Day one in Amsterdam had been a bit low-key, I spent a chunk of the day traveling and being December it was already dark by the time I’d arrived late-afternoon. It was also pissing it down with rain which meant there was only so much exploring I wanted to do on my first evening.
So I woke up relatively early on the Wednesday morning keen to make the most of my first full day in the city. Amsterdam is just one of those places that wins you over pretty quickly. In December you have a lights festival sprawled over its canals which makes it look spectacular after dark but it turns out it’s no less impressive by day either.
After Tuesday evening’s miserable downpour I was pleasantly surprised to wake up to blue skies, hopeful they’d last and make exploring the city a little more enjoyable. I wanted to kick my day off with a ‘free’ walking tour of the city. I find these are useful for familiarising yourself with a new city, see a few of the sights and learn a bit about the city in the process.
I’d got out in to the streets a bit earlier than anticipated though and the starting point wasn’t as far from my hostel as I thought either so I arrived far too early, giving me a chance to have a little wander nearby beforehand.
As I strolled along one of the canals, admiring Amsterdam’s beauty, I was caught by surprise and pretty much jumped out of my skin.
Just to my left was some woman, stood inside with only her underwear, knocking against the window. She was waving me in for a cup of tea I think but I politely declined and moved along, a little surprised that the women of Amsterdam were looking for company so early in the day. It can only have been around 9-9:30 in the morning so I wasn’t expecting it.
Soon enough I wandered back towards the starting point for the tour, you’ll find New Sandemans based in a lot of European cities offering ‘free’ walking tours (you tip what you like after). I quite enjoy their tours and this was another decent effort as we wandered along Amsterdam’s canals and got a bit more insight in to the history and quirks of Amsterdam. This particular spot on the tour was nicely hidden away and not too busy.
I’d pre-booked the Anne Frank House museum for later in the day so had a bit of time to kill after the walking tour. I didn’t really have anything planned so just wandered aimlessly for the next couple of hours.
It’s recommended that you pre-book for the Anne Frank House and I passed the building a couple of times throughout my trip and the queues were fairly lengthy. It’s also suggested that Wednesday is the quietest day to visit and it showed when I arrived, I had sensibly pre-booked but there wasn’t actually much of a queue at the time I went anyway so I probably could have got away with not booking in advance.
This was really the one thing I’d wanted to do in Amsterdam and I can’t say that it disappointed. I thought the museum as a whole was really well done and is a credit to the memory of Anne Frank and the horrors of that time. I can’t say I enjoyed it as such because it’s not one of those experiences you enjoy but I came out feeling educated, humbled and sombre which is what you hope to take away from a place such as this. It’s somewhere you should make time to visit if you’re in the city.
Whilst it wasn’t overly late, it was pretty dark by the time I came out so after a little stroll through the city I went and found myself some dinner to round off a rather enjoyable second day Amsterdam. The route back to my hostel afterwards took me by Amsterdam’s Red Light District and whilst I’d had a brief introduction to it earlier in the trip, I have to say it’s a part of the city that surprised me a little. I had this image of it being this seedy little district full of old men or stag-do’s leering over women in windows but it’s as far from that as possible.
I’m sure there is that element there but surprisingly it’s a real tourist trap, there’s a little buzz to the area at night. I wasn’t looking to do any “window shopping” but the whole area was just crawling with tourists, at times it felt like they were literally crawling.
“Can you please either walk quicker or get out of my way!”
If you actually want to get anywhere it’s an area best avoided, in theory passing through it should have made my route quicker but I spent most of my time hurdling tourists that were just dawdling along.
The red lights reflecting over the canal added a little atmosphere to the area, I didn’t ever at any point feel unsafe or uncomfortable passing through it. Perhaps the legalisation of the prostitution and having it (all) on display makes it somehow seem a little less seedy but beyond the hordes of people it’s a relatively nice part of the city to walk through day or night.
After finally escaping the crowds I made my way back to the hostel and thought I’d give the hostel bar another effort, hoping for a bit more luck at making friends than I’d had the night before. Again it seemed the height of the social activity was in the smoking room which, even in Amsterdam, has never had any appeal to me.
Following a couple of beers I headed up to my dorm, contemplated how I’d spend my final full day in Amsterdam and got myself some sleep ahead of another fun-filled day in the city to come.
Visiting Amsterdam was a mistake, not in the sense it was regretful but I hadn’t actually booked the travel intending to go to Amsterdam. I gambled upon a rumour that Tottenham would be playing in Brussels in December 2015 and snapped up cheap Eurostar tickets. Sadly those rumours were wrong and we actually played in Brussels in the October (also 2015).
Consequently I had to buy new travel tickets for the October and it left me with additional Eurostar tickets to Brussels two months later. You might be thinking it was silly booking a trip based purely upon rumours but it was a risk worth taking, I’d taken into consideration it could backfire and just figured I could take an additional trip later in the year.
So I fully intended to use the Eurostar tickets but I didn’t particularly want to go back to Brussels so soon so I started considering alternative options. Belgium in December certainly had an appeal but something was drawing me towards Amsterdam and in the end I just had to go! I knew a train from Brussels to Amsterdam was a pretty simple journey so that was the plan! Three nights in the beautiful Dutch capital – my first time visiting the Netherlands!
I decided to stay in London on the Monday night as it was a little more convenient. It allowed me the opportunity to catch up with a friend over dinner and some beers, however more importantly it meant I was already in London the next morning. So I benefited from having a lay in before making the easy trip to St Pancras to catch the Eurostar on Tuesday morning. I much prefer traveling by train opposed to flying, not that I’m a particularly nervous flyer but trains are just more enjoyable. Soon I was waving goodbye to the blue skies of London.
Further blue skies greeted me on arrival to Belgium. Despite having the Eurostar tickets for ages, Amsterdam was a relatively late decision so I hadn’t actually booked my travel from Brussels to Amsterdam yet. It left me with a bit of flexibility on what to do. However rather than spend any time in Brussels instead I pretty much got on to the first train heading to Amsterdam. I didn’t want to waste any time in getting to Amsterdam!
As we whizzed along I suddenly felt a little buzz in my pocket, my phone was vibrating because I had a text message. I looked to see what it was and found that my phone network were messaging me to welcome me to the Netherlands. We’ve crossed the border!!
