Step into the home of Charles Darwin at Down House

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A visit to the gorgeous, sprawling estate in Downe, Kent, makes for a wonderful day out.

Once home to Charles Darwin and his family, the beautifully restored, classically English Down House is a short journey from London.

Whether you know much about the father of evolution or not, it doesn’t matter, for you will leave enriched with interesting insights about his life – from the voyage across the globe that inspired his evolutionary theory, to his marriage to his cousin Emma.

Set aside a minimum of two hours to explore the house and the grounds: upstairs is like a museum, with display rooms and artefacts about Darwin’s early life as well as the restored main bedroom – complete with dress-up room and four-poster bed. The ground floor of the house contains the restored living room, Darwin’s study (where he wrote The Origin of Species), billiard room and dining room – hosting a dinner party here would be dreamy.

The upstairs is a thought-provoking self-guided tour but downstairs you can pick up an audio-guide – which is included in the entry price – and hear David Attenborough narrate about what life was like in Darwin’s day and how he and his family used the space for the 40 years they lived there.

 

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Head outside and you can explore the extensive gardens where Darwin carried out various experiments, and the greenhouse, laboratory (with live bee hive), tennis courts and orchard – a lovely amble on a pleasant day. The audio guide extends to the outdoor spaces with Andrew Marr narrating.

A tea room is located in the corner of the house but don’t count on it being cheap or on you bagging a seat. You could take your own picnic and snacks, although there are limited places to enjoy it as you’re not allowed to picnic on the grounds.

Don’t fret, as down the road there are a couple of pubs, the Green Dragon (pies, mostly) and The Queen’s Head (pub grub) where you can stop off for food before heading home.

Ample free parking is available at Down House. Entry is free for English Heritage members.

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Winter exploration: a day trip to Bristol

bristol ice rink

The biting, chilly winter winds have arrived in full force, work Christmas parties are fast approaching and the festive hype is beginning. It seems about the right time to slip into the Christmas spirit – and that I did, while outdoor ice skating this weekend in the city of Bristol.

One of Bristol’s festive attractions, the recently-opened At-Bristol Ice Rink gives visitors the chance to skate around a small-scale rink, with feel-good festive such as Frozen’s Do You Want to Build a Snowman, Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car and Frank Sinatra’s New York playing in the background. When we visited on Saturday afternoon, it was mostly full of young children and families. What’s great about its location [for a family outing] is that it’s beside both the planetarium and the aquarium, and the harbour.

ice skates on iceFor festive food, we made our way to the German Christmas markets located in the heart of Bristol’s shopping area in Broadmead. Rows of traditional wooden chalets selling traditional German Christmas decorations, gifts and food combine with Bavarian-style beer houses to create a buzzing atmosphere. It’s a great place to while away an hour or two sampling festive food – from hog roasts, crepes and waffles to spicy mulled wine and cider.

On my to-do list for the day was a more hands-on, creative festive experience offered by Bristol Blue Glass, a renowned company that makes and sells glassware in the city. For a limited time it is offering a special glass bauble blowing experience that sounds intriguing and rewarding.

Time was running out, so instead of visiting Bristol Blue Glass, we took a detour for a free dose of culture (and to warm ourselves up!), by heading to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, in the hope of finding something by graffiti artist Banksy, who was born in Bristol. As you enter the museum, you find Banksy’s famous ‘Pink Angel’ sculpture, an angel with a paint bucket slung over its head, and pink paint trickling down its body. Much of the rest of Banksy’s work is dotted around the streets of the city, so street art and graffiti tours have become established as a must-do when visiting Bristol.

death exhibition bristol museum

Whilst at the museum we also queued for a short time to make it into the ‘Death: the human experience’ exhibition. As a society we’re quite reluctant to talk about death and dying – it’s not something I’d choose to start a conversation about – which is why this exhibition, which is on until March 2016, was particularly eye-opening and insightful. It was a ‘pay what you think’ exhibition, so as you exit, you’re able to decide how much you enjoyed it and what you’d like to donate – a smart idea, I thought.

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St Nicholas Market

Hunger struck again, so we made a beeline for the artisan food stalls in the covered section of St Nicholas Market. This is an unmissable foodie stop and the laidback, cool vibe of the city really comes through. Independent retailers selling everything from fresh made-before-your-eyes falafel to Jamaican specialties, smoothies, or pies and gravy from local favourite Pieminister, make this is a brilliant and quirky stop. The other areas of St Nicholas Market, which were established as early as the 1700s, contain stalls selling everything from artwork to jewellery and vintage clothing, so the area is great for exploring, and picking up a few unusual bits and bobs.

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St Mary Redcliffe Church

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Hearty fare at Pieminister in St Nicholas Market

Before heading back to catch the train home to London from Temple Meads Station, we stopped in at the strikingly beautiful St Mary Redcliffe Church. It’s a masterpiece of gothic architecture, which has been around for some 800 years. Look out for one of the stained glass windows in the east end of the church that depicts Noah’s Ark, with 22 species of animals in pairs.

A day isn’t enough to see everything that Bristol has to offer – and the hilly city can really bring the tiredness out in you – but on my list of things to see for next time is:

  • SS Great Britain, the world’s first luxury cruise liner. Restored and reinstated to where she was built, you can climb aboard and explore everything from the posh first-class cabins to the cramped workers’ quarters and the engine. It gives an insight into Bristol’s maritime history – and its past as a port, which stretches back to 1051.
  • M Shed has a permanent exhibition that charts Bristol’s history for a fuller picture, and there are also pirate tours to explain Bristol’s part in the triangular slave trade.
  • Clifton Suspension Bridge, which can be considered the defining image of Bristol, sits spectacularly on the cliffs of the Avon Gorge. It was built by great Victorian Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the same man who created the SS Great Britain, and the Temple Meads Station.

If you’re thinking to visit Bristol on a budget, here’s a list of attractions with free entry:

  • Arnolfini
  • Arnos Vale Cemetry
  • Blaise Castle House Museum and Estate
  • M Shed
  • The Georgian House Museum
  • The Red Lodge Museum
  • Bristol Cathedral
  • Spike Island
  • The Architecture Centre
  • The Matthew

Beside the seaside: a day trip to Hastings

hastings beach

The last time I uttered the word “Hastings” was when I was aged 13 and bored silly in a history class at school. You guessed it – I was studying the Battle of Hastings, which, I only recently discovered didn’t actually take place in Hastings – it took place several miles away, in Battle (Hastings was the nearest, largest town, so it earned the name). Something they failed to mention at school, or perhaps I wasn’t paying attention.

old sweet shop hastingsMy preconceptions about Hastings, therefore, were somewhat skewed: I’d imagined a boring little place stuffed full of historic sights and history types wearing ghastly walking shoes. What I found, though, was refreshing: a pleasant seaside town with a good mixture of old and new, and plenty of options for the hungry visitor.

Ideal for a day trip, Hastings is a bit like Brighton’s much younger, less polished sibling. It’s a little rough around the edges, but very family- and dog-friendly, and there’s something for history buffs and non-history buffs alike.

In 2016, Hastings Pier will reopen – it was party destroyed by a fire in 2010 – and the town will also celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in September and October, with a big arts festival and lots of events planned, so it could be a good time to visit.

To help you get an idea of what there is to see and do in Hastings, here are some ideas:

tush n pats fisherman rolls stall hastings

Tush and Pat’s Fisherman Rolls stall

Wander down Rock-a-Nore Road

Hastings is home to one of Britain’s oldest fishing fleets – fishermen have worked from the shingle beach, known as The Stade, for more than a thousand years. If you wander along the seafront, past all the children’s amusements, you’ll reach this section. Freshly-caught fish is sold from small sheds, and here you’ll find the historic black net shops that are unique to Hastings. They look a bit like towering beach huts – but they are actually made using half an old upended fishing boat. Split over two or three floors, fishermen used them to store their nets, ropes and fishing gear.

Pick up a Fisherman’s Roll

Stop off at Tush and Pat’s ever-popular stall in front of the net shops, which sells freshly made Fisherman’s Rolls. They’re incredibly tasty and cheap, and the queues for them are continuous. The rolls are famous – even Jamie Oliver has visited  – and while we were there, the locals were stopping for some: always a good sign. “I like mine with vinegar and lemon on top,” reveals co-founder Tush.

west hill life hastings funicular railway view over hastings country park

Tightly packed houses on terraces carved out of the rock to East Hill

Go up the East Hill Lift

Right across the road from Tush and Pat’s stall is the entrance to the East Hill Lift. It is the steepest funicular lift railway in Britain and provides access to Hastings Country Park, which stretches across five kilometres of cliffs and coastline. Go up with a picnic (or some fish and chips!) or buy an ice cream up top and enjoy the views. Follow one of the park’s many walking routes, or perch on one of the benches and enjoy the scenery. If you don’t want to take the lift up to the park, there’s a hidden set of steps, known as Tamarisk Steps, located between the Dolphin Pub and The Fish Hut. Follow the little alley, and you’ll find the stairs that take you to the top.

 

Get your art fix at Jerwood Gallery

Overlooking the beach, and situated within The Stade is the Jerwood Gallery, a relatively new addition to the town. Opened in 2012, the gallery, which displays contemporary and modern art, is considered a jewel in the crown of the Hastings cultural scene. It’s a great escape from the hustle of the promenade.

hastings old town george street

Hastings Old Town

Explore Hastings Old Town

It would be very easy to while away a few hours wandering around the quirky boutiques, pubs, cafés, vintage clothing and antique shops in the Old Town. It’s arguably the most charming part of Hastings. Start on George Street and work your way further inland – and don’t miss the treasure trove that is Butler’s Emporium, it’s set in a shop that dates back to the 1800s.

