Athens… how to spend time in this ancient city


The ancient city of Athens is a treasure trove for history-enthused travellers like myself.

With ancient sites spread throughout the boundaries of the city, a trip to he Greek capital is a must for those with one eye on the past.

The question is, even with its almost incomparable history, is Athens worth visiting for those who don’t want to just go on a magical journey back in time? 

The simple answer is yes! Not only is it the largest city in Greece, modern Athens is no longer just a starting point for travellers to visit the Greek islands. The city is a destination in its own right, where ancient ruins ooze Greek history and where great bars and restaurants appeal to today’s sophisticated adventure-seekers.

That being said – and like the Italian capital city of Rome – it’s nigh on impossible to walk the streets of this city without coming face-to-face with something highlighting its extraordinary past.

And with many of its key sites inland, it’s easy to forget that Athens is a coastal city in the Mediterranean and boasts a stunning shoreline with many glorious, nearby, beaches

The city of Athens has a population of around 640,000 as of 2021) and a land area of 38.96km2 (15.04 square miles). However, the Athens Metropolitan Area or Greater Athens as it’s sometimes known, extends beyond its administrative municipal city limits, with a population of 3.7 million (in 2021) over an area of 412km2 (159 square miles).

Located in the south of Greece – in a region known as Attica – Athens is one of the world’s oldest cities. The area has been continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years with its recorded history spanning over 3,400 years.

With signs of its earliest human presence beginning somewhere between the 11th and 7th millennia BC, Athens is widely being referred to as the cradle of western civilization and the birthplace of democracy.

The heritage of the city’s ancient past is evident and represented by monuments; the most famous of all being the Parthenon which is considered to be a key landmark of early western civilisation. In addition to this, Athens is home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Acropolis of Athens – which houses the Parthenon (more on that area later in the blog) and the medieval Daphni Monastery.

For me, Athens was always very much on my to-do list but, like so many locations, kept being pushed back and back to the point where it just was never happening. It took a somewhat concerted effort on my part to bring the Greek capital back to the forefront of my attention; something which I’m extremely glad I did.

While the historic sites were the main draw for me, there were other aspects of the city’s culture I wanted to experience, including it’s cuisine and it’s city life.

So what should a first time visitor to Athens know before heading to the Greek capital?

The Acropolis of Athens of the undisputed focal point of this ancient city

The first thing I’ll point out is the weather.

Athens has a hot-summer Mediterranean climate and is reported to be the hottest city in mainland Europe! The dominant feature of Athens’ climate is alternation between prolonged hot and dry summers and mild, wetter winters with moderate rainfall.

When I visited Athens, it was early in the year (around February / March time) so average daily highs were around 14°C to 17°C with around a couple of inches of rainfall – on average – daily.

However, if you visit the city in the summer months, you can expect temperatures to soar to the nearer 35°C on average (a record high in the city was recorded at 44.8°C on one extreme June day), along with very little rainfall. If you do choose to visit then, take plenty of sun lotion, as well as suitable hot weather clothes.

If – like me – the thought of those temperatures is a little too intense for you, then the late winter months are a welcome alternative. With moderate temperatures – that feel a lot warmer when come from a colder climate like the UK – you can be pretty comfortable wearing jeans, t-shirts and a light jacket.

In addition however, do take some wet-weather clothes and umbrellas as downpours are a possibility. I remember walking from my accommodation towards towards the Acropolis and getting absolutely drenched when the heavens opened for a short 10 minute rain shower!

The next thing to think about is the currency. Like a lot of mainland Europe the Euro is used in Greece. At the time of writing, £1 sterling would get you around €1.15.

Financially, a trip to Athens won’t have a massive negative effect on your pockets. In a survey conducted by the Post Office towards the end of 2022, Athens was ranked the cheapest location for a city break on the continent, ahead of traditional budget-friendly eastern European cities like Krakow in Poland and Riga in Latvia.

It’s great news for those travelling on a tight budget and means you are able to squeeze in a lot of activities without having to break the bank.

The next thing to think about is the time zone differences. If you are travelling from England, then there is a two-hour time zone difference to take into consideration for Greece. This means you’ll lose two hours on your travel to the country but gain them back again when you return.

A view of Athens on Google Maps

Another thing to consider is the plug points in Greece to ensure that all your devices have power.

For Greece there are two associated plug 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. Greece operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.

A final thing to consider is the difference in the language.

Although the official language in Greece is, of course, Greek, English is widely spoken, meaning you shouldn’t experience any problems when visiting the city. English is very widely spoken in Greece, especially in the most touristy parts of the city.

That said, it’s always advisable to carry around a small list of useful expressions just in case you come across non-English speakers. Just knowing the likes of hello and goodbye (yásas), please (parakaló) and thank you (efjaristó) can be a massive help.

Aside from the spoken form of Greek, you’ll also encounter a different alphabet when observing it in its written form (should you be travelling from the UK or other location where the Greek language is not spoken).

The Greek alphabet has been used to write the Greek language since the late 9th or early 8th century BC and is made up of 24 letters. It is deemed the ancestor of is the ancestor of the Latin and Cyrillic scripts that many will be more familiar with.

It does mean however – that for a non-speaker – trying to decipher information in this language is very difficult as the letters and their sounds are not ones we are familiar with.

However, as previously mentioned, Athens is a progressive city and many places acknowledge most travellers will need to see and hear information in foreign languages to their own, so getting by is a fairly straight-forward affair.

With that in mind, the final thing I’d suggest you do before setting off is research (hopefully this blog can help with that to a degree) what you want to see and do in Athens to ensure you make the most of your time in the cradle of western civilisation.

Getting there

Flying to Athens is the most direct and logical way to get to the Greek capital.

There are other methods including by cruise liner, but for me, a three and a half hour flight from London made the most sense for a short city break.

As a major hub in Greece, Athens welcomes flights from many airlines from across the world to its main airport; Athens International.

From the UK there are a number of options for flights including the budget airlines like EasyJet (which depart from Bristol, London Gatwick and Manchester) and Ryanair (who travel from London Stansted) as well as the Greek airline, Aegean Airlines (who depart from London Heathrow, Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and – seasonally – London Gatwick).

However, for my trip I used British Airways; travelling out of London Heathrow. There were a couple of reasons for this. The first being that the times of the flights suited me best (I was able to depart at 7:55am on a Friday morning and come back by 4:30pm the following Monday), and the second being the combined good value of the cost when I was spending my Avios airmiles points.

At the time of my trip, the flights cost me £105.70 (before Avios points savings) per person. However, this was pre-Covid-19 and prices have increased since then. At the time of writing, for a return ticket in February, you can expect to pay a minimum of £180 per person!

The flight itself was fine, if a little underwhelming. I’ll admit I was perhaps expecting a little more in terms of service when I booked the tickets as my previous experience with British Airways had been pretty good.

However, on this occasion, the flight offered little more than a standard budget airline one would and there really were no extra perks for flying with British Airways over that of EasyJet or Ryanair. You live and learn!

When you arrive in Athens and get your first feel of Greek air, you notice the airport is set across two terminals; the Main Terminal and the Satellite Terminal.

In the Main Terminal – which is housed in a three-story building – are all 144 check-in desks as well as Hall A (international flights to Non-European countries and Non-Schengen countries and Hall B (domestic and intra-Schengen flights).

The second terminal called The Satellite Terminal consists of two levels, one for arrivals and one for departures, and is used by around 10 airlines including Ryanair, Easyjet, Vueling, and Norwegian.

