Belgrade birthday trip.

After successful trips to Montenegro and Greece, I’ve started to develop at taste for the region known as the Balkans. Often when travelling into smaller airports, I like to take note of the onward destinations available, places that I wouldn’t normally think of. Whilst in Tivat (Montenegro) I noticed that other than Moscow, the other place you could fly onward too was Belgrade. Before long I had booked a return flight back to Tivat and then with only a 4 hour wait between flights, I booked a connecting ticket to Serbia for country number 46!

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Arrivals¬†I live in the North West of England, and so there are no direct flights to Serbia from here, or anywhere in the UK other than London. The direct flights are offered by Wizz Air and Air Serbia, but if London isn’t convenient, you may need to get inventive if you still fancy a trip. Due to a previous trip to Tivat with Easyjet, I knew that Air Serbia made multiple daily flights to Belgrade from Tivat that only took about an hour, I landed mid morning from Manchester and so booked on the afternoon flight to Belgrade, just enough time for a Montenegro lunch.

Otherwise, its worth checking the Belgrade airport website to see which other cities you could fly to Belgrade from, such as Prague or Sofia, so if you can get a cheap flight there, you could then book an onward flight to the Serbian capital. There is always a way!

Buses are a great option too, I couldn’t get a flight from Belgrade that would get me back to Montenegro in time for my return flight to Manchester, so I booked an overnight bus with¬†Get By Bus¬†which allowed me to arrive back in Tivat in plenty of time for my flight home. Just a quick search shows direct buses from Budapest and Zagreb, but im sure there are more. Trains could be an option too, your best bet is to check the best train website there is¬†Seat 61.¬†One word of warning, it’s not particularly recommended to cross the Kosovo – Serbian border, as its unstable and some reports say a Kosovo passport stamp isnt looked on too favourably, so if you are planning to visit many countries in this region, maybe leave Kosovo till near the end.

You can’t get Serbian Dinar from the UK, but don’t worry, there are lots of cash machines at the airport and there are banks and currency exchanges all over the city, so as soon as I passed through immigration I withdrew money with my UK bank card. Getting to the city centre is easy and you have a few options, there is the A1 bus which leaves from downstairs outside the arrivals area, but I took the 72 bus which leaves from upstairs by departures, purely because its final destination was the closest to my hotel. You can buy a ticket beforehand if you can find the kiosk, but I paid about ¬£1 from the bus driver and the journey took about 40 minutes. The main bus and train stations are pretty close to the city centre and so if you arrive this way, it shouldnt be too far to walk to get to where you are staying.

History Bit¬†The origins of the country are somewhat disjointed and confusing for a novice to the region like myself. Descended from the Slavs¬†tribe, they migrated to the region now known as Serbia from at least the 6th century. The current country and its borders within the Yugoslavia region, have only existed since it separated from its neighbour Montenegro in 2006. The whole area has been ravaged by war and internal conflict for many years, most recently when the Yugoslavia communist leader Tito died in 1980 and regions started to split apart. By the mid 1980’s¬†Slobodan MiloŇ°evińᬆstarted to gain influence and by 1989 he was the President of Serbia and in 1997 became President of the Republic of Yugoslavia. By the end of the civil war, the only countries left in ‘Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’ were Montenegro and Serbia, until they too went their separate ways.

Translated as the ‘white city’, people have been found to inhabit the area known as Belgrade since 7000 BC. It has been an important area especially due to its position at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers but this has meant its been involved in 115 wars and been destroyed 44 times. ¬†It was the capital of Yugoslavia for the entirety¬†of its existence¬†and then retained its role as the capital of Serbia once it became a solo country.

Sights I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and was to depart late Tuesday evening, upon realising that most of the museums were closed on Mondays, I planned my Monday daytime around all the free and open sights, leaving museums until the Tuesday.

Kalemegdan Park¬†was an absolute delight on a bright Monday morning as it was full of dog walkers, joggers and friendly stall holders lining entrance at the east end. Situated at the top of the old city, right where the rivers Sava and Danube join together, the park affords great views as you climb upwards toward the fortress that has survived many attempts to be destroyed over the years, but still stands proud toady as an important landmark of the city. There is a lot to discover here within the park, there are fountains, a zoo, restaurants, coffee shops, memorials and one of the most popular tourist sites the¬†Belgrade Fortress¬†. Built into what looks like a cliff looking out across the park, I spent a good hour wandering up and down, peering around the walls, crossing interlinking bridges and getting a selfie with a tank outside the military museum. But the real surprise was accidentally finding the most beautiful little chapel built into the fortress walls close to the Charles VI gate, Saint Petka’s chapel a tranquil little orthodox place of worship, full of beautiful mosaics inside, definitely seek this out when you visit.

Next I headed down to the water’s edge where the rivers Danube and Sava meet. There is a nice promenade you can walk along, and although it was quiet and peaceful on the Monday morning, there were signs of life, like some bars and restaurants and I can imagine at weekends and at the height of summer it’s a really cool place to hang out.

After a break for lunch I decided to visit one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, the¬†Church of Saint Sava. Like most orthodox churches both the inside and outside are spectacular and this one is no different, and make a point to look up high at the glistening dome inside. There are at least 2 other churches that should be on your itinerary¬†St Mark’s Church¬†with incredible fresco paintings and¬†Church of Alexander Nevsky¬†which was once was a hospital and built in honour of Russian soldiers, again its interior is breathtaking.

The remainder of the day and the previous evening was spent exploring the pedestrian area around Knez Mihailova Street, around here you can find souvenir shops, cafes, coffee and cake shops, tourist information, bars, restaurants as well as craft and high street stores.

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Up early the next morning, I set off for a nice birthday walk and breakfast in the¬†Dorńáol¬†region. It’s the oldest part of town, and a really interesting neighbourhood has developed, with a good choice of cafes, shops and cool street art dotted around every corner. Dont miss Salvador Dali corner, recognisable by the curved street sign, it’s a place where an art collective used to meet, in fact there is lots of art to see around this part of town and if I had more time I would have booked onto an¬†art tour, but you always have to have a reason to return to a place right?

Next up I wanted to explore the green market Zeleni Venac, which is where I had gotten off the bus a couple of days before. It has a great atmosphere, a place where you can mix with the locals for a real taste of Serbia whilst shopping for produce such as nuts, baked goods and fresh juices. Close to here are the main bus stations too, so I did some research and located the platform where my bus was to leave later that evening whilst I was still fresh after my breakfast and coffee.

So as it was Tuesday all the museums in the city were open and there were two that I had set my sights on visiting. It’s a bit far over on the South side, but I really wanted to learn more about the history of this region, so I headed over to the¬†Museum of Yugoslav History. It’s about a 45 minute walk or you can catch trolley bus 40 or 41 for about 90p (‚ā¨0.75). Located around a park full of statues and great views across the city, there are 3 main areas to visit here, the House of Flowers, the ‘May 25th” museum and the Old Museum, all for the entrance fee of just under ¬£1.50 (‚ā¨1.69). A large area is dedicated to the memory of Josip Broz also known as Tito, the communist Yugoslavian leader who is buried here and where visitors can pay their respects at his mausoleum, as well as a room full of gifts given to him from dignitaries all over the world. ¬†There is an exhibit hall full of artifacts collected from all over this historic region that was once consisted of 6 separate socialist states, it’s really fascinating stuff and it was here were I also learned about the¬†Blue Train, which Tito had built to travel all across the region whilst hosting visits from many important politicians and heads of state from all over the world.

