My first small group tour travel experience – Part 1

The start of a 3-week road trip across America with 10 strangers!

Getting ready for the Oscars – red carpet lining Hollywood Blvd

Within minutes of meeting my companions for the next 3 weeks You can read my previous blog on this here), we were all climbing into our mini-bus and being driven by our tour guide across the city to our first stop – Hollywood. Conversations in the bus at this point mainly consisted of the “What’s your name again?”, “Where did you say you’re from again?” kind and when we were dropped off and given an hour to wander around Hollywood Boulevard, we drifted into smaller groups – the 2 Swedish girls sticking together, the 20-something guys grouping up and then those of us that didn’t fit any other group wandering off together too. Hollywood was setting up for the weekend’s big Oscar Ceremony which, having been to the Walk of Fame many times before, made the stop a bit more exciting for me as we saw the preparations going on and watched through the fence as reporters broadcast from the red carpet already running down the middle of the road to the Kodak Theater.

Oscar preparations outside the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

Once we were all back at the bus, we made one more quick hop off and on stop nearby to get a photo of the Hollywood sign from Beachwood Canyon before settling in for the 2 hour drive to San Diego. Lunch was at a truck stop just outside the city with a choice of fast food options (most of us tried Wendy’s!) and then it was off to drop our things at our hostel in the Gaslamp District. Like me, this was to be the first hostel experience for most of the group. We were allocated two 6-bed dorms to share between us, there were plenty of bathrooms along the corridor and breakfast was provided in the morning. Our room overlooked the main street in the Gaslamp Quarter, where all the bars were so we had loud music pumping through the walls until the early hours of the morning but it was only for 2 nights and our next stop would be a hotel in Vegas.

The Hollywood sign
Paddling in the sea on Mission Beach

After we had settled, we met back at the bus and were taken to Mission Beach for the afternoon. Despite it being February, the weather was a balmy 20 degrees and we wandered along the sands chatting and getting to know each other a bit more before returning to the city for our first group dinner at Bepe di Bucco’s family dining restaurant. That night, we split into those who wanted to go partying and those who didn’t with some of us opting instead to keep out of the bars and get frozen yoghurt instead as we planned to be up early the next day for a trip to the zoo.

What we did on our free day was completely up to us but with the suggestions being SeaWorld or San Diego Zoo, most of the group was keen on going to the zoo so our tour guide offered to drive us there and then we could make our own way back. Only 2 of the group – the two Swedish girls who were mainly keeping themselves to themselves at this point – decided to stay in the city and do their own bit of sightseeing. The zoo was huge, so much so that we lost one group member at one point which was a good point to decide we should all swap numbers and start a Whatsapp group! After spending most for the day there, we walked through Balboa Park and back to the hostel. Our tour guide suggested a seafood place for dinner but with none of the group too keen in that idea, we ended up in Hooters which, if nothing else, was cheaper!

It was a very early start the next morning to begin our drive to Las Vegas and most of us slept in the bus. Lunch was at a bizarre Greek-style diner in Baker, California, opposite the World’s Largest Thermometer(!) before continuing to our destination.

Our seemingly luxurious hotel room at Bally’s!

After 2 nights in a hostel, our room at Bally’s Casino seemed like luxury and I was surprised we were in a hotel on the Strip and in such a good location, expecting to be Downtown from reading other Trekkers’ experiences online. With hotel rooms being for 2, the two Swedish girls shared a room, I shared with the other solo girl (we’d already become good friends at this point – 2 days can seem a lot longer when you’re spending all that time in someone’s company!) and then the guys paired up, taking it in turns to have a room to themselves with there being an odd number of them.

We had the rest of the afternoon as free time but were to be back early evening for our included Party Bus activity. As my roommate and I had decided we’d like to see Britney play the following night, we headed straight to the Planet Hollywood box office to acquire some tickets before joining the others strolling through some of the hotels on the strip. Then it was all round to our tour guide’s room for some group-bonding drinking games and Chinese food before we piled onto our private Vegas Party bus. The bus drives up and down the strip while music blasts out and the inside is like a mini-dance club.

Downtown Vegas

Unimpressed by the very clubby music, one of the group asked if he could instead plug in his iPhone and we instead sang and danced along to cheesy 90s pop tracks from the Spice Girls and 5ive and tunes from Disney’s Frozen. The bus made a stop Downtown in time for us to catch the hourly laser show at Fremont Street and then at the Welcome to Vegas sign for us to get photos before dropping us off at the Bellagio to watch the penultimate dancing fountain show of the night. We loved this so much we decided to wait 15 minutes to watch the final show of the night too before following our tour guide to her favourite karaoke bar at Ellis Island Casino just behind Bally’s.