Opened in 2001, the Athens International was designed to be extended in a modular approach over the ensuing years in order to accommodate increases in air travel and includes a very useful metro link that takes you to the heart of Athens directly (more on that later).

These extensions are planned in a six-phase framework. The first phase allowed the airport to accommodate 26 million passengers per year (this is a pre-Covid-19 figure). When the airport originally opened, the first phase called for a capacity of only 16 million passengers per year.

The sixth and final expansion phase will allow the airport to accommodate an annual traffic of 50 million passengers, with the current layout leaving enough space for five more terminals to be added!

The airport is located around 33km (around 20.5 miles) southeast of Athens. It is easily accessible via the Athens ring road (Attiki Odos) or via the aforementioned metro. The drive from downtown Athens takes 30-45 minutes, depending on traffic.

Once travellers make their way through the maze of airport security and out of the arrivals gates, they are free to start exploring the Greece.

You can fly with British Airways from London Heathrow to Athens in around three and a half hours
Flying into Athens

Where to stay

As with all major cities, there are a plethora of hotels spread throughout Athens that can cover a variety of needs and budgets.

Once again, though (and this won’t be news to anyone who has read any of my other blogs on this site), I opted for the use of a trusty AirBnB.

Located in a quiet part of town, this cosy loft apartment is a mere 15 minute walk away from the Acropolis of Athens.

In the nearby streets there are a few local stores to buy some in-house essentials – breakfast items for example. The roads are also often lined with beautiful orange trees that were full to burst with their fruits as I walked past. You can just pick one off a tree and eat it (if it’s ripe enough) or simply enjoy the wonderful citrus fruit smell that joins you as you stroll down the road.

Upon arrival outside the apartment – located on a road called Taichman – I met with my host; a very friendly guy called Dpa. He welcomed me to Greece and took me inside to check out the place and to give a quick guided tour.

Throughout the stay Dpa remained in contact with me via the AirBnB app as was always responsive and helpful with tips and advice.

The apartment itself is fairly compacted. Located on the upper floor of a small building, there is a bedroom which comfortably houses two people, as well as a kitchen area that leads into a small bathroom.

The main feature of this place however, is its outside space.

From both the bedroom and the kitchen you can venture outside to a large balcony area that extends around two sides of the building and is equip with a selection of garden furniture.

Despite travelling in February, the weather in Greece still allows for this area to be enjoyed during a stay and, I imagine, this would be even better in the hot summer months.

Considering it is well located, the price of this apartment was extremely reasonable also. For three nights, I paid £126.45 in total (making it just £42.15 per night)! I have checked at the time of writing this blog and, while prices have increased slightly, the cost of a trip in February now is only £137 in total (making it just £45.66 per night).

For this bargain price, you get a great private location and the ability to spend the money you’ve saved on accommodation on activities to enjoy.

The outside space in this loft apartment really is a key feature and a major selling point
The kitchen is simple, yet effective
The bedroom is compact but there is plenty of space for storage and the bed is comfortable
The smell of freshly growing oranges will live long with me and always remind me of walking through Athens

Getting around

For me, the best way to explore a new city is to do it independently and on foot. This works well for the centre of Athens as many of the areas are pedestrianised with cobbled streets which makes walking a great options (although make sure you wear some comfy shoes with good cushioning)

It also helps if you are willing and able to walk as with the city being the heartbeat of ancient Greece, there are a number of areas that more modern options (like trams and metro lines) just cannot access.

To give a basic idea, most ancient sites can be reached from the Acropolis of Athens (as a focal starting point) within about 20 to 30 minutes of walking.

There are many places in the city that provide an elevation so you get great views across Athens while taking a stroll
The city’s streets are easy to navigate and allow you to see the sights Athens has on offer

However, it is inevitable that during a stay in the city you’ll end up using the Athens Metro a fair bit too.

The metro – which initially opened over 150 years ago in 1869 – is split into three lines with a fourth suburban railway also accessing some of the same stations.

What you’ll notice straight away is that there are not many of the 66 station on the network that cross over multiple lines (in fact there are only 10 that do and a number of these are on the route to the airport).

That said, the service is good and helps get you from A to B quickly and efficiently.

The metro runs daily from 5am to midnight. Lines 2 and 3 operate until 2am on Fridays and Saturdays. At peak hours, trains run every five to six minutes. 

The network of stations also gets you close to some of the main sites and stations that are likely to be of use are Akropoli to the Acropolis of Athens, the Acropolis Museum and other ancient sites and Evangelismos for Mount Lycabettus.

The first time I used it was to get from the airport to the city centre which a good, cheap method to get into Athens when you arrive.

Metro Line 3 connects the airport to the city centre (Syntagma Square). The journey time is approximately 40 minutes and trains depart the station every 30 minutes, seven days a week from 6:30am to 11:30pm. One way tickets cost €9 (around £8) for adults, and €4.50 (around £4) for children, teenagers, over 65. A return tickets cost €16 (around £14).

Fares are prepaid, either as short term tickets valid for 90 minutes, 24 hours, three days, five days, or as long term tickets. As of September 2020, there are two types of fare products, the ATH.ENA Ticket and ATH.ENA Card; both of which are validated using a contactless system (by scanning the ticket or card at the electronic validating machines).

As an indication of prices, a single ticket is valid for 90 minutes and costs €1.20 (around £1), a return ticket costs €2.30 (around £2), a daily ticket, which is valid for 24 hours, costs €4.10 (around £3.40) or a five-day ticket costs €8.20 (around £6.80).

It’s also worth noting that these tickets can be used on all means of public transportation in Athens. You can purchase several single tickets in advance, or even a pack of 10+1 tickets, which gives you a small discount.

Athens Metro map showing its current four main lines

Top sites

Athens is a rich treasure-trove of fantastic ancient sites to visit. It means that – for those who are undertaking a short trip to the Greek capital – it’s vital that you pick and choose wisely where to spend your time.

But no matter where your interests lie, the first stop on everyone’s agenda is always the Acropolis of Athens & Parthenon.

Located in the heart of the city, you can get to the Acropolis either by walking or by using the metro and getting off at the Acropoli station on the M2 red line. From here, a 10-minute walk will get you to the Acropolis.

The Acropolis of Athens is an ancient citadel located on a rocky outcrop above the city of Athens and contains the remains of several ancient buildings of great architectural and historical significance, the most famous being the Parthenon – former temple that was dedicated to the goddess Athena during the fifth century BC.

Possibly the most famous site within Athens, the Parthenon was built in thanksgiving for the Hellenic victory over Persian invaders during the Greco-Persian Wars. Like most Greek temples, the Parthenon also served as the city treasury.

Today, the ancient site is a shell of its former glory (and more often-than-not covered in scaffolding) but it still remains an awe inspiring sight that is visible from numerous locations in the city thanks to its elevated position.

While you cannot go within its boundaries, you can walk around the majority of the outside and peer through its rows of towering columns and large stony steps.

Entry to the Acropolis gives you access to more than just views of the Parthenon however.

Once inside the ancient citadel’s boundaries, a ticket also includes the likes of the Erechtheion, Temple of Athena Nike, Old Temple of Athena and Sanctuary of Zeus Polieus, as well as the North and South Slopes which includes the Theatre of Dionysus and views into the Odeon of Herodes Atticus.

Considering its popularity, tickets for this famous site are reasonably priced. For trips between 1 April and 31 October, a standard ticket costs €20 (about £17.60) while visits between 1 November and 31 March cost just €10 (around £8.80).

It’s worth remembering how popular this site is though when planning a trip. If you can, buy tickets online before you go in order to avoid the queue, or – as I did – arrive for its opening time (8am) in order to have the sight as empty as possible.

