Sofia… the overlooked Balkan city

Sofia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Well the first thing to note is the weather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next thing to think about is the currency.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One difficulty travellers may experience is the language barrier.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sofia as seen on Google Maps

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

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


Getting there

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Fortunately, there are a number of options available.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where to stay

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Getting around

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

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

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


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

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

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


Top sites

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

For Sofia I used the superb Free Sofia Tour.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Where to avoid

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

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

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

The first of these is the National Palace of Culture.

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

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

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

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

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


One of the lion statues outside the Palace of Justice

Great places to eat

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


A meal at the Taj Mahal will leave you full

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

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

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


Useful links

EasyJet

Ryanair

Booking.com

AirBnB

Free Sofia Tour

Cathedral Saint Alexandar Nevski

Statue of Saint Sofia

The Largo

Tsar Osvoboditel Statue

Church of Sveta Petka

Church St. George Rotunda

Banya Bashi Mosque

Russian Church Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski

Plovdiv

Traventuria

Koprivshtitsa

National Palace of Culture

Palace of Justice

Confetti Oborishte

Social Cafe Bar & Kitchen restaurant

Taj Mahal Restaurant

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Northern Ireland… walking in the footsteps of giants

Northern Ireland and Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Northern Ireland as shown on Google Maps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Getting there

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Where to stay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Getting around

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Top sites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Where to avoid

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

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

The majority of incidents are committed by local people against local people, unsurprisingly following religious, sectarian or political differences. Tourists are – mostly – outside this culture and therefore need to not be very concerned.

But as with any other city, it pays to be careful and always be aware of your surroundings. Do not flash valuables or money or walk around reading your guidebook or map.

There are areas in Belfast which have been scarred by trouble in the past. Though these areas are largely safe to visit, it is important to be aware of where you are. In nationalist areas of the city, it would be foolish to wear a Glasgow Rangers, England, or Northern Ireland football jersey.

In unionist areas, wearing Glasgow Celtic, Republic of Ireland and Gaelic Football (GAA) jerseys would almost certainly lead to trouble. Though this is unlikely to affect tourists, it is best to avoid wearing green or orange or the name of any area, especially Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland or England.

The City Centre is generally a safe area but it’s probably best to avoid leaving the main streets at night – especially if you are on your own – and try not to venture into dimly lit streets.

The easiest thing to do to avoid any issues is to not make any overtly political statements about Northern Ireland, even if you think that your comments will align with the views of the people to whom you’re making them. 


The city centre itself is very safe but, like any city, it’s best to be vigilant for opportunistic thieves while also avoid overtly political comments that could be taken the wrong way

Great places to eat

Northern Ireland is littered with great places to eat and get a drink. I mean, you are litterally falling over yourself for bars and restaurants.

From fast food to fine dining, from quiet pubs to rowdy bars; it has it all!

For the purposes of this blog I’m going to focus on my favourite bar / restaurant that I enjoyed a couple of times in Belfast; the delightful Bootleggers!

This unassuming treat is based in the city centre on the corner of Ann Street and Church Lane. You can drop in for a few drinks or, stay a little longer, to grab some filling and tasty food while enjoying the lively surroundings.

The menu is plentiful. A good selection of tacos and burgers make up the majority of the food while you can also enjoy a selection of tasty sides including their famous chicken wings and nachos all for a reasonable price.

There are a few things here that are worth trying out. For example, the OG Burger – two patties, smoked bacon, cheddar, pickle, lettuce, tomato, red onion, ketchup and mustard – is a naughty treat while the Buffalo Billy tacos – southern fried chicken, cheddar, hot sauce, aioli and lettuce – make for a welcome lunch.

Save room as well for a dessert and make sure you order the Belly Buster – chocolate ice cream served with brownie chunks, whipped cream, hundreds & thousands, chocolate and strawberry sauce, chocolate flakes, honeycomb and a cherry on top.

And on top of this great food is a decent range of draught beers, wines and spirits to boot – although it’s almost criminal to visit Northern Ireland without sipping on at least one pint of Guinness!

Best of all, this bar will not set up back too much in the pocket either. A decent, filling, meal for two including desert and drinks (if you only have one or two) will cost around £60 – £70 and will give you a great location to chat and plan your next activates in this British gem.


Lining up the pints of Guinness during a lunch stop at Bootleggers in Belfast city centre

Useful links

EasyJet

Loganair

AirBnB

Donegal Town Independent Hostel

Ulsterbus Airport Express 300a

Holiday Autos

Titanic Belfast

Crumlin Road Gaol

Giant’s Causeway

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Lisbon… a city of sunshine and splendour

Lisbon

The city of Lisbon – or Lisboa to give it its proper Portuguese name – sits in the idyllic position on the western Iberian Peninsula alongside the Atlantic Ocean and the River Tagus.

As mainland Europe’s western-most capital city, Lisbon is one of the major economic centres on the continent.

And as is the case with much of Europe, Lisbon has a long and chequered history.

During the Neolithic period, the region was inhabited by Pre-Celtic tribes, who built religious and funerary monuments, megaliths, dolmens and menhirs, which still survive in areas on the periphery of the city. The Indo-European Celts invaded in the First millennium BC, mixing with the Pre-Indo-European population, thus giving rise to Celtic-speaking local tribes such as the Cempsi or Sefes.

Although the first fortifications on Lisbon’s Castelo hill are known to be no older than the Second Century BC, archaeological finds have shown that Iron Age people occupied the site from the Eight to Sixth Centuries BC.

Stepping forward, Portugal became synonymous with explorers from the Middle Ages. In fact, most of the Portuguese expeditions of the Age of Discovery left Lisbon during the period from the end of the 15th century to the beginning of the 17th century, including Vasco da Gama’s expedition to India in 1498.

In the 20th century – during World War II – Lisbon was one of the very few neutral, open European Atlantic ports and became a major gateway for refugees to the U.S. and a haven for spies. More than 100,000 refugees were able to flee Nazi Germany via Lisbon.

Furthermore, during the Estado Novo regime between 1926–1974 – under the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar – Lisbon was expanded at the cost of other districts within the country. However, during the Carnation Revolution, which took place on 25 April 1974 – which brought an end to the Estado Novo regime – the country was able to reform into what it has become today.


The Torre de Belem is a favourite site for tourists in Lisbon

The visit to Lisbon, for Holly and I, was one that experienced a huge Covid-19 shape delay. Having been due to go to Portugal in April 2020 the pandemic put paid to those plans meaning we ended up waiting until August 2021 to finally make the trip.

To make matter worse, the trip was actually a long-overdue Christmas present from myself to Holly from 2019, so we were both extremely keen to get on a plane and experience what the city had to offer.

Ideally speaking, August would not have been my first choice for travel to such a warm country. I struggle in the harsh sun, given my skin tone, but having been stuck in the UK for over a year, the urge to get on a plane and explore was too great to ignore.

So with our factor 50 sun lotion firmly packed in our cabin baggage – and Covid restrictions mostly lifted for international travel – we finally set about making the short trip over to the Portuguese capital.

But before our journey there were a few things we wanted to know. Here are some of the key facts we learnt that any first time visitors to Lisbon should know before making the trip.


A map of Lisbon from Google Maps

The first thing is that Lisbon – especially in the summer heat of August – can get very hot. With its traditional Mediterranean climate, Lisbon can experience mild, rainy winters and hot, dry summers.

The average temperatures for August time sees highs of 28°C and lows of 19°C. When out in the hot sunshine in the middle of the day, these temperatures can feel sweltering. And there is usually very little let-up from the sun in August with only, on average, two days of rain in the month at most.

The next thing to note is the currency. As with a lot of western Europe, Portugal is on the Euro which replaced the Escudo in 2002. At the time of writing, £1 sterling would get you around €1.17.

Sadly you don’t get many Euros in exchange for your Pounds these days, but positively, things in Portugal are priced a little more affordably that many will find within the UK. For example, a pint of beer costs around €2 to €4, while a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant – with drinks – can be as little as €40 total.

The next thing to consider is the language.

As you’d guess, in Lisbon they speak Portuguese. While I don’t personally speak Portuguese I have a little bit of an understanding of some Spanish which does help. The two languages share a lot of similarities and you often find that Portuguese speakers can communicate easily with fluent Spanish speakers.

However, do remember that they are not 100% the same and that there are some differences!

A few useful words to get you on your way are those for thank you (obrigado / obrigada), please (por favor), hello (olá) and goodbye (adeus). Often, even by showing the smallest bit of willing to communicate in the native tongue, many locals will help you out by adopting their much better grasp of English.

Also remember to take plug converters. There are two associated plug types for Portugal; types C and F. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and plug type F is the plug which has two round pins with two earth clips on the side. Portugal operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.

A good thing to know about Lisbon is that it is in the same time zone as the UK so when flying from Britain you don’t lose (or gain) any hours either way.

Finally – and although I’ve mentioned this in passing earlier I can’t state it enough – if you are have a pale skin complexation like myself then bring lots of sun screen. The higher the factor the better! The sun is extremely strong in Lisbon during the summer so keeping the lotion topped up is a must if you want to avoid getting burnt.

With all that in mind, Holly and I set off on our first Portuguese adventure together.


Getting there

Putting the hassles of Covid-19 to one side, Portugal – and in turn Lisbon – is an easy country – and city – to fly to from the UK.

Flights from a wealth of airlines including British Airways, TAP Air Portugal, EasyJet, Ryanair and Wizz Air all have flights leaving all the major London airports, while those outside London can also get flights from cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh.

For our trip we flew with EasyJet from London Luton for just £189.96 for two adult return tickets. This saw us leave the UK at 7:05am and depart Lisbon three days later at 3:45pm.

As with all EasyJet flights, it’s advisable to get the speedy boarding option. This is less about getting on the aircraft first and more to do with the ability to take carry on luggage on the plane with you. Without the speedy boarding option they may end up charge you for this if you don’t have it included in your reservation.

The flight is a two hour, fifty minute affair and – as you’d expect on EasyJet as with all budget airlines – it is a no-thrills environment. There really isn’t much to say about it other than take a good book or download a good TV show or podcast to occupy the flight time.


Flying into Lisbon and getting a first glimpse of Portugal below is where the excitement cranks up a notch or two
The entrance to Lisbon Airport Terminal One

Touching down on the Portuguese tarmac we got our first views of Lisbon.

Lisbon Airport – or Humberto Delgado Airport to give it its proper name – is a large and modern aerodrome.

Spread across two terminals, some 31 million passengers pass through its gates, on average, every year.

Terminal 1 is the airport’s main building and features large landside and airside areas containing several shops and service facilities. It consists of two check-in halls, the older one has been converted into TAP Air Portugal’s self check-in area, and the newer one housing 68 desks.

The joint departures area features 47 gates (17 of which are equipped with jet-bridges). As the airport features several more apron stands, bus boarding is often used here. Most airlines use Terminal 1, including TAP Air Portugal, its Star Alliance partners and, exceptionally, Vueling.

Terminal 2 is the much smaller and newer of the two terminals in the airport and is used exclusively by low-cost carriers. It is located away from Terminal 1 on the southern border of the airport perimeter. It has 22 check-in desks, designated to each particular low-cost carrier, and 15 departure gates using mainly walk-on boarding but also bus. There are only standard facilities, a few shops and service counters. The terminal is reachable via the free airport shuttle service from Terminal 1.

As you’d guess flying with EasyJet we arrived and departed via Terminal 2.

However, no matter which terminal you arrive at, the airport is only located around 6km north of the main city and is easily accessible via taxi or – better still – the Lisbon Metro (more on that later).

So while our flight to the Portuguese capital saw us have a very early start meaning we were a little tired, we were also excited to get out of the airport and explore the city as soon as possible and start of Lisbon adventures.


Where to stay

The first thing we did after leaving the Airport was make our way to our AirBnB.

Lisbon is a major city and while there are many hotels – both cost effective ones and extraordinarily expensive ones – scattered throughout its boundaries, we had opted to go for our old friend, the trusty AirBnB.

Located reasonably centrally in the Alfama district of the city, this AirBnB was a great find.

For me, Alfama – the oldest district in the city – is the perfect area of Lisbon to set-up camp. Far enough away from the overly tourist-heavy areas while not being too far from the city centre.

This quiet and unassuming neighbourhood provides a great flavour of old Lisbon – with its tiled buildings, bendy narrow streets where locals hang-out of the many windows, watching the world go by while talking to their neighbours; and cafes and bars hosting Fado singers; a type of Portuguese music that is renowned for its expressive and profoundly melancholic character that first came to the fore in this area.

This AirBnB is nicely tucked away. After arriving, we arranged to meet our host on the corner of the nearby Rua São Tomé road where he would walk us to the apartment, give us the keys and show us around.

The walk was short – if uphill – and soon we entered a side door off the quiet side street of Rua Dos Cegos to enter our home for our three days in the Portuguese capital.


Holly entering the AirBnB from the street
The living space that greets you upon entry
The spiral staircase is tight but allows for multiple levels

Walking into the air-conditioned space – you come into the main living area. Immediately you notice that while space is at a premium they have been clever with it as they spread the apartment across three floors; connected by a tight spiral staircase.

The top floor boasts the bedroom and bathroom facilities – both of which provide ample room to be comfortable in – as well as a good-sized double bed. The best part here is the view from the window which looks out to the south over the nearby Alfama area and across the Tagus River.

Making our way to the bottom of the apartment we found the kitchen space that had been kitted-out with a number of mod-cons for your basic cooking and eating needs. While this space was good to have, we didn’t plan to use it much as we would try and eat out during our stay.


The kitchen space as viewed from the stairwell
Holly making her way up to the top level of the AirBnB
The bedroom with its en-suite bathroom off the right-hand side
The private garden is a real treat to have the option to use

The best was still to come.

Despite the AirBnB’s small space it had managed to include a double-tiered garden area. The lower – and larger – tier had artificial turf laid down and a large orange tree growing in the ground while the small upper balcony provided a great space to enjoy a morning coffee and pastry before heading out for the day.

For this space we paid £315 for the three nights (£105 per night) which gave us a great base to enjoy our time in Lisbon from.


Getting around

Lisbon is a highly modern city and as such is well stocked when it comes to public transport.

And while walking around the city is a great way to see many of its central sites, it’s also worth noting that it is quite a large landmass to traverse solely by foot.

To that end I’d suggest the use of three main transport methods; none of which involve getting in a car.

The first is that you should use the Lisbon Metro.

Opened in December 1959, it was the first metro system in Portugal and, currently, the system’s four lines total 44.5km (27.7 miles) of route and serve 56 stations.

The metro will also be your best bet to get to the city centre from the airport.

Set on the furthest northern point on the pink line, Aeroporto station is located at the airport and is just a 20 minute ride away from the centre of the city.

And compared to the cost of jumping in a taxi from the airport, you can get to the city centre for as little as €1.50 per adult (for a ticket that’s valid for unlimited journeys on Carris and metro networks, during 60 minutes following the first validation but cannot be used for consecutive journeys on the Metro.)

If you are planning to use the metro and the tramway (more on that soon) a fair bit over a 24-hour period then a good tip is to buy the one-day ticket for €6.40 which allows you unlimited use of the network for the 24-hours following the ticket’s first use.

The metro is also useful to get you between locations within the city itself. During our stay in Lisbon on a particularly hot afternoon, Holly and I took to using the metro to get out of the intense heat and to travel quickly to our next location.

The downside of the metro is simple. It doesn’t allow you to experience much of the city. Also, while the metro is easy to use, there are only four lines and only six stations within the network that cross lines. This means it can be slightly annoying to get to some locations as you have to go quite far out of your way to get where you’re going.

That said, for the cost it is a good service and one that most travellers will probably use at least once during a Lisbon-based break.


Holly on the Lisbon Metro travelling from the Airport to the centre of the city

Linked to the metro network – by use of the tickets at least – is the famous Lisbon Tramway which forms part of the Carris service along with buses, trams, and funiculars.

The tramway has been operating in Lisbon since 1873, it presently comprises of six lines across 31km of track. 

Lisbon trams are an integral part of the city’s transport network, covering many areas of the city that are not currently serviced by the metro.

There are two types of tram. The first is the modern Siemens “Articulado” trams and the other – more famous – is the historic “Remodelado” trams.

The latter of these trams is the ones visitors are probably most familiar with. These quaint yellow trams shake and rattle their way down the narrow streets of Lisbon’s more touristy areas.

The jewel in the network’s crown is the E28 which passes through a large proportion of the city’s historic centre and can get pretty busy at peak times of day.

There are at least two trams that you are likely to want to use during a stay in Lisbon. The first being the E28 of course, to sample the historic centre of the city; taking in the Alfama, Baixa and Chiado districts while the second tram of note (one of the modern ones) is the E15 which connects central Lisbon (the Baixa district) with the Belem district where a couple of key city sites are located.

Price-wise the tram is fairly cheap. If you’ve not purchase the 24-hour ticket mentioned earlier then a single ticket purchased onboard the tram costs €3.

Do note however, that while Lisbon is a pretty safe city, career pickpockets are said to operate on these tram networks and, when the trams are very busy, they can be known to strike. To avoid any unpleasantness, keep a hold of your belongings and make sure that your zips are done up and your money is secure.


Trams service the city well and will be seen a lot – especially in the historic parts of Lisbon
You can lean out of the windows from the historic trams and enjoy the great weather on offer in Lisbon
A ride on the famous E28 tram is a must during a stay in Lisbon
Inside the trams can get cramp and very busy at peak times of day
The modern trams and more sleek looking and take you to a number of key sites in the city.

The final method of transport to note is one that actually takes you out of the city, but is vital if you want to visit Sintra; some 25km away. For this you’ll need the to use the Lisbon Railway.

Clearly there are many other locations you can visit on the railway network from Lisbon – such as trains to Porto or other major cities within the country, but for the vast majority of travellers to the capital, Sintra is the one location they are likely to leave Lisbon for.

There are two main rail-routes used by visitors. The first is Rossio Station to Sintra and the second is Oriente to Sintra (which goes via numerous other stations).

Holly and I took the first option to get to Sintra and made sure we were on one of the early trains out of Lisbon of the day. This way we would both maximise our time in Sintra and also have a spell where we avoided the huge number of tourists flocking to the area.

The train takes around 45 minutes to get from Rossio and is direct to Sintra. Three to four trains leave every hour to get to the region from Rossio so don’t worry too much if you miss a train by a few minutes; there will be plenty more options.

It’s also extremely cheap to make the journey with adult tickets coming in at just €4.50 per adult for a return ticket.


Inside Rossio station where trains can be caught to Sintra
A typical train that takes visitors on the 45-minute trip from Lisbon to Sintra arriving at the platform at Rossio Station
The trains are comfortable and clean but lack any glamour

Aside from the transport network, as I alluded to earlier, you’ll likely find yourself walking a lot in Lisbon.

First thing to note is that Lisbon is far from a flat city – especially in the more historic areas such as Alfama – so make sure you have comfortable shoes.

A little hint for avoid some steep climbs is to use a couple of the city’s ‘hidden’ elevators; Chão do Loureiro and Castelo

These two vertical lifts make the walk from the downtown area to the castle a little less tiring. The first lift departs from a building in Rua dos Fanqueiros (170/178) and drops people off in Rua da Madalena. A mere 100m further there is another lift, that transports passengers to the level of Costa do Castelo street.

