Why a travel blog on here?
One of the most popular holiday pastimes is reading. It’s a time when we can really lose ourselves in a book. More than just the 20-minute read before bed to help us fight-off the deadly blue screen threat, or satisfy ourselves that we’ve at least read something today.
Of course, if you like to get a little more out of your holiday than beach-basking and pool lounging, you’ll be wanting to explore some of a city’s most popular places. I ideally like to do a bit of both, so with no other reason than to write something and share my experiences, here we go.
Clearly, Colin Farrell had it wrong. Whether or not you’ve seen the quirky yet brilliant film which recently came up in a conversation with friends, you’ll certain find plenty to do if you ever find yourself In Bruges. So with Easter just around the corner and our thoughts turning to tasty treats, I thought I’d take you on a little tour around Belgium’s daddy of confection.
Chocolate…all of the chocolate
If there’s one thing Belgium is more famous for than anything else, it’s chocolate and a visit to Bruges gives you one of the best chances to stock up and get your fill. More than just your usual sweet-toothed tourist trap, this is the centre of the area’s industry and a stroll down the old town’s cobbled streets presents one outlet after another. From high-end confectioners to quaint traditional shops, there’s something to suit every taste and budget, from classy to tacky. Serious cocoa scholars should pay a visit to the town’s chocolate museum where you can find out more about the processes involved, the history of chocolate making and much more besides. As is always the way with these things, you exit through the gift shop but you may find yourself lingering longer than normal, with plenty of tasty treats on offer.
Take a trip up the Belfry of Bruges
It’s not difficult to see why this fantastic structure is the town’s most famous landmark, towering over the old town square since 1240 when it was first built. It’s had a bit of a tough time since then, catching fire after a lightning strike in 1493 and again in 1741. After subsequent tweaks and re-builds, it was decided, quite wisely, that a wooden spire was perhaps not the best choice and the gothic-stone rooftop was added in 1822. You need to buy a ticket to tour the tower, but it’s AT reasonable cost and the view from the top is worth the entry price alone. Before you get up there though, you can explore it in depth, learn more about its history and have a laugh spotting the odd bit of In Bruges-inspired graffiti on the steep spiral climb to the top. Make sure you time your visit to be up there one the hour when the bells sound – it’s quite an experience!
View from the canal
A great way to take in some of this charming place’s fantastic buildings, including two architecturally impressive churches, is by taking a canal boat ride. It’s the usual set-up you’ll no doubt be familiar with if you’ve taken a boat trip anywhere – departures at certain times and a route designed to showcase the best of Bruges. Needless to say, the camera is once again a must – just make sure you keep tight hold of it – the canals are pretty deep!
If you’re one of life’s browsers, barterers or hagglers, then you’ll love exploring the myriad market stalls. There’s something instantly more pleasing and authentic about buying fresh local produce from a local stall and here you’ll be able to find everything from fruit and vegetables to fresh bread and all manner of cheeses – and of course, more chocolate.
As a person with Canadian family connections and a massive Rush fan to boot, my visit to this fantastic country was always going to be a bit of pilgrimage of sorts. Unsurprisingly, I spent a lot of time in perhaps its best-known city and it was every bit as rewarding as I hoped it would be.
It’s like a friendly New York…
This is how an Englishman in Toronto who I met described the city to me. I’ve been to both and though I did indeed love the Big Apple, I have to agree! You may or may not have heard that Canadian’s are friendly and will do anything to help and it’s certainly true! I thought I was doing a great job of not looking like a tourist or looking lost generally, but nevertheless, there was always someone offering help – but never in a pushy way.
A tower you really can’t miss
Yes, in every sense of the word, the world-famous CN Tower is unmissable. Get there early if you want to avoid the queues because they start outside and continue inside. It’s worth it though! To ease your passage, there’s information films displayed inventively along the way, before you finally arrive at your designated lift. Sorry, elevator. The attendant is on hand to share a few tower-related factoids with you as you ascend and it’s quite an experience to see the ground falling away as you rise. You can spend as much time as you want at the top and needless to say, the view is incredible. It’ll cost you a little more to go one stage higher and even more if you want to indulge in a hair-raising exterior tower walk, but the main viewing area is more than enough if this is your first visit. (Don’t miss the glass floor – if you can see it for the crowds getting their pictures taken!)
