Italy part one: Pisa!

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.

 

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Pisa!

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!

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Exploring in the rain!

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!

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The leaning tower of Pisa!

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.

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Pisa’s Duomo!

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!

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Inside the Duomo!

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.

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Home of Pisa’s football club!
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Stadio Romeo Anconetani

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.

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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!

Jason

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A 2017 summary

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.

The capitals!
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!

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A foggy Paris

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!

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Green Park, London

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.

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Washington DC, USA

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!

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Madrid, Spain

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!

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Edinburgh, Scotland

The newbie!
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!

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Thessaloniki, Greece

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.

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Me with Hamburg’s Rathaus (Town Hall).

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.

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Bremen, Germany

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!

 

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Nashville aka “Music City”

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!

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Dallas, Texas

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

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Moses Lake, Washington

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.

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Getting 2018 off to the best start!

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!

All the best!

Jason

The big 3-0!

1988 – a year of many historic moments. Phantom of the Opera opened on Broadway, Liverpool were the champions of English football, Celine Dion won the Eurovision song contest, George Bush won the 88 US presidential election but most importantly was the birth of an English baby boy on the 7th of August. I was always a bit of an early riser as a kid so typically I was two hours early to deny myself the perfect birth date of 8/8/88.

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Even as a baby I was thinking about holidays!

 

Fast forward 29 years and that little baby is quickly approaching his 30th birthday! Thirty!
Those 30 years have taken me to some incredible places. For starters I was born and grew up in London so life began in one of the best cities in the world, certainly my favourite anyway. I’ve since been to the likes of New York City, Sydney, Berlin, Madrid, Amsterdam and many many more destinations. I can’t deny I’ve done a lot of traveling but it would be easy to forget I didn’t really start taking traveling seriously until 2013.

I was lucky growing up that I had been on family trips, the odd school trip and then had annual one week holidays of my own in 2011 and 2012 but going into 2013 I’d barely scratched the surface of all there is to see on this planet.

It wasn’t until 2013 that I really started focusing my efforts in to traveling more. So barely five years! People often suggest traveling is for your 20’s, if that was the case I’d arrived pretty late to the party! I’ll let you in on a little secret though – you can keep traveling at 30 and beyond! I know it’s hard to believe but it’s true! I’ve seen it with my own eyes! Apparently they don’t confiscate your passport on your 30th birthday!

So with that shocking revelation in mind, the planning for my own 30th is underway. On the 3rd of August I’m due to attend a wedding on the West coast of the USA, with a 30th birthday four days later how could I not spend it in the US? The timing was perfect and there’s so much of the US I still want to see – particularly down that West coast! A big adventure was on the cards.

I floated the idea with my boss at work about taking a longer trip and asked how much time I’d be able to take off in one go. I optimistically put forward the idea of four weeks and I’ve had the OK this week!

If it comes to fruition this will be the biggest trip I’ve ever taken and is therefore going to require a lot of planning! I’ve done a couple of multi city breaks before, including in the US, so I’m not a complete novice in this area but it’s a little daunting nonetheless.
Here’s an insight in to the early stages of planning a trip like this.

Itinerary
One of the most important decisions of a trip like this is obviously deciding where you want to go!  You don’t necessarily need a finalised list but a draft list of destinations so you can start planning everything else out is helpful. The more flexible you can be the better but it’s also always good to have some set destinations in mind to help map out a route.
So stick a little pin in Seattle. That’s locked in to the itinerary for the wedding and gives me somewhere to either start my trip or aim to get to later on in the trip. Having other “must visits” will help plan out a route. Portland and San Francisco tick that box on the West coast and from there I’m pretty flexible. If everything goes to plan I’ll have 30 days in the country so the possible destinations can spread right across the country. Seeing more of California is certainly one option I’ll explore but similarly I have a number of friends in the US and I feel like that could dictate some of the destinations I choose to visit.

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USA, I’m coming back for you! 

Getting around! 
Thirty days in the USA very much screams “ROADTRIP!!!” – what a perfect opportunity for that bucketlist item many people dream of. Road-tripping across the USA definitely has its temptations. Travel the famous Route 66? Maybe! I’ll just rent a car and see where the road takes me!