After a well-earned break for lunch, I negotiated the ridiculously busy area around¬†Slavija Square, where trolley buses, cars, buses, trams and pedestrians all try to negotiate themselves safely¬†across this huge interesection, centered around a large roundabout and fountain. My afternoon was to be spent learning about Serbia’s favourite son and for whom the city’s airport was named after – Nikola Tesla. The museum¬†opened in his honour is a small but informative place, filled with clothes, letters, drawings and diagrams from the engineer as well as small working models of many of his inventions. Every hour there is a free guided tour in either Serbian or English depending on the visitors, luckily I got an English tour, which includes a short video on the life of Tesla and then live demonstrations of some of his experiments, I was there around 3pm and it was very busy, so get there well before the hour if you want a good view.

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I then wandered back slowly towards the centre of town past¬†ManjeŇĺ Park¬†and the¬†Yugoslav Drama Theatre¬†towards the pretty cool modernist style skyrise known as the¬†Albania Building. This was the first skyscraper to be built in Southeast Europe and it is from this point that all distances are measured within Serbia and interesting fact, a 2 million year old mammoth skeleton was found buried beneath the building, and is now housed in a museum in the city.

I¬†still had time for some birthday cake in one of the many gorgeous cafes back around¬†Knez Mihailova Street and a glass of local wine, before heading to the coach station for my overnight bus across the country and into Montenegro for my flight home. Perfect birthday trip ūüôā

** If you are travelling by bus from the main Belgrade bus terminal, you need to get a separate ticket first from the ticket office (as well as your bus ticket) before you are allowed to enter the platform to board your bus.

Coffee and Cake. To start with there is a pretty decent coffee chain called¬†Coffee Dream, they are dotted all over the capital and offer none dairy options as well as a selection of cakes and pastries. ¬†Like most places in Serbia you can smoke indoors which felt gross as I sat there with my morning coffee next two a couple puffing away, urgh. It only takes a quick internet search to find many unique independent coffee shops all across this city and for my birthday breakfast in Dorńáol I found a cool coffee place called¬†Aviator Coffee. It’s a nice big space, comfy seating, none dairy milk options, and a good selection of teas and pastries, the only downside, smoking indoors again. If you love cake, you’ll love Belgrade, there are some really modern cake shops dotted around the city, on my first evening, I was tempted into the ground floor of the Art Hotel to the¬†Avgustin Waffle and Ice Bar¬†I resisted the hot Belgium waffles though and treated myself to what can only be described as a giant orange pill, which was actually a biscotti mouse cake and was to die for! The other dessert cafe I visited was located not far away from Avgustin and was called¬†Edisan Pastry Shop¬†with its huge windows and tonnes of seating its perfect for people watching across¬†Republik Square, there is free wifi too, which you can cheekily log into even from the outside, which I did on my first afternoon when I needed to use my map to locate my hotel.


Eats There are loads of traditional places to eat in and around the pedestrian area Knez Mihailova Street and Republik Square, but not many options for the vegetarian and vegan travellers. One place I did find one though for lunch and I went to twice in my 3 day visit, was a place called Jazzayoga, an almost vegetarian cafe serving delicious sandwiches, soups, cakes and juices. One visit I had the Tantra sandwich which was pumpkin seed, celery, sunflower seeds, carrots, cabbage, hummus and more, and it was delicious and cost about £1.10. For dinner one night I had a veggie pizza sat out in Republik Square and the 2nd night I made it to the much recommended veggie/vegan place Mayka its got super cosy seating, friendly staff and an inventive menu with many local dishes reinvented meat free. One charm about Belgrade is the many small bakeries dotted around the place selling traditional sweet and savoury fare for as little as 40p, so of course I bought some for snacks on my overnight bus ride and they went down a treat. As it was my birthday I fancied a little treat before I left the city, so spent my final hour in Il Grappolo wine bar, sampling some local Rose wine, I found a window seat with handy USB sockets to charge my devices and savoured my last bit of time in this intriguing, memorable city.


Extras-¬†Serbia’s 2nd city is Novi Sad, it’s about 90-110 minutes on the¬†train¬†from the capital, so totally doable as a day trip. There are lots more museums in Belgrade such as the¬†Ethnographic Museum¬†and the¬†Aviation Museum¬†and if you don’t get seasick head to¬†22/44¬†a nightclub situated in the middle of the Sava River.

Always be polite Thank You РHvala vam  Hello РZdravo  Beer РPivo 

Budget Oslo

I have travelled through Norway before, but i’ve never actually spent a night in this Nordic land of the midnight sun. I once flew in but then immediately borded a train and then ferry onward to Sweden, I’ve hiked over from a national park that straddles both countries, as well as driving in from Sweden to a border town for coffee and cake. So when Ryanair cancelled one of my flights last year, they sent me an ¬£80 voucher that I had to use before the end of March, and as I like a challenge, ¬†I searched until I found a return flight for under ¬£80 that was close to a weekend, so I would only need 1 day off work. So ‘Oslo’ Torp it was . . .

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I say ‘Oslo’ as Torp airport is actually about 75 miles from the capital, but many budget airlines fly into this small airport instead of the main Oslo one. I would say the majority of the people on my flight and probably the majority of Torp users head onward to Oslo, so the public transport too and from the city is frequent, not too expensive (it is Norway remember) and well-managed. ¬†As long as you realise you will have another 90+ minutes of travel after you have landed, I wouldn’t be put off if you want a budget Scandinavian trip.

Arrivals –¬†Scandinavian airlines do provide direct flights from Manchester, Edinburgh, and London to the main¬†Oslo Airport¬†known as Gardenmoen. But for those of us on a budget there are cheaper options from both Manchester and London, to the smaller Torp airport but not much else from the UK that goes direct.

Norway is bordered by Sweden, Finland and Russia, but Oslo is situated on the far south of the country, and therefore only close to Sweden. It’s just over an hours drive to the Scandinavian border and a 3 1/2 hour drive from Gothenburg the nearest Swedish city. You used to be able to get the ferry from the UK to Kristiansand a large port south of Oslo, but this route has now been stopped. Oslo itself has a ferry port, but again no direct sailings with the UK, you do have options of sailing in from other Scandinavian locations though. Trains¬†and buses¬†are plentiful into Oslo, and from many Scandinavian destinations such as Tromso, Lillehammer, Stockholm and beyond and something I would like to explore further at some point, I bet the overland scenery is breathtaking.

Getting from Oslo’s main airport into the city centre is easy as there are frequent buses and trains to the main stations in the city, and its the same from Torp, which organises buses too and from the capital according to the flight departures and arrivals, so don’t worry if your flight is delayed, more than likely the bus will delay its departure to suit. I bought a return Torp Ekspressen¬†bus ticket online for ¬£44 before I left the UK (you can also buy on the bus), otherwise you can take a shuttle bus to Torp train station and then board the hourly train¬†to Oslo centre.

History Bit. People started to migrate to the coastline that is now Norway around 10,000 BC as it provided the perfect environment for shelter, fishing and hunting as well as being warmer along the coastline. In the 1300’s Norway, Sweden and Denmark were joined together under one union and ruling monarch, Sweden left this union in 1523, but Norway and Denmark remained together until 1814, Norway then ended up in another union with Sweden until 1905 when it finally gained its own independance. There have been settlements in Oslo since the middle ages, and it has been regarded as the capital since 1299 when King Haakon V set up residence here.

Sights.¬†I wanted to do Oslo on a tight budget, it was easy to think I was having a cheap weekend because my flights were free, but then I didn’t want to break the bank exploring the city once I got there. The thing that surprised me about Oslo, because it’s not a place I readily think of for a weekend trip, nor do most of my friends, is that its packed with so much to see and do, boat trips, museums, parks, a castle, a cathedral, and great cafes and restaurants, I think the expense puts people off, which is understandable, but a shame.