The Bellagio Founains

The next morning we split into 2 groups – those of us who had returned to our hotel at a reasonable time and were up to spend the day exploring Vegas, and those who were sleeping it off! By the time we met with the rest of the group later that afternoon, we had already had a huge Denny’s breakfast, took a gondola ride at the Venetian hotel, and got lost in Circus Circus. We were joined by a few more group members at the top of the Stratosphere where we screamed our way through the 3 rides sat on top of the tallest building in the Strip.

Britney!

That evening, we all went off to see various shows and for me that meant the chance to see Britney’s Piece Of Me show, something I’d wanted to do since it was announced so I was ecstatic to discover she was playing on our free evening in the city. We’d managed to get our hands on pit tickets so were up close, especially when Britney came out along the catwalk and the show was every bit as amazing as I’d hoped. After, we met up with a few other group members for a late night ride on the High Roller Ferris Wheel to see the bright lights of Vegas from above.

I’d been to Vegas a few times before this trip but never experienced it quite like this. Being in a group tour situation was already taking me out of my comfort zone – drinking games, party buses, late night karaoke bars, none of these things were how I’d usually spend my time on holiday – and yet I was loving every minute and really enjoying the company of this eclectic band of individuals.

4 days in and things were going great but I should know by now to expect the unexpected…

My first solo travel adventure

Coast to coast with Trek America

If you’ve read my previous post about my decision to travel solo for the first time, you’ll know that rather than spending my entire trip completely by myself, I opted to join a small group tour. Specifically, the Southern BLT Tour with the established small group tour company, Trek America.

I booked the tour through the touradar website in their Christmas sale and the tour was to begin mid-February meaning I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my decision. With the extra nights I had added in LA and New York either side of the 3-week tour, I would be away for 4 weeks in total, the longest I had ever been away from home before.

As the departure date approached I decided to take up Trek America’s offer of a free FairFX prepaid currency card rather than just taking cash as I would on a shorter trip. This came with access to an app which I could use to top up the card with dollars if I was getting low at any point as long as I had internet access and as the tour was advertised as having on-bus WiFi and I knew from previous visits stateside that WiFi was easy to find, finding internet access shouldn’t be a problem.

The tour required us to take a sleeping bag for the night spent in a cabin and I also went out and bought a pair of special walking trainers from Sports Direct for any hiking we’d do, a quick-drying travel towel for use at the hostels and various other bits and bobs that I wouldn’t ordinarily take on holiday but I thought I might need in a trip like this!

My biggest worry was what size case to take. Or whether to take a case at all as I figured a lot of the passengers might be serious backpackers with, well, a backpack. For just a 2 week holiday, I would usually take my large case but I knew luggage was to be stored in our minibus as we travelled and would have to be dragged in and out of our accommodation every day or so (we had no more than 2 nights in any one place on the tour) so maybe a large case was too much. But would there be chance to do laundry or would I have to take enough clothes to last the entire trip?!

What to pack in itself was another problem. I’d assumed when I booked the tour that travelling through the Southern states meant that even in February/March, it’d mainly be warm although I did realise once we reached Washington DC and New York it would be chillier. But after googling the weather for some of our stops, I realised it was likely to be cool in quite a few places along the way so layers, a few jumpers, hoodies and even my winter coat might be necessary!

I eventually opted to take my medium-sized case, squashing as much as possible in and deciding if there was no opportunity for laundry, I could probably get a couple of wears out of most tops!!

Alone on Santa Monica Beach

So with lots of excitement, and some trepidation, I headed to the airport a few days before the start of the tour to begin my trip. I had booked 2 nights by myself in Santa Monica at a motel I had stayed at with my family a couple of years before and would then spend the third night staying at Trek America’s “gateway” hotel – the one the tour departed from – the night before the tour began.

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

Whereas I would usually share a taxi with my travel buddies to get us to our hotel quickly and easily after a long flight, it was a lot of money to spend for just one person so I had researched how to get to Santa Monica on public transport. So after arriving at LAX, I went to wait for the Airbus service hoping to save a bit of money. But after waiting and waiting and seeing numerous buses come and go for Hollywood, Downtown, Anaheim and various other districts of Los Angeles but none for Santa Monica, I gave up and, just wanting to get there, ended up in a cab!

Breakfast feast for one at Denny’s

It was odd finding myself alone in a city I had visited many times before with family and friends and needing food, I was unsure what to do. Not being brave enough just yet to go to a restaurant alone, I instead opted for the food court in Santa Monica Place shopping mall before heading down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Sony Studios Tour

To keep myself busy over the next few days, I’d planned plenty of activities, again extensively researching how to reach places on public transport. After breakfast at Denny’s (eating alone wasn’t actually that bad!), my first stop was Sony Studios for a backlot tour. Using public transport ran smoother than it had the previous day and after asking for directions just once when I got off the bus, I found my way to the tour check in point with plenty of time to spare.