I looked up and almost instantly the first raindrop spattered across the window.
“What!!? All we’ve done is cross the border! It wasn’t raining ten feet away in Belgium!!”
It was crazy. Following the Paris attacks in November 2015 I know that Belgium had stepped up border security but they’re keeping the rain out too? That’s bloody impressive! Sadly the Dutch borders weren’t so tight and it was soon pouring down with rain.
Nevertheless we drifted along, passing through a few different Dutch cities. Den Haag was somewhere that caught my eye as we passed through the city and it finally clicked that Den Haag is the same place as “The Hague” – for some reason I’d never made the connection haha. I think it’s somewhere I’ll visit another time. It was a pretty train ride but the rain kept on pouring. I was hoping by the time we reached Amsterdam it might have died down but if anything it was worse.
That’s what they don’t tell you about Amsterdam! It rains all of the time! Apparently it rains on average 217 days a year in Amsterdam, in comparison it’s only 156 in England which is famed for its bad weather. That’s roughly two more months of rain per year than “rainy” England!
I exited Amsterdam’s main train station and my first impressions were good. I just had that instant feeling that the city was going to live up to my expectations. I had a quick look around but with the rain coming down I moved on and hoped I’d find my hostel pretty quickly. I have a habit of taking ages to find them, fortunately this wasn’t one of those occasions but I was still drenched by the time I walked in to the reception area. The hostel (Flying Pigs) was pretty nice though. It looked like a sociable place and the rooms were decent too, my four-bed dorm had its own bathroom which is always a bonus when staying in hostels as you’re only sharing with 3 strangers opposed to the whole place.
I didn’t really want to stick around in the hostel though. I was keen to see a little of Amsterdam before it got too late plus find some dinner. There had been no slowdown with the rain so I just had to make the best of it as I hurdled the puddles along Amsterdam’s cobblestones. Given it was December the city was beautifully decorated with decorations that were lighting up the streets and making the city feel a little more magical. I soon stumbled upon Dam square which had a number of Christmas trees adding to the festive atmosphere in the air.
As much as I wanted to keep exploring I soon admitted defeat, I ducked in to a bar and ordered myself some food from the menu. I’m usually keen to try the local beers when traveling, trying to avoid stuff I can drink at home, which is a little tougher when everywhere in Amsterdam seemed to favour Dutch beers Amstel and Heineken.
However one of the beers on the menu sounded good and I was soon presented a bottle with a naked lady printed on the bottle!
Following on from dinner and a beer I drifted back in to the slightly-less wet streets of Amsterdam. It’s a stunning city after dark, Amsterdam’s annual light festival takes place across the canals in December which certainly adds to its beauty as a host of decorations and displays line its canals. You can do a canal tour in the evening but I settled for just admiring all of the lights by foot. It’s worth checking out!
After a little wander I figured I’d just spend the rest of my evening in the hostel bar. It was a sociable place but it felt like most of the social activity was geared away from the bar and towards the smoking room. That didn’t have any personal appeal so after one beer at the hostel bar I decided I’d just call it an early night and headed up to my dorm – there was still plenty of time for fun in Amsterdam and I was keen to get an early start to explore the city more thoroughly tomorrow!
The final part to my Italy adventure (February 2015).
On the Tuesday I’d flown out to Pisa and spent a day exploring the city. Wednesday and Thursday (matchday) were days 1 and 2 of my time in Firenze and now we were at the end of the week! The football was over with and it was time to go home – or was it?
On Monday evening I figured I should probably check in for my flights, given I was heading to Pisa the next day. My outbound flight was no problem but I was trying to check in for my Friday flight home and was having no luck.
“Sorry, you can’t check in for a flight more than 7 days away”.
What? I’m flying in four days! What is this nonsense? My flight is definitely on the 27th! I was baffled and kept darting my eyes between the error message and the flight details and couldn’t understand what the issue was. What am I missing?
Wait.. why does that say my flight home is in April? That’s a mistake! Let me find my confirmation email.
Looking for reassurance, instead I found despair. All that email had confirmed was that I’d somehow messed up my booking and that I was indeed flying home in two months time! My February 27th flight home was actually April 27th!!
I was light-heartedly acceptant of my fate. I guess I’ve got to stay in Italy for an extra two months then – what a pickle, right? How do I break the news to my family, friends and work. Will a postcard suffice?
Realistically that wasn’t an option but resolving it Monday evening wasn’t an option either – it was too last minute and most of my available money was in Euros by this point. I knew I’d get paid whilst I was in Italy so I figured I’d worry about the flight home once I was over there.
So back to day 3 in Firenze, my intended departure date. Care to guess what my first plan of the day was? You’re spot on! I had to book a flight home! I was supposed to be going to a gig back in England on Friday night (I’d paid for a hotel too!) but Friday flights seemed so much more expensive than the Saturday flights so in the end I decided I’d stay in Italy an extra day.
As far as mistakes go, winding up in Italy for 24 more hours is a pretty good mistake to make! My next concern was that I had no accommodation for the extra night so needed to sort that out. I loved the hostel I had been staying at, it was in a decent location and the host was incredible but sadly it was a small hostel and they didn’t have space for an extra night so I had to find somewhere else.
My host did help me find a hotel though which I appreciated.
Flight sorted, accommodation sorted, time to enjoy a bonus day in the city! I’m so glad at how things worked out because Friday probably ended up being my favourite day in Italy. Perhaps that’s just because it was an unexpected bonus day but I also ended up doing a few things to top off the Italy experience.
Firenze was a different city entirely. Most of the Spurs fans were England bound and the excessive police presence was long gone, this was Italy in all its glory and without the burden of an invasion of Brits.
My first stop of the day took me to the Piazza della Signaoria which is a large square with stunning architecture, sculptures and a few museums closeby such as the famous Uffizi gallery. I wasn’t supposed to be here so inevitably I hadn’t booked any museums. Some of the lines were far too long so I decided I’d add the Uffizi to my “next time” list and checked out another museum instead that I can’t remember the name of.