As I wanted to keep the cost down, I decided to limit the fee paying things I did, but decided to choose just one of the many museums in the city, and boy are there loads. Some of the many on offer included Nobel Peace Centre¬†(¬£9) ¬†Munch Museum¬†(¬£11) Ski Museum¬†(¬£13) Viking Ship Museum¬†(¬£9) Norsk Folk Museum¬†(¬£12) Polar Ship Museum¬†(¬£11) Jewish Museum¬†(¬£4.60)¬†Museum of Oslo¬†(¬£8 but free on Saturdays!) and the¬†Kon TIki Museum¬†(¬£8). There is also a 241 offer for those wanting to visit both the History Museum¬†and viking ship museum as long as you visit within 48 hours. ¬†As you can see, for most of the museums you wont be getting much change from ¬£10 (‚ā¨11 $14) per person, so choose wisely.

I decided to visit the Nobel Peace Centre, this museum unsurprisingly tells the history of the famous award given out for peace¬†and is the only Nobel medal given out in Norway. ¬†All the others awards for economics, physics etc are given out in Nobel’s home country of Sweden. As well as a timeline of the awards given out for peace, there are other permanent and temporary exhibitions whilst I was there, a really thought-provoking exhibit was on¬†the nuclear bomb and another one called¬†Generation Wealth. Take a peak inside the museum shop, its full of eco-friendly, handcrafted, unique and rare products, I could have easily have bought 2 or 3 things, the whole centre is well worth a visit and I’m so glad I spent my minimal budget here.

For the remainder of my trip I stuck to the free things, and this easily kept me busy for the whole of the weekend, so what did I do . . .

A short walk to the north west of the city is¬†Vigeland Park¬†the worlds largest sculpture park, mainly featuring a variety of nude statues in all kinds of interesting poses, the most famous one being the angry boy. You enter the park by a large gate and I headed straight ahead towards the fountain, over a bridge and up to the large monolith. There are about 200 statues, along with footpaths, a cafe, shop and museum, it’s a popular jogging spot and dog walking route, so if you’re lucky like me, you’ll find lots of dogs to cuddle. Open 24 hours and free, it’s a must do on any Oslo itinerary.

From the park, I headed back towards the waterfront along L√łkkeveien and Dronnings Mauds Gate, an upmarket area with nice cafes, coffee shops and really interesting architecture. At the end of the street you arrive at the Nobel Peace Centre, but beyond this, its worth exploring the waterfront, which is full of more cafes and restaurants and beautiful views out across the Fjord. One thing I wished I had budgeted for was a fjord cruise, ¬£30 for 2 hours, there were a couple of companies offering daily trips, and if (when) I return, I am definitely going to book on one. That said, I still had a nice time wandering along the water’s edge and taking in the scenery.

Opposite the Nobel Peace centre across the water stands the Akershus Fortess looking out across the Oslo fjord. Its open from 6am-9pm and although guided tours are available, you can just wander and explore the impressive buildings yourself whilst enjoying the beautiful views across the waterside for free, perfect for my frugal weekend.

Next I walked my way back into the centre of the city towards the spire of the Oslo Domkirke or Cathedral. Its another free attraction you can visit in the city, open daily for the public to visit and there are also guided tours you can book on as well.

I then followed my way through the curious looking¬†red bricked passageway which is the old bazaar. Once to be demolished but now a protected building, it houses shops, restaurants and cafe’s, realising I was now cold and in need of something to eat, I stopped for a soy cappuccino and some ‘Norway National cake’, how could I refuse!

The cake was ¬£10 (‚ā¨11) and one of the cheapest things on the menu, ¬†so I slowly took my time sat outside under a blanket, watching the many locals and tourists windowshop. Once replenished I explored the immediate area of Karl Johans Gate and Dronningens gate, with Karl Johans being the main street of the city, its full of shops and cafes and leads to further attractions within the city. I didn’t stay too long exploring here, as I knew I would have time the following morning, so after picking up some cheap snacks & water from a food shop that would have to last me till dinner, I headed in a North East direction.

My plan was to break the budget and visit the Munch museum located just by the¬†Botanical Gardens¬†but I took too long just having a great time exploring the streets, little churches and craft shops. Realising that it closed at 4pm, I wouldn’t have made it in time, so I inadvertently stuck to my budget after all.

As it approached evening, the temperature dropped, so I headed back to the hotel, warmed up, rested, then grabbed dinner as a local recommended vegan place. Main meals costed between £16-20 which seemed the same as an average traditional place to eat as well, if it had been my first trip to Norway, I may have hunted out some more local dishes, but felt I had ticked that box with my £10 cake!

I then spent a pleasant evening just wandering the main streets around Karl Johans Gate, past the national theatre, parliament, Eidsvolls plass and stopped to watch families ice skating, dealing with the cold weather much better than I did! The streets were pretty quiet despite it being a Saturday evening, but it was in the heart of winter, and from what I could tell, most people seemed to be enjoying theatre, cinema and the warmth of indoor bars and restaurants.  Lots of places did have outdoor seating, so I can imagine its a whole different world once the temperature increases, another reason to return for sure.

The next morning with a few hours to kill before my bus back to the airport, I was up early for my breakfast (banana and cereal bar brought from Manchester) and a discounted coffee via a voucher from my hotel. Feeling brave I sat outside the cafe with my soy cap in the minus 5 weather, under a patio heater and wrapped in a blanket, having the most glorious time watching dogs play in the snow and joggers carefully negotiating the icy paths, feeling a little blue that my time in the Norwegian capital was almost over.

I still had about 2 hours to spare, so headed across the street from the coffee shop through a park which turned out to be the palace park and by sheer coincidence I arrived as they were changing the guard, so stopped to watch for a while. The park itself was really nice, full of dogs in jumpers going for morning walks, and the little colourful sculptures dotted around the snowy park really added to the atmosphere.

I then took the main route back into the city centre down Karl Johan’s Gate getting to explore more of the most famous street in the city, past some of the buildings I had walked past in the dark the previous night, such as the Stortinget¬†(parliament). ¬†I¬†then made a slight detour South past the impressive City Hall building to take in the views of the Oslo Fjord for one last time.

It would have been great to have had at least another full day in the capital to see another museum or two and take a cruise out across the fjord, but as time was limited due to the availability of flights and my budget, it wasnt feasible this time, but its one of my most recent visited capital cities that I want to return too, I’ll just have to get saving!

Coffee and Cake I had my National Cake probably in one of the more expensive cafes around, right inside the bazaar at the Cafe Cathedral but the service, food and views were worth it.  My morning coffees were at Espresso House the one by my hotel offered guests a discount, plus it had great views across the palace park opposite, as well as offering heated outdoor seating, as well as a cosy indoor space too.

Eats I ate both nights at Nordvegan a delicious plant based restaurant, serving warm dishes as well as home made desserts. Offering both seated and take out options, the chef has worked in Michelin starred restaurants and the food doesnt disappoint, hence returning on my second night too.

Extras Ski Museum and Tower with the stimulated ski jump ride, take the bus from Oslo to Norways largest amusement park Tusendfryd and take the ferry by City Hall to the Norway Folk Museum

Always be polite – Thanks ‘Takk” ¬† Hello ‘Hallo” ¬† Good Bye “Ha Det”

 

 

 

 

Fascinating Athens

I finally visited Greece last week, the first trip to the country known as the crossroads of Europe, a first for both me and mum. We chose Athens, not only because of the cheap flights (we were flying off-season)  but because we fancied a city break, full of none stop sights, history, legends and great food, and with us going in February, it had a better chance of reasonable wandering weather than say a city break to Paris or Porto.

