I never ended up doing a backpacking trip or gap year travelling across Southeast Asia like so many others do when I finished high school or university. I went straight into a career so I didn't get the chance to do it. But, I've always wanted to explore the countries in this region, so when a friend of mine who was in a similar situation also wanted to do some exploring in this region, we got planning. We worked out that we could take about two and a half weeks of vacation time each, so we decided to visit Thailand and built an itinerary to work for us.
As our time was limited, we planned to do an 'intro' trip to Thailand by visiting a few different cities/regions to get a flavour of the country. And, because we were both 30 year old working professionals, we were ok to not do the 'full' backpacker experience and keep some level of comfort in our accommodation choices!
Below is our itinerary and recommendations for people who may be in the same situation or anyone looking to do an introductory trip to Thailand. We had a fantastic time getting to know the country and it gave us the chance to figure out what we would want to go back and visit, see, do, avoid, and explore.
STOP 1: BANGKOK
After many hours of flying and various connections (26 hours from Toronto via Vancouver and Seoul!), we finally arrived at Bangkok's main airport, Bangkok International Airport (Suvarnabhumi) around 10pm. We hopped in a taxi to travel into the city to our hotel and hit instant culture shock (tip: always insist on the meter for taxis in Bangkok and don't negotiate a price as it will usually end up being much higher). After avoiding the numerous political protests happening around the city, we got dropped off at one of the most famous streets in the world to walk to our hotel on the Khao San Road. What a welcome to Bangkok: rows of people having their feet massaged on the side of the street, vendors selling deep-fried scorpions on sticks to munch on, several clubs pumping music out to the street, people inhaling laughing gas on the sidewalks, and people passing out adverts to see 'ping pong' shows (hint: it doesn't involve ping pong in the way you may think).
We chose to stay in Bangkok for about three days after taking advice from friends who had visited the city before. For us, three days was enough for us to explore the city.
Do / See
There are lots of things to do and see in Bangkok, and you'll probably feel stimulation overload with the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. Bangkok is also very different in the day versus the night, where there is a tangible change in the energy, mood, (and activities). Below are some of my favourite things to do in Bangkok:
- Wat Arun: Known as 'Temple of the Dawn', this beautiful temple is on the west (Thonburi) bank of the Chao Phraya River. It's quite unique as the tiers of the temple are partly made up of colourful decorated spires, standing tall at the bank of the river. It is quite easy to get to by taking a river boat from Sapphan Taksin boat pier that stops at pier 8. From here, you can take a small shuttle boat to cross to the opposite side of the river for only 3 baht. The temple is open daily from 8.30 - 17.30, and costs approximately 100 baht to enter.
- Grand Palace: This is a must-see. It is an absolutely spectacular palace with beautiful architecture and elaborate details. It was built in 1782 and was the home of the Thai King, Royal Court, and administrative seat of government for 150 years. The Palace also contained the Thai war ministry, state departments, and the mint. Today, the Palace remains the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom. The buildings are now used by the King for certain ceremonial occasions, such as Coronation Day; however, many of the rooms and buildings are not accessible to visitors.
- Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho (Wat Phra Chetuphon): This temple is located behind the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, about a 10 minute walk from the Grand Palace. It is one of the largest temple complexes in Bangkok and famous for its giant reclining Buddha, which is covered in gold leaf. When you first see the Buddha, its size and beauty are breathtaking. The queue to see the Buddha can be long but moves quite quickly. To see it in its full splendour with fewer people around (and get some terrific photographs), try to go early in the day. Take your time to admire the Buddha and the extraordinary craftsmanship as you walk through the room. The Buddha's feet alone are five metres long and adorned with mother-of-pearl designs of 'laksanas' (characteristics) of the Buddha. The temple is open between 8am and 5pm, and costs approximately 100 baht for entry. Remember, as it is a temple, you will need to take off your shoes to enter and wear modest, appropriate clothing (meaning no exposed shoulders or knees). While there, you can purchase coins for good luck to drop in the 108 bronze bowls which line the walls (108 is the number of positive actions and symbols that helped lead Buddha to perfection). In addition to bringing you good luck, the money goes towards helping the monks renovate and preserve the temple. While there, be sure to see to explore the whole temple as there are various other beautiful things to see, such as the four chapels which have 394 gilded Buddha images, and a long row of golden statues from different parts of Thailand sitting in the lotus position.
- Khao San Road:
This infamous road is a tourist hot spot where you'll see everything you can (and can't) possibly imagine and people from all corners of the world. There are several large clubs on the strip pumping music, all kinds of market stalls selling t-shirts, elephant print trousers, bags, souvenirs, counterfeit goods, and hundreds of knick-knacks day and night, as well as cocktail bars, street food vendors selling everything from pad thai (delicious - be sure to try) to fried scorpions and other insects (we weren't so brave to try), bright neon signs lighting up the street competing for your attention, people inhaling laughing gas, rows of people getting foot massages on the sides of the street, an obligatory McDonald's and 7-11, people handing out fliers to go to a ping pong show (not ping pong in the way you might think), and rowdy, drunken people stumbling down the street. It is a seedy, gritty, fascinating, and exciting place buzzing with energy 24/7, particularly at night. It's worth going to check it out even just to get a flavour of what it's like - because it is unlike anywhere else. If you're looking for a place to party, this is definitely a place to start or finish your night. Although you won't see much in the way of historical sights here, it is one of the best for people watching in this frenetic city.
Another fascinating part of Bangkok is Chinatown, a kilometre of chaotic, labyrinthine streets and side roads filled with sights, smells, and sounds disorienting you and overwhelming your senses. You can probably find absolutely anything you could possibly want - and things that you didn't even realize that you want - in the hundreds of market stalls and little shops in this area. This area is also popular with foodies for the extensive selection of exotic fruit, vegetables, and food on offer here.
- Amulet Market:
This interesting market can be found along Th Maha Rat and Th Phra Chan, as well as being part of a network of market stalls along the Phra Chan Pier. Walking through this market, you feel like you are looking at all sorts of ancient and mystical objects with their mysterious histories and meanings. Amulets are typically carried by monks, taxi drivers, people in dangerous professions, as well as collectors. When you're in Bangkok, you'll see people with all sorts of amulets or talismans everywhere from inside tuk-tuks to storefronts. Depending on its origin and quality, amulets can be very valuable.
Eat / Drink
Eating is one of the great joys in Thailand, and Bangkok has a wide variety of food to enjoy from traditional Thai dishes to street food to Indian and Western. I enjoyed the street food in particular as it is delicious, made right in front of you, and inexpensive.
Street food in Bangkok is a convenient, popular, tasty, and inexpensive meal option and one of the best ways to experience local culture, though it can be a little intimidating for some people new to the city. You will find street food vendors all over the city, especially in some of the most popular and busy areas of Bangkok, such as Khao San Road. Try to eat at busier spots as the food will be fresh. You may find that many of the menus will be written in Thai, so try checking out the ingredients at the stall and what others are ordering to work out what's on offer. Popular dishes are various forms of stir fries, such as Pad Thai, grilled skewers of meat, or fresh fruit.
Nahm has consistently ranked in the top 10 restaurants in Asia for the past five years in the annual San Pellegrino and Acqua Panna list, and was awarded a coveted Michelin star in 2017. We were lucky enough to get a reservation for dinner at Nahm and couldn't wait to try it. Nahm is located in the COMO Metropolitan Bangkok and features traditional yet innovative Thai cuisine by Australian chef, David Thompson. The menu includes curries, soups, stir fries, and salads seasoned with ingredients such as garlic, chilies, lemongrass and shrimp paste to create dishes bursting with flavour. Some of their featured menu items include rare ingredients from across Thailand, such as a jungle curry with pla chorn (a Thai freshwater fish). Finish off your meal with a delicious Thai dessert, such as sugarcane dumplings simmered in perfumed coconut cream. If you're looking to eat somewhere special and memorable in Thailand, Nahm should be high on your list.
As a point of interest, Thompson's cooking has been informed by his study of recipes in Thai memorial books, some of which came from members of the royal court kitchen. Some of the ingredients used in the kitchen are sourced from the Royal Project in Chiang Mai, which is an initiative to introduce alternative crops to hill tribes sponsored by the King of Thailand.
This restaurant is tucked away on a quiet road in the Sukhumvit neighbourhood of Bangkok. Part of the Face Bar group, Lan Na Thai is located upstairs in the beautiful teak pavilion. The interiors are beautiful and the food is absolutely wonderful! In addition to Thai dishes, you can also order from a selection of Indian and Japanese menu items.
Made famous when it featured in The Hangover 2 (including creating a cocktail specially created for the cast, which you can try), this bar is worth a visit. This is one of the highest rooftop bars in the world (along with Distil Bar, located one floor up) and a chic place to enjoy cocktails with a spectacular view. Considered to be one of Bangkok's best rooftop bars, the cocktails are creative (though pricey) and views unbeatable. Consider it more of an experience or a view enjoyed with a drink if your budget is on the tighter side.
Moon Bar is regularly voted as one of the world's Top 10 rooftop bars. Located on the 61st floor alongside Vertigo Restaurant, Moon Bar serves cocktails with a breathtaking view open air view. This is a great spot to meet friends at sunset or a romantic date.
We stayed right on the Khao San Road at a place called Khao San Palace. This is a notoriously crazy busy street, particularly popular with tourists. The hotel was nothing fancy, but clean and decent, which did the trick as we were out exploring all day and into the evening. Sleeping wasn't great due to the loud music and overall chaos on the street into the early hours of the morning, but it did have a rooftop pool, which was much needed due to the intense heat and humidity in the city. The next time I visit Bangkok, I would stay in another district, such as Sukhumvit (where we spent our final night in the Bangkok before flying back to Canada). The benefit of staying in this district was its centrally location which made it easy to travel around the city.
If you book through a site like Agoda(which we used to book all of our accommodation in Thailand), you can find some fantastic, cheap hotel prices. We paid approximately $20 per night for this hotel through Agoda, and it was cute, clean and safe.
Key Bangkok Tips and Info:
- Bring a Map: In addition to using the GPS on your smartphone, I highly recommend also having a paper map that has both English and Thai names on it (especially if your phone battery runs out while exploring or the signal is patchy). The city is enormous, daunting, chaotic, and not really a 'walking' city; you'll want to be well-prepared to find your way around or if you need assistance. Carry a business card for where you're staying with the name and address on it in Thai to help you find your way back in a taxi or tuk-tuk. Beware of 'helpful' individuals who approach you offering to help with directions or advising you that certain things are closed, particularly if you are in a touristy area, as it may be a scam (see notes below).
- Plan: Because Bangkok isn't really a walkable city, plan which areas of the city you want to see and bundle the sights which are closer together to avoid criss-crossing over the city which will waste time and money (and energy). You have plenty of transportation options from taxis, tuk-tuks, the underground, Skytrain, and boat systems.
- Identification: Carry a copy of your passport with you as carrying ID is mandatory in Thailand. You may be asked by a police officer or security to produce your ID at a sight you're visiting or while out and about. Carrying a photocopy of it is also a safer option to avoid losing it (leave your original ID in the safe at your hotel as well as leaving photocopies at home with family or friends as a back-up).
- Royal Family: Always be respectful when it comes to the Thai Royal Family. Thailand has strict laws against disrespecting or insulting the Royal Family or items depicting the Royal Family, such as money and statues. You will also see images of the King and Royal family EVERYWHERE.
- Bartering: Bartering / haggling is expected in Bangkok as many things won't have prices on them, especially in markets. Be friendly and polite in your approach rather than tough or confrontational. Aim for getting up to 40% of the first price offered by the vendor. Don't be afraid to walk away if you aren't happy with the price (which will often result in being called back to continue to negotiate).
Bangkok is a massive, chaotic city that can be very fun, if not overwhelming, to explore. It does seem though that it has more scams on tourists than most other places, many of which are well documented. One of the things that I really didn't like about Bangkok is the feeling that I was constantly a target to be ripped off. It doesn't take long to stop being polite and become to be more direct and forceful (difficult for the Canadian in me). Below are a few scams to be aware of:
- 'The Grand Palace is closed': this is one that we had read about and was said to us quite a few times while in the city Essentially, someone on the street, taxi or tuk tuk driver will politely tell you that the Grand Palace is closed for the afternoon. If you're already inside the taxi or tuk tuk, I suggest saying thank you but that you still want to go to the area. If on foot, thank them but go to the Palace anyways as it won't be closed. Basically, if you engage in dialogue with them, you'll be likely be taken to random temples or a pushy gem or souvenir store where you'll be pressured to buy something. The general rule of thumb for Bangkok is that a Thai person who approaches you in the street is usually after more than a conversation. Remain polite but firm. If you know a few words in Thai, that will help as they will usually then leave you alone quite quickly.
- Taxis: Bangkok traffic is insane so if it's rush hour, avoid getting in one. Insist that the driver switches the meter on; if he doesn't, then don't get in and find another taxi. There are plenty of them around the city. When at the airport, you may see official looking taxi touts pretending that they operate metered taxis and that it costs between 500 - 100 baht to go into the city. Don't fall for this. The metered taxis waiting outside will be less than half of this, and the real taxi drivers are waiting outside by their cars. While you can certainly flag down taxis by the roadside, you can also find them queuing at hotels. At the hotel, ask the doorman to tell the driver where you want to go, that you don't want to go anywhere else, and that you want the meter to be used. Carry a small amount of cash with you and be prepared for the driver to not have change.