The Parthenon is the main focus at the Acropolis of Athens
It’s rare to see the Parthenon this empty and without any form of scaffolding
The surviving female figures on the Erechtheion are the main draw on this ancient site
Looking back at the Acropolis of Athens from across the city
The Theatre of Dionysus

The next place to make a stop after leaving the Acropolis is a short five-minute walk down to Promachou Street, situated on the south-eastern slope of the Acropolis hill.

Here you will find the enchanting and mesmerising Acroplois Museum.

This archaeological institution focuses on the findings from the Acropolis of Athens – initially founded in 2003 and opened fully in 2009 – and houses every artefact found on the rock, and the surrounding slopes, from the Greek Bronze Age to Roman and Byzantine Greece.

The biggest miss from this museum remains the fact that the famous Elgin Marbles – sculptures from the Acropolis bought in the early 19th Century by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin – are still held in England at the British Museum. The museum – and Greece as a whole – still hope that these will one day return to their rightful home, with the museum having a placeholder in situ should that day ever arrive. At the time of writing, however, this still looks to be some way off.

That aside, the museum is a magnificent treasure-trove of intrigue and wonder. Artefacts line its spacious open hallways and exhibition rooms and there is plenty of information and insight to keep all its guests entertained and educated.

As a working site, there remain continuous excavation efforts taking place below the ground-level with the site and process made visible through the ground-level glass floor. From June 2019, this has also opened to the public for visits.

Considering the draw this museum has, during my visit, there was plenty of room to enjoy the exhibitions without feeling like you must rush to get out of others’ way.

The prices for entry are also extremely reasonable with a small difference depending on the season you visit.

For trips between 1 November and 31 March prices are €10 per person (around £8.80), while trips between 1 April and 31 October are priced slightly higher at €15 (around £13.35). Either way, the price represents excellent value for money.

Opening times are always set at 9am so for those who want to be first in, should head down for this time while closing times differ between 5pm at the earliest (Monday to Thursday) through to 10pm at the latest (Friday). At weekends, the closing time is 8pm.

The Parthenon Marbles inside the Acropolis Museum
Making the approach to the Acropolis Museum
Inside the Acropolis Museum

A short walk west from the Acropolis lies Philopappos Hill; affording stunning views of the Acropolis and the greater Athens area.

The origins of Philopappos Hill date back to ancient times when it went by the name Muse Hill. The ancient Athenians assumed that the muses of the gods resided here.

Along with Nymph Hill and Pnyx, Philopappos Hill forms a chain of hills. The popular assemblies of the free citizens of Athens took place here, where they discussed political issues and made important decisions.

The hill – which is free to climb – is home to the two-story, Philopappos’ Monument at its highest point.

The monument is impressive but the main draw for me which made me take the walk up the hill – which stands at a height of 147m – was to get views of Athens from one of the city’s most beautiful vantage points.

As a fair warning, the climb up is steep and could be difficult for those with mobility issues. The climb should take around 10 to 15 minutes, but once at the top, the reward is a breath-taking panorama of the city.

From this vantage-point you can see the Acropolis in the foreground, right across Athens and down to the seaside town of Piraeus. The bonus here is that, unlike other elevated positions in the city, there are rarely tourist crowds here making your views undistributed and beautiful.

Taking in the view from Philopappos Hill

As mentioned, the ancient Greek world is the main draw in Athens and another site that is well worth a visit is that of Temple of Hephaestus.

The Temple of Hephaestus is a well-preserved Greek temple that remains standing largely intact to this day.

Located at the north-west side of the Agora of Athens – probably the best-known example of an ancient Greek meeting-place that’s located to the north-west of the Acropolis and bounded on the south by the hill of the Areopagus – on top of the Agoraios Kolonos Hill.

The temple was built from marble excavated from the nearby Mount Penteli – with exception of the bottom step of the platform – and was originally built between the years of 449 BCE and 415 BCE.

From the 7th Century until 1834, it served as the Greek Orthodox church of Saint George Akamates and due to this the building’s condition has been maintained.

As mentioned, this impressive site is part of the wider Agora of Athens and as such admission to the Temple of Hephaestus is included in the Agora ticket.

In the summer months (April to October) entrance fee: €10 (around £8.80) while in winter (November to March) this is reduced to just €5 (around £4.40) per person.

Ticket prices include admission to the museum of the Ancient Agora of Athens, although you can also purchase a €30 (around £26.65) combo ticket for this and six additional sites including the Acropolis, the Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Library, Temple of Olympian Zeus, Kerameikos, and Aristotle’s Lyceum.

This combo ticket is valid for five days and offered all year round. Tickets can be purchased on-site or in advance online which helps you avoid the queues when you arrive on site.

The Agora is an enjoyable stroll with plenty to look at and enjoy with the Temple of Hephaestus being the highlight of any visit here.

Looking up at the roof of the Temple of Hephaestus
A view back across at the beautiful Temple of Hephaestus

The next ancient site on the agenda has to be the Temple of Olympian Zeus.

This former colossal temple lies in the center of Athens – to the south-east of the Acropolis – and was originally built as part of a number of works designed for Athens by Roman Emperor Hadrian around the year 125 AD.

Situated in, what is now a large green-space in the busy built-up area of Athens, the temple was originally used as a place of worship for the leader of the Olympian Gods and ruler of Mount Olympus.

It is one of two major attractions in this area. The other is Hadrian’s Gate, which sits on the edge of the green space aside a busy multi-lane roadway.

The temple is impressive in its size. Massive columns rise high into the sky and there is the air of the grandeur that would have been present many years’ ago. While you cannot walk among the columns you can go around its perimeter and get an idea of its sheer size and scale.

Entrance to the Temple of Olympian Zeus is free of charge only for children up to five-years-old and EU citizens up to 25-years-old. Everyone else needs to purchase a ticket, which cost €6 (around £5.35).

The imposing columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus
It’s impressive to see these ancient structures still standing the test of time

Slightly further east from the Temple of Olympian Zeus lies the impressive Panathenaic Stadium.

This multi-purpose stadium is the only stadium in the world built entirely of marble; having originally been built in a natural ravine between the two hills of Agra and Ardettos.

It’s history can be dated back all the way to 330 BC when the site housed a simple racecourse.

Originally built with no seating, the development of the stadium was continued over the centuries and – at it’s highest – the capacity of the arena reach 80,000!

In it’s current form, around 40,000 spectators could be squashed into the arena, but the stadium is used more now as a tourist attraction than as a sporting venue.

The stadium itself is a long, traditional-looking, structure with a large oval racecourse running through its center and marble seating accommodating three of the main sides of the arena.

As a visitor to the arena, you arrive in at one end at the bottom level and can walk around the whole track and pose for various photos on the race starting lines or on the winners’ podium.

It’s also worth climbing up to the top the seating area as this gives you a great view of the whole stadium.

Towards one end, there is the old Underground Athletes’ Tunnel which you can venture down, taking you to a small museum exhibition to the history of the Olympic Games.

Tickets can only be purchased at the stadium for €10 (around £8.80) with daily openings starting at 8am.

Looking down at the Panathenaic Stadium
You can pose as a winner down at the track level
You get a real feeling of the history of the city from inside the stadium
Looking along the running track inside the Panathenaic Stadium

There are a number of great places in Athens to get superb views, but one of the best is afforded from Mount Lycabettus.

Standing at an impressive 277m above sea-level, Mount Lycabettus is the highest point in the whole of Athens.