I wish I could remember the name of it because I’d recommend a visit. The museum was over a number of different floors and had all sorts of art, although the sculptures were the pieces I enjoyed most and something you’d associate with Italy / Firenze I suppose. Eventually I was content I’d seen enough and my attention switched to a late lunch.
I do try to make an effort to eat locally and delve into the culture when I travel but one of my guilty pleasures is the Hard Rock Café (HRC), I usually try and squeeze a visit in where I can to tick off another city from the many locations HRC are based.
My waiter asked where I was from to which I replied Peterborough and most of the time I end up wishing I’d just say London because it’s easier but to my surprise he’d heard of Peterborough, better yet he’d been to Peterborough.
“Oh yes, the place with the shopping centre opposite the train station.. Queens..? “
“Queensgate! Why were you in Peterborough!!!?”
Excuse my overreaction but seriously, Firenze sets a pretty high standard and its inhabitants are visiting Peterborough? Are you crazy? It did amuse me though before enjoying my HRC experience. It isn’t the best food you’re ever going to have and it can be expensive too but I just have a fondness of them and Firenze’s was nice too.
Following a late lunch I was ready to go and explore further. On Wednesday I’d climbed the Duomo as I’d heard it had one of the best views in Firenze – the views are great. However my hostel hostess assured me the best view of the city was at the Piazzale Michelangelo and that it was free! I had to check it out and on route could see the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge!
It’s a beautiful bridge to look at but the bridge itself is a proper tourist trap. Historically butchers and other merchants occupied space on the bridge but you’ll now find a host of shops selling jewellery and gold! It’s cool to look at but it’s busy so I settled for getting a few photos and swiftly moving on to escape the crowds.
I continued following signs to Piazzale Michelangelo and was soon climbing my way up this hill to discover the views awaiting me at the top. The Piazzale Michelangelo is a huge square that offers incredible views over the city – my host had said it was the best view in the city and it’d be hard to disagree. The one thing lacking from the view at the top of the Duomo is the Duomo itself which is the standout piece of Firenze’s skyline.
Whilst the views are spectacular you’ll also find a replica of the David statue here, a few stalls selling food and drinks plus a few buskers which all helps create a really nice atmosphere. You’ll find plenty of people occupying the stairs to sit and just admire the views over the river and the rest of the city.
It was getting late in the afternoon and I would have loved nothing more than to have picked up a beer and waited for the sun to set on the city. It was a beautiful spot to watch a sunset! Sadly I’d arranged to meet my friend Daniel elsewhere and had no way to contact him for a change of plans so he could come join me instead. I left a little envious of those I’d left behind that got to enjoy it fully.
I didn’t stay jealous for too long, as a pick-me-up I made a necessary stop for gelato. Firenze is credited as being the city that brought Gelato to the world so what better place to enjoy it? I had to buy some and see what the fuss was about. It was delicious and a good ‘starter’ before finding dinner and having a few drinks.
I’d probably been the drunker of the two of us on Wednesday night so it was nice to see the roles reversed this evening. We shared a few beers on our final night and Daniel was a bit tipsy come the end of the evening which amused me plenty. It was a great way to enjoy our final evening before heading back to England.
The next morning I had a last wander through the streets of Firenze and was sad to be saying goodbye. After the disappointment of Pisa, Firenze had really delivered and made for a memorable first visit to Italy. It’s a cracking city and one you should definitely try to visit!
My morning flew by and before I knew it the clock read 12pm! I had time to enjoy one final meal in Firenze before I had to leave and inevitably wanted one final pizza before I said arriverderci to Italy. It rounded off the trip perfectly, I hopped on a train to Pisa and was soon boarding a flight back to London.
Italy had lived up to my expectations and the food was every bit as good as I’d hoped it would be. I still haven’t been back to Italy but I’m feeling a return is long overdue!
Salzburg wrapped up my 2014 adventures so on we go in to the “new year” of 2015, exciting right? Italy had always been a dream destination for me growing up, so when an opportunity to visit in February 2015 presented itself surely I had to go?
Perhaps surprisingly I was actually unsure. You’ll have to wait until my next post to hear why I was visiting Italy and consequently why there was a little question mark over going but after weighing up the pros & cons I quickly decided that Firenze (Florence) was too good an opportunity to miss!
With my heart set on visiting Firenze I started looking at flight prices and I came to the realisation that it was bloody expensive for the dates I was looking at. What was plan B?
I’d given up hope of flying to Firenze directly so I had to consider how else I could get there. Were there any other cities nearby that might work out better?
Pisa was one option that caught my eye and booking flights would save me around £100! The train from Pisa to Firenze was less than ten euros too so it was a much cheaper route and a “no brainer”. I booked my flights to Italy and then started thinking about accommodation.
Once I knew I was flying to Pisa the next question was how long do I stay in Pisa? I didn’t really know what Pisa had other than the obvious (the leaning tower) so was there any need to stay overnight and have less time in Firenze? I decided that I would give Pisa the benefit of the doubt and I booked a hotel for one night. Maybe I could come home and tell everybody that Pisa was vastly underrated!
“So is it vastly underrated Jason?
No. It’s a city with a famous tower and little else. I posted recently about Bratislava and awarded myself the title of “unofficial ambassador” for Bratislava / Slovakia. I feel bad but I feel like in this instance I’m coming across closer to “Pisa hater” but sadly I did find it a little underwhelming.
I don’t hate Pisa though, I’m not even telling you not to go to Pisa because I genuinely believe everywhere is worth a visit once. It might only be a city with a famous tower but people are still going to want to see that tower so here’s what I got up to with my overnight stay in Pisa! I’ll try not to be too negative!
Having arrived in to Pisa late-morning I quickly made my way in the direction of my hotel for the night in the hope I’d be able to check in a little early. Success! My room was ready and I could drop my things off and get out and explore the city straight away!
I didn’t go to Pisa with the highest expectations but there was one clear exception – the food! It was my first time in Italy and I was eager to experience authentic Italian food. Having dropped off my things I went on the search for some lunch and quickly found a nearby restaurant and ordered myself a pizza! Wow! Pisa might have otherwise disappointed but the food did not!
