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Milan travels – 5 things to do on a short stay and a budget

Milan travels – 5 things to do on a short stay and a budget

It’s my birthday this month. A special one. I’m still getting my head around the number of years I’ve been on this earth, but am making the most of it with an Italian adventure which I’ll link here on the blog.

In a week,we travelled from Milan to Venice on the train. Find out more about Milan travels and must-see attractions here.

Milan travels – what to do in a day on a budget

Milan is famous as being one of the top four fashion destinations in the world, alongside Paris, London and New York. We hit the town during Design Week so the place was buzzing with creative energy and business goings-on.

If you’re keen to include Milan on your travels, be aware that accommodation – like many places in Italy – is expensive. We chose to stay in an AirBnb in a family’s home to save money. Our accommodation was within walking distance to Central Station and about half an hour’s walk from the Duomo (or ten minutes metro ride). This proved to be quite a good distance from the main attractions for us.

The city is much bigger than we expected, with some of the main areas being quite far apart. Milan’s metro is easy to use but the signage is lacking compared with London.

We relied on the kindness of strangers for a guide on where to get off and which direction to go in. Average cost of a metro ride one way is €1.50 and the ticket machines have an English option so not too hard to figure out.

Milan travels will take you to extraordinary sites like this

  1. Duomo (Milan Cathedral/ Duomo di Milano)

First stop on your Milan travels will inevitably be the incredible Duomo. This gorgeous Gothic cathedral took six centuries to build. It’s decorated with more statues than any other building in the world – 3400 all up, including 135 gargoyles. It’s made of marble and strikes an imposing figure in the centre of Milan.

You can pay to go inside, as well as climb up stairs or take an elevator to the top for a view over the city. Be prepared to queue and have patience with all the selfie-takers.

Even if you hang about outside, you can appreciate the view in the square and people watch for free.

  1. Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Helpfully this is positioned right next to the Duomo. It’s Italy’s oldest active shopping mall and renowned as being one of the most beautiful in the world. Many European shopping malls were modelled around this striking place. The gallery is named after Italy’s first king, and it boasts high-end luxury shopping set a four-story double arcade – not for the faint-hearted.

All shops in this mall must have gold signs on a black background – fully branded style.

The place is expensive so be careful where you sit for food or a coffee! It’s free to explore though, and really is very beautiful – probably the most beautiful mall we’re likely to ever see.

Aperitivo is happy hour with a twist

  1. Luini’s panzerotti

Another attraction just a couple of minutes walk outside the Galleria is Lunini’s. It’s famous for deep fried pizza dough. Panzerotti comes from the word pancia, Italian for stomach, which is why the dough comes in a belly-like shape, and offers a variety of fillings.

It’s not expensive but it is popular and you’re likely to have to wait in a long line to be able to try it. The place is sometimes closed in the summer months.

  1. Aperitivo – happy hour with a twist

This is the Italian version of happy hour. Normally when you go to a restaurant you buy a drink and study the menu. In Milan after about 6pm if you find the right place, you pay anywhere from €8 to €10 for a drink (like wine or a cocktail) and you can enjoy a buffet feast for no extra! This blog explains the tradition.

Aperitivo is supposed to be a way to encourage an appetite before dinner, but we simply found it to be a cost-effective way to enjoy a drink and a meal. Well, that was until we found Mono Bar just up the road from where we were staying. The place was recommended on Google for its range of food on offer at the bar (agree, it was great). Their Long Island Iced Teas are addictive and 80s pop/dance soundtrack very enjoyable.

 



 

A top spot for Aperitivo is Navigli along the canal that features inspired links to Leonardo Da Vinci, find out more here.

We really wanted to get over this part of the city on our Milan travels, but it was a good half an hour train ride away from us, and as it was cold and wet during our time in Milan we chose to leave it for next time.

Varenna on Lake Como

  1. Day trip to Lake Como

Milan is a cool city with lots to do, but it’s busy with tourists and can be quite overwhelming. Lake Como is a tranquil escape, with fresh air and stunning scenery. You can take an organised tour here, but we designed a self-guided itinerary that was inexpensive and thoroughly enjoyable, even in rainy weather. Find out more here

As with all big cities, Milan has plenty on offer. Do your research before you go so you don’t miss museums and attractions that are to your own taste and budget.

After our two night stay, we took a train to romantic Verona, setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Verona is about two hours train ride from Milan, and Venice on the other side of that which was our last stop on this week in Italy.

Do you have questions, or tips to add for a trip to Milan? Let us know in the comments below

 

In this series – a week across Italy by train:

Milan, budget travel tips [you’re reading it]

Milan to Lake Como, via Varenna and Bellagio

Verona, Italy travel guide

Milan to Venice – how to take the train

How to find your perfect wine tasting in Italy experiences

Why you should find a food tour in Italy

Venice, Italy travel guide – things to know before you go

 

Hidden gems Dublin: a perfect day trip plan

Hidden gems Dublin: a perfect day trip plan

Uncover in a day, some of the best-hidden gems Dublin has to offer. Find here a special guide on one of our favourite cities in the world.

Ireland’s capital, Dublin is a hub of museums, restaurants and architecture. You could stay for a week and only scratch the surface of what’s on offer. But, here’s where we suggest you begin:

Hidden gems Dublin: best afternoon tea

Afternoon tea may be a traditional English affair, but the Irish know how to do it well. Whether you’re looking for cheap and cheerful or a truly decadent experience, Dublin is crawling with places that offer a delightful spot of tea.