However there is one tiny little flaw to this almost perfect plan – I can’t drive. Unlike in Europe, traveling the US without a car is a little more challenging but I’ll be making good use of what available transport there is. The AMTRAK train line, greyhound buses and potentially even domestic flights dependent on the distance should get me so far and will still help me reach some incredible destinations.

Personally I love this part of the planning process as you have to weigh up the cost and convenience of getting from destination to destination. Do I go from A to B or B to A? B’s actually too expensive so what if I go to D? Well if I’m going to D maybe stop at C on the way? Oh, flying to D is actually cheaper. Or you could get an overnight bus to E which would mean one less night’s accommodation to pay for. Decisions, decisions, decisions!

 

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Flying might be an option to get around the US!

Accommodation
This will likely play some factor in which destinations I visit too. Hotel prices in the US are quite expensive. Some cities are of course worse than others but it could be a factor between visiting one place rather than another. This is the area of the trip I’ll certainly be looking to cut costs. Aside from the occasional ‘treat’ I’ll probably be steering clear of hotels and exploring hostel and AirBnB options instead.

I’m also hopeful that I might have some US based friends I can stay with along the way, if I’ve got somewhere I can stay then the probability is I’m going to make more effort to visit!

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I love New York City but accommodation prices are crazy!

Objective
Something else to think about is what I actually want from this trip. The USA is huge which also makes it incredibly diverse. On previous trips I’ve been to Disneyland, I’ve been to small college towns and I’ve been to crazy cities like New York City. They’re all completely different type of trips. The US is so diverse as a holiday destination and has so much to offer, just deciding what type of holiday you want is a dilemma in itself. Do I want to concentrate on visiting cities? Could I squeeze in some beach time or visit one of the US’ many national parks? Is a Disney / Universal trip a possibility? I’m often attracted to big cities but with a much longer trip in mind perhaps mixing it up a bit is the better way to go!

Company
My last big thing to think about at this early stage is who is joining me on the adventure. I enjoy solo travel but I’m also thinking about who I’ll be spending time with whilst in the US. Would anyone come with me? Which US based friends do I try to visit? Do I see them in their hometown or might they meet me somewhere? Even if it only ends up being for a portion of the trip opposed to the entirety, it’s an important aspect to think about and plan for.

On a related note – that road trip I joked about? If there are any willing drives / adventurers then step right up, I’m more than happy contributing towards “gas” costs.

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At the baseball with my Washington favourites in September

Budget
I didn’t want to completely omit a mention of this but at the same time it’s a little early to accurately budget at this stage. It’s an important part of the trip but probably comes in the next part of the planning stage. You can budget an estimated amount based on accommodation per night, spending per day plus return flights to the US but really it’s very much guesswork at this stage.

The budget really overlaps with some of the above stages once I’ve started “connecting the dots”.
At the minute my only definitive “dot” is Seattle with much more planning to do!

Anyway that rounds up the early planning stages of the big 3-0 celebrations. Stay tuned for updates on how the planning goes and hopefully I’ll soon have a final itinerary!

I’d love to hear your input. How did you celebrate your 30th? Where should I be looking to visit? If you’ve planned a longer-term trip of your own I’d appreciate any tips you have.

Or maybe you’re just tempted to tag along? Get in touch!

All the best!

Jason

Brussels!

In addition to Köln and Edinburgh, Brussels seems to be one of those cities I can’t escape from. If you were to ask me how many times I’d been to Brussels then I’d probably say “two and a half..”

Theoretically I’ve only been to Brussels twice. The first trip was a few days to celebrate a friend’s birthday in December 2013, I then went back for a further few days in October 2015. However I’ve also taken the train from London to Köln (March 2013) and Amsterdam (December 2015) via Brussels. The Köln trip left me no time to explore but on the way home from Amsterdam I had 2-3 hours to kill in Brussels before catching the Eurostar home. I can’t really count it as a full visit but it gave me enough time to have a little wander. Hence two and a half!

Two and a half visits later, what makes Brussels a destination worth visiting? Plenty!
Let me start by saying Brussels exceeded my expectations. You might think I’m getting carried away but let me clarify; I went to Brussels with such low expectations it would have been impossible not to. I fully understand why it’s neighbouring capitals Amsterdam and Paris get such high praise but Brussels should get far more credit than it does. It has its rough edges like any city does and it’s quickly associated as a city drowning in European politics but there’s definitely more to Brussels than just politics. Brussels has a fun side to Brussels too and plenty to admire in its architecture, history and most importantly – beer!