I was in pizza heaven! I don’t know if I’ve let the experience of eating Italian pizza cloud my judgment but it’s the best pizza I’ve ever had. It seems too easy to say that the best pizza you’ve ever had was in Italy but it’s how I remember it. It was so good and Pisa had made a great first impression! At the very least Pisa now had a famous tower and great food!
Having appeased my appetite it was time to explore and inevitably there was only one place to start! I went off in search of the famous leaning tower! I say in search, I knew it was only around the corner so it wasn’t really much of a search but nevertheless off I went!
It’s cool to say I’ve seen it in the flesh but I guess I was hoping for more, it didn’t really “wow” me – the pizza was more impressive. I don’t know what my expectations were, something too unrealistic probably because it just felt smaller than I’d envisaged.
It’s 55 meters high so I don’t know what I was expecting – a tower leaning at a 45 degree angle at over 500 or 5,000 meters high? It’d be ridiculous/impossible but nevertheless I did feel a little like “is that it?”.
You can go up the tower but it’s situated in this fairly enclosed square so I didn’t actually expect to see much. I’ve since seen photos of the view and it does look quite good in fairness. Whether it justifies the admission price I don’t know because it isn’t the cheapest. Harsh? Maybe.
I settled for getting a few photos instead and then swiftly moved on.
In the same square you’ll find Pisa’s Duomo (cathedral) which, shock horror, I actually liked. Crazy to be so positive, right? It’s a nice building from the outside but you have to make sure you go inside as it’s beautiful, I actually preferred the interior of this to Firenze’s own Duomo, the exterior in Firenze makes up for it though!
I’d checked out the Duomo and seen the famous tower so what next? I’d picked up a map at my hotel and I couldn’t help but notice that Pisa’s football stadium was within walking distance of this square. It wasn’t something I would have considered looking for otherwise but as it was so nearby I figured I’d check it out, have a walk around the outside of it and maybe see if they offered any stadium tours.
To my surprise as I walked up to the main entrance the players were walking out. It looked like they’d just finished a training session and I found there was nothing stopping you walking right in pitch-side. Whether I should have been there I don’t know, logic would dictate I probably shouldn’t have been but I figured someone would come and tell me if it was an issue.
I didn’t overstay my welcome, I only took a quick look around and grabbed a few photos from inside an empty stadium. The capacity is supposedly 25,000 although it was hard to picture this as the only one inside. Pisa’s football team play in the 3rd tier of Italian football so it’s unlikely I’ll ever be here for a game so I was pleased I’d taken a little detour and that my timing had been so spot on to take advantage.
I spent the rest of my afternoon just wandering the city but I just didn’t really warm to Pisa. There are certainly pretty areas in the city, walk along the river and even the “Pisa-haters” of the world would struggle to not admire some of the views because they are stunning. Nevertheless I just couldn’t connect with it right, it wasn’t for me.
Eventually I admitted defeat, gave up exploring and made my way back to my hotel. I figured I’d relax a little and freshen up before heading out for some evening entertainment. Day-time Pisa hadn’t really won me over but Pisa’s a university city so I was hopeful its nightlife could save the day!
I’m not going to be too critical here because I don’t think it’s fair to judge a city’s nightlife based upon a Tuesday night but the lack of life in the city just summed up my time in Pisa.
I spent ages wandering through the city and it was dead. Where was everyone? Perhaps Pisa’s students actually spend their time studying? Whatever the reasons I had little luck finding anywhere with a bit of life to it. Perhaps I was just looking in the wrong parts of the city but no luck! As I said though, a Tuesday night in February probably isn’t a great time to be judging a city’s nightlife. I’d be intrigued to experience a weekend or summer night in Pisa and see how it differs.
In the end I just settled for a quiet dinner (more amazing food!) and an early night relaxing back at the hotel.
I wouldn’t discourage anyone from visiting Pisa, you might find you actually like it more than I did and I’m still glad I visited myself.
In hindsight though I would have gone for just 3-4 hours and caught a later train to Firenze rather than staying overnight in Pisa.
I woke up early the next morning and didn’t see any benefit to sticking around for much longer. I walked to the train station which gave me a chance to see a little more of Pisa on route but I was soon buying my train ticket to Firenze.
Pisa had given me a little taster of Italy and I’d certainly fallen in love with the food but I was heading on to city number 2 with more hope and higher expectations.
Did Firenze live up to those expectations? Stay tuned for that!
In my last post ( Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Salzburg – why? ) I spoke about my decision-making in planning a mini Eurotrip for October 2014. It was an adventure that would see me visit three countries and four cities over ten days – starting in Budapest!
Honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect from Budapest. I think if I was going for the first time now it’d be less of a struggle but at the time it didn’t seem like anyone was talking about this destination. I was a bit of a novice traveler at the time so maybe I was just looking in the wrong places but Budapest and Hungary were both a bit of an unknown for me.
I didn’t know anyone who had visited and I had never learned anything about Hungary in school so I went there just hoping for the best. In some respects I’m quite thankful I went there blissfully unaware – within a couple of hours I was mesmerised by Budapest and I think it helped with it coming as a surprise rather than the feeling of “I’ve seen this on Instagram 1,000 times already” that I have when visiting some places now.
I don’t know what the catalyst for change was. Shortly after I booked my trip George Ezra released his hit ‘Budapest’. Without boosting his ego too much (George blatantly reads my blog, right?) I can’t help but feel that it put a little spotlight on Budapest. Alternatively perhaps people were just waiting for the seal of approval from myself before visiting. Whatever the reason (probably not the latter), Budapest appears to be a much more popular destination than it was when I visited in 2014.
Anyway, back to my trip. It’s October 2014 and I’m counting down the days until my adventure begins. My first bit of excitement came when I was exchanging currencies. I picked up Euros for Slovakia and Austria but I also had to get some Hungarian Forints for the trip. I think the exchange rate at the time was around £1 to 300-350 forints which left me walking away with thousands in my wallet and feeling rather rich.
Soon enough I was flying out to sunny Budapest and leaving the miserable English weather behind. I arrived in to Budapest around lunchtime on Saturday and went on the hunt for my hostel – that took some finding. I don’t know why but I never seem to find hostels too easily and I must walk past them several times as they blend in to the other buildings around them. Bizarre.