The Shelbourne Hotel

Overlooking St. Stephen’s Green, The Shelbourne is the grandest 5-star hotel in Dublin. It’s located right in the heart of the city. Less a hidden gem of Dublin and more a ‘must-see’, everything about the hotel screams elegance. Their afternoon tea is no different.

Take a seat in one of the plush velvet chairs of the Lord Mayor’s room. Be treated to delicate cakes, exquisite finger sandwiches and local delicacies like house-smoked Castletownbere salmon and Guinness bread. You heard right, Guinness Bread!

The Shelbourne Hotel definitely leans towards the more expensive side of the scale at €52 per person. However, if you’re in the mood for an affluent treat, there’s nowhere like it. You’re on holiday, after all, treat yourself!

Vintage Tea Tour

For Afternoon Tea with a difference, this hidden treasure offers you an experience like no other. Take a step back in time on a vintage 1961 Routemaster bus, affectionately named Pauline. Enjoy your Afternoon Tea on the streets of Dublin.

Perfect for visiting the capital, the Vintage Tea Tour takes you past some of Dublin’s much loved historical sights. While you’re sipping your tea and nibbling on a traditional scone with clotted cream, you’ll be treated to a 1950’s jazz soundtrack and some great local stories from your hosts.

 

Hidden gems Dublin - wander the city streets for charming architecture

 

Hidden gems Dublin: grab a bite to eat

When you’re only popping over for a short stay, you don’t want to spend your time wandering the streets looking for lunch. Thankfully, you’re spoilt for choice when looking for somewhere to eat in Dublin.

The Greenhouse

What better way to enjoy a day away than with a gourmet lunch? In the centre of Dublin, The Greenhouse is a Michelin star restaurant that has been setting the standard for over six years.

Finnish chef Mickael Vijanen has been named the ‘best chef in Ireland’ on multiple occasions. You just need to taste The Greenhouse’s menu to see why. Naturally, the restaurant is a little on the pricey side. However, sneak in for their lunch menu and you can spoil yourself with a very reasonable €45 two-course meal. You’ll need to be swift though, as lunch is only served 12 to 2pm and it fills up quickly!

Eatyard

If you like to stay organised and have a full day of exploring planned, you’ll want to grab lunch on the go. Don’t think that you’ll have to sacrifice quality though, quite the opposite in fact.

This Take a trip down South Richmond Street in Portobello and you’ll stumble upon The Eatyard. It’s a permanent street food market and one of Dublin’s best-kept secrets.

Here you’ll find fantastic flatbreads from Olea, award-winning burgers from Handsome Burger or a gloriously gothic black ice-cream cone from Milk Bar Ice-Cream.

This rag-tag group of vendors may be light on your wallet but they’re big on taste!

 

Hidden gems Dublin - Trinity College is a must

 

Hidden gems Dublin: what to see

Dublin is a city that is rich in history and has plenty to see, both modern and ancient. Whether you fancy visiting the iconic Temple Bar for a Guinness or feel like walking through the enormous Phoenix Park, you’ll not be stood twiddling your thumbs.

Trinity College Library

An absolute must-see for any bibliophile, the Trinity College Library dates back to 1592. It houses an impressive collection of over 6 million volumes of journals, manuscripts, maps and music, showcasing 400 years of academic development.

It’s not just the books that make this such a tourist hot spot. The architecture of the building itself is, in a word, stunning. The appropriately named Long Room features a 200-foot-long central walkway with endless bookshelves spanning over two floors. Plus, with marble busts of philosophers and a beautiful barrel ceiling, make sure you have your camera at the ready for this one.

St Patrick’s Cathedral

If the Trinity College Library wasn’t enough to widen your eyes, then make sure you head over to St Patrick’s Cathedral. One of two cathedrals in Dublin, St Patrick’s was built in honour of Ireland’s patron Saint and offers visitors breathtaking sights.

One of Dublin’s most popular visitor attractions, the cathedral offers guided tours to show you around the building’s 800-year history. Or, you’re just as welcome to take in the amazing sights yourself.

 



 

 

Hidden gems Dublin: sweet treats

If you’re looking for a tasty treat while exploring the streets of Dublin, or simply want to add the perfect finishing touch to your lunch, there are some lovely spots to enjoy some sugary goodness. 

The Rolling Donut

If you’re not a local, this tasty hidden gem may have fallen under your radar. The city of Dublin is home to not one, but three Rolling Donut shops. There are even more further afield.

Head over to South King Street or towards the O’Connell Monument and treat your tastebuds to ingeniously inventive doughnuts. They’re lovingly prepared at this family business that has been operating for over 40 years.

The diverse menu includes simple classics like the vanilla glaze and more decadent options such as the Bailey’s bliss. There’s familiar faces like the Terry’s Chocolate Orange and Kinder Bueno doughnuts. Plus, a protein-packed peanut butter doughnut for gym bunnies and even vegan-friendly options, so there’s no excuse not to try one!

Ladurée

If you feel like indulging your fancy side, Ladurée on William Street South is the place to be. The famous French Patisserie has extended its reach to Ireland and brings with it a true taste of Paris.

The perfect spot for a quick coffee break, Ladurée offers an array of cakes, pastries and biscuits to treat your taste buds. The real star of the show, are the macaroons! Trust us when we say these macaroons are the best you’ll taste outside of Paris. You can even take them away with you in a beautiful gift box.

