Ireland as a whole, Northern Ireland has, of course, suffered with its well document ‘Troubles’ in the past and there are a few slight hangovers from these times – especially in parts of Belfast.

The majority of incidents are committed by local people against local people, unsurprisingly following religious, sectarian or political differences. Tourists are – mostly – outside this culture and therefore need to not be very concerned.

But as with any other city, it pays to be careful and always be aware of your surroundings. Do not flash valuables or money or walk around reading your guidebook or map.

There are areas in Belfast which have been scarred by trouble in the past. Though these areas are largely safe to visit, it is important to be aware of where you are. In nationalist areas of the city, it would be foolish to wear a Glasgow Rangers, England, or Northern Ireland football jersey.

In unionist areas, wearing Glasgow Celtic, Republic of Ireland and Gaelic Football (GAA) jerseys would almost certainly lead to trouble. Though this is unlikely to affect tourists, it is best to avoid wearing green or orange or the name of any area, especially Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland or England.

The City Centre is generally a safe area but it’s probably best to avoid leaving the main streets at night – especially if you are on your own – and try not to venture into dimly lit streets.

The easiest thing to do to avoid any issues is to not make any overtly political statements about Northern Ireland, even if you think that your comments will align with the views of the people to whom you’re making them. 


The city centre itself is very safe but, like any city, it’s best to be vigilant for opportunistic thieves while also avoid overtly political comments that could be taken the wrong way

Great places to eat

Northern Ireland is littered with great places to eat and get a drink. I mean, you are litterally falling over yourself for bars and restaurants.

From fast food to fine dining, from quiet pubs to rowdy bars; it has it all!

For the purposes of this blog I’m going to focus on my favourite bar / restaurant that I enjoyed a couple of times in Belfast; the delightful Bootleggers!

This unassuming treat is based in the city centre on the corner of Ann Street and Church Lane. You can drop in for a few drinks or, stay a little longer, to grab some filling and tasty food while enjoying the lively surroundings.

The menu is plentiful. A good selection of tacos and burgers make up the majority of the food while you can also enjoy a selection of tasty sides including their famous chicken wings and nachos all for a reasonable price.

There are a few things here that are worth trying out. For example, the OG Burger – two patties, smoked bacon, cheddar, pickle, lettuce, tomato, red onion, ketchup and mustard – is a naughty treat while the Buffalo Billy tacos – southern fried chicken, cheddar, hot sauce, aioli and lettuce – make for a welcome lunch.

Save room as well for a dessert and make sure you order the Belly Buster – chocolate ice cream served with brownie chunks, whipped cream, hundreds & thousands, chocolate and strawberry sauce, chocolate flakes, honeycomb and a cherry on top.

And on top of this great food is a decent range of draught beers, wines and spirits to boot – although it’s almost criminal to visit Northern Ireland without sipping on at least one pint of Guinness!

Best of all, this bar will not set up back too much in the pocket either. A decent, filling, meal for two including desert and drinks (if you only have one or two) will cost around £60 – £70 and will give you a great location to chat and plan your next activates in this British gem.


Lining up the pints of Guinness during a lunch stop at Bootleggers in Belfast city centre

Useful links

EasyJet

Loganair

AirBnB

Donegal Town Independent Hostel

Ulsterbus Airport Express 300a

Holiday Autos

Titanic Belfast

Crumlin Road Gaol

Giant’s Causeway

The Dark Hedges

Carrick-a-Rede

Game of Thrones Tours

Bootleggers

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Lisbon… a city of sunshine and splendour

Lisbon

The city of Lisbon – or Lisboa to give it its proper Portuguese name – sits in the idyllic position on the western Iberian Peninsula alongside the Atlantic Ocean and the River Tagus.

As mainland Europe’s western-most capital city, Lisbon is one of the major economic centres on the continent.

And as is the case with much of Europe, Lisbon has a long and chequered history.

During the Neolithic period, the region was inhabited by Pre-Celtic tribes, who built religious monuments, megaliths, dolmens and menhirs, which still survive in areas on the periphery of the city.

The Indo-European Celts invaded in the First millennium BC, mixing with the Pre-Indo-European population, thus giving rise to Celtic-speaking local tribes such as the Cempsi or Sefes.

Although the first fortifications on Lisbon’s Castelo hill are known to be no older than the Second Century BC, archaeological finds have shown that Iron Age people occupied the site from the Eight to Sixth Centuries BC.

Stepping forward, Portugal became synonymous with explorers from the Middle Ages. In fact, most of the Portuguese expeditions of the Age of Discovery left Lisbon during the period from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century, including Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India in 1498.

In the 20th century – during World War II – Lisbon was one of the very few neutral, open European Atlantic ports and became a major gateway for refugees to the U.S. and a haven for spies. More than 100,000 refugees were able to flee Nazi Germany via Lisbon.

Furthermore, during the Estado Novo regime between 1926–1974 – under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar – Lisbon was expanded at the cost of other districts within the country. However, during the Carnation Revolution, which took place on 25 April 1974 – which brought an end to the Estado Novo regime – the country was able to reform into what it has become today.


The Torre de Belem is a favourite site for tourists in Lisbon

The visit to Lisbon, for Holly and I, was one that experienced a huge Covid-19 shape delay. Having been due to go to Portugal in April 2020 the pandemic put paid to those plans meaning we ended up waiting until August 2021 to finally make the trip.

To make matter worse, the trip was actually a long-overdue Christmas present from myself to Holly from 2019, so we were both extremely keen to get on a plane and experience what the city had to offer.

Ideally speaking, August would not have been my first choice for travel to such a warm country. I struggle in the harsh sun, given my skin tone, but having been stuck in the UK for over a year, the urge to get on a plane and explore was too great to ignore.

So with our factor 50 sun lotion firmly packed in our cabin baggage – and Covid restrictions mostly lifted for international travel – we finally set about making the short trip over to the Portuguese capital.

But before our journey there were a few things we wanted to know. Here are some of the key facts we learnt that any first time visitors to Lisbon should know before making the trip.


A map of Lisbon from Google Maps

The first thing is that Lisbon – especially in the summer heat of August – can get very hot. With its traditional Mediterranean climate, Lisbon can experience mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers.

The average temperatures for August time sees highs of 28°C and lows of 19°C. When out in the hot sunshine in the middle of the day, these temperatures can feel sweltering. And there is usually very little let-up from the sun in August with only, on average, two days of rain in the month at most.

The next thing to note is the currency. As with a lot of western Europe, Portugal is on the Euro which replaced the Escudo in 2002. At the time of writing, £1 sterling would get you around €1.17.

Sadly you don’t get many Euros in exchange for your Pounds these days, but positively, things in Portugal are priced a little more affordably that many will find within the UK. For example, a pint of beer costs around €2 to €4, while a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant – with drinks – can be as little as €40 total.

The next thing to consider is the language.

As you’d guess, in Lisbon they speak Portuguese. While I don’t personally speak Portuguese I have a little bit of an understanding of some Spanish which does help. The two languages share a lot of similarities and you often find that Portuguese speakers can communicate easily with fluent Spanish speakers.

However, do remember that they are not 100% the same and that there are some differences!

A few useful words to get you on your way are those for thank you (obrigado / obrigada), please (por favor), hello (olá) and goodbye (adeus). Often, even by showing the smallest bit of willing to communicate in the native tongue, many locals will help you out by adopting their much better grasp of English.

Also remember to take plug converters. There are two associated plug types for Portugal; types C and F. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and plug type F is the plug which has two round pins with two earth clips on the side. Portugal operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.

A good thing to know about Lisbon is that it is in the same time zone as the UK so when flying from Britain you don’t lose (or gain) any hours either way.

Finally – and although I’ve mentioned this in passing earlier I can’t state it enough – if you are have a pale skin complexation like myself then bring lots of sun screen. The higher the factor the better! The sun is extremely strong in Lisbon during the summer so keeping the lotion topped up is a must if you want to avoid getting burnt.

With all that in mind, Holly and I set off on our first Portuguese adventure together.


Getting there

Putting the hassles of Covid-19 to one side, Portugal – and in turn Lisbon – is an easy country – and city – to fly to from the UK.

Flights from a wealth of airlines including British Airways, TAP Air Portugal, EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air all have flights leaving all the major London airports, while those outside London can also get flights from cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.

For our trip we flew with EasyJet from London Luton for just £189.96 for two adult return tickets. This saw us leave the UK at 7:05am and depart Lisbon three days later at 3:45pm.

As with all EasyJet flights, it’s advisable to get the speedy boarding option. This is less about getting on the aircraft first and more to do with the ability to take carry on luggage on the plane with you. Without the speedy boarding option they may end up charge you for this if you don’t have it included in your reservation.

The flight is a two hour, fifty minute affair and – as you’d expect on EasyJet as with all budget airlines – it is a no-thrills environment. There really isn’t much to say about it other than take a good book or download a good TV show or podcast to occupy the flight time.


Flying into Lisbon and getting a first glimpse of Portugal below is where the excitement cranks up a notch or two
The entrance to Lisbon Airport Terminal One

Touching down on the Portuguese tarmac we got our first views of Lisbon.

Lisbon Airport – or Humberto Delgado Airport to give it its proper name – is a large and modern aerodrome.

Spread across two terminals, some 31 million passengers pass through its gates, on average, every year.

Terminal 1 is the airport’s main building and features large landside and airside areas containing several shops and service facilities. It consists of two check-in halls, the older one has been converted into TAP Air Portugal’s self check-in area, and the newer one housing 68 desks.

The joint departures area features 47 gates (17 of which are equipped with jet-bridges). As the airport features several more apron stands, bus boarding is often used here. Most airlines use Terminal 1, including TAP Air Portugal, its Star Alliance partners and, exceptionally, Vueling.

Terminal 2 is the much smaller and newer of the two terminals in the airport and is used exclusively by low-cost carriers. It is located away from Terminal 1 on the southern border of the airport perimeter. It has 22 check-in desks, designated to each particular low-cost carrier, and 15 departure gates using mainly walk-on boarding but also bus. There are only standard facilities, a few shops and service counters. The terminal is reachable via the free airport shuttle service from Terminal 1.

As you’d guess flying with EasyJet we arrived and departed via Terminal 2.

However, no matter which terminal you arrive at, the airport is only located around 6km north of the main city and is easily accessible via taxi or – better still – the Lisbon Metro (more on that later).