Something for the kids

Along the seafront, there are a host of activities for the kids, from trampolining and go karting to mini golf, football, boating, and more. There are lots of places for ice cream and sweets too, of course! If it’s raining, the Blue Reef Aquarium located along the promenade can take little ones on an undersea safari. Wannabe pirates may also be intrigued by the Shipwreck Museum.

hastings seafront promenade

Catch a movie at Electric Palace

Electric Palace is an old fashioned, charming independent cinema run entirely by volunteers. It has a quirky line up – making it an entirely different experience to your usual Vue or Odeon.

view from west hill cliff hastings

Historic Hastings

Check out Hastings Castle, the first castle built in England by William the Conqueror. It is situated on the West Hill and can be accessed via the West Hill cliff railway located at the top of George Street. Hastings Museum & Art Gallery is also nearby – set in a manor house away from the Old Town and up above the seafront, it displays art and offers the chance to learn about the local history of Hastings.

Battle Abbey

Stop off at the site of the 1066 Battle of Hastings: Battle Abbey. Learn all about the invasion of William The Conqueror and stand on the site where the future of England was determined. It’s mostly all outdoors so make sure the weather’s good when you visit.

Southeastern Rail trains run direct from London Charing Cross to Hastings.

With thanks to the Visit 1066 Country East Sussex tourist board for the invite to Hastings.

A day in beautiful Bruges

Romantic cobbled streets, narrow lanes, little bridges and canals greeted us as we arrived in the charming little medieval city of Bruges.

It was easy to see why Bruges is often known as the ‘Venice of the North’ after ambling the canal paths, and it felt like we’d stepped back in time as horse-drawn carriages navigated the small streets, and intricate architecture and antiqued buildings flooded our view.

We were particularly impressed by the ultra-romantic Lake of Love (formerly Minnewater Lake), and its elegant resident swans.

lake of love bruges

The Lake of Love (Minnewater Lake)

The many lace shops dotted around the city – reminiscent of the city’s lacemaking tradition – were bursting full of intricate homewares, and, of course, Belgian treats were at every corner: chocolate, waffles, frites (chips, double fried, with mayonnaise squirted on top), mussels (‘moules’), beer, and more.

And it was in Bruges that I discovered the real way to enjoy hot chocolate – the best hot chocolate I’ve had yet – at The Old Chocolate House.

hot chocolate bruges belgium the old chocolate house

A unique hot chocolate experience at The Old Chocolate House, Mariastraat 1, 8000 Brugge

‘The place to be to drink the best hot chocolate’ is the slogan for this cosy little old fashioned cafe and chocolate shop, and I’m so thankful for stumbling upon it. When you enter, you walk straight into a chocolate shop, but a set of stairs leads to a lovely antiqued tea room upstairs, complete with stained glass windows, dim lighting and vintage table covers.

The hot chocolate is an experience in itself – first you choose a combination, for example, the type of chocolate (white, milk or dark) and then the combo you want with it (chilli, ginger, marshmallows).

A huge mug of steaming milk then arrives, with a mini whisk, and a separate tray full of chocolate drops to mix in – as well as a biscuit and a selection of individual chocolates from the shop downstairs.

You whisk in the amount of chocolate you want before slurping away. We were full up after drinking half the mug, so perhaps order one to share. I cannot recommend this place highly enough, and what’s great is that it wasn’t even expensive.

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A horse-drawn carriage ride is a common mode of transport to navigate the small streets – and it is one of the best ways to get a glimpse of the city. Boat tours along the canals are equally popular, and also another great way to see all the beautiful architecture. We chose to spend the day on foot, however, and got ourselves lost among the tiny streets – but that’s how we discovered some of the prettiest spots.

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There were a variety of museums dotted around, such as a lace museum and beer museum, along with various canal-side eateries and drinking holes where you can dine with a view.

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Getting there: We took the ferry over from the port of Dover to Calais, and then got a coach to Bruges. The ferry ride took about 2 hours, and the coach from Calais to Bruges took about 2 hours, too. A quicker and simpler way to get there would be to jump on the Eurostar.

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Beautiful Bruges is easily doable in a day – but for a more relaxing experience, consider an overnight stay.

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Tip: wear comfy shoes (there’s lots of walking on cobbles!) and perhaps something with an elasticated waistline (there’s so much to eat!).

I’m off to try and get hold of the film In Bruges, to see if Bruges looks as pretty on the big screen as in real life.

Dag! (That’s good bye in Flemish, FYI.)

Eat, drink, do: 96 hours in Singapore

marina bay sands singapore

Marina Bay Sands infinity pool

After 13 hours of movie-watching, boredom-eating and dozing on an aeroplane, we were relieved to exit Changi International Airport so we could begin our 4-day adventure in Singapore.

The humidity struck us first. The 28-degree heat was suffocating and we were thankful to clamber into an air-conditioned taxi. During the journey to our hotel, we noticed the trees, plants and lawns lining the roads were pruned to perfection; public places were immaculate; and super cars such as Ferraris and Aston Martins whizzed past. This set the tone for the next few days: Singapore was clean, efficient and flashy.

Driving through Orchard Road – the main shopping street in the city, a bit like London’s Oxford Street fused with Knightsbridge, but 10 times larger – we were flanked by mall after swanky mall. Stores for big-name brands including Gucci, Prada and Chanel cropped up every two seconds, as did restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. It was a shopper’s paradise, and you got a real sense of wealth and modernity in this small city island.

national orchid garden singapore

The National Orchid Garden

There was tranquility on the streets. Ladies shielded themselves from the heat of the sun with umbrellas. Pavements were clean, and – as you’d expect – chewing gum-free as the city banned the sale of chewing gum a few years back. Taxis were everywhere (and they all accepted card payments – win!).

Arriving at our hotel and tucking into the breakfast buffet, I was amused to discover sushi, dim sum, noodles and rice dishes at such an early hour. It was something I’d have to get used to, and be tucking into soon enough. I devoured the exotic fruits on offer, including mangosteen, rambutan and longan, before we stuck our middle fingers up at jet lag and set off for a day of exploration.

Day one

We headed first to the malls along Orchard Road. We walked from the hotel – although locals we bumped into to ask for directions advised getting a cab or the bus. It was a wise suggestion, the heat was unrelenting and we arrived at the first mall wet with sweat. We learned our lesson, we’d be taking cabs from now on. The Westfield malls we have in London have got nothing on the malls in Singapore. We made it through one mall, which, in Singapore terms, you’d consider ‘small’, before resigning for lunch at one of the many eateries.

Later that day, on our quest to visit one of the many hawker centres in Singapore – which are basically open-air, lively food courts, with stalls serving food that reflects the cultural diversity of the country – we hailed a cab to the Newton Food Centre. Hawker centres are famed for their cheap, authentic food, and apparently locals eat dinner there every night because it’s better value for money than cooking at home.

It’s a basic sort of experience: you pick a table (they’re a bit like picnic tables), select food from a stall (it’s harder than it sounds; there are so many stalls and the majority serve similar food, so it can be difficult to pick) and tell them your table number. It’s served to your table with in plastic plates and cutlery, and you pay the bill at the end.

What we later discovered from a local taxi driver is that the price of the food is adjusted so it’s much lower for locals, and inflated for tourists – and we were left with a hefty bill after ordering crab, prawns, sting ray, and various other dishes. A sign by the stall priced seafood per kilo rather than giving a set price – and we ended up paying way more than we would for a proper sit-down meal in a restaurant, with proper napkins. Tip: clarify prices with the stall owner before you order. And try to barter with them, it might get you a little discount.

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Day two

We had booked a tea appreciation ceremony and tasting class with a dim sum lunch at Yixing Xuan Teahouse next to Chinatown after a recommendation from a friend, so that was our first stop. We were joined by a few other tourists and a couple of Singaporeans. The Chinese owner, Vincent, and his daughter Charlene, both had an infectious passion for tea. They shared facts, myths and tips for preparation, and provided various tea tastings too. It was a random, but highly enjoyable experience, followed by an authentic dim sum lunch, which was simple but very tasty. We had some vegetarians in our group and the tea house catered perfectly for them as well.

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A funny shoplifting warning sign at a Chinatown shop

Full from that lovely lunch, we took a short stroll through nearby Chinatown. Towering above us was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. We weren’t appropriately dressed to enter (legs, shoulders and arms must be covered) but there were items available for us to cover up with. Apparently every level in the temple has something worth seeing, from the orchid garden on the top tier to the free museum on the third tier, but we didn’t make it up. We scoured the market that runs through the heart of Chinatown next, which sells everything from Chinese tea pots and jewellery to magnets and t-shirts, and picked up a few kitsch bits and bobs and souvenirs on the way.

Next we jumped on the train to Marina Bay as we’d been eager to check out the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, and the rooftop view it offered. The underground system, known as the MRT, was easy to navigate, and, as you’d expect, very clean and efficient. In comparison to the chaos you’d find on the London Underground, in Singapore, locals wait for all passengers to get off the train, and make a orderly queue to board. The priority seats for pregnant women, the elderly and parents with little children were humorously depicted (see pictures, below). It was also funny to see notices that banned the local, smelly fruit durian on the trains.

When we arrived at Marina Bay station, we found ourselves in the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, one of the largest malls in Singapore. It was luxurious, super-modern, and to top it all off, there was a mini canal running through the centre, on which you could take a gondola ride to the other side. I was awestruck. Just outside the mall we spotted the Helix Bridge, before making our way to the entrance of the mammoth Marina Bay Sands hotel.DSC_0077

We took the lift up to the top, having chosen to go up to the Ku De Ta bar for drinks, rather than spend the same to visit the observation deck. The impressive rooftop infinity pool was located beside the bar, which was a bonus, (although only hotel residents can use it or access the area around it) but the outside deck offered an extensive view over the Singapore skyline and its shores, the pool as well as Gardens by the Bay, which was our next stop.

gardens by the bay singapore night show light

Gardens by the Bay light show

Gardens by the Bay is a vibrant horticultural oasis of lush greenery and floral displays. We’d timed our visit to coincide with the free light and sound show, which takes place right after dark. Many people lie down on the ground to watch the show, and I think it’s a wise thing to do to really take it in. We paid to visit the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest and other attractions in the Bay before it took place, too. We weren’t overly impressed by Gardens by the Bay, and thought the Singapore Botanic Gardens were much more worthy of a visit.