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Arrivals. All the main budget airlines fly to Athens from a good portion of the UK, regular flights leave from Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol, London and although nothing from Belfast, you can fly from Dublin, all taking approximately 3 – 4 hours. Once you have arrived, its easy to jump on Line 3 of the metro to the city centre. Many people though travel into Athens via boat, with Greeks largest port Piraeus only a short 10km ride away, so it’s easily accessible via cruise ship or if you fancy, a trip from one of the Greek islands. Once you arrive at Piraeus, hop on line 1 of the metro to Athens city centre. It is also possible to head into Athens from the neighbouring countries via train, but Athens is quite far south on the mainland, so you will be looking at quite a long trip from say Sofia in Bulgaria or Skopje in Macedonia.

Once you have arrived its super easy to get around Athens, most places are easily walkable, but if you need a helping hand or are short of time, then the metro is really easy to navigate, with stops directly by some of the main sights such as the Acropolis, Kerameikos and Syntagma. Lots more Athens transport info can be found on this helpful website but to be honest, other than getting too and from the airport, my 71 year old mum and I walked everywhere quite easily.

History Bit. Wow, I mean what can you say about this country that is at the junction of Europe, Asia and Africa, and has had people living here on this part of the globe since 270,000 BC. Greece is said to be the birthplace of the first advanced civilisation of Europe, they created a new way of living, that ended up being copied and replicated all over the world. They started the first democracy, with a model that was developed in Athens, spreading out across the country, allowing citizens to vote on the laws of the land. They started the Olympic games and produced some of the worlds greatest ever thinkers, scholars and philosophers, bringing new ideas to light about science, art and philosophy.

Athens itself is said to be named after the goddess of wisdom Athena, with the site of the original centre of the city, which was founded in 3000 BC, atop the rock where the Acropolis stands. This makes it one of the oldest cities in the world and has been continuously inhabited for 5000 years, resulting in a city break brimming full of things to see, do, learn, eat and drink.

Sights¬†– I better start at the ancient fortress situated high up a rock, visible from most parts of the city, otherwise known as The Acropolis. This collection of remains atop the hill was the original centre of Athens, with the star of the show being the former temple, known as the Parthenon. We visited in February, and so had a dry, clear day with a light breeze accompanying our climb up, affording us the time to just wander, take in the views and visit the Theatre of Dionysus, but I could imagine at the height of summer full of crowds, it could be quite tiring and overwhelmingly busy. We entered via the south-east corner, close to the Acropolis Metro Station, pretty much opposite the newly built, modern looking Acropolis Museum. There is a larger entrance to the west with a car park, meaning bus loads of tourists arrive via this route and so it can be a lot busier, therefore I’d definitely recommend the smaller side entry gate. Back on lower ground, the recently constructed Acropolis Museum is well worth a visit, at ‚ā¨5 you can view many of the retrieved finds from all over the archeological site, including tools, columns and statues and jewellery.

If you are staying in Athens for a few days and plan to see as many of the historical sites as possible, then it’s well worth investing in a 5 day multi ticket pass, for ‚ā¨30 (reduced depending on the season and discounts available for children & seniors) you get entry to around 10 of the best archeological wonders dotted around the city and you can get the pass at any of the ticket offices that are part of the deal. The main museums and the Panathenaic Olympic stadium are not included, but we still felt it was worth it.

The Acropolis is situated in the Plaka area of Athens, which is the picturesque, colourful, old centre of the town, full of tiny streets, cafes, craft shops and traditional restaurants. We stayed in this area and it was perfect for being central to explore the whole of the city, as well as having a decent choice of places to eat each night. Like everywhere in this city you will stumble upon some kind of the historic ruins at every corner, so take your time, grab a seat outside a cafe, order a greek coffee and just soak up the atmosphere.

Ancient Agora was the heart of ancient Athens, with people living here as far back as 3000 BC. Its part of the multi-pass ticket and you can easily spend a couple of hours exploring. We had a long walk all over the area, constantly stopping to investigate the many many things on show. Highlights included the museum in the Stoa of Attalos, the Statue of Hadrian, the incredibly impressive Klepsydra or water clock, the remains of the ancient main road that lead to Piraeus, and make sure you walk up to the Temple of Hephaestus as the views across the city are breathtaking and perfect for a selfie with the Acropolis in the background!

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About a 15 minute walk from Ancient Agora past the Thiseio metro station is¬†Kerameikos. One of the lesser visited archeological sites I believe, but if you have time to spare, I would recommend a visit and it’s also included in the multi-ticket. Within this large and still being excavated site, is a museum, a burial ground, the ancient walls of the city and it was the area of town where the majority of the pottery was made, some of which is now displayed in the on site museum.

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As you walk back from Kerameikos towards the centre of the modern city, you will more than likely pass through the bustling neighbourhood of Monastiraki.¬†Lots of restaurants, cafes and tourist shops line the streets, and there is a famous flea market here too to peruse although we found it quite loud and hectic. You wont be able to avoid the area though, as there are far too many sites located around here, including the fascinating¬†Hadrian’s Library. Originally built in 132 AD the famous Roman Emperor¬†built a massive complex for people to read and learn, which included study rooms, reading rooms and a garden to relax in.¬†Roman Agora¬†is just a 2 minute walk from the library which you enter via an imposing gate, the whole area was financed by Julius Caesar with the highlight here being the¬†Tower of the Winds, an ancient time and weather station, so cool! Both Roman Agora and Hadrian’s Library are included on the multi-ticket too, see told you it was worth it.

For a breath of fresh air and some greenery, we spent an hour away from the ruins, and climbed up Philapappos Hill to the monument on the top. You can easily find the signed entrance to the hill and the various paved trails, close to the South West entrance of the Acropolis. With water and snack bars, we slowly made our way to the top for some outstanding views, it’s a popular spot for the locals and tourists alike and a nice getaway from the hustle of the streets below.

Heading east away from the main sights in the centre and across the busy main road, you cannot fail to notice¬†Hadrians Arch.¬†This ancient marble gateway used to cross one of the main roads from the centre of Athens and although quite a lot is missing, it still makes an impressive image. Behind the arch we could see another vast area of columns and other remains, so we followed the pavement round to the left and came across the entrance to¬†Temple of Olympian Zeus. This¬†gigantic temple was erected in honour of the god of sky and thunder himself, although construction was slow and took over 600 years to build from start to finish and then fell into disrepair about a century after it was built. It’s worth a visit to appreciate the sheer scale of the place, which was the largest temple in Greece, and you can put your purse away, as its also part of the multi-ticket deal!

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Opposite the grounds where the temple is located is the National Gardens, a place we walked through a number of times on our trip. Of course there are ruins dotted around here, but there are also busts, including one of Lord Byron who visited Greece and fell in love with the country. There are beautiful palm tree-lined paths, ponds, colourful trees, cafes and if you pass the Zappeion exhibition building, climb up the steps and peek inside to the pretty atrium.

Visiting the national gardens may not be top of anyones list visiting the city for the first time, but as you exit the gardens from the south-east you are instantly greeted with a spectacular view of the¬†The Panathenaic Stadium¬†so its worth taking the scenic route to the stadium instead of the dusty pavement for sure. ¬†Originally it was built in 330 BC for the Panathenaic games which involved nude men competing in various athletic events as well as horse and music competitions, which I can’t imagine getting an afternoon slot on BBC TV nowadays. It was abandoned after the 4th Century when Christianity came into favour and naked bloody duels were no longer seen as entertainment, but it was refurbished and brought back to life as the venue of the first international Olympic games in 1896 and most recently used in the 2004 Olympic games that were held in Athens. All that alone should be enough reason to visit this magnificent piece of history, but it’s also the only stadium in the world made entirely of marble. Although it’s not included in the multi-ticket its only between ‚ā¨2.50-5 to visit and for this you get full access to the stadium, the stands, the competition floor, a museum and obligatory giftshop as well as the chance to climb upon the medals stand, so its definitely worth it!

