I feel like I’m playing cliché bingo with these posts at times… but seriously, are you a mindful tourist? No, I am not asking if you meditate each morning, but rather are you conscious of your surroundings, mindful of your responsibilities as a guest of each location you visit, and maximising your travels?
I think it’s safe to say that when any of us go travelling, we take at least a few photos at standard tourist landmarks – like me above at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens. Whenever you visit sites like this, there are countless boards and signs either at the entrance, or all around the site making clear the specific rules for that location. But are there any general rules we should always follow when travelling?
My number 1 rule is to have a cultural awareness of the city / country / region I am visiting and exploring. Taking some time to research prior to travelling benefits everyone – it means that you get a more authentic experience and you can plan your trip accordingly, and it means that the local environment is impacted as little as possible.
For example, if I am visiting a country in the middle east it is likely that the weekend will be Friday & Saturday whilst Sunday is a normal working day and I will adjust plans accordingly. The working week as we know it – Monday to Friday – is based on Christianity, with Saturday a day of rest and Sunday a day of worship. Different countries with different official religions therefore follow slightly different working weeks.
In countries where religion is still a strong part of society, holy days often see shops and restaurants close for at least part of the day with only skeleton services operating. Plan your trip with this in mind, and be respectful of religious customs.
Seek Out Authenticity
Naturally, locations with high tourist footfall cater for those tourists with standard food & drink (e.g. pizza & burgers), and souvenirs – the vast majority of which will likely be drastically over priced and poor quality.
So whilst visiting the tourist attractions is likely going to form part of any trip – they are normally tourist hot spots for a reason – I will avoid eating and drinking in these areas, and search out restaurants serving local cuisine and bars frequented by the local population. Are souvenirs a necessity? For some, yes – a magnet or a shot glass maybe – shops throughout each city / location will sell almost identical items but often far better value for money the further you get from the attraction itself.
I know the point re food is potentially a little contentious, but for me personally I cannot understand why anyone would travel to a foreign country to eat the same food they do at home. I will avoid “English” or “American” foods as much as possible, and opt for local dishes. You don’t know if you like it if you never try it!
Plan Ahead… Be Prepared To Change
This one sounds a little stupid, but it’s one of the most important to maximise the experience. I will always make plans well before I arrive in a location – from day trips & restaurant reservations to the approximate route I will walk (or at least an order of certain landmarks I will visit). Despite this, I will also be prepared to change and cancel the plans I have pre-booked… and here is why;
No matter how much research and planning goes in to a trip, until boots are on the ground and the experience is being lived, you don’t really have a genuine feel for the place. Often when you are in a location new opportunities arise – maybe you get talking to a local and get invited to a gig or for a meal, you see a day trip to a location you hadn’t considered, you get told about a must see location off the tourist trail. Whatever it is, be prepared to say YES!
I have often found the best experiences come in these spontaneous moments. Even the ones that aren’t what you expect can provide a laugh and a great memory – if I hadn’t said yes, I wouldn’t have been driven around Bucharest in an old Lada in the middle of the night, with a guy who had a photo in his wallet of him with Pablo Escobar… it’s a long story.
Make The Most Of It!
Whenever I travel to a location I know the likelihood is I will not return there – no matter how much I love it. I just have too many places on my travel bucket list – and whilst maybe a little unrealistic, I want to travel the entire world before I go back to revisit locations.
Whether or not you share that ethos, the chances of you returning to that same city or location are pretty slim. So make the most of your time there! I travel with the sole intention of exploring, so I aim to maximise every moment I have there;
Need an early start a couple of mornings to fit things in? DO IT.
Have a couple of late nights to get the full authentic experience and don’t get a full 8 hours sleep? DO IT.
Get invited to spend an evening with locals? DO IT.