Sticking with the theme of heights, that night we went up to the highest rooftop bar in Singapore, 1-Altitude, to enjoy cocktails and a mesmerising view of the city. The bar has a strict dress code, and you have to pay a flat-fee to enter, but this includes a free drink, and it really is worth it for the 360-degree view of Singapore by night. There’s a relaxed vibe up top, and cocktails are surprisingly tasty. A must-do.

1altitude bar singapore view

The view from 1-Altitude bar

Day three

We put on our nicest clothes and hopped in a taxi to the palace-like Raffles Hotel, one of Singapore’s most famous hotels – and the birthplace of the legendary Singapore Sling (it was invented by one of the hotel’s bartenders a long, long time ago). Raffles, which has been around since 1887, was once a place where the upper class British colonials would stay, and many famous names have inhabited its many rooms, including British poet Rudyard Kipling and actor Charlie Chaplin.

raffles hotel singapore high tea long bar

Raffles Hotel

The grand, elegant hotel really does make you stop in your tracks, and its colonial, old fashioned appearance – reminiscent of the city’s history –takes you back in time. We took a walk around some of its terracotta-tiled courtyards, and admired the classic detail in its architecture, before slipping into the Long Bar to relax with a Singapore Sling it’s like going to Manhattan and having a Manhattan cocktail, it’s got to be done!

Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel's Long Bar

Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar

The bar has an earthy decor, with rows of wicker fans lining its ceilings, and creating a breeze thanks to an ingenious contraption. I was a bit confused as to why monkey nut shells crunched under my feet as I entered the bar, but it seems that it is tradition to eat monkey nuts and throw the broken shell right onto the floor where you sit. Odd, considering how strict Singapore is generally with littering.

We were all set for a relaxing afternoon of tea and cake, but there had been a mix up with our afternoon tea booking at Raffles tip: call them to book as the online booking system doesn’t clarify what you’re booking in for so we wasted a couple of hours under the lovely air conditioning at Raffles City Shopping Centre before returning for our tea in the hotel’s Tiffin Room.

There was a harpist elegantly strumming tunes, and the high ceiling-ed room was impressive and tranquil. It was a lovely setting and scones, pastries, cakes and finger sandwiches were served in tiered stands. There was also a dim sum buffet with extra cake that you could help yourself to. The service was impeccable the waiters kindly brought us out a special cake as there was a birthday in the group  but the food, on the whole, was not amazing. The afternoon tea came to around £35 per person. A bit of a tourist trap, but nice to do.

That night we made our way to the Arab quarter, and the sweet smell of shisha instantly filled our nostrils. A local we had spoken to earlier in the day recommended visiting from 7pm onwards, as this is when it comes alive. He wasn’t lying people spilled out onto the pavements from shisha bars and restaurants on the streets surrounding the Sultan Mosque.

haji lane quirky grafftti

Haji Lane

We took a walk around the quarter, stumbling on Haji Lane, a narrow, colourful street filled with quirky, independent fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It had a hipster vibe, and graffitti-strewn walls – it reminded me of London’s Camden Town. With unique homeware and clothing, it was really different to the standard stuff we’d found on Orchard Road. Throughout the Arab quarter there were also a lot of Persian-style carpets for sale, traditional fabrics and clothing, as well as leather goods. 

For dinner we could choose from Middle Eastern, Malaysian and Turkish restaurants, and we opted for a Turkish meal at Alaturka on Bussorah Road. Seated outdoors in the humid air, we munched on everything from kebabs, humous and freshly cooked naan to mezze, salads and falafel.

The view from Marina Bay Sands over Gardens by the Bay

The view from Marina Bay Sands over Gardens by the Bay

As it was officially our last night in Singapore, we were determined to make the most of the evening, and so we ventured to the area of Ann Siang Hill and Club Street on the fringe of Chinatown where there are lots of bars and drinking holes clustered together. The area is really lively come sun down, and filled with merry post-work drinkers. We started off at The Screening Room’s rooftop bar, La Terraza, which is cosy, dimly lit and has a romantic ambience, before wandering to Toca Me Bar across the road. Come 2am, all the bars began to close and taxis filtered in to the main street that had been pedestrian-free until this hour, to ferry us all on our way. The efficiency of this system was splendid.

Day four

We had a few hours before we were to depart for Singapore airport, so we made a quick dash back to Haji Lane to perhaps do a bit of shopping. As it was before 11am only a few shops on this street were open. We then visited one of the most ‘fragrant’, colourful and untidy places in Singapore – Little India. The smell of incense wafted in to the taxi as we pulled up, and the cab driver warned us that if we wanted to take a taxi home we’d have to go a little way away from Little India as many taxi drivers weren’t keen on coming down these streets. The main things to do in Little India include eating, shopping or visiting the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.

We were impressed by the Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour mall-like store that basically sells everything you could ever wish for, from electronic gadgets to jewellery and Indian sarees. Every single wall in this multiple-floor store was stacked high with products, piled high and untidy. A sight to see.

We collected our bags from the hotel and headed off to Changi International airport, where we stopped off at the butterfly garden inside terminal 3 before fluttering off onto the plane.

Thank you for having us Singapore.

Highlights of Hvar, Croatia’s sunniest island

Hvar town

In an age where we nearly always apply enhancements or ‘filters’ to photos we post on social media networks, it’s like a breath of fresh air to arrive in Hvar – a picture-perfect land where rich blue skies merge with calm, clear waters, and where snaps don’t need modification before they reach Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

That is what strikes you most when you arrive on Croatia’s sunniest island – it is naturally beautiful.

I arrived in Hvar as a result of a 7 day road-trip with my girlfriends through Croatia, starting from Split. We’d devised an action-packed itinerary: two days in Plitvice to visit Plitvice Lakes, one of Croatia’s 8 national parks; followed by a night in Zadar; and three nights in Hvar, one of Split’s nearby islands. Our final night was in Split.

As it was my first ever visit to Croatia, here are a few things I discovered:

  • In Croatia they drive on the right hand side of the road, which took a bit of getting used to.
  • Food prices vary according to where you are: restaurants in the Plitvice area were relatively cheap (£2 for a soup; £2 for fries) but as you get closer to the coast, it becomes more commercialised and expensive – in Zadar a pizza was £7 and fries were £4; on the island of Hvar it was about £7 for a pasta dish, and £6 for a Jägerbomb. As you get closer to the coast though, as you’d expect, there’s lots more fresh sea food.
  • Take mosquito repellant. We got bitten!
  • Croatia is a safe place: as four ladies travelling through the country, we didn’t ever feel like we were in harm’s way.
  • The Croatian currency is the Kuna. Card payments were accepted at some places, not all.
  • The mix of mountainous regions and beaches means you get the best of both worlds here.
  • In the high season (June/July/August) ferries are very busy and often get booked up so try to book at least a day in advance to secure a spot.
  • Croatia’s beaches are mostly all rocky and pebbly, which makes it a bit painful walking around barefoot, especially when getting into the sea.
  • Beware of the jellyfish when swimming in the sea – you don’t want to tread on one of those.
Plitvice Lakes ('Plitvička jezera' in Croatian)

Plitvice Lakes (Nacionalni park Plitvička jezera in Croatian)

Highlights:

If you’re planning a trip to Croatia, try and get these on your list.

Accommodation Plitvice

The guesthouse we stayed at: Accommodation Plitvice

1. Plitvice Lakes. This stunning national park comprising 16 lakes interconnected by waterfalls surrounded by plush greenery, really is as good as the pictures make it look. The green and blue hues of the water are so vivid. There’s plenty to explore in the park – it spans well beyond the few lakes shown in the picture above. It took us a good 3 hours to get around the trail at a leisurely pace. Advice: pack snacks and drinks in your bags if you get peckish or thirsty, and a hat, particularly if it’s a hot day. Wear comfortable shoes as there are lots of uneven surfaces and a few climbs, and take a camera: there are plenty of opportunities for great pictures!

You can’t swim in Plitvice lakes unfortunately, but if it’s a swim you’re after, pay a visit to Krka National Park instead where you are allowed to take a dip in the water. At Plitvice, you have to pay for car parking, but if you don’t fancy driving, jump on a bus. Try to get to the park early though, because as the day progresses, large groups from tours start to take over the place.

Plivtice is at a high altitude in Croatia so it is cooler than Split or the islands – something we weren’t prepared for. We needed a light hoody/raincoat, even in July. Our accommodation in Plitvice was super cosy – we were staying at a guesthouse known as Accommodation Plitvice. It was a 15 minute drive from the lakes, and although the owner’s English was sketchy, she made us feel at home.

Hvar old town

Hvar old town

2. Hvar, Croatia’s sunniest island. Prince William’s been there, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been there… and now I can tick it off my list. Super yachts line the harbour and bars line the promenade, while Venetian towhouses nestle together in the distance.

It’s not the cheapest place for a cash-strapped Brit – prices are inflated, particularly at eateries, shops and bars nearer to the harbour – but Hvar is a great place to mingle and party with young American, Australian and English travellers.  It was very hot when we visited Hvar in July; the sun was out every day and temperatures were in the high twenties.

Sleep: The hostel we stayed at was great fun. With free pancakes for breakfast, organised fun such as a bar crawl and sailing trips on offer,  Earthers Hostel was welcoming and homely as well as enjoyable. The first day we arrived the owners sat down with us and went through all the local spots, telling us how to get to the supermarket and the clubs, etc. The hostel wasn’t particularly plush, but it was clean, and had a really relaxed vibe where socialising was easy.

See: Robinson Beach was a nice spot to swim and it was jellyfish-free, although it took a long (and scenic!) coastal walk to get there. Take a break from sunbathing with lunch at the restaurant that’s located right on the beach – we had salads, burgers, fries and fresh fish. In comparison to Hula Hula beach, Robinson Beach was much less pretentious, more laid-back and cheaper (in terms of sun bed hire and food).

Eat: For delicious local sea food, try Lungo Mare. When a restaurant is packed out with locals, it’s always a good sign: and that’s what we discovered when we visited. We were recommended by our hostel to try it, and it was so good we went back, twice. Generous portions, a hospitable, chatty and hilarious owner and tasty food awaits.