If you fancy a quiet reflective walk whilst you are over in this part of town, then the First Cemetary of Athens is a 15 minute walk away. Many notable Greeks are buried here,  few small churches on the grounds to see aswell. Close by is Varnava Square where there are lots of nice cafes, restaurants and bars which appear to be visited more by locals than tourists, which is always a good sign and we had the most delicious falafel for lunch at the Baba Ganoush Falafel Shop.

Heading back towards the centre, and close to the Stadium and National Garden is Aristotle’s Lyceum, which was a secondary school or gymnasium and the first of its kind in the world. ¬†Although we read the opening hours as 8am-8pm, it was most definitely closed when we arrived around 4pm one day, ¬†and we weren’t the only ones who seemed to have been misinformed about the opening hours, but we were still able to glance through the surrounding gate to get a sense of the place and its history.

Pretty much round the corner from here is the Parliament building and Syntagma Square, the central square of the city, site of many protests and celebrations over the years. There is always stuff going on, including lots of cafes and restaurants, while across the street at the Parliament building is the tomb of the unknown soldier with a changing of the guard every hour (official ceremony is every Sunday at 11am). ¬†Look out for the rather unique slow walk and check the soldiers uniforms complete with pom poms on the shoes, it’s a strong but¬†culturally significant look.

Probably the most important museum in the city is the¬†National Archeological Museum of Athens¬†and its jam-packed full of historic finds from all over the country. It’s a little stuck out to the North of the capital, but a short walk from Omonia and Viktoria metro stations. Not having quite made our 10,000 steps for the day, we walked from Syntagma Square up along Omonoia to the museum, as there were some pretty impressive and historic buildings along this route. The Academy of Athens is a hard to miss neoclassical building with statues of Plato, Socrates and Apollo out front, next door is the National University of Athens another neoclassical building and one of the largest universities in Europe and next door to that, the National Library of Athens, the third neoclassical building in a row, so its makes for an interesting walk and really brings home the scale of history around every corner of this city.

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Coffee and Cake. Our first taste of thick dark Greek coffee was at Aioli Cafe Snack Bar, super friendly, with outdoor seating in the Plaka area, it was a great place to rest our weary feet. Attika Aptonoieia¬†at¬†the bottom of the busy shopping street Ermou was another great place we found for coffee with the most delicious selection of sandwiches and cakes, offering a soya milk option, with outdoor seating opposite the¬†Panagia Kapnikarea Church¬†and its well worth sticking your head inside this tiny church whilst you’re there. Round the back of the Acropolis museum is the delightful Little Tree and Books Coffee Shop, friendly service with none-dairy milk options and to die for cakes and brownies, I would have returned here had we the time. Another find was the¬†Bread Factory¬†no none dairy options, so I had an espresso, but the sticky lemon cake was so good!

Eats First off we tried to visit Ariston as any quick internet search will tag it as probably the best place to try the traditional pies, unfortunately it was closed when we eventually located this small bakery, we aimed to return but we never quite made it back. Yiasemi though, we did make it too, and had our first taste of Greece sat by the Plaka steps, devouring a crumbly, juicy spinach pie with a ¬†local beer, be warned though, this place is very popular and you may need to wait a while for service. We ate quite a few times around Kidathineon Street in Plaka on recommendation from our hotel, here there are lots of little cafes, ice cream parlours and restaurants, all offering deals ¬†for 3 courses and a glass of wine (or beer) for under ‚ā¨20. ¬†We had great local dishes and friendly service at Acropolis Taverna, Byzantino Taverna and Trattoria as well as another 3 course meal deal with great portions at Scolarchio also in Plaka, all with vegetarian options too. None dairy ice cream is no problem for the Greeks with dairy free ice cream and iced lattes on offer at Ice Queen Gelato opposite the Acropolis Metro station and one night we sampled local dishes at¬†Ydria¬†close to Hadrians Library in a lively little square and then had a glass of wine and cake sat in the window at¬†Meliartos¬†for our dessert, perfect.

 

Extras: Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, Catching a Funicular up to the top of Lycabettus Hill and the Benaki Museum of Art, Culture and History.

Always Be Polite:  Thank you : Efharisto  Good Morning: Kalimera  Hello: Yassas

 

 

 

 

Day trip to Kaunas

Arrivals – Lithuania’s second largest city and just over 60 miles from the capital Vilnius, trains regularly leave the capital and take between 60-90 minutes, costing less than ‚ā¨6. You can easily buy your ticket on arrival at the station and there are lots of daily options, but if you have a particular journey in mind or are travelling in from other towns or countries such as Poland, you could book online –¬†Lithuanian Railways. ¬†There are great inexpensive bus routes all across the Baltic countries, so you can travel into Kaunas from many other cities and towns, such as Riga in Latvia or Warsaw in Poland. I have used¬†Lux Express¬†to travel in this region, but other bus companies in the area are¬†Eurolines¬†and¬†Ecolines.

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History Bit – Legend has it that the Roman duke Palemon fled Rome with his 3 sons -Barcus, Kunas and Sperus. After his death, the land he inhabited was split between his 3 heirs and Kanas got the land which became known as Kaunas. This part of Lithuania has been important for hundreds of years though, mainly because it is located at the spot of the 2 largest rivers in the country, the Nemunas and the Neris. Many wars, uprisings, the Black Death, great fires and for a while during the early 19th century, it was the temporary capital of Lithuania while Vilnius was under control of the Russians and Polish.

Sights – Full of green spaces, long leafy streets full of shops and cafe’s, beautiful orthodox churches and a historic old town with a picturesque castle at the heart, I am definitely glad I layered up and caught the train from the capital for the day. ¬†Heading straight out of the train station, I stuck to the main road and headed up Vytauto Prospektas towards the Cathedral of the Annunciation, then past the Ramybes Parkas a snow covered park (well, it was January) full of interesting and undecipherable¬†monuments due to my poor ¬†(none existant) Lithuanian language skills. Continuing up the same street I excitedly came across a very interesting orthodox church known as¬†St. Michael the Archangel’s Church unfortunately it was closed, which was a disappointment as the more chance I get to explore these ornate religious buildings and see the insane golden fresco’s inside, the more I want to visit them. But by this time I was starting to lose the feeling in my fingers as I had spent quite some time wandering outside, so it was time to head on and I ventured down what appeared to be the main pedestrian street of the city, Laisves Aleja.

It was indeed pedestrian, regardless of the fact that in the UK, the amount of snow on the roads would have rendered it impassable anyway, and I was pleased to see my favourite Baltic coffee chain РCoffee Inn in the distance. I made a beeline for its orange sign and warmed up over a coffee and probably, maybe some cheesecake as well. There are lots of shops, cafes and restaurants along this street, so you can easily spend an hour meandering down it, exploring whats on offer, if like me you still like sending postcards (I know!) the main post office is located here too.

Walking straight down this long pedestrian street takes you to the center of the medieval old town, its well signposted, so its not¬†hard to get your bearings and find your way around without too much trouble. There are lots to keep you occupied in this part of town, with the castle, town hall square, churches and the Kaunas National Cultural Centre all close together and all worth visiting. The gothic Kaunas Castle, stands proud on the bank by the river and when I visiting in the winter it was absolutely picture post card perfect. As well as exploring the castle there is an art gallery inside the round tower, but its worth noting, it’s closed on Mondays. ¬†Also visit its neighbour the gothic St George the Martyr church, although its not much to look at, because of the distruction it has been subjected to over the years, it plays a long and important part in the history of this town and is luckily being renovated.