So while our flight to the Portuguese capital saw us have a very early start meaning we were a little tired, we were also excited to get out of the airport and explore the city as soon as possible and start of Lisbon adventures.


Where to stay

The first thing we did after leaving the Airport was make our way to our AirBnB.

Lisbon is a major city and while there are many hotels – both cost effective ones and extraordinarily expensive ones – scattered throughout its boundaries, we had opted to go for our old friend, the trusty AirBnB.

Located reasonably centrally in the Alfama district of the city, this AirBnB was a great find.

For me, Alfama – the oldest district in the city – is the perfect area of Lisbon to set-up camp. Far enough away from the overly tourist-heavy areas while not being too far from the city centre.

This quiet and unassuming neighbourhood provides a great flavour of old Lisbon – with its tiled buildings, bendy narrow streets where locals hang-out of the many windows, watching the world go by while talking to their neighbours; and cafes and bars hosting Fado singers; a type of Portuguese music that is renowned for its expressive and profoundly melancholic character that first came to the fore in this area.

This AirBnB is nicely tucked away. After arriving, we arranged to meet our host on the corner of the nearby Rua São Tomé road where he would walk us to the apartment, give us the keys and show us around.

The walk was short – if uphill – and soon we entered a side door off the quiet side street of Rua Dos Cegos to enter our home for our three days in the Portuguese capital.


Holly entering the AirBnB from the street
The living space that greets you upon entry
The spiral staircase is tight but allows for multiple levels

Walking into the air-conditioned space – you come into the main living area. Immediately you notice that while space is at a premium they have been clever with it as they spread the apartment across three floors; connected by a tight spiral staircase.

The top floor boasts the bedroom and bathroom facilities – both of which provide ample room to be comfortable in – as well as a good-sized double bed. The best part here is the view from the window which looks out to the south over the nearby Alfama area and across the Tagus River.

Making our way to the bottom of the apartment we found the kitchen space that had been kitted-out with a number of mod-cons for your basic cooking and eating needs. While this space was good to have, we didn’t plan to use it much as we would try and eat out during our stay.


The kitchen space as viewed from the stairwell
Holly making her way up to the top level of the AirBnB
The bedroom with its en-suite bathroom off the right-hand side
The private garden is a real treat to have the option to use

The best was still to come.

Despite the AirBnB’s small space it had managed to include a double-tiered garden area. The lower – and larger – tier had artificial turf laid down and a large orange tree growing in the ground while the small upper balcony provided a great space to enjoy a morning coffee and pastry before heading out for the day.

For this space we paid £315 for the three nights (£105 per night) which gave us a great base to enjoy our time in Lisbon from.


Getting around

Lisbon is a highly modern city and as such is well stocked when it comes to public transport.

And while walking around the city is a great way to see many of its central sites, it’s also worth noting that it is quite a large landmass to traverse solely by foot.

To that end I’d suggest the use of three main transport methods; none of which involve getting in a car.

The first is that you should use the Lisbon Metro.

Opened in December 1959, it was the first metro system in Portugal and, currently, the system’s four lines total 44.5km (27.7 miles) of route and serve 56 stations.

The metro will also be your best bet to get to the city centre from the airport.

Set on the furthest northern point on the pink line, Aeroporto station is located at the airport and is just a 20 minute ride away from the centre of the city.

And compared to the cost of jumping in a taxi from the airport, you can get to the city centre for as little as €1.50 per adult (for a ticket that’s valid for unlimited journeys on Carris and metro networks, during 60 minutes following the first validation but cannot be used for consecutive journeys on the Metro.)

If you are planning to use the metro and the tramway (more on that soon) a fair bit over a 24-hour period then a good tip is to buy the one-day ticket for €6.40 which allows you unlimited use of the network for the 24-hours following the ticket’s first use.

The metro is also useful to get you between locations within the city itself. During our stay in Lisbon on a particularly hot afternoon, Holly and I took to using the metro to get out of the intense heat and to travel quickly to our next location.

The downside of the metro is simple. It doesn’t allow you to experience much of the city. Also, while the metro is easy to use, there are only four lines and only six stations within the network that cross lines. This means it can be slightly annoying to get to some locations as you have to go quite far out of your way to get where you’re going.

That said, for the cost it is a good service and one that most travellers will probably use at least once during a Lisbon-based break.


Holly on the Lisbon Metro travelling from the Airport to the centre of the city

Linked to the metro network – by use of the tickets at least – is the famous Lisbon Tramway which forms part of the Carris service along with buses, trams, and funiculars.

The tramway has been operating in Lisbon since 1873, it presently comprises of six lines across 31km of track. 

Lisbon trams are an integral part of the city’s transport network, covering many areas of the city that are not currently serviced by the metro.

There are two types of tram. The first is the modern Siemens “Articulado” trams and the other – more famous – is the historic “Remodelado” trams.

The latter of these trams is the ones visitors are probably most familiar with. These quaint yellow trams shake and rattle their way down the narrow streets of Lisbon’s more touristy areas.

The jewel in the network’s crown is the E28 which passes through a large proportion of the city’s historic centre and can get pretty busy at peak times of day.

There are at least two trams that you are likely to want to use during a stay in Lisbon. The first being the E28 of course, to sample the historic centre of the city; taking in the Alfama, Baixa and Chiado districts while the second tram of note (one of the modern ones) is the E15 which connects central Lisbon (the Baixa district) with the Belem district where a couple of key city sites are located.

Price-wise the tram is fairly cheap. If you’ve not purchase the 24-hour ticket mentioned earlier then a single ticket purchased onboard the tram costs €3.

Do note however, that while Lisbon is a pretty safe city, career pickpockets are said to operate on these tram networks and, when the trams are very busy, they can be known to strike. To avoid any unpleasantness, keep a hold of your belongings and make sure that your zips are done up and your money is secure.


Trams service the city well and will be seen a lot – especially in the historic parts of Lisbon
You can lean out of the windows from the historic trams and enjoy the great weather on offer in Lisbon
A ride on the famous E28 tram is a must during a stay in Lisbon
Inside the trams can get cramp and very busy at peak times of day
The modern trams and more sleek looking and take you to a number of key sites in the city.

The final method of transport to note is one that actually takes you out of the city, but is vital if you want to visit Sintra; some 25km away. For this you’ll need the to use the Lisbon Railway.

Clearly there are many other locations you can visit on the railway network from Lisbon – such as trains to Porto or other major cities within the country, but for the vast majority of travellers to the capital, Sintra is the one location they are likely to leave Lisbon for.

There are two main rail-routes used by visitors. The first is Rossio Station to Sintra and the second is Oriente to Sintra (which goes via numerous other stations).

Holly and I took the first option to get to Sintra and made sure we were on one of the early trains out of Lisbon of the day. This way we would both maximise our time in Sintra and also have a spell where we avoided the huge number of tourists flocking to the area.

The train takes around 45 minutes to get from Rossio and is direct to Sintra. Three to four trains leave every hour to get to the region from Rossio so don’t worry too much if you miss a train by a few minutes; there will be plenty more options.

It’s also extremely cheap to make the journey with adult tickets coming in at just €4.50 per adult for a return ticket.


Inside Rossio station where trains can be caught to Sintra
A typical train that takes visitors on the 45-minute trip from Lisbon to Sintra arriving at the platform at Rossio Station
The trains are comfortable and clean but lack any glamour

Aside from the transport network, as I alluded to earlier, you’ll likely find yourself walking a lot in Lisbon.

First thing to note is that Lisbon is far from a flat city – especially in the more historic areas such as Alfama – so make sure you have comfortable shoes.

A little hint for avoid some steep climbs is to use a couple of the city’s ‘hidden’ elevators; Chão do Loureiro and Castelo

These two vertical lifts make the walk from the downtown area to the castle a little less tiring. The first lift departs from a building in Rua dos Fanqueiros (170/178) and drops people off in Rua da Madalena. A mere 100m further there is another lift, that transports passengers to the level of Costa do Castelo street.

They are free to use and all locals know about them so if you cannot find them, you can always ask a local person to point you in their direction.


Top sites

We have often found that one of the best ways to get to know a new city is to take a free walking tour soon after we arrive. Lisbon is no exception to this an so we booked ourselves onto two of them with Take Free Tours.

Take Free Tours operate walking tours in numerous European cities and their guides are helpful, friendly and full of useful information.

In Lisbon they operate eight tours across a variety of areas – one of which is in Sintra. Of these eight tours, two are run daily (each with two or three start times spaced out throughout the day); the Lisbon Free Tour and the Alfama Free Tour.

Given that we wanted to know more about Lisbon as a whole and Alfama – as we were staying there – Holly and I went online and signed up to both these tours.

The Lisbon Tour was a great introduction to the city and showed us some of the centre of Lisbon’s most important sites.

The start of the tour is just in front of the Tourism Office at Palácio Foz. From there we ventured into the Carmo Convent and admired the gothic ruins as well as taking in the views from a viewing area next to the Elevator of Santa Justa.

During the tour we heard about the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake that shook the city and late modern philosophy and the peaceful Carnation Revolution on April 25th 1974 which overthrew the authoritarian Estado Novo regime created by the dictator Salazar.

The tour finishes in the stunning Praça do Comércio (more on that in a bit) where the customary group photo is taken and shared by our guide (whose name I cannot remember but was very entertaining).

The second tour took us on a stroll through the narrow streets of Lisbon’s Old Town. The Alfama Free Tour covers three thousand years of contrasting history. Starting from Casa dos Bicos, we heard about the Phoenician ventures, Roman frameworks and Arabic heritage; all of which play a role in making up Lisbon’s colourful identity and culture.

Technically, while these tours are free of charge (and if you don’t have the money to spare then no pressure is put on you to give anything) it remains good practice to tip your guides whatever amount you feel appropriate at the end of the two to three hour tour.


The customary tour photo is usually taken at the end of the tour
During the Alfama Free Tour you won’t fail to miss the numerous buildings covered in beautiful tiled artwork
The tours take you to places in the city where you may not have ventured, and give you a different view on the city’s history

As mentioned above the Praça do Comércio is the final stop on the Lisbon Free Tour, but it is also somewhere that you are highly likely to make your way through on numerous occasions.

This large harbour-facing square cuts an imposing figure in the landscape and is full of life at most times of day.

Facing the Tagus to the South, the city square is still commonly known in Portuguese as Terreiro do Paço as it hosted the Paço da Ribeira (Royal Palace of Ribeira) until it was destroyed by the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In recognition of this, the metro station located on the square is still named after the square’s old moniker.