Nightlife: Hvar is renowned for its party scene. One night you could take a taxi boat to Carpe Diem beach island to rave, or go in the daytime for a mellow adventure. For a more relaxing evening head to the Jazz Bar, which is hidden away in the back streets of the town. Or join the other party animals at Kiva, a bar/club tucked away in a side street next to the town. Kiva closes at 2am so we headed to Pink Champagne afterwards, a basement club with a very cool entrance – I won’t give it away (entrance fee is payable on the door), which is open till the early hours. Veneranda club is meant to be epic although we didn’t squeeze it in, as is La Struya – a club with expansive views.

hvar view from fortress

The view from beside Hvar’s fortress

Sightsee: If you’re into history, visit the fortress. It’s quite a walk, but we went simply for the views across the island (see picture above).

Lavender is one of Croatia’s biggest exports. You can get lavender oil, cream, soap, dried flowers, lavender honey; basically everything which is made of lavender from local vendors on the streets. We missed out on going on a lavender tour to visit the copious purple fields, but it looks like an amazing opportunity to take great creative pictures. The olive oil and wine you get at the restaurants are also likely to be made fresh locally, so another worthy excursion could be a wine tour.

3. Bar crawls in Split. Unfortunately we were too tired to make it to them, but judging by the number of people we met who raved about them, we missed out.

With over a thousand other islands scattered off Croatia’s stunning Adriatic coastline, as well as 8 national parks on the mainland, there’s reason for repeat visits. I’d like to visit different islands and Dubrovnik next time around. Have you been? What was your highlight? Tell all!

Playing the tourist in Cuba

Cuba“You must go before things change” – that’s what everybody says about the Caribbean island of Cuba. At first I was puzzled at this comment, but I understood it better once I landed on Cuban soil…

 

The few things I knew about Cuba before I went

•Cuba has an eventful history. From 1492 to 1898, it was a colony of Spain. The rule was brutal, as the native Taino people and the forest were annihilated to clear space for large cattle and sugar farms belonging to a few wealthy owners and worked by slaves. In 1895, the poet, journalist and man who is dubbed ‘the father of Cuba’, Jose Marti, led an uprising against Spain. Although he was killed soon after, the uprising continued. In 1898, the United States entered into the Spanish-American war and Spain was easily defeated, so Cuba was under US military rule from 1898 to 1902, and during this time US individuals and businesses took over much of the land. Wealth belonged to them and the majority of Cubans lived in poverty, without land, proper incomes or sufficient food. On December 31, 1958, the Batista government was overthrown by Fidel Castro, and a socialist government took power. US property was reposessed by Cuba and the US then put up a trade embargo against the country.

•The Cuban government is headed up by the Castros. Raul Castro took over from his brother, Fidel as leader of Cuba in 2008, and while most resources are controlled by the state, Raul is slowly relaxing the rules and attempting to reform the economy. People wonder what will happen once the Castro brothers cease to exist.

•The US detention centre Guantanamo Bay is in Cuba. It’s at the south eastern tip of the island, but there is little other connection between the US and Cuba: the US cut ties with Cuba over 50 years ago.

•Everybody seems to come home from Cuba with cigars and rum.

•You should request a rum slushy at the bar if you’re staying in one of Cuba’s many beach resorts, I was told.

old havana

Old town Havana

What I learnt and observed whilst in Cuba

•When you’re from the West, entering Cuba is like entering a time warp. Everybody rides in old cars from the 1950s and many buildings are crumbly and old.

•Guantanamo Bay is the only US ‘thing’ going on in Cuba – diplomatic relations are non existent.

•A US embargo that has been in force since the 1960s means that Cuba cannot trade or invest with America, although farm products and medical supplies are allowed. In 1920 though, Cuba was a playground for Americans who owned much of the land.

•There are no American brands in Cuba – so no Mc Donald’s, Starbucks, or clothing chains. There are also very few fast-food joints.

•Cubans aren’t fans of Americans. One hotel worker suggested that the best way for an American visitor to remain inconspicuous in Cuba was to say he or she were Canadian.

•Cubans are not allowed to leave the country without special permission from the government.

•Contrary to popular belief, Americans can enter Cuba, although there’s a bit of bureaucracy involved.

•There are no billboards or advertising posters anywhere in Cuba. As you’re driving along the freeway, you won’t see anything advertised. The only boards you’ll see are those put up by the government, which are propaganda notices and murals of revolutionary Che Guevara, who played a key part in the Cuban Revolution (when Fidel Castro’s army overthrew American-friendly President Fulgencio Batista from power).

•Hitch-hiking is legal, and everybody does it. It’s encouraged. People in state-owned vehicles are obliged to stop and offer rides to passengers if they have space for them.

There's lots of lush vegetation and greenery in Cuba

There’s lots of lush vegetation and greenery in Cuba

•The average Cuban earns 5CUC a week – that’s about 58p in GBP. A chef at our hotel said he works 13-hour days for this wage. A 2000 Lexington Institute study found that it would take an average Cuban on a government salary about four days to earn enough to buy one pound of pork, rice, beans, and two pounds of tomatoes, three limes and a head of garlic.

•You’ll rarely find beef on the menu in Cuba. One of our taxi drivers said it was because it’s too expensive, as the government takes cattle away from farmers to be killed, and the farmers have to buy the meat back from the state – farmers aren’t allowed to kill the cattle themselves.

•Cubans know how to dance and do salsa. They’ll put you to shame in no time!

•All Cubans receive free education so the population is highly literate. Healthcare is also free.

•Cuban families are given ration cards which they can use to buy essentials such as rice, chicken, eggs, oil and pasta at a subsidised rate.

•Cubans weren’t allowed to own cars or businesses till recently – they were strictly state-owned till after 2008 when Raul Castro came to power.

•American author and journalist Ernest Hemingway was one of a few Americans who went to Cuba and chose to stay after relations between Cuba and America soured. He spent about 20 years in Cuba, just outside of Havana. His favourite watering holes, La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio, still stand today.

•In one of the restaurants I visited in Havana, the idea of vegetarianism was interpreted literally – I asked for a vegetarian pizza and the toppings consisted of carrots, potatoes, beetroot and basically any vegetable the chefs could find in the kitchen!

•A traditional night in for Cubans involves men playing dominoes, smoking cigars and sipping rum while the ladies chat and make food, our tour guide informed us.

Varadero rainbow Cuba pretty

A rainbow falls over Varadero beach after a storm

•The island generally still runs on dial-up internet – there’s little or no chance of getting Wi-Fi out there.

•Cubans celebrate Christmas Day on the 24th December. We woke up on what we’d deem ‘Christmas Eve’ to a mass feast and a premature Christmas Day – so we got to celebrate it twice – once on the 24th and once on the 25th!

•You’ve got to pay a tourist tax when you leave the country through the airport. It’s 25CUC, so about £15.

•Cuba’s sandy beaches are stunning and the water is very clear, but the mosquitos are a pain.

 

Highlights

•Visit the Partagas cigar factory in Havana – even if you don’t smoke or like cigars, it’s worth a visit: a truly surreal experience. The majority of the cigar making process involves manual labour; first you see the women-only room where they sort the leaves, then the rolling, then the finishing. The deep smell of cigars engulfs you as you walk around, and the smoke from employees (staff are allowed to smoke while working and each receives a handful to smoke each day). You’re not allowed to take a camera or any such device into the building so you won’t be able to capture it, unfortunately. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

•For music and dancing: Calle 62 (authentic Cuban music and salsa) and The Beatles (rock ‘n’ roll) bars in Varadero. At the former, locals will show you how to get your hips going and have you up from your seat to dance; in the latter you can rock out to famous songs in an outdoor bar area.

cuba sugarcane guama

Sugarcane stems in Guama

•Sip on fresh sugar cane juice. Sugar used to be one of Cuba’s biggest exports until the collapse of the Soviet Union. We had to travel all the way out to Guama for a taste of the sugarcane.

•Cuban music. A few of my favourite songs from our trip include: Guantaramera by Compay Segundo (you may recognise this from the film White Chicks), Vivir Mi Vida by Marc Anthony, Chan Chan by Compay Segundo, Valio La Pena by Marc Anthony and Carnaval by Laritza Bacallao.

London’s best foodie tours

What better way to explore the city than to eat your way through it? As you’re introduced to famous and tucked-away spots, and as you hear new tales of London’s past, you can sample local fare along the way. Plus, you get to discover places you didn’t knew existed, and find new foodie joints to take your friends to. Here are some of London’s best foodie tours. Big tip: go hungry.

If you’ve got a sweet tooth… The Cupcake & Macaron Tour of London

Bar crawls are so last year – cake crawls are what it’s all about now. Life is sweet on the Cupcake & Macaron Tour, with scheduled stops at a variety of bakeries and treat-makers including French macaron brand Ladurée and Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant Yauatcha. Mix the food stops with an intriguing history of the Covent Garden, Soho and Mayfair areas – and the chance to discover a ‘secret’ street – and you’ve got a recipe for informative, tasty fun. Opt for an alternative Great British Food Tour or Chocolate Tour if cakes and macarons don’t tickle your fancy.

Duration: 2.5 hours
Food factor: Seven tastings
Area: Covent Garden, Soho, Mayfair

If you’re a stranger to East London… Eating London Tours

This tour lets you taste local East End delicacies, fused with insightful commentary about the varied streets, religions and culture. Includes stops for an award-winning bacon sarnie, delectable Bangladeshi Brick Lane curry, traditional English pudding, Jewish bagel and more.

Duration: 3.5 hours
Food factor: Includes eight tastings
Area: Spitalfields, Shoreditch, Whitechapel

If you want to go to chocolate heaven… Chocolate Ecstasy Tours

Discover the best spots for choccies in London as you learn all about the art of chocolate making, and gain practical tips on how to taste and recognise the ingredients in the brown stuff. You’ll also pick up a history of the area you’re touring as you indulge. Prepare to scoff a variety of yummy, quality chocolates, and experiment with unusual flavours – like gin, chai tea and peppercorn.