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Before you get to the castle though, you’ll more than likely walk through the town hall square, you wont miss it, as right in the heart is the town hall itself with its 53 metre tower, known as the white swan. This building has had an interesting history since the original hall was burnt down, reconstructed in 1542 its been a trading post, prison, ammunition store, home for Russian Czars, a firemans office and theatre. Nowadays its a popular place for weddings, as well as being home to a ceramics and history museum. It was a busy place when I arrived and I saw at least 2 couples pull up outside to get married and take pictures, which made for some great people watching.

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If you need a place to shelter from the cold, or want to learn more about the history of this town, then the Kaunas City Museum is a short walk from the town hall, also closed on Mondays! If art is more your thing, then the National Museum of Art which is one of the largest and oldest art galleries in the country and close by too. There is also a lovely park called Santakos Park which I only briefly explored due to the freezing temparatures, but can imagine in warmer times its a great place to picnic and admire the views of the 2 rivers which join here.

I stopped for some traditional food as I made my way back along Laisves Aleja, I cant quite remember the name of the place, but they did big plates of dumplings for about ‚ā¨3.50, before I grabbed an upstairs seat on the early evening train back to Vilnius.

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Always be polite ¬†–¬†Thank You is AńćiŇę! (pronounced almost like Achoo)¬†¬†Please is¬†PraŇ°au¬†(prasow)

 

Vilnius two ways . .

I have experienced the capital of Lithuania twice, once in the freezing -10 snowy conditions in January after scoring some rediculously cheap Ryanair flights, and then again in the summer months, when I was going to use it as an inexpensive gateway to Belarus. If you only plan to visit the capital once and you want to make the most of its outdoor spaces  and dont have any thermals, then I would recommend the summer option, but if you like adventure, empty museums and warming up with coffee every 40 minutes, then take a chance and head over during the winter, it made for some amazing memories.

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Arrivals. You can fly direct from many UK airports to the capital Vilnius (VNO), including Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham and Belfast. From Edinburgh and Bristol you can fly into Kaunas, which is a beautiful city in itself and only a short direct train journey from the capital. If you are already over in mainland Europe a great way to see this part of the globe is by bus, as well as flying into Vilnius I have used the overnight¬†Lux Express Bus¬†from Warsaw, and have also flown with¬†Air Baltic¬†for other trips in the region. Trains aren’t that great at the moment in this part of the Baltics, but there is a direct train from the Belarus capital Minsk to Vilnius that leaves daily.

Getting into the city centre from the airport is easy too, there is a airport train that travels 16 times a day between the airport and the main train station in Vilnius, from there its a short walk or taxi journey to your destination. The translation of airport is Oro Uostas which may be handy if you plan to use one of the ¬†local buses that regularly leave between the main bus station (Stotis) and the airport, you could hop on the 1, 2 and 88, all costing ‚ā¨1 or another more direct bus option is the¬†Micro Bus¬†that also costs ‚ā¨1.

History Bit. The area that is now Lithuania¬†has been inhabited by tribes in the Baltic region for thousands of years with the first king of Lithuania being crowed in the 1200’s. By the 1400’s, Lithuania was one of the largest countries in Europe as it encompassed parts of present day Belarus, Russia, Poland and Ukraine. ¬†Many wars and famines caused unrest, migration, uprisings and coups pretty much off and on until 1991 when it gained its independance from the Soviet Union after WW2. The capital Vilnius itself was first recorded in the history books in 1323 and has always played an important role in the history of the country. It was here that over 200,000 people demonstrated against Soviet rule in the late 1980’s culminating in a bloody battle that resulted in the Republic of Lithuania finally being recognised as an independant country once again, free from foreign rule.

Sights. Awarded UNESCO status in 1994, the Old Town is a great place to start with the beautiful Cathedral Square making a central point in which to visit a lot of the historic sights.

 

Here you can find the impressive Bell Tower which acts as a beacon across the old town ringing out every 15 minutes, and you can climb to the top for a small fee for an even better view of the city. Opposite the Bell Tower is the most important catholic building in Lithuania, The Cathedral of St. Stanislav and St. Vladislav, definately pop inside to see the stunning interior, frescos and the crypt, guided tours are available on certain days too, should you want to learn more.

The other important and must see building here in Cathedral Square is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, now a national museum. The original palace was demolished in the 19th century, but its now rebuilt and hosts official and public events, with the museum part of the building showcasing the history of the country including architecture and folklore.  When I visited in early January, I pretty much had the museum to myself, but it is a v popular tourist attraction and looked a lot busier when I walked past a few months later, so time your visit well, again guided tours are available. Cathedral Square itself is a lovely place to explore and people watch, surrounded by benches and green spaces, notable highlights are the markets that spring up at various times of the year like at Christmas, the statue of Gediminas the famous ruler of Lithuania and the lucky stebuklas tile that is said to grant wishes. Its also here where the New Year Eve celebrations take place.

IMG_0037 Sunny day chilling by Cathedral Square

Gedinimas Hill and Tower – You cannot fail to miss this impressive 15th Century tower looking down on the city and with 360 views afforded from the top of the hill, its the reason I have been up in both in the winter and summer. It is definately easier to walk up the path in the summer than in snowy conditions, but a ‚ā¨2 funicular ride is available around the back should you fancy a more sedate journey upward. Once on the top there are ruins to explore, a history museum¬†inside the tower (currently closed for renovations) and just epic views across the capital.

 

Summer and winter views.

Gedinimas Avenue – If you head across Cathedral Square away from the hill and bell tower and cross over the road, you walk down what is essentially the Oxford St of Vilnius. The main street of the city is full of shops, restaurants, theatres and government buildings, if you walk far enough you end up at the Parliament. Keep an eye out for the Feast of Muses sculpture outside the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre and Vinco Kudirkas Square which is named after the author of the National Anthem, as I was travelling on a budget I bought some food from a local supermarket, then found a bench and ate here watching the locals pass by.

 

Ausros Vartu Street¬†– Where Gedinimas Avenue has all the shops and cafes, Ausros Vartu Street has the history, religion and architecture. There are lots of churches to explore here, St Cazimir, St Teresa and the Holy Trinity as well as the original city defensive, the Gate of Dawn built in the 1600’s, its even more important now that the other 9 gates have been destroyed. I really enjoyed just wandering up and down here and peeking my head inside the various churches and interesting buildings.

 

The Republic of Uzupis –¬†Not long after the country gained its independance and freedom back from the Soviets, a small bunch of artists wanted to test the idea of independance to the max and so in 1995 decided to set up a partly tongue in cheek republic of their own, so they did and 15+ years later, its still going strong. Uzupis means ‘other side of the river’ and its only a short walk over a small bridge (over the river!) about 10 minutes from Cathedral Square to this quirky, neighbourhood inside the capital. There are cafes, restaurants, some really cool bohemian shops and art galleries as the place is still inhabitied by many local artists. Make sure you visit the angel statue, the multilingual welcome sign as you enter and pick up a copy of the¬†constitution¬†which includes – Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat and Everyone has the right to be happy, which I think should be on everyones constitutions dont you?

 

 

The Museum of Genocide Victims. Housed inside the former KGB headquarters this haunting building and reminder of past atrocities will stick with me forever. I am not sure if it was due to the winter weather so I pretty much had the place to myself that made it more eerie, but im pretty certain due to the subject matter, its most definately is a place for stark reflection due to the horrific nature of what occured here. The museum serves as a living reminder of the terror from when the Nazi’s and then Soviets took over this imposing building that once was a gym. Spread over a number of floors, the museum takes a no holds barred approach to telling its story. Culminating in the cells, torture and execution chambers, I needed some quiet time to take it all in once I left the museum, but I’m glad I visited as I learned a hell of a lot, but be prepared to need a little recovery period afterwards.