They are free to use and all locals know about them so if you cannot find them, you can always ask a local person to point you in their direction.


Top sites

We have often found that one of the best ways to get to know a new city is to take a free walking tour soon after we arrive. Lisbon is no exception to this an so we booked ourselves onto two of them with Take Free Tours.

Take Free Tours operate walking tours in numerous European cities and their guides are helpful, friendly and full of useful information.

In Lisbon they operate eight tours across a variety of areas – one of which is in Sintra. Of these eight tours, two are run daily (each with two or three start times spaced out throughout the day); the Lisbon Free Tour and the Alfama Free Tour.

Given that we wanted to know more about Lisbon as a whole and Alfama – as we were staying there – Holly and I went online and signed up to both these tours.

The Lisbon Tour was a great introduction to the city and showed us some of the centre of Lisbon’s most important sites.

The start of the tour is just in front of the Tourism Office at Palácio Foz. From there we ventured into the Carmo Convent and admired the gothic ruins as well as taking in the views from a viewing area next to the Elevator of Santa Justa.

During the tour we heard about the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake that shook the city and late modern philosophy and the peaceful Carnation Revolution on April 25th 1974 which overthrew the authoritarian Estado Novo regime created by the dictator Salazar.

The tour finishes in the stunning Praça do Comércio (more on that in a bit) where the customary group photo is taken and shared by our guide (whose name I cannot remember but was very entertaining).

The second tour took us on a stroll through the narrow streets of Lisbon’s Old Town. The Alfama Free Tour covers three thousand years of contrasting history. Starting from Casa dos Bicos, we heard about the Phoenician ventures, Roman frameworks and Arabic heritage; all of which play a role in making up Lisbon’s colourful identity and culture.

Technically, while these tours are free of charge (and if you don’t have the money to spare then no pressure is put on you to give anything) it remains good practice to tip your guides whatever amount you feel appropriate at the end of the two to three hour tour.


The customary tour photo is usually taken at the end of the tour
During the Alfama Free Tour you won’t fail to miss the numerous buildings covered in beautiful tiled artwork
The tours take you to places in the city where you may not have ventured, and give you a different view on the city’s history

As mentioned above the Praça do Comércio is the final stop on the Lisbon Free Tour, but it is also somewhere that you are highly likely to make your way through on numerous occasions.

This large harbour-facing square cuts an imposing figure in the landscape and is full of life at most times of day.

Facing the Tagus to the South, the city square is still commonly known in Portuguese as Terreiro do Paço as it hosted the Paço da Ribeira (Royal Palace of Ribeira) until it was destroyed by the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In recognition of this, the metro station located on the square is still named after the square’s old moniker.

It’s free to visit and is a great place to sit back and watch the world go by. Next to the river, you can get down to the water’s edge and many people spread out on the small bay area – when the tide allows – to soak up some Portuguese sun.


One of the key entranceways onto the Praça do Comércio
A view through the archway that leads onto the square
Arriving early in the day at the Praça do Comércio is the best way to avoid the crowds

As may may have been understood from this blog so far, the city of Lisbon is split into numerous districts and there are a couple of these that all travellers to the city must see before departing.

The first of these is the famous Bairro Alto district.

Located in the centre of the city, Bairro Alto – or Upper District – is a picturesque quarter that dates as far back as the 1500s. It’s in this district that the city’s bohemian and alternative cultures, artists and writers have commonly frequented over the years making it a hive of activity.

Holly and I made the climb up to the district one afternoon. We braved it on foot despite the steep slopes that welcomed us as he headed up; but we did notice that there were options to catch trams up and down should we have wished to.

The views from the top of this district are stunning. After grabbing a drink in a nearby café, Holly and I made our way to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara where you can get stunning panoramic views out across the city to St. George’s Castle and central Lisbon. Best of all it’s totally free!

Nearby, there are often vendors on the streets selling delicious cold drinks so on a hot day this is a great way to cool off while taking in the sights.


The roads up to Bairro Alto are steep to climb
Fortunately, trams can be caught to climb the roads to the Upper District
You can get great views out across the city from Bairro Alto

The other district that is worth a visit – and one that’s already been mentioned earlier – is that of Alfama.

Alfama is a delightful maze of narrow cobbled streets and ancient houses, which lead up the steep hill from the Tejo Estuary to the Castelo de São Jorge.

It is said to be the most rewarding of the city’s districts for walkers and photographers thanks to its medieval alleys and outstanding views. A tip is to make sure you look up from eye level as the buildings in the area are splendid to see.

As the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon, Alfama has a different feel to other more modern areas of the city. Steeped in local culture, this quaint district still holds on to many of the local traditions with many of the businesses in the area run by local people.

Because its foundation is dense bedrock, Alfama survived the 1755 earthquake, and a walk through this old-fashioned residential neighbourhood is like taking a step back in time.

As a village within a city you’ll get to gaze upon tiny squares, churches, and whitewashed houses with tile panels – showcasing in many cases what used to take place inside the buildings the tiles are on – and wrought-iron balconies adorned with pots of flowers, drying laundry, and even the odd caged bird or two.

If you have taken the walking tour of the area as we did, you’ll learn a lot about its history but it’s also advisable to come back to Alfama – even if you are staying elsewhere within the city – on your own and take a leisurely stroll around its streets.


You’ll spend your time looking upwards at the stunning buildings during a walk around Alfama
Many buildings are still adorned with tiles showcasing what the buildings in Alfama used to be used for.

Away from the centre of the city – and probably via a tram ride on one of the more modern models (see getting around section earlier in this blog), there are two great sites that are a must-see.

The first of these is Padrão dos Descobrimentos.

This monument – that’s free to visit – sits on the northern bank of the Tagus River estuary, in the Santa Maria de Belém parish of the city. Appropriately located along the river where ships used to depart to explore and trade with India and the Orient, the monument celebrates the Portuguese Age of Discovery (or Age of Exploration) during the 15th and 16th centuries.

The monument was conceived in 1939 and completed in 1958, and rises high above the river adorned by statues of famous explorers on each of its sides.

After getting off the tram, the monument was easy for us to spot. A short walk across the street and then through a small park, we were able to get a great view of this classic Portuguese site early in the day before the crowds descended (this is my top tip for this monument as many people visit here later in the day).

A good 20 minutes of viewing the monument, grabbing some photos and enjoying the warm Portuguese weather, we were ready to move slightly up the river to the second of the two must-see sites in the area.


The Padrão dos Descobrimento is a must-see during a trip to Lisbon
Holly and I making the most of having no other tourists in our picture with the Padrão dos Descobrimento
The monument looks out over the River Tagus
A close-up of some of the figures shows just how much detail was put into this magnificent piece of artwork
Holly enjoy the shade cast by the Padrão dos Descobrimento monument

The second site is within eyeshot of the Padrão dos Descobrimento and is a mere five minute walk away.

Synonymous with Lisbon, the Torre de Belém – which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 – is a 16th-century fortification that served as a point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers and as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon.

Usually, the adult entrance fee to the Belem Tower is €8.50, and children up to 14 are free to enter. However, a little tip here is that – if you are planning to explore this as well as other Lisbon attractions – I would highly recommend getting a Lisboa Card for just €39.90 per adult. With the card entrance to the tower – as well as a number of other sites in the city – is free.

Sadly, for Holly and I, during our visit to Lisbon, the Tower was shut – either for renovations of Covid-19 reasons, I’m not sure which – meaning we were only able to see it from the outside.

That didn’t stop us enjoying the experience thought.

A great aspect to this site is its location on the river. When the tide allows – as it almost did for us – you can pretty much walk the whole way around the tower without getting wet!

During our visit we were probably able to get around 75% of the way around the tower, which gave us a great chance to see the back-side of it which would otherwise only be visible from the river itself!


The Torre de Belém cannot be missed during a stay in Lisbon
Looking up at the Moorish Bartizan turrets jutting out from the tower’s side
Holly posing with the tower in the background
When the tide is out you can climb over the rocks that would normally be underwater to see the tower from all its different sides

The final suggestion is one that is actually outside of Lisbon, but really is inexcusable to miss.

For this area, you’ll need to get a train (again see the getting around section of the blog) out of the city to the beautiful and idyllic municipality of Sintra.

The town and municipality sits in the Greater Lisbon region of Portugal and is one of the most urbanised and densely populated municipalities of Portugal.

The area includes the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park through which the Sintra Mountains run. The historic centre of the Vila de Sintra is famous for its 19th-century Romanticist architecture, historic estates and villas, gardens, and royal palaces and castles, which resulted in the classification of the town as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sintra’s landmarks include the medieval Castelo dos Mouros, the romanticist Pena National Palace and the Portuguese Renaissance Sintra National Palace.

It’s fair to say a single day in Sintra is far from enough to do the whole area justice. However, if you are only planning to spend a day here – as we and many tourists are only able to do – then there are a few locations that you should not miss.

After arriving at Sintra station, make your way around the side of the building to the bus stop. Try and get out quickly, as you’ll have a train-load of people all trying to do the same thing.

Tickets for the bus cost €6.90 per adult for a whole loop hop-on-hop-off bus ticket and can be purchased from the driver directly.

There are a number of buses that operate in Sintra, but the main one we found we needed was the 434 (along the orange route).

Getting on board, we soon discovered that the bus was the correct decision. While it would be possible to walk, it would have been all uphill and we’d have spent most of our day on foot just getting to the locations without seeing much!


The bus stop outside Sintra train station where you can catch the 434 bus to some of the key sites
A map of Sintra’s bus routes. The orange loop on the bottom one is the main one you’ll need

Once the bus sets off the first stop on the route is at Castelo dos Mouros.

We found that most people didn’t get off the bus here and instead headed straight up to the Palácio da Pena. While there is logic to this, we decided it was better to get one attraction pretty much all to ourselves rather than a slightly less busy version of a different attraction.

Exiting the bus on the side of the road, we went to the automated ticket machines and here we were actually able to buy our tickets for both Castelo dos Mouros and the Palácio da Pena for just €13.90 per person.

The walk to the castle takes around 20 minutes through a beautiful stretch of woodland that showcases some stunning views.

Making our way slowly, we found ourselves climbing up the path to the castle and once inside the ruins we were afforded some absolutely beautiful vistas of the surrounding area.

The castle itself was constructed during the 8th and 9th centuries and was an important strategic point during the Reconquista, before being taken by Christian forces after the fall of Lisbon in 1147.

Now, the castle’s walls line the mountain-sides and provide a winding stony backdrop to the wooded surroundings.

Standing on top of the battlements, you feel like you are incredibly high-up but realise that other attractions that you can see are even higher still!


Holly climbing up one of the battlements at the stunning Castelos dos Mouros
There are so many great opportunities for stunning views from the castle ruins
Holly standing on the walls of the Castelos dos Mouros

After a good walk of all the walls, Holly and I made our way out and decided to make the relatively short walk up the hill to the Palácio da Pena.

It’s worth noting that for those not wanting to walk, the bus stop you got off at would be a pick-up point to take you further up the hill; however, you’d have to wait for the next bus and there is no guarantee that there will be space inside it.

Having climbed the hill – and with our entrance tickets already in hand – we entered the grounds of Palácio da Pena.

A full spectrum of colours adorned the walls and drew us further in. And while it was busy inside the grounds – as we had arrived later in the day due to our first stop – there was still room to move around and to take in the views!

There are few words that do justice to just how beautiful this palace is. Despite there being long queues to enter the interior of the palace itself, we found that we didn’t mind too much as we were able to take in the sights as we made our way to the interior entranceway.

Throughout the palace and its grounds, there are so many great spots here to grab a photo or two and this quickly became one the most most memorable places from our entire Portuguese trip.


It can get busy at the Palácio da Pena but it won’t detract from your enjoyment during a visit
The buildings are bold in colour
The yellow of some of the buildings really stand out against the blue of the Portuguese sky
Holly enjoying one of the many great viewing spots at the Palácio da Pena
The colours of the Palácio da Pena are stunning

Once we managed to tear ourselves away from the palace, we made our way back to the bus and went to our final main stop of the trip to see Quinta da Regaleira.

First thing to note here is that tickets for Quinta da Regaleira are completely separate to those of the other attractions. A different company owns this site so don’t be surprised when you can’t buy tickets for it elsewhere.

The next thing to note is that on paper, the area looks huge. This is an illusion. When you look at a map (which is quite confusing at the best of times) the various parts of Quinta da Regaleira seem spaced out. In truth they are often right next to each other.

Tickets to enter the grounds cost €15 per adult which seems slightly on the expensive side, but is worth it.

The property consists of a Romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite constructions.

While you should make your way around the whole of the grounds during a visit the top things to see here are the Initiation Wells.

The Initiation Wells are two wells on the property that better resemble underground towers lined with stairs. These wells never served as water sources. Instead, they were used for ceremonial purposes.

Of the two wells, the larger one contains a 27m spiral staircase with several small landings. The spacing of these landings, combined with the number of steps in the stairs, are linked to Tarot mysticism. The smaller well contains straight stairs that connect a series of ring-shaped floors to one another. This well is also called the Unfinished Well.

We expected there to be a much longer queue to enter the main well but it turned out to be incredibly short.

From the exterior it’s not even clear that the well is there as it looks more like a small grotto than an underground tower. And once through the entranceway, you get the full view up, and down, the well as you make your way along its winding staircase to the tunnels at the bottom.

This is just one major attraction here as there are quite a few. The palace itself appears to get very busy and queues stretch out beyond its doorways regularly. If you’ve already been inside the previous palace then it may be worth giving this one a miss as your time can be better spent exploring the grounds.

That said, no matter how you choose to spend your time at the Quinta da Regaleira – and Sintra as a whole – you are sure to leave with many fantastic memories.


A view down the main Initiation Well at the Quinta da Regaleira
The well’s layout allows for some nice photos to be taken
The stairs are narrow but well made to avoid a risk of falling
From the bottom you can look back up the full shaft of the well
The grounds inside the Quinta da Regaleira hide many beautiful settings

Where to avoid

Lisbon is a safe city to explore however, it’s worth noting that around some of the tourist-heavy areas – including Praça do Comércio – there are a number of people, quite openly, selling a whole array of drugs.

The first time it happened to Holly and I we were not expecting it. We saw a man surreptitiously approaching us and then trying to – very slyly – show me a small package. He then quietly asked me if I wanted to ‘buy some weed’. A quick and polite no, and he was on his way to someone else.

We thought that this was a one-off but over the course of three days we were both approached – both as a couple and individually – numerous times in the same manner. The only difference being the drugs seemed to get stronger the more we were asked! By the time we were leaving we were being offered crack. Had we stayed much longer I’m sure we’d have been up to the heroin offers in no time!

I’m making light of it as, fortunately, whenever you say no they back off straightaway and move away. There is no hostility and it’s clear they don’t want any undue attention coming their way. It’s just worth being aware that these practices happen.

Away from that rather unsavoury side to the city there are a couple of sites that are not worth visiting if time is a factor.

The first of these is the Elevador de Santa Justa.

The hills of Lisbon have always presented a problem for travel between the lower streets of the main Baixa – just off the Rua Augusta street – and the higher Largo do Carmo (Carmo Square). In order to facilitate the movement between the two, the lift was commissioned and eventually opened in 1899.


Holly at the foot of the Elevador de Santa Justa while it was out of service

It’s worth pointing out that while Holly and I were in Lisbon, the elevator was not in operation (although I understand now that at the time of writing it is back working) but we were told that at peak times when it is operating the queue gets huge and takes a long time to get onto the lift.

Usually, the elevator opens daily between 7:30am and 11pm, with six hourly departures running every 10 minutes.

A positive is that a return ride costs just €5.30. The downside is that queue length mentioned earlier and the fact that the views at the top are not that special compared to others around the city. They can also be seen just by walking to the top section of the city anyway which costs nothing and means you don’t end up standing on the street for hours waiting to board what is a pretty small lift, in turn, allowing you to better spend your time in the city.

The other attraction that is worth giving a miss to is that of Castelo de São Jorge.

This may seem like a strange choice given that it appears to be a full-featured castle nestled at the upper point of Alfama offering numerous views of the city.

However, the first thing to point out here is that the castle is not an original and is under 100 years old – at the time of writing – in its current form.

Historically, a small fortress was built on this site by the Visigoths during the 5th century. It was modified and enlarged by the Moors in the mid-11th century and – during the reign of Afonso I of Portugal (1109 – 1185) – it was altered and in later years transformed into a Royal Palace.

Yet the final restorations of the castle – as it appears today – was only completed in 1938, making this one to avoid for history buffs.

The next point is that it is fairly expensive to enter given its lack of historical draw. An adult admission fee to the Castelo de São Jorge is €10 while children under 10 are free and students are €5. It makes the castle one of the more expensive tourist attractions in Lisbon.


The entrance to Castelo de São Jorge
Views are nice but can be achieved elsewhere in the city for free
While the castle may appear original, it’s worth remembering that its current form is under 100 years old
The walls are impressive but nothing special

The next thing to note is that the castle gets very busy.

Due to its appearance and location, tourists do tend to flock here to take in the castle and sample the views. However, while the views are nice they can be seen from elsewhere in the city, free-of-charge, and without the crowds.

If you do go to the castle, arrive early and try and get in before the crowds arrive. Yet if you’ve got the choice to go elsewhere, it may be worth doing so in lieu of spending an hour or so at this site.


Great places to eat

Lisbon is a blessing for food lovers and has a plethora of fabulous places to eat and drink littered throughout the city.

One thing that is a must to try in the city is the iconic, palm-size pastry, pastel de nata – or egg tart. This creamy custard tart is available in pastelarias across the city with the recipe dating back to the 16th century, when the confections, like many other Portuguese sweets, were made by nuns in convents.

There are so many vendors for this sweet-treat throughout Lisbon that it’s impossible to miss them. For just a Euro or two you can sample this wonderful Portuguese delicacy on-the-go.


Trying the pastel de nata is a must in Lisbon

As mentioned there are many great places to eat and drink in the city. More than I could ever wish to document here in this blog. So for these purposes, I’m going to focus on two different restaurants that gave us wonderful food and service during our stay in the city.

The first of these is Solar 31.

This quaint seafood restaurant is located north of Alfama on a road called Calçada Garcia 31.

Based on a quiet backstreet, we entered past a freezer-stand of fish, crabs and lobsters that showcased the food on offer just on the other side of the door.

Inside, we were warmly welcomed by the staff and sat in a quiet corner of the restaurant.

The seafood options here are plentiful and exciting. While I opted for a local fish dish – sea bream – Holly braved the Solar Octopus. And it’s fair to say she got way more than she bargained for!


Solar 31 offers a great selection of seafood to try
Holly looking forward to her dinner
Holly was rather uncertain how to tackle the octopus
Despite appearances, the dish was delicious
A slice of the cinnamon pie was a welcome way to finish the meal

As the food arrived at the table my sea bream was beautifully presented and looked extremely appetising. Holly then got a massive shock when a whole octopus was put in front of her – head and all!

What’s important to note here is that the octopus was cooked and seasoned beautifully. It was just the fact that Holly was expecting it to come with its head still attached (and ready to eat) that made for some interesting moments.