Duration: 2.5 hours
Food factor: Six tastings
Area: Various including Mayfair, Notting Hill and Chelsea

If you’re a die-hard meat eater… Walk.Eat.Talk.Eat Urban Carnivore tour

Roast chicken, mega sausage rolls, sliders, slow-roast pork – and something sweet to round off. There’s tons of meat on the menu for this tour: it’s fit for a beast. And as you chow down and venture from swanky hotel to bakery to pub you’ll learn about the history of the east. Mission complete.

Duration: 4 hours
Food factor: Five tastings
Area: Old Street, Liverpool Street

If you think Camden’s just about the markets… Eat Your Way Through Camden with Fox and Squirrel

This culinary stroll through Camden will convince you that there’s more to the dining scene of Camden Town than the sprawling market stalls around the Lock and Gilgamesh. The menu for the day celebrates the diverse ethnicities of the area, with coffee roasting, Italian pizza tasting, Cypriot meze, Turkish delicacies, Portuguese pastries, and more. The eclectic story of Camden is intriguing, too.

Duration: 2 hours
Food factor: 5 tastings
Area: Camden Town

If you never venture south of the river… Mind the Gap Eat London Tour

Starting in bustling Brixton market, first you’ll sample Caribbean and Portuguese flavours and get a feel for the area’s rich heritage and more recent boutique restaurants. You then jump on a bus (remember to take your Oyster card) down to the city’s oldest and most renowned market, Borough Market, where you’re in line for some ‘gourmet’ food tasting.

Duration: 4 hours
Food factor: From 6 tastings
Area: Brixton, Borough

This post is also published on Londonist.com.

What it’s like staying at a hostel

It took me 24 years of my life to discover hostels. I feel sad to say that aloud. But ever since my first hostel experience in July last year, and successive stays in other hostels since, I’ve not looked back.

There were a number of reasons why I’d never ventured to hostel territory: the most common being the misconception that hostels are unsafe, dirty places where you only meet promiscuous humans. Bad misconception.

hostel dorm room

After staying in a variety of hostels, from the party places to the quiet, family-run stays, my train of thought is totally different: why pay £50 a night for a posh and pretty hotel (if you’re lucky) where you’ll spend the night most likely sipping expensive drinks in the lobby, with just a bartender for company? Why do that when you can pay roughly half that price or less, for the company of likeminded others, good conversation and satisfactory amenities [made up for by the fact that you’ll probably have a more memorable and exciting experience]?

Convinced? Here are a few things you should know before staying in a hostel.

  • Not all hostels are booze fests. Some are, granted. You’ll probably be able to tell by the hostel’s bio: if it says the owners will greet you with a beer when you walk in, it’s likely to be that kind of place.
  • The so-called ‘free breakfast’ might not be the buffet you expect. You’ll probably get a few stale crossaints, sugary cereal and some milk if you’re lucky. Beggars can’t be choosers. And remember to wash up your crockery once you’re done.
  • Ear plugs are essential. People snore, slam doors and talk really loudly. Don’t get annoyed: just plug in.travel quote
  • Dorms vs private rooms: pick from four, six, ten or sixteen bed dorms, or opt for a private room if you like your privacy. I’ve always opted for a four or six-bed dorm as it’s way easier to make friends. Also, try and opt for a dorm with a private bathroom – you don’t want to have to trail through a corridor in your towel after showering in a cubicle you have to share with 12 others. You can go for a mixed dorm or same-sex, depending on how brave you are.
  • Flip flops for the shower. Essential. You don’t want to come home with fungus on your feet.
  • Kitchen etiquette. Most hostels offer kitchen facilities, such as crockery, microwaves, ovens, kettles etc. Wash up after yourself and label any food you leave in the fridge or else you might find it’s vanished tomorrow.
  • Most hostels have social areas such as a communal living room, kitchen or maybe an outdoor space. It’s the perfect place to introduce yourself to others and perhaps make some lifelong friends. Make conversation: ask people where they’ve visited so far, how long they’ll be here, where they’re from and the conversation will flow easily. Don’t be shy – you’ll be surprised at how friendly people are and how keen they are to make friends.
  • Bottom bunk please. If you get the choice, bag the bottom bunk. It’s way more convenient; no climbing stairs, and it’s quicker to get to the toilet and the door!
  • Take a padlock: most hostels provide lockers where you can stow away belongings. Assess the security of them before putting away all your life’s treasures: sometimes it may be better to carry your bits on your person.
  • Pick carefully. There are some terrible hostels, but if you choose carefully via sites such as hostelbookers.com and hostelworld.com, and assess the security ratings and reviews, and select wisely, you’ll probably end up in a good place.
  • Treat your roomies as you’d like them to treat you. I had some courteous party animals sleeping in the beds in my dorm, and although they crawled in at 5am, they kindly used their iPhone torches to seek out their pyjamas and the bathroom before knocking out for the night, with minimal disturbance to me.
  • Make the most of your hostel. Participate in its bar crawl/walking tour or any activities it offers. They’re probably cheaper than those offered by actual companies, and also a great way to make friends while experiencing a place properly. Often, hostel workers and owners have some of the best recommendations for places to see or eat at, too – chat to them.
  • People may steal things. If you leave your iPad and your money lying around, don’t be surprised if it’s gone in the morning. Keep belongings hidden and try to get to know your roomies. Whilst travelling in Australia, I met a girl who said her clothes were stolen from her suitcase. It happens. Keep it locked when you’re not around.
  • Wi-Fi. If you get Instagram/Facebook/Twitter withdrawal symptoms, pick a hostel that gives you free Wi-Fi or an internet connection. It might not be the fastest thing on earth, and it may cut out when you’re half way through posting a picture on Instagram, though.
  • Towels, luggage storage, laundry, and similar amenities. You’ll have to pay extra for them if you want them. This ain’t the Four Seasons yo. Try hand washing your pants and hanging them on the rails of your bunk instead – or create a makeshift line dryer if you’re smart enough; make a friend and ask if you can store your luggage in their room for an hour or two if you are desperate to save on cash.
  • Grubbiness. Sink holes plugged up with hair, strange smells and bugs in beds (and worse) are all possible. But if you choose your hostel wisely, and book in advance, rather than just turning up at a place and asking for a bed, you put yourself in a better position to avoid this.
  • You don’t need a backpack. So far, I’ve always travelled with a suitcase. A full 20kg suitcase sometimes. So if you can’t pack light, don’t worry: you won’t be frowned upon!
  • Some hostels feel like hotels. The bathrooms are spotless and the interior is fresh, so if that’s the kind of environment you like, I’m sure you’ll find it if you look hard enough. Every hostel has its own character: check out pictures before you book and you’ll get a feel for what it’s like.

Happy hosteling!

The best of Perth: things to see and do

It gets more sunshine than any other Aussie capital, it has some of the most beautiful beaches (and sunsets) and it’s no way near as boring as some Aussies suggest. Sure, it’s a little sleepy on the outskirts, and its city shopping district is about the size of London’s Leicester Square, but if you’re lucky enough to be visiting Australia’s most isolated capital, there’s plenty to do and see. Grab your sunnies, your sunscreen (you WILL need it) and let’s go… PS, you’ll probably need a car to get around – Perth is HUGE and public transport doesn’t make life too easy, except for when you’re in the city centre. Here are the top 10 picks for places to go/see/do in Perth*:

1. Explore Kings Park

Kings Park Perth

The view of the city from Kings Park after the sun sets

Overlooking the city and the Swan River, this is one of the largest inner city parks in the world – it’s spread over 400.6 hectares; London’s Hyde Park is just 142 hectares: do the maths! Do the tree top walk, take a stroll through the botanic gardens and pack a picnic to enjoy on the endless grassy lawns.

2. Get close to Australian animals at Caversham Wildlife Park

In this small, friendly park, stroke the koalas, wombats and kangaroos (kangaroo feed is provided, too), and see dingos, emus, Tasmanian Devils and more.

Pet the koalas at Caversham Wildlife Park

Pet the koalas at Caversham Wildlife Park

3. Go on the hunt for cheese and wine in the Swan Valley

Swan Valley is Western Australia’s oldest wine region. Drive the length of the signposted Food and Wine Trail in search of vineyards, distilleries and fine food, including chocolate and plump grapes.

4. Admire surfers on Trigg Beach

…And have a go too, by booking in a lesson. This is one of Perth’s most popular surfing beaches, so grab a coffee or an iced chocolate drink from the Yelo café, then find a spot on the sand and watch the surfers do their thing.

The stunning Moore River

The stunning Moore River

5. Grab a towel and head to Moore River

A little way out of Perth is this picturesque, popular family-friendly spot. The river is separated from the Indian Ocean by a sandbank, and the contrasting colours make it a postcard-worthy scene. Hire a paddle boat or a canoe, go fishing, go swimming, or just relax and sunbathe. There’s so much to do here, its easy to while away the hours. Locals often bring their picnic blankets, umbrellas and fold-away chairs and make a day of it.IMG_6493

6. Watch the sun set over Cottesloe Beach

Have dinner by the beach as the sun goes down. Barbecues are available, so just pack some bits and fire one up for a freshly cooked dinner by the sea. Sorrento and Scarborough beaches are just as pretty, too. If you’re going to Scarborough, and you’re hungry, check out The Wild Fig for yummy food.

Kayak or sail on The Swan River

Kayak or sail on The Swan River

7. Sail or kayak on the Swan River

If Moore River’s too far away, head to the Swan River for some water-based fun. Mind the jellyfish, though!

8. Explore historic Fremantle

With its famous Cappuccino strip, lively markets, restaurants, bars and harbour, Fremantle (locals call it “Freo”) is buzzing day and night. It’s steeped in history too; take a tour of Fremantle prison, which was built in the 1850s, and closed officially in 1991, or roam the heritage listed buildings and you’ll be transported back in time.