 

 

Lastly, don’t miss in Dublin…

With so much to try and squeeze into a single day trip, there are some things you’ll need to wait and see another time. There are some things though, that are simply too good to pass up. Here are a couple of our favourite things to see in Dublin that you should try to make time for:

Kilmainham Gaol

If you’re interested in learning about Ireland’s turbulent history, this lesser known tourist destination is a living legacy. It’s a remarkable window into the past.

Having held some of the most famous political and military leaders in Irish history, visitors receive a dramatic and realistic insight as to what it was like to be confined between 1796 and 1924.

The prison offers a guided tour and exhibitions, giving you a fantastic look as to how Kilmainham Gaol operated and what role it had in Irish history. If it looks familiar, it could be due to the fact that many films including The Italian Job, The Whistle Blower and The Escapist were all filmed in this location.

Wax Museum

It may not have the prestige of world-famous Madame Tussauds, but Dublin’s National Wax Museum is a good laugh. Walking through the museum, you’ll be greeted by some of Ireland’s top celebrities, including Father Ted, Connor McGregor and of course, Jedward.

The Time Vaults exhibit lets you experience Irish History from Viking invasions to the Good Friday agreement. Or you can scare yourself silly in the Chambers of Horror with some familiar, albeit frightening faces from pop culture.

Day trip

There’s plenty of amazing experiences outside of the city too, if you’re up for an extra adventure. We visited County Wicklow – read about why you should too.

 

Whether you’re looking for a cheap and cheerful trip or an opulent break away from home, Dublin has something for everyone. This guide of Dublin’s hidden gems is a great place to start when planning your day trip. But, the best way to experience what the city has to offer is to get yourself there and to start exploring.

If you’re now inspired to take a trip to the Emerald Isle, take a look at Stena Line ferries for a fun and relaxing way to travel. We’d suggest exploring more than just Dublin too – Kenmare and Killarney are a real treat!

Seeking an alternative for exploring the emerald Isle? Think about house sitting Ireland: find out more

 

1 day in Brussels – the best things to see, do and taste in a day

1 day in Brussels – the best things to see, do and taste in a day

Belgium is the perfect little escape from London, especially on the Eurostar. We’ve got your 1 day in Brussels itinerary sorted that includes history, fun, chocolate and beer!

Brussels is an easy two hour trip from London’s St Pancras. We booked fares when they were on sale, and would have a solid 24 hours to explore. We did some research on the best things to do in Brussels in a day to make the most of the experience.

Travel tip

Sign up to the Eurostar mailing list to find out about sales. It’s how I scored £29 fares which I bought last November for a February trip.

 

1 day in Brussels – city facts and fun

A few things to know about the city before you set up your itinerary for best things to do in Brussels in a day:

– Brussels is the ‘capital’ of Europe. It’s home to the European Commission, the European Council, Council of the European Union, European Parliament, and NATO to name a few critically important world organisations.

– Actress Audrey Hepburn was born here in 1929 and you can scope out some of the places where she lived and worked.

– Famous philosopher Karl Marx, poet Victor Hugo and writers the Brontë sisters have also called Brussels home.

 

1 day in Brussels - the Grand Place

 

– There is much Portuguese influence in the city, with 20,000 from Portugal living in Brussels. Interesting for us to see, following our recent trip to Lisbon.

– Brussels is known for grand architecture, wonderful art, museums and one of Europe’s oldest shopping arcades, Galeries St Hubert (1847).

– Brussels is also known for being a little quirky, with peeing statues and comic book art all over building walls.

– Brussels is a foodie city! Muscles, waffles, fries, and Europe’s third biggest market (Midi market, open on Sundays near the train station where the Eurostar arrives/departs).

 

1 day in Brussels - Galeries St Hubert

 

Upon serious consideration (yes, really), we realised that with just 1 day in Brussels we wanted to get to know it quickly and in a special way.

What better way to appreciate Brussels than through the lens of two of Belgium’s most famous exports: chocolate and beer!

Where to begin for 1 day in Brussels though? That’s where The Brussels Journey comes in!

We stumbled across this excellent experience online and made contact with the team to see how we could work together.

The Brussels Journey offers a beer and chocolate tour that takes in the best things to do in Brussels in a day. This includes seeing the key sites, learning about the city’s history and sampling beer and chocolate. Honestly, the tour exceeded our expectations!

A huge benefit was that we landed in the city at 10am not knowing a soul, but by 10pm had a handful of fab new friends from all over the globe.

 

1 day in Brussels - Grand Place

 

1 day in Brussels – the best chocolate in Brussels

The Belgian chocolate industry is almost 400 years old, which means there are plenty of stories to tell here in Brussels when it comes to our favourite sweet treat.

There are countless chocolate shops here, so how do you know where to find the best chocolate in Brussels?

Our Brussels Journey tour started in front of popular Chocopolis, and took our group on a lengthy excursion through the streets in search of the best chocolate in Brussels.

 

1 day in Brussels - best chocolate in Brussels - get amongst it on The Brussels Journey tour

 

We sampled some of the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted; unique flavours and blends.

I found it fascinating to learn that chocolate-making has so much to it. I’m not sure why I hadn’t thought of it before (too busy guzzling), but chocolate is like wine, tea or coffee.

The flavours and quality depend on the origin of ingredients, amount of cocoa used, what other flavours are infused, how its stored and produced.

Belgium is a top player in chocolate production and export, and local chocolatiers told us the secret is that they still use 100% cocoa butter.