With three days to explore I didn’t really want to waste any time so I dropped off my things and started to wander towards the river Danube. It was only a short walk from where I was staying and seemed a good place to start my exploration of Budapest. My first impression of Budapest was one of disbelief, I’d been blown away by the beauty of the city and I couldn’t understand how I’d got here without knowing how stunning it is.
With the blue skies and beautiful scenery Budapest had won me over instantly! I continued my walk alongside the Danube, admiring everything in all directions and then I stumbled upon the Hungarian Parliament building for the first time. Wow! I’d seen photos of it online but photos don’t really do it justice. It’s my favourite piece of architecture I’ve seen anywhere and, even with my London bias, it is much more impressive than our own Houses of Parliament in Westminster.
I don’t know how much time I spent admiring the parliament building, it doesn’t matter what angle you’re seeing it from it isn’t any less impressive. As afternoon quickly turned to evening I decided I should find somewhere for dinner and somewhere to entertain myself for the evening. It was at that point I realised how cheap Budapest is. I’ve always been good at numbers but I was left second guessing myself if I’d calculated the exchange rate correctly – “that must be wrong” I thought as I came to the conclusion that a beer, dinner and a tip was still ridiculously cheap.
After a couple of drinks I called it a night and had a relaxed first evening in Budapest, keen to get off to an early start the next day.
I started my day off with a “free” walking tour, I find that these are a great way to familiarise yourself with a city and you usually learn a few things along the way. For instance I quickly learned that one side of the city was called “Buda” and the other side of the river called “Pest” and between them they formed one city called, that’s right, Budapest! Who knew?
I wasn’t overly impressed with the specific tour-guide but overall it was a good tour, covered a few of the sights and gave me a better understanding of the history of the city. It also offered me a little inspiration for other things to see in the city that weren’t covered on the tour. The tour began on the Pest side of the river but it finished off in Buda, I was staying in Pest so hadn’t ventured to this side of the river yet so it was quite convenient to explore a little more over here.
Buda is on much higher ground so offers great views overlooking the river and the Pest side of the city – in particular the parliament building which is perhaps best viewed from the Buda half of the city.
After a little wandering I made my way back over to Pest in time to catch a tour which explored the Jewish district a little more. I was fascinated to learn how involved Hungary were in the rise of the Nazi regime around World War 2 – a history, much like Germany, that they’re not proud of but don’t shy away from re-telling.
The tour was really interesting, not just telling the history of the Jewish district but also showing it off in a modern climate. You’ll find the largest Synagogue in Europe here but also plenty of street art, restaurants and bars making it one of the livelier (and cheapest) parts of the city to enjoy an evening.
Following the tour I found some dinner in a nearby restaurant and then headed back to my hostel for a little downtime before deciding what to do with my Sunday evening.
I was sharing a 4 bed dorm in my hostel and on my return I found a fully occupied room. The other 3 guys coming from Scotland, Switzerland and Pakistan. We quickly established we were all in the same boat – traveling solo around Europe and up for a night out with new friends.
Budapest is famous for its ruin bars and it wasn’t long before we were heading out in search of the city’s most famous – Szimpla Kert. Words don’t really do it justice as to how unique it is but it’s a must visit and you can find some photos of it here: Szimpla Kert
From the outside you’d never know what was awaiting inside in what is one of the quirkier bars you’re likely to visit. It attracts both tourists and locals alike, perhaps more the former as it’s one of the highest rated bars in the world. Tripadvisor had it rated as the 3rd best bar worldwide at the time of my visit I believe. It’s definitely worth a visit and if you don’t fancy the crowds in the evening they do host a farmers market during the day on a Sunday too.
After a few beers and a few shots we called it a night and went in search of a kebab house on the way back to our hostel. It was a great night and a highlight of my time in Budapest.
I’d ticked off a ruin bar on my Budapest bucketlist, the other thing the city is famous for are its baths/spas which was on my list for Monday. I’m not a spa type person but “when in Rome..”
The Szechenyi baths are Budapest’s biggest and most famous and perhaps the one you’re going to see recommended most – they even have a bath party on Saturday nights during the peak season. However it’s worth noting there are several in Budapest and if you want to escape the crowds you’ve got other options too. I chose the second route and found one on the Buda side of the city. If you’re in to that sort of thing they’re probably well worth a visit but I found the experience a little underwhelming and made use of the pool more than anything.
It did however set the tone for the rest of my day. I felt fairly relaxed and in the end I decided rather than rush around trying to do a million things in a day to just enjoy the city at my own pace. By this point I knew I’d be coming back to Budapest some day and I didn’t want to spoil my experience by rushing around when it could wait for future visits.
After a little breather I went and found a lunch spot near my hostel and had the most amazing goulash – not something I’d normally eat but I was in the mood for something a little more traditionally Hungarian and it was a really good decision – probably my best meal in Budapest!
The rest of the day was just spent wandering before settling down in a bar for a few drinks.
I woke up on Tuesday morning a little down-hearted. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Budapest yet and there was definitely a part of me tempted to change my plans to stay a little longer. However I knew an extra night in Budapest meant a night less somewhere else and I didn’t want to miss out elsewhere. I made my way to the train station suffering a bit of the holiday-blues at the realisation that I was leaving.
Then it dawned on me. Yes, I was leaving but not to go home. I was leaving Budapest behind and heading onwards to part 2 of the adventure. I still had 3 cities to explore, why was I moping about?
I used up the last of my forints to book a train to Bratislava and then grabbed a beer until it was time to leave.
I took my seat in a small enclosed carriage on the train and said farewell to Budapest, however the adventure wasn’t over. I was off to Bratislava!
Germany as I’m sure you know by now happens to be one of my favourite places to visit, I first visited the country in 2013 and have been at least once every year since with my most recent trip (November) concluding my 8th visit! Germany has provided me with some wonderful memories and I’ve grown to love the diversity, people and culture of the country – I’ve even made an effort to learn German! Verrückt! (Crazy!).
So seeing a friend on Facebook suggest that she would never visit Germany was a little disheartening. Whilst I’ve generally made my destination posts chronological anyway, I thought I’d use this as an opportunity to follow on from Barmouth with my next trip and set the record straight given some of the misconceptions about Germany last week following an incident at Munich’s airport.