A Streetcar named Day Pass
The street cars are Toronto landmarks in their own right and a great way to get about. You simply hop on and off and they’re a good way to soak up a little scenery as you travel. The Toronto underground is almost as famous and is a speedier way to travel. It’s like another city down there and it’s possible to walk a mile without ever resurfacing, exploring different districts and shopping malls as you go. A TTC day pass is a cheap and effective way to travel around the city. It’s valid on streetcars, buses and the underground and gives you unlimited journeys. There are a number of squares and public places in the city where there’s always something going on, from food festivals to live music performances and a pass is a great way to help you see a little of everything.
A day at the beach
Really? In Toronto? Well, I was surprised too. Fact is, beach life is very much alive and well in the, yes you’ve guessed it, Beach Area, with a boardwalk which runs along a large section of the colossal Lake Ontario. Multiple dog-walkers, surfers, bathers, kids on summer camp and ice cream shops – it’s all here, along with some great coastal views. Venture inland and there’s plenty of cafes and clothes shops to discover, so you can shop at your leisure and take a load off with a coffee.
A day at the Market
I’d heard about Kensington Market and perhaps because of the London-centric name connection, was expecting a Camden market vibe. Merging with the city’s China Town, Kensington offers a little of that but it’s very much its own neighbourhood, where bicycles are lined up row on row and three story houses have become shops selling all manner of wares, from vintage army surplus to beach bum chic and of course, health-conscious eating. Buy an iced tea, sit back and drink it all in. And don’t miss the wall murals!
Winter may be coming for the last time as Game of Thrones gears up for its final season, but you’ll pleased to know you can visit Westeros anytime, with a trip to none other than King’s Landing. OK, that would in fact be Dubrovnik, but read on to find out more about why this is such a cool place to explore, whether you’re a ‘Thrones fan or not!
Known whimsically as the Pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik is a hugely popular destination on the Croatian coast – an area which has as much history to its name as it has bountiful beaches. More and more people are choosing a Croatian beach break for their summer escape, as it’s still a relatively cheap country when it comes to holiday spends. Sun worshipper or sightseer, if you’re spending time in the Croatian coast, you really should take a trip to Dubrovnik during your stay.
Fit for a king
The first thing you need to know when visiting Dubrovnik is that you need to head for the old town. Dubrovnik’s more than the atmospheric stone-walled city brought to our screens as Kings Landing in Game of Thrones but to be honest, this is the bit everyone wants to see and with good reason. Just follow the crowds through the archway and already, you start to feel the history of the place and despite the relentless hustle-bustle of tourists, you won’t fail to get caught up in the atmosphere. You may not even have to get as far as the tourist information office before a themed GOT tour leaflet is thrust into your palm by a suitably-garbed guide. You don’t have to pay for a tour though, and Dubrovnik’s old town is so small and compact that you won’t have any problem finding your way around.
Take a walk on the wall side
One thing you simply must do during you visit is take a trip along the city walls. Aside from offering you the best view of Dubrovnik’s streets and its splendid architecture, you’ll also enjoy a crow’s-eye view of the beautiful Adriatic coast and there’s also a good chance you’ll spot a millionaire’s yacht or two. It costs to scale the walls but it’s certainly worth the money, as you cross ramparts, explore turrets and treat yourself to a much-needed drink in a conveniently-placed café bar. One thing Dubrovnik is known for is its distinct red-roofed buildings, many of which have been faithfully restored following the damage they suffered during the Serb-Croat War. You can do the full circuit or leave the walls at one of a number of convenient points but whatever you decide to do, don’t forget the camera, and with your phone fully charged.