Life is uncertain – as we have seen over the last couple of years – so I live each trip as if it’s my last & do everything I ever wanted to do in that city or that location. If you have planned a holiday to relax, then do just that – chill out and don’t plan anything in. It’s not something I do anymore, but each to their own! To be honest, if you are booking a holiday to chill, I doubt you have got this far through the post…
English & Irish Bars
Here we go. The only ‘negative’ rule on my list. Do not go to an English or an Irish Pub unless you are in… England or Ireland!!!
As a young kid I used to be really confused as to why English tourists had such a bad name… and then I discovered English bars, such as The George and Dragon in Prague’s famous old town square and Irish Bars, with a variety of generic Irish names and often the image of a Leprechaun or 4 leaf clover. Normally frequented by people wearing English football shirts with either St George’s cross flag or bull dog tattoos.
Just no. Under no circumstance is it ever ok to go in any bars like this. If you see one, you are probably in the wrong part of town!
What are your travel do’s and don’ts? Leave a comment and let me know!
As prices of flights continue on their upward trend, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the perfect getaway without breaking the bank. Below are the top 5 must see cities in Europe, and the best flight deals from the UK!
5. Prague, Czech Republic
With an infamous reputation in years gone by for loud & obnoxious stag do’s from the UK, Prague has understandably been given a wide birth by many holiday makers from these shores. Fear not – those days are now gone, and Prague is a destination that should be near the top of your travel list! This city has so much to offer; from history & architecture, to possibly the best lager in Europe.
The Charles Bridge (above) is one of the most famous sites in the city, along with the medieval astronomical clock – the oldest operational astronomical clock in the world – in the old town square. Vyšehrad, the old fortress of Prague offers over 1000 years of history, and some pretty awesome views. There are also countless churches to explore in the city of a hundred spires!
When it comes to lager you are spoilt for choice. The locals will tell you that the Czech lagers are the best in the world… and I am inclined to agree with them! Try one of the more common commercial lagers like Staropramen or Pilsner Urquell, or take a punt on a craft ale produced by one of the local microbreweries. There is the Staropramen museum located in the site of the historic brewery – however from my experience it wasn’t really worth it. The information is largely available online and there wasn’t too much to see.
In terms of hotels – a short distance from the main sites and attractions, 4 & 5 star hotels start at around £65 per night based on 2 adults sharing, and good quality apartments start at £30 per night. You can obviously make this far cheaper by staying in a hostel – but after the last couple of years, a little luxury is definitely justified!
Total cost for 2 adults flights and accommodation for 3 nights at the 4* Grand Hotel Praha, in the centre of the city;
£347 including breakfast
4. Budapest, Hungary
From one slightly controversial destination to another… Budapest. Unlike the Czech Republic, the controversy surrounding Hungary is not thanks to UK stag parties, but rather their of own governments making. None of this however takes away from the beautiful city that is Budapest. Split in half by the river Danube, together the old cities of Buda and Pest offer the famous spa baths, beautiful history & architecture and fantastic food!
Every review of Budapest will without doubt cover the famous Szechenyi Spa Baths – this is for good reason! They are a must for your trip to this beautiful city. Afterwards, venture down to the Danube to see the ‘Shoes on the Danube Bank’, a sobering memorial to the 3,500 people killed by the fascist Hungarian militia in the Second World War. In the afternoon, climb Castle Hill above Szechenyi Chain Bridge to visit Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum within Buda Castle, and watch the sunset over the amazing skyline of Budapest.
Aside from the well known tourist attractions, you can wander around the streets of Budapest and find many a hidden gem. Restaurants and bars line many a street serving a mixture of local cuisine and standard fare. For those looking for nightlife, you will find it here in abundance with parties going on long in to the early hours. The best part? It won’t cause too much damage to your bank balance!
Return flights from 10th to the 13th September from London Luton;
Cheaper flights are available, however at rather unsociable times!
For hotels in Budapest, 4 & 5 star hotels start at around £70 per night and luxury apartments start at approximately £40 per night based on 2 adults sharing. Again, you can make your stay far cheaper by opting for a budget hotel or hostel. I would recommend a little luxury and comfort after long days exploring all that Budapest has to offer.