If you already have plans to visit Brussels or you’re still in need of a little convincing as to why you should visit, here are my favourite things about Brussels.

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Grand Place, Brussels

The architecture!
Your first stop on any visit to Brussels has to be Grand Place. This is arguably one of the prettiest squares in Europe and will leave you speechless at how impressive it is. A little on the pricier side but take a seat outside at one of the cafes or restaurants at Grand Place and just people-watch this busy square and admire how beautiful it is with gold splattered everywhere. Visit around Christmas time and it’s more impressive, particularly in the evenings with it all lit up! You’ll also find Brussels town hall and Tourist Information area here.
Whilst Grand Place is certainly the highlight, Brussels has other impressive architecture too such as its palace, beautiful churches and cathedrals. The symbol of Brussels is the ‘Atomium’ which whilst an attraction (read more below) is also a cool and unique piece of architecture.

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The artwork!
Brussels/Belgium is home to some really famous artists and characters including the creation of loved characters such as Tin-Tin. You’ll find plenty of street art in Brussels and it’s also well known for it’s comic-book scene. If this is something you’re interested in then you should give Brussels Comic Strip Centre a visit.
Art might not be particularly high on your list of things to see when travelling but you should definitely make a quick stop to visit the “Mannekin Pis”. The UK is well known for “the boy who lived” whereas Brussels is famous for “the boy who pees”. I’m not expecting a JK Rowling masterpiece for the latter but it’s something the locals are proud of and they regularly dress him up in new outfits for the tourists and locals alike to admire.

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Me and Brussels famous ‘Atomium’

The Atomium & Mini-Europe
Alright, this is two attractions but they’re next to eachother so quite convenient to do both at once. As mentioned above – the Atomium is the symbol of the city and a pretty cool piece of architecture from the outside. The inside is one of Brussel’s leading attractions and gives you the opportunity to see Brussels from a much higher vantage point. We were relatively content to just see it from the outside but it’s worth a visit.
Across the street you’ll find another great attraction called Mini-Europe. If you’ve always dreamed of travelling across Europe but not had the time or money for it then this is for you. You’ll find a number of famous landmarks in miniature form that take you right across Europe and fulfill that dream you always had of seeing sights such as the Eiffel Tower – you’ll even find a mini Grand Place here!
I’d certainly recommend it as a great family-friendly attraction but it’s one for the adults to enjoy too!

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Potential day trip – Liege!

The daytrips!
Depending on how much time you have in Brussels and how much mini-Europe has quenched your thirst for more adventure, you might find yourself tempted to see more of Belgium! There are a lot of things I love about Belgium but one of the added perks is how small the country is. It means most major Belgian cities aren’t much more than an hour away from Brussels, making it a wonderful country for day-tripping. I’ve personally been to Bruges, Gent and Liege which I’d be happy to recommend for daytrips (expect future posts on these 3). However other towns and cities such as Antwerp, Dinant and Ypres also remain on my bucketlist and are all within easy reach from Brussels.
If you’re content travelling a little further than Western Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of France are all fairly close by too.

The cuisine! 
One of the first things you’ll associate with Belgium is its cuisine – particularly famous for their chocolate, waffles and beer. No trip to Brussels would be complete with delving in to this area a little. You might also be surprised to hear that Belgium is where the “French fry” originates. If you want an authentic Belgian dish order the popular “Moules Frites” (Mussels with fries) accompanied with one of Belgium’s famous beers. ‘Jupiler’ seemed to be the most popular in Brussels but you really can’t go wrong. Personal favourites were the Duvel, Leffe and Hoegaarden.

Of course it isn’t all about local cuisine. Like most capital cities you’ll find that Brussels is a multi-cultural city and you’ll find a range of different cuisine options in the city.

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Parc du Cinquantenaire, Brussels

Have you ever been to Brussels? Leave some recommendations in the comments on other tips you have.
If you haven’t been to Brussels hopefully this went some way in convincing you that it’s worth a visit!

All the best!

Jason

Visited Cologne, fell in love with Köln!

Trip 1: Discovering Cologne (Mar 2013)

In an older post I wrote about Sydney which I visited in February 2013, it really enhanced my love of travel and more importantly it also gave my confidence a much needed boost. After two weeks in Sydney I arrived back in England and my thoughts immediately turned towards the next trip. I now had that travel bug.