Sampling the wares
There’s no walk of shame when it comes to exploring Dubrovnik’s busy streets. Everyone’s at it and it’s best just to embrace the heavy tourist nature of the place, whether that’s by picking up an authentic souvenir or seeking out some of the summer fashions. One thing’s for sure, there’s no shortage of shops and every street and alleyway reveals something different, whether that’s a historical book store, an art gallery or a tucked-away bar where the only seats are in the alley outside (but where the Wi-Fi’s still free!)
Scale the heights
If you’re the kind of tourist who feels that they haven’t really visited a place until they’ve climbed the highest point, then don’t miss the chance to take a cable car ride up Srdj. There’s more than one mountain in King’s Landing and aside from offering you a walk-free way to scale this lofty leviathan which towers over Dubrovnik, the cable car is an amazing experience in itself and there are some truly incredible views over city and sea to enjoy. There’s a choice of restaurants at the top too, so if you time your visit right, you can accompany the stunning views with a spot of lunch.
The City on the Water is a natural place to start this blog, being such a timeless influence on a host of authors, poets and playwrights. It’s also one of those places that everyone’s heard of, conjuring up images of gondolas and their associated gondoliers gliding romantically along the canals. Lots of places get called ‘the Venice of somewhere or other’ but there’s only one Venice and though it’s undeniably a huge tourist hub, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it for yourself. Here’s just a few of the must-sees and a few tips on how to do Venice a little cheaper, too.
Just one gondola…
While a gondola ride is a tourist must, it can be a costly affair, but there are some ways to avoid paying over the odds. Which brings me on to the inevitable gondola ride. If you’re arriving off a cruise ship, negotiate the parade of street sellers plying all manner of bags, hats, trinkets and plastic junk for the kids and it won’t be long before you happen upon a gondolier or 20. In truth, these guys on the expansive Main Canal offer rides at a premium price and yes, though they often guarantee ‘that’ stripy top and some seriously ornate gondolas, it’s always better to venture a little off the beaten …er canal, and pick one of the smaller ones deeper into the city. You won’t have to search for long until you see one and it’s a pretty safe bet he’ll work out cheaper.
A big attraction
St Mark’s Square, once famously called ‘the drawing room of Europe’ by Napoleon, is of course a must. He was right. It’s pretty big. This ornate gathering spot is the cultural hub of the city, and it’s from here that you can visit St Marks Basilica, the Doges Palace and the Tower of St Mark, among other things. Here’s another tip though. NEVER eat or drink here. Sure, you’ll enjoy an amazing atmosphere and the food will be good but you’ll pay way over the odds for a premium spot, and extra also for the music, the service…pretty much the only thing you won’t pay more for is the air. Still, it’s enough to walk about and soak up the atmosphere of this incredible place.
Patience of a Saint
The Basilica is, as you would imagine, brimming with ornate artworks and architecture and whether you’re an aficionado of the arts or not, you won’t fail to be impressed by what’s on show. Everything from the huge horses which used to adorn the building’s facia to all manner of goblets, garbs and reliquaries. A tip though, if you are planning on visiting, get there early or purchase a fast-track pass. In the space of minutes the square will fill up with tourists, many of them forming a queue to this building.
Game of Doges
If the basilica is Venice’s religious heart, the Doges Palace is its political mind. The Doges were kind of a big deal back in the day and throughout history, Doge after Doge resided in this incredible building and ruled over the city. The Sistine Chapel isn’t the only artist in town when it comes to ceiling frescos, as the Doges is brimming with them, each room more impressive than the last. You’ll see portraits of each Doge, numerous artworks and some seriously impressive suits of armour and enough pikes and halberds to fill King’s Landing several times over. It’s also from here that you can cross the famous Bridge of Sighs, so-called because it led to the palace’s prison, and those crossing it to their cell would catch their last glimpse of the city through its small square windows as they were incarcerated within.
Venice is famously made up of 118 islands and if you’re in the city for a few days, be sure to take a water taxi out to Murano. This is the home of the famous glass of the same name and the place to go if you want to take home a transparent trinket or two. Practically every other shop sells glass here and you can even take a visit to the glassmaking factory. It’s a thoroughly pleasant place to just chill out with a delicious Italian ice cream and take a stroll though, with some eye-catching glassworks to spot in the streets, too.