The port of Fremantle

The port of Fremantle

9. Party in Northbridge

You’ll find bars, clubs and tons of restaurants in this area of Perth. But why not start your night in Mr Munchies, a 10-minute drive away in Mount Lawley, where you can devour well-priced, delicious sushi with a range of vegetarian options too – hands down the best sushi I’ve ever tasted. Then head over to Northbridge and dance the night away in one of its many late-night haunts.

10. Pick up some souvenirs

If you’d like to see what the city area and central business district is like, jump on one of the three free Central Area Transit (CAT) buses that connect East and West Perth and Northbridge, and do a little sightseeing and shopping if you like. If you’re into tea, visit T2, a super cool tea shop chain.

*With thanks to my fabulous Perth-based family for creating such an awesome itinerary and helping me discover such amazing spots.

6 reasons why you need travel alone at least once

Travelling solo had never really crossed my mind; I mean, why would you intentionally isolate yourself from your loved ones, and what fun would there be in exploring a new place when you had no one to share it with? Getting on an aeroplane alone, dining alone, getting around alone – it all seemed a little too lonely (and scary!).

harbour bridge sydney

Soaking up the sun in Sydney

But it is now – after navigating my way around an unfamiliar country by myself – that I realise how wrong I was. After unexpectedly being made redundant, I figured that there was no better time to up and leave – and at such short notice, there was no way I’d find a travel companion, so I had to go it alone. Within a week of being told I was losing my job, I was high up in the sky, about to start an adventure that turned out to be the opposite of what I expected it to be. I experienced the generosity of strangers, found friends in people I’d never have imagined to, and learnt a hell of a lot about myself, and life itself. That’s why I’m with the camp that firmly believe everybody needs to travel alone at least once in their lives, here’s why:

You’re the boss

If you’ve ever been away with others and not quite seen eye-to-eye about places you’d like to visit, or the amount you’d like to spend, this will feel like a breath of fresh air. You are the master of your plans – you can go wherever you want, do whatever you want, sleep in when you like, and spend how much or as little as you want, without anybody judging you. You get to do what you like to do, at your own pace – no compromises involved – and it’s brilliantly satisfying (and cheaper).

IMG_1215

Snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef

You’re not actually alone

There are hundreds of people who are in the same situation as you – and you’ll meet them along the way. On the plane, at your accommodation (I’d recommend booking into 6-person dorms at hostels as you meet so many people this way), at tourist attractions and guided walks: independent travellers are everywhere. As well as fellow travellers, you’ll befriend shop owners and locals of all ages, often accidentally, such as when you’re shopping, asking for directions, or sitting next to them on a bus. Everybody has a story to tell, and being open, friendly and smiley will mean you get to hear theirs, and share your own. After meeting so many genuine, good people – from the guy who lent me his coat for the entire day as I’d forgotten mine, to the girl who offered to show me around town on my first night, and the local shopkeeper who told me the best place to find cheap clothes – I came home feeling like I’d had my faith in humanity restored. And I’m able to keep in touch with many of the people I met thanks to the wonders of modern technology such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

Face your fears

Ever been too nervous to ask a stranger for directions or to take a picture for you? Too afraid to dine out in a restaurant alone? When travelling, you’ll often find yourself in situations where you’re out of your comfort zone, with no safety blanket and nobody to call on or fall back on. There were numerous times where I got lost, situations where I felt uneasy – and at one point I even ended up in hospital as I’d passed a kidney stone – and whilst these were scary experiences, I’m thankful for them as I learned so much about myself as a result. Travelling independently stretches you; it tests you and helps you discover your self-confidence and self-esteem because you always manage to find a way through (although it may not always feel like it at the time!).

Get to know the real you

No, I’m not going to pull out the overused and clichéd “I found myself” statement. But travelling does involve spending serious time alone with your thoughts, and whilst at times it may get lonely, it helps you learn about yourself, and lets you learn to enjoy your own company. Sounds strange, I know, but you almost get to know yourself from the inside out – you figure out your strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, and get to listen to the different voices in your head – it’s the perfect time for reflection and personal growth. I kept a journal throughout my travels, so any time I was alone, I’d fill up a few pages with what I was feeling and what I’d been doing, and I this helped me connect with my innermost thoughts and also helped me to discover what it actually is that I want to get out of life.

The 80-metre deep crater lake I swam in – Lake Eacham, Queensland

The 80-metre deep natural crater lake I swam in – Lake Eacham, Queensland

Free yourself and your mind

You’re more likely to reach out to others, and be approached by others, when you’re alone rather than when you’re with travel buddies. There’s this overwhelming sense of freedom you get, and it enables you to act out of sheer curiosity – go exploring with new people you’ve just met, embrace a country’s culture with open arms, try new foods – and you find that you appreciate things more. You’re more open to new experiences – when was the last time you jumped into an 80 metre deep lake, just for the fun of it? For me, it was whilst I was travelling – I went with the moment, and with the new friends I’d just met, we all had a swim in the pouring rain. Now I’m home, I’m feeling brand new, and refreshed – I came home to see all my belongings in my room – and realised that I’d lived out of a suitcase for a month and not needed any of the 20 hair products I was looking at now – travelling helps you put things into perspective.

YOLO

12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road, Melbourne

12 Apostles, Great Ocean Road, Melbourne

Well, you only live once (YOLO, as us cool kids say), so give it a shot – there’s no harm in trying! I only went away for a total of a month, but that was enough for me – you don’t have to go away for a long period to benefit from this experience. It isn’t actually as scary as it seems, and if you go with a YOLO attitude, you’re more open to saying ‘yes’ to every new experience or opportunity. And again, it’s something I’ve taken away from the trip and am applying to life now – say yes to everything you possibly can! Obviously, use your common sense in a foreign country, do your research beforehand and be safe at all times, but remember give spontaneity a go, too!

My friends have seen that I – the least independent person of all who still has her laundry done by her mum – managed to survive a solo trip abroad, and a couple have been inspired to already take the leap and go away by themselves… If I did it, you can do it too – don’t let fear hold you back.

Top 15 alternative things to do in Amsterdam

Having legalised prostitution and marijuana, Amsterdam can be considered Europe’s equivalent of ‘Sin City’. But while it may be home to the Red Light District and numerous ‘coffee’ shops, there is so much more to see, do and (most importantly!) eat than most people normally realise.

In such a laidback, tolerant society that’s swamped by cyclists and paved by canals, the transport links are fantastic and always on time, and most people speak English, which is very handy. It’s clean and friendly, although it’s definitely not cheap. Here are my top picks for places to visit and things to do in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam city canal pretty

1. Take a bike tour

If you’re a newbie to the city, I’d definitely recommend you start your vacation with one of Mike’s Bike Tours. We took a 3-hour city tour, led by a very helpful guy called Stuart. He peppered recommendations for things to see and titbits about Amsterdam’s history and the Dutch way of life throughout the excursion. It was incredibly useful as it helped us get our bearings right, and we got to feel the wind in our hair as we swooshed through the city. We also learned that the best way to get around Amsterdam is definitely by bike, just like the locals!

Magnum Pleasure Store Amsterdam #MyMagnum

Magnum Pleasure Store Amsterdam #MyMagnum

2. Design your own Magnum

A chocolate lover’s paradise: at the Magnum Pleasure Store you can design your own Magnum ice cream (picture below) and watch it being made before your eyes. Take lots of pictures of it, and then devour – Instagram can wait!

Magnum Pleasure Store Amsterdam my magnum3. Visit the women behind windows

I was  taken aback by the Red Light District. I did not anticipate the openness and casualness of it. I felt like it degraded womankind and made a mockery of equal rights. But enough about what I think: I suppose no visit to Amsterdam is complete without a walk through the narrow streets of the District, where you’ll find rows of small shop windows, and in each window will be a semi-naked prostitute attempting to entice punters to pay them a visit, literally! It was mildly comforting, however, to hear about the security measures put in place to protect these women – inside their rooms they each have a set of alarm buttons, for if they feel in any danger to alert the police. Still, very unsavoury stuff methinks.

4. See how cheese and clogs are made

A forty-minute bus ride out of the bustling city brings you to Simonehoeve Cheese Farm and Clog Factory. You’re given a warm welcome at this family run business, and the traditionally dressed owners provide a guided tour of their factory and demonstrate the machinery used to make clogs (image below). There’s also an opportunity to taste various cheeses, wine, Dutch sweets, and try on clogs – we bought a small, personalised pair with our names on. It’s a pleasant, half-day outing. If all you want to do is try different cheeses, then visit Henri Willig Cheese & More in the heart of Amsterdam – there’s always a lot to taste – and it’s the best way to buy.

Simonehoeve Cheese Farm and Clog Factory clog

Learning how clogs are made at the Simonehoeve Cheese Farm and Clog Factory

5. Go into Anne Frank’s House

Even if you weren’t big on history at school – you can’t miss this. You’re transported back to a chilling time, and almost relive it as you make your way through the actual house in which Anne Frank lived and wrote her diary. There are various videos, drawings and artefacts to refresh your memory or bring you up to speed on what went on, and it’s thrilling stuff. Queues whirl round the streets to get into this place, so either pre-book or get there early or just before closing time. I’m about to reread Anne Frank’s diary after seeing this.

6. Enjoy the greenery

Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s main city park – so it’s just like what Hyde Park is to London. It’s a pretty and vast space, and you’ll often find the Dutch barbecuing, picnicking or enjoying a spliff here. It’s aptly named Vondelpark (pronounced Fondelpark) because once the sun sets, it becomes legal to have sex in the park! A funny – yet true – fact, but don’t worry we didn’t catch any of that hanky panky. Don’t let it put you off either – it’s a lovely space and well worth a visit, even if it’s just a walk through it.

poffertjes De Vier Pilaren Poffertes and Pannenkocken Restaurant amstedam

Poffertjes – sort of like a cross between a pancake and a doughnut

7. Scoff yummy Dutch pancakes

Very close to the main central street, and beside the museum district you’ll find the cute little De Vier Pilaren Poffertes and Pannenkocken Restaurant. Go there for breakfast or for dessert and enjoy the finest Dutch pancakes and poffertjes (left). Taste the banana and chocolate pancake, it’s delicious – and the poffertjes are plump and tasty too.