But, fair play to her, she tucked into the dish and despite appearance enjoyed eating it. I tried some of the octopus too and it was extremely tasty without being rubbery.

To finish off our meal, we were shown the dessert cabinet and each selected a slice of cake to eat – a cinnamon pie and almond pie that we shared – as we finished off our wine.

The restaurant is modestly priced and we parted with around €80 in total for our food and drinks having enjoyed a very memorable experience.

The second restaurant that is worth seeking out is the spectacular Grenache.

First thing to note is that this is a high-end restaurant with the price-tag to match and given their small seating area booking in advance is a must.

This restaurant is located in Pátio de Dom Fradique in Alfama – a mere five minute walk from the AirBnB we stayed in – and was one we had passed each day when we headed out.

Looking at the menu, we decided that we wanted to make our final night in Lisbon a memorable one so booked ourselves a table.

There are two options for dinner. At the time of writing, there is a six course menu for €75 and a eight course menu for €98 per person. Both come with the option of a wine-pairing which obviously adds another €50 or €70 to the costs respectively.


Grenache is a superb place to eat in Alfama
Grenache made for a beautiful location for our final night’s meal
The menu lays out the two dining options – note the prices have changed since we ate here

We opted for the eight course menu (without the wine pairing) and took our seats on the outside terrace area. At the time we visited there were no seats inside – but this may have been due to Covid-19 restrictions. In normal times, there may be more options to sit inside if required.

The restaurant offers the finest of French cuisine, in the heart of Lisbon and – while its chef has yet to earn the restaurant’s first Michelin star; from the quality of the food and service it’s only a matter of time.


Views out into the courtyard from the restaurant
The stylish red gateway provides one of the entrances to the courtyard where Grenache is housed
Stunning dishes – like the teriyaki glazed octopus seen here – await on Grenache’s menu
The desserts round off the meal perfectly and leave you feeling extremely satisfied

Course after course of deliciously prepared food arrived at our table as we watched the world pass through the small courtyard.

Quality meat and seafood dishes and delightful desserts were presented to us as we savoured every moment that came and went.

Particular highlights for us were the grilled turbot, smoked eel and teriyaki glazed octopus (this time sans head).

With the added enjoyment of a bottle of wine, this fine establishment set us back around €300 but it was worth it and finished off our Portuguese adventure in style.


Useful links

EasyJet

AirBnB

Lisbon Metro

Lisbon Tramway

Lisbon Railway

Take Free Tours

Praça do Comércio

Bairro Alto

Alfama

Padrão dos Descobrimentos

Torre de Belém

Lisboa Card

Sintra

Elevador de Santa Justa

Castelo de São Jorge

Solar 31

Grenache

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Gibraltar… adventures on the Rock

Gibraltar

Located off the southern tip of Spain, Gibraltar remains a little piece of the United Kingdom basking in the Mediterranean sun.

But far from being the literal definition of ‘Little Britain’, Gibraltar oozes with its own charm and personality for people who visit this micro-British territory.

Despite, these days, having their own national football team, in many respects Gibraltar is not country in it’s own right – more an Overseas British Territory.

With a total landmass of just 6.7km2 (2.6 sq miles) its only land border is that of Spain to the north. And the vast majority of the landscape is dominated by Gibraltar’s premium landmark; the Rock of Gibraltar.

At the foot of the Rock is a densely populated town area, home to around 34,000 people. Here there visitors will find a great range of restaurants, bars, pubs and other activities to keep them occupied in the shadow of the Rock.

As with many places, Gibraltar’s history has been scared deeply by war. Dating back centuries, this small plot of land on the edge of Europe has been hugely desired.

With obvious close ties to Spanish rule it was in 1704, during the War of the Spanish Succession, that Sir George Rooke captured Gibraltar for the British. In doing so, Spain formally ceding it to Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Since then it has remained – somewhat controversially if you ask the Spanish – under British ownership.

And it’s played a massive part in British military successes over the years. During the Napoleonic Wars and World War Two it was an important base for the Royal Navy as it controlled the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea, the Strait of Gibraltar.

But with its turbulent history (hopefully) behind it, what is it about Gibraltar that keeps attracting visitors to it?

For Holly and I, it was simple. Curiosity. We’d never been to Gibraltar before. Top that off with Covid-19 still causing havoc for international travel planning, we decided to use some time we’d put aside for travelling – in early November – to sample this unusual bit of the UK.


The Rock of Gibraltar is the main attraction in Gibraltar and can be seen from everywhere within the territory

So what were the key things we needed to know before heading to the Rock.

Well first of all lets look at the similarities it has with mainland UK.

The first thing is that the official language of Gibraltar is English. While I have a very basic grasp of some Spanish – which is used in some ways unsurprisingly given their affinity with their neighbours – it was pleasing to know that communication was not going to be an issue.

The same could be said for the currency. The local currency in Gibraltar is the Gibraltar Pound; which is exactly the same as the Great British Pound.

Bank of England issued notes and UK coins are accepted and circulated along with a healthy mixed of locally issued notes and coins of the same value in pounds and pence.

However, notes issued in Scotland or Northern Ireland are not usually accepted in Gibraltar, and Gibraltar issued notes and coins are not usually accepted in the UK. So just worth remembering when heading back home after a trip.

Finally, the power sockets in Gibraltar are the same as they are in the whole of the UK – so no need for plug converters.

In Gibraltar the power plugs and sockets are of type G. The standard voltage is 240 V and the standard frequency is 50 Hz.


Google Maps image of Gibraltar

Now for the differences.

First thing to mention – and while not technically a difference between the UK mainland and Gibraltar – is that you do still need a valid passport to enter Gibraltar (either by air or road). British nationals don’t need a visa to enter Gibraltar, but a passport is mandatory.

Don’t turn up at the airport in England hoping to travel to Gibraltar as you would Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.

The main difference between the UK and Gibraltar is the climate.

Gibraltar has a Mediterranean climate with mild, rainy winters and warm, dry summers.

In November time – as was the case with our four nights on the Rock – the average high is around 19°C while the lows on average get to around 14°C.

On average there are around eight days of rainfall on the Rock in November so, depending on how lucky you get, you could get a bit wet.

During the height of summer temperatures regularly hit the 30°C mark so sunscreen is a must for any light skinned travellers like myself. Being just a couple of hours by ferry north of Morocco, it’s easy to understand how it can hit such temperatures.

It’s also worth noting that Gibraltar has a reputation for the cost of living being pretty high. With the territory being so small, Gibraltar has to import almost everything, and many goods are subject to import duty which can increase the end cost to the consumer.


There are signs throughout Gibraltar of their pride for being British

Yet despite it not being the cheapest place you’ll ever visit, spending time on the Rock – as Holly and I found – had many advantages.

For such a small place, there really is a huge number of things to see and do.


Getting there

It may be obvious, but I’m going to state it anyway. The best way to get to Gibraltar is by air!

Fortunately, despite Gibraltar International Airport’s size, England and Scotland are well serviced for flights with departures heading to the Rock from London Heathrow, London Gatwick, London Luton, Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton and Edinburgh.

In fact, the only flight from a non-UK airport to Gibraltar is from Malaga in Spain.

The options for flight providers is minimal, however. Holidaymakers have the choice of British Airways, EasyJet Eastern Airways or Wizz Air.

The airport in Gibraltar is an unusual one. Firstly, it sits right on the border of the territory literally acting as a crossing point from Gibraltar into Spain and visa-versa.

The second unusual thing about the airport is that its sole runway has a road running through the middle of it!


Arriving in to land in Gibraltar is all part of the fun
The runway runs through the middle of the road that leads between Gibraltar and Spain
To get into the main part of Gibraltar from the airport terminal you’ll need to cross the runway either on foot or by car

This unavoidable design feature means that when an aircraft is coming into land, barriers are lowered to stop cars and people crossing (like a level crossing for trains). This road is the one route in and out of the territory for land traffic.

Despite its limited size, Gibraltar International Airport manages to see a huge number of passengers arrive and depart its gates each year; with around 570,000 people – on average – using the airport per annum.

While this figure – in airport terms – may not seem impressive, it is worth remembering there are only around 34,000 people living there. This means the airports passengers, per year, are over 16 times the size of the territories population!


A plane waiting to leave Gibraltar with the stunning backdrop of the Rock
Gibraltar International Airport creates an artificial divide that marks the edge of Gibraltar and the start of Spain

I’ll be honest, I was actually quite excited to arrive at Gibraltar International Airport before I got there. It’s not every day that you get to land at such a quirky place and having a road run through the runway was something I’d never experienced before.

We booked our flight with EasyJet for an early departure from London Gatwick. In total – for two adults making a return trip we spent £177.92. This price also included the much needed speedy boarding option ( not so much for getting on the aircraft quickly, more for the cabin luggage allowance). The flight was a smooth, no thrills, affair and takes around three hours from London. Just enough time for us to sit back and enjoy a couple of episodes of our favourite podcast!

Before we knew it, the wheels were touching down on the Gibraltar tarmac, as we gazed out of the window at the queueing traffic waiting to cross the runway along with the stunning backdrop of the Rock of Gibraltar eclipsing the surrounding scene in its majesty.

We could hardly wait to get off the plane and start our four nights on the Rock.


Where to stay

Despite Gibraltar’s small size, it has a surprisingly large number of accommodation options available to travellers.

Aside from a number of mid-range hotels located towards the north of the territory there is an every-increasing number of AirBnBs cropping up online throughout the whole of the area.

There are a few options to consider. The first being price.

When travelling to Gibraltar, it’s worth bearing in mind that costs are often of the same level of that of the mainland UK; if not a little higher. For goods and services, this is because everything has to be imported meaning that they are subject to extra tax. Yet even for accommodation, it can appear a little steep.

One option which can work is to stay over the border in Spain. This tends to costs less money and can be just a short walk, or drive, to get back into Gibraltar. The downside of this is that each time you enter you’ll need to pass through passport control which – depending on the time of day – can be fairly busy.

Therefore, if you, like me would rather pay a little extra and stay more centrally in Gibraltar, there are plenty of options available.

During our trip we settled on this small, yet charming, AirBnB located on Castle Street; just off the main street in Gibraltar and a mere 20 minute walk from the airport.


The main living room when you enter from the courtyard
Holly lounging on the bed before we head out for the day
The shower room is small, but very clean and well designed

As one of the more affordable options in Gibraltar (costing us £397.60 for four nights – or £99.40 per night), this AirBnB consists of three main rooms.

Entering the apartment from a private courtyard, you come into the main living space which is fitted with basic kitchenware, a TV, sofa and chair.

Just off the room is the double bedroom with fitted wardrobes. While this room could be seen as a bit cramp due to its floorspace, there is ample storage space here for your clothes and other belongings.

Jutting off from the bedroom is the shower room which is a great space to get washed and cleaned off before and after a full day exploring the territory.

We also found the host of this apartment extremely helpful and well amenable as she even let us check in a little early so we could get rid of our luggage.

It’s worth pointing out that to get somewhere for under £100 a night (obviously depending on what time of year you travel) in the centre of Gibraltar is a hard thing to do, so to get such a find we took as a win.


Getting around

While you can drive in Gibraltar – especially if you are entering from Spain – the best way to get around is on foot.

To walk from one end of the territory (Gibraltar International Airport) to the other (Europa Point Lighthouse) will take the average walker around an hour and a quarter to travel the 5.7km on foot.

Be warned, however, Gibraltar is not flat, so a fair chunk of that walk will be uphill.

Another reason that cars are not advisable is that the majority of streets are pretty small with parking spaces being at a premium. Even if you do drive easily to your destination their is no guarantee you’ll be able to park near it; so you may end up walking anyway!

The one exception to the walking rule is that of going up the Rock of Gibraltar itself.

While it is possible to climb the rock on foot (many people do) it is tiring and there are next to no options to stop for a drink or bite to eat except right at the top!

So while you don’t want to walk it, I’d also urge people to not use the tour guides or taxi services located in the town centre. They end up costing a lot of money and, while they drive you up and down the Rock, they don’t provide you with the option to explore the top of rock or the Nature Reserve in your own time.

However, for those who do want to do this, take note to not purchase the tours from those operating in Grand Casements Square as they tend to be a few pounds more expensive than those selling the exact same tour a few hundred metres away down Main Street.

My preferred option to explore the Rock is to go up and down it via that wonderful cable car.


The entry to Grand Casements Square where people will try and sell you tours of the Rock of Gibraltar. My advice is to not buy them from people here
The small cable cars take around six minutes to reach the top of the Rock of Gibraltar
The views from the cable car over Gibraltar and across to Spain are stunning
The platform extends out to allow cable car passengers to enter the cable car from the mid-section of the Rock of Gibralar

The cable car base station is located near the town centre, on Red Sands Road and can take you to the mid-point of the Rock or to the very top.

There are few options with this too when it comes to costs. For just a return journey on the cable car it will cost £17 per adult and £8 per child. For just getting the cable car up to the top of the Rock and then gain entry to the Nature Reserve will cost £28 per adult and £18.50 per child, or – and what I believe is the best option – a return trip on the cable car plus entry to the Nature Reserve for £30 per adult and £18.50 per child.

The reason I say this is simple. You’ll need a ticket for the Nature Reserve anyway once you’re at the top as the main things to see are all within the Nature Reserve’s boundaries. So taking that into account it costs just £2 more per adult to give yourself the option to catch the cable car back down the Rock.

And while going down may seem like the easy part, we managed to spend over six hours walking around the top of the Rock which meant we were more than ready to take the easy route down when the time came.

The added benefit to using the cable car over the tour guide service is the stunning views you get as you go up.

The journey takes around six minutes from the foot of the Rock to the top so grab a space by the windows at the back when you enter to get stunning views of the surrounding territory.

Also, the mid-section of the cable car route only gets stopped at when passengers are waiting at it to travel back down the Rock. So don’t be surprised when the cable car just carries on past the platform on your way up.


Top sites

There are a considerable number of things to see and do on the Rock.

And one website that is a must to visit, before and during any visit is Buytickets.gi.

On this website, you’ll be best placed to buy tickets for pretty much any activity you want to do while in Gibraltar. From going up the Rock itself, to scuba diving and watching a football match; it’s all here.

And it was from this website that Holly and I got all our tickets before we headed out to Gibraltar just to ensure we didn’t have any issues when we were there.

The website is easy to navigate and, while it doesn’t give you any discounts for shopping online ahead of your visit, it does make things easier when you are there as you’ll have your e-tickets on your electronic devices to show at the different activities.

Anyway, enough about the admin side of Gibraltar and on to what there actually is to see and do.

It should come as no major surprise that the main thing to see here is the Rock of Gibraltar itself.

As mentioned previously, the best way to get to the top of the Rock is by cable car and the ticket that gains entry to the Nature Reserve will cost £30 per adult.

The main ridge of the Rock has a sharp crest with peaks over 400m above sea level and formed by early Jurassic limestones and dolomites.

Nowadays, the top of the Rock showcases stunning views out across the Strait of Gibraltar and along the southern coastline of Spain on one side and to north Africa and Morocco – just nine miles away – on the other.

But aside from the stunning views from the top of the Rock – many of which can be enjoyed soon after stepping off the cable car at the top station – the main attraction here is the stunning nature reserve and its famous Barbary Macaque inhabitants.


The Rock of Gibraltar rises to around 400m above sea-level at its highest point
The top of the Rock of Gibraltar affords great views into Spain
The flag of Gibraltar flies proudly from the top of the Rock

The Nature Reserve and Apes’ Den spans much of the Rock and is covered in the cable car ticket mentioned earlier.

This green area of Gibraltar is home to many of its attractions and is therefore a main highlight for visitors with an interest in seeing the major attractions to marvel at the fantastic views, and for ramblers wanting to walk through its nature trails.

When Holly and I first arrived in the Nature Reserve, we went looking for the infamous furry residents and within minutes of being at the top of the Rock encountered our first Barbary Macaques.

These beautiful – if devilish – animals calmly sit around on the floor, on railings and atop boulders as people pass by. At present, there are around 230 of these amazing animals on the Rock and remains the only wild monkey population on the European continent.

What’s clear is that they hold no fear of humans whatsoever. None!

And this lack of fear means that they are extremely forward when it comes to taking things they want from unsuspecting visitors.

While stopping to look at the numerous Barbary Macaques – many of whom had young ones with them – a particularly bold larger male took it upon itself to sneak up behind Holly – who was wearing a backpack at the time – before leaping onto her head!

Understandably she was taken by shock at this (as was I to be fair) and didn’t quite know what to do as it used Holly’s upper body to manoeuvre itself into a better position to try and unzip her bag.

Fortunately, a very helpful worker was on hand to shoo the Barbary Macaque away (not before I got a few photos of the incident however).

The lesson learnt here was that if you’re carrying a bag on your back; don’t!

We were advised to wear the backpack back-to-front as the Barbary Macaques won’t try and steal items from people if they can see your face. Once we did this, there were no further incidents.

I’m told by Holly that the Barbary Macaques fur is very soft although I’d advise everyone to not attempt to touch them as they do have large teeth that could give a serious bite and strong arms and legs that could cause damage if they felt threatened.

If anything though, the experience with the Barbary Macaque just made the trip even more special and we saw numerous others getting up to no good (one got in someone’s taxi – while people were getting out – to set up camp in the back) during the six hours we spent walking the length of the top of the Rock.

There are a number of great places to see them. One is near the cable car station at the top of the Rock. Walking south along St Michael Road, visitors will find the feeding station area just before the impressive Skywalk Gibraltar (a glass floored platform that gives great views both out from the rock as well as down from it). It was here that we (well mainly Holly) had our Barbary Macaque encounter.

The other place that is worth a look is the Apes’ Den located lower down the Rock next to Prince Ferdinand’s Battery (one of numerous Batteries scattered across the Rock) on Old Queen’s Road.


The Barbary Macaques add further beauty to the stunning landscape
A baby Barbary Macaque clinging to its mother
Be aware – the Barbary Macaque do not fear human presence and it’s advisable to keep your bag strapped to your front
If you don’t they often take their opportunity to pounce. Here one larger Barbary Macaque leapt on Holly’s head and unashamedly tried to open the zips of her bag to see what it could take
The Barbary Macaque are stunning and are a real star attraction of Gibraltar

Once Holly and I had, had our fill of the Barbary Macaques (although we still saw them across the Rock all day) we made our way to the stunning St Michael’s Cave.

Situated towards the southern tip of the Rock, St Michael’s Cave was long believed to be bottomless.

It was at one time thought that in 1704 Spanish troops spent a night in the cave after climbing the precipitous east face of the Rock. Another story about the cave recounts how a Colonel Mitchell and another officer were said to have descended into the cave at some unspecified date before 1840 and were never seen again. During World War II the cave was prepared as an emergency hospital, but was never used as such. Today, the cave is open to visitors and makes a unique auditorium for concerts, ballet and drama.

After seeing pictures of the cave we knew we had to visit it and this stunning cave network is not to be missed.

Forming part of the Nature Reserve ticket, visitors are treated to a huge cathedral of rock that has slowly been created over the centuries through time and patience.

Inside, we were both taken aback by just quite how vast the space was. I knew it was going to be big, but was blown away by just how big it ended up being.

Stalactites and stalagmites creep down from the ceilings and up from the depths below. These giant fingers of the rock are then illuminated in light as part of the spectacle.