It’s free to visit and is a great place to sit back and watch the world go by. Next to the river, you can get down to the water’s edge and many people spread out on the small bay area – when the tide allows – to soak up some Portuguese sun.


One of the key entranceways onto the Praça do Comércio
A view through the archway that leads onto the square
Arriving early in the day at the Praça do Comércio is the best way to avoid the crowds

As may may have been understood from this blog so far, the city of Lisbon is split into numerous districts and there are a couple of these that all travellers to the city must see before departing.

The first of these is the famous Bairro Alto district.

Located in the centre of the city, Bairro Alto – or Upper District – is a picturesque quarter that dates as far back as the 1500s. It’s in this district that the city’s bohemian and alternative cultures, artists and writers have commonly frequented over the years making it a hive of activity.

Holly and I made the climb up to the district one afternoon. We braved it on foot despite the steep slopes that welcomed us as he headed up; but we did notice that there were options to catch trams up and down should we have wished to.

The views from the top of this district are stunning. After grabbing a drink in a nearby café, Holly and I made our way to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara where you can get stunning panoramic views out across the city to St. George’s Castle and central Lisbon. Best of all it’s totally free!

Nearby, there are often vendors on the streets selling delicious cold drinks so on a hot day this is a great way to cool off while taking in the sights.


The roads up to Bairro Alto are steep to climb
Fortunately, trams can be caught to climb the roads to the Upper District
You can get great views out across the city from Bairro Alto

The other district that is worth a visit – and one that’s already been mentioned earlier – is that of Alfama.

Alfama is a delightful maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses, which lead up the steep hill from the Tejo Estuary to the Castelo de São Jorge.

It is said to be the most rewarding of the city’s districts for walkers and photographers thanks to its medieval alleys and outstanding views. A tip is to make sure you look up from eye level as the buildings in the area are splendid to see.

As the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon, Alfama has a different feel to other more modern areas of the city. Steeped in local culture, this quaint district still holds on to many of the local traditions with many of the businesses in the area run by local people.

Because its foundation is dense bedrock, Alfama survived the 1755 earthquake, and a walk through this old-fashioned residential neighbourhood is like taking a step back in time.

As a village within a city you’ll get to gaze upon tiny squares, churches, and whitewashed houses with tile panels – showcasing in many cases what used to take place inside the buildings the tiles are on – and wrought-iron balconies adorned with pots of flowers, drying laundry, and even the odd caged bird or two.

If you have taken the walking tour of the area as we did, you’ll learn a lot about its history but it’s also advisable to come back to Alfama – even if you are staying elsewhere within the city – on your own and take a leisurely stroll around its streets.


You’ll spend your time looking upwards at the stunning buildings during a walk around Alfama
Many buildings are still adorned with tiles showcasing what the buildings in Alfama used to be used for.

Away from the centre of the city – and probably via a tram ride on one of the more modern models (see getting around section earlier in this blog), there are two great sites that are a must-see.

The first of these is Padrão dos Descobrimentos.

This monument – that’s free to visit – sits on the northern bank of the Tagus River estuary, in the Santa Maria de Belém parish of the city. Appropriately located along the river where ships used to depart to explore and trade with India and the Orient, the monument celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery (or Age of Exploration) during the 15th and 16th centuries.

The monument was conceived in 1939 and completed in 1958, and rises high above the river adorned by statues of famous explorers on each of its sides.

After getting off the tram, the monument was easy for us to spot. A short walk across the street and then through a small park, we were able to get a great view of this classic Portuguese site early in the day before the crowds descended (this is my top tip for this monument as many people visit here later in the day).

A good 20 minutes of viewing the monument, grabbing some photos and enjoying the warm Portuguese weather, we were ready to move slightly up the river to the second of the two must-see sites in the area.


The Padrão dos Descobrimento is a must-see during a trip to Lisbon
Holly and I making the most of having no other tourists in our picture with the Padrão dos Descobrimento
The monument looks out over the River Tagus
A close-up of some of the figures shows just how much detail was put into this magnificent piece of artwork
Holly enjoy the shade cast by the Padrão dos Descobrimento monument

The second site is within eyeshot of the Padrão dos Descobrimento and is a mere five minute walk away.

Synonymous with Lisbon, the Torre de Belém – which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 – is a 16th-century fortification that served as a point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers and as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.

Usually, the adult entrance fee to the Belem Tower is €8.50, and children up to 14 are free to enter. However, a little tip here is that – if you are planning to explore this as well as other Lisbon attractions – I would highly recommend getting a Lisboa Card for just €39.90 per adult. With the card entrance to the tower – as well as a number of other sites in the city – is free.

Sadly, for Holly and I, during our visit to Lisbon, the Tower was shut – either for renovations of Covid-19 reasons, I’m not sure which – meaning we were only able to see it from the outside.

That didn’t stop us enjoying the experience thought.

A great aspect to this site is its location on the river. When the tide allows – as it almost did for us – you can pretty much walk the whole way around the tower without getting wet!

During our visit we were probably able to get around 75% of the way around the tower, which gave us a great chance to see the back-side of it which would otherwise only be visible from the river itself!


The Torre de Belém cannot be missed during a stay in Lisbon
Looking up at the Moorish Bartizan turrets jutting out from the tower’s side
Holly posing with the tower in the background
When the tide is out you can climb over the rocks that would normally be underwater to see the tower from all its different sides

The final suggestion is one that is actually outside of Lisbon, but really is inexcusable to miss.

For this area, you’ll need to get a train (again see the getting around section of the blog) out of the city to the beautiful and idyllic municipality of Sintra.

The town and municipality sits in the Greater Lisbon region of Portugal and is one of the most urbanised and densely populated municipalities of Portugal.

The area includes the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park through which the Sintra Mountains run. The historic centre of the Vila de Sintra is famous for its 19th-century Romanticist architecture, historic estates and villas, gardens, and royal palaces and castles, which resulted in the classification of the town as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sintra’s landmarks include the medieval Castelo dos Mouros, the romanticist Pena National Palace and the Portuguese Renaissance Sintra National Palace.

It’s fair to say a single day in Sintra is far from enough to do the whole area justice. However, if you are only planning to spend a day here – as we and many tourists are only able to do – then there are a few locations that you should not miss.

After arriving at Sintra station, make your way around the side of the building to the bus stop. Try and get out quickly, as you’ll have a train-load of people all trying to do the same thing.

Tickets for the bus cost €6.90 per adult for a whole loop hop-on-hop-off bus ticket and can be purchased from the driver directly.

There are a number of buses that operate in Sintra, but the main one we found we needed was the 434 (along the orange route).

Getting on board, we soon discovered that the bus was the correct decision. While it would be possible to walk, it would have been all uphill and we’d have spent most of our day on foot just getting to the locations without seeing much!


The bus stop outside Sintra train station where you can catch the 434 bus to some of the key sites
A map of Sintra’s bus routes. The orange loop on the bottom one is the main one you’ll need

Once the bus sets off the first stop on the route is at Castelo dos Mouros.

We found that most people didn’t get off the bus here and instead headed straight up to the Palácio da Pena. While there is logic to this, we decided it was better to get one attraction pretty much all to ourselves rather than a slightly less busy version of a different attraction.

Exiting the bus on the side of the road, we went to the automated ticket machines and here we were actually able to buy our tickets for both Castelo dos Mouros and the Palácio da Pena for just €13.90 per person.

The walk to the castle takes around 20 minutes through a beautiful stretch of woodland that showcases some stunning views.

Making our way slowly, we found ourselves climbing up the path to the castle and once inside the ruins we were afforded some absolutely beautiful vistas of the surrounding area.

The castle itself was constructed during the 8th and 9th centuries and was an important strategic point during the Reconquista, before being taken by Christian forces after the fall of Lisbon in 1147.

Now, the castle’s walls line the mountain-sides and provide a winding stony backdrop to the wooded surroundings.

Standing on top of the battlements, you feel like you are incredibly high-up but realise that other attractions that you can see are even higher still!


Holly climbing up one of the battlements at the stunning Castelos dos Mouros
There are so many great opportunities for stunning views from the castle ruins
Holly standing on the walls of the Castelos dos Mouros

After a good walk of all the walls, Holly and I made our way out and decided to make the relatively short walk up the hill to the Palácio da Pena.

It’s worth noting that for those not wanting to walk, the bus stop you got off at would be a pick-up point to take you further up the hill; however, you’d have to wait for the next bus and there is no guarantee that there will be space inside it.

Having climbed the hill – and with our entrance tickets already in hand – we entered the grounds of Palácio da Pena.

A full spectrum of colours adorned the walls and drew us further in. And while it was busy inside the grounds – as we had arrived later in the day due to our first stop – there was still room to move around and to take in the views!

There are few words that do justice to just how beautiful this palace is. Despite there being long queues to enter the interior of the palace itself, we found that we didn’t mind too much as we were able to take in the sights as we made our way to the interior entranceway.

Throughout the palace and its grounds, there are so many great spots here to grab a photo or two and this quickly became one the most most memorable places from our entire Portuguese trip.


It can get busy at the Palácio da Pena but it won’t detract from your enjoyment during a visit
The buildings are bold in colour
The yellow of some of the buildings really stand out against the blue of the Portuguese sky
Holly enjoying one of the many great viewing spots at the Palácio da Pena
The colours of the Palácio da Pena are stunning

Once we managed to tear ourselves away from the palace, we made our way back to the bus and went to our final main stop of the trip to see Quinta da Regaleira.

First thing to note here is that tickets for Quinta da Regaleira are completely separate to those of the other attractions. A different company owns this site so don’t be surprised when you can’t buy tickets for it elsewhere.

The next thing to note is that on paper, the area looks huge. This is an illusion. When you look at a map (which is quite confusing at the best of times) the various parts of Quinta da Regaleira seem spaced out. In truth they are often right next to each other.

Tickets to enter the grounds cost €15 per adult which seems slightly on the expensive side, but is worth it.

The property consists of a Romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite constructions.

While you should make your way around the whole of the grounds during a visit the top things to see here are the Initiation Wells.

The Initiation Wells are two wells on the property that better resemble underground towers lined with stairs. These wells never served as water sources. Instead, they were used for ceremonial purposes.

Of the two wells, the larger one contains a 27m spiral staircase with several small landings. The spacing of these landings, combined with the number of steps in the stairs, are linked to Tarot mysticism. The smaller well contains straight stairs that connect a series of ring-shaped floors to one another. This well is also called the Unfinished Well.