I’m not going to get in to my thoughts on the incident itself but Mo Farah claimed to have been on the end of racial harrassment in Munich, an accusation quickly denied by the accused. Online and media reaction to the headline went in two ways with some aiming criticism at Farah and others being critical of the accused security guard and then the defence of said security guard
Criticism is one thing but I read MANY comments making a sweeping generalisation of Germany as a whole because of this incident and I can not accept that. You’ll find ignorant and hateful people EVERYWHERE and one incident is not reflective of an entire nation with 80+ million citizens. Just like anywhere, Germany is a friendly and welcoming place and dismissing it as a potential travel destination would be a waste for a country that has so much to offer!
So let’s travel back to August 2014 and my trip to the German capital: Berlin! Myself and a friend had talked about going on a weekend break somewhere and as soon as Berlin was mentioned we were both in agreement that we should go! It had always been a “must visit” destination for me, Berlin was so steeped in history that it had always appealed to me. I couldn’t wait to go!
Yet wait and wait I did. Solo travel and group travel both have their pros and cons, a pro to solo travel is that you’re in complete control of everything. With 4 of us making plans for Berlin I was growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress in booking the trip. I couldn’t get properly excited until plans were finalised and it felt like there were a few setbacks, I’m sure there was equal frustration on their part as the planning process went on but eventually we had dates booked into the calendar!
Myself and Karl flew out to Germany on Friday morning, Andy and Rox had already flown into Germany a day or two earlier to get a little longer out of their break. Budget airlines hold a bit of a catch 22 situation – on the one hand it means pretty much everyone can travel, on the other hand it means pretty much everyone can travel.
Particularly when flying out of Stansted, flying on a Friday or Saturday and flying to a popular destination, you can not avoid the stag / hen (bachelor / bachelorette) groups.
Our flight to Berlin consisted of at least two stag do’s and I think one hen do on board too. Karl somehow bagged the window seat which left me sat next to a young lad who, at 6am or whatever it was, was already far too drunk to string a coherent sentence together.
There has been a lot of controversy regarding alcohol limits in airports and on flights recently and I’d apportion 99% of the blame at our drunken little island if I’m being honest. Our friends in the rest of Europe seem a little better at knowing their limitations than the Brits who disgrace themselves in the continent on cheap weekend breaks. This guy was a perfect example and you question firstly if he should have been allowed to fly and secondly why they let him buy a further beer on board. I think he was keen I joined in for a breakfast beer but I politely declined.
In fairness to him he wasn’t any trouble but it made my journey a little less peaceful than I would have liked. Nevertheless the two of us were soon arriving in to Berlin and making an effort to figure out how to get to our hostel, at the time I knew no German so both of us were solely dependent on English getting us by for the weekend.
It wasn’t too tricky and eventually we were arriving into Berlin’s “Cat’s Pajamas” hostel – I liked it and would probably stay there again.
We met up with Andy and Rox and made plans to go and see some of Berlin, we started off with a quick lunchtime stop and then aimed for central Berlin.
I’m a big fan of kicking off day one with a walking tour, however when Andy suggested we do a biking tour I was a little more sceptical. They say you never forget how to ride a bike, perhaps that is true but it didn’t make me feel any more confident about riding around the city and through the streets of Berlin on a bicycle. When was the last time I’d even rode a bike? I was coming up to my 26th birthday and the last time would certainly have been as a kid, so well over 10 years.
I don’t think Karl and Rox were 100% sold on the idea either so credit to Andy’s persuasion skills. He’d not just convinced one sceptic person it was a good idea but three, 3! Even after agreeing to it I was a little nervous about it. No sooner had I climbed on my bike had I fallen off it, and again, and again. The tour was something like 3 hours long and I couldn’t stay upright for more than 2 minutes – disastrous and we hadn’t even started hitting the streets yet! Can I get some stabilisers please?
My fortunes did change (without the need for stabilisers before you ask!), soon enough I’d remembered how to balance myself and stop properly. I was whizzing through the streets and ready to embark on the Tour de France (alright, maybe not). Nevertheless I had been won over. We ticked off a number of the sights spread out across the city and I started to appreciate how much there was to see in the city. From viewing the stunning architecture to learning about the history from our tour guide, Berlin was living up to my high expectation.
A bike tour was a perfect way to see it and allowed us to cover so much more distance than if we’d been on foot. I think the highlight was riding through the Tiergarten (Berlin’s answer to Central Park) and seeing how peaceful it was. The Tiergarten was also home to a couple of pubs, one of which we stopped at for a scheduled break in the tour! A beer later and we were back on our bikes to see a little more of Berlin before rounding up the tour. It wasn’t something I’d ever have considered doing if I’d traveled alone but I’m really pleased we ended up doing it.
Friday evening we went and grabbed food somewhere and then enjoyed a few drinks to finish off the night. A successful start to our trip in Berlin!
Four years later, Saturday and Sunday are a bit more of a blur. I remember what we did but I can’t particularly associate the things we did with a particular day.
Over the next two days we took a little more time to see some of the sights we’d only briefly visited on Friday such as the famous Brandenburg Tor, Checkpoint Charlie and the Reichstag building. The latter you can enter for free to then see views over Berlin from up on the roof – despite being free you do have to book a time slot in advance so keep that in mind before visiting. We got a little caught up elsewhere and ended up having a crazy rush to get there in time, I think we were a little late but they fortunately weren’t too strict on enforcing an exact time. I’d still recommend getting there before your time slot though! Haha.
We checked out a few museums. The Topography of Terror and DDR museums ended up being the best of the ones we visited. The Topography of Terror my favourite of the two and as most of it is based outside, it’s free to enjoy! You also have to make sure to check out the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – it’s a must see!
However in contrast the Checkpoint Charlie museum I personally found a bit of a mess and didn’t enjoy. The museum had no structure to it, parts of it were interesting but it wasn’t well laid out and some of the rooms had exhibitions with no real relevance to the museum. It was bizarre and I didn’t really feel like it justified the admission price.