Total cost for 2 adults flights and accommodation for 3 nights at the 4* Buda Castle Hotel with views over the city;
£327 including breakfast
3. Copenhagen, Denmark
From one side of Europe to the other – in at number 3 is the Danish capital city, Copenhagen. Full of creativity, colour and culture, Copenhagen manages to effortlessly blend class and sophistication with intrigue and creative flair. You might think you need to stuff some thermals in your hand luggage for this trip to Scandinavia – but a jumper will suffice for the cooler yet still mild September evenings.
As the vast majority of the cities on this list, Copenhagen has a whole raft of well known tourist attractions, however I think some of the lesser known parts of the city are more worthy of your time than the well trodden paths!
The one ultra touristy thing you MUST do here is visit Tivoli Gardens. It is the second oldest theme park in the world (behind Bakken, across town also in Copenhagen). Whether you want to try out the rides, to visit the beautiful gardens or simply to enjoy the charm and magic that Tivoli possesses in abundance, it is worth well worth it.
If possible, spend a couple of hours visiting Christiania – an international community and “freetown” located within the city of Copenhagen. Previously, Danish law wasn’t recognised or enforced in Christiania hence it being a freetown, however over the last 10 years or so that has changed. The objective of the anarchist community
“to build a self-governing society where each individual is free to express themselves under the authority of the community. This society shall be financially self-supporting, and the common aim must always be to show that the mental and physical contamination can be averted”
13 – 11 – 1971
Please be respectful of the residents when you visit Christiania, and abide by their rules with regards photography.
Nyhavn is a great spot to visit to get some good photos like the one above, but be careful with some of the bars and restaurants that line the waters edge – even by Danish standards some are overpriced and not the best quality!
The image that will spring to mind for a lot of you when you think of Copenhagen will be the Little Mermaid statue, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen. It is a good 20 minute walk out of the city centre, and standing at 1.25m tall it isn’t the most impressive statue you will see but it is still worth a visit if you get time.
Copenhagen is a more expensive city than both Prague and Budapest, but it is full of beautiful architecture, beautiful people and a fascinating history. It is well worth the extra few pounds on hotels and spending money!
Hotels are far more expensive in Copenhagen than the previous 2 destinations on average & are the most expensive of the 5 cities in this list. For 4 & 5 star hotels, you will do well to get anything for less than £95 per night, however there are a number of 2 & 3 star options with prices starting from as little as £45 per night. The standard of hostels in Copenhagen is fantastic, so that is a real option here if you are looking to save on costs. I have stayed in the Danhostel previously and would highly recommend a stay here. Given current Covid rules, you have to book an entire room for yourself, so hostels are not as good value as normal – expect to see large reductions in prices at such hostels as rules are relaxed.
Total cost for 2 adults flights and accommodation for 3 nights at the perfectly situated 4* Absalon Hotel;
£358 including breakfast
2. Lake Ohrid, North Macedonia
Back over to the east of Europe we go, and this time to one of the former states of Yugoslavia – Macedonia, now known as North Macedonia. It is not a country that attracts many tourists from the UK, with only 2 direct flights a week from London Luton – on a Wednesday and a Sunday – during the peak season of April to October, and 0 direct flights at all from November to March. This is what we have been missing out on…
Lake Ohrid straddles the border between southern Macedonia and eastern Albania – now recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is easy to see why. The views are breath taking, picturesque clear waters in the foreground with snowcapped mountains to the rear. It was the first time in my life I arrived at a destination and was genuinely lost for words. The reality is even better than any photograph could ever depict.
Ohrid is a popular holiday resort for Macedonian’s, however it is still relatively undiscovered by the outside world. The infrastructure isn’t set up for hundreds of thousands of tourists to descend at once, however there are many bars and restaurants along the edge of the lake offering a wonderful selection of food, cocktails & beers. The prices are unbelievably good value, and that’s without taking the view in to account!