We expected there to be a much longer queue to enter the main well but it turned out to be incredibly short.

From the exterior it’s not even clear that the well is there as it looks more like a small grotto than an underground tower. And once through the entranceway, you get the full view up, and down, the well as you make your way along its winding staircase to the tunnels at the bottom.

This is just one major attraction here as there are quite a few. The palace itself appears to get very busy and queues stretch out beyond its doorways regularly. If you’ve already been inside the previous palace then it may be worth giving this one a miss as your time can be better spent exploring the grounds.

That said, no matter how you choose to spend your time at the Quinta da Regaleira – and Sintra as a whole – you are sure to leave with many fantastic memories.


A view down the main Initiation Well at the Quinta da Regaleira
The well’s layout allows for some nice photos to be taken
The stairs are narrow but well made to avoid a risk of falling
From the bottom you can look back up the full shaft of the well
The grounds inside the Quinta da Regaleira hide many beautiful settings

Where to avoid

Lisbon is a safe city to explore however, it’s worth noting that around some of the tourist-heavy areas – including Praça do Comércio – there are a number of people, quite openly, selling a whole array of drugs.

The first time it happened to Holly and I we were not expecting it. We saw a man surreptitiously approaching us and then trying to – very slyly – show me a small package. He then quietly asked me if I wanted to ‘buy some weed’. A quick and polite no, and he was on his way to someone else.

We thought that this was a one-off but over the course of three days we were both approached – both as a couple and individually – numerous times in the same manner. The only difference being the drugs seemed to get stronger the more we were asked! By the time we were leaving we were being offered crack. Had we stayed much longer I’m sure we’d have been up to the heroin offers in no time!

I’m making light of it as, fortunately, whenever you say no they back off straightaway and move away. There is no hostility and it’s clear they don’t want any undue attention coming their way. It’s just worth being aware that these practices happen.

Away from that rather unsavoury side to the city there are a couple of sites that are not worth visiting if time is a factor.

The first of these is the Elevador de Santa Justa.

The hills of Lisbon have always presented a problem for travel between the lower streets of the main Baixa – just off the Rua Augusta street – and the higher Largo do Carmo (Carmo Square). In order to facilitate the movement between the two, the lift was commissioned and eventually opened in 1899.


Holly at the foot of the Elevador de Santa Justa while it was out of service

It’s worth pointing out that while Holly and I were in Lisbon, the elevator was not in operation (although I understand now that at the time of writing it is back working) but we were told that at peak times when it is operating the queue gets huge and takes a long time to get onto the lift.

Usually, the elevator opens daily between 7:30am and 11pm, with six hourly departures running every 10 minutes.

A positive is that a return ride costs just €5.30. The downside is that queue length mentioned earlier and the fact that the views at the top are not that special compared to others around the city. They can also be seen just by walking to the top section of the city anyway which costs nothing and means you don’t end up standing on the street for hours waiting to board what is a pretty small lift, in turn, allowing you to better spend your time in the city.

The other attraction that is worth giving a miss to is that of Castelo de São Jorge.

This may seem like a strange choice given that it appears to be a full-featured castle nestled at the upper point of Alfama offering numerous views of the city.

However, the first thing to point out here is that the castle is not an original and is under 100 years old – at the time of writing – in its current form.

Historically, a small fortress was built on this site by the Visigoths during the 5th century. It was modified and enlarged by the Moors in the mid-11th century and – during the reign of Afonso I of Portugal (1109 – 1185) – it was altered and in later years transformed into a Royal Palace.

Yet the final restorations of the castle – as it appears today – was only completed in 1938, making this one to avoid for history buffs.

The next point is that it is fairly expensive to enter given its lack of historical draw. An adult admission fee to the Castelo de São Jorge is €10 while children under 10 are free and students are €5. It makes the castle one of the more expensive tourist attractions in Lisbon.


The entrance to Castelo de São Jorge
Views are nice but can be achieved elsewhere in the city for free
While the castle may appear original, it’s worth remembering that its current form is under 100 years old
The walls are impressive but nothing special

The next thing to note is that the castle gets very busy.

Due to its appearance and location, tourists do tend to flock here to take in the castle and sample the views. However, while the views are nice they can be seen from elsewhere in the city, free-of-charge, and without the crowds.

If you do go to the castle, arrive early and try and get in before the crowds arrive. Yet if you’ve got the choice to go elsewhere, it may be worth doing so in lieu of spending an hour or so at this site.


Great places to eat

Lisbon is a blessing for food lovers and has a plethora of fabulous places to eat and drink littered throughout the city.

One thing that is a must to try in the city is the iconic, palm-size pastry, pastel de nata – or egg tart. This creamy custard tart is available in pastelarias across the city with the recipe dating back to the 16th century, when the confections, like many other Portuguese sweets, were made by nuns in convents.

There are so many vendors for this sweet-treat throughout Lisbon that it’s impossible to miss them. For just a Euro or two you can sample this wonderful Portuguese delicacy on-the-go.


Trying the pastel de nata is a must in Lisbon

As mentioned there are many great places to eat and drink in the city. More than I could ever wish to document here in this blog. So for these purposes, I’m going to focus on two different restaurants that gave us wonderful food and service during our stay in the city.

The first of these is Solar 31.

This quaint seafood restaurant is located north of Alfama on a road called Calçada Garcia 31.

Based on a quiet backstreet, we entered past a freezer-stand of fish, crabs and lobsters that showcased the food on offer just on the other side of the door.

Inside, we were warmly welcomed by the staff and sat in a quiet corner of the restaurant.

The seafood options here are plentiful and exciting. While I opted for a local fish dish – sea bream – Holly braved the Solar Octopus. And it’s fair to say she got way more than she bargained for!


Solar 31 offers a great selection of seafood to try
Holly looking forward to her dinner
Holly was rather uncertain how to tackle the octopus
Despite appearances, the dish was delicious
A slice of the cinnamon pie was a welcome way to finish the meal

As the food arrived at the table my sea bream was beautifully presented and looked extremely appetising. Holly then got a massive shock when a whole octopus was put in front of her – head and all!

What’s important to note here is that the octopus was cooked and seasoned beautifully. It was just the fact that Holly was expecting it to come with its head still attached (and ready to eat) that made for some interesting moments.

But, fair play to her, she tucked into the dish and despite appearance enjoyed eating it. I tried some of the octopus too and it was extremely tasty without being rubbery.

To finish off our meal, we were shown the dessert cabinet and each selected a slice of cake to eat – a cinnamon pie and almond pie that we shared – as we finished off our wine.

The restaurant is modestly priced and we parted with around €80 in total for our food and drinks having enjoyed a very memorable experience.

The second restaurant that is worth seeking out is the spectacular Grenache.

First thing to note is that this is a high-end restaurant with the price-tag to match and given their small seating area booking in advance is a must.

This restaurant is located in Pátio de Dom Fradique in Alfama – a mere five minute walk from the AirBnB we stayed in – and was one we had passed each day when we headed out.

Looking at the menu, we decided that we wanted to make our final night in Lisbon a memorable one so booked ourselves a table.

There are two options for dinner. At the time of writing, there is a six course menu for €75 and a eight course menu for €98 per person. Both come with the option of a wine-pairing which obviously adds another €50 or €70 to the costs respectively.


Grenache is a superb place to eat in Alfama
Grenache made for a beautiful location for our final night’s meal
The menu lays out the two dining options – note the prices have changed since we ate here

We opted for the eight course menu (without the wine pairing) and took our seats on the outside terrace area. At the time we visited there were no seats inside – but this may have been due to Covid-19 restrictions. In normal times, there may be more options to sit inside if required.

The restaurant offers the finest of French cuisine, in the heart of Lisbon and – while its chef has yet to earn the restaurant’s first Michelin star; from the quality of the food and service it’s only a matter of time.


Views out into the courtyard from the restaurant
The stylish red gateway provides one of the entrances to the courtyard where Grenache is housed
Stunning dishes – like the teriyaki glazed octopus seen here – await on Grenache’s menu
The desserts round off the meal perfectly and leave you feeling extremely satisfied

Course after course of deliciously prepared food arrived at our table as we watched the world pass through the small courtyard.

Quality meat and seafood dishes and delightful desserts were presented to us as we savoured every moment that came and went.

Particular highlights for us were the grilled turbot, smoked eel and teriyaki glazed octopus (this time sans head).

With the added enjoyment of a bottle of wine, this fine establishment set us back around €300 but it was worth it and finished off our Portuguese adventure in style.


Useful links

EasyJet

AirBnB

Lisbon Metro

Lisbon Tramway

Lisbon Railway

Take Free Tours

Praça do Comércio

Bairro Alto

Alfama

Padrão dos Descobrimentos

Torre de Belém

Lisboa Card

Sintra

Elevador de Santa Justa

Castelo de São Jorge

Solar 31

Grenache

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Gibraltar… adventures on the Rock

Gibraltar

Located off the southern tip of Spain, Gibraltar remains a little piece of the United Kingdom basking in the Mediterranean sun.

But far from being the literal definition of ‘Little Britain’, Gibraltar oozes with its own charm and personality for people who visit this micro-British territory.

Despite, these days, having their own national football team, in many respects Gibraltar is not country in it’s own right – more an Overseas British Territory.

With a total landmass of just 6.7km2 (2.6 sq miles) its only land border is that of Spain to the north. And the vast majority of the landscape is dominated by Gibraltar’s premium landmark; the Rock of Gibraltar.

At the foot of the Rock is a densely populated town area, home to around 34,000 people. Here there visitors will find a great range of restaurants, bars, pubs and other activities to keep them occupied in the shadow of the Rock.

As with many places, Gibraltar’s history has been scared deeply by war. Dating back centuries, this small plot of land on the edge of Europe has been hugely desired.

With obvious close ties to Spanish rule it was in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, that Sir George Rooke captured Gibraltar for the British. In doing so, Spain formally ceding it to Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Since then it has remained – somewhat controversially if you ask the Spanish – under British ownership.

And it’s played a massive part in British military successes over the years. During the Napoleonic Wars and World War Two it was an important base for the Royal Navy as it controlled the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea, the Strait of Gibraltar.

But with its turbulent history (hopefully) behind it, what is it about Gibraltar that keeps attracting visitors to it?

For Holly and I, it was simple. Curiosity. We’d never been to Gibraltar before. Top that off with Covid-19 still causing havoc for international travel planning, we decided to use some time we’d put aside for travelling – in early November – to sample this unusual bit of the UK.