8. Have a laugh at quirky condoms

There’s a ‘Condomerie’ near the Red Light District that specialises in funky and unique condoms. From Pokemon to farm animals, it has got condoms in all shapes, colours and sizes: it’s a fun stop.

De Goooyer Windmill brewery amsterdam

De Goooyer Windmill

9. Go and see a windmill

We went and sat under the De Goooyer Windmill, in a brewery where they make their own beer. It was a nice opportunity to take pictures with the windmill, which is massive in size.

10. Taste a scrummy homemade apple pie

Winkel 43 has become famous for it’s homemade apple pie (pictured below). It’s a nice little café, with tables spilling out the street. The apple pie is a treat.

11. Make your own falafel

Moaz is a chain of falafel restaurants around Amsterdam. It’s centuries old and it operates a bit like Subway in England – you construct your own falafel and decide what goes inside. Fillings are often unlimited so you can keep topping up if you like. We have a similar restaurant in London (although it doesn’t provide unlimited refills!) – Taboon, in Golders Green (London). Perfect for lunch.

12. Browse Van Gogh’s work

The Van Gogh museum provides a great insight into the life of the famous artist. With four floors of paintings and work from him and his co-artists, it’s an art lover’s delight. Included in the collection are the Sunflowers and Bedroom paintings. Enlightening.

Winkel Amsterdam homemade apple pie

The legendary homemade apple pie at Winkel

13. Tuck into Belgian fries

By far the best fries I have ever tasted – no exaggeration – at Chipsy King they are cooked Belgian style so they’re crunchy and crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. I wish there was a Chipsy King franchise in London; I would be their top customer!

14. Go flower-watching

We visited Amsterdam outside of tulip seasons, so the closest we got to real tulips were the wooden souvenirs. Still, Bloemenmarkt flower market is nice to pick up flower bulbs, venus fly traps, and to have a mooch at souvenirs to take home. If you’re lucky enough to go during the period when tulips are springing up, I’d insist you visit Keukenhof Gardens, it’s a picture perfect, magical place at that time of year.

15. Have a brick-oven special pizza

On the off chance that you’re craving Italian food in Amsterdam, take a trip to De Pizzabakkers. It has the thinnest brick-oven pizzas, and they’re very tasty.

There’s plenty of other stuff to do in Amsterdam too:

-Hunt out a bargain: visit one of the many flea markets: Albert Cuyp market, Dappermarkt, Waterlooplein and more.

-Go on a history trail: visit the art and culture museum, Rijksmuseum.

-See how beer is made: at the Heineken experience.

Rijksmuseum amsterdam national museum

Rijksmuseum

-Watch the world go by: simply sit along the wall of one of the canals and have a little peace and quiet.

-Get your lunch from a FEBO machine: it’s an interesting concept; there are self-sufficient units that behave a bit like vending machines dotted around Amsterdam, but they dispense hot food like croquettes.

-Visit the animals: at the Artis Zoo

Told you there was more to Amsterdam than weed and naked ladies.

Glamping: how to survive and what to take camping

Glamping is camping with added glamour and luxury. It combines the fun and freedom of camping with a few home comforts, so it’s great for ladies who can’t do without their hairdryers, and fellas who can’t go a night without their electric toothbrushes. With glamping, you can bypass the long, fiddly process of setting up a tent, and you feel less like you are slumming it for the night because you’re staying in a stable, ready-constructed, cosy tipi, cabin or yurt. Plus, you have the added peace of mind that you’ll be able to kip comfortably (hopefully!), rather than on a potentially uneven grassy plot.

cabin yurt camping glamping

Our glamorous abode

Popularised by some of the cast from The Only Way Is Essex, glamping is ideal for days when it might be rainy or cold, because you have the little niceties including a stable roof over your head, a full-length mirror (phew!), a bed with a mattress, power supply and kettle. I’m really selling this, aren’t I? But, I should add, however, that glamping doesn’t guarantee that creepy crawlies will be kept at bay!

First-time camper

Having never attempted camping before, glamping was a positive introduction to the concept. The toughest part was preparing for the trip, i.e. deciding what to take and what kinds of meals to cook – but thanks to advice from friends and family, and a little bit of Googling, we managed to over-pack, which, in my book, is better than being unprepared! I’ve compiled a camping checklist for those considering a trip.

glamping yurt cocoon cabin camping luxury

The inside of our cabin

I was slightly weary of using communal showers and toilets, but thankfully the facilities at the campsite we stayed at (Lee Valley Campsite, Sewardstone) were very clean and just a short walk from our cabin. Still, I’d recommend you take a pair of flip-flops for when you go for a shower – you don’t want to catch any verrucas! I’d also keep some toilet roll handy, just in case – and a torch, if you’re the kind to need the loo in the middle of the night. The campsite even offered a laundry service; provided taps for drinking water and shared sinks for washing up, so it felt like all bases were covered on our stay!

Meals for camping

You have to plan your meals in advance if you’re not intending on leaving the campsite once you arrive, so we did a big supermarket shop the day before we left, and stuffed all the bits into cool bags. We decided on:

Lunch: Vegetarian and meat sausages and burgers. We’d cook the sausages and burgers on the barbecue, and caramelize some onions on the stove.

Dinner: Gnocchi and crusty bread. As gnocchi is vacuum packed, it’s ideal. All we needed was a tin of pasta sauce and an onion to cook and then mix through it.

Dessert: Raspberries, strawberries, banana and chocolate for fondue. We had mini fondue sets at home and seeing as the chocolate only required a tea light candle to warm up, the fondue was very self-sufficient, albeit a little messy!

Breakfast: Eggs, beans, waffles, mushrooms and pancakes. We bought bottles of ready mixed pancake batter, into which we only needed to add cold water, and then shake. A little bit of a cheat but minimum fuss and mess – highly recommend!

Snacks: Mini cheese and onion and sausage rolls, dried fruit and crisps.

We’d packed a camping stove and also managed to get our hands on an electric, plug-in cooker, which was very practical. While some of the others in the group were tempted to nip off to a local café for lunch, the cooking part of the glamping was one of my favourite and most rewarding experiences – I felt self-sufficient and rather proud!

Piñata make your own ideas inspiration shape

Make your own piñata

Entertainment

The week before we went camping, we made our own piñata to play with. It was very easy to do; all you need is flour, water, newspaper, some coloured paint or tissue paper – instructions here.

We also took some board games and were lucky enough to have balmy weather so we spent the majority of the evening outside our cabin, on our own picnic tables and blankets and the large picnic tables already provided by the camp. Our campsite did not allow us to have open fires or else we would have enjoyed roasting marshmallows. As the night became chillier, we took our games indoors, into the light of the cabin.

After a great day in the outdoors and evening around the barbecue I was looking forward to a warm, comfortable night’s sleep in my sleeping bag. As much as I would like to say I had a pleasant night’s sleep, I didn’t. We had a few incidents with bugs falling on our pillows, gigantic spiders and disturbingly loud noises from creatures scratching or scurrying outside of our cabin keeping us up (you can tell I’m a city girl at heart, can’t you?), but the other half of our group in the other cabin slept fairly well.

Even though I enjoyed convenience and little luxuries provided by glamping, not being able to get to sleep at night was a big put off. I’m left wondering whether I would have had a better kip in a tent, and should try ‘proper’ camping before I made a judgement. That might just have to be my next challenge, if I’m brave enough…

Brussels in 48 hours

Contrary to popular belief, Brussels sprouts aren’t famous in Brussels. Turns out, they were just cultivated there many years ago, and were therefore named after the Belgian city. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s move onto what Brussels is really good for – beer, chocolate and waffles. Yes, totally shamazing, mouthwatering chocolate and waffles, and so many different varieties of beer that you really would be silly not to sample a selection – if not all of them! (Peach beer was my favourite, do give it a whirl.) As well as the chocolate, waffles and beer, Brussels’ speciality is handmade lace, and it’s also very well known for bringing us comics including the Smurfs, remember them? I should probably also give ‘frites’ a mention. These are chips that are double fried and served with mayonnaise, and eaten by most Belgian folk. So if you see fritteries on almost every corner in the city, you’ll know why!

Belgian waffle biscuiterie dandoy

Belgian waffle at Biscuiterie Dandoy

Brussels is the perfect location for a quick weekend break as there’s lots to do and see. It’s a very multicultural place and getting around isn’t too difficult: choose from the train, bus or tram – get a travelcard and you’ll be able to use all three. Oddly, if you venture away from the central area, especially at night, you will notice that the streets are very deserted – there is literally nobody around and many restaurants are closed – even on a Saturday night! It seems that most people are tucked up in cosy bars and pubs – you guessed it – drinking beer. Here are my suggestions for places to visit in Brussels.

Grand Place

Sample Belgian cuisine at the many terrace restaurants and cafés lining this huge, central square and wander the cobbled streets as you appreciate the historic surroundings (especially the Town Hall, information below) – and you’ll begin to see why the Grand Place is listed as a world heritage site. You should expect prices to be fairly inflated in Grand Place as a result of its central location.

The Town Hall

Admire the stunning architecture and detail of the sculptures adorning Brussels’ Town Hall. Also known as Hotel de Ville, this is the most striking building in Grand Place.

Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis

Manneken Pis

Beside Grand Place you will find this famous (and amusing!) landmark depicting a naked boy peeing into a fountain. The tiny bronze icon has been humouring visitors since 1619, and was initially a fountain supplying drinking water to the city’s dwellers. Now it’s one of Brussels’ top attractions and on special occasions, is dressed up in different outfits – some of which are on display at the Museum of the City of Brussels. Manneken Pis will definitely bring a smile to your face! And if you like this kind of thing, you can visit Jeanneke Pis – the ‘sister’ of Manneken Pis – featuring a statue of a girl squatting and urinating into a fountain!