 

Ensemble of St. Anne and Bernardine Church. Standing out due to its red brick exterior, St Annes church at over 500 years old its worth a visit as is its neighbour the Bernadine Church. I visited these on the way to the Bernadine Garden, which when I visited in the January was a snowing wonderland of children sledging and ducks skating on the frozen river, quite beautiful, there is a botanical garden, fountains and a monastery here too, so make sure you give it enough time.

 

Once I had explored the park, I was still feeling energetic and not too cold, so I crossed the River Vilnelńó and climbed the many steps up the Hill of the Three Crosses¬†for spectacular views across the snow covered city. Originally at the summit were 3 wooden crosses said to be the site where Franciscan Friars were beheaded hundreds of years ago. These crosses eventually perished, were rebuilt, only to be torn down during Soviet rule, with a new and improved version finally being erected in 1989 once the country became independent again. Now a prominant monument of the city, its a popular spot for both locals and tourists and i’m glad I made the effort to climb up to the top, it involves a bit of a climb and a lot of steps, so bare that in mind first.

 

Town Hall Square, Vokieciu Street and Pilies Street are all areas I explored at length, both in my summer and winter visits. The tourist information centre is located inside the Town Hall Square, which was one of my first stops to load up on a local map and grab a few tourist leaflets, off from here are loads of shops, cafes, interesting buildings and intriguing alleyways. In the winter is was definitely quieter but there were still outdoor market selling wooly hats and local crafts, returning in the summer the cafes opened their doors and put tables outside and there was much more of a buzz, understandably as it wasnt -10!

 

Coffee and Cake – Coffee Inn located on Didzioji and Laisves al are just two of many locations from this Baltic coffee chain, but don’t think because its a chain its all sterile tasteless coffee and uncomfortable seating. Im pretty sure each Coffee Inn is run independently and each one has a unique vibe and style, one I visited had a bookshop inside, another a record store, and all seemed welcoming to a solo English traveller, they serve soy milk and their cheesecake was insane! Another caffeine gem I found was¬†Second Cup¬†which is also a chain, although this one goes further than just the Baltics, with cafes in Iraq, Ghana and soon the UK apparently. Again, friendly¬†comfy seating, with plenty of places to charge devices, they had a really great menu of regular and flavoured coffees with soy milk options too and lots of cake!

 

Eats РFor my first night I wanted to eat Lithuania 101, so I headed to Amatininky uzeiga a friendly restaurant serving local beers, delicious beetroot soup and stodgy potato Zeppelins which I devoured after a snowy sightseeing afternoon, then followed it by the recommended and ginormous apple pie. If you fancy something slightly less meaty, but still with massive portions, the vegan restaurant Gyvas Baras was a place I visited for lunch and dinner and then returned for another meal on my summer return. I found it a really friendly place, relaxed, and not just serving the typical falafal, but the menu included amazing burgers, mexican food, insane desserts and local beers.

IMG_0052  Cheers!

Other sights to see – Explore the Jewish ghetto around DominikonŇ≥ and VokieńćiŇ≥ Streets, head out of the Old Town to the tallest building in Lithuania, the¬†TV Tower¬†for epic views of the city, and take a train for a day out in Kaunas the 2nd largest city and less than 90 minutes by train (thats a whole other blog post!)

Always be politeHello is Sveiki and Thank You is AńćiŇę! (pronounced almost like Achoo)

 

 

 

Clearing US immigration in Ireland.

Ive just done my first ever US Pre Clearance and it was a revelation! I have been aware of it for a while but only just got round to trying it out and I’m¬†not sure I can ever go back now. Any none US travellers who have visited the United States must have experienced that fun 30-90¬†minute wait, filling in the white arrival cards and being sternly instructed to GET IN A LINE. Then undergoing 20 questions about where you’re going, who you’re staying with and for how long, whilst being jet-lagged, confused and forgetting the name of your accommodation, then missing your connection to Nashville? No, maybe it’s just me then.

There are actually 6 none US countries from which you can now go through all the immigration and customs checks, before you board your flight when you are still fresh faced and excited for the journey ahead. The particular airports are located in Aruba, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Canada and where I boarded, Ireland. Sweden and the Dominican Republic are next to join the list I believe.img_2388

The main reason I believe these pre-clearance centres have been set up is to reduce the risk of terrorism and identify potential criminals before they even board the plane to the US. The other advantages for everyone else, is these airports potentially gets more traffic, it reduces the numbers and waiting times for everyone else at border controls in the US and makes it easier for travellers to leave their destination airport quickly and easily without delays on arrival. Basically a win win!

I¬†travelled to Newark, New Jersey from Manchester, UK via Dublin this month (Nov 2017) with Aer Lingus and it was smooth sailing or should I saw flying, the whole way. I was then heading onward to Philadelphia, so it was refreshing to get straight off the plane and to the train station, potentially catch an earlier train than I would have if i’d had to queue in customs.

On arrival in Dublin there are loads of staff on hand to direct and advise all passengers who are travelling onward to the US, the Pre-Clearance area is easily signposted with a small US flag, making it hard to get lost. Before going through customs though, you end up in the main departure lounge, so unless you immediately need to head to your next flight, stick around here for a while. There are coffee shops, restaurants, bars, shops and a currency counter, although there are a few places to eat once you pass the pre-clearance area, they are limited. If you are vegetarian there are quite a few options, but the only place I found accommodating vegans was coffee express which had a falafel wrap, all coffee shops did seem to offer soy milk though.

I chatted to a member of staff who said at times the Pre-Clearance area can get busy, so don’t leave it too long to go through, but there were also announcements advising when passengers should clear the customs area for each US flight. When I heard an announcement for a different American flight, I left it 20 minutes and decided to take my chances and go through.

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First there is small x-ray security area to pass through with your bags, there was no queue! So I quickly moved on to stage 2, which was the customs machine. Here you answer the questions that are on the white arrival form, it is push button answers so it’s much easier, then you scan your own passport and fingers, again no queue. A clearance form was printed off and it was on to final stage 3, speaking to an official. Third time lucky, there was no queue again, and after a friendly chat, my passport was stamped and I was welcomed to ‘America’, the whole process maybe took a little over 5 minutes.

There is a separate departure lounge for all those who have passed clearance and are travelling on to the US, which like I mentioned has some facilities, a small bar, small restaurant, coffee kiosk, charging points, toilets and free but temperamental wifi, but its not as extensive as the main departure lounge, so just be aware. Once I landed in New Jersey, we exited as though we were on a domestic flight, straight out into arrivals, I had carry on luggage only, so headed straight to the Air-train onward to the main railway station.

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I would definitely consider travelling via Ireland (Dublin or Shannon) again, especially if I had a considerable amount of travelling to do once I had landed. It just means you can get a stress free head start on your onward journey and don’t need to factor in for an unknown wait at customs. In fact, I’m already looking at flights to Boston for next Autumn maybe . . . .

Philadelphia- City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection

State No 6

I’m just back from a trip to Philadelphia, but as it was over 10 years since my last visit to this historic, vibrant East coast city, I was excited to return and explore more parts of the city I never managed too last time. I was there attending a workshop, but made sure I put aside time to visit some sights aswell.

Arrivals. You can fly direct from London, Manchester or Dublin, which takes around 8hrs. If you go via Dublin you get to experience Pre Clearance before you board the plane, which as I mentioned in my previous post is a revelation! I didn’t fly direct to Philadelphia this time, I went from Manchester (via Dublin) to Newark in New Jersey. There are lots of options to get yourself straight to downtown Philadelphia from other East Coast destinations, so don’t be put off if flights are super expensive direct to Philly as they were for me. If you fly straight into Philadelphia and are not hiring a car (if you plan to stay solely in and around the city you wont need one) then get the inexpensive, handy¬†SEPTA,¬†straight from the airport to downtown, the most central stations ¬†to get off at will be 30th, Suburban or Jefferson.