Situated to the north-east of the Acropolis, Mount Lycabettus is best accessed by traveling on the the M3 metro line to Evangelismos station. From here, a short, pleasant walk will get you to the base of mountain, where you’ll be met with a decision to make; climb up on foot or use the cable car!

For me, the decision was simple. I was always going to take the cable car. For just €10 (around £8.80) you can get a round-ticket or for €7 (around £6.25) you can buy a one-way pass. The cable car operates 365 days a year and starts each day at 9am.

The cable car system – which has run since 1965 – can get busy at peak times and travels between the top and bottom every 20 to 30 minutes, so you may have a short wait to get onto one.

Obviously, if you can, try and get a seat at the front of the cable car. Here you’ll have a large window to view from as you ascend or descend the mountain, giving you great shots of the city as you go.

Once moving, travel time on the cable car is about three minutes each way and when you arrive at the top disembarking is usually quick and efficient.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, there are other locations in the city that give good views of Athens, and some of them are a lot quieter than Mount Lycabettus so do be prepared to have a crowd of people with you at the top.

That being said, this is clearly one of the best spots in the city for a fantastic panoramic view, so it’s well worth the time and money.

The path up to the cable car station to go up Mount Lycabettus are very pretty
The views from the top of the mountain are stunning
Looking back at the Acropolis of Athens from Mount Lycabettus

For those who have seen all the ancient sights, there hopefully will be a bit of time to have some fun of a different kind. As an escape room enthusiast, I was keen to try one in Greece and found the superb Athens Clue.

Situated across two locations (with one being outside of central Athens) the best bet is to do a room in the location named Marousi (on a street call Leof. Kifisias) in the north of the city.

Here there are – at the time of writing – five rooms to choose from across a range of themes.

The difference in these rooms to others I’ve tried around the world is that you get 70 minutes to play compared to the usual hour.

When I played, they had a room called World War III, which sadly has been discontinued as it was really good fun (where you pretending to infiltrate North Korea and getting arrested by live-action guards). However, if there current rooms are of the same standard, then the game is sure to be fun to play and satisfactorily challenging also.

Pricing is fairly reasonable. For just €38 for two people (around £33.85) you can pre-book a game and enjoy a lighter-hearted aspect of Greek life.

Photo from completing the now discontinued World War III escape game

Where to avoid

Safety-wise, Athens an average crime rate compared to other European countries so the basic rules apply: keep hold of your valuables and be aware of areas that pickpockets may operate in.

Other than that, the city is pretty safe and the people are very friendly and helpful.

Safety-aside, if you are short on time it can be hard to work out which of the city’s many sites and landmarks to skip over.

One ancient site that doesn’t add much to a trip is that of The Prison of Socrates.

This place was named after Socrates because of the belief that the ancient philosopher was imprisoned here. However, all the details about the imprisonment and execution of Socrates were derived from dialogues of Kriton and Phaedo.

Located on the slopes of the Philopappos Hill, immediately to the south-west of the Acropolis, the mysterious set of caves lie.

As you descend the Philoppapos Hill near the Acropolis, you will see a gloomy niche with a rusty metal mesh, which is cut in the rock. This is the Socrates’ prison.

Fortunately, a visit to the ‘prison’ is free, as you will not be able to get inside because of the metal mesh at the entrance meaning any visitors will have to be content with just studying the place from outside.

The outside of The Prison of Socrates is easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there
While it is free to view The Prison of Socrates, you can’t go in. Any visit will be done in minutes and the best you can do is stick your camera through the bars to get a photo of the inside of the cave

Away from ancient sites, many visitors to Athens go to see the The Presidential Guard in their unique uniforms.

The Presidential Guard is a infantry unit that guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Presidential Mansion.

These days the Guards are merely a ceremonial unit, but that doesn’t stop visitors spending time to make the journey to to see them and witness the Changing of the Guards.

However, this really isn’t that thrilling and once you’ve had a good look at the guards in their rather unique – and totally inefficient – uniforms (which include the use of Tsarouchi shoes befit with what looks like a pompom on the front – there is very little else to do here.

Don’t waste your time with this and spend your time in Athens searching for more fun and interesting things to see and do.

A member of the Presidential Guard in full uniform with traditional footwear
The Presidential Guards marching by are only worth seeing if they happen to be doing so when you are passing naturally. Don’t bother hunting them out

Great places to eat

Athens – and indeed Greece in general – is home to some of the world’s best cuisine. During my stay in the city I enjoyed a variety of great food and drink so I’m going to try and explain my best bets for a lunch time and evening meal.

But the first thing to mention is that no matter what meal you’re enjoying, make room to sip on a couple of bottles of Mythos beer.

Personally, I love trying local brews when I travel, so was keen to sample this one as well. And while beer may not be to everyone’s taste, this light beer is an enjoyable drink to savour while planning the next part of your Greek adventure.

Upon arrival in Athens – and after checking into my AirBnB – I made my way out and stopped at a small restaurant near the Acropolis for a light snack.

Here was my first opportunity to sample a bottle of Mythos and it didn’t disappoint (although I did manage to sit right next to a sign advertising the local Alcoholics Anonymous group meeting which did make me feel slightly self-conscious about my drink of choice)!

Enjoying a cold bottle of Mythos and feeling slightly judged for it with the “Alcoholics Anonymous” sign behind

Away from alcohol, there are plenty of options in Athens to grab a light, affordable lunch. One place I particularly enjoyed was iFeel.

This trendy eatery is located a short distance north of the Acropolis of Athens on a small backstreet called Karaiskaki 33.

The entrance to the establishment is welcoming and you’ll find different menu options designed to suit your moods.

Tasty picks such as their signature Black Angus burger, fresh salads that are perfect for a late snack, or a wide brunch selection, are a few of the options available.

For around €10 (around £8.90) you can get a lunch option such as a club sandwich and for a few extra Euros you can add on a hot or cold drink also.

The relaxed nature of the iFeel means that while food is a quick affair, you don’t feel rushed and you can sit back and enjoy your breakfast or lunch without being hurried out the door.

iFeel has a very modern and relaxed atmosphere to enjoy which having a tasty lunch

My final pick is an expensive one, but as a location for a special evening meal, this is right up there with the best I’ve ever experienced.

The upmarket restaurant Aleria is located on Meg. Alexandrou 57; a 35 minute walk north-west from the Acropolis of Athens.

Getting to the restaurant is fairly easy. There are three main suggestions. The first being to walk it (although after a big meal this may not be advisable). The second suggestion is to order a taxi (the restaurant will do this for you, for your return journey home after your meal) or the third option (and the one I took) is to use the metro (the closest station is Metaxourgeio on Line 2 of the Athens Metro).

Once you’re inside the restaurant you’ll be welcomed in by the extremely attentive staff and the delightfully decorated interior.

This charming restaurant inspired by Greek gastronomical tradition and has two tasting menus to choose from (the Earth & Sea menu or the Garden & Nature menu); with options on both to have either five or six courses along with wine pairings.

I wanted to make this a special meal, so opted for the six course Earth & Sea menu alongside the wine pairings.

The food was exquisite. There were wonderful seafood dishes that included crab and fresh fish, while meat courses ranged from lamb to beef. Beautifully presented, the meal was then perfectly accompanied by the appropriate wines.

Now, usually, I’m not one for the wine pairings. Two main reasons being that they are, more often-than-not, hugely overpriced and surrounded by a great deal more pomp and ceremony than I’m comfortable with. Neither of these issues were the case here and, in fact, the sommelier was friendly and informative without their being any pomposity to his explanations of what I was getting.

The meal lasted for around three hours and there are a number of small breaks between courses that allow you to savour what you’ve just been eating.