Praline chocolates were what made Belgium famous, although they more quietly share that this was the invention of a Swiss migrant in 1912 (Switzerland and Belgium are of course the world leaders and fierce rivals when it comes to chocolate production supremacy).

 

1 day in Brussels – the best chocolate in Brussels - The Brussels Journey beer and chocolate tour

 

Lively and helpful Brussels Journey guides, Julie and Baptiste, pointed out where to find the best chocolate in Brussels, and shared cool history and anecdotes along the way about all of Brussels favourite landmarks.

If you’ve only got a short time in the city, this walking tour is the way to go. You’ll maximise enjoyment and learning while making new friends and not have to wonder if you’re heading somewhere great.

I couldn’t tell you if any of the chocolate in Brussels is bad. All chocolate seems pretty great to me. For spending only 1 day in Brussels I certainly gorged on plenty of chocolate and enjoyed every bit.

 

1 day in Brussels – the best chocolate in Brussels - The Brussels Journey tour

 

Best chocolate in Brussels?

If you’re after ideas on where to get the best chocolate in Brussels, take The Brussels Journey tour, or keep an eye out for some of the best-known ones like:

Belvas | Chocopolis | Elisabeth | Frederic Blondeel | Godiva | La Belgique Gourmande | Lawrence | Mary | Pierre Marcolini | Passion Chocolat

 



 

Fun fact

We were amazed to discover that a fellow Queenslander from Toowoomba, Ryan Stevenson, actually took out the chocolatier of the year accolade back in 2012, right here in Brussels!

Watch this  interview with Ryan on the BBC to find out more about the industry.

 

1 day in Brussels - best beer in Brussels

 

1 day in Brussels – best beer in Brussels

Belgium is also very famous for its beers. It’s said you could spend four years here, drink a beer every day and not drink the same beer twice. That’s a LOT of choice.

Again, another reason to take a guided tour. We had so much fun sampling the best beer in Brussels with their team and our new friends on the beer and chocolate tour

Beer has been brewed here since the 12 Century. As for the story of chocolate, I was fascinated to find out that there’s so much more to beer than I imagined.

On The Brussels Journey tour we learnt about Trappist beers, which are a special kind of beer that must be brewed by monks, next to or within the walls of a Trappist monastery.

The beer brewing is the responsibility of the monks and some of their output is so unique that it’s nearly impossible to purchase! Extra limited edition, if you will. There are only 12 Trappist breweries in the world, six are in Belgium. No profit can be made from the sale of the beer, it must go back to the abbey or to a designated organisation.

Beer is a huge deal here, and actually really interesting. There’s many types of different beer, read more about that here.

The tour took the hassle out of trying to figure out what to do in Brussels in such a short amount of time, including which is the best beer in Brussels to try.

I’ve found an another interesting article on how to order beers in Brussels, the industry’s history and the types of Belgian beer here.

 

1 day in Brussels best dining

 

1 day in Brussels – make it big and make it count

We loved Brussels – it’s a cool little city with a big attitude.

Also BIG in Brussels:

– Fries, or Belgian frites – not to be confused with French fries! There’s even a museum dedicated to one of our favourite savoury snacks.

– The Palace of Justice in Brussels’ stunning Grand Place (main square) is the largest law court in the world!

– Brussels puts on BIG shows, like the Tomorrowland and Rock Werchter festivals in summer.

– It’s the home of comics, which is evident within street art around the city. For a different type of tour you can follow the Brussels comic strip route.

 

Dining tip

Within the city there’s an area known as the Restaurant Quarter. There’s plenty to choose from, but some is worth a splurge while others are not. The council addressed this by awarding plaques to places you should try. Keep an eye out for anywhere that boasts the ‘Maison Recommandée’ signs, as the image above depicts.

 

1 day in Brussels – our itinerary and top spots to visit

Highlights in our map include chocolate shops, beer stops and view points – take yourself on a wander around beautiful Brussels!

Enjoy – and do let us know your thoughts or questions in the comments.

 

Huge thanks to The Brussels Journey who let us collaborate with them to find out more about Brussels and discover what they offer in the city!

 

Tips, tricks, comments, or just love beer and chocolate? Let us know in the comments!

3 days in Lisbon travel itinerary

3 days in Lisbon travel itinerary

It’s one of the oldest cities in Europe and offers wonderful glimpses into Portugal’s layers of time and influence – needless to say we were very excited to get going on our 3 days in Lisbon adventure!

It was the Age of Discovery when Portugal ruled the world, stretching a hand (as well as culture and language) across the globe, from Brazil to China, Africa and beyond.

Set upon seven hills, imagine old-world trams bustling along narrow, cobbled streets; grand architecture, quirky stores scaling hilltops, and colourful rooftops as far as the eye can see.

 

We flew in for a Christmas city break and managed to cram quite a bit into our 3 days in Lisbon itinerary.

I’ve shared our discoveries below, and hopefully you’ll be inspired to book a trip soon too.

3 days in Lisbon itinerary

 

“Welcome to Lisbon – a roller-coaster city of seven hills, crowned by a Moorish castle and washed in an artist’s pure light. Lisbon is cinematically beautiful and historically compelling. This is a capital city of big skies and bigger vistas; of rumbling trans and Willy Wonka-like elevators; of melancholic fado song and live-to-part nightlife. Edge, charisma and postcard good looks, Lisbon has the lot!” –Kerry Christiani, Lonely Planet Lisbon Pocket Guide 

 

3 days in Lisbon - building art and beautiful views from Alfama

 

Understanding the layout

In your research on travel to Lisbon, you’ll find there’s a few main areas within the city’s old ‘centre’ and along the waterfront.