One particularly impressive section sees a section of rock on the ceiling illuminated in a multitude of light; and in doing so, brings to life the shape of St Michael. Even without being religious in any way, it’s truly spectacular.

Towards the end of the cave, there’s a 600 seat theatre where a short, immersive light and sound installation highlights the layers of history fused inside the caves.


The star attraction is clear for all to see when the lights are on
The impressive auditorium where a wonderful light show illuminates the surrounding rocks
Lights flowing over the stalactites and stalagmites within St Michael’s Cave

The next stop on our must see list is actually at the far northern end of the Rock. Here you’ll find The Great Siege Tunnels.

A quick bit of advice is to plan your time on the top of the Rock better than we did! By trying to do things on an ad-hoc basis we ended up walking backwards and forwards up and down the Rock far more than we needed to. And while it did wonders for our daily step count – it took all our energy levels; and that was on a relatively cool autumnal day!

To avoid this, try and plan your day to start at one end of the Rock and make your way towards the other.

Saying that, a trip to The Great Siege Tunnels should be on the to-do list. Set around 400m back off of Willis’s Road, this labyrinth of tunnels is perhaps one of the most impressive defence systems devised by man.

It was during the war of American Independence, when France and Spain made an all-out attempt to recapture the Rock from the British in Gibraltar’s 14th Siege (always called The Great Siege which lasted from July 1779 to February 1783) that the then Governor General Eliott (later called Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar) is said to have offered a reward to anyone who could tell him how to get guns on to a projection from the precipitous northern face of the Rock known as the Notch.

Sergeant Major Ince, a member of the Company of Military Artificers, forerunners of the Royal Engineers, suggested that this could be done by tunnelling.  Permission was granted, and Sergeant Major Ince started work under the direction of Lieutenant J. Evelegh, a Royal Engineer, Aide De Camp to the Governor, on May 25, 1782.

At the end of the Great Siege in 1783, the defeated Commander of the French and Spanish troops, the Duc de Crillon, on being shown the fortifications that had led to the defeat of his troops, commented “These works are worthy of the Romans”. 

His words perhaps don’t go far enough as the tunnels are massively impressive as they extend well into the Rock and come out at the top end.

Throughout the tunnels there are numerous offshoots that the were cut for cannon to sit and fire from if needed. Many of these holes look towards the land-border of Spain and offer impressive views of the surrounding area.

Again these tunnels form part of the Nature Reserve ticket so no further money is required here and they make for an enjoyable walk.

Scattered throughout the network of tunnels are a number of models of soldiers which, it’s fair to say, have seen better days. There are also many interesting boards with information about the things visitors can see and offer in-depth insight into the tunnels role in defending the Rock from invasion.

As a tip, watch out for the motion-detecting sensor which sets off a loud recording demanding to know “who goes there” from one of the model soldiers.


The sign leading the way to the Great Siege Tunnels
A selection of ‘realistic’ models are scattered throughout the tunnels
You can see across Gibraltar from the numerous holes in the rock, cut out for cannon fire

The last must-see on the Rock itself is the Windsor Suspension Bridge.

Again, covered by the Nature Reserve ticket entry fee, this wobbly bridge can be found just off Old Queen’s Road near the mid-section of the Rock.

This spectacular feat of engineering is 71m in length, across a 50m-deep gorge affording visitors magnificent views of across the strait, bay and city.

The bridge is visible from the foot of the rock and captured our attention as we stood at the cable car station in the morning waiting to go up.

While it is a solid construction, the bridge does wobble in the wind and as people walk on it; so perhaps not one for this with a nervous disposition or extreme fear of heights.

For those who don’t want to walk over the bridge itself, they can walk around the back edge and see the bridge in all its glory while friends, family and strangers brave this impressive feat of engineering.


The Windsor Suspension Bridge gives a great viewpoint – if a bit of a wobblily one

Away from the Rock (well as away as anyone is from it during a stay in Gibraltar) fun can be had at the territory’s only escape room to date; Rock Escape Rooms.

This unassuming escape room is run by an extremely friendly man who clearly has a passion for what he’s doing and is proud of the rooms he has helped create.

Rock Escape Rooms are located on Halifax Road – just off Devil’s Tower Road – at the northern end of Gibraltar behind the cemetery and just south of the airport runway.

The rooms themselves are – not ironically – relatively well hidden. The road is an industrial one and the rooms are behind a small single door within the row of garage shopfronts that leads up to a second floor.

For just £23 per person (for a team of two) you can select any of five games to play – The Neanderthal, The Game Cube, Casino Heist, The Hacker or Murder Mystery 2: Jack the Ripper.

Given our love of escape rooms, Holly and I had pre-booked two rooms to do during our trip; The Neanderthal and The Game Cube. Both games had numerous interesting parts to them and offered a challenge to us even though we are pretty well versed in escape room trickery.

To make matters even better – and because we had done so well in the rooms – the host of the games then offered us a third game (Casino Heist) for free to see how we faired in that one.

I’m pleased to say that we got out of all three within the hour provided – although we left it extremely late in our third and final game to do so.

What we liked about these games was that they were logical. They didn’t make huge leaps between puzzles that you needed clues for just to progress – something some escape games fall into the mistake of doing.

They also offered good value for money. While the rooms were not the largest we have ever done – they offered some neat touches that made them feel well thought-out and playable.

For those not sure about escape rooms – or for those who have not played one before – I’d suggest trying The Neanderthal here first. It is probably the easiest game on offer and is a great introduction to escape rooms. For those looking at more of a challenge, go for The Game Cube or Casino Heist. And for those looking to really test themselves, try The Hacker or Murder Mystery 2: Jack the Ripper – neither of which we had time to play – as we are told they are the hardest games on Rock Escape Rooms has on offer currently.


The Rock Escape Rooms sign inside its small lobby area
Happy gamers having completed the first of our three games with Rock Escape Rooms

Back to sightseeing, the next must see is at the further end of Gibraltar; Europa Point.

Given that it only takes around an hour and a quarter to walk from one end of Gibraltar to the other, it’s really not that far. However, remember that Gibraltar can be quite hilly, so getting to Europa Point – along Europa Road – can feel like an uphill walk.

Located at the southernmost point of Gibraltar the end of the territory is flat and occupied by a playing field and a few buildings including the Europa Point Lighthouse and The King Fahad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud Mosque,

On a clear day, views of north Africa can be seen across the Strait of Gibraltar including Ceuta and the Rif Mountains of Morocco; as well as the Bay of Gibraltar and the Spanish towns along its shores.

The joy of this area is that it is free to visit and offers beautiful views. There are very few places within Europe that you can stand and look out over the water and see another continent, but this is one of them.

Grabbing an ice cream and a drink from the nearby cafe next to the playing field, Holly and I enjoyed sitting in the sun and watching the world go by.


The Europa Point Lighthouse sits at the far south-end of Gibraltar; just over the water from Morocco
The King Fahad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud Mosque sits alongside the lighthouse at Europa Point

One thing I wanted to do as soon as we had planned our trip to Gibrlatar was to watch a football match at the territories one and only football ground; the Victoria Stadium.

Fortunately, there was a match due to be played during our time in Gibraltar as local champions, Lincoln Red Imps faced off with Slovakian side Slovan Bratislava in the UEFA Europa Conference League.

Getting tickets for Gibraltar football matches is easy to do. Using the website mentioned earlier, tickets become available (for around £15 per adult) for games a few days before they kick off. This is the case for Gibraltar Premier Division (the local national competition played by the ten teams located on Gibraltar) UEFA Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League as well as Gibraltar national team games.

I know that going to a game here was more my thing than Holly’s so was thankful when she agreed to come with me to the match on a Thursday evening.

The Victoria Stadium is a small football stadium with a capacity of around 5,000. However, for most games, you’re lucky if the attendance exceeds 1,000!

What makes this place special is the backdrop you get while watching the game.

To one side the impressive Rock of Gibraltar casts its eye over the proceedings while behind the stadium the runway for Gibraltar International Airport lets you see the occasional aircraft land and take-off.

The stadium staff are extremely welcoming and friendly. When we had taken our seats I had asked if there was anywhere we could get some food and drinks and the staff member I spoke to went away and found someone to open up the kiosk at the top of the stand where we were able to get a drink each and a packet of crisps.

The game itself, however, was not a memorable one for the 553-person strong crowd.

At the time Lincoln Red Imps were three defeats out of three into their Europa Conference League group and heading out of the competition.

Despite a strong start to the game, which could have seen the Gibraltar Premier Division champions take an early lead had it not been for a terrible miss from a few yards out, Slovan Bratislava – mainly through their English attacker Andre Green – took control and went into a two nil lead.

Then the moment we’d been waiting for actually happened. Just before half time the score was halved when Lincoln Red Imp’s (and the Gibraltar national team) captain, Roy Chipolina scored! There was a chance of an upset!

Despite this however, the second half didn’t go the Gibraltar team’s way and a further two goals were shipped culminating in a 4-1 defeat.

And while it wasn’t the result the home fans wanted – although maybe one they expected – I was pleased to have taken the opportunity to see some live European football on the Rock.


The Victoria Stadium as viewed from the top of the Rock of Gibraltar
Lincoln Red Imps take a corner during their Europa Conference League match at the Victoria Stadium Vs. Slovan Bratislava
Sadly, most Gibraltar matches (both internationally and those involving the domestic sides against foreign teams) end in defeat for the home side

Whenever I’m planning a trip abroad, I always look to see if there are any scuba diving opportunities available. It came as not great surprise that around the shoreline of Gibraltar there are many great places to dive.

I contacted a couple of different dive companies in the territory before finally settling on diving with Dive Charters Gibraltar.

From the first time speaking to them over email and explaining what Holly and I were hoping to do (this would be our first dive together) they were extremely helpful, friendly and accommodating. It felt like a good company to trust our diving experience to.

And that would prove to be true.

We arrived at the Dive Charters Gibraltar dive shop – located on Admiral’s Walk on Marina Bay near Ocean Village – and were welcomed in and fit with our scuba gear before getting our equipment boxes ready.

We had booked two dives – costing just £85 each which included all equipment – and although it had been many years since Holly had last dived they walked her through the set-up of equipment without any fuss which help settle her nerves.

During my emails to the company I explained we were both PADI Open Water certificate holders, although we were both pretty amateur when it comes to diving and they explained the dives that we’d be able to do with them and what we might be able to see during those dives.

The good thing about Gibraltar is that there are lots of sites that cater for all levels of diving. Given our status we were only being taken to some of the more shallow sites (around 14m underwater) but they did include going inside a couple of wreaks which excited us both.

To get to the dive site, we all (there were other divers joining us that day too) got inside the minibuses and were taken the short drive to Camp Bay – situated on the west coast of the Rock.

Here we got our equipment ready and then listened to our dive briefings before embarking on the first dive.

Our first dive took us to a dive site known as the Spanish Barges.

The Spanish Barges are a series of four individual wrecks, two of which are believed to have been dumped there in the 1950s during the refurbishment of the jetty. The other two wrecks, which lay further from the shore were sunk in the 1980s as part of Gibraltar’s artificial reef program.

Getting in the water at this time of year felt cold but once we got under the surface you barely noticed it.

This dive let us see the four barges and numerous fish that use them as their home. While the visibility wasn’t perfect it added something when you’re swimming along the bottom and then out of the gloom the looming hull of a sunken vessels is there to meet you.

Going inside the barges was especially interesting. The sea life has transformed them into artificial reefs although – and I’ll be testament to this – don’t make the mistake of thinking that the outer layer of these vessels will be smooth. The time these vessels have spent under the water has made them rough and sharp to the touch and it’s easy to cut your hands on them; so be careful.

After a short time on the surface and a fresh tank of air, we set about on our second dive; this time to a site called The 482M & Battys Barge dive site.

In August 1990 as part of Gibraltars ongoing artificial reef program, these Royal Navy cable – laying barges were deliberately sunk and are located no more than a five minutes swim from the shore of Camp Bay.

The 482M is situated in 16m of water and proudly sits upright on a flat sandy seabed. She is 30 meters long, seven meters wide and stands seven meters at her highest point. For the more adventurous this wreck can be explored from the inside too with several entry points and internal compartments.

Battys Barge is found nearby in 14m of water and also sits upright on a flat sandy seabed. She is 35 meters long, nine meters wide and stands six meters at her highest point.

These two wrecks rest nicely beside one another allowing them to both explored in the same dive.

Again this dive was a thrilling experience as we got to go into the larger vessel. Also – just nestled to the outside of the wreck – we spotted a rather large octopus that had buried itself into the seabed; another spectacular site to behold while surrounded by the sunken vessels and the scores of fish.

After the dives we dried ourselves off and got a lift back to the dive shop where we paid and filled out our log books – rounding off a great diving experience.


Dive Charters Gibraltar dive shop entrance is the meeting point for dives and is near Ocean Village
The dive site is just off the coast from Camp Bay near Parson’s Lodge
View through a porthole of a sunken barge
During the dives you get to go inside some of the wreaks
Inside some of the wreaks it can be quite dark in parts

Where to avoid

From a safety point of view, there are no places I’d say that need to be avoided from my experience in Gibraltar.

As with everywhere, the normal rules apply here in terms of being aware of your personal affects and taking care if out late; however, incidents of crime are relatively low.

There are a few sites, however, for those pushed for time, that visitors may want to skip over.

The first is Moorish Castle.

This medieval fortification in Gibraltar comprises of various buildings, gates, and fortified walls, with the dominant features being the Tower of Homage and the Gate House. The Tower of Homage is clearly visible because of its dominant and strategic position. 

However, going inside the Tower and up to its roof doesn’t really offer much in terms of insight into the building nor a better view than could be experienced elsewhere.

Located towards the lower portion of the northern section of the Rock of Gibraltar – along Willis’s Road – entry to the castle is included in a ticket to the Nature Reserve which is a plus point.

The small building is just a shell of its former self. Stone walls surround empty rooms while a small staircase takes visitors the few flights up to the top floor where panoramic views of the surrounding area can be seen.

While these views are pleasant enough, they are not worth trekking across the Rock for. For one thing, you are much lower here than you are from the top of the Rock and therefore the view is slightly less impressive.

Secondly, Moorish Castle is a fairly long walk away from the top to the Rock. Unless you plan to come down this way when you have visited the Rock of Gibraltar, it really isn’t worth the walk. However, if you are here (as it is near The Great Siege Tunnels and World War II Tunnels) then a quick 10 minute walk around the ruin may be worth doing.


The entry to Moorish Castle
Holly inside Moorish Castle

Near the heart of the town – and just to the right of the lower cable car station – visitors can find the small Alameda Gibraltar Botanic Gardens.

The gardens – whose entrance is situated on Red Sands Road – have a variety of flora and fauna growing in them and make for a nice short walk if you’re waiting for the cable car to open up. A plus point is that they are free to enter!

In 1816 the gardens were commissioned by the British Governor of Gibraltar; General George Don. The gardens were resurrected in 1991 by an external company when it was realised that since the 1970s they had fallen into a poor state. Three years later the gardens had the addition of a zoo: the Alameda Wildlife Conservation Park.

So while the gardens are free to enter, the zoo section of the gardens – home to a collection of both exotic and native species – costs £6 per adult to enter; which is a lot given that it is extremely small.

Because of this, Holly and I took a brisk walk around the gardens but avoided the zoo and made our way out to other parts of the local area.


The Alameda Gibraltar Botanic Gardens are pleasant to walk around but don’t offer a huge amount
Another feature inside the gardens – and around Gibraltar in general – is the appearance of traditional British telephone boxes

For anyone visiting Gibraltar, it is impossible to fail to notice that the majority of activity takes place on the western portion of the territory. Much of this area is now developed into businesses, living space and other entertainment facilities.

What it does mean is that for this portion of the territory, there is no area that allows for sun-worshippers to get their daily fix of beach time.

For this, there are a couple of spots on the eastern side of the Rock; which is serviced by the single Sir Herbert Miles Road.

The most notable of these is Catalan Bay Beach.

Catalan Bay, known in Spanish as ‘La Caleta’, is a small bay and fishing village in Gibraltar on the eastern side of the Rock away from the main city.

This crescent-shaped stretch of sand is a pleasant stop but lacks a huge number of amenities that one may expect to find at a beach destination. Home to only a couple of small cafés and a single (as far as I could see) toilet block – this area could be quite crowded at busy times of year.

During our trip, Holly was keen to get on the beach – even just for a little bit – and so we made the 30 minute walk from the centre of Gibraltar, around the top of the Rock and down to Catalan Bay.

As it was quite late in the day, the beach was very quiet – except for a number of seagulls – but you could see how it could fill up to uncomfortable levels quite quickly.

If I’m honest, beaches are really not my thing. With such pale skin, I find any activity that sees me just cooking in the sun quite unpleasant, so I end up hiding in whatever shade I can find.

For those looking for a quick beach fix, then Catalan Bay is about as good as it gets on Gibraltar. Better options are across the border in Spain. But, for me, there are many better ways time can be spent on the Rock.


The nearby buildings at Catalan Bay sit in the shade of the Rock
The sandy stretch of beach along Catalan bay
The small beach at Catalan Bay gets very busy in the summer as it’s only one of a small number of sandy patches in Gibraltar

Great places to eat

Given its diminutive size, and lack of agricultural space, all products have to be imported into the territory.

So, it will come as little surprise that Gibraltar takes most of its culinary habits from either its neighbours (Spain or – just across the water – Morocco) or from the UK.

Along the main street, there are numerous bars and cafes all serving ‘traditional’ English food. Pie and mash, steak and chips, fish and chips are found in abundance and all at affordable prices, while other smaller cafes provide great options of breakfast snacks and pastries.

So while you’d find it hard pushed to find somewhere to eat that claims to be 100% Gibraltar-cuisine, there are a number of nice bars and restaurants to sample including the following two which became firm favourites of Holly and myself during our stay.

The first is Vinopolis Gastrobar.

This tapas-style restaurant has more than 40 Mediterranean dishes on offer and provides a wonderful taste of Spain.

Located centrally, in John Mackintosh Square, Vinopolis Gastrobar provides an intimate setting for a quiet meal while also having space to cater for larger groups.

Sitting down here, Holly and I were keen to sample as many of the dishes as we could.

For a table of two we were advised to pick between five and seven dishes depending on how hungry we were. Dishes range in price from around £4.50 for the smaller plates to around £15 for the larger.

Selecting a mixture of options we eagerly awaited the first dish’s arrival. In true tapas-style, all dishes are brought to your table when they are ready so as you are enjoying one dish another turns up ready for you to eat.

Sitting back and enjoying our food and drink, Holly and I enjoyed great evening at Vinopolis Gastrobar and spent around £80 in total for all the food (and a couple of cheeky desserts) along with two glasses of wine each.

Dishes that should not be missed here are the selection of mini-hamburgers (which arrive in different style buns, each with a different types of meat inside), the pork skewers and the black pudding, piquillo sauce and quails egg; a stunning dish packed full of flavour.


The selection of mini-hamburgers is a good choice and has three different styles of meat to sample
There are plenty of good red and white wine options to try
A personal favourite; black pudding, piquillo sauce and quails egg is delicious

Our second restaurant of choice was one we went to on our final night in Gibraltar. But rather than another English or Spanish restaurant we opted for one that had good reviews and offered Asian food.