As mentioned, this is not a restaurant experience you’ll be able to do very cheaply, but the expense is worthwhile given the food and the service you get.

For my six courses I paid €78 per person (around £69) with an additional €48 per person for the wine pairing (around £42.50); making the bill (before tip) €126 per person (around £111.50) in total.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a lot of money for a single dinner. However, if you are looking for somewhere special to go for the evening that offers great local dishes and first-class service, then you won’t go far wrong by enjoying a night out, during your Athens adventure, at Aleria.

Each course at Aleria is incredidle and works perfectly with the affordable wine pairing

Useful links

British Airways


Athens Metro

Acropolis of Athens & Parthenon

Acropolis Museum

Philopappos Hill

Temple of Hephaestus

Temple of Olympian Zeus

Panathenaic Stadium

Mount Lycabettus

Athens Clue

The Prison of Socrates

The Presidential Guard

Mythos beer



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Helsinki… sauna time in the world’s happiest city


Often considered to be Finland’s only metropolis, Helsinki is well-known for its innovative art, culture, love of everything sauna-related and – according to the World Happiness Report 2020 – being the happiest city in the world!

So the question is, why wouldn’t you want to travel here?

From a personal point-of-view I’ve always loved Scandinavian countries. The people are welcoming, the streets are extremely clean, the cities are surrounded by natural beauty and there is always lots to do.

Having been to the capitals of the other countries in the region (including Reykjavik in Iceland and Stockholm in Sweden), Helsinki was high on my to-do list and there were many factors that were drawing me in.

One aspect is the country’s rich history. Helsinki was founded by Swedish King Gustav I in 1550 as the town of Helsingfors. Gustav intended for the town to serve the purpose of consolidating trade in the southern part of Finland and providing a competitor to Revall; known today as the Estonian capital city, Tallinn.

Helsinki is also home to numerous Art Nouveau-influenced buildings belonging to the Kansallisromantiikka trend, designed in the early 20th century and strongly influenced by Kalevala, which was a common theme of the era.

Another draw, aside from their remarkable history and culture, is that Finland is also home to some of the most stunning natural landscapes and breath-taking vistas.

And that’s not to forget their love of all things sauna related!

So what should a first-time traveller to Helsinki know before setting off?

Helsinki Cathedral is a focal point of the city centre

One of the first things to note is the weather in Finland.

Helsinki has a humid continental climate similar to that of Hokkaido or costal Nova Scotia. Owing to the influence of the Baltic Sea and North Atlantic Current, temperatures during the winter are higher than its northern location might suggest, with the average in January and February around −4 °C. Still not warm by any stretch!

Winters in Helsinki are notably warmer than in the north of Finland, and the snow season is much shorter in the capital, due to it being in extreme southern Finland.

The average maximum temperature from June to August is ranges from around 19°C to 22°C. During hot summer days, daily temperatures are a little cooler and night temperatures higher than further inland. For reference, the highest temperature ever recorded in the city was 33.2°C; but this was an extreme case so never expect this.

It’s worth remembering that the weather can still be changeable even in the summer months and there are still, on average, around 12 days of rain each July. Therefore, remember to pack some wet-weather clothing no matter what time of year you visit.

While I was there, it was mid-July so temperatures were warm. It was comfortable t-shirt and shorts weather for the most part, but there were a couple of downpours that meant umbrellas were called upon. It’s all part of the Helsinki experience.

The next thing to think about is the currency. Like a lot of mainland Europe – but less frequent in Scandinavia – the Euro is used in Finland. At the time of writing, £1 sterling would get you around €1.15.

Unlike Stockholm, which seemed to shun cash transactions, most places in Helsinki still accept hard currency. However, there is a general move towards cashless transactions. For example, cash sales on the Finnish public transport ended on Finnish trains in September 2019 and many other businesses around the city are moving to accept card-only transactions.

For the time-being, however, make sure you take a reasonable amount of cash with you (Finland is not a cheap country to visit) as well as a credit card to ensure all your needs are covered.

A view of Helsinki on Google Maps

If you are travelling from England, then there is a two-hour time zone difference to take into consideration with Finland. This means you’ll lose two hours on your travel to the country but gain them back again when you return.

Another thing to consider is the power points in Finland to ensure your devices stay charged up.

For Finland there are two associated plug types, types C and F. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and type F is the plug which has two round pins with two earth clips on the side. Finland operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.

The local language also needs to be thought about. Surprisingly, there are two official languages of Finland; those being Finnish and Swedish – as well as a host of other smaller provisional languages that are spoken in some of the smaller regions of the country.

Fortunately, for a British person, English is widely spoken, written and understood in Helsinki – and indeed across much of Finland – meaning that interactions with local people remain easy.

However, as always, it’s useful to go armed with a few key words and phrases to help ease conversations along. Just knowing (in Finnish) the likes of hello (hei), goodbye (hyvästi) and thank you (kittos) can be a massive help.

Interestingly, there is no individual word for please in Finnish. Instead, The polite way to ask for things is – for example – “can I have some milk, thank you” or “could you pass the butter, thank you”.

Also, it’s worth remembering that despite being referred to by some variation of ‘Finland’ since the medieval times, the Finns continue (as they have for centuries), to refer to their country, and themselves, as ‘Suomi’. Don’t therefore be confused if you see or hear this word in relation to either.

As ever, ensure you do your own research on the city and the country before you go as this will help you plan your activities while you’re there and ensure you get the best Helsinki experience for you available.

Getting there

Flying to Helsinki is by far the easiest and quickest method to get to Finland.

There are of course other methods of travel available. Some may prefer to visit as part of a cruise – with many stopping in the region as part of trips around the Baltics. This really didn’t appeal to me, however, as it would limit my time and exposure to everything that Helsinki, and its people, had to offer.

That meant that the only choice that was left to make was to decide which airline to fly the three-hour flight from London with.

There are a few of options for direct flights from London. The first is with Finnair – the flag-carrier and largest airline from Finland – which travels from London Heathrow, the second is with Norwegian Air Shuttle who fly from London Gatwick and the third is with Ryanair who fly from London Stansted. On this occasion, I went with the latter option.

At the time of writing, flights in July – the time of year I travelled to Helsinki – from London Stanstead were costing around £185 for a return trip. This is, of course, without any extras that Ryanair throws in for extra money including extra luggage and seat selection.

Once you’ve landed you’ll find yourself at Helsinki Airport which is the main international airport for the city. The airport is located in the neighbouring city of Vantaa, which is around 10.5 miles (17km) north of Helsinki’s city centre.

Opened in 1952 for that year’s Summer Olympics, over 20 million passengers annually fly in and out of its two terminals (although this has reduced in recent years due to Covid-19 restrictions).

The airport is modern and spacious and has easy access to numerous routes to the city when you’ve finished at the airport.

The airport is located in the immediate vicinity of Ring III and Finnish national road 45 if you want to travel by hire car or taxi. Additionally, there is a railway line that runs beneath the airport in a tunnel that is connected to the Helsinki commuter rail.

Where to stay

If you’ve read any of my other blogs on World-Complete (hopefully you have) you’ll know that I usually stay in an AirBnB. While Helsinki has many of these on offer that should cover a variety of budgets, this time I opted to stay in a hotel near the city centre

For this I selected the stylish Scandic Paasi.

This classily decorated hotel has excellent service, while also boasting a casual atmosphere. Located in a small courtyard in the peaceful Siltasaari district of Hakaniemi, there are numerous places to catch public transport nearby or walk to the city centre, making it easy to explore the nation’s capital.