Food for thought
Then there’s the food. Italian cuisine has a knack of being cheap on price and rich on the palate, with a huge choice of dishes on offer and an even wider choice of eateries. Again, stay away from the square if you want to keep hold of some of your holiday Euros and take a trip down an alley or three and you’ll soon stumble across a restaurant. Trip Advisor and Google maps are a winning combination when it comes to finding a good place to take a load off.
Well, since we’re already in Italy, let’s head south a little, to the country’s legendary capital. Always bustling and full of things to see any time of the year, it’s one of the world’s most famous cities and even if you’ve been before, there’s always something new to discover. If you haven’t, tourist tickets including access to a combination of attractions are a great way to see some of the most popular landmarks.
Ridley Scott for real
One of the world’s most iconic structures, the mighty Colosseum is of course a must-see and no matter how many pictures you’ve seen, documentaries you’ve watched or sword and sandal epics you’ve enjoyed, nothing can prepare you for it. The Romans of course built numerous structures like this throughout the course of their imperial expansion but firmly on home turf, this one was, and still is, the daddy. It’s a humbling thing to step inside and take in the scale of the place, and if you close your eyes you can almost hear the clash of gladiators’ steel. There are various levels to explore and all around, statues and treasures unearthed in the continuous excavation work are proudly on display. Paying a little extra for a special tour gets you access to the lower levels, where you can learn more about the ahead-of-their time mechanics of the Colosseum. Whatever you choose, book online first to jump the always epic queues.
Visit another country (kinda)
The other enormous tourist draw is of course the sprawling city within a city, the Vatican. It’s a hugely popular pilgrimage for people of all faiths and none and is in fact its own state, with its own post office and stamps. It’s almost like visiting another country, complete with airport-like security to get you inside. There’s so much to see that you’ll struggle to do everything in a day but not surprisingly, St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel are the most popular areas. It’s important to plan ahead, because there are different queues and tickets to get you in the Basilica, the chapel and the rest of the complex, so plan in advance. The Vatican Museums are of course more than a few shelves of dusty chalices and the wealth of art on display is truly breathtaking. There are gardens to stroll through, cafés to sit in and of course, gifts shops to peruse, so plan your day well and again, book in advance – the queues are colossal.
The Forum rules
If you really want to get a feel for the layout of how the city was back in the day, be sure to stroll through the Forum. You’ll need to buy a ticket and there are numerous entrances but once inside, you’re free to roam around. This incredible place was once the beating heart of the Eternal City and even today as you walk along the avenues past columns and colonnades, you can imagine dignitaries strolling in the sun and discussing the weighty issues of the day. There’s archways, artworks and a host of individual buildings to explore, each with their own unique features, including the famous Roman Baths. Exploring the Forum is also a great way to get across the city and if you plan your route carefully, you’ll be able to see a lot more in a day.
A tomb with a view
This is one you may not have explored even if you’ve visited the city before but you should certainly make time for it, even if you’re there for the first time. The Mausoleum of Hadrian, locally known as Castel Sant’Angelo, is pretty impressive when it comes to burial chambers. It’s hard to imagine that this was its only purpose but as you explore, you’ll discover about how it wasn’t too long before the defensive properties of this lofty cylindrical structure soon became clear to the Romans. There are some fantastic views of the city to enjoy as you walk around, not just from the rooftop but also through the stone arch windows on the floor below, where a thoughtfully placed café gives you the opportunity to take in a tipple as well as the scenery.
Do drink the water!
I’ve touched on just a few of the many things you can see in Rome, but though it can get really hot in the summer, don’t worry about getting dehydrated or paying over the odds to stop yourself being so. The numerous water fountains (Not the Trevi, that’s strictly out of bounds for helping yourself but of course, well worth seeing!) contain cool, fresh drinking water and are clearly marked as such. Take an empty bottle and fill it up as you go. This way, you’ll avoid the costly tourist trap of the omnipresent water-seller and have enough money to buy your Colosseum key ring and Vatican fridge magnet!