If flying in from Newark your best two options are; get the Air Train to Newark Airport Train Station, then either board the Amtrak straight to 30th Street Philadelphia which is direct but can be expensive, or get the NJ Transit train to Trenton, then change to the SEPTA straight to downtown Philadelphia. If you fly into New York, you can get the train or Bus from Penn Station, while Washington DC also has direct buses (taking around 4 hours) and trains from its gorgeous Union Station direct to downtown Philadelphia.

Getting Around. A lot of sights are easy to walk too, especially if you group a few of them in the same neighbourhood together during your visit, the SEPTA (buses, trolleys and subway) runs all over the city and is super easy to use, while taxi’s, Uber and Lyft are also available everywhere.

History Bit. The city was founded by an English entrepreneur and Quaker called William Penn in the late 1800’s after he was gifted some land from King Charles II. Prior to this, the area of land that eventually became the capital of Pennsylvania was inhabited by the indigenous people of the Lenape. There is so much history here in this city, whether you want to learn more about slavery, the declaration of independence or even its religious past, it is all richly reflected here in a lot of the popular sights visited today.

What to see.¬†Independence National Park and of course the star of the park, probably the most famous broken bell in the world, is the Liberty Bell. There is a lot to see in this area, all the sights are located close to 5th and Independence Mall which is a SEPTA stop handily enough. There is the huge Independence Visitor’s Centre which is the perfect place to start your historic day trip, open from 8.30 daily and free, there is a shop, cafe, theatre as well as exhibitions which illustrate and inform all visitors on the importance this city has had on the rest of the country. Across the street is the Liberty Bell centre, which is also free and open from 9am, its first come first served, so time your visit well to avoid the queues. If its busy and you can’t face waiting for a B’elfie (Bell Selfie?) then walk towards the Independence Hall past the Liberty Bell centre and take a look back and to your right, you can see the Bell through the glass wall. Visiting the Independence Hall is also free, but you need to book onto one of the tours in advance, there are also free gardens and outdoor exhibits all around this area making it a must do whether you have a passing or keen interest in the history of the USA.

One block north of the Independence visitor centre is the National Constitution Centre this is open daily, costing just under $15 per adult for a ticket. This includes access to the Signers Hall, lots of museum exhibits, an interactive We The People show and a theatre production which runs every 30 minutes depicting the history of the signing of the constitution, fascinating stuff!

This area is part of the oldest neighbourhood of Philadelphia, so just wander around and you will constantly find places of interest and historical significance, the oldest street is here Elfreth’s Alley in fact it is known as the oldest residential street in the US. Christ Church Burial Grounds is located close by, where you can take a fascinating leafy green walk through the churchyard where Benjamin Franklin was buried amongst other figures important to US history. This church ground is situated on Arch St and Independence Mall, and if you continue East down Arch, close by is the Betsy Ross House which is where the first US flag was made by Betsy herself, see there is history around every corner.

A short walk west along Arch St you pass the African American Museum, I couldn’t get to visit this time due to the workshop I was attending, but I definitely want to schedule in time to go next visit. Keep walking along this street and next up is the Chinatown Friendship Gate signally the start of Chinatown, like any Chinatown across the world there is a great colourful vibe, tonnes of shops, restaurants, cafes and a monthly Night Market. I headed away from Chinatown though this visit to Arch and 12th St and what may become my most favourite farmers market that I have ever visited, the loud, vibrant, assault on all the senses that is the¬†Reading Terminal Market.
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Over 100 years old and open from 8am-6pm daily, you must plan a visit to explore the 80+ stalls of food, drink and crafts. Definitely give the place a once over before deciding where you sit and eat and what to buy, there are Amish stalls serving home made cheeses, butchers and fishmongers selling their fresh produce as well as places to buy kitchen supplies and flowers as well as the many restaurants. Stay for something to eat for sure, whether its a vegan corn dog at Fox and Son, a Philly Cheesesteak at Carmens or comfort food at the Dutch Eating Place you can easily spend an hour here, I even spotted peanut butter chocolate bacon for sale, but gave that a miss!

The architecture in Philadelphia is amazing, with a range of styles both old and new, from the art deco railway stations of Suburban and 30th St to the 60 storey Comcast Tower (due for completion in 2018) and its even higher neighbour One Liberty Place, it can make for a dizzying but fascinating wander. If you head West from Reading Terminal Market towards the skyscrapers of downtown, dominating the skyline is the Masonic Temple. Taking 5 years to construct and then another 15 years to finish the interior, you cannot fail to miss this beautiful elaborate granite building, taking up a whole block of its own. Tours are available but limited and cost $15.

Right opposite the Masonic Temple is the largest municiple building in the US¬†City Hall,¬†its another huge impressive building, that proudly stands in the heart of the city and makes a good point of reference when exploring this part of town. Although it never became the tallest building in the world as it had been hoped, it did hold the record for tallest building in Philadelphia up until the 80’s. If you have a head for heights ascend up the tower for what I can imagine are insane panoramic views of the city, tower tours finish at around 4pm though, so dont leave it late, I couldnt fit it in this time with it being a work trip, so have pencilled it in for next time.

IMG_2673 The great city hall peaking out at the end of Broad Street

The next big attraction on most peoples itineraries when visiting Philadelphia will probably be the Museum of Art and even if you arent an art lover and dont want to pay the $20 entrance fee, still head over so you can run up the famous Rocky Steps and get a photo by the statue. You can get there by bus or on the metro to 30th St station and from there its a 20 min walk along the Schuylkill River, but if you fancy walking from downtown, head down the gorgeous tree and flag lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Even if you dont visit inside the art museum, head round to the back of the building and visit the sculpture and landscaped gardens with gorgeous views along the Schuylkill River, I only found them after a tip from my Lyft driver, who I gave 5 stars too of course!

There are so many more museums that are worthy of visiting, but as I was over for a work trip, I just couldnt squeeze as much in as I would have liked.  On my hit list for next time is the Franklin Institute, Rodin Museum, Please Touch Museum, The National Museum of American Jewish History and The Eastern State Penitentiary as well as the African American Museum that I mentioned earlier.

There is so much outdoor green space in Philadelphia, lots of parks, squares and river walks, which makes for a nice contrast when you have got your fill on museums and other indoor sights. Fairmont Park is the big one, with over 9,000 acres to explore, but there is also Franklin Sq, Love Park, Washington Square and the Schuylkill River Trail to name only a few.

Food and Drink РPhiladelpahia does great coffee, with some unique independent coffee shops that also side hustle as clothing shops, creative spaces and music venues. Some gems I visited during my latest stay included Rival Bros and United by Blue and next time I really want to visit Grindcore Coffee which is a vegan coffeeshop.

Speaking of vegan food, I visited¬†Hip City Veg¬†twice during my stay, its a 100% plant based diner that serves the most delicious meat-free food including chick’n fajitas and tempeh burgers that even the most hardened carnivore would love and the green drink below is the insanely amazing kale lemonade.

 

Hot Tips –

  • A single fair on the Septa costs $2.50 or a 1 day convenience pass (max 8 rides) is $9
  • On the first Friday evening of each month there is a¬†Art Walk¬†in the Old City District.
  • Known as one of the best beer cities in America, there are more than 60 brewing companies in the Philadelphia region alone with many local companies organising brew pub tours.

Other sights

  • Six Flags Theme Park is only around 90 mins away on the train (change at Trenton)
  • Jump on the Septa to Wissahicken and hike the Valley Park Trail and then eat and drink along Main Street afterwards in the Manayunk district. Manayunk is Native American for ‘Where we go to drink’ by the way!
  • Shop, eat and drink along South Street in the heart of the city.

Always be polite – If you buy a $10 cheesesteak at Reading Terminal Market then a tip would be around $1.50.