Located in the trendy Ocean Village at the north-end of Gibraltar, Thi Vietnamese is a haven of south-Asian cuisine.

Sitting down beside the window gave us a nice view out over the harbour. Despite being in the heart of one of the busiest and liveliest scenes in Gibraltar, the restaurant provides a nice quiet place to enjoy a meal.

The staff are also extremely attentive and eager to please. Menus, drinks and food are all served with a smile and service is quick throughout the meal.

They also offer very generous alcohol measures. Holly had ordered a vodka and Coke to have with her meal and ended up with a gin-glass almost full of vodka and a small can of Coke to mellow it out.

It was so much vodka in fact that we needed to order a second can of Coke just to make sure she wasn’t falling off her chair mid-meal.


Thi Vietnamese is a comfortable restaurant whose staff are extremely helpful, attentive and friendly
Holly enjoying the largest vodka and smallest Coke ever served
Holly sat enjoying a drink at a bar in Ocean Village

The food is full of flavour and there are a wide range of options for all tastes.

The spring rolls are well worth trying as a starter and have a large meat content compared to others I’ve had before in other restaurants around the world.

Main courses are a good size and are filling while not being stodgy. It’s also great value as, for our three-course meal for two – including drinks – we paid around just £75!

It was a wonderful way to end our short stay in this small corner of the UK nestled in the heart of the Mediterranean.


Useful links

British Airways

EasyJet

Eastern Airways

Wizz Air

AirBnB

Cable Car

Buytickets.gi

Rock of Gibraltar

Nature Reserve and Apes’ Den

St Michael’s Cave

The Great Siege Tunnels

Windsor Suspension Bridge

Rock Escape Rooms

Europa Point

Victoria Stadium

Dive Charters Gibraltar

Moorish Castle

Alameda Gibraltar Botanic Gardens

Catalan Bay Beach

Vinopolis Gastrobar

Thi Vietnamese

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Vilnius… the Baltics’ last kept secret

Vilnius

Lying deep behind where the former Iron Curtain once cast its oppressive shadow, the city of Vilnius probably remains the least visited capital city from any of the Baltic countries.

Yet, slowly, it’s starting to be appearing more and more on intrepid travellers’ itineraries.

And what a city full of surprises it is!

With its chequered past, it’s probably one of the last places you’d expect to see such a cosmopolitan mix of Soviet and religious history now standing hand-in-hand with a brimming artistic cauldron of life and art.

Located in south-eastern Lithuania, Vilnius is the second-largest city in the Baltic states – behind only Riga; the capital of Latvia.

With a population approaching 600,000, the city remains a healthy mix of historical intrigue and modern entertainment; allowing for a wide range of tastes and preferences to be satisfied during any visit.

The origins of the city’s name come from the nearby Vilnia River which roughly translates as ‘ripple’. Over the centuries the name has been chopped, changed and adapted before finally settled upon the modern day version; Vilnius.

Vilnius is the historic and present-day capital of Lithuania. Archaeological findings have suggested that the city also acted as the capital of the Kingdom of Lithuania and later that of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Its history dates back to the early 1300s with the first recorded mention of it coming in 1323 as Vilna, when the Letters of Grand Duke Gediminas were sent to German cities inviting Germans to settle in the city.


The Hill of the Three Crosses is a focal point in the city of Vilnius

As with much of the region – including each of the three Baltic states – Lithuania and, by association, Vilnius fell under the control of numerous powerhouses following the start of the First World War. Initially falling into German hands, a tangle of Polish and Soviet power-struggles eventually saw the latter finally take charge of the nation.

The Second World War saw German invasion once again but, by the time the war finished in 1945, the Soviet army were again in full control.

The Soviets would remain in power until the early 1990s when Lithuania declared its independence; causing years of struggles with Moscow and Russian troops.

However, 30 years later, Lithuania now stands proudly by itself and, while the city of Vilnius holds many reminders of the Soviet-controlled days, it now thrives on its own merits.

So, what should a first-time visitor to the city make sure they see to get a taste of this nation’s historic sites while also sampling some of the quirkiest street art in Eastern Europe?

It was a question I asked myself. But even before I stepped foot out of my front door, I also wanted to find out what I should know about Vilnius and Lithuania.


Google Maps image of Vilnius

As with a lot of my trips to the Baltic region (don’t ask me why), I had booked this one with a friend for December meaning that we were in for a very chilly reception when we landed.

To say it’s cold in Vilnius in December is an understatement. It’s stupidly cold!

Average highs for the month get to a balmy −0°C with the daily mean usually settling at −2 °C. Therefore, warm, clothes are a must! Pack gloves, hats and scarfs and, most of all, pack layers.

The weather in the city for December is often wet and snowy which can look beautiful but can also become a hazard. On average, there are 21 days of rain in the month each year with only 25 hours of actual sunshine! The city can look slightly dark and gloomy if poor weather does set in.

The next thing to note is the currency. Making life that bit easier, Lithuania joined the Euro on 1 January 2015, replacing the former currency known as the Lithuanian Lita. At the time of writing, £1 sterling would get you around €1.17.

So while you won’t get many Euros in exchange for your Pounds these days, Lithuania is a relatively cheap country to travel in. A pint of beer (because that’s always a good way of judging a local economy) costs around €3.50 at most, while a three-course meal for two in a mid-range restaurant – with drinks – can be as cheap as €41 total.

Language is the next issue that many travellers will quickly encounter.

According to the 2011 National Census, 78.5% of Lithuanians speak at least one foreign language. Out of that number, 63% of Lithuanians speak Russian, 30.4% – English, 8.5% – Polish, and 8.3% – German.

For English speaking visitors with limited foreign language skills (myself included) it can be useful to have a few basic Lithuanian words in the locker. Thank you (ačiū), please (prašau), hello (sveiki) and goodbye (atsisveikink) are a good place to start.

Also remember to take plug converters. There are two associated plug types for Lithuania; types C and F. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and plug type F is the plug which has two round pins with two earth clips on the side. Lithuania operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.

The most important thing to know is that Vilnius is a fun, exciting and friendly city. And now, with the Iron Curtain fully open and dismantled, tourists and visitors can now indulge and embrace what this beautiful city has to offer.


Getting there

As you’d expect, flying is the fastest, and easiest, way to get to Vilnius.

Located just 6km (3.7 miles) south of the city boundary, Vilnius Airport has one runway and welcomes around 5 million passengers through its gates every year. 

While it acts as a base for a number of budget airlines, there are two main ones to use when travelling directly from the UK; Ryanair and Wizz Air.

Remember, these are budget airlines so don’t expect any luxuries onboard.

At the time of writing Ryanair were operating direct flights to Vilnius from London Luton and London Stansted – as well as from Liverpool and Leeds/Bradford International. In comparison, Wizz Air operates flights only from London Luton and Liverpool.


Views of snowy Lithuania as you come in to land at Vilnius International Airport

The good news is that it is pretty cheap to fly to Lithuania from the UK. When my friend and I took the trip we flew with Ryanair from London Luton on a return ticket for two for just £187.23 in total. This included a flight out to Lithuania leaving the UK at 6:35am with a return on a mid-morning flight three nights later.

Yet prices seem to have fallen even further. Searching for a return flight in December, it’s possible to fly with Ryanair from London Stanstead for just £77 in total; (although this will likely go up higher when you take into account baggage costs and speedy boarding). Even still, it’s a good price.

Flying from London Luton will put the price up a little bit, coming in at around £105 for two people returning, but still remains affordable.


Where to stay

When you stay in an artistic, quirky city you should, in my view, get accommodation that matches. The Artagonist Hotel fits that description perfectly.

Located in the centre of the city on the quiet Pilies g. side-street, my friend and I managed to bag a standard double room for just £257.79 for three nights; including breakfast.

The hotel is a warm and welcoming place. In the reception area, you get your first taste of its artistic flair with a huge mural filing the wall behind the check-in desk.


This massive mural is painted on the wall behind the hotel’s reception desk
The reception area gives you a warm welcome when coming in from the cold Vilnius streets
The view from one of the rooms at the Artagonist Hotel

Once checked-in, a small lift will take you to your room’s floor where a classy, yet comfortable, abode will await.

Each room has a certain individuality to it. Bold and colourful decorations, wall hangings and other art work adorn the living area and a number of the rooms also boost nice views over the surrounding city.

As you would expect in this day, wi-fi is supplied to hotel guests for free. An added bonus – especially after spending a cold day outside in Vilnius – was that our room had a heated floor in the bathroom. Just removing your shoes and socks and standing on the floor fills your body with a warming glow.

My friend took things a step further however. After a particularly tiring day on the streets of the city, she spent a good 30 minutes laying on the bathroom floor letting the heat warm her up.

Each morning, in the basement of the hotel, a plentiful breakfast spread awaits guests. A full continental selection of foods are on offer and should set you up for a busy day exploring the city.


Getting around

Vilnius International Airport lies around 8km from the city centre and a car can make the journey in around 15 minutes.

The best bet to get from the airport to your accommodation is to jump in a taxi for around €20. It’s a little on the steep side price-wise but it at least drops you exactly where you need to go.

If you are looking for a cheaper alternative route from the airport to the city then you can opt for either a bus or a train.

The cost of the journey by train is under €1, and takes just eight minutes. The Vilnius Airport bus will take you to the city in 20 minutes for €1 while the minibuses cover this distance in 10-15 minutes for just €1.50. 

Once you’ve safely arrived in the city, the easiest way to travel around Vilnius is by foot.

Walking around the colourful streets of Vilnius is the best way to see the city first hand

While Vilnius is efficiently served by buses and trolleybuses from 5am to midnight – with single-trip tickets costing just €1 when bought from the driver – it is easy enough to take to the streets and stroll through the city to see what’s on offer.

Again, there are numerous taxis available around the city should you need to catch one but unless you are in a major rush, or have got lost, then walking really is the best way to see the main city sights and keep expenses to a minimum.


Top sites

A good first port-of-call is the Gates of Dawn.

This city gate in Vilnius is one of the capital’s most important religious, historical and cultural monuments and remains a major site of Catholic pilgrimage in Lithuania.

Built between 1503 and 1522 as a part of defensive fortifications for the city, the Gates of Dawn is an impressive entranceway into the old city. In the 16th Century, city gates often contained religious artefacts intended to guard the city from attacks and to bless travellers.

Also at this site, the Chapel in the Gates of Dawn contains an icon of The Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of Mercy. For centuries the picture was one of the symbols of the city. Thousands of votive offerings adorn the walls and many pilgrims from neighbouring countries come here to pray.

Architecturally stunning from the outside, visitors who wish to enter the Chapel of Gates of Dawn and the nearby The Church of St. Teresė can do so for free all year round.


A view towards the Chapel of the Gates of Dawn

As may be suspected by the number of churches, synagogues and other religious buildings, religion still plays a very important part in the daily lives of the Lithuanian people. Therefore, during a trip to the city a visit to the impressive Vilnius Cathedral – or The Cathedral Basilica of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus to give it its full name – is a must.

Built in the centre of the city, the cathedral was constructed on the site of a former pagan temple and next to Vilnius’ defensive castle. Over the years it has been rebuilt many times, mainly due to being destroyed by fire, and has a 57m bell tower which remains one of the symbols of the city.

Its stunning classical architecture draws visitors to its doors and into its sanctum where it’s clean, light walls and open and airy space provides a beautiful setting for prayer; reflection and the occasional photograph.


Looking up at the impressive Vilnius Cathedral
The Bell Tower is an impressive structure

Vilnius itself is a relatively low-lying city compared to a number of its European counterparts.

A great vantage point in the city is from the Hill of the Three Crosses at the top of Kalnai Park near the heart of the old town.

The site – also known as the Bald Hill – has a rather gruesome history according to legend. It’s said that atop this hill, seven Franciscan friars were beheaded. To mark this site, wooden crosses have been pitched there since the early 17th century; becoming yet another symbol of the city and an integral part of the city’s low-lying skyline.

Nowadays, the hill is home to three striking stone crosses that rise above the treetops and look out over the city.

From this vantage point – in particular of an evening when the sun is setting – this quiet and secluded spot makes for an enchanting panoramic view of the surrounding city.


The crosses at the top of the Hill of the Three Crosses raise high into the night sky
Looking out over the low-lying Vilnius skyline from the Hill of the Three Crosses at night is a magical experience

Back on street level, Vilnius is a maze of winding small roads and backstreets, beautifully colourful buildings and charming architecture.

Across the entire city a smorgasbord of eye-catching street-art (images of Vladimir Putin kissing Donald Trump for example), art museums or old abandoned churches litter travellers’ paths. But it’s inside the old town itself that one of the quaintest and most surprising aspects of Lithuania culture has come to the fore.


Street art like this can be seen in many places throughout the city but is extremely present in Užupis
Political artwork is one of the key themes you’ll notice crop up time and time again
Užupis is a lively place where various protests do take place against a wide variety of injustices

It’s here that travellers will find the seemingly quiet and unassuming Užupis neighbourhood hidden away. Yet while it may appear quiet for most of the time, the people are passionate and lively when required.

It’s fair to say that an area like this, normally, would be relatively unremarkable. Small homes provide shelter to locals and businesses go about selling their wares.

Yet, what makes Užupis special is that since 1 April, 1998, the district has declared itself an independent republic (The Republic of Užupis), and formed its own constitution.

As part of declaring its own independence the residents of the area declared their own flag, unofficial currency, president, cabinet of ministers, an anthem, as well as an army of 11 men; which has since been retired; fortunately without having to see battle. Each year – on 1 April – the residents of Užupis celebrate their independence on Užupis Day.

This splintered-off district is quite small being only about 148 acres in size. To date it has around 7,000 inhabitants, nearly 1,000 of which are said to be artists. The district is also separated from the old town by the Vilnia River on one size while another plays witness to a series of steep hills.


The Angel of Užupis standing tall on a cold winter’s day in Užupis

There are plenty of interesting places for travellers to visit in Užupis. The district contains the Bernardine Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in the city and – in the district’s main square – a statue of an angel blowing a trumpet was unveiled on 1 April, 2002. This is known as the Angel of Užupis.

It wasn’t the first sculpture to adorn this spot though. A year earlier the giant Margustis Easter Egg stood where the Angel of Užupis stands today as an oversized placeholder. When it took its spot in 2001 it was seen as symbolic to the revival taking place in the neighbourhood.

However, when the Angel was unveiled in 2002, many locals were still very fond of the giant egg. The decision was then made to relocate it to a small square on Pylimo Street, where it stands today. Then, in 2003, artist Lijana Turskytė painted the egg to give it an Easter vibe.

It could be said that with its vast numbers of artists, Vilnius is a city of quirky art. None, perhaps more quirky than that of the Lucky Belly.

This piece is located in the very centre of the city on Vilnius Street, and built into the wall of the Novotel and Business Centre. Alongside the sculpture is a message stating that you have to rub the belly if you want to achieve success in business.

The brass belly attracts a lot of passing tourists; all of whom give the sculpture a little touch on the hope that perhaps some of the Belly’s luck will rub off in their direction. It remains unproven if this has ever worked!

Romas Kvintas – the creator of the sculpture – joked that he took inspiration from looking at his own belly while making this piece. What remains truer is that the sculpture is based on an old legend about a former Mayor of Vilnius who, in the 19th century, was interested in one poor local family consisting of two talented and successful sons: one became a trader and the other a famous jeweller.

Marvelling at the success of such a poor family, the mayor asked the mother how she managed to raise her children to become such successful people. The woman supposedly answered, “what you stroke – grows”. By this she meant that she used to stroke one of her son’s arms every morning and the other son’s tummy.


Many travellers give the Lucky Belly a small rub in the hope that some of its luck will rub off onto them

Where to avoid

A strange piece of art that takes a bit of explaining is the memorial to American music legend, Frank Zappa.

First thing to point out is that Zappa has absolutely no link to Lithuania – let alone Vilnius – at all. None!

Yet it was Zappa’s free spirit which was seen as extremely relatable to the Lithuanian people.

The bust of the musician’s head got its first whiff of life when artist Saulius Paukštys visited the States and, on his return to Lithuania, concocted the story that he had become great friends with Zappa himself! It was all an elaborate lie, but Zappa caught the attention of other artists in Lithuania and became a symbol of freedom.

Soon after, sculptor Konstantinas Bagdonas, known for his busts of Lenin during Soviet times, created the legendary Zappa statue as a sign of a new era of post-Soviet Lithuania.

Once completed, the Zappa monument was originally supposed to be erected next to the M. K. Čiurlionis Art Gymnasium, but teachers at the school rejected this idea as the sculpture closely resembled the famous Lithuanian composer the school was named after.

At the time it was feared that the American artist’s music might have a bad influence on the youth. As such, the monument was placed in its current location, where it was unveiled on 17 December 1995; sadly some two years after the musician had passed away following a battle with prostate cancer.

I’d say that, unless you’re a huge Frank Zappa fan, don’t go out of your way to find this piece of street art. There are thousands of examples of more relevant art throughout Vilnius so taking the time to find this one feels like a waste to me.

If you’re passing it, then sure take a look, but certainly don’t set aside time to hunt it out.


Great places to eat

There are plenty of great places to grab good quality and tasty local food in Vilnius. If, like me, you venture there around December then you’ll not fail to notice the abundance of food and drink on offer at the city’s Christmas market. A glass or two (or three or four) of warming mulled wine is a must!


Vilnius’s Christmas market is worth a visit for some delicious mulled wine and sweet treats

However, for a quality evening out in comfy surrounds then Gaspar’s Restaurant is a prime choice.

Recognised as one of the best restaurants in Lithuania, Gaspar’s thinks of itself as a home away from home, where there team of people care for the restaurant as if it was there own.

Their devotion to Lithuanian culinary heritage, and their ability to demonstrate the chef’s passion for his food makes Gaspar’s an experience worth savouring.

This small, intimate restaurant is unassumingly located in central Vilnius on Pylimo g. just to the west of the city’s Old Town.

First thing to say is that, due to its size, booking in advance is most likely essential.

The next thing to note is that it’s not the cheapest of menus available in Vilnius. However, for the extra money you’ll spend, you’ll get an undisputable quality experience. To give you some idea a three-course meal you’ll look at around €40 – €50 per person plus drinks.

For that price though you get superb food. The mains range from seafood including grilled octopus and turbot to meat dishes made up of the most tender lamb and dry-aged beef sirloin.

For those looking to push the boat out a little more can indulge in the sumptuous seven-course tasting menu for €75 per person – rising to €120 per person with a wine pairing.


The food at Gaspar’s Restaurant is spectacular

Aside from great food, those those who are looking for somewhere to grab a quiet drink, with a splash of local flair, need look no further than the quirky bar; Who Hit John.

This place is seriously tiny! Located in the heart of Vilnius’ historic Old Town this atmospheric bar is steeped in real charm. It only seats around 15 people comfortably, though you could just about cram 20 people in there.

A real favourite with locals, the bar is known as John by those who frequent it regularly. The service is warm and friendly and they stock a small but decent range of quality beer.

It’s also open very late, which is a plus, allowing you to drink into the night with friends old and new.