These areas of interest include:

  1. ‘Old town’ Alfama, Castelo and Graça: cobbled streets and amazing views from Castelo de São Jorge, Largo das Portas do Sol and Miradouro da Senhora do Monte. Usually reached by tram from streets around Rossio and Baixa.
  2. Rossio and Baixa, Lisbon’s riverfront gateway sitting below Alfama, with bustling trams, Elevador de Santa Justa and the charming Praça do Comércio to name just a few highlights.
  3. Bairro Alto and Chiado, particularly good for dining and nightlife. These areas are along the waterfront and within easy walking distance of Rossio and Praça do Comércio – all of this is close together and easy to explore on foot.
  4. Belém, a little further along the waterfront and overlooking the Ponte 25 de Abril (bridge); with its pastries, and historical charms like Jerónimos Monastery, Belém Tower on the banks of Tagus River, and Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries) celebrating travellers from the Portuguese Age of Discovery.

Here’s how we divided our time, focused on the areas outlined above:

 

3 days in Lisbon, day one

We stayed not far from Rossio Square (pictured below), overlooking São Jorge Castle.

This was a perfect spot for exploring a large portion of the older part of town around Rossio and Baixa on foot. Or you can easily catch a tram around here, including the famous no. 28.

 

3 days in Lisbon - overlooking Rossio Square from Santa Justa Lift

 

Day one on your 3 days in Lisbon itinerary is best spent getting your bearings in this area.

Start early at Santa Justa lift to avoid the queues. Head up high and take a look around this beautiful city.

From here, you can also get an early start on the trams including the no. 28 which is famous for the pretty and historical route it takes; also the tourist options like the Yellow buses or trams (very good value for a 48 or 72 hour pass, if you ask us), or wander around and go shopping.

On your adventure, head for (or you’ll inevitably stumble upon) Praça do Comércio (pictured below), gateway to the lovely waterfront here.

There’s a romantic promenade along the front of the city, where you can enjoy excellent views looking back up onto the hills and Lisbon’s colourful canvas, plus out to sea where so many have taken to the waters for an adventure before you.

 

3 days in Lisbon - Praça do Comércio

 

Fascinating history and architecture

The reason I suggest you spend a little time in these parts along and around the waterfront, is so you can get a good sense of the rich history all around you.

In its heyday these parts of town were wealthy – some of the wealthiest in the world, in fact. This was thanks to trading happening in the 16th Century in gold, spices, silks and jewels among other things. Not to mention Portugal, alongside rival Spain, ruling half the world!

 



 

Fast forward to 9.40am on 1 November 1755 though – three major earthquakes hit as Lisbon’s residents celebrated Mass for All Saints Day.

These earthquakes triggered a devastating fire and tsunami, destroying much of the city. About a third of Lisbon’s 270,000 inhabitants died.

From this tragedy emerged a hero, Sebastiao de Melo, who set about reconstructing the city from the ashes. Together with architects and engineers, he made sure the city’s new design was earthquake-proof, and developed one of the world’s first grid systems that we see implemented in so many major cities to this day.

 

“We must bury the dead and heal the living.”

 

3 days in Lisbon - Cooper hanging about in Chiado

 

Surprising facts

There’s a lot I didn’t know about Portugal, and across our 3 days in Lisbon I continued to be more and more fascinated!

For instance, the country was run by a dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, who was prime minister between 1937 and 1968.

A contemporary of Hitler, Franco and Mussolini, Salazar is remembered by some as the greatest figure in the Portugal’s history, but by others as keeping the country repressed and backwards.

Salazar was overthrown in 1974. Lisbon’s huge suspension bridge (resembles the Golden Gate in San Francisco and was built by the same company) was renamed Ponte 25 de Abril, or ‘April 25 Bridge’ (my birth date!) to mark the event.

Across the city there’s a fascinating legacy hailing from Lisbon’s Arabic roots – tiles, known as Azulejos.

These date as far back as the 13th Century, when the Moors invaded Portugal and Spain (per a contemporary map. The Moors secured their foothold in Portuguese culture between the 16th and 17th Centuries and used Azulejos to decorate plain walls of buildings. These beautiful little polished stones adorn old walls still. Thankfully not all was lost in 1755.

 

3 days in Lisbon - Azulejos tiles adorn many of the old walls of the city of Lisbon

 

I was also happy to learn that St Anthony was born here (coincidentally buried in Verona, Italy, where we are visiting in April). All through childhood, my mum used to tell us to ask St Anthony for help if we lost something.

Somehow, this always did the trick. The link to St Anthony here was more sentimental for me than anything else (and I did by mum a memento to thank her for all the times her advice helped me recover missing things). The Lisbon Sardine Festival (sardines and other canned fish are a BIG industry here) celebrates St Anthony’s life and brings everyone out into the streets for a party every June.

 

3 days in Lisbon - Mercado da Ribeira

 

Eating and drinking – quirky ideas for you

A couple of places that I wanted to find but that were closed over Christmas, and perhaps worth adding to your list, are the storybook-themed Fabulas and Pharmacia cafes/restaurants (in the Bairro Alto / Chiado area). Lisbon is known for offering quirky experiences to locals and visitors alike.