- Tuk Tuks: these are a great and fun way to get around. Just be sure to bargain hard and agree a price for your destination before heading off. Never ever accept a free ride or one that seems unusually cheap as you will often be scammed and end up somewhere you don't want to be. We unfortunately had this happen to us when we were trying to get from our hotel to the ferry to travel to Wat Pho. After haggling, the tuk tuk driver suddenly agreed a price that seemed really low. We were a bit concerned but ignored our instincts (always a mistake) and went with him. On the way, he picked up a friend. We could see the signs pointing towards the ferry and he told us he was dropping us off at a different pier that would get us there supposedly quicker. By this point, we were feeling pretty uncomfortable but couldn't get out. These two guys ended up dropping us at this really sketchy pier down an alley. A dodgy boat was there and demanded a sum of money that was much higher than the real ferry was (the official ferry is 3 baht). When we refused and started to leave, we were shouted out by the tuk tuk and boat drivers, making us feel pretty intimidated, especially as we didn't really know where we were. As we were leaving, we saw two other groups of tourists where the same thing was happening to them.
- Gems: If you're planning on buying gems during your visit, do your research ahead of time. Classic scams involve tourists being sold gem at a supposed discounted value to only find out later that they are fakes or very poor quality. Shop from an established retailer for more security. Keep in mind that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
- Custom-made clothing: If you're looking to buy a custom-made suit or clothing while you're there, do your research or get recommendations ahead of time. A common scam is being drawn into buying tailor-made clothing at low prices but having to pay up front. Upon collection, you may receive something that is made from a cheaper, different fabric than what was agreed or doesn't fit properly. Go to a reputable area like Sukhumvit or an established tailor shop, know what you want to buy ahead of time, and go for several fittings.
- Fake goods: It goes without saying that you shouldn't buy fake or counterfeit goods wherever you go as it is helping to fund organized crime. Unfortunately, Bangkok has fake goods in abundance. Beware if you buy fake or pirated tech goods or DVDs in particular as they may contain malicious software that activates once installed or used.
- Wrong Change: Always check your change when buying something in cash to make sure you get the right amount back. At places such as 7-Eleven in tourist areas, there is a common scam to give you less change back than what you are owed.
- Patpong Sex Show: if this is something you want to do, don't believe the people outside some venues or in streets who are saying that the shows are free and there are cheap drinks. Once inside, you'll end up with a significant bill and prevented from leaving unless you pay the astronomical sum (and possibly threatened with violence if you refuse).
STOP 2: CHIANG MAI
From Bangkok, we took an internal flight north to Chiang Mai on Air Asia (about $60 CDN). We decided to fly as it was only a two hour flight, rather than take the train because our time was limited and we wanted to maximize it.
Chiang Mai is a beautiful city in Northern Thailand surrounded by lush mountains and rainforests. It feels much sleepier, calmer, and a million miles away from the chaos of Bangkok. There are hundreds of temples to explore, fantastic day and night markets, delicious food, and elephant sanctuaries to fall in love with. Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 and was the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom until 1558. As you explore the city, you can see some of the historical remains of moats and walls. We loved Chiang Mai and were happy that we spent four days there, especially to experience the weekend walking and night markets.
We took a day trip to an amazing Elephant Nature Park, which is an elephant sanctuary and rescue and rehabilitation centre about 60km from Chiang Mai. It was established in the 1990s by Sangduen 'Lek' Chailert, who is an activist and elephant conservationist. Lek has rescued dozens of elephants from across Thailand from teak logging, the tourist industry, begging in cities, and those maimed by poachers. For her work, she has been recognized by numerous accolades around the world. She has also formed the organization 'Save Elephant Foundation' which works to protect the Asian elephant.
You can visit the Elephant Nature Park through single day or overnight stays, or participate in volunteer opportunities. The park provides a natural environment and sanctuary for elephants, as well as dogs, cats, buffalo, and many other animals.
The drive to the park is beautiful as the bus that picks you up from the city drives through rural countryside. On the way, you will also watch a short video to get an introduction to the park, the elephants, and its mission, which will touch your heart. Throughout your visit, you will get to know the elephants and how they have healed / are healing from absolutely horrific backgrounds of abuse and terrible living conditions. You will get to observe them while they roam freely, help to bathe them in the river, which is a magical experience, and feed them. It should be noted that you will not ride them - and any sanctuary that claims to be a 'sanctuary' will not allow visitors to ride the elephants as their backs are not meant to carry humans (or anything else). You will also have the chance to enjoy a tasty buffet lunch during the day. By visiting the park, you are helping to support regional projects and elephant conservation efforts.
- Wat Phra That Doi Suthep:
One of my favourite temples in Thailand can be found high in the sky in the mountains: Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. We hired a driver through our guesthouse to drive us to and from the temple for a great price, which was well worth it! This temple is often referred to as 'Doi Suthep', though this is the name of the mountain it is located on. Located approximately 15 km from the city of Chiang Mai, it is a sacred site to many Thai people. You can access the temple by climbing a 306 step staircase lined by mosaic serpents. It is said that the climb is intended to help devotees accrue Buddhist merit; however, you can also take a funicular lift for about 20 baht. The journey is well worth the effort however you get there, as the views across Chiang Mai province are breathtaking.
The temple was established in 1383 by King Keu Naone to enshrine a piece of bone believed to be from the shoulder of Buddha. Amongst the beautiful mosaics, shrines, gardens and statues at the temple is a statue of the white elephant that carried the Buddha relic to its current resting place. The architecture is beautiful with the golden temple roofs glittering in the sun. Before entering the inner courtyard, children will pay their respects to a guardian dragon statue known as 'Mom'. The golden five-tiered umbrella marks the city's independence from Burma and its union with Thailand. Pilgrims queue to leave lotus blossoms and other offerings at the shrines surrounding the chedi, which are studded with Buddha statues in an amazing variety of poses and materials. While here, you can also attend a blessing by a monk with fellow visitors and have a white cotton string tied around your wrist meant to provide protection and good health to the wearer.
While in Chiang Mai, try and do a cooking class. There are a few different companies you can do it with. We chose to do our class with the Baan Thai Cookery School, which was one of our favourite experiences of our entire trip. Our class started with a short walk to the local market, where the teachers gathered ingredients for the meals and explained different types of food and spices. We met some great people who had also booked the class, made some delicious Northern Thai dishes and learned new cooking techniques. We were so full by the end so go with an empty stomach. This is definitely one to book in advance to secure a spot.
Save room in your luggage to shop in Chiang Mai as there are so many beautiful things to buy here! We especially loved exploring the night markets. Chiang Mai has a history of shopping due to its location near historic trade routes which connected modern-day Myanmar, Laos, and China. The main things to look for are unique arts and crafts, jewellery, and clothing. It is known as a cultural centre with many local artisans creating and selling handicrafts, silverware, and fashion. Lacquerware is also a popular thing to buy here as the region has a long history and tradition of producing the black and gold lacquerware pieces. Other specialties are paper umbrellas, silks, ceramics, embroidered bags, cotton scarves, leather sandals, and wood carvings and handmade goods created by local hill tribes. Don't be surprised to also encounter counterfeit and knock-off items too, such as handbags, watches, and sunglasses.
Time your trip so you can try and spend a weekend in the city to enjoy the Saturday and Sunday Walking Street markets, which are best for artisan goods. For bargain buys, check out the Night Bazaar that runs between sunset and midnight on the footpaths of Th Chang Khlan, between Th Tha Phae and Th Loi Kroh.
You can also explore the interior of the dedicated shopping buildings where you can find antique and handicraft stores. The Galare Night Bazaar sells more upmarket clothing and home decor. The Anusan Market with vendors selling knitted hats, carved soaps, and other goods. The variety is good here, though the quality and prices aren't great.
- River Cruise
Take a cruise down the Ping River for a relaxed couple of hours. Try the Mae Ping River Cruise company, which takes you down the river where you can enjoy the scenery along the way. You will make a stop at a local farmer's house for some juice and a snack, as well as see jasmine rice and herbs being grown for cooking and medicinal purposes. We took a cruise with this company and really enjoyed it. It was a lovely and relaxing way to spend a few hours.
During our stay in Chiang Mai, we stayed at the Baan Kaew Guesthouse. Located on a quieter part of the city (Chang Khlan) near the Night Bazaar, this cute guesthouse has 20 basic but clean and comfortable guest rooms spread over a two-story building. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens and greenery, and has on-site dining and free wifi. The rooms are air-conditioned, equipped with towels, en-suite bathrooms with shower facilities, and a personal safety box. You can enjoy a tasty breakfast before heading out in the morning. The guesthouse will also help to arrange sightseeing tours, as well as airport shuttle services. The Chiang Mai International Airport and Chiang Mai Train Station are within a 15-minute drive from the guesthouse. It was very easy for us to walk into and around the city from our guesthouse and we enjoyed the stay.
There are lots of places to enjoy Northern Thai food in Chiang Mai. Try some of the food available at food stalls along the streets - it is very tasty and inexpensive. Check out the markets (such as the Sunday Walking Market or Night Bazaars) as there is a wide selection of different food to try. At the Sunday Walking Market, you'll find many food stalls if you head off Th Ratchadamnoen. Chiang Mai's oldest market, Talat Wararot, is open daily and a foodie favourite, selling fruit, vegetables, packaged food, and small stalls selling local dishes.
STOP 3 - KRABI AND RAILAY BEACH
After four days in Chiang Mai, we flew south to Krabi for some sun and beach time. From the airport, we took a taxi to the ferry point, followed by taking one of Thailand's classic long boats to Railay Beach, which is only accessible by water (about a 15 minute boat ride from Ao Nang). As a general note, I would recommend bringing a backpack as luggage rather than a suitcase. It will make your trip a lot easier, especially when you get to the beaches and travel around the islands as you often have to wade out into the water carrying your luggage above your head to and from the shore!
Railay Beach is beautiful with its large limestone craggy rocks and jungle making you feel like you are secluded far away from the rest of the world. It is an incredibly relaxed and chilled out place. The west side of the island is where you get off the boat, which also has the nicer of the island's beaches; the east side has a wilder, less calm beach but where more of the island's hotels are located. We stayed on the east side of the island as it is only a five to ten minute walk between the two beaches. The path between the beaches has various restaurants, souvenir shops, tour operators for boats, kayaks, and rock climbing excursions - and monkeys snacking away on discarded food!
At sunset, you really feel the chilled out vibe of the island when visitors sit on beanbags on the beach with a drink in hand to watch the sun go down. At nightfall, you can light beautiful lanterns, make a wish, and set them free into the night sky. On the east side of the island, there is a great bar (the last along the strip) where you can enjoy some chilled out concerts and fire shows, as well as cocktails (and literally called the Last Bar).
We spent two nights at Railay Beach, but wished we had spent more time there as it was terrific.
Do / See
Beyond completely chilling out on the beach and swimming in the sea, there are a few other things you can do:
- Rent a kayak and paddle around to the other side of cliffs to find another beach and the famous Rayavadee Hotel (where scenes from James Bond's The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed). We kayaked over and spent the afternoon on this beach on one of the days we were there.
- Go rock climbing on Krabi's limestone cliffs, which soar high into the sky.
- Take a boat cruise to check out other islands in the area as a day trip.
We stayed at the Anyavee Railay Resort on the east side of the peninsula. It is located on the beachfront amongst a coconut grove. Offering 62 rooms, the resort has been built to blend into the environment. You can choose to stay in either a private wooden bungalow or a room in the hotel building. Rooms / bungalows have A/C, showers, satellite TV, a digital safe, free WIFI, complementary drinking water, and a fridge. Although you'll want to spend your swimming time in the sea, the hotel has a large pool to enjoy and a seaside restaurant. The hotel puts on a nice buffet breakfast to start your day on the right foot. The hotel can also assist with airport transfers and tour services.
STOP 4: KOH PHI PHI
We took a boat transfer/ferry over to the island which takes about two hours. Before heading to the island, we had lots of people tell us it was a party island so we weren't really sure what to expect. When we arrived at the port, it was really quiet, especially when we got Tonsai Bay (the heart of the action on the island), essentially having the beach to ourselves. Along the Tonsai Bay beachfront, you will find various hotels, restaurants, and lots of bars. Once nighttime hits, the party really gets started with music, dancing, and crazy fire shows that encourage crowd participation.
Koh Phi Phi is made up of two islands: Phi-Phi Don (essentially a hedonistic paradise made up of hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops) and Phi-Phi Leh (smaller of the two and hotel free). Ko Phi Phi Leh is undeveloped with crystal clear water, coral reefs, jagged cliffs and visited only via day or sunset cruises. The beaches across the two islands are stunning with soft, long stretches of sand and clear, turquoise water as warm as a bath. The islands were hit really badly during the 2004 tsunami and you will see reminders of it during your stay.
This is a hot spot for tourists to visit, whether for a few days or for day trips. The crowd is generally pretty young (mostly under 40), giving it a wild spring break vibe. Its popularity has caused tourism to spiral out of control and the islands are finding it difficult to cope. With Leonardo di Caprio's film 'The Beach' making Maya Bay so popular, it has become damaged by the constant boatloads of approximately 5,000 tourists that turn up daily to see it (more on this below). Seeing the two islands myself, it's hard to imagine how much more the environment can handle without strict measures to control tourism and growth being implemented.
See / Do
When not chilling on the beach, swimming in the sea, or partying at night, there are a few other things you can do:
- Boat trips: Look into taking a boat trip around the Phi Phi islands, as they are stunning and not accessible by car. There are many boat trip operators selling trips around the Ton Sai Village, so you have a lot of choice. There are all sorts of them at varying lengths, prices, and time of day, so check a few out and pick one that appeals most to you. Try asking some fellow travelers to get a recommendation if they have already taken one. We unfortunately didn't like our operator as our guide wasn't very friendly, didn't offer up any information, and tended to hurry us along. However, we did get to see many beautiful places that we wouldn't have otherwise, including:
- Bamboo Island, which appears out of the sea like a deserted tropical beach dream. This island is surrounded by the softest white sand with lush jungle and bamboo trees in the centre.