One of the other enjoyable things we did in Berlin was visit the huge Flohmarkt (flea market) on the Sunday which was interesting to look around. I’m not much of a shopper but it was interesting to see the variety of things sold and people watch as tourists and locals both looked to enjoy themselves! It was also a good spot to pick up some cheap lunch.
Beyond the daytime antics, one of the things I loved most about Berlin was that it felt completely different in the evening. It’s a fascinating city by day and has plenty to offer for tourists but come the evening it felt like a much livelier place. It helped that we were there in the summer. The better weather made it easy to enjoy eating out and drink at one of the numerous beer gardens that occupy the city, there was a buzz about Berlin every evening we were there and it made it a fun place to go out and enjoy Berlin’s nightlife.
With great company, great beer and great weather I could have spent many more nights soaking up the atmosphere of Berlin. Köln (2013) had given me a little taste of German culture but I truly felt at home in Berlin. There’s something I love about big cities and I found that Berlin matched some of the best and ranks as one of my favourite European cities.
I feel like I only covered a fraction of what Berlin had to offer so it’s a city I definitely want to return to and I highly recommend you visit too! Whilst it’s unfortunate that racism, discrimination and inequality continue to exist within society please don’t let it put you off visiting Germany.
Berlin in particular is incredibly welcoming and a multi-cultural city home to foreigners from all over the world, you’d be missing out to overlook a country as diverse as Deutschland!
Deutschland; Ich liebe dich! Bis bald!
Have you ever been to Berlin? What did you think? Where else in Germany should I add to my growing list in this wonderful country? Let me know in the comments!
2017 was the year “Jason likes to travel” launched and it was quite a year! First and foremost I wanted to thank all of you for making this such an enjoyable experience. More than anything I started the blog for myself. I wanted a space I could talk about my travels and reflect on some of the experiences along the way but I didn’t think many would read it or anticipate such positive feedback. Thanks to you all for following along and for all of your kind words and supportive feedback. There will be plenty more content coming in 2018 so stick with me!
Beyond the blog, 2017 ended up being quite a memorable year for me. I started the year in Paris which really set the tone for the rest of the year and I ended 2017 celebrating Hogmanay up in Edinburgh.
Including the New Year trips at each end of the year I ended up spending time in France, Scotland (twice), USA (twice), Germany (twice), Greece and Spain. I’m so happy to have traveled so much this year and I’ve stepped foot out of England in every month but June and July (disaster!).
I promise there will be dedicated posts to all of these trips in the future which is why I haven’t gone in to too much detail on any one destination below, however I wanted to summarise what I’ve been up to this year. So here’s a short look at some of the highlights of the year.
2017 saw me spend time in five different capital cities: Paris, London, Edinburgh, Washington DC and Madrid. So inevitably they ended up playing quite a significant role in my 2017.
Paris: Okay, so I only actually spent one day of 2017 in Paris. January 1st! It’s really a trip I associate with 2016 but at midnight I was up on a rooftop seeing in the New Year and celebrating the beginning of 2017. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country at the start of the year so a memorable moment and it really set the tone for the rest of the year!
London: Home! So technically I haven’t lived in London since 1997 but this will always be a place I think of as home. I only live an hour or so away which means it is still a city that I visit quite often.
Catching up with friends, going to the football, attending gigs, seeing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (it’s really good!) or just general sightseeing. London has provided a number of memorable moments in 2017 and 10 days in to the year I’ve already visited our wonderful capital twice in 2018!
Washington DC: Some cities like New York City, Sydney and Berlin have been absolute “must visit” destinations for me, meanwhile others are more like “one day” destinations. I want to be clear and say I want to visit absolutely everywhere in the world but that soon becomes a long list. Being realistic I’m not going to visit everywhere and DC was a place that I knew I may / may not get to.
Circumstances led me to DC but on arrival I still wasn’t sure what to expect. Perhaps that was a good thing. You only really hear about the political side to the city which I can’t say particularly excited me – it meant I was heading to DC with relatively low expectations. Whilst within the US the message was “Make America Great Again” – from the outside all that I saw was a divided nation in political turmoil and I was heading right in to the heart of it.
Fortunately it was “business as usual” in DC. I don’t want to make this too politically focused but as far as “MAGA” is concerned I always feel like the every day people you meet are the best indication of how great a place is opposed to those in power. As ever, I felt completely welcomed in DC and quickly discovered this wonderful city had so much depth to it. Of course there are political elements to DC but at the same time there’s a lot of history here, stunning architecture, beautiful nature (helped by peak Cherry Blossom season) and a buzzing nightlife. DC ended up being so much better than anticipated, despite being sick throughout my time there. I didn’t particularly intend to end up in DC but I’m glad I I found my way there. I’d quite like to go back because there’s still a few things I’d like to do there and I could have a proper night out in the city next time.
Madrid: Another “one day” destination that happened to be in political turmoil (Catalan independence). In all likelihood I knew I’d get to Madrid at some point but if I was going to visit Spain a return to Barcelona was a bigger priority. Then there were countless other European capitals I wanted to visit first – luckily I’ve already ticked off a few of those. Madrid had never had the same appeal for me as the likes of Berlin, Paris, Edinburgh, Amsterdam or Rome (the latter I’ve yet to get to).
So on that basis I owe massive apologies to Madrid – wow! What a city! It was easily my favourite place I visited in 2017.
Unlike DC I was quite prepared for an enjoyable trip by the time it came around – the more I read up on Madrid, the more excited I got. It lived up to every expectation and then some. Admittedly I visited for football and a positive result in the game helped that but taking the football out of the equation it is still a wonderful city.
It’s full of colour, full of character, has so much street art, good food, stunning architecture, beautiful weather and a great nightlife. I could go on and on. After Berlin (and London obviously) it is probably my favourite capital city I’ve visited to date. Ryanair cancelled my flight which means I actually ended up with an extra day in Madrid but I could still have easily stayed longer.
Don’t make the same mistake I did and wait to visit Madrid – go as soon as you can!
Edinburgh: Last but certainly not least. I started the year in France and ended the year in Scotland. Paris had given me a little taste of New Year fun in another country but I wanted bigger and better – step up Hogmanay!
I’ve been to Edinburgh before and it is such a wonderful city – it really is a must visit whatever time of year you visit but I had to see what all the fuss about Hogmanay is. It has been on the bucketlist for a while and this was the opportunity to do it.