The Rock of Gibraltar is the main attraction in Gibraltar and can be seen from everywhere within the territory

So what were the key things we needed to know before heading to the Rock.

Well first of all lets look at the similarities it has with mainland UK.

The first thing is that the official language of Gibraltar is English. While I have a very basic grasp of some Spanish – which is used in some ways unsurprisingly given their affinity with their neighbours – it was pleasing to know that communication was not going to be an issue.

The same could be said for the currency. The local currency in Gibraltar is the Gibraltar Pound; which is exactly the same as the Great British Pound.

Bank of England issued notes and UK coins are accepted and circulated along with a healthy mixed of locally issued notes and coins of the same value in pounds and pence.

However, notes issued in Scotland or Northern Ireland are not usually accepted in Gibraltar, and Gibraltar issued notes and coins are not usually accepted in the UK. So just worth remembering when heading back home after a trip.

Finally, the power sockets in Gibraltar are the same as they are in the whole of the UK – so no need for plug converters.

In Gibraltar the power plugs and sockets are of type G. The standard voltage is 240 V and the standard frequency is 50 Hz.


Google Maps image of Gibraltar

Now for the differences.

First thing to mention – and while not technically a difference between the UK mainland and Gibraltar – is that you do still need a valid passport to enter Gibraltar (either by air or road). British nationals don’t need a visa to enter Gibraltar, but a passport is mandatory.

Don’t turn up at the airport in England hoping to travel to Gibraltar as you would Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.

The main difference between the UK and Gibraltar is the climate.

Gibraltar has a Mediterranean climate with mild, rainy winters and warm, dry summers.

In November time – as was the case with our four nights on the Rock – the average high is around 19°C while the lows on average get to around 14°C.

On average there are around eight days of rainfall on the Rock in November so, depending on how lucky you get, you could get a bit wet.

During the height of summer temperatures regularly hit the 30°C mark so sunscreen is a must for any light skinned travellers like myself. Being just a couple of hours by ferry north of Morocco, it’s easy to understand how it can hit such temperatures.

It’s also worth noting that Gibraltar has a reputation for the cost of living being pretty high. With the territory being so small, Gibraltar has to import almost everything, and many goods are subject to import duty which can increase the end cost to the consumer.


There are signs throughout Gibraltar of their pride for being British

Yet despite it not being the cheapest place you’ll ever visit, spending time on the Rock – as Holly and I found – had many advantages.

For such a small place, there really is a huge number of things to see and do.


Getting there

It may be obvious, but I’m going to state it anyway. The best way to get to Gibraltar is by air!

Fortunately, despite Gibraltar International Airport’s size, England and Scotland are well serviced for flights with departures heading to the Rock from London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London Luton, Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton and Edinburgh.

In fact, the only flight from a non-UK airport to Gibraltar is from Malaga in Spain.

The options for flight providers is minimal, however. Holidaymakers have the choice of British Airways, EasyJet Eastern Airways or Wizz Air.

The airport in Gibraltar is an unusual one. Firstly, it sits right on the border of the territory literally acting as a crossing point from Gibraltar into Spain and visa-versa.

The second unusual thing about the airport is that its sole runway has a road running through the middle of it!


Arriving in to land in Gibraltar is all part of the fun
The runway runs through the middle of the road that leads between Gibraltar and Spain
To get into the main part of Gibraltar from the airport terminal you’ll need to cross the runway either on foot or by car

This unavoidable design feature means that when an aircraft is coming into land, barriers are lowered to stop cars and people crossing (like a level crossing for trains). This road is the one route in and out of the territory for land traffic.

Despite its limited size, Gibraltar International Airport manages to see a huge number of passengers arrive and depart its gates each year; with around 570,000 people – on average – using the airport per annum.

While this figure – in airport terms – may not seem impressive, it is worth remembering there are only around 34,000 people living there. This means the airports passengers, per year, are over 16 times the size of the territories population!


A plane waiting to leave Gibraltar with the stunning backdrop of the Rock
Gibraltar International Airport creates an artificial divide that marks the edge of Gibraltar and the start of Spain

I’ll be honest, I was actually quite excited to arrive at Gibraltar International Airport before I got there. It’s not every day that you get to land at such a quirky place and having a road run through the runway was something I’d never experienced before.

We booked our flight with EasyJet for an early departure from London Gatwick. In total – for two adults making a return trip we spent £177.92. This price also included the much needed speedy boarding option ( not so much for getting on the aircraft quickly, more for the cabin luggage allowance). The flight was a smooth, no thrills, affair and takes around three hours from London. Just enough time for us to sit back and enjoy a couple of episodes of our favourite podcast!

Before we knew it, the wheels were touching down on the Gibraltar tarmac, as we gazed out of the window at the queueing traffic waiting to cross the runway along with the stunning backdrop of the Rock of Gibraltar eclipsing the surrounding scene in its majesty.

We could hardly wait to get off the plane and start our four nights on the Rock.


Where to stay

Despite Gibraltar’s small size, it has a surprisingly large number of accommodation options available to travellers.

Aside from a number of mid-range hotels located towards the north of the territory there is an every-increasing number of AirBnBs cropping up online throughout the whole of the area.

There are a few options to consider. The first being price.

When travelling to Gibraltar, it’s worth bearing in mind that costs are often of the same level of that of the mainland UK; if not a little higher. For goods and services, this is because everything has to be imported meaning that they are subject to extra tax. Yet even for accommodation, it can appear a little steep.

One option which can work is to stay over the border in Spain. This tends to costs less money and can be just a short walk, or drive, to get back into Gibraltar. The downside of this is that each time you enter you’ll need to pass through passport control which – depending on the time of day – can be fairly busy.

Therefore, if you, like me would rather pay a little extra and stay more centrally in Gibraltar, there are plenty of options available.

During our trip we settled on this small, yet charming, AirBnB located on Castle Street; just off the main street in Gibraltar and a mere 20 minute walk from the airport.


The main living room when you enter from the courtyard
Holly lounging on the bed before we head out for the day
The shower room is small, but very clean and well designed

As one of the more affordable options in Gibraltar (costing us £397.60 for four nights – or £99.40 per night), this AirBnB consists of three main rooms.

Entering the apartment from a private courtyard, you come into the main living space which is fitted with basic kitchenware, a TV, sofa and chair.

Just off the room is the double bedroom with fitted wardrobes. While this room could be seen as a bit cramp due to its floorspace, there is ample storage space here for your clothes and other belongings.

Jutting off from the bedroom is the shower room which is a great space to get washed and cleaned off before and after a full day exploring the territory.

We also found the host of this apartment extremely helpful and well amenable as she even let us check in a little early so we could get rid of our luggage.

It’s worth pointing out that to get somewhere for under £100 a night (obviously depending on what time of year you travel) in the centre of Gibraltar is a hard thing to do, so to get such a find we took as a win.


Getting around

While you can drive in Gibraltar – especially if you are entering from Spain – the best way to get around is on foot.

To walk from one end of the territory (Gibraltar International Airport) to the other (Europa Point Lighthouse) will take the average walker around an hour and a quarter to travel the 5.7km on foot.

Be warned, however, Gibraltar is not flat, so a fair chunk of that walk will be uphill.

Another reason that cars are not advisable is that the majority of streets are pretty small with parking spaces being at a premium. Even if you do drive easily to your destination their is no guarantee you’ll be able to park near it; so you may end up walking anyway!

The one exception to the walking rule is that of going up the Rock of Gibraltar itself.

While it is possible to climb the rock on foot (many people do) it is tiring and there are next to no options to stop for a drink or bite to eat except right at the top!

So while you don’t want to walk it, I’d also urge people to not use the tour guides or taxi services located in the town centre. They end up costing a lot of money and, while they drive you up and down the Rock, they don’t provide you with the option to explore the top of rock or the Nature Reserve in your own time.

However, for those who do want to do this, take note to not purchase the tours from those operating in Grand Casements Square as they tend to be a few pounds more expensive than those selling the exact same tour a few hundred metres away down Main Street.

My preferred option to explore the Rock is to go up and down it via that wonderful cable car.


The entry to Grand Casements Square where people will try and sell you tours of the Rock of Gibraltar. My advice is to not buy them from people here
The small cable cars take around six minutes to reach the top of the Rock of Gibraltar
The views from the cable car over Gibraltar and across to Spain are stunning
The platform extends out to allow cable car passengers to enter the cable car from the mid-section of the Rock of Gibralar

The cable car base station is located near the town centre, on Red Sands Road and can take you to the mid-point of the Rock or to the very top.

There are few options with this too when it comes to costs. For just a return journey on the cable car it will cost £17 per adult and £8 per child. For just getting the cable car up to the top of the Rock and then gain entry to the Nature Reserve will cost £28 per adult and £18.50 per child, or – and what I believe is the best option – a return trip on the cable car plus entry to the Nature Reserve for £30 per adult and £18.50 per child.

The reason I say this is simple. You’ll need a ticket for the Nature Reserve anyway once you’re at the top as the main things to see are all within the Nature Reserve’s boundaries. So taking that into account it costs just £2 more per adult to give yourself the option to catch the cable car back down the Rock.

And while going down may seem like the easy part, we managed to spend over six hours walking around the top of the Rock which meant we were more than ready to take the easy route down when the time came.

The added benefit to using the cable car over the tour guide service is the stunning views you get as you go up.

The journey takes around six minutes from the foot of the Rock to the top so grab a space by the windows at the back when you enter to get stunning views of the surrounding territory.

Also, the mid-section of the cable car route only gets stopped at when passengers are waiting at it to travel back down the Rock. So don’t be surprised when the cable car just carries on past the platform on your way up.


Top sites

There are a considerable number of things to see and do on the Rock.

And one website that is a must to visit, before and during any visit is Buytickets.gi.

On this website, you’ll be best placed to buy tickets for pretty much any activity you want to do while in Gibraltar. From going up the Rock itself, to scuba diving and watching a football match; it’s all here.

And it was from this website that Holly and I got all our tickets before we headed out to Gibraltar just to ensure we didn’t have any issues when we were there.

The website is easy to navigate and, while it doesn’t give you any discounts for shopping online ahead of your visit, it does make things easier when you are there as you’ll have your e-tickets on your electronic devices to show at the different activities.

Anyway, enough about the admin side of Gibraltar and on to what there actually is to see and do.