- Maya Bay, made famous by Leonardo di Caprio's 'The Beach', as mentioned above. While it is really nice, it has been unfortunately overrun by tourists, thus causing the Thai government to close it this summer during the low season between June and September 2018 to try and let it recover. It took ages just to get near the shore in our boat due to all the boat and human traffic. Even then, we had to get out of the boat and into water up to our waist to wade in because there were so many people and boats in the water walking and parked closer to the shore. It was quite sad to visit this beach to be honest because you can see and feel the damage done to it through excessive tourism, and you feel bad contributing to it.
- Monkey Beach, which, as the name suggests, is essentially ruled by monkeys. Quite a few of us, myself included, didn't leave the boat (partly because our guide didn't want to go all the way to the shore and trying to get out in shallow water and navigate the many sea urchins covering the rocks seemed a bit risky). Some of the boat guests got out and went onto the beach, where monkeys suddenly started emerging from the trees and running up to them. To be honest, it was a bit creepy. They are definitely not afraid of humans and there's something that doesn't feel quite right about it.
At a couple of points of the trip, you are able to jump off the boat to swim and do a bit of snorkelling, which was really nice (and refreshing considering the intense heat). As we started sailing back home, we bobbed in the water for awhile with some sundowners and watched the spectacular sunset melt into the horizon, which was a truly memorable experience! Don't forget your sunscreen for the trip as the sun is incredibly strong and you'll be on the water for most of the day in direct sunlight. The seasickness wasn't too bad either (but helped that I took ginger Gravol during the day).
- Hiking: Trek to the top of the island to the lookout point and take in the famous views (ideally either morning or before sunset for the best light and avoid the hottest points of the day). It is truly beautiful and well worth the effort getting up there. As a warning though, it's a pretty steep and strenuous hike up hundreds of steps (part of which forms the Tsunami evacuation path) and takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Don't forget to bring a water bottle and take breaks on the way up. To find the path, follow the signs along the road heading northeast from the Ton Sai Village.
- Diving: If you're interested in diving, this is a very popular place to do it due to the crystal clear water and flourishing sea life! There are many companies in the Ton Sai Village offering tours so you can take your pick.
We stayed in a place called The Beacha Club which we really liked. It was brand new when we stayed, so the rooms were nicely decorated, the A/C worked really well (thankfully due to the searing heat outside), and had a balcony with a nice view of the beach. It has a beautiful main terrace on the beach where breakfast is served. On the downside, because it's on the beachfront, it is really loud during the night. However, I think that will be hard to escape no matter where you stay and I think that most of the hotels there assume you will be out all night anyways!
Things to Know:
- People are right that this island is a party island. When we were there, it felt as though there was no one over the age 40 on the island and a feeling that anything goes - basically a wild spring break vibe. Once sundown comes, music starts thumping at the many bars and clubs along the busy beachfront, along with the many fireshows where tourists are encouraged to participate, such as jumping through rings of fire or jumping a rope made of fire (pretty dangerous considering this is usually during/after lots of drinking; I saw many people getting injured and burned). We were on the island during a 'Black Moon Party' (celebrating the New Moon), which was a completely crazy experience with the vibe and all the activities amplified a few notches.
- Drink buckets are extremely popular. It is literally a sand-castle style bucket filled with various types of alcohol that you drink with a straw and impossibly cheap. Be warned as the buckets will often come with some additions like speed or mild hallucinogen. There are so many dangers with these buckets, particularly if bought from the bars as you have no idea really what kind of alcohol and mixers are being put in there, how much alcohol, and any other additives you might not expect. It is really hard to keep track of how much you're drinking, especially if sharing it with a friend.
- While Thailand is very strict, particularly with its drug laws, it also feels like law enforcement doesn't exist on this island. You feel like you can do, see, and try anything here.
- I went to the pharmacy to see if I could get a light sleep aid as we were flying back to Canada a few days later. Without a word, the pharmacist took a large jar and scooped out a handful of tablets. When we asked what they were, she responded by saying 'diazepam'; yes, the strong drug that you need a prescription for pretty much anywhere else in the world. We had her write the details on the bag because the last thing we wanted was to be stopped and arrested for an unlabelled bag of little blue tablets.
STOP 5: KOH PHI PHI (North; Leamtong Beach)
After being on Tonsai Bay Beach for three days, we wanted to escape the craziness and chill out. We took a boat about 40 minutes to the northern tip of the island to Leamtong Beach, which is pretty secluded with only about two or three hotels. We stayed at the PP Erawan Palms Resort, which was absolutely beautiful.We got a great price through Agoda and felt like we had found paradise. Our bungalow was beautifully decorated with traditional Thai decor, incredibly clean, and comfortable. The hotel is right on the beach so you can swim in the sea or relax on a lounger in the sand. The beautiful pool has a sea view and it is wonderful to take a dip while looking out to the Andaman. The sun in Thailand is incredibly strong and despite constantly applying sunscreen, I ended up getting sunburnt. Luckily for me though, the hotel had a specific massage on their spa menu aimed at relieving sunburns. At sunset, I had the most incredible massage with aloe and tiger balm outdoors in the spa pavilion, making the pain of my sunburn go away! There is a main restaurant at the hotel as well as a beach bar to enjoy, along with nightly entertainment (which was pretty cheesy to be honest and quite a bit different than the entertainment on the opposite side of the island!).
STOP 6: BACK TO BANGKOK
After spending two nights at Leamtong Beach, we took a boat back to the main Koh Phi Phi port, followed by a ferry back to Krabi, and a taxi to the airport. We flew Air Asia back to Bangkok as we were leaving the following day to go home. We stayed at a nice little hotel in the Sukhamvit neighbourhood to check out a different part of the city. We ate in an amazing restaurant called Lan Na Thai (described in more detail in the Bangkok section earlier), followed by drinks at the incredible open air rooftop bar on the top of the glamorous Banyan Tree Hotel on the 61st floor.
Thailand is an amazing country to visit and discover. The Thai people are incredibly friendly and welcoming (Thailand is often referred to as the 'Land of Smiles'), the sights - whether historical, jungle, or beach - are beautiful, and the food is fantastic. There is so much to see, do, and experience in this fascinating country. This guide is intended to be an introduction to Thailand so the next time I / you go, you can pick where you'd like to either spend more time or new parts to visit and go another layer under the surface.
I feel I would be remiss though to not mention elements of the darker side of Thailand so you can be more informed as a traveler. While every country has its own dark side, tourists don't necessarily know or understand and interact with these nighttime economies in Thailand, sometimes unaware. I think it's important that when people travel, they do so with their eyes open so they can travel safely and responsibly.
Sex Tourism and Trafficking
When you land at Bangkok airport, you are confronted with signs informing you that child sex tourism is illegal. The fact that these signs are so prominent gives you an indication of the scale of the problem. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes that Thailand is one of the world's hotspots for victims of human trafficking. Thailand has a thriving sex tourism market due to high demand from global audiences with notorious red-light districts including the Patpong Night Market and Soi Cowboy in Bangkok, and the Walking Street in Pattaya, particularly driven by male Western tourists. When you walk down the streets of Bangkok or Chiang Mai during the evening, you can see bar after bar filled with very young Thai girls with much older Western men. The demand from foreign tourists for sex, particularly with children, combined with high levels of poverty in the country fuels the supply of trafficking victims. With Thailand's reliance on tourism for its economy, the incentive to enforce trafficking laws and sex work isn't as high as it should be.
Another example to mention are the ping pong shows, which are infamous in Bangkok. They are widely known and on offer, but are incredibly degrading. The more demand for tourists continuing to go to these shows, the more women have to participate in these demeaning acts for entertainment.
Thailand is a country with many incredible exotic animals. The chance to see them in person is often very appealing for tourists who have never seen these beautiful creatures. But, this interest has fuelled demand for more up-close and personal experiences, leading to animals being kept in captivity and forced to live in abusive, miserable conditions. Doing your research is key before participating in any kind of activity that involves animals. Research and cross-check reviews for places purporting to be rescue centres and sanctuaries as they may be that in name only. Anything that involves animals interacting with humans in unnatural ways or performing unnatural activities (such as painting, dancing, or performing tricks on demand) should be a red flag. And any activity that guarantees the appearance or action by particular animals, especially in the wild, have likely be trained to appear (such as through expecting food at a particular time and place).
Much more attention has been brought to the different types of animal attractions throughout Thailand in recent years. Ads for tour operators feature tourists smiling while riding elephants deep in the jungle, leading people to think this would be an amazing experience, or performing all manner of tricks. And, I'm sure it would be an amazing experience if it weren't so horrific for the elephants forced into this. It often starts with baby elephants being taken from their families and abused through brutal training regimes, beaten, chained up, and forced to carry tourists multiple times a day through long, hard walks. Elephant spines are not meant to carry humans. All you need to do is visit a proper elephant sanctuary, like the Elephant Nature Park described earlier, that works hard to rescue elephants stuck in these conditions. There, you'll see elephants who have had their backs literally broken from these trekking trips, eyes blinded and scars on their body from abuse to keep working. Be skeptical of any company saying that their elephants are well taken care of; elephants are wild creatures and all of them would have had to go through a training regime where they were beaten with bull-hooks, spears, and clubs while in a small cage with no chance of escaping. Remember, it is demand for watching elephants do tricks or wanting to ride them that continues these practices.
Think about it. What would make a tiger docile enough to interact with hundreds of people constantly coming through to touch, pet and pose with them without reaction? The sad reality is that these beautiful creatures are constantly drugged and sedated. They will also often be force-fed food or bottles by visitors to get those 'perfect' snaps. In 2016, Thai authorities raided the infamous Tiger Temple where they discovered illegal breeding and wildlife trafficking. The best advice is that if somewhere is offering you unnatural contact with tigers, avoid it and stop fuelling the demand.
London is an absolutely massive city. There is a reason that Samuel Johnson said "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford". One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my personal favourite travel tips and recommendations with friends and family. People often come to London for a few days or a long weekend and wonder what they should do or see, as it is so easy to get overwhelmed with choice.
Below is one of my favourite Saturday walks around London because you can meander at your own pace, stop and check out lots of great things along the way, as well as being able to see some of London's best sights. London is a terrific city to walk in as well as you can get a feel of the lay-out of the city and how things connect - something you miss out on when you're on the tube. But, because learning the connections between neighbourhoods takes time, I'm sharing my walk with you below to follow - whether you're a visitor or local!
1. Start at London Bridge tube station and walk towards a place called Borough Market (it is well signposted). Depending on the day, some of the vendors in the market may be closed, but many of the stalls will be open. It's essentially a gourmet food market where some of London's best restaurants and chefs get their ingredients. But not only that - Borough Market has an incredible history. Try and wrap your mind around the fact that a market has existed in this particular area since the 11th century! Take your time to wander around the market (if it's a Saturday, go early - 9 or 10am before it gets packed with people), try some samples, and pick up something as a snack or even for lunch. It's got a great ambiance as well as being having one of London's best coffee spots - Monmouth Coffee. Monmouth will always have a line but it moves quickly and well worth. Quick word of warning - they only serve drinks with whole milk (so not non-fat, lactose free, soy/almond/coconut etc milk options).
2. After exploring the market, walk out towards Southwark Cathedral. You can't miss it as it's right on the market's doorstep and has beautiful black stone works on its exterior. The Cathedral also has a long, deep history with suggestions that it dates back to the 7th century. Official written records date it to be 're-founded' in 1106 by two Norman knights.
3. Walk around the outside of the Cathedral towards the river. You'll walk past some beautiful, fascinating old buildings and structures, such as the recently restored remnants of the Great Hall from the former Winchester Palace. You can view this anytime of day and don't need tickets as it's outdoors to pass by. You'll know you're there by the stunning rose window on the west gable standing over the site.
4. Further along, you'll pass by one of the original prisons which gave the world the nickname 'the clink' - the Clink Prison Museum. It is now a rather tacky amusement site to explore.
5. Continuing around the path as you're heading towards the Thames, you'll see a large recreation of the large ship that Sir Francis Drake used to navigate the world between 1577 - 80, called the Gold Hinde II. If you're interested, you can pay to go on board for various activities.
6. Continue following the path around the bend to the pathway that will take you alongside the Thames. You will now be 'Bankside'.
7. As you're walking, you'll see great views unfolding in front of you of St Paul's Cathedral, the 'Gherkin' and the Millennium Bridge. As you keep walking along the path, you'll come to a bridge. Don't go up the stairs - just curve around and keep walking underneath in the underpass.
8. Continue down the path along the river. To your left, there will be various restaurants and cafes, until you then come across Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. This building is a beautiful recreation of the original Globe, which was a few hundreds yards away. This is a great place to stop and explore - there are tours, a visitors centre, and plays. It would be wroth checking out what's playing in case you'd like to see something as it would be a fantastic experience to see a play in this environment. This year is a special one as it is 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare and there will be lots of activities going on throughout the year to check out.
9. Keep walking straight ahead and you will come across theTate Modern and theMillennium Bridge. The Tate Modern is definitely worth checking out. It's free so you can pop in and spend as much or little time there as you want. The main Turbine Hall always has an interesting exhibit or installation to check out. Tip: head up a few floors where you can find a small balcony that you can go out and get a wonderful view of London.