Biscuiterie Dandoy

Take the time to enjoy a delicious Belgian waffle at Biscuiterie Dandoy café, located just a few minutes from Manneken Pis. The waffles are light, a little bit crispy, and incredibly tasty – I’d never tucked into such a lovely one. Biscuiterie Dandoy is well known for its biscuits, baked goodies and chocolate too, so do stock up while you’re there.

La Belgique Gourmande, a very popular chocolate shop

La Belgique Gourmande, a very popular chocolate shop

Sample Belgian chocolate

Brussels isn’t just the capital of Europe; it’s also the chocolate capital. It’s here that I got a taste of real chocolate. It was mind-blowing, and I’m not exaggerating – I’d go back to Brussels just for it! There are many top-class chocolatiers located close to Grand Place, the most celebrated shops being Godiva, Neuhaus, Wittamer and Mary Chocolatier. The chocolate was so divine that eating Cadbury and Galaxy once I’d arrived back home wasn’t nearly as satisfying. *Sad face*

Boston Steak House

You must try this Belgian chain restaurant that specialises in great grilled meat. Offering everything from steaks and burgers to ribs, it is good quality food, with large portions, and it’s reasonably priced, too. I opted for the grilled chicken, which was tender, flavoursome and moreish. I wish they had a branch in London!

The Royal Palace, Brussels

The Royal Palace, Brussels

Palais Royal (The Royal Palace)

Although the Queen and King no longer live at the palace, they have their offices there. I wasn’t too taken aback by the palace’s appearance because it seemed to be very run down; the walls were no longer white, instead a dark greyish colour, so it almost looked a little dingy. In the summer, the palace is open for public tours, and visitor reviews seem to suggest the inside is much nicer than the outside so be sure to visit when it’s open. Opposite the palace you will find The Royal Park, also known as Brussels Park. Like much of Brussels’ other green spaces, it is maintained very nicely and there are always events taking place inside it, so do take a walk through – it’s a very pleasant, charming space. Josaphat Park in Schaerbeek is a smaller beautiful park worth visiting if you get a chance. It’s a charming, romantic space, located on the outskirts of Brussels, in a residential area. It has a quaint lake, lots of walking routes, and offers donkey- horse-rides too.

Josaphat Park in Schaerbeek

Josaphat Park in Schaerbeek

Cinquantenaire Triumphal Arch

Erected in celebration of Belgium’s independence, this is the world’s second largest arch, after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The arch forms the centrepiece of Parc du Cinquantenaire – yet another pretty green space in Brussels. Located in the same vicinity are various European Union buildings (as Brussels is the capital of the EU). If you’re intrigued by the world of the European Parliament, you should visit the free Parlamentarium.

The Atomium

The Atomium

The Atomium

This atom-like structure is incredibly deceptive – it looks very small until you get inside it. Nevertheless, it offers plenty of photo opportunities from the inside as well as out. You have to pay to ascend the Atomium, but in return you get panoramic views across the city skyline as well as entry to exhibitions within the structure. Thankfully there are lifts to take you up and down, and between the spheres, but a fair amount of walking is still required. Go on a clear day for a good view, but don’t expect to see anything spectacular – sadly there aren’t that many massive landmarks you can spot from above the city! If you hate heights, it’s probably not advisable to go up (it’s 102m high), although you may be tempted by the pricey bar and restaurant at the top.

Mini Europe

Located at the foot of The Atomium is Mini Europe, the only place where you can take a whistle-stop tour of most of Europe and its most fascinating attractions, in just a couple of hours. 350 of Europe’s most popular buildings and monuments are recreated in miniature form, and visitors can take a somewhat cheesy, animated tour, although an entrance fee does apply.

Tin Tin comic painted on a wall

Tin Tin comic painted on a wall

Rediscover your childhood heroes

Did you know that Tin Tin, Snowy and the Smurfs are all cartoons that have emerged from Belgium? Artists from the country created these childhood heros. There are comics painted on random walls across Brussles – take the walking tour and try and spot them or visit the Comic Strip Museum where you’ll be able to see original sketches and memorabilia.

To conclude

Brussels is a lovely city, and offers something to please everyone. If I haven’t made it clear enough yet, don’t miss the chocolate, the waffles and the beer. Nom, nom, nom. Over and out!

Christmas in Copenhagen

Christmas market Tivoli Copenhagen

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

Spending a weekend in Copenhagen (København, if we’re being proper) in December was enough to get me properly in the mood for Christmas. Colourful lights lit up the streets and shops; Christmas trees were blanketed in snow; and mulled wine (or gløgg as the Nordics call it) was flowing all day and night.

General observations

This being my first trip to Denmark, I was most impressed by the popularity of cycling – even heavy snow didn’t deter the Danes from getting on their bikes! Bicycles litter all street sidewalks and they’re rarely secured (unlike in London, where every bike is chained!). This says a lot about the Copenhagen – it’s a very safe place, and the people are incredibly kind, and helpful. The fact that the majority of the population speaks English is a massive bonus too. The transport system is great; the buses and trains are fairly regular, and the bus drivers were so helpful. The food isn’t exactly cheap, and there is much less variety for vegetarians, but there are plenty of cafés, restaurants and watering holes to try. If you’re traveling to Copenhagen in the winter months, especially December, it’s essential that you take snow-proof, warm clothing. Here are my recommendations for places you should visit if you take a trip to Copenhagen.

Santa Claus at Tivoli Christmas market

Santa Claus at Tivoli’s Christmas market

Tivoli Christmas market

The main reason we’d traveled to Copenhagen was to visit a gorgeous Christmas market, such as that at Tivoli Gardens. We certainly got what we were after. Tivoli Gardens was transformed into a picturesque, intricate and magical winter wonderland. The park was showered in delicate Christmas lights; there were Christmas themed decorations and Christmas trees dotted around everywhere; and there were even reindeer and a Santa Claus. As well as rides to amuse young and old, mouthwatering aromas floated from every foodie stall. As much as you may try to capture the magic of Tivoli in a picture, it’s impossible to convey it properly – you have to witness it for yourself. Visitors must pay an entry fee, and you’ll be amazed at how easy it is to get carried away and spend, spend, spend!

rides Tivoli Gardens amusement park Christmas december

Tivoli is lit up beautifully at night

The Little Mermaid

We started off our sightseeing journey by going on the hunt for the statue of The Little Mermaid. It originates from a book of the same name, by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The statue is very small in real life, and to be honest, a bit of an insignificant let down. She’s hidden away beside the water’s edge, so don’t be fooled by any maps, which suggest she’s inside a park – you’ll be going on a wild goose hunt, just like we did!

The Gefion Fountain

This is the Danish equivalent of Rome’s Trevi Fountain. It features statues of four oxen, driven by legendary goddess Gefjun. Unfortunately, the fountain is not as impressive in winter: the sprinklers are turned off and the fountain is iced over because of the cold.

The Marble Church

Marble Church copenhagen

The Marble Church

Also known as Frederik’s Church, this stood as a ruin for about 150 years, until it was finally completed in 1894. The dome is absolutely humungous, and breathtaking too. It stands very tall – scraping Copenhagen’s skyline – and is so beautiful and intricate. Entrance is free and it’s well worth visiting – just to see the detail of the inner dome – it’s spectacular. Considering how old the church is, it’s amazing that it still looks in tip-top shape!

Amalienborg Palace

Right across the road from The Marble Church is this gigantic palace on-looking a courtyard. This is the Queen’s residence and it is patrolled by guards. Every day there is a public changing of the guards’ ceremony at noon in front of the palace. We were lucky enough to visit when the Queen was in residence (signalled by the flag being raised and the changing of the guard ceremony being accompanied by the guards’ music band).

Changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace

Changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace

Nyhavn harbour

This was one of my favourite spots in Copenhagen. Nyhavn was established in 1671 by then Danish king Christian V, who wanted a gateway from the sea to the city. Gorgeous, brightly coloured houses line the harbour (the scene is a bit like that from CBeebies children’s programme Balamory!) – and it’s so picturesque. Overlooking the canal are bars and restaurants, and in December, a Christmas market too. The place is very lively, both day and night, and restaurants continue to provide outdoor seating, even in the winter. I especially liked that the restaurateurs had thoughtfully left blankets out on seats for visitors – what a nice touch!

Strøget

Beside Nyhavn is Copenhagen’s largest pedestrian-only outdoor shopping street. With everything from Topshop and H&M to Chanel and Mulberry, it’s a shopaholic’s dream!

Copenhagen Opera House

We didn’t make it inside this beastly beauty, but were taken aback by its architecture from afar. It has one of the largest canopy roof structures in the world – it’s almost as large as three football pitches!

The view from the top of Vor Frelser Kirke (Our Savour's Church)

The view from the top of Vor Frelser Kirke (Our Savour’s Church)

Vor Frelser Kirke (The Church of Our Saviour)

In my opinion, this is one of Copenhagen’s most elegant landmarks. What’s more, visitors can climb the Church’s unique golden spire for excellent views of the city. You must pay to climb the 90-metre tower (400 steps!), and don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an easy climb. It’s very steep and narrow – and quite terrifying at times. There is no lift to take visitors up so it’s definitely not for the elderly, those with mobility issues, or those who are claustrophobic or afraid of heights. We went on a rather busy day, and there were large numbers of visitors wanting to go down as well as up. In a dimly lit, confined staircase, this resulted in lots of congestion and it didn’t feel altogether very safe!

Ole Steen Lagkagehuset

One of the finest bakeries I have ever visited, this modernist space sells everything from fresh bread and pastries to cakes and biscuits. Interestingly, it operates on a ticket based system – you must enter the shop, pick up a ticket and wait for your number to be called before you will be served. One Danish speciality to try is the popular chocolate-coated marshmallow (a flødeboller) – it’s a melt-in-your-mouth, gooey treat.

The National Museum of Denmark

This presents such a large, varied and rich mix of exhibitions, that I’m surprised it’s free to enter. Insightful and fun, there’s plenty to see and learn. It takes you right back through 10,000 years of history – a must-see.

Final words

Copenhagen is a beautiful place; the architecture is great, the pastries are lovely and the Danes are a friendly bunch – I’d definitely recommend a visit!