It should come as no major surprise that the main thing to see here is the Rock of Gibraltar itself.

As mentioned previously, the best way to get to the top of the Rock is by cable car and the ticket that gains entry to the Nature Reserve will cost £30 per adult.

The main ridge of the Rock has a sharp crest with peaks over 400m above sea level and formed by early Jurassic limestones and dolomites.

Nowadays, the top of the Rock showcases stunning views out across the Strait of Gibraltar and along the southern coastline of Spain on one side and to north Africa and Morocco – just nine miles away – on the other.

But aside from the stunning views from the top of the Rock – many of which can be enjoyed soon after stepping off the cable car at the top station – the main attraction here is the stunning nature reserve and its famous Barbary Macaque inhabitants.


The Rock of Gibraltar rises to around 400m above sea-level at its highest point
The top of the Rock of Gibraltar affords great views into Spain
The flag of Gibraltar flies proudly from the top of the Rock

The Nature Reserve and Apes’ Den spans much of the Rock and is covered in the cable car ticket mentioned earlier.

This green area of Gibraltar is home to many of its attractions and is therefore a main highlight for visitors with an interest in seeing the major attractions to marvel at the fantastic views, and for ramblers wanting to walk through its nature trails.

When Holly and I first arrived in the Nature Reserve, we went looking for the infamous furry residents and within minutes of being at the top of the Rock encountered our first Barbary Macaques.

These beautiful – if devilish – animals calmly sit around on the floor, on railings and atop boulders as people pass by. At present, there are around 230 of these amazing animals on the Rock and remains the only wild monkey population on the European continent.

What’s clear is that they hold no fear of humans whatsoever. None!

And this lack of fear means that they are extremely forward when it comes to taking things they want from unsuspecting visitors.

While stopping to look at the numerous Barbary Macaques – many of whom had young ones with them – a particularly bold larger male took it upon itself to sneak up behind Holly – who was wearing a backpack at the time – before leaping onto her head!

Understandably she was taken by shock at this (as was I to be fair) and didn’t quite know what to do as it used Holly’s upper body to manoeuvre itself into a better position to try and unzip her bag.

Fortunately, a very helpful worker was on hand to shoo the Barbary Macaque away (not before I got a few photos of the incident however).

The lesson learnt here was that if you’re carrying a bag on your back; don’t!

We were advised to wear the backpack back-to-front as the Barbary Macaques won’t try and steal items from people if they can see your face. Once we did this, there were no further incidents.

I’m told by Holly that the Barbary Macaques fur is very soft although I’d advise everyone to not attempt to touch them as they do have large teeth that could give a serious bite and strong arms and legs that could cause damage if they felt threatened.

If anything though, the experience with the Barbary Macaque just made the trip even more special and we saw numerous others getting up to no good (one got in someone’s taxi – while people were getting out – to set up camp in the back) during the six hours we spent walking the length of the top of the Rock.

There are a number of great places to see them. One is near the cable car station at the top of the Rock. Walking south along St Michael Road, visitors will find the feeding station area just before the impressive Skywalk Gibraltar (a glass floored platform that gives great views both out from the rock as well as down from it). It was here that we (well mainly Holly) had our Barbary Macaque encounter.

The other place that is worth a look is the Apes’ Den located lower down the Rock next to Prince Ferdinand’s Battery (one of numerous Batteries scattered across the Rock) on Old Queen’s Road.


The Barbary Macaques add further beauty to the stunning landscape
A baby Barbary Macaque clinging to its mother
Be aware – the Barbary Macaque do not fear human presence and it’s advisable to keep your bag strapped to your front
If you don’t they often take their opportunity to pounce. Here one larger Barbary Macaque leapt on Holly’s head and unashamedly tried to open the zips of her bag to see what it could take
The Barbary Macaque are stunning and are a real star attraction of Gibraltar

Once Holly and I had, had our fill of the Barbary Macaques (although we still saw them across the Rock all day) we made our way to the stunning St Michael’s Cave.

Situated towards the southern tip of the Rock, St Michael’s Cave was long believed to be bottomless.

It was at one time thought that in 1704 Spanish troops spent a night in the cave after climbing the precipitous east face of the Rock. Another story about the cave recounts how a Colonel Mitchell and another officer were said to have descended into the cave at some unspecified date before 1840 and were never seen again. During World War II the cave was prepared as an emergency hospital, but was never used as such. Today, the cave is open to visitors and makes a unique auditorium for concerts, ballet and drama.

After seeing pictures of the cave we knew we had to visit it and this stunning cave network is not to be missed.

Forming part of the Nature Reserve ticket, visitors are treated to a huge cathedral of rock that has slowly been created over the centuries through time and patience.

Inside, we were both taken aback by just quite how vast the space was. I knew it was going to be big, but was blown away by just how big it ended up being.

Stalactites and stalagmites creep down from the ceilings and up from the depths below. These giant fingers of the rock are then illuminated in light as part of the spectacle.

One particularly impressive section sees a section of rock on the ceiling illuminated in a multitude of light; and in doing so, brings to life the shape of St Michael. Even without being religious in any way, it’s truly spectacular.

Towards the end of the cave, there’s a 600 seat theatre where a short, immersive light and sound installation highlights the layers of history fused inside the caves.


The star attraction is clear for all to see when the lights are on
The impressive auditorium where a wonderful light show illuminates the surrounding rocks
Lights flowing over the stalactites and stalagmites within St Michael’s Cave

The next stop on our must see list is actually at the far northern end of the Rock. Here you’ll find The Great Siege Tunnels.

A quick bit of advice is to plan your time on the top of the Rock better than we did! By trying to do things on an ad-hoc basis we ended up walking backwards and forwards up and down the Rock far more than we needed to. And while it did wonders for our daily step count – it took all our energy levels; and that was on a relatively cool autumnal day!

To avoid this, try and plan your day to start at one end of the Rock and make your way towards the other.

Saying that, a trip to The Great Siege Tunnels should be on the to-do list. Set around 400m back off of Willis’s Road, this labyrinth of tunnels is perhaps one of the most impressive defence systems devised by man.

It was during the war of American Independence, when France and Spain made an all-out attempt to recapture the Rock from the British in Gibraltar’s 14th Siege (always called The Great Siege which lasted from July 1779 to February 1783) that the then Governor General Eliott (later called Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar) is said to have offered a reward to anyone who could tell him how to get guns on to a projection from the precipitous northern face of the Rock known as the Notch.

Sergeant Major Ince, a member of the Company of Military Artificers, forerunners of the Royal Engineers, suggested that this could be done by tunnelling.  Permission was granted, and Sergeant Major Ince started work under the direction of Lieutenant J. Evelegh, a Royal Engineer, Aide De Camp to the Governor, on May 25, 1782.

At the end of the Great Siege in 1783, the defeated Commander of the French and Spanish troops, the Duc de Crillon, on being shown the fortifications that had led to the defeat of his troops, commented “These works are worthy of the Romans”. 

His words perhaps don’t go far enough as the tunnels are massively impressive as they extend well into the Rock and come out at the top end.

Throughout the tunnels there are numerous offshoots that the were cut for cannon to sit and fire from if needed. Many of these holes look towards the land-border of Spain and offer impressive views of the surrounding area.

Again these tunnels form part of the Nature Reserve ticket so no further money is required here and they make for an enjoyable walk.

Scattered throughout the network of tunnels are a number of models of soldiers which, it’s fair to say, have seen better days. There are also many interesting boards with information about the things visitors can see and offer in-depth insight into the tunnels role in defending the Rock from invasion.

As a tip, watch out for the motion-detecting sensor which sets off a loud recording demanding to know “who goes there” from one of the model soldiers.


The sign leading the way to the Great Siege Tunnels
A selection of ‘realistic’ models are scattered throughout the tunnels
You can see across Gibraltar from the numerous holes in the rock, cut out for cannon fire

The last must-see on the Rock itself is the Windsor Suspension Bridge.

Again, covered by the Nature Reserve ticket entry fee, this wobbly bridge can be found just off Old Queen’s Road near the mid-section of the Rock.

This spectacular feat of engineering is 71m in length, across a 50m-deep gorge affording visitors magnificent views of across the strait, bay and city.

The bridge is visible from the foot of the rock and captured our attention as we stood at the cable car station in the morning waiting to go up.

While it is a solid construction, the bridge does wobble in the wind and as people walk on it; so perhaps not one for this with a nervous disposition or extreme fear of heights.

For those who don’t want to walk over the bridge itself, they can walk around the back edge and see the bridge in all its glory while friends, family and strangers brave this impressive feat of engineering.


The Windsor Suspension Bridge gives a great viewpoint – if a bit of a wobblily one

Away from the Rock (well as away as anyone is from it during a stay in Gibraltar) fun can be had at the territory’s only escape room to date; Rock Escape Rooms.

This unassuming escape room is run by an extremely friendly man who clearly has a passion for what he’s doing and is proud of the rooms he has helped create.

Rock Escape Rooms are located on Halifax Road – just off Devil’s Tower Road – at the northern end of Gibraltar behind the cemetery and just south of the airport runway.

The rooms themselves are – not ironically – relatively well hidden. The road is an industrial one and the rooms are behind a small single door within the row of garage shopfronts that leads up to a second floor.

For just £23 per person (for a team of two) you can select any of five games to play – The Neanderthal, The Game Cube, Casino Heist, The Hacker or Murder Mystery 2: Jack the Ripper.

Given our love of escape rooms, Holly and I had pre-booked two rooms to do during our trip; The Neanderthal and The Game Cube. Both games had numerous interesting parts to them and offered a challenge to us even though we are pretty well versed in escape room trickery.

To make matters even better – and because we had done so well in the rooms – the host of the games then offered us a third game (Casino Heist) for free to see how we faired in that one.

I’m pleased to say that we got out of all three within the hour provided – although we left it extremely late in our third and final game to do so.

What we liked about these games was that they were logical. They didn’t make huge leaps between puzzles that you needed clues for just to progress – something some escape games fall into the mistake of doing.

They also offered good value for money. While the rooms were not the largest we have ever done – they offered some neat touches that made them feel well thought-out and playable.

For those not sure about escape rooms – or for those who have not played one before – I’d suggest trying The Neanderthal here first. It is probably the easiest game on offer and is a great introduction to escape rooms. For those looking at more of a challenge, go for The Game Cube or Casino Heist. And for those looking to really test themselves, try The Hacker or Murder Mystery 2: Jack the Ripper – neither of which we had time to play – as we are told they are the hardest games on Rock Escape Rooms has on offer currently.