When my friend and I pitched up at the bar here on our last night in Vilnius we very quickly got speaking to two guys sat on the opposite side of the bar showing just how easy it is to make friends here – or it could be that my friend is very good at getting random strangers to talk to her.


Sit in Who Hit John’s and enjoy a drink while chatting to some of the local patrons

There is so much to see and do in Vilnius that it would be impossible to fit it all into a short stay in the city. And one traveller’s experiences within the city will vary greatly from another’s.

Vilnius, while small in stature, is big in heart and a trip to the Lithuanian capital will give travellers a different feel to anywhere else; even to those who have visited the other Baltic countries.

The local people are friendly, welcoming and truly appreciate visiting guests who show an interest in learning about their culture and country.

A trip to this stunning city can act as a breath of fresh air with its amazing mix of history and local flair. Any visit to Vilnius is sure to be one that will live long in the memory long after the wheels of the plane leave Lithuanian soil.


Useful links

Ryanair

Wizz Air

Artagonist Hotel

Gates of Dawn

Vilnius Cathedral

Hill of the Three Crosses

Užupis

Angel of Užupis

Margustis Easter Egg

Lucky Belly

Monument to Frank Zappa

Gaspar’s Restaurant

Who Hit John

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Top five… fun European escape rooms you have to try

As is probably clear now for anyone who has read this blog, I love an escape room.

I find great joy in finding a new room to play in a new city of the world I visit and have amassed more than 60 physical and online escape room games to date around the world.

It’s also fair to say I introduced this pastime to my fiancée Holly and she too fell in love with the game instantly; part of the reason we fit together so well!

In the blog below, I’ve laid out five of my favourite escape rooms from my European adventures for anyone who also wants to give the games a try or is an avid fan themselves.

These five escape rooms each offer something slightly different from the rest I’ve played and put you, the player, at the heart of everything they do.


1: Panic Room (Gravesend – England)

Located in Gravesend, The Panic Room is the UK’s largest escape room experience going. Spread across three locations in the town centre, there are currently 14 different rooms they have set up all ranging in theme and difficulty.

What strikes you straight away with The Panic Room are three things. Firstly, they have put a lot of time, effort into their brand. It looks fantastic. Secondly, the staff are extremely friendly and enthusiastic.

No matter what the scenario you play out, no matter how many of you are there and no matter your level of escape room experience, they tailor the situation to your needs. Finally, they are not a cheap, nor tacky, looking escape room. Some places struggle to make it look good but that is not an issue here. They have gone the extra mile.

They also keep the rooms fresh, changing rooms up for new themes to keep customers wanting to come back for more.

No matter what the scenario you play out, no matter how many of you are there and no matter your level of escape room experience, they tailor the situation to your needs.

Panic Room

As mentioned there are a host of rooms available. For a newbie to escape games I’d suggest something like The Don or Old Father Time as they are more gentle introductions to the escape room genre, combining logical puzzles with an interesting story.

For the more seasoned teams, you can opt to try out rooms that incorporate live actors – such as the Happy Institute – giving a whole new twist on what you have to do.

Special mention must also be made to the extraordinary Dino Land. This is far bigger than a normal room and has the feel of taking part in your own Jurassic Park-esque feature-film. I won’t say any more on it as I’d hate to spoil the surprises for anyone keen to take part!

Prices start from £25 per person for a team of two (so £50 total) and go down to £13.75 per person for a team of eight (£110 total).

To read about more fun things to do in Kent visit my Top five… places to visit in Kent blog.


2: One Hour (Paris – France)

If you tire of tourist sites in Paris, and want to try something fun, then I’d highly recommend you drop by the One Hour Escape Room.

Spread across two locations, this horror-themed escape experience has four games to play. Two are located at its Charonne site (Lost Aslyum and Very Bad Night) and two are at its Voltaire site (The Slaughterhouse and Yakuza).

To access these locations go to Charonne Metro station on line 9 for the first site and Voltaire Metro station on line 9 for the second one.

I’ve done a lot of escape rooms in my time but the ones here (I’ve done both Lost Aslyum and The Slaughterhouse) crank up the fear-factor and make it a really immersive experience.

With live actors terrorising you as you play, it makes a special game. Even the most solid players with nerves of steel will jump a few times during these games.

Holly and I played The Slaughterhouse together and the game-master (who is also a live actor in the game itself) adapted his role depending on how well we were doing throughout.

I’ve done a lot of escape rooms in my time but the ones here crank up the fear-factor and make it a really immersive experience.

One Hour

The game is both challenging physically and psychologically and leaves you nervously laughing on many occasions.

It’s not a cheap experience. For two people it cost us €96 (about £85) in total, but given the attention to detail in the room and the fun it provides I considered this great value for money.

I think the greatest compliment I can pay One Hour Escape Rooms is that they have produced two of my favourite escape room experiences ever!

Try it – if you think your nerves will hold out!

To read about more fun things to do in Paris, visit my Paris… the lovers’ city blog.


3: Escape Boats (Dublin – Ireland)

To avoid the escape room phenomenon becoming somewhat stale things, game masters are looking for fun and inventive ways to keep their ideas fresh. So when we found a floating escape room based on the onboard a boat in Dublin we jumped at the chance to give it a go!

The aptly named Escape Boats was our game host and can be found to the east of the city centre in the Grand Canal Quay.

For €70, two people can enjoy a game on their barge which is surprisingly spacious and has a lot more to it than initially meets the eye.

Given it’s location on the water, Escape Boats do a great job of utilising the surroundings and making this a challenging – yet fun – escape room experience.

There are plenty of puzzles to work out (although I’ll be honest I hate ones that involve Morse Code – for which there is one here – because I’m awful at hearing the difference in tones) and the game is a logical and well thought-out affair.

Given it’s location on the water, Escape Boats do a great job of utilising the surroundings and making this a challenging – yet fun – escape room experience.

Escape Boats

One tip – which doesn’t give anything away – is to not think certain items are just props as we did. Some items of clothing – for instance – are actually useful elsewhere and will stop you just sitting on a shelf (as we did for about five minutes) while things happen around you.

As escape rooms go, this one was so very different to others we’ve played and I cannot recommend it enough. The hosts were a pleasure to play with and made for a really enjoyable hour’s game.

To read more fun things to do in Dublin, visit my Dublin… how to spend a weekend in the Fair City blog.


4: Escape Rooms Durham (Durham – England)

What could be better than just doing an escape room? How about an escape room built into an old castle!

Located in the north of England, Lumley Castle is more than just a beautiful castle and hotel. It is also home to Escape Rooms Durham‘s own Lumley Castle-themed escape room; The Lilly of Lumley.

First thing to say here is that our host was amazing and really went the extra mile to help us and make our time in the escape room extra special. The room itself is complex and has may interesting features that make for a rewarding game.

The game challenges the gamers to solve the mystery of what happened to Lilly – the resident ghost of the castle – and help put her soul to rest.

Based in one of the castle’s dungeons, this beautifully presented game takes a rather somber story and turns it into something quite magical for just £25 per person.

The game challenges the gamers to solve the mystery of what happened to Lilly – the resident ghost of the castle – and help put her soul to rest.

Escape Rooms Durham

I won’t spoil the game by giving away its secrets, but will say that it is a logical one and for those who have played escape rooms before you should find it challenging, yet winnable. We finished the room in exactly 50 minutes which I take as a good time.

To read more about fun things to do in Durham, visit my The Great British road trip… exploring England, Scotland and Wales blog.


5: Escape Stories (Stockholm – Sweden)

Ahead of a trip to Sweden, I wanted to continue my obsession of finding the best escape rooms in the world.

After much research I booked us into Escape Stories. This escape room has four themed rooms at the time of writing. The Last Manuscript, The Break In, The Cover Up and The Da Vinci Quest. We went for The Last Manuscript at a cost of 750 SEK for two people (around £60).

The game hosts are enthusiastic and run you through the rules of the room as well as give you the backstory to your particular quest.

Unlike some rooms I’ve previously done, Escape Stories doesn’t limit the number of clues you can ask for, nor does it penalise you for asking for them. They are concentrating on ensuring that players have the best time possible and give them the greatest opportunity to escape. How much help and assistance you want it totally down to you as a team.

Escape Stories concentrate on ensuring that players have the best time possible and give them the greatest opportunity to escape.

Escape Stories

I won’t give too much away – as I’m sure Escape Stories won’t thank me for giving all its secrets away here – but it’s safe to say all is not as it seems in the room so really explore hard as some clues are rather tricky to find. Just for the record, we escaped the room in 46 minutes.

To read more fun things to do in Stockholm, visit my Stockholm… a smorgasbord of fun blog.

Top five… must visit theme parks

Who doesn’t love a day out at a theme park?

Well, Ok, for some people the thought of being flown through the air at great height and speed, or getting soaked may not be their first choice for a fun day out, but I have to say, the inner child within me loves exploring those fun-filled amusement parks in the same way I did when I was 10-years-old.

I’m fortunate enough to have been to some amazing theme parks across the globe. So while there are thousands more to get to, I’ve narrowed it down to five of my favourite destinations so far (listed in no particular order).

Leave a comment below if you agree with this list or if there are others you’ve been to that you think should get an honouree mention.


1: Universal Studios / Island of Adventure (Orlando – USA)

Florida is well known for hosting some of the world’s most exciting theme parks that attract visitors from all over the globe.

So while I technically know this first choice is cheating – as it’s two parks – I couldn’t separate them. Also, I’ve giving myself a free-pass as they are linked by a certain ride that transports visitors from one park to the other with a valid park-to-park ticket. It’s my list, so I’m counting it!

Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando Florida are therefore the first to make the list.

These two theme parks provide a more adult experience than the Disney parks in the same area. 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 cinema 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 after 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 used to chase Biff in a bid to save the future) and Jaws (a calm boat ride around Amity Island until a certain shark reared it’s ugly head). They have replaced them with the enjoyable Simpsons simulator and Diagon Alley; as part of the parks 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 51 m, 65 miles per hour X-Coaster that lets riders pick their own personal music to listen to while being spun, dropped and flung in all directions.

It’s worth point out also that if you visit around Halloween time each year to stick around for the infamous Halloween Horror Night 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.

Horror aside though, the parks do offer something a little more wholesome all year round.

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 (sorry, yes, I’m a muggle) nor a fan of the films, even I was amazed by how the parks transport 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 Island’s of Adventure.

The Hogwarts Express is a ride suitable for all ages where you simply board the train and take a journey as though you’re travelling to Hogwarts yourself. 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!

Movie buffs 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 cinema experience.

Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure

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

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 areas 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 person.

However, I’d advise shopping around for better deals when you are looking at booking. There are often good deals available for 14-day park tickets that come from other sources.


2: Tivoli Gardens (Copenhagen – Denmark)

Most great theme parks are hyper-modern, state-of-the-art affairs. Then again, most theme parks aren’t Tivoli Gardens.

Located in the centre of Copenhagen in Denmark, Tivoli Gardens first opened its doors on 15 August 1843 making it the third-oldest operating amusement park in the world!

The park is best known for its wooden roller coaster, Rutschebanen, (The Mountain Coaster). It is one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coasters that is still operating today. 

Don’t think that just because it has older rides that this park is in anyway dated.

Visitors should also make a point to ride the always enjoyable bumper cars while it’s criminal to visit Tivoli Gardens without having played a game or two of Galoppen.

Tivoli Gardens

Situated throughout the park are three other modern roller coasters. The first – and largest – of these is the Dæmonen (The Demon) that features an Immelmann loop, a vertical loop, and a zero-G roll. This is a high-speed thrill-ride that rivals many coasters found throughout the world.

The next is Mælkevejen (Milky Way) – a 36 km/h coaster that opened in 2019 while the final one Kamelen (The Camel Trail) reaches a speed of 26 km/h and opened the same year.

It’s not just about the roller coasters. Tivoli Gardens offers a lot more.

The Star Flyer, opened in Tivoli in 2006 and takes riders some 80m (260 feet) into the sky providing amazing views of the park and the surround Copenhagen area. As it stands, it is one of the world’s tallest swing rides.

One of the parks newest rides – having opened in 2016 – is Fatamorgana. This spinning ride offers two separate seating arrangements across four different platforms that are rotated as they are elevated into the sky.

The first is a milder version with two-seater gondolas, while the other is a thrilling version in which riders are slung around at high speed while seated in a ring and facing away from the center

There are also a number of shows – usually either held in the streets or at one of the two concert halls on site – and plenty of child-friendly rides to keep the whole family entertained.

Visitors should also make a point to ride the always enjoyable bumper cars while it’s criminal to visit Tivoli Gardens without having played a game or two of Galoppen.

There are a few options for tickets at Tivoli Gardens that can either be purchased online before arriving or at the park entrance. The ticket you choose to buy will give you a different wristband to wear in the park and signify what you can do.

For just 135 Danish Kronar (about £16) an adult visitor can enter the park but will not have access to individual rides. Tickets per ride can then be purchased as they go around. This option is good for those who may only want to go on one or two rides during a trip.

The better bet is to get the Entrance and Unlimited Ride ticket for 245 Danish Kronar (about £30) which allows you on any number of rides as many times as you like.


3: Fuji-Q Highland (Fujiyoshida- Japan)

Picture the scene. You are climbing the initial slope of a giant roller coaster. Your heart is pumping with adrenaline and anticipation for the ride ahead. Then, as your car creeps over the peak of the coaster’s tallest point, the splendor of Mount Fuji opens up in front of you.

There are very few theme parks that can rival such a scene which is partly what makes Fuji-Q Highlands a great place to visit while in Japan.

Yet, this stunningly picturesque theme park is more than a pretty backdrop and is home to six incredible roller coasters with a seventh planned for 2022.

The pinnacle of these coasters is Fujiyama. When Fujiyama opened in 1996, it was the world’s tallest roller coaster at 259 feet (79 m), and had the largest drop in the world at 230 feet (70 m)! While it has lost its titles to newer rides, it still makes for an incredible experience.

Next up is Do-Dodonpa. Standing at 52m tall and reaching speeds of up to 172 km/h, it was once the world’s fastest roller coaster. As of 2013 it is the fourth fastest in the world but still boasts the highest acceleration at launch time (106.9 mph in 1.8 seconds).

This insane concept allows the trains seats to rotate 360 degrees forward or backward in a controlled spin. This allows Eejanaika to invert 14 different times, even though the actual track inverts only three times.

Fuji Q Highlands

Another showstopper is the terrifying Eejanaika. Standing at 76m tall, this ride is only the second fourth dimension roller coaster ever built. This insane concept allows the trains seats to rotate 360 degrees forward or backward in a controlled spin. This allows Eejanaika to invert 14 different times, even though the actual track inverts only three times.

Away from the adrenaline-filled roller coasters, Fuji Q Highlands has two haunted attractions: the Haunted Hospital, the world’s first largest haunted attraction and the newly built Hopeless Fortress.

There are also a series of other well thought out water, drop and swinging rides for thrill-seekers to try out. There are also activities for the younger audience too as children will enjoy a stroll around the sizable Thomas the Tank Engine Land.

For travellers in Japan who want to make the most of the area, there is also the impressive Fuji Q Highland Resort Hotel and Spa to stay in which affords great views of the park and Mount Fuji, while also housing a number of restaurants, shops, spa treatment areas and onsen bathing facilities.

While admission to the Fuji Q Highlands is free, you won’t be able to go on any rides unless you have purchased the correct ticket. This can be done online before you travel and gains you entry to the park 15 minutes before opening allowing you to get to the front of the queue for the ride of your choice.

If you want to pay per-ride then individual rides cost between 400 yen (about £3) and 2,000 yen (about £14). The better bet, though, is to buy a one-day pass for unlimited rides for 6,000 yen (around £40).

One thing to note about the park is that queues can be slow. At peak times it can take over two hours to get on one of the main rides. I’d advise that visitors to Fuji-Q Highlands do all the big rides they want to get on as early as possible during a visit.


4: Busch Gardens (Tampa – USA)

Back in the United States now, and back to the theme park packed state of Florida. And 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 (102 m) and then drops riders – face down – for five seconds of scream-filled free fall; reaching speeds of 60mph.

The first launch takes riders out of the station from zero to 30mph in 1.8 seconds. Later on, there is a second – and fastest – launch which takes riders to 60mph in 2.4 seconds while a third a final launch takes riders to 40mph in 2.1 seconds.

Busch Gardens

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 riders 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 fastest – 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.

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.


5: Lotte World (Seoul – South Korea)

Most theme parks are, by their very nature, outdoors. Yet in South Korea on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, Seoul, one park combines the regular outdoor fare with the world’s largest indoor theme park. That place is Lotte World!

The inside theme park is housed over four floors that circles above a large ice-rink (separate ticket needed for this) at the foot of the park.

The size of the park, with its many winding corridors, make for it to be somewhat of a maze to navigate. It is therefore, in my opinion, best to try and ‘complete’ each floor – starting from the top and working your way down – if you are to stand a chance of doing the whole park in a single day.

What makes Lotte World so intriguing is that rides appear almost out of nowhere. Rounding corners it is possible to come across a new ride that you didn’t even know existed moments before.

And there are a surprising number of large rides housed within the confines of the park. Keep your eyes peeled for Pharaoh’s Fury (an Indiana Jones inspired jeep ride on the fourth floor), the Jungle Adventure boat ride on floor three and the flume ride on floor one.

What makes Lotte World so intriguing is that rides appear almost out of nowhere. Rounding corners it is possible to come across a new ride that you didn’t even know existed moments before.

Lotte World

You’ll also notice a continuous series of hot air balloons circling the ceiling of Lotte World. These balloons – that run on a rail from the ceiling above – let you get a birds-eye-view of the park and are well worth the time it takes make a full lap.

There are also numerous other exciting rides inside the park that will entertain the whole family, as well as a few smaller roller coasters to keep the thrill seekers happy.

The second part of Lotte World is the smaller outside area known as Magic Island. You can reach this either by monorail or on foot via a bridge. This is because Magic Island has been built on artificial island within the Lotte World complex.

The area has a few larger rides including Atlantis Adventure – a steel roller coaster that is themed on the lost city of Atlantis – and Gyro Drop; a new attraction coupled with VR goggles to give a simulation of a futuristic landscape during the elevation sequence before dropping riders back to the base.

Lotte World can be accessed from Seoul by taking the Metro to Jamsil Station on Seoul Subway Line 2 or Seoul Subway Line 8.

After a short walk, a one-day ticket can be purchased for 55,000 South Korean Won per adult (around £36) on the door. A cheaper ticket is also available for entry after 4pm costing 44,000 South Korean Won per adult (about £29).

Lotte World remains extremely popular with South Korean locals and is a great way to spend a day away from the busy streets of the Korean capital.

Paris… the lovers’ city

Paris

Living just outside of London in Kent has its advantages. One of them being that – in normal times – it is very easy to get into Europe quickly from a plethora of airports and train stations, as well as numerous ferry terminals on the south coast.

And there is no city easier to get to on mainland Europe, from London, than the capital of France; Paris!

With a population of just over 2.1 million people, Paris is the largest city in France. Each year around 30 million tourists flock to the city to see it’s many sights and to sample some of the world’s best food.

And it’s not just about the food. Paris has a wealth of options to experience. From French history to high fashion; or renaissance art to modern sport, Paris really does have options that will suit everyone!