10. After the Tate, cross theMillennium Bridge. As you cross the bridge, you'll have wonderful views of St. Paul's Cathedral looming ahead of you on the opposite side, and views across the Thames - especially out towards Tower Bridge, the Shard, and Canary Wharf.
11. Once you've crossed the bridge, you will almost be St Paul's. Keep walking straight ahead and you'll come to it. This is an incredible cathedral and working checking out - even if you just walk around the outside as you need to pay to go in. St. Paul's is an iconic part of London's history and skyline. Bombed during the blitz in World War II, home to the tomb of Lord Nelson, host to the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and the sight for the funerals of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. I personally think it is well worth the entrance fee to enter as the interior is breathtaking and it is steeped in history. If you're feeling up to it and have a reasonable degree of fitness, you can climb to the top of the famous dome.
12. After St Paul's, it is a nice place to stop for a bite to eat, end your walk, or continue on down a new path. This walk will take you 2+ hours depending on how long you stop at various sights to explore. Where you decide to walk from here is up to you. You can hop on the tube at St. Paul's station, or continue exploring by walking down Fleet Street, which will lead you to Embankment.
I will be creating various walks in London in the coming weeks. If you take this walk, I'd love to hear what you think.
Barcelona is a fascinating, artistic, laid-back city filled with whimsical buildings on the Med that make you wonder why on earth you don’t live there / is this city even real?
The creative energy of Barcelona’s citizens pulses through the city, making its mark on buildings, artwork, fashion, interior design, and food. Barcelona is also Gaudi’s city, one of the city's most famous sons, who left his mark quite literally all over the city. If you're looking for a bit more inspiration, one of my favourite films is Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which I think my best friend and I watched a dozen times before our trip! If you haven’t seen it, it’s a lovely ode to this city with plenty of Barcelona’s most beautiful sights on show.
Barcelona has something for everyone and there is no shortage of things to do, see, explore, and taste. You can walk for hours around its sun-drenched streets, admiring the architecture, popping into eclectic independent shops and major chains (Mango and Zara are just two Spanish brand examples), stopping for a leisurely coffee or tapas, or head to the beach for a swim.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit Barcelona twice and can’t wait to return again. This guide is by no means exhaustive, but simply a collection of my favourite things to do, see, and try in the city. I hope you enjoy!
Do / See It’s hard to choose where to begin with this gorgeous city as there is so much to see and do, so I’ll dive right in:
• My favourite neighbourhood is the Gothic Quarter. The winding, narrow streets are filled with beautiful shops, restaurants, and historical sights to explore. - It feels like you’re in a film at times as you wander through these streets where streaks of sunlight stream through the buildings on to the streets. If you go really early in the day, it’s quiet and the light and atmosphere are a bit magical. - Allow yourself to wander and get lost through these winding streets as you never know what might be around the next corner.
• No trip to Barcelona is complete without visiting the famousLa Boqueria Market. I’ll talk about it more in the next section (‘Eat’), suffice to say that this beautiful covered market is located right on the city’s most famous street, Las Ramblas, and is a fantastic place to people watch, try new food, and take photographs.
• Las Ramblas is a long tree-lined street cutting through the city, with a pedestrian walkway running down the centre. You will encounter people selling all sorts of trinkets, flowers, street performers, little cafes, and more. - Save your money as chances are that you will find various magnets/keychains/postcards/t-shirts elsewhere in the city for a fraction of the prices that are being charged here. - Be warned – this is a tourist hotspot and pickpocketing is a very real occurrence here. Don’t be paranoid, but do be more alert and take care of your belongings to avoid making yourself attractive to potential thieves.
• I found this next place by accident. Ele and I had just picked up some food from La Boqueria for a picnic and were searching for a place to enjoy it, which proved a bit harder than we thought. We walked into a small park and spotted a bench that we could sit on, only to find a black handgun sitting on it, which was a shock. Because of that, and the fact that the park was next to a primary school, we went to a local police station to let them know. A classic lost in translation situation ensued where we tried to explain in our poor Spanish that we had found this gun, which was interpreted in their poor English as we were reporting that OUR gun had been lost/stolen. - Eventually, we were able to continue on, and found a promising leafy area. We climbed up the steps only to find an incredibly beautiful terrace filled with orange blossom trees, flowers and ivy, as well an ancient Greek amphitheatre – who knew! We had come across the Gardens of the Grec Theatre - a beautiful place to explore.
• Park Guell is a major tourist attraction, but for good reason. Gaudi’s whimsical park is one large art exhibit in itself – beautiful to explore, complete with stunning views at some points over the city. - Try and go early in the morning or late afternoon before it gets too hot and busy (particularly in the summer months) and beat the crowds wielding selfie-sticks. - It can be a bit of a hike to get to the park. There are outdoor escalators that help get you up the hills quicker and save you some energy (another great reason to go early in the day!).
• Check out the Palau Guell, a beautiful house designed by Gaudi. Don’t forget to go to the roof to check out the fantastic mushroom-like artwork and the view.
• Visit Placa Reial, the large, tucked away square, just off Las Ramblas filled with palm trees, boutiques and restaurants for a bit of respite from the craziness at the heart of the city.
• Near the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (or MNAC) is Las Arenas, a former bull fighting ring that has been refurbished into a unique shopping centre, preserving the look and feel of its former purpose. Head to the top of the Bull Ring to check out the 360 view and restaurants.
• The area outside of MNAC is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever visited. Its immaculately landscaped gardens leading up the museum at the top of the hill are all curves, flowers, water features, and outdoor escalators to whisk you up the hill to the top over a series of different levels. - The view from the top when you reach the museum is wonderful! - There is a lovely café to sit and take in the views as well.
• The Sagrada Familia is another sight that can’t be missed. It can be swarming with tourists, so again, I’d suggest going early in the day. I also highly recommend buying tickets in advance so save time (and potentially money), although the queue does move pretty quickly.
• One of my favourite things to do was take the cable car up to the Montjuic Castle. The views are spectacular over the city and a great experience.
• One of the coolest things about Barcelona is that it sits right on the Mediterranean with many beaches to pick from. Barceloneta Beach is the most popular – and the busiest. However, if you head further down the coast, approximately 20 – 30 minutes away (easy by train), you can find much quieter and more pristine stretches of sand to enjoy.
• You will find no shortage of fantastic shopping throughout the city, especially if you’re looking to add to your wardrobe. Spain is home to huge global brands such as Zara and Mango, as well as many great independent shops.
• You can wander through the Olympic Park and see the sights from the Games. The swimming pool(and diving board in particular) has one of the most spectacular views imaginable!
• If you’re there during the summer, check out the late night beach bars where you can enjoy cocktails with your feet in the sand and great music under the stars.
• Keep your eyes out for some of Gaudi’s other architecture around the city as you wander around, such as the beautiful façade of Casa Batllo where the balconies look like skulls and bones surrounded by colourful mosaics, or La Pedrera, one of his main residential buildings, which looks more like a sculpted work of art than an apartment block! This building was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.
• Barcelona is also surrounded by mountains, which are beautiful to explore if you’ve visited Barcelona before, or you are going to be there for longer than a city break (or just generally like nature and the idea of visiting these mountains appeal to you). Montseny is about an hour away from Barcelona and beautiful to enjoy.
• Check out the Gracia neighbourhood, which is leafy, artsy, and cool to explore. This bohemian area offers fantastic, diverse restaurants, outdoor terraces, and has a cool vibe. It also a colourful festival each August which I just missed the last time I visited but got to see the fantastic prep happening in the streets (the photograph with the blue streamers at left stretched across the street is one example).
Eat Food is a central feature in Barcelona life. The high quality, inventive menus and places to linger over a (very) late dinner with friends. Here are a few of my favourites:
• La Boqueria: So good that it comes up twice in this guide. It is perfect for grabbing fresh fruit, cheese, meats and more to take along and enjoy picnic style or grab a perch at a bar stool at one of the small restaurants in the market and watch the world go by (great for people watching). It’s a fresh, tasty, and cost effective option – and with something for everyone, it's a perfect option if you’re there with a group.
• La Pepita: I absolutely adore this delicious restaurant. This restaurant was a recommendation from a friend of a friend, for which now needs to continue to be passed along because it’s so good! So many inventive, tasty items to try. The refreshing watermelon gazpacho in particular stands out in my mind.
• Tapas 24: Try this small but busy tapas restaurant serving tasty food. Order a range of different dishes between you (or by yourself) to try as much as possible. Loved it!
• If you’re a fan of Woody Allen's love letter to Barcelona through his 2008 film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, you’ll want to check out Els Quatre Gats. Tucked in a stunning, historic courtyard deep in the Gothic quarter, it’s the place where Vicky and Cristina first meet Antonio, who invites them to go to Oviedo with him. It’s also got a fascinating history. First opened as a café in 1897, it has also been a hostel, cabaret, pub, and restaurant. Picasso also visited this restaurant, so you'll be in good company.
• The Spanish love their chocolate and sweets. Start your day right with warm churros dipped in thick, delicious hot chocolate, a popular thing to have for breakfast. It can be found at many bakeries, cafes, and food trucks so you've got lots of options. You’ll also come across many bakeries so be sure to try out a pastry or five, as well as numerous artisan chocolate shops!
Stay You can stay anywhere in Barcelona from a flat through Airbnb to a luxury hotel. Whatever your preference and budget, you'll be spoilt for choice.
• Hostal Goya – This small boutique hotel is well-located with beautifully designed rooms. The rooms are tiny but do the trick because let’s be honest – you’re in Barcelona and will be out exploring the majority of the time! A spa-like bathroom tops off the comfort and cool factor. There’s also a lovely main room to lounge in that overlooks the street below, just off Catalunya Square. A great location tucked off the street through an unassuming door and a few flights of stairs.
• W Barcelona: This chic hotel is an iconic figure on the Barcelona beachfront. Its rooms offer incredible views, beautifully designed, and a fab bar and night club on the rooftop add to the cool factor. One of my dream places to stay!
• Take the Aerobus from the airport to the city centre. It's the easiest and most cost effective way to get into the city, particularly if you are staying somewhere central. It stop right at Catalunya Square, for example, a major hub in the city
• Metro: A clean, quick, easy, air-conditioned option to move quickly around the city - and has wifi! Tip: buy a pass as it is cheaper. Also, you can split this between friends by swiping to go through and passing it back one after the other.
• Tram: Another good option to get around as it gives you a street level view to admire as you travel around the city.
Last September, I travelled to Athens with two great friends to begin an adventure around Greece. We thought we would spend about two days in Athens having thought and heard that it would be enough before heading to the islands.
Were we ever in for a surprise! This city completely exceeded any expectations we had before arriving. You see a lot in the news about the struggles that Greece has faced with the economic crisis, particularly being played out in scenes in Athens.
You can see the city regenerating and a feeling of youthfulness amidst ancient sites. Athens is truly fantastic - it is welcoming, fascinating, enormous and so much to see and do. We knew after our first evening there that we didn't set aside nearly enough time to explore this great city.
Right from arrivals at the Athens International Airport (Eleftherios Venizelos), we received a warm welcome. One of my favourite things while travelling is to meet new people and learn about their city from their perspective. In what might have been a serendipitous moment or twist of fate, the taxi we hopped into in the taxi rank was with the super Stamatis. Stamatis was so friendly and fun, chatting to us and welcoming us to Athens. As a proud Athenian, he was pleased to hear this was our first time to his city. As we made the drive from the airport into the city to our flat, he talked about the history of Athens, pointing out and explaining all the sights we passed. He also talked about current events in recent years and how the Greek people have been coping. He also offered us some great tips and recommendations as well. We ended up calling him a few times during our trip due to the fantastic service we received. Stamatis runs Opa Taxi and Tours (www.facebook.com/opataxiandtours) with his partner, Debbie, who are such wonderful people who made us feel instantly like friends. They were quick, always on time, passionate about Greece, brought us water in the heat and great fares. As women travellers, we really appreciated this service, feeling safe and not being taken advantage of. If you are looking for a warm welcome to Athens and friendly transportation, we would highly recommend them!
We enjoyed exploring Athens, wandering through its ancient sites and modern neighbourhoods. It felt surreal to visit places such as the Acropolis, which looks over the entire city. And the Athenian light... it is ethereal and we often felt as though the ancient Greek gods were watching over the city and creating magic in the skies.
Athens International Airport serves the world well with many direct and connecting flights. It is also a great place to travel onward to many of the Greek islands or elsewhere. It's a modern airport with many different restaurants and great shopping.
Take Opa Taxi and Tours to travel either to or from the airport, as well as around the city or another destination for great services and fares.
The subway/metro is also a great option to travel around this enormous city.
We opted to stay at a property in the city booked through our favourite site, Airbnb. We stayed in a beautiful vintage home in the lovely Thissio neighbourhood. Thissio is near the centre of Athens and has many cool cafes and bars to hang out in, as well as feeling quite traditionally Greek. After checking into our new home for the next few days, we walked to the main area of Thissio, which is essentially a wide, mainly pedestrianized, avenue. There are amazing views of the Acropolis from Thissio. Our first night felt magical, having dinner outside in the warm air with the Acropolis looking over us glowing with warm light and watching people wander by. We also loved that this neighbourhood didn't feel as touristy as other parts of Athens, such as Monastiraki. It's also easy to walk to many key neighbourhoods and sites, such as the Plaka. I will definitely look to stay in this neighbourhood again when I visit Athens again.