The hotel’s interior was inspired by the different styles of the buildings and the 19th-century circus in the area. The rooms and the lobby are decorated in a playful and unique way that blends the history of the hotel with the present-day.

Scandic Paasi has a selection of ultra-modern rooms to choose from and they sort them by a selection of themes. Some of their rooms are decorated in the “conscious theme”, other rooms decorated with punchbags in the “leisure theme” (this was the option I got) and some rooms are decorated in the “spectacular theme” in the style of the colourful circus history of the area. If you are travelling on a bigger budget there are also a few rooms that sport a private balcony and even some with a private sauna. This option, however, was a bit more than I was willing to part with for a short city-break.

It’s worth noting that this is not a cheap, budget hotel. To give you an idea of prices, a standard room (that comes in either the conscious theme or leisure theme styles) costs around €126 per-night (around £110) in July, while a superior room (boasting the spectacular theme) will cost slight more at €146 per-night (around £127). However, for that money, you are buying a comfortable, welcoming room, breakfast in the morning in the hotel restaurant along with easy access to the city and its amenities.

A neat little quirk of this hotel that I discovered was that they have a couple of bikes available that guests could ask to borrow – free-of-charge – and explore the city on. These bikes were well-worn and, in some instances, needing a touch of love and repair, but it was a nice option to have; and one I took up on at least one occasion. Cycling is a great way to see the city (a bit more on that later on) and also an environmentally conscious method. It was a great addition to this hotel’s offerings for its guests.

Having settled into my room – complete with aforementioned punchbag – I unpacked my clothes and made myself comfortable before heading out to explore Helsinki properly for the first time.

Scandic Paasi is a quirky hotel that is well located in the city

Getting around

There are a few ways to travel in Helsinki with walking still being my preferred method.

However, you can hire cars from the airport – and from locations around Helsinki – but unless you’re planning on going elsewhere in Finland, this is an expense you can probably do without.

Starting from the beginning though, I needed to get from the airport to the city centre once my plane had landed. While there are road routes that you can take – including getting in a taxi – this is an unnecessary expense.

The mode of transport I opted for was to board the efficient railway service from the airport.

The Ring Rail Line is a railway route is in the area of the city known as Vantaa. I found my way down to the railway from the airport so I could get to the city centre quickly and inexpensively.

For just €4.60 (about £4) for a one-way ticket, I was able to board the train at the airport station and within 30 minutes I was in the city centre. Perfect.

Purchasing a ticket is easy and should be done before you enter the train from the machines in the station (paying by either cash or card).

The station at the airport is underground yet large and airy. Trains to the city centre arrive – on average – every 10 minutes so even if you miss one, another is nearby.

Onboard, the train is comfortable and usually very clean. There will be plenty of room (unless the train is extremely busy) to sit and store your luggage so it’s a good opportunity to relax for 30 minutes and enjoy your first sights of Finland from the trains windows after you leave the station.

The Ring Rail Line to the city is impressive and can get you to the city centre from the airport in just 30 minutes

While walking is easy to do around Helsinki, I found one of the best ways to get around quickly – and in a fun way – is to use the many bikes that are readily available around the city for short-term hire.

As I previously mentioned, the hotel I stayed in did have a couple of older bikes to use, but they were slightly tired and in need of some love. The chain kept coming off one and the seat wasn’t well fixed on another. It’s why I decided to spend a little bit of money and sign-up to use the Helsinki City Bikes.

These bright yellow bikes sit in docking stations scattered around the city. In total, there are nearly 4,600 bikes and 460 stations in Helsinki and the nearby Espoo regions.

You register online with and chose one of the three options; a one-day pass for €5 (around £4.30), the week pass for €10 (around £8.60) or the season pass for €35 (around £30.20).

As I was there for three days, I selected the week pass for €10 which gave me an unlimited number of bike hires for the week with each ride lasting up to 30-minutes.

Getting going is easy. You simply go to a bike station (you can see the locations of bike stations and available bikes on the journey planner), then unlock a bike by entering your cyclist ID and PIN code on the device in the middle of the handlebar, adjust your seat and peddle away.

The trick to remember is that each ride is 30 minutes for the money you’ve paid. If you go longer than 30 minutes before docking the bike in a station, then you will be subject to additional charges at a rate of €1 (around £0.85) for each additional 30 minutes. If you don’t mind these extra charges, then you may mind the delay charge of €80 (around £69) which kicks in if you don’t return the bike to a docking station within five hours!

There is a simple way around this though. Every 25 minutes I went to the nearest docking station (there really are loads all over Helsinki) and quickly docked the bike. I then immediately took the same bike out again by entering my details in the same way I did the first time. This restarted the 30 minutes.

The system is a great and mimics similar ones elsewhere around the world. The bikes were generally in good working order and easy to ride. A lot of central Helsinki was quite flat so cycling was very simple.

The Finnish authorities have also put a lot of work into the cycling infrastructure and there are ample cycle paths around the city that are spacious and car free – making it a safe and fun way to see the city.

The city bikes are a fun and cheap way to get around the city. Additionally cycle paths – like this one seen here – are common and keep you safe away from cars on the road

Top sites

Helsinki is a beautiful and modern city with loads to see and do. As I was only in the city for three days I wanted to ensure I saw some of its key features.

But as well as the built-up city centre, it was important for me to not only see the culture and the history that Helsinki has in abundance but also to see some of the countries beautiful natural surroundings as well as taking the time for some fun and games.

My first stop – and one of the city’s focal points – was the Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko).

Located above the spacious Senate Square in the Kruununhaka neighbourhood, the cathedral is a distinctive landmark in the Helsinki cityscape, with its tall, green dome surrounded by four smaller domes. The building is in the neoclassical style.

Aside from acting as a superb meeting point for local people – and being within a minute’s walk from the popular water-front market square (a must-visit where you can sample some of the wonderful local food on offer) – it’s a shining example of the classical architecture present in the city.

The church was originally completed in 1852 as a tribute to the Grand Duke of Finland, Tsar Nicholas I of Russia and is also known as St Nicholas’s Church.

Although still in use for services and other special events, the cathedral is one of Helsinki’s most popular tourist attractions and regularly welcomes around half a million visitors through its doors.

The cathedral is free to enter and, once inside, showcases its beautifully curved walls and simple design; creating an airy, spacious and tranquil room for worship-goers to use. It won’t take too long to explore the cathedral inside so a quick look around shouldn’t take longer than 15 minutes.

Outside, the cathedral sits atop a series of stairs on several of its sides. These stairs not only give you a good view over the surrounding square, but also act as a good place to grab a pew (or a stair) and plan out your next activity.

Sitting here and enjoying the Helsinki sun was a fond memory of mine from this trip.

Helsinki Cathedral has some visually stunning architecture
These stairs are a regular meeting spot for local people and a good places to take a much needed break
The cathedral against the backdrop of the summer Helsinki sky

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, one of the best ways I’ve found to explore a new city is to join up with a free walking tour.

Most cities have them, and Helsinki has a few to choose from but on this trip I chose to go with Green Cap Tours.

Meeting at Senate Square – at the base of main staircase to the cathedral – the tour groups can vary in size from just a few to many people.

The tour is easy to spot. Just look for – as the name would suggest – the friendly and helpful guides wearing the green caps!

The Helsinki Free Walking Tour is designed to give the feel of the city with stories of the history and everyday life of the locals.

Since 2015, Green Cap Tours have been taking visitors on this free walking tour, that they constantly develop the content for, to provide a useful yet entertaining package. Despite being the happiest country of the world, Finland – and indeed Helsinki – has had its fair share of controversies for visitors to indulge their imaginations in.