The TimeOut Market (Mercado da Ribeira, pictured above) is also within walking distance in Chiado – only about ten minutes walk from Praça do Comércio in fact.

It’s cool for an evening outing, with a large variety of food and drinks on offer to try. A word of warning, it’s definitely not the cheapest spot in town, although is definitely worth a visit.

 

3 days in Lisbon, day two

Whether you’re enjoying a self-guided tour on local transport or have taken advantage of one of the tour operators (the Yellow tour brand appears to have the upper hand in Lisbon in terms of tour options and best value), add Belém to your list for the day.

In Belém you can’t miss the romantic Coach Museum, stunning Jerónimos Monastery (pictured below) and Padrão dos Descobrimentos the inspired explorers’ monument that’s along the waterfront (in front of Jerónimos Monastery).

 

3 days in Lisbon - Jerónimos Monastery

 

Wander a bit further past the monument and you’ll come across the medieval Belém Tower (pictured below) which is fascinating for its architecture alone, not to mention its prime spot by the river.

There’s a lot to do in this little area that’s about twenty minutes from the centre of town. Give yourself time to deal with any queues at the monastery and tower.

 

3 days in Lisbon - Belem Tower

 

You can’t go to Lisbon and not try a Pastel de Nata (Portuguese custard tart).

They’re everywhere, sweet and delicious! Try at least one from Pastéis de Belém, where they’ve been making these according to a top-secret recipe since 1837.

 

3 days in Lisbon - custard tarts are a must-try

 

The city is best experienced from up high, so to wrap up your day, find a rooftop bar for a cocktail as the sun sets. Many hotels have their own roof bar, but the Mundial Hotel in the middle of the city near Rossio Square is well known, as is the luxe Topo (although this appears to be a summer destination).

If you’re up for it, there’s one more stop to make – pop into a Ginjinha shop like Ginginha Sem Rival around Rossio Square and enjoy a shot (or two) of this delicious and inexpensive local delight. It’s a sour cherry liqueur (tastes like Port) that has been served in the city since 1890, and it’ll knock your socks off if you have too many in a row.

Tip: Before your visit, have a look at the Discover Walks website. They offer a range of free and inexpensive walking tours of Lisbon, including around Belém, so you can gather all the knowledge and inside secrets from a local!

 

3 days in Lisbon, day three 

Today you might want to start early and catch a ride on the famous no. 28 tram.

Ride a lap and eventually get off in historical Alfama – it’s about a ten to fifteen-minute tram ride from the city centre (e.g. Rossio Square or Praça do Comércio) up into the hills.

Alfama is colourful, interesting and easy to get lost in, so give yourself time to find the best views. Trip happily along the cobbled streets, and visit the historical sites like São Jorge Castle or the Moorish Gateway, Largo das Portas do Sol that also offers postcard-perfect views.

 

3 days in Lisbon - views from Alfama

 

Tip: See if you can find the quirky and cool circus school Chapito, where you can eat or have a drink. The view is excellent and you might even witness a bit of a show.

 

Your last night

Back in town, head towards Praça do Comércio, the old place of international trade in the Age of Discovery and home for the Royal Family. It’s often lit up to showcase a magical spectacle.

Wander along the waterfront and then back up the hill towards Bairro Alto where there’s a few fun rows of streets that boast a selection of bars, restaurants and clubs.

Be careful though – we headed out for an innocent dinner but after being lured into a bar playing cool dance music, two free shots later (courtesy a generous barman), we ended up on a bigger night than anticipated. Oh who am I kidding? It was awesome!

 

3 days in Lisbon - Sarah Blinco exploring Lisbon's old streets

 

Where to stay

I did a lot of research trying to figure out the best area to stay in that was convenient to everything.

I settled on the stylish Lisboa Pessoa Hotel near Rossio Square, that’s nestled on a hilltop overlooking São Jorge Castle. I’d recommend the area and the hotel.

Visiting in December around Christmas time in Lisbon

It gets very busy in the summer season (May to August), and while it’s cooler in the autumn/winter months, everything is still open, and you’ll avoid the crowds.

Late December was cooler than we had anticipated. Take warm clothes.

There is sun though so that’s a bonus, but in the wind it is chilly.

Pretty much everything was open over Christmas though which was great (some places shut down for many days across the period). While you could spend so much more than 3 days in Lisbon, it’s a taster to get you ready for the next trip. That’s our thinking anyway!

As a city break at Christmas, it’s ideal. Busier even than Mallorca and definitely Ibiza – they have different things to offer at Christmastime though.

 

If you’ve been to Lisbon and have tips, please do share with us in the comments below. And any questions, you know where to find us.

Christmas markets Cologne

Christmas markets Cologne

Germany is famed the world over for putting on the best festive markets, and we’re excited to share with you our Christmas markets Cologne guide.

They’re some of the world’s best that attract millions to the city each year between 25 November and 23 December.

Christmas markets Cologne

Cologne is known as one of the best European Christmas destinations. There are seven significant German Christmas markets in Cologne and highlights of each, as well as best time of day to visit, are listed below.

This charming German city is of course, famous for its Christmas markets (as other neighbouring German cities are). It’s perfect for a winter Christmas city break!

Before we get into the detail of why we’ve come in December, a quick snapshot about this town…

Christmas markets Cologne - Santa's helpers

About Cologne

One of the reasons we chose to visit Cologne for a spot of Christmas market shopping is that its positioned on the Rhine river.