Things To Do and See:
- The new Acropolis Museum is a must-visit. This beautiful designed and curated museum houses priceless antiquities. Situated at the base of the Acropolis, it is light, airy and ultra modern. While entering the museum and up the Gallery of the Slopes, you can see the foundations of Athens underfoot through glass, perfectly blending today's world with the ancient world. As you go to the top of the museum to the Parthenon Gallery, floor to ceiling windows allow you to look at the remaining original friezes replicating the Parthenon, while going upwards outside to the Acropolis at the top of the hill. I would recommend checking out the lovely cafe - especially the outdoors terrace (even just for the view!).
- Not to be cliche, but you just cannot go to Athens and not visit the Acropolis, considering it is a major symbol of ancient Greece and represents the birth of Western civilization! The site itself is majestic and fascinating to walk around. It feels surreal to sit and look at the Parthenon, for example, and try to imagine what life was life in ancient Greeks walking around this site. I would recommend visiting the Acropolis either early in the day or towards sunset to avoid the blazing heat and peak crowds. We went in late afternoon and watched the sunset. I can honestly say that I have never seen skies quite like those I saw there. Swirling colours of orange, yellow, pink, purple and blues danced across the sky, making the monuments and the entire city glow and shine. Incredible! The walk up can be a bit steep and tricky, so be careful and take that into account.
- Be sure to visit the National Archaeological Museum. Firstly, the exterior of the museum is beautiful to see in its rich reds and grand entranceway. There are so many incredible things to see on display in this museum that it's hard to wrap your head around. The Mask of Agamemnon can be viewed here, for example! There is a lovely courtyard to relax. Many statues can also be seen here - just don't try to do your warrior two pose with Zeus (the staff don't like it very much!).
- Take a walk through the Ancient Agora, which was the centre of political, social, cultural and judicial activities in ancient Athens. It is a fascinating site to walk through and particularly recommend seeing the Stoa of Attalos, Church of the Holy Apostles, Temple of Hephaestus and Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios (one of the sites where Socrates shared his philosophical views).
- Take a taxi up to the top of Lykavittos Hill (very steep!). There is also a cable car that can be taken. The views are spectacular both from the restaurant that is there and surrounding St George's Chapel. This is a wonderful sunset location as well.
- Take a leisurely stroll through the lush, green National Gardens of Athens for a break from the busy streets, which is in the centre of the city.
- Visit the Temple of Zeus. Although there are only a few remaining columns on the site, they are enormous and loom over you, making it easy to imagine how dominating the site would have been at its height. A fascinating place to check out. Hadrian's Arch is also just on the edge of the site and worth seeing as well.
- It often feels that Athens itself is a living museum with so many different large and small and subtle sites, artifacts and relics to see. I would recommend just wandering around different neighbourhoods to see what you come across. For example, duck into different metro stations as they exhibit many antiquities discovered during construction. It is said that the largest excavation program ever undertaken in Greece was during the construction of the metro, uncovering more than 50,000 findings. We enjoyed checking out the Syntagma metro station, where you can see the many layers of Athens dating back to ancient times, including preserved skeletons in burial tombs amongst the different layers.
There is truly so much to see, do and experience in Athens that two to three days isn't nearly enough, although it will give you a flavour. We can't wait to go back and experience more that this great city has to offer! It is definitely a city that is overlooked and underestimated.
After spending a fantastic few days in Athens, we travelled to the beautiful island of Paros. Paros is a stunning little island part of the Cyclades islands in Greece.
This island is so dreamy and the perfect antidote to the enormous, frenetic city of Athens. As soon as you arrive in Paros, a feeling of calm and serenity washes over you. There just seems to be something in the air here that inspires relaxation and forces you to slow down. I am also a huge fan of bougainvillea and was so happy to see it in all of its bright pink splendour everywhere you turned in Naoussa, standing out against the perfectly white Cycladic homes and buildings with touches of blue accents. Heavenly! I can completely understand why this island is a favourite of many people (including me as one of its newest fans) and celebs, such as Tom Hanks, Pierce Brosnan, and Madonna.
We stayed in Naoussa, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. Easily accessible by car, taxi, and bus links, Naoussa is small but chic. The main part of the town and surroundings are easily walkable, and is situated on a beautiful coast with plenty of beaches to spend time on relaxing. The shopping in Naoussa is fabulous. And the best part? No chain shops! They are mainly independent, locally owned shops and studios selling beautiful and elegant goods, particularly jewellery (I loved a shop called 'White'), and leather goods. There are also lots of delicious restaurants, gelato shops, and bars to choose from to relax away in. Naoussa is very romantic, but also an ideal place for us to visit as well as a group of three women. It had a completely different feel than Santorini - romantic but not to an exclusionary point, quiet, chic, elegant and non-touristy. There is lots to do and various different types of travellers and locals to meet and interact with. On that note, there weren't a lot of tourists here, but quite a few repeat visitors that we met, which was really nice. It may have been because it was September, but this isn't an island overrun with tourism like some of its neighbours, such as Mykonos.
The island itself is small and easy to get around to explore its various villages and small towns, and stunning coastline. We rented a car (more about that below) one day and leisurely drove around beach hunting and exploring villages. We spent a late afternoon and evening in the capital of the island, Parikia, which was bigger and busier than Naoussa. It was worth visiting, but we were happy that we had chosen Naoussa as our home base during our stay.
Lefkes was another beautiful village set inland that we visited. This sleepy little village boasts some beautiful views as it is set up in the mountains and is the highest point of Paros. It is great to walk around (including part of the Byzantine trail which starts in Lefkes) and check out some of the well-preserved Cycladic architecture, as well as tiny little independent shops to explore.
We encountered many Canadian expats in Paros and we could completely understand why. Give us a few more days on the island and we may have joined them! There was one afternoon where we swam out into the warm, sparkling, turquoise sea only to find a dilapidated building on a prime space of land that inspired us into planning how we would renovate it and start a new business and life right there and then!
Nervous about taking a ferry and getting seasick, I opted to take an Aegean Airlines flight that was a quick (30 minutes!) hop over to Paros from the main airport in Athens. My friends opted to take a ferry to the island which took about 3 - 4 hours and they enjoyed the leisurely journey to the island.
Upon arriving both at the airport and the port, there were taxis easily available (and buses at the port) to take us to Naoussa.
We went with another Airbnb property (www.airbnb.com), which we absolutely loved! Based in Naoussa, we stayed in a gorgeous little villa which was easily walkable from the centre of town, and run by the loveliest host, Natacha, and her adorable little son. Our villa also had a great outdoor living space. Draped with greenery and bougainvillea, we enjoyed a home cooked meal made right in our kitchen using fresh ingredients from the markets under candlelight and the stars (and there may have been a Mamma Mia soundtrack playing in the background).
- Before getting to any real food, we need to talk about the gelato we encountered here. Specifically, from the best gelato shop on the island: Nonna Crema. This charming little place (pictured in the photo at left with the brightly coloured cushions) has delicious flavours and is run by a friendly and helpful young couple. Definitely worth a (multiple) visit!
- During our first afternoon stroll, we came across a cafe (Cafe Karino) on the Old Port with lots of outdoor seating to enjoy some lunch looking out to sea. The most delicious sandwiches we had during our trip were found here, which we enjoyed over a lingering lunch taking in the fresh sea air, looking out at the sparkling water and passersby. We ended up coming here nearly every day for lunch!
- We went to the Taverna Glafgos one evening for dinner. This restaurant is set in a beautiful location tucked away on the beach in Naoussa. You can be enjoying a glass of wine or dinner with the sea practically lapping away at your toes. A very romantic and unique setting that we enjoyed. The food was quite good, though not the best we had. We enjoyed some local Parian wine as well. The service wasn't the best but the setting and experience is very hard to beat!
Things to Do:
- Renting a car, quad, motorcyle or scooter are big attractions on the island! We rented a jeep for the day and drove all around the island to Lefkes, down to various beaches and over to Parikia. It was wonderful to drive up into the hills to see the views over the island and sea.
- Visit Lefkes and the other lovely little villages dotted around the island.
- We did the sunset horse riding with the Kokou Horse Riding Centre (http://www.horseridingparos.com), which is run by Canadian expats. This was such a fun experience! The horses are lovely and well taken care of, which was very important to us. We rode through orchards and vineyards, up into the hills, and along the coast. The staff take great care at the start to pair you with the right horse based on your experience and personality.
- Shop! The shops and studios in Naoussa (and elsewhere, like Parikia) are elegant, creative and run by local merchants and artisans. There was one store in particular that we loved called 'White', which sells jewelry. The shops stay open very late here (to 1 and 2am!), so it's great to wander around and shop before going for cocktails.
Other Travel Tips
- When renting a vehicle on the island, make sure you do your due diligence. Make sure that there is documentation between you and the staff walking around the vehicle to make sure any scratches or damage is noted. Make sure that the insurance you are taking on is clear. I also suggest taking photographs of the vehicle before and after. We had an issue with the car rental place where we rented our jeep. We realized partway through the day that our vehicle didn't seem to be very well-maintained and we were worried while driving through the hills that it was about to break down. In addition, despite walking around the vehicle and taking insurance, we were accused of creating damage to the vehicle (there wasn't any) and the woman who had rented us the vehicle was demanding that we pay her a sum of money in order to leave and that the insurance wouldn't cover it. We stood our ground and pointed out that not only had we not created damage, but that she had no evidence to show we caused it because she hadn't documented anything. Her boss arrived and we explained the situation to him, to which he promptly let us go and had words with her. Beware as it was likely a scam on unsuspecting tourists who won't argue back to take additional money under the table.
I highly recommend this island as a stop when visiting Greece. I can't wait to return again soon! The best thing about this island (besides it being gorgeous and peaceful), is that it's one that doesn't require running around to see lots of sites, but allows you to feel right at home and feel as though you are a local.
This past September, I travelled to Santorini as part of a trip to Greece with two great friends. This island is really dreamy with spectacular, breathtaking views over the caldera. It truly is like walking into the pages of a honeymoon spread in a bridal magazine, which isn't always great when you are a group of three women! We figured it would be a highly romantic place, but perhaps not quite as prepared for the scale of it. We wanted to go and check out the island for its famed blue domed roofs and sunsets, which we certainly got, but nearly everything on the island is geared towards couples. While we were very glad we went and had a very peaceful and relaxing time, we agreed that the next time we returned, it would be with our significant others!
We took the Blue Star Ferry (http://www.bluestarferries.com/) from the island of Paros, which took about three hours. If you get seasick like me, I did quite a bit of research with my friends before booking our ticket to see which ferry would minimize this the most. I am very happy to say that the Blue Star was very large and stable. We scored a place outdoors where we were able to get fresh air, beautiful views and look at the horizon, which helped a lot and no seasickness happened. The other thing that surprised me was how modern and luxurious the ship was! You'll barely even feel like you're on a ship and the time goes by quickly.
We opted to fly back to Athens when our time on the island was up. The airport is tiny and easy to get to, especially from Fira (about 15 minutes or less). We flew Aegean Airlines (http://en.aegeanair.com), which was quick, inexpensive, and easy, saving the eight hour ferry that would have been required.
We found a cute little place with a pool through Airbnb (www.airbnb.com), our favourite, go-to booking site. You are spoiled for choice for hotels around the island, though be prepared to pay a higher premium on this island due to the high tourist interest. We were able to walk to the edge of the caldera, around Fira and to Imerovigli very easily from our place.
Our Airbnb was very pretty, accommodated three of us nicely (though the teeny tiny shower required some creativity), had very kind and helpful staff, and had a pool which was glorious in late afternoon.
Things to Do:
It seems that the most popular things to do are rent vehicles or quads, judging by the high volume of rental places competing for your business side-by-side, as well as sunset chasing! We did both, as well as some other fun things below that I'd love to share with you.
- We rented a vehicle as there were three of us and we were able to drive around the island swiftly due to its small size. More tips on renting below.
- Visit Kamari beach (or better known as one of the black sand beaches) on the southern part of Santorini and right next to the busier Perissa beach. It is truly a beautiful place and not as crowded as others nearby when we were there in September. We were able to score some comfortable loungers underneath straw Tiki umbrellas on a stretch of beach in front of a cafe that provided well-priced, great lounger-side food and drink service, with wifi included. Perfect for us! The water was also a beautiful, sparkling shade of turquoise and as warm as a bathtub.
- Head over to the Red Beach on the island too. This beach is stunning and very unusual; almost like what you would imagine a landscape on Mars landscape would look like. Bring some good shoes though to hike down to the beach as the path to get there can be a bit tricky to manoeuvre.
- Walk the Caldera path. We walked the approximate one mile journey from Fira to Imerovigli, though you can walk it all the way to Oia. The blazing sun was a bit much for us to go all the way! The views on this path, which is a relatively easy walk, are absolutely incredible and nearly too many to count. Be sure to bring your camera for all of the amazing photo ops you are presented with. When we got to Imerovigli, we stopped off at a little cafe for lunch, which overlooked the caldera. We had a long, leisurely lunch watching the sea sparkle, ships sail by, and the sky melting into the sea and blurring the horizon. I remember sitting there taking it all in and feeling that it was one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I have ever visited.
- For something a little different, try Franco's Bar in Fira. We went for evening drinks after sunset one evening. Tucked away down a flight of stairs sits this beautiful, classy outdoor bar with views over the caldera. A tasty drink menu and classical music underneath the starry sky was such a memorable experience.
- See the sunset from Fira or Imerovigli. The sunsets of Santorini are famous for a reason! The sun descends into hazy watercolour painting of fiery oranges, reds and yellows first, followed by stunning shades of pink and purple. Try to score a place on the caldera path for ideal photo ops or secure a place at one of the many bars looking out onto the horizon. On our first evening there, we watched the sun go down nearly all the way and then went to a lovely little bar and toasted to being so lucky to be in such a beautiful place over glasses of sparkling wine. Heaven!