I would recommend booking day trips through your hotel to visit places such as the Monastery of Sveti Naum, a trip over the border to Pogradec in Albania & if you are lucky enough to find a driver / tour guide like mine – ask to visit a local village such as Trpejca to sample the fresh catch of the day as it lands from the small fishing boats. The locals are incredibly friendly and love talking about their history. As not many tourists visit from outside the region, the translation is a little more challenging, but that adds to the authenticity of the experience.
Two locations to visit within walking distance of the town centre are Sveti Jovan at Kaneo pictured above, and Samuel’s Fortress – not just because I share his name, but the views are fantastic. Just make sure you take water with you – the steep walk up is rather tiring in the heat!
The hotels in Ohrid are a little unconventional – some are bed and breakfast, some are serviced apartments. There are a couple of more “traditional” hotels, but I highly recommend staying in one of the guest house / serviced apartments.
Get ready for this… the prices for accommodation based on 2 adults sharing start at around £20 per night. I recommend you pay a little more to get a lake view – this will cost somewhere in the region of £35-40 per night. Yes, £35 per night, for 2 adults. It is fantastic value. My recommendation below is a property I have personally stayed at and I highly recommend. Ana is the lovely owner, and she is fantastic for sorting our day trips and making your time in Ohrid as perfect as possible. Breakfast is not provided here, however a lakeside cafe just along the boardwalk pictured above serves breakfast for around £5 per couple.
Total cost for 2 adults flights and accommodation for 4 nights with a lake view from the balcony – Apartment Villa Dudanov;
£229 breakfast not included
1. Porto, Portugal
After an intense battle with Ohrid for top spot, in at number 1 on my top 5 must see cities in Europe, it’s Porto. A city bursting with creativity and energy, hundreds of narrow streets packed with amazing architecture, history hiding around every corner. From the port lodges to the churches decked out in the famous Porto tiles, the river side restaurants and bars and the beautiful green spaces in the middle of the city. Porto has it all.
Its hard to accurately summarise Porto in a few words. It is everything to everyone. Whatever you are looking for in your city break – Porto has it. Culture, history, shopping, amazing local food & drink both casual and fine dining. It has both a feel of a small quaint city, and yet has the buzz of a large sprawling metropolis in the same breath.
It is another city that often gets overlooked when holidays are being considered, either for the beaches of southern Portugal, or its big city rival and capital of Portugal, Lisbon.
Porto is, as the name suggests, a port town where the river Douro meets the Atlantic Ocean. The seafood is exquisite all along the banks of the river, but in particular a trip to Mercado Municipal de Matosinhos – the fresh fish market, and the restaurants that surround it is a must.
It may be a bit touristy and clichéd, but book in for a port tasting at one of the famous old port lodges! I went to Graham’s and it was absolutely amazing and incredible value for money. Take a guided tour of the lodge, see how and where the port is made, have a peek in the cellars and at the end try a mix of the ruby and tawny ports, what more could you want?
The local drink of choice on the warmer days is a “porto tonico”, a white port and tonic cocktail. I was initially wary, however it soon became the drink of the trip. Beautifully refreshing after a long day exploring – I can see why the locals love it so much!
This post wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the incredible porto tiles that adorn the walls of many a church and many a building in the city. This photo above is the inside of Porto’s main train station Estacão São Bento. The immaculately decorated blue and white tiles are a common sight, but one that never gets old. You will find many a stall selling them outside the various tourist hot spots – go a little further afield and get better quality for a lower price!
There are cheaper flight options from Manchester (as low as £40 at the time of checking), however due to unsociable hours on the return leg of the journey, I have opted for these flights as my recommended option.
Accommodation in Porto is plentiful, and competitively priced. Apartments start at around £35 per night, and 4 & 5 star hotels start at approximately £60 per night. As always, cheaper accommodation is available, however be careful not to compromise too much on quality in order to save a few pounds.
Total cost for 2 adults flights and accommodation for 5 nights at the luxurious 4* Exe Almada Porto is;
£421 (breakfast available for additional £8 per person, per night)
There you have it – my top 5 city break destinations for post lockdown European travel!