We’ve only been to this area once, when travelling around Europe on our awesome Expat Explore tour – and I remember it is spectacular!

Cologne is known as a cultural hub of north west Germany, popular for its food, art and traditional Kölsch beer. The city is filled with quirky bars, cool shopping and plenty of culture.

 



 

Much of the city was actually destroyed during the first world war, and the locals have had to rebuild it, together with a multicultural mix of neighbours from around Europe.

Cologne famously accepted many migrants during recent years’ refugee crisis’, and its people are known to be exceptionally friendly, open and welcoming.

Also famous and on at this time of year, is the Cologne Carnival, known as Fastelovend. I love that this annual celebration of street parties and costumes officially launches each year at 11am on November 11, and it runs until Christian Lent.

Apparently it’s normal during this period for people in costume to run up and give you a peck on the cheek. If you get kissed, don’t panic, consider it lucky and enjoy the moment.

Christmas markets Cologne - wandering the markets

Need to know: the 7 Christmas markets of Cologne

Cathedral Market: the big one

– This is the biggest  German Christmas market in the city, known for its spectacular location in the square in front of Dom Cathedral. It’s probably the first one you’ll come across if you arrive by train, as the main station is on the doorstep to the Cathedral.

Come back for a visit at night, for the sprinkling of pretty festive lights throughout the gift-filled wooden pavilions.

– There’s a lot of delicious food here, including local foods like German Bratwurst and Flammlachs (grilled salmon).

– The Cathedral Market is the spot for entertainment which you’ll often catch on the stage by the tall Christmas tree.

In case of rain, there’s a canopy under the Roman-German Museum where you can find shelter, people-watch and enjoy a mug of traditional gluhwein/gluehwein (hot spiced wine) – I liked mine with a splash of Amaretto!

– Cologne’s tourism information centre is very close to here too, well-signed, opposite the Dom, if you want some tips or help with getting around town.

Christmas markets Cologne - Cathedral Market

Old Market or Alter Markt: the traditional one

– Literally next door to the Cathedral market is this gorgeous set-up. For a traditional Christmas market experience that’s particularly great for a daytime visit,  make time for the large Old Market.

– This Cologne Christmas market is located in front of the Old Town Hall, and there are indoor areas if it’s raining.

– The open market area is on Heumarkt and features a large ice rink at the centre of it that has ice shows too!

– The Old Market boasts cool themed alleys e.g sweets alley, toy alley.

– There’s a fabulous vantage point here on  the balcony at the themed house that overlooks the ice rink, but it’s busy so be prepared to nudge your way through to get some nice photos.

– Want to try local fare? Special drinks to look for include Calvados liqueur with cream; and Feuerzangenbowle which is Gluhwein and rum set on fire and served in a mug called a Feuerzangentasse which has forks attached to it with a sugar cone that can be soaked in rum and the whole thing is set on fire.

 

Harbour market (Chocolate Museum): the modern one

– A short walk along the river from the Cathedral and Alter Markt, this spot is a must-visit. How could anyone resist a German Christmas market on the banks of the river Rhine in front of a Chocolate Museum? (which is perfect for shelter if it’s wet).

– While this is one of the smallest in the city, it’s possibly set in the most picturesque spot. Go in the daytime, and head here early, it is one of the first to open each day during the German Christmas market season.

– Perfect for lovely arts and crafts, and there’s a cool hat vendor too.

Christmas markets Cologne - markets in the city

Angel’s Market (Neumarkt): the glamorous one

– This pretty German Christmas market is the oldest in the city, and sits on Neumarkt Square, amongst some of Cologne’s great shopping streets. It is by far my favourite!

– It’s another lovely Cologne Christmas market to visit at night because of its lights, trees and romantic atmosphere. The Angel Market is about 15 minutes walk from the Cathedral (Dom).

In case of rain, seek the chic bar at the west end of the market, but you’ll want to be early because it gets full.

– Cologne’s Angel market is good for Christmas decorations, unique chocolates, artisan stalls, lights, arts and crafts.

 

Village of St Nicholas (Rudolfplatz): the magical one

– A village-style Christmas market that is set by the medieval Hahnentorburg on Rudolfplatz.

– This is the area where people go out at night; you’ll find a cool crowd, and atmosphere.

– For more festive spirit, look around the corner as this is next to Christmas Avenue Market.

Christmas markets Cologne - seven markets in the city

Stadtgarten: the local one

– A bit further out from the centre of the Cologne Christmas market action, but worthwhile; in the middle of the Belgian Quarter of Cologne – a gorgeous part of the city.

–This German Christmas market in Cologne is known for its  lovely village feel, and more locals than tourists surrounding you.

– Perfect for  unique and cute gifts; also a great food selection especially desserts and savoury delights.

 

Gay and Lesbian market: the cool one

– Cologne is one of the most LGTB friendly cities in Europe and its got a Christmas market to match!

– Don’t miss this one for a fun, bright, younger crowd, a diverse range of food and drinks and the quirkiest gifts.

Christmas markets Cologne

Cologne Christmas markets top tips

1. Each market offers its own unique and collectable Gluhwein mugs. You pay a deposit on your first drink which means you can keep this mug. If you don’t want to keep it, simply return to the bar at the same market for your deposit back.

2. You can walk between most of the markets, or catch the bus or special Christmas Market Express train. Visit Koeln also offers a Koeln card to get around the city. Visit the tourism centre for more details on this when you’re in the city.