- Check out the Galini Cafe in Firostefani (http://www.galinicafesantorini.com). It's peaceful, beachy vibe decked out in classic blues and whites, and accented with glass and seashells makes for a lovely place to enjoy a meal. We went there as our first place to enjoy some lunch after getting off the ferry and dropping our bags off at our bnb. It was here that we got our first glimpse of the beauty of Santorini from the edge of the caldera. We had a lingering, very tasty, lunch enjoying the views, followed by a walk throughout the town to get our bearings.
Santorini Travel Tips:
- Oia gets all the attention for the sunsets on the island. We travelled there on our second evening and wished we hadn't. Essentially, you need to get there in by mid-afternoon to secure yourself a great place at one of the bars or restaurants to get a good view. You are funnelled down a narrow path with thousands of other people with souvenir shops on either side, all with the goal to get to the small viewing point to get that perfect snap. The whole experience for us was quite stressful and we ended up missing the sunset due to all of the people traffic. It was also far too touristy and claustrophobic to be honest. We went deep into the back roads of Oia to find a restaurant for dinner as well that wasn't over-priced and filled with other tourists. The sunsets in Fira or Imerovigli are just as beautiful and a much more enjoyable experience.
- Travel during September when the temperature is still hot and the sea is warm, but the high season of tourism is drawing to a close. May and June could also be good alternatives.
- If you are looking for a romantic getaway or honeymoon, this is definitely the place with many dreamy hotels waiting for you. However, I would recommend booking a place at, or near, the top of the caldera for more privacy. We would be having lunch or dinner and look down to see many 'private' pools adjacent to suites with couples canoodling and unaware that they were in full view of people eating sandwiches watching (unavoidable, really!).
- When renting a car in Greece (and this may sound obvious), always always remember to do a full walk around check with the staff at the rental shop and clearly mark down any potential bumps, scratches, damages, anything. I would also advise taking photos then, as well as when you return it. Also beware of what kind of insurance you are buying to go along with it as well. More about our lessons learned on this on Paros in the next post.
Sharing a few of my favourite snaps from the trip at left. Wishing I could teleport myself back to this dreamy place now as Toronto is currently in winter's icy grip (and possibly new ice age). Have you been to Santorini?? What were some of your favourite things to do and see?
When I first moved to the London in 2008 and the Christmas season started to approach, I began hearing about European Christmas Markets. I hadn't heard of them before but found out that they are a big deal in Europe. Being a lover of lights, snow, decorations, and all things Christmas, I knew I had to explore what these were all about. The excitement of being able to travel to countries in Europe which once felt so far flung while in Toronto were suddenly accessible in a two or three hour flight! Feeling almost overwhelmed with choice, I decided to dive in and go to Prague because it has always intrigued me and would be the perfect destination to go on a city break to explore as well as check out the Christmas markets.
Do you have a trip that stands out in your mind more than others? Prague became one of those cities for me. It was the furthest east I had traveled in the world at that point, and everything about it was new and unique. It probably sounds a bit silly, but I was excited from the moment I landed and entered the arrivals hall at the airport. As soon as I arrived in the city, I fell in love with the beautiful architecture, the crisp winter air, incredible historical sites, the buzzing energy in the city... I was hooked! I ended up loving Prague so much, that I ended up returning in 2012 (also in December).
Prague's Christmas Markets
After I checked into my hotel (Hotel Yasmin - more details below), I wanted to take a walk around the city to get oriented to Prague. I think this is one of the best ways to get oriented to a new city and find your bearings. I made my way to Wenceslas Square, one of Prague's oldest, most historical, and famous squares (or, very big, long rectangle to be accurate), as it was steps away from my hotel and took in the first sights. I didn't have to go far to experience my first European Christmas Market, as Wenceslas Square hosts one of the largest markets in the city.
As night fell, I experienced the magic of the Christmas Markets. I was hooked with the atmosphere in Prague - snowflakes softly falling, the smell of warm baked goods and svarak (hot mulled wine) in the air, laughter, twinkling Christmas (fairy) lights, festive music, rows of little red huts selling beautiful homemade decorations and goods... I couldn't have imagined a more perfect scene and understood then and there why people fall in love in Christmas markets.
It's easy to get caught up in the markets once you start exploring. I have to actively try and restrain myself from buying everything right away from the first five stalls. My recommendation is to try and look around all of the stalls and markets first, then go back to your favourites as you may start to see some repeat Christmas decorations at several huts (potentially at different prices), but also be able to pick out which decorations are the most unique. One exception to this - if you find something that you REALLY love, buy it just in case you can't find it again and miss the chance. In Prague, some of the things that I loved the most were traditional wooden ornaments, glass and crystal items, and lace. Also consider how these can become a unique souvenir from your trip. Over the years, I have made going to different Christmas markets each year a tradition and pick up new decorations. My Christmas tree is now a tree of memories from those trips and a great source of topics when you have visitors to share your experiences.
The Christmas Markets are also definitely all about the food too! If you aren't a vegetarian, you'll be in meat heaven. My personal favourite part though was discovering all the (new to me) delicious pastries - especially the Trdelnik, which is a spiral shaped pastry covered with sugar or cinnamon. And because it will be chilly, everyone keeps warm with (many) cups of hot mulled wine (svarak), which is a perfect drink to wander around the markets with. However, you can't miss trying famous Czech beers though because after all, you're in Prague!
Prague is a city that is really easy to walk around. However, the city also has excellent transit options that you can take. The Markets are all free too.
2016 Christmas Markets in Prague
The largest and most popular markets are in the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. The dates for 2016's markets run from November 26, 2016 to January 1, 2017.
• Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) The Old Town Square Christmas market is the prettiest and busiest in Prague. Little huts with red roofs are scattered around the square, surrounded by Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Overlooking the market is a large Christmas tree, adorned with hundreds of lights and lights up every evening at dusk. Dominating the square is the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, standing high with its beautiful spires. There are also Christmas concerts and plays performed for market visitors. Visit both during the day and at night to experience the market's different atmospheres.
• Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) Wenceslas Square also hosts a large Christmas market in the city centre. It is located in the lower part of the Square, with a large Christmas tree twinkling with lights as the centrepiece.
• Republic Square (Náměstí Republiky) This Christmas market is near the Old Town Square and near the Náměstí Republiky metro station (line B) and tram stop (tram 5, 8, 24, 26).
See and Do
I have to believe that Disney got much of its inspiration for its fairytale drawings from Prague. Known as the City of a Thousand Spires, its sea of red roofs, winding streets, ornate spires, and whimsical architecture greet you during your visit. In between cozy cups of hot chocolate and shopping for Christmas decorations, there are some fantastic things to see and do. It's the perfect time of year to explore as you won't have to fight through the same numbers of tourists that are there during high season.
Old Town Square
The Old Town Square is a key focal point of Prague and feels as though you are stepping back in time into a perfect storybook setting that will take your breath away - especially in the low winter light at sunset that creates a magical golden glow over the city. It is believed that the Square has remained largely untouched since the 10th century, despite a long history of invasions and wars over the centuries.
Here you can see the Astronomical Clock, Gothic Tyn Cathedral, St Nicholas Church, and the Kinsky Palace. Watch the Astronomical Clock perform on the hour each hour (you won't be able to miss it due to the crowds of people that gather underneath waiting for the characters to appear). The medieval clock was installed in 1410 and the oldest one till in operation. At its time of installation, it was the third oldest astronomical clock in the world. The clock has various components, including the astronomical dial which represents the position of the sun and moon. The 'performance' element features the Walk of the Apostles; at the top of the hour, figures of the Apostles and other moving figures, including a skeleton representing Death, strike the time. There is also a calendar dial representing the months of the year. The clock is part of the Old Town Hall, where I highly recommend including a climb to the top for amazing and awe-inspiring views of the Square and city. Time your visit to the top with sunset and you'll fall even more in love with this city.
This large, imposing ancient castle sits on top of a hill overlooking Prague. Impressive, though menacing at times, Prague Castle is said to be the largest ancient castle in the world, believed to have been founded in 880 AD, and is the size of approximately seven football fields! The castle is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. To get there, I like to wander across the Charles Bridge, then up the winding hill to the castle which offers incredible views as you ascend. Explore the castle grounds and be sure to look at all the details around and above you on the buildings. It is a fascinating place to explore. When you leave the castle, there is a lovely neighbourhood to explore before walking back down to the city.
You'll recognize this bridge as soon as you get to it as it's one of Prague's most famous landmarks and at the heart of the city. Allowing you to cross the Vltava River, this gorgeous bridge attracts people for a reason: it was commissioned in 1357 by King Charles IV, has 30 statutes of religious figures lining the cobblestone bridge to admire, spans 16 arches, and is pedestrianized. It's unlike any bridge you've ever seen! It boasts incredible views of the castle and the river, as well as attracting artists and musicians looking for your attention (and money). It gets very crowded, even in wintertime, so I recommend going early in the day when the light will be beautiful and few people will be around, and/or in the evening as the castle lights up (you'll likely want to go more than once!).
Jewish Quarter (Josefov)
Steeped in history, this quarter is atmospheric, fascinating, and beautiful. Franz Kafka is a key figure in this quarter (you'll see a monument dedicated to him in this area), which is also close to the Old Town Square. In addition to the cafes and boutiques that can be found throughout its winding streets, there are a series of important buildings run by the Jewish Museum, including the Pinkas Synagogue, Spanish Synagogue, the Old Jewish Cemetery, Ceremonial Hall, Old-New Synagogue, and Klaus Synagogue.
David Cerny sculptures
David Cerny is one of the Czech Republic's most famous artists. His weird and wonderful (and controversial) sculptures can be seen all around Prague. You can make a bit of a game to try and find them all. Keep your eyes peeled and don't forget to look in unusual places. Some of the ones you can see are Horse, Babies, Piss (if you visit one of the best restaurants in Prague, Hergetova Cihelna, described below, you will find this statue in the courtyard), and Hanging Out.
Life Under Communism in Prague
Visiting Prague is a fascinating experience for its rich, deep history. Its most recent history under Communism in particular can still be felt and imagined as you explore the city. Take a break from the cold and visit the Museum of Communism to get a deeper understanding of life behind the Iron Curtain that shaped Prague (and the Czech Republic) and its citizens. There are great examples of relics and propaganda from the time, as well as information on the Velvet Revolution, the non-violent protest period which contributed to the end of Soviet Rule in the then-Czechoslovakia at the end of 1989 (Wenceslas Square is also a key site where Velvet Revolution protests were held).
Life under Communism meant living under terror, paranoia, and restrictions. There is a beautiful piece of outdoor art which serves as the Memorial to the Victims of Communism, remembering the more than 200,000 Czechs arrested and 327 killed as they tried to escape across the border. It comprises sculptures of six people in a state of progressive decay, and should be visited.
One of the best restaurants I visited in Prague is called Hergetova Cihelna Restaurant and Bar. Tucked away featuring one of David Cerny's works of art in the courtyard, it is located next to the river, and is absolutely delicious. It's great if you're looking for something a bit special. Beautiful wines, divine food, and terrific service that I can still remember to this day. You can take a taxi or get there by transit/metro: Malostranska (Line A) or Tram Stop: Malostranske Namesti (trams 12, 22, 23). Be sure to try some Czech wine - the Czech Riesling is delicious - while you're there. Not only is it great to try local things, of course, but it is really tasty and difficult to find outside of the Czech Republic.
Ok, bear with me for this one. There is a fantastic Mexican restaurant called Cantina in Prague. While this seems like a strange place to recommend in Prague, I promise you that it's really tasty! It's great if you are in need of a break and give your tastebuds some new and exciting to try during your trip.
For something quick and easy, stop by one of the Bohemia Bagel Cafe locations for a tasty bagel and cream cheese and coffee.
Try some local food at one of the Christmas markets in the city, where you can find delicious meat dishes, baked goods, pastries, cakes, and hot mulled wine. It's tasty, a great way to try local food, and inexpensive.
Stop into Bar and Books for a late night drink. This cozy bar is dimly lit, features fantastic cocktails, and has a cool vibe to relax in, especially late at night when it's warm and candlelit inside away from the frosty winter air outside.
Hotel Yasmin - This boutique design hotel is located in the city centre just off Wenceslas Square. The design features are quirky and eye-catching in the common areas, with natural colours and decor in your room providing a calming and relaxing environment. As seen in the photo at left, this fun large orange piece of art greets you in the lobby along with silver baubles hanging from the ceiling. A chic and modern bathroom await you in your room, along with free wifi, tv, and a minibar. It's easy to get to from the airport via public transport. Hop off the metro at Prague National Museum or Bethlehem Chapel. The delicious breakfast buffet sets you up nicely for the day ahead as well.
The Hotel Maximilian is the hotel I stayed at during my second visit to the city, which is very close to the Old Town Square. Designed by Eva Jiricna, this hotel was chic, comfortable, and stylish with modern features. But, the coolest thing about it was our 'loaner' goldfish! The hotel will provide you with one of their goldfish in an aquarium in your room if you are missing your pet during your stay. I just loved it!
Train: The city is easy to reach by rail. On one of my visits to Prague, I took a comfortable train from Berlin which took about five hours and featured beautiful scenery along the way.
Metro: The metro that runs through Prague is swift, efficient, and easy to use. A great way to get around the city!
Berlin is one of those cities that will exceed any expectations you may have of it. It’s a city that you can't help but feel will be different each time you visit because it is modernizing and changing so quickly. The city has done a great job of preserving and remembering its history while still feeling new, modern and ever evolving. It's cool, urban, hip, and modern, and there is so much to see, do, and experience.