The Rock Escape Rooms sign inside its small lobby area
Happy gamers having completed the first of our three games with Rock Escape Rooms

Back to sightseeing, the next must see is at the further end of Gibraltar; Europa Point.

Given that it only takes around an hour and a quarter to walk from one end of Gibraltar to the other, it’s really not that far. However, remember that Gibraltar can be quite hilly, so getting to Europa Point – along Europa Road – can feel like an uphill walk.

Located at the southernmost point of Gibraltar the end of the territory is flat and occupied by a playing field and a few buildings including the Europa Point Lighthouse and The King Fahad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud Mosque,

On a clear day, views of north Africa can be seen across the Strait of Gibraltar including Ceuta and the Rif Mountains of Morocco; as well as the Bay of Gibraltar and the Spanish towns along its shores.

The joy of this area is that it is free to visit and offers beautiful views. There are very few places within Europe that you can stand and look out over the water and see another continent, but this is one of them.

Grabbing an ice cream and a drink from the nearby cafe next to the playing field, Holly and I enjoyed sitting in the sun and watching the world go by.


The Europa Point Lighthouse sits at the far south-end of Gibraltar; just over the water from Morocco
The King Fahad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud Mosque sits alongside the lighthouse at Europa Point

One thing I wanted to do as soon as we had planned our trip to Gibrlatar was to watch a football match at the territories one and only football ground; the Victoria Stadium.

Fortunately, there was a match due to be played during our time in Gibraltar as local champions, Lincoln Red Imps faced off with Slovakian side Slovan Bratislava in the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Getting tickets for Gibraltar football matches is easy to do. Using the website mentioned earlier, tickets become available (for around £15 per adult) for games a few days before they kick off. This is the case for Gibraltar Premier Division (the local national competition played by the ten teams located on Gibraltar) UEFA Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League as well as Gibraltar national team games.

I know that going to a game here was more my thing than Holly’s so was thankful when she agreed to come with me to the match on a Thursday evening.

The Victoria Stadium is a small football stadium with a capacity of around 5,000. However, for most games, you’re lucky if the attendance exceeds 1,000!

What makes this place special is the backdrop you get while watching the game.

To one side the impressive Rock of Gibraltar casts its eye over the proceedings while behind the stadium the runway for Gibraltar International Airport lets you see the occasional aircraft land and take-off.

The stadium staff are extremely welcoming and friendly. When we had taken our seats I had asked if there was anywhere we could get some food and drinks and the staff member I spoke to went away and found someone to open up the kiosk at the top of the stand where we were able to get a drink each and a packet of crisps.

The game itself, however, was not a memorable one for the 553-person strong crowd.

At the time Lincoln Red Imps were three defeats out of three into their Europa Conference League group and heading out of the competition.

Despite a strong start to the game, which could have seen the Gibraltar Premier Division champions take an early lead had it not been for a terrible miss from a few yards out, Slovan Bratislava – mainly through their English attacker Andre Green – took control and went into a two nil lead.

Then the moment we’d been waiting for actually happened. Just before half time the score was halved when Lincoln Red Imp’s (and the Gibraltar national team) captain, Roy Chipolina scored! There was a chance of an upset!

Despite this however, the second half didn’t go the Gibraltar team’s way and a further two goals were shipped culminating in a 4-1 defeat.

And while it wasn’t the result the home fans wanted – although maybe one they expected – I was pleased to have taken the opportunity to see some live European football on the Rock.


The Victoria Stadium as viewed from the top of the Rock of Gibraltar
Lincoln Red Imps take a corner during their Europa Conference League match at the Victoria Stadium Vs. Slovan Bratislava
Sadly, most Gibraltar matches (both internationally and those involving the domestic sides against foreign teams) end in defeat for the home side

Whenever I’m planning a trip abroad, I always look to see if there are any scuba diving opportunities available. It came as not great surprise that around the shoreline of Gibraltar there are many great places to dive.

I contacted a couple of different dive companies in the territory before finally settling on diving with Dive Charters Gibraltar.

From the first time speaking to them over email and explaining what Holly and I were hoping to do (this would be our first dive together) they were extremely helpful, friendly and accommodating. It felt like a good company to trust our diving experience to.

And that would prove to be true.

We arrived at the Dive Charters Gibraltar dive shop – located on Admiral’s Walk on Marina Bay near Ocean Village – and were welcomed in and fit with our scuba gear before getting our equipment boxes ready.

We had booked two dives – costing just £85 each which included all equipment – and although it had been many years since Holly had last dived they walked her through the set-up of equipment without any fuss which help settle her nerves.

During my emails to the company I explained we were both PADI Open Water certificate holders, although we were both pretty amateur when it comes to diving and they explained the dives that we’d be able to do with them and what we might be able to see during those dives.

The good thing about Gibraltar is that there are lots of sites that cater for all levels of diving. Given our status we were only being taken to some of the more shallow sites (around 14m underwater) but they did include going inside a couple of wreaks which excited us both.

To get to the dive site, we all (there were other divers joining us that day too) got inside the minibuses and were taken the short drive to Camp Bay – situated on the west coast of the Rock.

Here we got our equipment ready and then listened to our dive briefings before embarking on the first dive.

Our first dive took us to a dive site known as the Spanish Barges.

The Spanish Barges are a series of four individual wrecks, two of which are believed to have been dumped there in the 1950s during the refurbishment of the jetty. The other two wrecks, which lay further from the shore were sunk in the 1980s as part of Gibraltar’s artificial reef program.

Getting in the water at this time of year felt cold but once we got under the surface you barely noticed it.

This dive let us see the four barges and numerous fish that use them as their home. While the visibility wasn’t perfect it added something when you’re swimming along the bottom and then out of the gloom the looming hull of a sunken vessels is there to meet you.

Going inside the barges was especially interesting. The sea life has transformed them into artificial reefs although – and I’ll be testament to this – don’t make the mistake of thinking that the outer layer of these vessels will be smooth. The time these vessels have spent under the water has made them rough and sharp to the touch and it’s easy to cut your hands on them; so be careful.

After a short time on the surface and a fresh tank of air, we set about on our second dive; this time to a site called The 482M & Battys Barge dive site.

In August 1990 as part of Gibraltars ongoing artificial reef program, these Royal Navy cable – laying barges were deliberately sunk and are located no more than a five minutes swim from the shore of Camp Bay.

The 482M is situated in 16m of water and proudly sits upright on a flat sandy seabed. She is 30 meters long, seven meters wide and stands seven meters at her highest point. For the more adventurous this wreck can be explored from the inside too with several entry points and internal compartments.

Battys Barge is found nearby in 14m of water and also sits upright on a flat sandy seabed. She is 35 meters long, nine meters wide and stands six meters at her highest point.

These two wrecks rest nicely beside one another allowing them to both explored in the same dive.

Again this dive was a thrilling experience as we got to go into the larger vessel. Also – just nestled to the outside of the wreck – we spotted a rather large octopus that had buried itself into the seabed; another spectacular site to behold while surrounded by the sunken vessels and the scores of fish.

After the dives we dried ourselves off and got a lift back to the dive shop where we paid and filled out our log books – rounding off a great diving experience.


Dive Charters Gibraltar dive shop entrance is the meeting point for dives and is near Ocean Village
The dive site is just off the coast from Camp Bay near Parson’s Lodge
View through a porthole of a sunken barge
During the dives you get to go inside some of the wreaks
Inside some of the wreaks it can be quite dark in parts

Where to avoid

From a safety point of view, there are no places I’d say that need to be avoided from my experience in Gibraltar.

As with everywhere, the normal rules apply here in terms of being aware of your personal affects and taking care if out late; however, incidents of crime are relatively low.

There are a few sites, however, for those pushed for time, that visitors may want to skip over.

The first is Moorish Castle.

This medieval fortification in Gibraltar comprises of various buildings, gates, and fortified walls, with the dominant features being the Tower of Homage and the Gate House. The Tower of Homage is clearly visible because of its dominant and strategic position. 

However, going inside the Tower and up to its roof doesn’t really offer much in terms of insight into the building nor a better view than could be experienced elsewhere.

Located towards the lower portion of the northern section of the Rock of Gibraltar – along Willis’s Road – entry to the castle is included in a ticket to the Nature Reserve which is a plus point.

The small building is just a shell of its former self. Stone walls surround empty rooms while a small staircase takes visitors the few flights up to the top floor where panoramic views of the surrounding area can be seen.

While these views are pleasant enough, they are not worth trekking across the Rock for. For one thing, you are much lower here than you are from the top of the Rock and therefore the view is slightly less impressive.

Secondly, Moorish Castle is a fairly long walk away from the top to the Rock. Unless you plan to come down this way when you have visited the Rock of Gibraltar, it really isn’t worth the walk. However, if you are here (as it is near The Great Siege Tunnels and World War II Tunnels) then a quick 10 minute walk around the ruin may be worth doing.


The entry to Moorish Castle
Holly inside Moorish Castle

Near the heart of the town – and just to the right of the lower cable car station – visitors can find the small Alameda Gibraltar Botanic Gardens.

The gardens – whose entrance is situated on Red Sands Road – have a variety of flora and fauna growing in them and make for a nice short walk if you’re waiting for the cable car to open up. A plus point is that they are free to enter!

In 1816 the gardens were commissioned by the British Governor of Gibraltar; General George Don. The gardens were resurrected in 1991 by an external company when it was realised that since the 1970s they had fallen into a poor state. Three years later the gardens had the addition of a zoo: the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park.

So while the gardens are free to enter, the zoo section of the gardens – home to a collection of both exotic and native species – costs £6 per adult to enter; which is a lot given that it is extremely small.

Because of this, Holly and I took a brisk walk around the gardens but avoided the zoo and made our way out to other parts of the local area.


The Alameda Gibraltar Botanic Gardens are pleasant to walk around but don’t offer a huge amount
Another feature inside the gardens – and around Gibraltar in general – is the appearance of traditional British telephone boxes

For anyone visiting Gibraltar, it is impossible to fail to notice that the majority of activity takes place on the western portion of the territory. Much of this area is now developed into businesses, living space and other entertainment facilities.

What it does mean is that for this portion of the territory, there is no area that allows for sun-worshippers to get their daily fix of beach time.

For this, there are a couple of spots on the eastern side of the Rock; which is serviced by the single Sir Herbert Miles Road.

The most notable of these is Catalan Bay Beach.