Easter was coming up, it felt an ideal time to get away without having to take time off work. I’d also had a little booster as I’d received a decent little sum through a tax rebate to fund a weekend trip somewhere. I explored a number of options before eventually deciding to catch a train to some German city called “Cologne”.  Why Cologne? Honestly, I don’t really know. A combination of it being expensive to fly Easter weekend and Cologne not being too far away on the train somehow led me to one of Germany’s biggest cities.

The reality though is that it was such an illogical choice. I knew nothing about Cologne, it wasn’t a city that I’d ever thought of visiting, I couldn’t speak a word of German so how I ended up there is a bit of a mystery.

I hadn’t ever been to Germany before so  I went to Cologne with no idea of what to expect but was pleasantly surprised. It’s quite a nice city and one I’d happily recommend to people looking for a European weekend break away. The standout landmark of the city is its cathedral (the Kölner Dom), you can see it from miles away and all over the city. Seeing it for the first time blew me away and it doesn’t get any less impressive several viewings later. It is an incredible piece of architecture, a World Heritage Site and a reason in itself to visit Cologne.

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Kölner Dom!

Once you’re done admiring the cathedral (this could take a while) you’ll find plenty else to keep you entertained. The Rhine river runs through the heart of the city so you can take cruises along the river, get tickets for the theatre or a show, discover the museums (the Lindt chocolate factory particular popular and has some great views on the roof!), walk through the large shopping district in the city or just wine and dine your way through the pubs and restaurants scattered along Cologne’s cobblestones.  Along the waterfront you’ll find some particularly enjoyable spots to enjoy the local delicacies and have a few Kölsch beers.

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Overlooking the Rhein river

It’s a good city break. It’s not the greatest city you’ll ever visit but I do think it’s worth a visit. I’d personally recommend spending 2-3 days in Cologne and not much more. I think any longer and you’d soon run out of things to see and do. My trip was 3 days long and I left with thoughts that I’d seen all that I wanted to. It’s a nice city, I’d had fun and it was a good first impression of Germany. I’d never rule out returning somewhere because you don’t know what might happen but I didn’t envisage I’d be going back to Cologne.

 

Trip 2: The return to Köln (Mar 2016)

Three years earlier I couldn’t see myself returning to Köln – nice city but “been there, done that” would be an apt description of my visit to Köln. I struggled explaining how I’d even decided upon Köln so you’re probably scratching your head as to how I ended up back here.

Luckily it’s a little more straight-forward on this occasion. I am a huge football fan and one of my big bucketlist items was to attend a Borussia Dortmund home game at some point. Famed for its incredible atmosphere and “yellow wall” it’s something that any football fan would want to experience. Unbelieveably the situation arose where my beloved Tottenham Hotspur had been scheduled to play in Dortmund. I had to go! The game was announced Friday lunchtime and by Friday evening I had booked flights to Germany! A “once in a lifetime” opportunity to watch Spurs in Dortmund – I’m going again next month.

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Borussia Dortmund v Tottenham Hotspur

Easy to laugh in hindsight but it genuinely felt like a “once in a lifetime” chance and a “must not miss” game. I wasn’t alone in that thinking though and by Friday afternoon the, normally cheap, flights to Dortmund and Dusseldorf had started shooting up. What was plan B?
Flights to Köln are still really really cheap and it’s not that far away. Book the flights asap, worry about the accommodation later.

Accommodation in Dortmund was fully booking up, neighbouring cities had no real appeal to me and Köln was appearing the most sensible and cheapest option. I could still travel to Dortmund on matchday, right? It does mean returning to a city you’ve already been to though. I was a little reluctant but committed to Köln. I could take the odd day trip, see some of the remaining bits and pieces Köln had to offer and at least I had friends with me this time which would be much more fun than my previous solo adventure here.
Oh, one other thing. I could also speak the language! Admittedly nowhere near fluently but I really can’t understate how much of a difference this made.

German Idioms
German phrases translated directly to English. 

I arrived Wednesday morning and come lunchtime I had spoken more German than the entirety of my previous trip. Only something as simple as asking for a table, reading a menu and ordering some food / beers in another language but to me it was mind-blowing. I’d been in this same restaurant three years earlier and knew nothing. Here I was complimenting the food ( “sehr lecker” ) and asking where the toilets were because I’d ordered a beer or two too many. It made me feel proud and definitely felt like I was acclimatising a bit better than my previous trip to Köln.