It was incredible! It completely lived up to the hype for me. I can’t imagine a better place to see in the New Year – I hope to get to New York City and Sydney sometime for their celebrations but Edinburgh has really set the standard. Best New Year ever!
In the last couple of years I feel like I’ve just switched between visiting Germany and the USA. I went to Germany three times in 2016 and twice in 2017, meanwhile I went to the USA twice in 2016 and then twice in 2017. Don’t get me wrong I love both countries and I’ve been lucky to visit some incredible cities in the last couple of years but I wanted to freshen things up. I was determined to get to at least one new country in 2017.
My heart was set on a birthday treat to myself. I wanted a relaxing getaway in August for a few days and all I had to do was decide on where, in Europe, to visit. It would have been cheaper to go away in June or July but I was adamant I deserved my birthday week off which meant trying to find an affordable escape somewhere at peak holiday time in Europe. After some searching I’d found reasonable flights and a hotel, the day after my birthday I was flying off to Thessaloniki in Greece.
I didn’t know much about the city but I knew the good weather was guaranteed and it ticked off the criteria of visiting a new country too. It was my first adventure in Greece and what better time of year to visit than in the summer? It was perfect!
Unlike Greek hotspots such as Athens, Santorini and many of the other islands – Thessaloniki isn’t a particularly well known place which meant it wasn’t full of tourists. I spent a few days relaxing, drinking beers and enjoying the warm weather. I’m not sure it’s a city I feel a need to return to but experiencing those Greek sunsets was definitely a highlight of the year and particularly the summer!
The German trips!
Visits to Germany in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 (x3) mean this country has been a regular feature of my annual highlights and as I mentioned above there were another two visits in 2017.
Hamburg: This is a city that has been on my list for a little while but I didn’t really anticipate getting there as soon as this year. I started looking for cheap flights for the last weekend of May (the Monday was a public holiday) and Hamburg was surprisingly cheap. A chance to practice my German, a city I’ve wanted to visit for ages and affordable – how could I possibly resist?
It’s a cracking city, I can see why it’s so highly rated and featured as one of Lonely Planet’s top 10 cities to visit in 2018. It ended up being a great weekend away and I was fortunate with the weather too! It was well worth missing a festival back home for and another city I’d like to return to.
Bremen & Düsseldorf: A while ago I posted about my love affair with Köln and my frustration at the footballing schedule continually sending me back to West Germany. Fast forward a year and I was put in the same scenario. I was NOT going to Köln again so soon. I really didn’t fancy staying in Dortmund so I started looking at what other German football coincided with my trip. Werder Bremen – “that’ll do!”.
Bremen’s charm had me swooning instantly. There was something irresistible about it. Typical Germany but without the crowds of the bigger cities. I loved it and just wanted a little longer in the city. For a lesser known European city-break I’d certainly recommend a couple of days in Bremen.
Düsseldorf was a bit of a plan B. I was going to watch football in Dortmund on the Tuesday night but I soon came to the realisation that there were no trains from Dortmund back to Bremen on Tuesday evening. So I had to half my time in Bremen and booked a couple of nights in a hotel in Düsseldorf. The weather was miserable but I did like the city. It had plenty of places to go out to eat/drink and enjoy the city’s nightlife however I don’t think I really made the most of my days in the city to recommend it fully. If you pushed me to recommend one or the other I’d tell you to go to Bremen but it was still a memorable trip.
The loved ones!
Having covered the capital cities, Greece and Germany all that is really left of 2017 are the US trips! My trips to the USA were heavily focused around visiting some special people across the country. One of the drawbacks to having people you care about in other countries is you don’t get to see them! This year I managed to change that and met up with a few people for the very first time – very satisfying and the real highlight of my year.
Nashville: I took so many good memories home with me from Nashville. It started with meeting a friend (and her family) who’d driven up from Alabama who I’d missed out on seeing a year earlier in Atlanta. It was great to finally meet, check out the Parthenon and grab some food together. With Sam bidding farewell to Nashville and making the drive back to Alabama I was left to explore the city (nightlife) for myself.
Nashville didn’t disappoint, infact I loved it! It was everything I’d hoped it would be and “music city” certainly lived up to its name. I regularly crave a return to Nashville because it’s a city like no other I’ve been to. Pure bliss and I feel like I left a little piece of me behind (probably my liver). I hope it’s a place I’ll return to. Everyone needs to experience a night in Nashville at some point!
Dallas: I got to Texas! Finally! It is somewhere I have been wanting to visit for such a long time so to finally make it there made this such a special highlight of my year.
I did like Dallas as a city but it’s not a place that blew me away. I enjoyed myself but it’s probably a place I’d ordinarily be content in visiting just the once.
However I had wonderful company and with that came wonderful memories to take home with me. It’s a trip that I look back on so fondly of and I don’t think I could have enjoyed it any more. Full of first time experiences, long car rides, awful shots (sorry Amber – it’s true!) and the best people to share it with. Everything made it a trip I’ll cherish for a long time.
I’ll definitely be back Dallas!
Washington State: Apparently one Washington visit in a year wasn’t enough so after visiting DC in April, five months later I was heading to the West Coast. Getting to Washington had been on the agenda for a while and a wedding in 2018 finally gave me an excuse to visit!
Wait, 2018? Yeah, it turns out I couldn’t wait that long so started making plans to get there much sooner.
Like Dallas this trip was all about the company (including the two-legged kind!) which made for such a memorable trip. Mountain views, baseball, awesome bars, good food, cool museums, road trips and boat trips – I loved it all. The company just topped it off
That rounds up a summarised look at my 2017 adventures.
A huge thanks to Sam, Scott & Ariel (Nashville), Amber, Lanie & Macie (Dallas), Maddie, Cassie & Haleigh (Washington State) and Daniel & Natalie (football) for joining me on the adventure.
The aim now is to have 2018 top 2017 which will take some doing, however with a month-long trip to the US in the planning stages for this summer I wouldn’t rule it out as a possibility.
If you read this far, thanks again! I hope you enjoyed it.
What were your highlights of 2017? What have you got planned for 2018? Let me know in the comments!