Described as the city of love, Paris is a popular honeymoon destination too with lovers jostling for positions in front of the Eiffel Tower or next to the River Seine in order to capture that memorable image from their time in France.

So whilst it wasn’t our honeymoon – nor my first time in the city – my girlfriend (as she was at the time) and I headed to Paris for a long weekend during a November. We had always put Paris high on our must-see list together, but it rushed further towards the top after Holly managed to win a competition on Heart FM giving us return flights and two nights in a hotel located centrally in the city itself. Perfect.


The Eiffel Tower is an undisputed symbol of all things Parisian

So what do you need to know as a visitor to Paris. Let’s start with some of the obvious stuff.

If you haven’t been to France for a long while (and have been living under a rock since then) then you may not be aware that the country moved from using the French Franc to the Euro. At the time of writing £1 could be transferred to around €1.10.

To make matters worse for a British traveller heading to Paris, the prices in the city are pretty comparable to those in London making the French capital not ideal for anyone looking for a cheap weekend away.

Paris also finds itself a time zone along from London so just remember to put those watches forward an hour when you arrive in France and back again when you return to the UK; although most devices do this automatically now anyway.

If you are looking for somewhere to escape the dreary English weather then Paris is probably not the venue for you. I think I’ve been to the city about four or five times in my life – at different times of the year – and on every occasion, without fail, I have got soaked through at least once per trip.

From this point of view, to me, it’s London but with French people. Your best bet is to travel in the summer months. July and August appear to be the best with average highs of around 25ºC and lows only dipping to near 15ºC.

It means if you are caught in a rain shower then at least you won’t be too cold.

If however, you travel as we did in November time then pack warm clothes and an umbrella. Average highs only reach around 10ºC while lows can dip to near freezing.

My tip, however, would be that no matter what time of year you go take your umbrella. I know I never go to Paris without it and while it may seem silly to pack one in the middle of a heatwave, the weather can change in the city very quickly.


Google Maps view of Paris highlighting some of the main attractions in the city

It’s also handy to have at least a few French words in your arsenal for a trip to Paris. Neither Holly nor I (both of whom studied French at school) are proficient in the language but being able to ask for a few things in French, say please and thank you does actually help open some doors.

Growing up, I always remember being told that Parisian’s were unfriendly and unhelpful – and this coming from parents who grew up in London!

However, while you will come across some that just are not interested in helping out a lost tourist, there are many more who will do and will often have a stronger grasp of English than should be expected. After all you are in their country so good manners suggests you should try and speak to them in their native tongue where possible.

Also remember to take plug converters. There are two associated plug types for France; types C and E. Plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and plug type E is the plug which has two round pins and a hole for the socket’s male earthing pin. France operates on a 230V supply voltage and 50Hz.

While tourists can expect a safe and enjoyable trip to Paris, I would urge caution when using the Metro and around some of the popular sights.

During my last couple of visits to the city I have noticed more ‘gangs’ appearing in the Metro stations and at key sites. From my experience I’ve had one gang approach me outside of Sacré-Cœur and grab my wrist while trying to pick-pocket me (fortunately I managed to pull away and run off before they succeeded) and also witnessed a more subtle ‘attack’ on the Metro.

As the train stopped at one station. A lady and her small child (whose hand she was holding) were stood near the doors. They were staying onboard the train to another stop. As the doors opened at the stop we arrived at a group of six or seven young men boarded the train and squeezed in around the lady who tried to push them away as they were in her personal space and on top of her young child.

The men then just as the train was due to pull away all leapt out of the doors and back on the platform, letting the train doors close and the woman and the child behind on the train. It was only when the train had left the station and the lady had checked on the wellbeing of her child, that she noticed her purse had been opened and her money stolen.

So while this may not be the norm in Paris, I always use the Metro with a degree of caution and would urge others to do so too.

However, despite these rather unpleasant events, my time in Paris has always been an enjoyable one and I’ll now share with you a selection of some of my top things to see and do in the city of love.


Getting there

There are two main ways to get to Paris from London; by train or by plane.

You can, should you want to, take a longer route which would involve catching a ferry from Dover on the south coast and then driving to Paris but I’d recommend one of the two options stated above.

So let’s look at the first option of the train, known as the Eurostar. To catch the Eurostar to Paris you can do so from a number of stations in and around London and Kent.

There are three in total that act as a starting point for the Eurostar London St Pancras International, Ebbsfleet International and Ashford International. However, since the outbreak of Covid-19 there has been a temporary suspension to services from Ebbsfleet and Ashford until 2022.

For the purposes of this blog however, I will speak as if Ebbsfleet was still in operation as this was where I travelled from on my last trip to Paris by Eurostar.

Ebbsfleet is the closest station to me to get to Paris. Living just 15 minutes from the station it makes it very easy to get to the continent (normally) in a very short space of time. It always amuses me that I can get to Paris far quicker than I can to travel to many places in my own country!

How much it costs to travel on the Eurostar will depend on a number of factors. Where you travel from, what time of day you travel and what days you travel on. For instance, if you want to go from Friday to Sunday leaving the UK at around 10am, then it is likely to cost you more than if you were to travel on a Thursday early morning.

Yet from personal experience, the Eurostar is by the the most cost effective and time efficient way to travel to Paris. Why? well firstly you don’t have to spend hours at an airport going through security. Passport checks take place in England (or France if you are returning in the other direction) and you therefore don’t need to go through customs at the other end; nor wait for your luggage as it’s with you at all times.

Secondly, the station in Paris (Gare Du Nord) is located in the city centre meaning you don’t have to rely on airport transfers which can take a fair bit of time (more on that in a bit).

Price-wise you can find a decent bargain also if you are prepared to travel early in the morning. I’d suggest – to make your most of your time in France – that, for a long weekend in Paris – you leave early on a Friday morning and return late on a Sunday or Monday night. This way you get the best part of three or four days in the city and keep rail costs to a minimum.

For my trip we did just this. It meant that catching the 5:58am train from Ebbsfleet International got us in to Paris by 9:32am local time. For the return we left Paris on the Sunday at 20:13 and arrived back in England at 21:18 GMT. For this we paid a total of £137 for two people (£68.50 each).


Map of the Eurostar’s routes across Europe as of January 2021. Image from Eurostar official website

The second option to explore is flying from one of London’s airports to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.

For me I’ve only every done this once. I’ve personally never seen the point in flying to Paris when the option of the train is so close to hand. However, for some, flying may be a better option and the route is well serviced by flight providers including EasyJet, British Airways or the French national airline, Air France.

As I previously mentioned, this trip came courtesy of a prize win so the return flights from London Gatwick to Charles de Gaulle with EasyJet were free of charge for us. Normally though there would be a cost attributed to such a journey and – at the time of writing – can be found for as little as £61.85 for a return journey for one person on a November weekend.

So while that may be slightly cheaper than a Eurostar journey there are a few things to remember. Firstly, the time you’ll spend at airports either end and the parking of cars for the duration of the trip will add to the bill. Secondly, Charles de Gaulle is about 45 minutes to an hour outside of the centre of Paris; on a good day.

One this I remember about our airport transfers on this trip was that we ended up sitting in heavy traffic for a long time and that Parisian’s seemed to take the law into their own hands when it came to the rules of the road. Honestly, there were cars everywhere. I’m sure at times we were sat in a row of six or seven cars across what was only a two lane road!

However, the option is available should you need it but I’d always edge towards taking the train to Paris.


Arriving at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport after our flight from England

Where to stay

As you’d expect in a major city like Paris, there are hundreds – if not thousands – of options for accommodation to suit all budgets.

From hostels to AirBnBs; cheap hotels to five star luxury – the city really has something for everyone.

So while I try not to stay in the cheapest accommodation during a trip, I do tend to bulk at the prices of some of the more expensive establishments on offer.

So to satisfy a mid-budget traveller I’ll suggest two wonderful hotels that I’ve had the pleasure to stay in during a break in Paris.

The first is Hotel 34B – which confusingly sometimes still goes by its old name of Bergere Opera. Don’t worry if this latter name appears on your booking confirmations it is the same place. To make my booking I used the helpful GetARoom.com service although you can book directly if you require.

This three-star hotel is located on Rue Bergèrein – in the centre of the city to the north of the river between the Louvre Museum and Sacré-Cœur. It has easy access – within five to ten minutes walk – of at least five Metro stations with Grands Boulevards on lines 8 and 9 perhaps being the closest.

The hotel has style. Having been renovated in recent years (which led to the change in it’s name) the hotel offers good sized rooms and a delicious Continental breakfast to its guests as well as all the regular features you’d expect such as free wi-fi and air conditioning.

I stayed here for a night during March one year for a cost of £89.67. This was for a double-standard room for two people that included breakfast. From here, we were able to enjoy our time in the city.


The room has clean and stylish at Hotel 34B
Example of the hanging art you can expect to see in rooms at Hotel 34B

My second recommendation is the four-star Hôtel Golden Tulip Opéra de Noailles.

The hotel is also centrally located, but situated further west in the city than Hotel 34B. It is serviced by two two immediate Metro stations; Opéra (which is on lines 3, 7 and 8) and Quatre-Septembre (on line 3).

I will find it harder to speak about the price of this hotel as this was where Holly and I stayed during our time in the city when she won the trip on the radio. However, looking at prices for a two night stay for two people, in a standard double room for November time I can see that, at the time of writing, you can expect to pay around £146.50 per night.

If this is like our trip, then this will also include a good, hearty continental breakfast as well.

The hotel itself is a mix of traditional Parisian fair with a quirky centre. Entering the building you’ll be welcomed by numerous, large, colourful snail and bear statues in the lobby and bar area. The reception desk is located near the door and from my experience the staff are superb.

During our stay they made sure we were comfortable in our room, gave good advice on places to eat and took the time to speak to us. There is also a small bar, next to reception, where Holly and I enjoyed a glass of wine or two before venturing out for our evening meals.

The more traditional side of the hotel is that you still leave your room key with reception when you leave the building and the lift to access the various floors is a small and intricate affair.

Opposite the reception desk the lift – which is quite slow – can hold about two people semi-comfortably. This becomes slightly harder to do if you have multiple bags to carry. However, with around six floors of rooms, if you are located at the top of the hotel it is a welcome alternative to the stairs after a long day walking around the city.

The rooms are pleasant as well and pretty spacious. Ours was the standard double in the hotel but came with a good-sized balcony which – on a nice day – would give you pleasing views of city life on the streets below.

Despite being in the centre of the city, the noise from the roads outside didn’t disturb us at all at night and we enjoyed a lovely couple of nights sleep during our stay.


Typical views from the balcony of one of the rooms at Hôtel Golden Tulip Opéra de Noailles
Inside our room at Hôtel Golden Tulip Opéra de Noailles

Getting around

Once you are in the centre of Paris you realise – if you didn’t already know it beforehand – that the city is extremely large.

To make matter worse, most of the main tourist attractions are quite spaced out from one another also so getting between them efficiently – especially if you are doing so on a tight timescale – is key to making sure you don’t miss out.

So while walking is a possibility should you wish it will take you a long time to navigate the streets to find your next destination. The Eiffel Tower, for instance, has a tendency to look a lot closer than it actually is from various points in the city and can then take a surprisingly long time to actually reach it!

The best bet here is to make the most of the Metro.

Earlier in this blog I said I had seen issues on the Metro, involving gangs and pick-pockets, but I want to point out that this is not a common occurrence and something you’d have to be very unlucky to encounter. It’s something that could happen to you on any metro, or underground, system anywhere in the world, so don’t let that put you off using the Parisian metro.

The Metro is a symbol of the city. It is known for its density within the city limits, uniform architecture and unique entrances influenced by Art Nouveau. It is 225.1 kilometres (139.9 mi) long and has 304 stations across 16 lines. In total 64 stations have transfers between lines.


Metro stations entrances throughout Paris can be identified easily from these classic signs

One thing I did notice about the Metro in Paris is that the trains are pretty dated and not the most comfortable. Most still have a system where you have to hit a little lever on the door to make it open – something you can actually do even while the train is still slowing down. Safe I’m sure!

The Metro itself is pretty cheap to use (A single metro ticket costs €1.90 per person) – similar sort of price to that of the London Underground for those familiar with the UK. But, if like me you planned to use the Metro a lot over the course of a long weekend, then there is a good way to avoid having to route through your change each and every time you go underground.

The answer is to buy a Metro Pass from the helpful ParisInfo.com.

Offering a variety of tickets covering the various zones for between one and five days, this paper ticket gives you unlimited use of the Metro system within the designated zones for the time you selected, starting when you first use the ticket.

It’s a great system and works really well. For a long weekend, that you are spending just in Paris, I’d suggest suggest getting the three-day pass for zones one to three. This will cost you €29.40 per person. If you have plans to go beyond the cities boundaries then other options that will take you as far as the airport, Disneyland and Versailles are also available for slightly more money.

It’s easy to organise as well. Following the link provided above, select your preferred ticket options and the number of passes you want to buy then pay online. You then collect your tickets when you arrive in Paris for free or pay to have them delivered by post to you at home or to your accommodation in Paris.

It really doesn’t make sense to pay to collect the tickets so make your way to your selected collection point. There are two options available. The first is at Point d’accueil Hôtel de Ville (located at 29 rue de Rivoli 75004 Paris) and the second is Point de retrait Gare du Nord (located at 18 rue de Dunkerque 75010 Paris).

We chose the second option which is in the heart of the busy Gare du Nord; the location where the Eurostar finishes it’s journey into Paris from the UK.

To collect your tickets find your way to the Tourist Information Point situated near lines 7-9 for international arrivals. When you collect your tickets you’ll just need your confirmation email and a form of ID (you should still have your passport with you at this point I’d imagine). The whole process takes just five minutes and you’ll soon be on your way exploring Paris.


A standard view from inside a train on the Paris Metro system

Top sites

Paris is a city that is full to the brim with amazing places to visit, great things to see and fun things to do. It’s impossible to fit it all in just one long weekend.

So I’ve selected a few things that for more are ‘must-sees’ during a visit to this wonderful city – especially for those people reading who have never visited it before.

The first on everyone’s to-do list is the most obvious. The Eiffel Tower!

What possible trip to Paris would be complete without going to, and then going up, this magnificent monument to engineering and symbol to all things French?

Locally nicknamed “La dame de fer” (French for “Iron Lady”), it was constructed from 1887 to 1889 as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair and was initially criticised by some of France’s leading artists and intellectuals for its design, but it soon became a cultural icon of France and one of the most recognisable structures in the world.

It’s a sight that is obvious from many spots around the city and is impressive to see. When you arrive at the foot of the tower, it shoots up into the sky from four impressive legs – each housing it’s own lift.

To go up the structure you can choose to walk (yes there are stairs all the way to the top). However nowadays there are six lifts. Three go up to the second floor (Pillar East, North and West), two go up from the second to the third floor (the top of the tower) and the last, in the south pillar, is privative and allows you to go directly to the restaurant Jules Verne, which is at 1st floor, it is reserved for the customers of the restaurant.

Be warned – before entering the lifts from the ground you’ll go through the very thorough baggage checks and security which is sadly a by-product of necessity from the world we live in today.

You have two options for tickets (which I’d suggest you buy online before you travel). The first – and most pointless – is one that only takes you to the midway point of the tower. Why anyone would get that far and not go to the top is beyond me. This means that if you buy this ticket you’ll only go up the legs of the tower and into the main middle section. You’ll not get to go up the neck and to its highest point.

The second ticket is takes you to the summit – some 276m above the ground. For just €25.50 per adult (around £23) you can get these tickets and ascend to the top.

On your way up you will have to get off at the middle section (floor two), so do take your time here to take in these views before joining the queue for the lift to the top.

From the top – and on a clear day – you’ll get superb views across the city where you’ll be able to see many of the other sites you’ll probably be going to next.

On average – on a moderately busy day – you’ll probably be between one hour and two at the Eiffel Tower so make sure you give yourself enough time here to enjoy it.

Getting to the Eiffel Tower is easy to do. The closest Metro station is Passy on line 6 and it’s just a short walk across the Seine to get to the monument.

As a final tip, it’s also worth returning at night to see it lit up. At various points of the evening they put on impressive light displays which really make for some great videos and pictures.


The Eiffel Tower as it appears when you arrive at Passy Metro station across the River Seine
On a clear day, the views from the Eiffel Tower mean you can see much further than this
Standing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower at night, with it lit-up, makes for a beautiful sight
Walking away from the Eiffel Tower you get a great view of the entire structure
A short example of the light show from the Eiffel Tower at night

The next stop for a trip to Paris should be Sacré-Cœur.

I’d advise using Anvers Metro station on line 2 as a good lace to arrive as it brings you out to the south of the basilica itself and gives you a pleasant walk (up hill) to the main entrance. Sacré-Cœur is located at the summit of the butte Montmartre, which is the highest point in the city.

The basilica was designed by Paul Abadie. Construction began in 1875 and was completed in 1914. The basilica was consecrated after the end of World War I in 1919.

One thing to be carefully about here is that it was in this park (in front of Sacré-Cœur that a gang of people tried to pick-pocket me. If you see large groups looking shifty, then I’d urge caution. They can be forceful and aggressive if you’re unlucky enough to encounter them. Chances are though you’ll be fine, and police to operate regularly in this area as a response to this behaviour.

You have two main options when visiting Sacré-Cœur. One is to just enter the main church and this is free. Inside you’ll see the main prayer and sermon areas and also get great views of the beautiful artwork making up the walls and windows. It’s truely spectacular.

The second thing you should do is pay €6 (about £5.30) to go up to the top of the basilica’s tower.

To get in the tower you leave the church and head around the side of the building, down some stairs and into a rather modest looking side-entrance where you’ll buy your ticket (this isn’t available to buy online).

It is quite a climb and there is not a lift. Some of the spiral stairways are pretty narrow also, so you need to be in reasonable health to make it to the top.

Once you’ve reached the highest point you g of the basilica – it’s dome – you get a lovely view across the city. Make sure you spend a good 10 minutes or so just sitting on the stone benches at this point to get your breath back and to drink in the views of the city.


Viewing the front of Sacré-Cœur from the photo point in the park
The view out from the top of the basilica across Paris with one of the church’s bell-towers in the foreground
The domes of Sacré-Cœur are both impressive in size and beautifully designed

Sadly, this next spot is one that is currently (at the time of writing anyway) one you can only do from the outside. The famous cathedral of Notre-Dame once welcomed guests in their thousands through its doors to view the beautiful architecture and stunning stained-glass windows it housed.

Then, on April 15, 2019, fire ransacked the building; gutting it from floor to ceiling – with much of its huge wooden roof collapsing in on itself, making it unsafe for tourists to visit.

While the inside is currently going through a huge repair and refurbishment programme, much of the outside of the building is intact and worth seeing.

The cathedral is located on a island in the middle of the River Seine. It’s easily accessible though as multiple roads cross to the island from either side of the river.

To get there, one of the closest Metro stations is Pont Maire on line 7. From here make the short five minute walk across the river and to the cathedral’s front. You can still walk around the perimeter of the cathedral taking it in from various sides. Hopefully, one day soon, it will reopen to the public once again.


Notre-Dame Cathedral as currently seen when you approach it from the River Seine

While Notre-Dame remains out of bounds, a smaller and, until now, slightly overlooked church has remained off most people’s itinerary. Yet, I’d argue that Sainte-Chapelle is perhaps even more stunning than some of it’s larger and more famous neighbours.