Joining the two-hour tour, you will get familiar with some of the curiosities of Helsinki and its local living habits.

The tour will take you past a number of the city’s key sites including the University of Helsinki, Presidential Palace, Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral and the Sauna Centre.

The tour will conclude near where it started and – as is the case with all these tours – you pay as much as you feel it was worth. To give you an idea, most people, in my experience, give between €5 (around £4.40) and €10 (around £8.70) per person.

The tour is a really great way to get your bearings in the city in a whistle-stop manner.

The walking tours take you to places you otherwise may not go to and give a great deal of information about life in Helsinki

No trip to Helsinki would be complete without a trip to at least one of its famous saunas.

It is estimated that there are three million saunas in Finland, serving its population of 5.5 million people, so it is easy to can see just how important sauna-culture is for the Finnish people.

As you’d therefore expect, there is an array of public saunas all over Helsinki, that cater to varying tastes. Whether you are looking for a marine spa and an oasis of urban culture right at the heart of the city, or a sauna in a modern neighbourhood that serves as a combination of a relaxing sauna and a restaurant, you’re sure to find it all.

There was one particular sauna that caught my attention and I’d urge visitors to give it a try.

The Sauna Löyly Helsinki is a public sauna and restaurant complex in Hernesaari district on the southern tip of Helsinki. The complex includes a traditional Finnish smoke sauna and two other wood-heated saunas, a year-round terrace and a restaurant.

The saunas offer direct access to the outdoor seating area and the sea, where it is possible to enjoy a refreshing swim, all year round. There are separate changing rooms and shower facilities for men and women but as the saunas and other public areas are mixed, it means that customers are respectfully asked to wear swimming costumes at all times (not the case in all saunas it’s worth noting).

The restaurant, favouring ecological and locally produced ingredients, offers lunch, dinner and brunch on Saturdays while also serving an array of splendid drinks to enjoy while sat on the roof terrace.

A two-hour booking for the sauna costs €21 (£18.30) per person, and includes a towel, seat cover, soap and shampoo. If you suddenly discover you’ve forgotten your swimwear then fear not, as you can rent this here for just €6 (around £5.25) for the two-hour session.

The sauna usually opens between 1pm and 2pm (although on Saturday it opens at 9am) and stays open to between 9pm and 11pm (depending on what day of the week it is).

Approaching the sauna I was impressed by the elegance of its stylish wooden structure.

Its sharp, pyramid-style points jut out from all angles while a neat staircase welcomes guests to its roof terrace seating.

Overlooking the Gulf of Finland, Sauna Löyly is an extremely modern-looking structure in an otherwise practical, somewhat industrial, street-setting.

Make sure you sample both types of sauna during a visit. Both the smoke sauna and the wood-fired sauna can seat around 20 bathers at any one time, so there is usually plenty of space to get a seat for a session.

After a good steam, the best way to cool off is to step outside and take a jump into the calm waters of the sea. I won’t lie, jumping in is a shock to the system so prepare for it to feel pretty chilly (and colder still if the weather is bad) but, be brave and take the step, as afterwards your body will feel revitalised.

Getting a drink on the roof deck of the Sauna Löyly is the perfect way to soak in the surroundings

The archipelago of Helsinki consists of around 330 islands, providing a great gateway to lush green forests, sandy beaches and coastal nature that could fool you into believing you’ve travelled further afield. But unlike the outer archipelago, the Helsinki islands mix all the best amenities of a city – cafes, bars, restaurants – with the feeling of being in the archipelago.

One set of islands that cannot be missed is that of Suomenlinna.

Suomenlinna spans eight islands of which six have been fortified. It sits around 4km southeast of the Helsinki city centre and is popular with tourists and locals who enjoy it as a picturesque picnic site.

There is a great deal of history to this beautiful district.

The initial fortress is of Swedish design who started building it in the mid-1700s. There were two main aspects to Ehrensvärd’s design for Sveaborg (the original name for Suomenlinna): a series of independent fortifications across several linked islands and, at the very heart of the complex, a naval dockyard.

In addition to the island fortress itself, sea-facing fortifications on the mainland would ensure that an enemy could not acquire a beach-head from which to stage attacks on the sea fort. The plan was also to stock munitions for the whole Finnish contingent of the Swedish Army and Royal Swedish Navy there.

The fortress would be surrendered to the Russians in the 1800s and would remain that way for over a hundred years until May 1918, when it was given the name Suomenlinna (‘Castle of Finland’) to reflect Finland’s independence and was annexed to the state of Finland. Soon, the fortress housed various Defence Forces units and Suomenlinna became a Finnish garrison.

Moving forward to the present day, the fortress became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991 and is home to around 900 permanent inhabitants with around 350 people working there all year-round.

Interestingly, there is also a working minimum-security penal labour colony on Suomenlinna. Inmates of this colony work on the maintenance and reconstruction of the fortifications.

It makes it a place that naturally attracts visitors. As a traveller, you can visit Suomenlinna by ferry (taking you to and from the Kauppatori ferry terminal on the Helsinki mainland) all year.

The trip to Suomenlinna takes 15–20 minutes and offers magnificent views of Helsinki and the surroundings from the sea. During the chilly winter months, the trip through the ice-covered waters is a unique experience.

The ferry ticket is covered by an HSL ticket as the ferry is part of Helsinki public transport. If you have a valid HSL ticket (AB, ABC or ABCD) you can use it to board the ferry. Suomenlinna is in the HSL ticket zone A.

At the time of writing a single HSL ticket – that is valid for 80–110 minutes – for zones AB costs €2.80 (around £2.50).

The good thing is that there is no entrance fee to the fortress. Visitors only have to pay for the crossing to Suomenlinna and back. It’s worth noting that the ferry ticket does not include entrance to the six museums on the island, however, and each museum has its own separate entrance charge. It’s a case of exploring the museums that are of interest to you.

Suomenlinna Museum, showcasing the history, the restoration and the present of the fortress as well as Military Museum’s Manege, is open throughout the year, whereas Ehrensvärd Museum, the submarine Vesikko, Toy Museum and Customs Museum are open only during the summer season.

Once I arrived at the fortress, I walked up the short path up to the main visitors centre.

There are a couple of options open to ways of exploring the islands. The first is to join up with a paid-for guided tour – which starts at the Suomenlinna Museum – and the second (which was the way I did it) is to walk around the islands yourself.

There are plenty of places to grab some food and drink on the islands. The many eateries of Suomenlinna range from cafés and lunch restaurants to fine dining. All of the cafés and restaurants serve during the summer season and many of them also serve visitors during the winter season.

As a minimum, you’d want to spend around two to three hours exploring the islands, but I’d urge you to stay longer and really see it all. To do it properly, give yourself at least half a day to walk the many walks and see all the fabulous views and sights that this charming network of islands has to offer.

Taking the ferry on the short crossing to Suomenlinna
The sea fortress on Suomenlinna is an impressive place to explore
A view down the barrel one of the fortress guns
Suomenlinna is a way to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city’s streets

Back on the mainland, and I was looking for some light-hearted entertainment for an evening. So what better place to get this than at Linnanmäki theme park.

Opened in May 1950, Linnanmäki is owned by the non-profit Children’s Day Foundation which operates the park in order to raise funds for Finnish child welfare work – which makes a visit even more appealing. What’s more, it is the oldest and one of the most popular amusement park in the whole of Finland.

The park is open from spring to autumn and is visited by over a million guests annually.