Berlin's Christmas Markets are simply magical, with around 60 to choose from around the city! Christmas markets originated in Germany centuries ago and have set the standard for all that have followed around Europe and beyond. Wander through traditional markets to modern, finding beautiful Christmas decorations and handmade goods, listen to festive music, enjoy the scent of delicious pastries and hot mulled wine wafting through the air, and walk through the chilly air under canopies of twinkling lights. Berlin's markets are beautiful to explore and a special experience. Here are some of my favourites in the city:
·Gendarmenmarkt: This is my favourite market in the city because it is set in one of the prettiest areas of Berlin. The market is surround by the Franzosischer Dom, Konzerthaus, and the Deutscher Dom. There is something truly magical about climbing up the steps of the Konzerthaus to get a view over the entire market and admire the star-topped Christmas huts sparkling in the night. This market feels a bit more traditional due to the goods being sold, music being played, delicious food being offered (including from Michelin-starred chefs!) and atmosphere. Admission is 1 Euro.
·Alexanderplatz: This large open square in the heart of the city and at the base of the TV Tower has many different Christmas huts to wander around and explore. There are also small rides and attractions to enjoy. It is open from November 21 - December 26, 2016.
·Berliner Weihnachtszeit: Located just behind Alexanderplatz, this market is in the historic Neptunbrunnen. Between the Rotes Rathaus and Marienkirche, you can enjoy skating on the rink, a ride on the carousel or ferris wheel, or enjoy some hot mulled wine under a blanket at one of the beautiful wooden huts and people watch. Join in the fun in the pavilion with dancing and drinks. Complete with rows of long tables and benches (which end up with many people dancing on top of), the atmosphere is fun, lively, and festive! Open from November 21 - December 29, 2016.
·Potsdamer Platz: One of Berlin's largest historic squares hosts a huge wonderland with everything from a toboggan hill where you can see the Brandenburg Gate from the top, an outdoor skating rink, curling, and a Christmas market. The market is open from November 21 - December 26, 2016. In the evening, enjoy dancing and a party in an apres-ski environment. Open from November 4, 2016 to January 1, 2017.
See / Do:
There is so much to see and do in Berlin. These are some of my favourites below, especially for a combined Christmas market / city break (though a few are dependent on the time of year, such as the river cruise):
·The Reichstag is the large beautiful glass dome which sits on top of the German parliament (the Bundestag), which can be seen from inside the dome. It is a must-visit when in Berlin. If you go in the winter, the colours filtering through are especially beautiful, whether icy greys and whites from snow, or crystal blue winter skies glittering in. There are 360 views as you ascend the gentle sloping spiral ramp, and a roof terrace to enjoy as well. Note though that to visit, you have to pre-book. It’s free but you need to reserve a slot and enter in your identification information. Do this as soon as possible so you don’t get disappointed by not being able to visit. The dome is open daily from 8:00 - 24:00 (last admission is 22:00), with admission every quarter of the hour. Definitely check ahead though in case of closures due to maintenance work or security issues.
·See the Brandenburg Gate, which is close to the Reichstag and German Parliament. One of Berlin's most iconic landmarks, the Brandenburg Gate symbolizes German reunification, when it previously stood as a symbol of division. The arch was completed in 1791 as the royal city gate and stands over Pariser Platz. In Pariser Platz, you will find embassies, the famous historic Hotel Adlon (perfect for afternoon tea), numerous tour group departure points, and numerous costumed individuals.
·Visit Berlin's TV Tower (or Berliner Fernsehturm as its official name), Germany's tallest building. This iconic building offers spectacular 360 degree views over the Berlin cityscape. In addition to the observation deck, there is a cafe and bar to enjoy a drink while you admire the views, as well as a restaurant. My advice is to book ahead to avoid having to wait in long lines and any disappointment if you can't get in.
·Visiting the Berlin Wall is a must-see. Having only fallen in 1989, the very recent history of the wall and division of the city must be remembered. When you stand at a section of the wall, it is incredible to imagine what life must have been like for people living on both sides Berlin, but East Berlin in particular.
- The wall began to be built by the National People's Army during the night of August 12, 1961, when they began closing off streets and rail lines running towards West Berlin. The wall cut through the city to prevent citizens of East Berlin and East Germany from escaping to the West. The wall was subsequently fortified, creating multiple layers where the gaps between them became known as the 'death strip', as people who attempted to flee were killed. It is estimated that between over 200 people were killed trying to escape through the wall. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. There are various sites that remember the wall and its victims throughout the city:
- East Side Gallery: This is the longest surviving continuous stretch of the inner Wall. You can find it running along the River Spree at Friedrichshain. Here, you will find a long series of murals in this open air art gallery that is more than a kilometre long. The murals have been painted by 118 artists from 21 countries commenting on political events between 1989 - 1990 in over 100 pieces of art. One of the most famous paintings to see is Dimitry Vrubel's 'My God, Help Me Survive amid This Deadly Love', which features the Soviet and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in a kiss. It is based on an actual photograph taken in 1979 during Brezhnev's visit to Berlin. Another key piece of art to look out for at the East Side Gallery is a Trabant car coming through the Wall by Birgit Kinder called 'Test the Rest'.
- Berlin Wall Memorial: Located at Bernauer Strasse, this section of the memorial features a section of the inner and outer walls in East Berlin so you can see the division of the city and the death strip. There is a Visitors Centre, Documentation Centre, and Chapel of Reconciliation built on the former death strip. You can also see the foundations of a former apartment building, the facade of which was built into the border wall until the early 1980s.
- Checkpoint Charlie: This famous former checkpoint site was the East / West German border crossing where allied soldiers from the British, French, and American armed forces registered prior to travelling to East Berlin from September 1961. It was also the site in October 1961 where there a tank stand-off, commemorated in a piece of art by Frank Thiel and plaque at the former border. However, this site has become tragically touristy, crowded and filled with tourist traps and tacky attractions. At the most, it's worth a walk through to see it.
- Don't forget to look down as you walk through the city as Berlin has created a path of a double row of cobblestones tracing the foundation of the Berlin Wall over 5.7km.
· One of the most fascinating and moving museums in Berlin is the Topography of Terror museum. This is the site of the former SS (Secret State) Police, one of the most feared organizations during the second world war as a central Nazi organ of persecution and terror. Between the years of 1933 - 1945, the SS Police Office, SS leadership, and Reich Security Main Office during WWII, were based here. The building was torn down at the end of the war. Now, an open, glass building on its foundation, surrounded by rubble and remains of the Berlin Wall, stands featuring exhibits that focus on the SS and police during the Third Reich and the crimes they committed. The documents, photographs, and stories are incredibly moving, and so important to remember. There is free admission to this museum and is highly recommended.
·A must-see in Berlin is the Holocaust memorial, or Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as it is formally known. Located in the Mitte area of Berlin, it is very close to the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag. This large and sprawling memorial will take your breath away by the sheer size of it. It consists of 2711 grey concrete blocks of varying sizes and heights, is approximately the size of a football field, and is located on a former death strip where the Berlin Wall once stood. It took 17 years to complete and is a memorial to the estimated six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust during WWII. There is much debate about its symbolism, but the architect, Peter Eisenmen, envisioned them as symbolizing tombstones. As you walk through to the centre through the rows and rows of blocks, they begin to soar above your head. This, combined with the uneven ground, starts to block out the light and makes you feel a bit disoriented in this maze-like environment. Visitors are not allowed to climb on the blocks, but you will no doubt see this happening. If I can plead with you on something, please do not be one of them. Remember what this memorial is symbolizing and be respectful by not climbing on them. There is an Information Centre located on the south-eastern end of the memorial, which is accessible by stairs or elevator. It features moving information and stories of the victims as a way of remembrance to complement the memorial. If you go to one of the cafes or restaurants alongside the memorial, you can get a higher view to overlook the entire memorial and get a good sense of its size and scale.
·Hitler’s bunker: Strangely (or not, depending on who you ask), the former site of Hitler's bunker can be visited just a few blocks away from the Holocaust memorial. At the end of WWII, this is the site where Hitler and his partner Eva Braun, committed suicide. The only indication of it now is a sign detailing the map of the former large bunker as it was destroyed and a car park now covers it.
· For something a bit lighter, visit the beautiful Schloss Charlottenburg. This gorgeous baroque palace was the home of the royal Hohenzollern family, who ruled from 1415 to 1918. It was originally built as a summer palace for Sophie-Charlotte, the wife of Elector Friedrich III. It later grew into an estate rivalling that of Versailles after he became King. The rooms inside the palace are opulent and grand, and make you feel like you're walking into a different century of old world glamour. After you're done exploring inside, don't forget to visit the stunning Baroque gardens. Before you go, check opening days and times. Also, go either earlier or later in the day to avoid tourist crowds and have the palace more to yourself.
· There are so many great neighbourhoods in Berlin to check out to discover great restaurants, coffee culture, galleries, shopping, street art, and take in hip Berlin life and culture. Head to Prenzlauerberg, Kreuzberg, or Friedrichshain.
·Museums: Berlin has some incredible museums, with some of the giants located on Museum Island. Five grand museums sit on Museum Island, which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site for the priceless and unique collections located on this island in the middle of the city. Its roots date back to the Enlightenment period, with the buildings demonstrating the evolution of modern architecture design. The museums located here are the Pergamon Museum(classic antiquities, ancient near east artefacts, and Islamic art), Bode Museum (sculptures, Byzantine art, and Numismatic collections), Neues Museum(ancient Egyptian and Nubian collections, Europe and Asia archaeological finds over the past 6000 years), Alte Nationalgalerie(sculptures, Romantic and Impressionist artwork), and Altes Museum(classical antiquities).
·River boat cruise: During the summer, take a cruise on the river and enjoy the sunshine, sights, and a glass of sparkling wine. You can get on the boat from the pier near Museum Island.
·KaDeWe: Short for Kaufhaus des Westens, this is a large, iconic department which a seriously impressive gourmet food floor. Definitely worth checking out.
·Bikini Berlin: A very cool concept mall filled primarily with independent retailers and designers. One of the best parts though is the comfortable lounge area where you can watch the monkeys in the Berlin Zoo play at eye level.
·Berlin's nightlife is pretty epic! Note that Berliners go out really late to party - think at least 1 or 2am.
Eat / Drink:
·Neni. Delicious food, incredible food, beautiful décor. The views over the city are wonderful, but particularly magnificent at sunset. The food is best described as a mixture of Israeli, Persian, Arabian, and Mediterranean. You can find it at the top of the very cool 25 Hours Hotel Bikini Berlin.
·After dinner at Neni, or if you’re just looking for a great place for drinks, one of the coolest places to go is Monkey Bar,located just across the hall on the same floor as Neni. Cool décor, great cocktails, but the real showstopper is that you can watch the monkeys play below inside the Berlin Zoo!
· Take a break while shopping and pop into Galeries Lafayette(if you aren't shopping there already!). Head to the gourmet food hall and enjoy some delicious food at one of the many different stalls available. A good option for lunch.
·A Berlin favourite is Currywurst (sausage seasoned with curry ketchup), found at many street food stalls available around the city.
·Don't forget to try the tasty food at the Christmas markets, along with a hot cup of mulled wine!
·Berlin Airports (Berlin Tegel and Berlin Schonefeld): Berlin is well served by two international airport, albeit quite small ones in comparison to other major city airports. For many long-haul flights, you will likely have to take a connection in a city such as Frankfurt or Munich.
·Metro: Getting around Berlin is incredibly easy by an efficient metro system. There are also trams running through the city that can be a bit confusing to take at first, but also efficient to get you where you want to go.
A Long Weekend In...Calgary
This past August, I was working in Edmonton for two weeks. Separating these two weeks was a long weekend, so never one to miss up a potential travel opportunity, I thought I would try and take advantage of checking out Calgary for a few days.
When I travel abroad and let people know that I'm Canadian, I usually receive the answer, 'I love Canada!'. The conversation then usually goes:
Me: "I'm so happy to hear that! Have you been / where have you visited?"
Them: "The Rockies, of course! Canada is so beautiful!"
Me (inside my head of course): "Yes, of course, if you like mountains and beautiful scenery - that kind of thing."
As a Torontonian, this irks me to no end, of course. So, I thought I'd better check it out and see what all the fuss is about. And, I do love a city break!
On Friday afternoon, I hopped on Alberta's Red Arrow bus to make the journey after being recommended it by a colleague. It was fantastic (after I nearly missed the bus after going to the wrong station in Edmonton! Lesson: always double check addresses and don't make assumptions that you think you know something is located somewhere). With 30 seconds to spare, I was able to hop on and start travelling south. With comfortable leather seats, roomy leg space, movies to watch (I had Midnight in Paris showing on my journey which made me incredibly happy!), newspapers, complimentary water, soft drinks, coffee, snacks, and wifi all sweetened the deal.
I arrived in Calgary about 3.5 hours later right in the middle of downtown. I only had about five minutes to walk to my glorious hotel - The Fairmont Palliser.
Wondering about how to spend a long weekend in Calgary? Here are some of my favourites and recommendations.
Arriving at the beautiful Fairmont Palliser after a long week of work and travel felt like such a treat. I was greeted by smiling, friendly staff who warmly welcomed me and got me settled in. Even better - to my surprise, I found that I had been upgraded to a Fairmont Gold Suite and got to check in at the Presidential Club Lounge area. Now, this was really fantastic because I was welcomed as though I was an old friend and that nothing was too much trouble.