Just a few minutes walk from Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle is a modest church from the outside but one that holds some real hidden treasures behind it’s doors.

When Holly and I went, it was one of the first places we visited. Joining the queue in the street, I’d say to visitors to make sure you are in the right line. We stood in the queue for around 20 minutes before suddenly realising we were actually in line to enter the nearby court house! Realising our mistake we surreptitiously made our way out of the line and round the corner into the courtyard by the actual church to pay our entrance fee and head inside.

For just €10 (about £8.90) you get entrance to both the upper and lower chapels.

Sainte-Chapelle is a gothic-style gem and is considered a masterpiece of the thirteenth century architecture. In it’s lower chapel you’ll find the statue of the Virgin Mary, patron of this sanctuary. The interior polychrome decoration, which is mostly red and blue, recreates the original medieval decoration.

However, it’s the upper chapel that really is the show-stopper.

Built as a reliquary, the upper chapel was decorated lavishly with sculptures and enormous stained glass that fill the chapel with light and colour.

The fifteen stained-glass windows, which leave just enough room for the chapel’s columns, are made of 1,113 scenes that narrate the history of mankind from Genesis to the resurrection of Christ.

This room is reason enough to part with your €10. With stained-glass windows reaching almost from floor to ceiling, you end up with a crick in your neck from all the upward staring. Just make sure to occasionally look down to see where you’re going as it becomes very easy to find yourself walking into people.


The stained-glass inside the upper chapel is stunning and surrounds you on all sides

A view up at the beautiful colours making up one of the upper chapels many stained-glass windows
Looking directly up at the roof of the upper chapel in Sainte-Chapelle gives you an idea of how surrounded by stained-glass you are

Not too far from these two previous sites, is the world-famous Louvre Museum.

To date, it remains the world’s largest art museum and a central landmark of Paris. It is located on the right bank of the River Seine in the city’s first arrondissement (meaning district or ward). Its closest Metro station is Louvre – Rivoli on line 1.

It is home to approximately 38,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century. These are exhibited over an area of 72,735 square meters. In 2019, the Louvre received 9.6 million visitors, making it the most visited museum in the world.

Entrance to Louvre is timed and you’ll have to select a time slot to enter when you buy your ticket online. These cost €17 (about £15) per adult. It’s important to remember that to get inside the Louvre (through it’s glass pyramid entrance) you’ll be in a long queue so factor this in for when you plan to arrive to meet your time slot. In the height of summer queue times can sky-rocket to a number of hours in length!

It’s important to remember that unless you want to spend every minute of your holiday in the Louvre, you won’t have time to see it all. The place is huge!

Taking this into consideration, Holly and I identified a number of exhibits we wanted to see and did them over the course of about two to three hours.

There are some obvious must-see for a first time visitor but they will be very busy. The first is the Mona Lisa – a small and quite frankly unremarkable portrait that still garners attention. To view this you’ll need to find the gallery it’s in (it’s well signposted inside) and then join the queue to get to the front for a short look at the painting.

Despite my best efforts they really don’t like you using a selfie-stick to take a picture of the painting from a distance. Not sure why to be honest as you are allowed to take photos of the painting when you have queued up for it.

The other must-see is the Venus de Milo statue. This ancient Greek statue is one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture and is impressive to see. There is no queueing system here so you just need to find a good position to see the statue to get a good look at it and to grab any pictures you can.

When you have had enough of battling the crowds, make your way back out the way you came and exit back onto the streets.


The queues outside the famous pyramid entrance to the Louvre can be long
It’s worth seeing once, but the Mona Lisa is both small and very busy
The world-famous Venus de Milo is worth a visit inside the Louvre

The final site I’d suggest making the effort to go and see is the Arc de Triomphe.

Standing at the western end of the Champs-Élysées at the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle, juncture formed by its twelve radiating avenues. It’s a truely terrifying roadway so don’t try and cross it. You can get to the Arc de Triomphe using the Argentine Metro station on line 1 and using the underpasses to get to the centre of the roundabout.

Before visiting this site, I didn’t realise that you could actually go inside it or, indeed, up it.

I’m glad we did, as the inside of the monument is home to some interesting statues from French history while the top of the monument provides good panoramic views of the city.

For just €12 (about £10.60) you can climb the monument and take in the history and the views. It’s incredibly worthwhile and a joy to behold on a clear day.


View of the Arc de Triomphe
There is more to see than you’d maybe expect inside the Arc de Triomphe
You can get great views across Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe
If you walk down the Champs-Élysées you see the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the road

If you are tired of normal tourist sites and want to try something fun then I’d highly recommend you drop by the One Hour Escape Room.

Spread across two locations, this horror-themed escape experience has four games to play. Two are located at its Charonne site (Lost Aslyum and Very Bad Night) and two are at its Voltaire site (The Slaughterhouse and Yakuza).

To access these locations go to Charonne Metro station on line 9 for the first site and Voltaire Metro station on line 9 for the second one.

Now I’ve done a lot of escape rooms in my time but the ones here (I’ve done both Lost Aslyum and The Slaughterhouse) crank up the fear-factor and make it a really immersive experience.

With live actors terrorising you as you play, it makes a special game. Even the most solid players with nerves of steel will jump a few times during these games.

Holly and I played The Slaughterhouse together and the game-master (who is also a live actor in the game itself) adapted his role depending on how well we were doing throughout.

The game is both challenging physically and psychologically and leaves you nervously laughing on many occasions.

It’s not a cheap experience. For two people it cost us €96 (about £85) in total, but given the attention to detail in the room and the fun it provides I considered this great value for money.

I think the greatest compliment I can pay One Hour Escape Rooms is that they have produced two of my favourite escape room experiences ever!

Try it – if you think your nerves will hold out!


Our team photo from the terrifying One Hour Escape Room ‘The Slaughterhouse’ game

Where to avoid

As mentioned, it’s best to remain vigilant if you are travelling on the Metro system in Paris as pick-pockets and gangs do operate. This is particularly the case if you are travelling alone, have lots of luggage with you that’s hard to personally keep hold of, or if you are travelling late at night when it is quieter. However, being vigilant does not mean avoiding.

When it comes to avoiding places in Paris there are not too many that come to mind. It’s a fun city with loads going on. However, I will point out a couple of things from my time there that you may want to take note of.

The first one is the Moulin Rouge.

The Moulin Rouge itself is steeped in history and is, perhaps, best known as the birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance and its distinctive red windmill on the roof.

The original house was co-founded in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller but burned down in 1915 before being rebuilt and now hosts numerous shows each night.

So while the building itself is worth a flying visit (and maybe inside if you are inclined to catch a show) the area it is located is less than salubrious. Situated close to Montmartre in the Paris district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement (the closest Metro station is Blanche) there is definitely a seedy undertone to the area that really becomes apparent the later in the evening you visit.

So while Holly and I made a flying visit to see the building one night, it was not the sort of place we wanted to spend too long hanging around; nor will it be an area of Paris I’d be in any rush to return to.


The Moulin Rouge at night with its famous red windmill lite up

My other suggestion of something that you could miss – albeit for much different reasons than the above – is the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes.

Opened in 1974, it is the second oldest zoological garden in the world. While it does not house large animals like elephants, there are a lot of rare smaller- and medium-sized mammals and a variety of birds and reptiles. Some of its animals also live in original 19th-century buildings.

On the site there are also greenhouses, a Gallery of Evolution, children’s galleries, the Gallery of Palaeontology and Anatomy and a mineral and geology gallery.

This small zoo and breeding center is located towards the south-east of the city along Rue Cuvier. Their are two metro stations suitable to use if you do visit here. The first is called Censier – Daubenton on line 7. Slightly closer to the zoo itself though is Jussieu on lines 7 and 10.

While it makes for a pleasant visit – although when I went it was pouring with rain which made the time there less enjoyable – there are both better zoos elsewhere and more interesting things to do in Paris; especially if time is precious during a trip to the city.

The zoo is very well kept and not too expensive. I paid €14 per adult for our entry and we spent around two hours in the grounds. Looking back, however, I think there are other things we could have done with our time in Paris that would have made for a more interesting trip.

If you are visiting with young children though, this may be one to keep them entertained for a short while.


Flamingos at the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes.
A Red Panda sitting high in the trees as the rain crashes down
These great apes call the old 19th Century buildings at the heart of the zoo, home

Great places to eat

It goes without saying that there are literally thousands of great places to eat and drink in Paris. Good food and wine is about as French as it comes and you can almost guarantee that from the smallest side-street café to the largest Michelin starred restaurant (in 2019 it was reported that there were over 100 Michelin starred restaurants in Paris) the dining experience will be memorable.

So if you are maybe looking to root out a few affordable gems amongst the smorgasbord of options, I can recommend three great places to eat for modest city prices.

The first – and probably most costly of the trio is – Maceo. Slap bang in the middle of Paris – and just a heartbeat away from the Palais Royal Garden – this wonderful eatery is lovely place to spend the evening.

The restaurant describes itself as boasting a cosy yet airy space that can act as a pre-theatre dinner location or somewhere to have a reunion with family and friends. It’s equally suitable for an intimate tête à tête or business lunch; a romantic soirée or an extravagant celebration.

The food and service match the classy surroundings.

With first-class wine and a good variety of foods to suit both vegetarians and carnivores, an evening at Maceo will most likely set you back in the region of €150 for an excellent three-course dinner and a bottle of wine.

What you get for that money is top quality food, prepared by a skilled chef and wonderful surroundings that will live long in the memory after you’ve left the city to return home.


Enjoying an intimate dinner at Maceo

My next suggestion is Chez Delphine located on Rue Saint-Georges just a short walk away from Sacré-Cœur.

This quiet restaurant is unimposing and could be easily missed as being ‘just another restaurant serving French food’. Its positioning down a small city street amongst the other restaurants means it’s easy for visitors to pass by its doors without giving it a second glance.

That would be a mistake.

For a very reasonable price – around €100 for two people to enjoy a three-course dinner and wine – you get a great selection of food and top service to boot.

A must-have is the Burgundy snails for starters. If you’ve not tried snails before then this is a great introduction to this French delicacy. Also make sure you have room to try the suckling lamb main which will be cooked to perfection. Finally, sit back an finish off your wine with a classy desert like the Charlotte with chestnuts and coffee or the French classic profiteroles. Whatever you choose however, will leave you more than satisfied.


The food at Chez Delphine is full of flavour and perfectly cooked
Leave room to sample one of the restaurant’s wonderful desserts

My final pick for a great place to eat is Vaudeville situated on the corner of Rue Vivienne near Opera.

With it’s tall marble walls and its rows of tables and seats, this brasserie is a lively and welcoming place to have a good lunch or evening meal.

For just €29 each, you can enjoy a starter, main course and dessert (wine or other drinks are not included in this price) from a menu that boasts superb seafood, an oyster bar and a wide range of meat and vegetarian dishes.

Again, a must have here is the snails. I think that no matter where we were during our Parisian stay, Holly and I always ordered at least one portion of snails per meal to enjoy.

The main meals here are both filling and well presented. The meats are tender and the sides that go with them are full of flavour.

The desserts though make this place somewhere to return to. The Floating Island – a dessert of grilled almonds and salted butter caramel was delicious while the cheese platter was also extremely tasty.

It’s fair to say that here – like most places in Paris – you’ll neither go unsatisfied nor hungry. The Parisian café and restaurant culture is something I enjoy greatly and sitting down in these welcoming establishments is a wonderful way to spend your time in this beautiful, popular city.


You can’t do a trip to Paris without trying snails
This Floating Island dessert was worth the trip alone

Useful links

Eurostar

Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport

EasyJet

British Airways

Air France

Hotel 34B

GetARoom.com

Hôtel Golden Tulip Opéra de Noailles

ParisInfo.com

The Eiffel Tower

Sacré-Cœur

NotreDame

Sainte-Chapelle

Louvre Museum

Arc de Triomphe

One Hour Escape Room

Moulin Rouge

Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes

Maceo

Chez Delphine

Vaudeville

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Dublin… how to spend a weekend in the Fair City

Dublin

The city of Dublin may be synonymous with drinking holidays and rowdy stag-dos, but there is so much more to the Irish capital than beer, Guinness and pubs.

This beautiful city is steeped in culture (the area of Dublin Bay has been inhabited by humans since prehistoric times) as well as brimming with entertainment. The mix of museums and nightlife make for a well rounded trip.

The city itself – known affectionately as the Fair City – is home to around 550,000 people – around 10% of the whole population of Ireland – and, for many, remains the heart and soul of Irish life.

Running through the heart of the city is River Liffey; the lifeblood of the city, and perhaps the country itself, with around 60% of its flow abstracted for drinking water and to supply industry.

Any visit to Dublin will be largely based around the river and travellers get the opportunity to cross over it on one of its many bridges; with perhaps the most famous of these being the Liffey Bridge, more affectionately known as the Ha’penny Bridge which dates back to 1816.


The Jim Larkin Statue in front of the the unmissable Spire of Dublin sits in the heart of O’Connell Street and is a focal point for many organised events

So what can a first time visitor expect from Dublin during a long weekend in the Irish Capital and what should travellers note before departing?

Well the first thing to note is that Ireland is on the Euro. At the time of writing £1 could be transferred to around €1.10. Add the poor exchange rate – if you are coming from the UK anyway – to the fact that Ireland in general isn’t the cheapest place to be, then spending money can be eaten (or drunk) away pretty quickly.

To give some context, the average pint of larger will set you back in the region of €6. If you’re buying a round for a few people then you will quickly spend a hefty amount of money. Also note, if you are drinking in the more ‘touristy’ areas such as Temple Bar then these prices can be even higher.

The next thing to pay attention to is the weather.

Similar to much of the rest of northwestern Europe, Dublin experiences mild-warm summers, cool winters, and a lack of temperature extremes. July and August give average highs of around 20ºC while the winter months will see temperatures dip below 10ºC.

Temperatures in April – I will be basing this blog on travel in April – can be in the early teens so it is advised to dress appropriately for the conditions.


Google Maps image of Dublin

It’s not just the heat that travellers need to take note of when venturing to Ireland as all year-round there is a reasonable chance you’ll experience some rain during a three-day stay in Ireland.

Most months of the year experience an average rainfall of between 10 and 12 days rain so chances are at some point in your trip you will get wet. Always take an umbrella with you to Ireland.

As you’d expect, the language for an English speaker is not an issue and from mine and Holly’s experience in Dublin we were welcomed to the city by a wide range of cheerful and larger-than-life characters.

It is worth remembering though that the English and Irish haven’t always made for the best of bed-fellows with the two nations experiencing a somewhat difficult past together. While, for the vast majority, this is now in the distant past, you can expect to be on the receiving end of some good natured jokes and banter from your Irish hosts.

My advice is to give as good as you get and you’ll not go far wrong (although obviously remember there is always a line not to cross).

As mentioned, Holly and I took a short weekend break in Ireland during an April. Our plan was to see as much of this city as we could in the day time while also enjoying a selection of the bars and restaurants it had to offer during the evening.

Here’s my selection of must-sees and can-be-missed activities that can make for an enjoyable long-weekend in Ireland.


Getting there

Flying to Ireland from the mainland of the UK is a simple affair with most British-based airports providing a number of flight options to different locations in Ireland; including Dublin.

Our plan was to make the flight as easy to organise as humanly possible. To do this we wanted to make the short 45 minute to an hour flight from London to Dublin from the closest airport to home that we could.

There were plenty of options for us to choose from. For instance British Airways flies to Dublin from London City or Heathrow, while Aer Lingus goes from Heathrow and London Gatwick.

For us thought, it turns out, the airport closest – and the one with the best timed flights – was London Southend with Irish airline Ryanair; who also have routes from London Gatwick, Luton and Stansted.

While many don’t like flying with this low-budget airline, they do provide a quick and easy route to many of Europe’s top destinations and for just £60 Holly and I were able to get return flights to the Irish capital.

London Southend is a small, single-terminal airport, but it has to be said is extremely well organised and a pleasure to travel from. There are a few small shops inside the terminal to spend your time in and you can grab some food from one of the coffee shops also available.

Arriving in Dublin International Airport was problem free. This giant, two-terminal hub welcomes around 33 million travellers to its doors each year and is situated around 10 miles to the north of the city centre.

Originally opened in the 1940s, Dublin International Airport has seen a great deal of development over the years and is now a modern, comfortable airport on the Irish mainland.


The view from the the terminal building at Dublin International Airport

Having left London Southend at 6:30am on a cold, wet Saturday morning in April, we were landing in Ireland just an hour later having just enough time onboard to listen to a single podcast and grab a few extra minutes of much needed sleep.

But while the journey out was problem free the return journey was anything but. After arriving at the airport we suddendly saw flashing lights cruising across the tarmac towards our terminal where it appeared that a passenger had collapsed due to a suspected heart attack. Hopefully, the man in question has since recovered.

Our plan that evening was to leave Dublin late on the Monday and make the short hop back to London Southend before collecting our car and driving home.

The weather had other ideas for us though.

When you go to Ireland you can expect a very changeable weather front at the best of times, but it was actually the weather in Southend that was causing us the problem.

Thick fog had set in and we only found out about this after our plane had taken off from Dublin. Despite our pilot’s best efforts when we made it to the Southend area, it just wasn’t safe enough for us to land there so he took us to the closet available, clear, airport which happened to be London Gatwick.

The only problem we had with this was that our car was stuck in Southend and we were now near Crawley at around midnight.

After a few urgent phone calls, Holly’s father kindly drove to pick us up and take us to Southend to collect our car meaning we got home at around 4am!

So while I would say we were unlucky with our flight, it is worth noting that this can happen at London Southend due to its location. However, I still would be happy to travel from there again should I need to in the future.


Where to stay

There are plenty of hotels, B&Bs and hostels in and around Dublin and the same is true for AirBnBs.

We wanted to stay centrally when we were in Dublin to avoid having to travel in and out of the city so we picked an AirBnB just off the upper end of O’Connell Street; the main thoroughfare in the city centre.

This cosy little apartment gave Holly and I a great base to explore Dublin from as it was just five minutes from the main street.

Based in a small residential block of flats, we paid £230.48 for two nights in April.

After arriving in the city we made the short walk from the city centre with our hand luggage to the apartment building. The streets, while busy during the day time, get emptier at night, and the building is surrounded by places to grab food or a few essentials for a city break stay.

Inside, the apartment is stylishly decorated. Having made our way in after picking up our keys from the lock box on the street, we were pleasantly surprised by the space we had to ourselves.

To the left of the entrance way there is a medium sized living room fit with comfortable sofas and a TV that comes with Netflix. Take note, that the exposed brickwork that you can see in the pictures is actually rather well designed wallpaper. I’ll be honest, that one fooled me for a bit!

Just off the living room is a compact kitchen with all the basics we’d need for a short stay in Ireland.

Back into the hallway, the bedroom sits directly opposite the front door and is a nice, light design with an inviting double bed at the heart of the room. There was also ample space for us to unpack our few items and make ourselves comfortable in.

The other door off the hallway takes you into the shower room which again has been well designed and was spotlessly clean during our visit.


Sitting down in the living room ready for some Netflix