Catalan Bay, known in Spanish as ‘La Caleta’, is a small bay and fishing village in Gibraltar on the eastern side of the Rock away from the main city.

This crescent-shaped stretch of sand is a pleasant stop but lacks a huge number of amenities that one may expect to find at a beach destination. Home to only a couple of small cafés and a single (as far as I could see) toilet block – this area could be quite crowded at busy times of year.

During our trip, Holly was keen to get on the beach – even just for a little bit – and so we made the 30 minute walk from the centre of Gibraltar, around the top of the Rock and down to Catalan Bay.

As it was quite late in the day, the beach was very quiet – except for a number of seagulls – but you could see how it could fill up to uncomfortable levels quite quickly.

If I’m honest, beaches are really not my thing. With such pale skin, I find any activity that sees me just cooking in the sun quite unpleasant, so I end up hiding in whatever shade I can find.

For those looking for a quick beach fix, then Catalan Bay is about as good as it gets on Gibraltar. Better options are across the border in Spain. But, for me, there are many better ways time can be spent on the Rock.


The nearby buildings at Catalan Bay sit in the shade of the Rock
The sandy stretch of beach along Catalan bay
The small beach at Catalan Bay gets very busy in the summer as it’s only one of a small number of sandy patches in Gibraltar

Great places to eat

Given its diminutive size, and lack of agricultural space, all products have to be imported into the territory.

So, it will come as little surprise that Gibraltar takes most of its culinary habits from either its neighbours (Spain or – just across the water – Morocco) or from the UK.

Along the main street, there are numerous bars and cafes all serving ‘traditional’ English food. Pie and mash, steak and chips, fish and chips are found in abundance and all at affordable prices, while other smaller cafes provide great options of breakfast snacks and pastries.

So while you’d find it hard pushed to find somewhere to eat that claims to be 100% Gibraltar-cuisine, there are a number of nice bars and restaurants to sample including the following two which became firm favourites of Holly and myself during our stay.

The first is Vinopolis Gastrobar.

This tapas-style restaurant has more than 40 Mediterranean dishes on offer and provides a wonderful taste of Spain.

Located centrally, in John Mackintosh Square, Vinopolis Gastrobar provides an intimate setting for a quiet meal while also having space to cater for larger groups.

Sitting down here, Holly and I were keen to sample as many of the dishes as we could.

For a table of two we were advised to pick between five and seven dishes depending on how hungry we were. Dishes range in price from around £4.50 for the smaller plates to around £15 for the larger.

Selecting a mixture of options we eagerly awaited the first dish’s arrival. In true tapas-style, all dishes are brought to your table when they are ready so as you are enjoying one dish another turns up ready for you to eat.

Sitting back and enjoying our food and drink, Holly and I enjoyed great evening at Vinopolis Gastrobar and spent around £80 in total for all the food (and a couple of cheeky desserts) along with two glasses of wine each.

Dishes that should not be missed here are the selection of mini-hamburgers (which arrive in different style buns, each with a different types of meat inside), the pork skewers and the black pudding, piquillo sauce and quails egg; a stunning dish packed full of flavour.


The selection of mini-hamburgers is a good choice and has three different styles of meat to sample
There are plenty of good red and white wine options to try
A personal favourite; black pudding, piquillo sauce and quails egg is delicious

Our second restaurant of choice was one we went to on our final night in Gibraltar. But rather than another English or Spanish restaurant we opted for one that had good reviews and offered Asian food.

Located in the trendy Ocean Village at the north-end of Gibraltar, Thi Vietnamese is a haven of south-Asian cuisine.

Sitting down beside the window gave us a nice view out over the harbour. Despite being in the heart of one of the busiest and liveliest scenes in Gibraltar, the restaurant provides a nice quiet place to enjoy a meal.

The staff are also extremely attentive and eager to please. Menus, drinks and food are all served with a smile and service is quick throughout the meal.

They also offer very generous alcohol measures. Holly had ordered a vodka and Coke to have with her meal and ended up with a gin-glass almost full of vodka and a small can of Coke to mellow it out.

It was so much vodka in fact that we needed to order a second can of Coke just to make sure she wasn’t falling off her chair mid-meal.


Thi Vietnamese is a comfortable restaurant whose staff are extremely helpful, attentive and friendly
Holly enjoying the largest vodka and smallest Coke ever served
Holly sat enjoying a drink at a bar in Ocean Village

The food is full of flavour and there are a wide range of options for all tastes.

The spring rolls are well worth trying as a starter and have a large meat content compared to others I’ve had before in other restaurants around the world.

Main courses are a good size and are filling while not being stodgy. It’s also great value as, for our three-course meal for two – including drinks – we paid around just £75!

It was a wonderful way to end our short stay in this small corner of the UK nestled in the heart of the Mediterranean.


Useful links

British Airways

EasyJet

Eastern Airways

Wizz Air

AirBnB

Cable Car

Buytickets.gi

Rock of Gibraltar

Nature Reserve and Apes’ Den

St Michael’s Cave

The Great Siege Tunnels

Windsor Suspension Bridge

Rock Escape Rooms

Europa Point

Victoria Stadium

Dive Charters Gibraltar

Moorish Castle

Alameda Gibraltar Botanic Gardens

Catalan Bay Beach

Vinopolis Gastrobar

Thi Vietnamese

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Vilnius… the Baltics’ last kept secret

Vilnius

Lying deep behind where the former Iron Curtain once cast its oppressive shadow, the city of Vilnius probably remains the least visited capital city from any of the Baltic countries.

Yet, slowly, it’s starting to be appearing more and more on intrepid travellers’ itineraries.

And what a city full of surprises it is!

With its chequered past, it’s probably one of the last places you’d expect to see such a cosmopolitan mix of Soviet and religious history now standing hand-in-hand with a brimming artistic cauldron of life and art.

Located in south-eastern Lithuania, Vilnius is the second-largest city in the Baltic states – behind only Riga; the capital of Latvia.

With a population approaching 600,000, the city remains a healthy mix of historical intrigue and modern entertainment; allowing for a wide range of tastes and preferences to be satisfied during any visit.

The origins of the city’s name come from the nearby Vilnia River which roughly translates as ‘ripple’. Over the centuries the name has been chopped, changed and adapted before finally settled upon the modern day version; Vilnius.

Vilnius is the historic and present-day capital of Lithuania. Archaeological findings have suggested that the city also acted as the capital of the Kingdom of Lithuania and later that of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Its history dates back to the early 1300s with the first recorded mention of it coming in 1323 as Vilna, when the Letters of Grand Duke Gediminas were sent to German cities inviting Germans to settle in the city.


The Hill of the Three Crosses is a focal point in the city of Vilnius

As with much of the region – including each of the three Baltic states – Lithuania and, by association, Vilnius fell under the control of numerous powerhouses following the start of the First World War. Initially falling into German hands, a tangle of Polish and Soviet power-struggles eventually saw the latter finally take charge of the nation.

The Second World War saw German invasion once again but, by the time the war finished in 1945, the Soviet army were again in full control.

The Soviets would remain in power until the early 1990s when Lithuania declared its independence; causing years of struggles with Moscow and Russian troops.

However, 30 years later, Lithuania now stands proudly by itself and, while the city of Vilnius holds many reminders of the Soviet-controlled days, it now thrives on its own merits.

So, what should a first-time visitor to the city make sure they see to get a taste of this nation’s historic sites while also sampling some of the quirkiest street art in Eastern Europe?

It was a question I asked myself. But even before I stepped foot out of my front door, I also wanted to find out what I should know about Vilnius and Lithuania.


Google Maps image of Vilnius

As with a lot of my trips to the Baltic region (don’t ask me why), I had booked this one with a friend for December meaning that we were in for a very chilly reception when we landed.

To say it’s cold in Vilnius in December is an understatement. It’s stupidly cold!

Average highs for the month get to a balmy −0°C with the daily mean usually settling at −2 °C. Therefore, warm, clothes are a must! Pack gloves, hats and scarfs and, most of all, pack layers.

The weather in the city for December is often wet and snowy which can look beautiful but can also become a hazard. On average, there are 21 days of rain in the month each year with only 25 hours of actual sunshine! The city can look slightly dark and gloomy if poor weather does set in.

The next thing to note is the currency. Making life that bit easier, Lithuania joined the Euro on 1 January 2015, replacing the former currency known as the Lithuanian Lita. At the time of writing, £1 sterling would get you around €1.17.

So while you won’t get many Euros in exchange for your Pounds these days, Lithuania is a relatively cheap country to travel in. A pint of beer (because that’s always a good way of judging a local economy) costs around €3.50 at most, while a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant – with drinks – can be as cheap as €41 total.

Language is the next issue that many travellers will quickly encounter.

According to the 2011 National Census, 78.5% of Lithuanians speak at least one foreign language. Out of that number, 63% of Lithuanians speak Russian, 30.4% – English, 8.5% – Polish, and 8.3% – German.

For English speaking visitors with limited foreign language skills (myself included) it can be useful to have a few basic Lithuanian words in the locker. Thank you (ačiū), please (prašau), hello (sveiki) and goodbye (atsisveikink) are a good place to start.

Also remember to take plug converters. There are two associated plug types for Lithuania; types C and F. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and plug type F is the plug which has two round pins with two earth clips on the side. Lithuania operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.

The most important thing to know is that Vilnius is a fun, exciting and friendly city. And now, with the Iron Curtain fully open and dismantled, tourists and visitors can now indulge and embrace what this beautiful city has to offer.


Getting there

As you’d expect, flying is the fastest, and easiest, way to get to Vilnius.

Located just 6km (3.7 miles) south of the city boundary, Vilnius Airport has one runway and welcomes around 5 million passengers through its gates every year. 

While it acts as a base for a number of budget airlines, there are two main ones to use when travelling directly from the UK; Ryanair and Wizz Air.

Remember, these are budget airlines so don’t expect any luxuries onboard.

At the time of writing Ryanair were operating direct flights to Vilnius from London Luton and London Stansted – as well as from Liverpool and Leeds/Bradford International. In comparison, Wizz Air operates flights only from London Luton and Liverpool.


Views of snowy Lithuania as you come in to land at Vilnius International Airport

The good news is that it is pretty cheap to fly to Lithuania from the UK. When my friend and I took the trip we flew with Ryanair from London Luton on a return ticket for two for just £187.23 in total. This included a flight out to Lithuania leaving the UK at 6:35am with a return on a mid-mornin