I checked into my room and was greeted by modern and luxurious decor, decorated in soothing tones of grey (my favourite), white and cream. It was beautifully laid out with a sitting area containing a sofa and lounge chair (great to have guests over before going out for dinner), an office area (great if you need somewhere to work - especially if you are there for business), a welcoming bed, and large modern spa-like bathroom.
Now, I am always one to immediately check out what type of bath products a hotel offers to its guests. When I saw one of my favourite brands sitting on the countertop - Le Labo - and in my favourite scent, I knew this hotel understands great quality and luxury. If you don't know Le Labo, definitely check them out. It is sold in select stores so can be hard to find due to its focus on quality (perfumes are specially made for you in store while you wait) and exclusivity. The second thing I look for - is there a bathrobe offered (and how plush it is)? The Palliser won this too and it took every last bit of self control not to pack away this white, fluffy robe in my suitcase.
When I laid down to sleep later on that first night, I actually sighed because this bed was truly the most comfortable bed I have ever experienced. I stay in many hotels on a regular basis and this one has easily surpassed any other bed I've stayed in. I understand this is a bold claim to make. But trust me. It was somehow the perfect level of firmness that felt like it was welcoming you in, accompanied by soft, luxurious white sheets, and just the right pillows (which is always a tricky one to master in hotels). If you don't believe me, I urge you to stay there and test it yourself. You won't be disappointed! A bit like a Goldilocks experiment where this will be your 'JUST RIGHT' find.
The Palliser is a stone's throw from the Calgary Tower, so I decided to check it out while the sun was setting. There was barely a queue at this time so I was able to go up very quickly. The views at the top are spectacular, especially to admire the sunset glittering off Calgary's skyscrapers and turning the Rocky Mountains in the distance into silhouettes against a pink and orange sky. Magic! The great thing as well about this evening was that as you walked around the top, which offers 360 views, there was a Blue Moon rising in the distance against the twilight sky as time went on. Visiting the Calgary Tower gives you a great orientation of the city and surrounding areas to explore.
As I wanted to take advantage of the short time I had over the long weekend, I decided to book a day trip to the Rocky Mountains with Hammerhead Scenic Tours, an independent company that had received great reviews on TripAdvisor (including a 2014 Certificate of Excellence). Although I called the evening before taking a tour for the following day, Petar (the owner) was very accommodating and secured me a spot.
The next morning, Petar arrived with his comfortable vehicle right on time. What I loved was that it was a small group of about 10 of us, and Petar gave us warm, personalized service from the start. Incredibly knowledgeable, he described everything we were passing on the way to our first stop - Moraine Lake. As an experienced guide, he recognized that since it was the long weekend and the crowds would be busy, he adjusted the itinerary to do this lake first before it got too crazy. Well, luckily for us, we were able to get through the road blocks that were being set up by park rangers to limit the number of people entering the road to get to the lake (something we wouldn't have been able to if we were doing a self-drive). Petar has deep knowledge and a clear love of this landscape and took us to get the best views and happily offering to take photos for us along the way.
Throughout the day, we visited Lake Louise, Victoria Glacier, Banff (where we stopped for lunch and exploring), Two Jack Lake, Minnewanka Lake (also known as 'Water of the Spirits' in Nakoda and the longest lake in the Canadian Rocky Mountains parks), Bow Falls, Banff Springs Hotel and the Hoodoos.
Peter was very accommodating for us and stopped when we wanted to spend a bit more time in new areas or on the scheduled stops to take photographs. Although it was a long day, it was such an enjoyable one. I would highly recommend this tour to everyone, especially people who have a limited period of time to spend in Calgary and want to get a taste of the Rocky Mountains.
Drumheller and the Badlands:
The following day, I went on another that I booked through Viator (which they then sub-contract to a local company) to head to Drumheller and the Badlands. Although the scenery was incredible on this trip, the tour guide didn't have quite the same warm welcome and feeling as Petar did the following day. He didn't say very much as we were driving, nor when we arrived at different stops. He essentially dropped us off and waited by the van, which was unfortunate.
I highly recommend visiting the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, which not only houses some of the most important dinosaur finds in the world, but has been the very site of such finds. This incredible museum will leave you in awe. One of the best parts is a section of the museum where you can view the large lab where palaeontologists are working on the hundreds of dinosaur fossils found in the surrounding badlands. This is a must visit for everyone!
Surrounding the museum is a path through a section of the badlands that you can hike through and explore. They are strangely beautiful and eerie - and very quiet. It feels like you are walking through what you would imagine a landscape on Mars to be like with its unusual formations of dusty and dry layers, valleys and peaks. It is incredible that this landscape is a mere two to three hours away from the lush forests and mountain peaks of the Rockies.
On the holiday Monday, I had the opportunity to visit the Calgary Zoo - a terrific experience and package offered by the Palliser. I was eager to visit this museum for many reasons, including its reputation for great care of its animals, a chance to get a glimpse of its newest baby penguin, and the lengths its staff went to in protecting and rescuing the animals during the devastating floods that affected Calgary in 2013. I went early in the morning before it got too hot (for me and for the animals!) and avoid the holiday crowds that would no doubt be there later in the day. What I love about this zoo is that it feels very manageable in terms of its size and the exhibits. The animals were active, with its penguins playfully putting on a show in their pools, a curious gorilla sitting by the glass checking out us humans, and giraffes happily munching away on the trees provided for them.
In what feels like a great ode to Alberta's ancient history of dinosaurs, there is a terrific exhibit currently there called 'Prehistoric Park' that features lifelike prehistoric dinosaurs in different habitats and pens. I wasn't sure if it would feel cheesy at first, but I was quickly proven wrong. A lot of care has gone into this and you are definitely able to suspend reality as you walk through, seeing the models and animatronics in similar types of exhibits as the live animals in the zoo. As a child (and ok, yes, still today), I adored dinosaurs and this is a great exhibit for all ages.
Afternoon Tea at The Palliser:
Later on that day, I returned to the Palliser to enjoy their special Heritage Day Afternoon Tea (click on the link embedded under Afternoon Tea for the full details of my blog post - it definitely deserved its own post!).
On the fantastic recommendation of two of my friends who now live in Calgary, they took me to Charcut, which is not only one of the city's best restaurants, but in Canada as well. Charcut focuses on local producers and seasonal ingredients, which creates an exciting menu that changes daily. Charcut's inviting room is warm and welcoming, has a great energy, and is decorated with beautiful touches of wood panelling and glowing candlelight. It is unpretentious with incredibly knowledgeable servers. Also exciting is that Charcut cures its own meat and sausages, as well as cheeses, in house - you can't get fresher than that! This is a must-visit when in Calgary but definitely try to make a reservation ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
With Calgary's boom in recent years, the city is well served by car, buses, trains, and planes at its international airport.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Northern Ireland as part of a work exchange through the European Union called 'Comenius Regio'. A group of my colleagues and I based in England developed a project with colleagues based in Dublin centred around building restorative practices in a number of settings.
One of our trips/exchanges brought us to Northern Ireland; specifically, Corrymeela, a site for Peace and Reconciliation, based near Ballycastle on the Northern Antrim coast. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It was breathtaking upon first sight out to sea. Mornings were peaceful just to take a deep breath of calm, fresh, clean air and gaze out to the horizon where we could see the Scottish and Rathlin islands in the distance.
Flying in to Belfast and looking out of the plane window, it's easy to see why it is referred to as the Emerald Isle. Stunning shades of green, ever-changing skies, and dramatic coastlines around every bend on the Causeway Coast. I lost count of the times we would gasp in the car, "Wow! Look at that!', 'Pull the car over - just one photo!'.
During our free time, we went out to explore. We drove along the Causeway Coast to visit Carrick-a-Rede first. This dramatic and awe-inspiring site features a long rope bridge between two cliffs over a chasm that is sure to make your stomach drop but provide the brave with some stunning views. For the not-so-brave, it still rewards you with beautiful views along the jagged cliffs and coastline where the sea laps against the shore in all of its blue and green hues.
We then continued onwards to visit the Giant's Causeway. After entering the site, you can choose from a variety of different paths to reach the Causeway, all suited to different abilities and needs to access it (not a difficult walk at all generally). The Giant's Causeway is steeped in legend, being believed that it was carved by the powerful giant, Finn McCool, leaving behind clues such as the Wishing Chair and Giant's Boot.
When you reach the site, which is essentially thousands of columns of layered basalt laid out in fascinating patterns, you begin to understand why this place has an aura of mystery and myth. The columns were created by a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago (just don't tell Finn McCool that!). I remember sitting on some of the stones being fascinated with how they had formed, creating such intricate shapes and patterns. Be sure to walk around the stones and see how the landscape changes from different angles and perspectives. The Giant's Causeway is also Northern Ireland's only UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a must-see during your lifetime! It is also part of a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
After we tore ourselves away from the dramatic beauty of the Giant's Causeway, we continued along the coast to an abandoned castle on a headland called Dunluce Castle. The dramatic ruins of this medieval Irish castle, dating back to the 14th century, give you a glimpse of the power it once had. Standing on the edge of a sharp cliff that drops straight down into the sea below, evidence has found that part of it fell into the water during a storm in 1639 and was abandoned. Archaeological research has found that there may have been a village that surrounded it before being destroyed in a fire in 1641. It has also been said that this castle was a possible inspiration for C.S Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia (for Cair Paravel).
Although we didn't get there in time before it closed, the Old Bushmills Distillery is quite closely and would be terrific for a tour and sampling of Irish whisky (as long as you are of legal drinking age, of course)!
Belfast International Airport is an excellent option for travellers to fly into Northern Ireland and is well served by many airlines. We opted for a quick flight from London Stansted via EasyJet.
Another great option if travelling from elsewhere in the UK is to take a ferry from England (leaving from Liverpool), Scotland or the Isle of Man.
I highly recommend renting a vehicle to drive around in as there are so many vantage points to stop at along the way, as well as lovely little villages and towns. This will let you explore this beautiful country at your own pace.
La Dolce Vita
What's your first memory of travel? The first one that was really meaningful that when you think of it vivid images flash through your mind, emotions, a scent or the feel of the air on your skin take you right back to that place and time.
For me, it was Italy. When I was 18, I had the opportunity to travel around Italy as part of a high school history course with some of my closest friends throughout July for a few weeks. I mean, can you get a better deal than that? What better place to learn history than to stand at the sites themselves in places like Rome, Florence and Venice - with a group of friends, no parents, and during summertime to sweeten the deal?
It was my first real trip away from home on my own and to Europe. In these early internet, pre-tripadvisor, pre-blogging days (and even pre-Euro days!), I didn't quite know what to expect beyond what was in some guidebooks that I read through. I bought some traveller's cheques, learned a few words of Italian, and packed my suitcase with a bit of help from my mom.
After a nine hour flight buzzing with excitement, we landed in Rome. It wasn't long after leaving the airport and being en route to our new homebase in L'Aquila that I began to fall in love with this country. The first glimpses of beautiful scenery on the drive from Rome to L'Aquila in the hazy and hot Italian sun were unlike anything I'd ever seen or felt before.
Our days comprised of delicious Italian breakfasts (and learning quickly that asking for a 'latte' will give you literally hot, frothy milk and not the coffee we had in mind!), followed afterwards by walking through the beautiful medieval town of L'Aquila, passing bakeries wafting the scent of fresh bread through the air, restaurants setting up their chairs and tables on the main piazza, and church bells ringing to reach the university to begin school for the day.
After school, it was always the same: head to Carlo and Elena's restaurant on the piazza for lunch in the sun. It was here that we noticed one of the biggest differences between European and Canadian life. Here, lunch is not something to be rushed but to be enjoyed over a couple of hours with friends and laughter. It was here that we met many of the locals and learned so much about the town and country they loved.
There were so many new things to learn. What on earth is this extra 'toilet' in our bathroom (first encounters with the bidet)?? How is wine cheaper than water? First tastes of gelato - why have we never had something as delicious as this in Canada? Where is the nearest internet cafe? How do you exchange travellers cheques?? What does this convert to in dollars? What does this clothing size convert to in Canada?
I remember adoring the pace of life, the love for life, that the Italians have. Evening would fall and everywhere you looked, there were people and families wandering around the piazza, enjoying gelato, glasses of wine, and beautiful plates of pasta.
When we first travelled to Rome, I instantly fell in love. I don't know whether it was seeing the incredible sites I had read and learned about in person, the delicious food, the shopping, getting gloriously lost on the winding streets and not minding, the immaculately dressed Italians, the hazy and hot sunshine on my skin, vespas zooming by, the buzzing energy in the air... maybe all of it. I loved it and was hooked.
One of the first things I saw after arriving in Rome was the Colosseum. I couldn't believe it was right there, this incredibly iconic and ancient site, right next to a busy roadway with cars and vespas zooming by. I also vividly remember the feeling of walking into St. Peter's Basilica for the first time. After successfully getting approval to enter from the scrutinizing eyes of the 'fashion police', I walked into St. Peter's and it was overwhelming. The vastness of the space, the high, lofty ceiling drawing your eyes upward, the intricate details from floor to ceiling, the history. It remains to me one of the most special experiences I have ever had while travelling.
To this day, Rome continues to be one of my favourite cities in the world. It is such a special place with so many big and small treasures to be explored. Ancient Rome, Renaissance Rome, Modern Day Rome, Locals/Everyday Life Rome. These feelings only intensified as we travelled north to other fascinating cities such as Florence and Venice, all so different, unique, and special.
I remember such a feeling of sadness and longing when it was time to return home to Canada, as if I was tearing myself away from a newfound world that I had only just begun to explore. I knew then that I would return the next summer (I did), and keep coming back to explore Europe more (I did and continue to!).
I would love to hear your first special travel memories!