Returning to Köln was an interesting experience. It felt so familiar but different at the same time. I’d walked these streets, been in these bars before but because of the improvement in my German it felt like I was seeing things with new eyes and my ears were definitely picking up on things I’d missed out on last time. The friendly chit-chat of the locals and German mannerisms that were easier to notice.
I didn’t spend all of my days in Köln, I took the odd day trip to nearby places such as Brühl and Bonn but overall I left Köln content.

There had been a twinge of disappointment at returning but by the end of it I was thankful I’d gone back with more of a local experience. Two trips over eight nights though felt plenty. Would I return to Köln? Maybe but certainly not to soon. Two trips in the space of three years was plenty for the near future.

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Trip 3: “Where is Leverkusen?” (Oct 2016)

Köln wasn’t my only option for Dortmund, I could certainly have picked other German cities that were slightly nearer but Köln at the time seemed like a logical choice. With hindsight maybe I would have gone somewhere else in March.
After a few trips in 2016 I’d saved my last few days of annual leave for one more away trip with Spurs. All I had to wait on was the destination. Where would Spurs be playing?

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Bayer Leverkusen v Tottenham Hotspur

Leverkusen, Germany. Germany again! Alright, I quite like Germany. Where exactly is Leverkusen though? Oh, it’s a tiny town outside of Köln. That’s bloody convenient. Nearest airport? Kôln/Bonn. Nearest city? Köln. So.. Köln.. again.. really? Third trip, second of 2016.

I was gutted. Similar to a spoilt little child I was eyeing up all the incredible European destinations Spurs could potentially be going to and I’d “only” got West Germany again. This wasn’t meant as a personal attack on Köln because it is a nice city but I think I would have taken ANYWHERE else. I’d seen enough of the city on the first visit, a second was definitely enough and just over 6 months later I was going back. What was I going to do for five days on my third trip to the city?

I’m an optimistic and positive person so my childishness had evaporated come the day of my flight out there. I love Germany, what was I so miserable about? Most people would love to travel as much as I do and I was having a little tantrum. Good friends, German beers, a day out at the football – what was not to like? It certainly beat being at work or stuck in the rain in England.

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Köln looking pretty. Not so bad, right?

It wasn’t ideal but just make the most of it. I took a couple of day trips again, this time including a day in Belgium. That gave my German so much confidence. I’d spent Sunday in Germany, speaking a good level of the language, before visiting Belgian city Liege on the Monday. Liege is a French-speaking city and it wasn’t until I went to grab lunch that it occurred to me I hadn’t entirely thought this through.

A friendly greeting of “Bonjour” accompanied with a French menu. Panic! My French is rubbish! Take me back to Germany! I can do this no problem whatsoever.
I’ll talk about Liege another time but it dawned on me how good my German is at this point. Sure, amongst fluent German speakers I might struggle but I was better than 90% of foreigners.

Back to Köln! Tuesday was simply a day of football and German beer – wonderful. The game was dreadful and another wonder-save from Hugo Lloris in Europe spared us from defeat but what a fun day and fun atmosphere.

Wednesday my mood had switched completely. I was in complete admiration of Köln, I seemed to have Köln rose-tinted glasses on. Everywhere I looked I could only see the things I loved about the city – it’s beautiful cathedral, walking alongside the Rhein river and just wandering up and down it’s cobbled streets. I felt happy here, I felt at home with such familiar surroundings. Maybe a third visit does that to you?
Part of me didn’t want to leave and part of me was questioning if I’d come back to Köln for a 4th time and of the opinion I probably would.

They say “third time’s a charm” and it couldn’t be more apt to describe my love affair with Köln. It’s such a strange city for me. It was never a city on my radar, I couldn’t quite tell you how I ended up there, had no real intention of returning on either of my first two trips and yet ended up falling in love with it on the third visit.

Am I in a rush to return to Köln? Not so soon but oddly I see myself back there at some point. It took a while but you won my heart Köln and all three trips certainly have some wonderful memories.

I don’t know when I’ll see you next but “Bis bald Köln, ich liebe dich”

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So much love spread in Köln.

So tell me, have you ever grown to love a place more after several visits? Have you been to Köln yourself? Leave me a comment and tell me what you thought.

All the best!

Jason