3. An extremely comprehensive resource on the Cologne markets can be found at fromrealpeople.com – locals in Cologne who share helpful information about the markets, the food and treats to be found and importantly, transport. We got a lot out of this blog post (thanks team!).

 

Cologne has proven to be one of the best places to visit in winter, in our opinion. We love Amsterdam and Paris too, even Mallorca for some wintersun, but for a Christmas city break you can’t really go past this!

Let us know what you think in the comments

 

 

Images courtesy Köln Tourismus
Top things to do in Inverness

Top things to do in Inverness

My brother and I recently popped up to Scotland for a couple of days away from London and discovered some excellent things to do in Inverness, capital of the Scottish Highlands.

While I am absolutely a seeker of Nessie (the Loch Ness Monster) and all good things that are the Highlands, like exquisite landscapes and interesting history, it hadn’t even occurred to me we could get to Inverness so easily.

Yet, just one hour’s flight from London (we made our way from Luton on EasyJet) you can find yourself amongst the fresh air and friendly people of Inverness. 

There's plenty of things to do in Inverness - just wander and explore the city

Things to do in Inverness

Exploring Inverness

The city of Inverness is quite small and easy to get around on foot.

There’s plenty of things to do and see in Inverness, and we started with a walk through town to get our bearings. Inverness is well signed, so you can easily find your way around from its older areas and Victorian market, down to the shopping pedestrian high street area and the helpful visitor information centre.

From Inverness’ shopping strip, you can wander up to Inverness Castle, and then down the hill toward the Ness River; explore beautiful churches, Inverness castle and take photos from the pretty bridges that link both sides of the city.

Things to do in Inverness: visit historical Inverness Castle

 

Exploring the area

Inverness is a tour hub, of sorts, with numerous tours on offer that you can pre-book or sort when you’re there – head as far out as Skye or back down to Edinburgh or Glasgow.

While in the city we stayed on foot which was fine.

Our two day itinerary was carefully considered so that we could take in a taste of Inverness without exerting ourselves.

Things to do in Inverness - go exploring on foot either side of the River Ness

 

Urquhart Castle ruins and Loch Ness

A visit to a castle is a must, and the ruins of Urquhart Castle area easily accessible by car or coach.

For about £10 you can take a coach from Inverness’ bus station (the transport centre is near/behind the train station, but is signed), half an hour along the shores of Loch Ness, to Urquhart Castle.

This medieval castle’s ruins date from the 13th to the 16th centuries, and set on the shores of the loch, it’s a fabulous experience.

You can also reach and view the castle by taking a cruise on Loch Ness, which again, you can arrange when you’re in Inverness.

Things to do in Inverness - Urquhart Castle ruins are a highlight on the banks of Loch Ness

En-route to Urquhart you pass the Loch Ness Centre and Exhibition which will fulfil all your Nessie needs – find out more about the story behind the folklore and buy souvenirs here.

You can also wander underneath the store and the road to the banks of the loch for more beautiful photo opportunities.

We did this trip in an afternoon and I’d highly recommend the experience as part of your ‘things to do in Inverness’ list. Just be organised with when the coach is due to return because they only run every hour or so. 

Things to do in Inverness - you can't miss famous Loch Ness

 

Culloden and Clava Cairns

For a true slice of Scottish history as well as some unbeatable landscape view, get out of the town about half an hour to the Culloden Battlefield and visitor centre.

Culloden Battlefield is the site of the 1746 Jacobite Rising that came to a brutal head in one of the most harrowing battles in the history of this region.

There is an immersive cinema experience as well as café and rest spot, and of course you can respectfully visit the site yourself.

Things to do in Inverness – the ancient ruins of Clava Cairns

When we were heading out this way we got to chatting to a local on the bus, and she told us about an incredible ancient site called Clava Cairns.

As a fan of the series Outlander, I was actually aware of the site and to discover it was so accessible (with a little adventure along the way), we decided to go and explore.

Read about our adventure to Clava Cairns

Bus no. 5 gets you to Culloden Battlefield’s visitor centre, from where you can walk to Clava Cairns. The return trip was about £5.

Be mindful not to get other buses that say they are going to Culloden, as they are going to the residential area, not the destination intended if you’re seeking the experience outlined above.

This experience is well worth it. The weather can change though so be prepared. It’s the best part of a day trip from Inverness, but still close to town which is very handy.

Things to do in Inverness – the ancient ruins of Clava Cairns, inspiration for the books and tv series Outlander

 

Eat and drink in Inverness

I’d recommend trying a Scottish whiskey at a pub around town – there’s plenty to choose from.

Our favourite pub is The Castle Tavern, which is positioned just above Inverness Castle, and has a delicious menu, nice drinks including local options, and a cool view across the city.

Things to do in Inverness - wander along Ness River

 

Getting around

We found transport in Inverness easy and reliable. While you do need to be prepared ahead of time and know when your bus to the airport is due, for example, we found it all ran efficiently to time.

Buses to and from the airport run every half an hour or an hour at quieter times, at just over £4 each way (2018).

There’s plenty of other ferry and bus or coach options that will help you discover things to do in Inverness and on the town’s outskirts. You can find out more by dropping into the train station, bus station or the visitor information centre in the middle of the mall in town.

You’ll also find many tours that will take you around the region and up to Skye, ranging from periods of one day to three or four – these can be booked in advance online, or ask for more information in the tourist information centre.

And if you’re an Outlander fan like me, there are indeed a number of tours that will show you around famous filming sites.