Linnanmäki currently has 43 rides, along with many other non-ride based attractions. The most notable ride in the park is Vuoristorata; a wooden roller coaster, opened in 1951. It is the most recognisable symbol of the park and was one of the first permanent rides to be built here.

Technically the oldest ride at Linnanmäki is Karuselli (a carousel), which was built in Germany in 1896 and has been at Linnanmäki since 1954.

Linnanmäki has eight roller coasters. Other major rides include three tower rides, a ferris wheel, a river rapids ride and spinning rides. The park also has a selection of family and kiddie rides.

The good news is that admission to the park is totally free.

But that means that most of the rides can only be ridden with the possession of a ride ticket, or the more popular wristband, which allows the wearer unlimited access to all of the park’s rides for the entire day.

Currently a day-pass wristband can be purchased for €45 (about £40) per person. There is also a separate option of the evening wristband – which costs €35 (about £30.50) – and covers entrance to the rides for the final three hours of the park’s opening. Tickets can be purchased online, in advance, or on the gate.

The latter option is what I went for as I was only free in the evening having spent the daytime exploring Helsinki, and the three hours I spent in the park gave me plenty of time to try out all the rides I wanted to get on.

As a form of escapism, Linnanmäki is a wonderful place to spend time in Helsinki. It allows the inner-child within to come to the fore and shriek with excitement as you are hurled from side-to-side and upside down.

I can safely say, spending time at Linnanmäki remains one of my fondest memories from my time in Helsinki.

Linnanmäki is home to some high-octane rides
A view out across the Linnanmäki theme park – from its ferris wheel – and out further across Helsinki
As the sun sets, the theme park continues to entertain its guests

It would be criminal to come to Helsinki and not get out into the natural world. A great way to see some of the beautiful scenery in the surrounding area is to venture a little outside of the city centre and hire a kayak with Natura Viva.

Located at the Vuosaari Paddling Centre – and open at various times between the months of May and September – the centre gives a variety of hire options for those who want to venture out onto the water.

The easiest way to get here is to get on the Metro at Rautatientori in the city centre and take it for around 24 minutes east on the M1 line to Rastila. From there take the short 1km walk south to the water’s edge. The whole journey should take between 45 minutes to an hour.

For those that don’t want to walk from Rastila there is a bus (line 560 that runs every 10 minutes from the station) that can take you to within 400m of the paddle centre by dropping you off at Harbonkatu bus stop.

Once at the centre (which is pretty well hidden down some residential streets), you can book yourself onto a guided kayak or paddle board tour, but I wanted to go out on the water by myself and explore at my own pace. Fortunately, this option is available and you can hire kayak equipment for a minimum of two hours.

As kayaking is their speciality, they have a large fleet of kayaks, ranging from beginners’ models to more advanced models and to double kayaks.

Prices range from €32 (about £28) for a basic model to €49 (about £42.75) for a twin model for a two-hour trip. It’s advisable to book in advance online to avoid turning up and there not being any kayaks you want available. I chose the basic option and ventured out onto the water.

As soon as you depart, the beautiful surroundings make for an extremely peaceful experience. The openness of the water is in stark contrast to the busy city streets and the area is extremely quiet and serene.

At a comfortable pace, for a two-hour hire – you can make a loop of one of the islands (called Onkiluoto) and back to the hire centre.

The trip was enjoyable if a bit tiring. As a means of revitalising myself – and after taking my kayak back on land again – I made sure to stop at the centre’s coffee shop for a hot drink and quick snack before making the journey back to the city centre.

Taking a kayak out gives you a taste of how beautiful the nature in Finland is
A view across the water from a kayak
There are plenty of kayaks to rent and can be booked for two hours or more

Where to avoid

There is not much to avoid in this beautiful city which prides itself on being one of the safest for visitors of all nationalities, genders and sexual orientations to come and enjoy.

One monument that could be skipped, perhaps, is the popular Havis Amanda fountain.

For me, this fountain only deserves a passing glance, at best, rather than going to hunt it out. However, you are likely to walk past it numerous times as it is centrally located in the Kruununhaka region – near the city centre.

The design was modelled in Paris in 1906, and erected at its present location at the Market Square in 1908.

Cast in bronze, it rests on a fountain made of granite. The sculpture is of a mermaid standing on seaweed as she rises from the depths, with four fish spouting water at her feet, surrounded by four sea lions.

Created by the renowned sculptor Ville Vallgren, he simply called the work Merenneito – which in English it translates as The Mermaid. However, it quickly started to get additional nicknames. The Finland-Swedish newspapers dubbed it Havis Amanda which is now the common name used in brochures and travel guides.

While it’s visually impressive, missing seeing it won’t lessen your Helsinki experience.

The Havis Amanda is located in central Helsinki

Great places to eat

Before getting on to my restaurant suggestion for Helsinki, one food that is hard to get away from in the city is liquorice. The Finns seem to love it!

If you ask a Finn why they love it so much, they will probably say they like the taste and that they have been eating it since childhood. It is simply a food that is common and unique to Finland, like red bean paste is in Japan or saltwater taffy is in the USA.

Personally, I can’t stand the taste of the stuff, but even I tried a little piece while I was in the city. It didn’t change my mind on it and was soon discarded in a nearby bin! Don’t let that put you off trying some though if you’re in Helsinki!

To get that awful flavour out of my mouth, a really good place to get some fresh street-food was to head to the market square by the water-front. Here there are a number of stalls offering different local food which includes a lot of seafood.

I stopped by one stall and got a small container full of freshly-cooked whitebait which was a delicious little snack to enjoy by the water.

Now, I often try and find one extremely nice restaurant to eat at while I’m away and for this trip that was the delightful Restaurant Ask.

Located on a street called Vironkatu, this restaurant was highly recommended by the Michelin guide (holding one star if I remember correctly) and it’s simple exterior hides a showcase of treats.

The menu is small and straightforward and I selected the taster-menu that was on offer. Across numerous courses I was tantalised by some exquisite flavours and beautifully-presented offerings.

While each course was small it proved to be filling over the duration of the meal and when it was time to leave, I didn’t feel like I had been short changed.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t a inexpensive option. Helsinki – as mentioned – isn’t cheap but this is an extra cost that some may not wish to stretch to.

To give you an idea, the long menu cost me (at the time) €89 (around £77) per person which is without wine or other drinks. In total, you’ll need to set aside between €200 (around £172) and €300 (around £258) for the meal.

Finishing off my last course here on my final night in Helsinki was a special treat though and something I look back on with great affection from my time in the Finnish capital.

Restaurant Ask provides a modern take on Finnish cuisine
The food is presented with care and is full of flavour
The desserts are special and extremely welcome come the end of a meal

Useful links


Scandic Paasi

The Ring Rail Line

Helsinki City Bikes

Helsinki Cathedral (Helsingin tuomiokirkko)

Green Cap Tours

Sauna Löyly Helsinki



Natura Viva

Havis Amanda

Restaurant Ask

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Orlando… the theme park state


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


Walt Disney World Resort

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

Halloween Horror Nights



Busch Gardens

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

American Pro Diving Centre


Ripley’s Believe It or Not

Medieval Times



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Zürich… take time out in this Swiss haven


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




Europcar Hire


Lake Zürich

Lake Zürich River Boat

Heureka Useless Machine

Grossmünster Church

Fraumünster Church



FIFA Museum

Stoos Funicular



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


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 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




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




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




Donegal Town Independent Hostel

Ulsterbus Airport Express 300a

Holiday Autos

Titanic Belfast

Crumlin Road Gaol

Giant’s Causeway

The Dark Hedges


Game of Thrones Tours


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Lisbon… a city of sunshine and splendour


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