Walking to Venice Beach

After the tour, I wandered around the nearby area of Culver City before catching the bus back towards Santa Monica. I spent the afternoon in Venice following a self-guided walk around the canals which I had downloaded before my trip, another part of the city I had not seen before.

Exploring the canals at Venice
On a tour to Malibu

The following day, I had booked onto another tour to see the Star Homes in Malibu and then, after lunch alone at Barney’s Beanery – my favourite Santa Monica eatery – I hired a bike and rode to Marina del Rey, again ticking off a few more places I’d not been to before. In all honesty, I kept myself too busy to even notice I was by myself and I actually enjoyed not having to compromise on anything and being able to do what I liked and at my own pace.

Malibu Beach
After cycling to Marina del Rey

That evening, it was time to move from my cosy Santa Monica B&B to my Trek’s departure hotel, the Custom Hotel bear LAX. Wanting to avoid paying out for another taxi, I had again looked up how to get there on public transport. One direct bus which would drop me outside my new hotel seemed doable although I hadn’t factored in travelling in rush hour with a case and bag!

6 weeks before your Trek America tour departs, participants are given access to an online group where you can ‘meet’ other members of your tour group. This only works, of course, if other members are active in the group and no one seemed to be using it for the tour I had booked. Undeterred, and curious as to whom I would be spending 3 weeks travelling with, I instead, left a message on the Trek America forums asking if anyone else was going to be on the Southern BLT tour departing that week. By the time I had left for LA, there had been no replies but a few days later, 2 people had answered saying they too would be on the tour.

So the evening before the tour departed, once settled in at the ‘gateway’ hotel, I made my way up to the hotel’s rooftop bar where I had arranged to meet 3 of my fellow travelling companions. Everyone seemed nice – we were all solo travellers who were travelling solo for the first time and it put my mind at ease slightly about the next few weeks. After a few drinks and some small talk, it was off for an early-ish night ready to start my 3-week cross-country adventure the following morning.

It was an early start the next day where I met the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. 11 of us in total, 7 guys, 4 girls, aged 20-34 from the UK, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. After brief introductions, some form-filling and a talk from our American tour guide, it was time to load our luggage on to the trailer and board our minibus ready to get on the road!

Going it alone

Travelling solo for the first time.

After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.

I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.

Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.

Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.

The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.

The Southern BLT Tour route

So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!

Trek America tour van

I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.

So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!

My first solo travel adventure

Melbourne

I’ve been lucky enough to make a few visits ‘down under’ and 4 of my 5 trips to Australia have included a stop in the city of Melbourne, Victoria. Partly because a good friend of mine moved to the suburbs of the city 10 years ago so whenever I’m in Australia, I like to try and visit but also because, it’s a great city and a good base to explore the surrounding area.

Flinder Street Station

The city of Melbourne and the surrounding area certainly has plenty to offer visitors.

If it’s shopping you’re after then Melbourne won’t disappoint. As well as department stores and shopping malls aplenty, you’ll find great souvenir shopping at Victoria Market, outlet stores at the relatively new Dockside area and boutique stores hidden down narrow lanes. In need of a coffee after? Melbourne is famous for its cafe culture and you’ll find independent coffee shops around every corner!

Flinders Street

Melbourne’s CBD area is easy to get around, it’s layout borrowing heavily from the American grid system. The city offers a free trolley service which loops around the outside of the CBD, passing Federation Square, the Dockside area, Victoria Market and Melbourne Museum amongst other places of interest and even includes a recorded commentary for tourists! Another free bus service runs along the river Yarra towards Melbourne’s Cricket Ground and back. These services are mainly used by tourists and can get busy, especially the circle line trolley.

Federation Square is a good place to start exploring Melbourne from. The Square is a busy meeting place in the city with large open spaces often hosting events and exhibitions and here, you’ll find the city’s tourist information centre.

The Crown Casino Complex

One of my favourite places to stroll in Melbourne is its Southbank area. From here you’ll find great views of the city looking across to Flinders Street Station across the River Yarra. Street entertainers often line the pavement and there’s the huge Crown Casino complex alongside the Southbank with its many shops and restaurants to explore too. Boat trips are offered along the River Yarra from various companies along the riverside, some offering roundtrips with a commentary, others taking you out at sunset or ferrying you to nearby Williamstown.

Eureka Tower and, below, views from the top

Looming over the Southbank, you can’t help but notice the Eureka Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. The tower has an observation deck at the top with 360 degree views across the city and Victoria state.

The Shrine of Remembrance

A short walk off the Southbank you’ll find Alexandra Park and the neighbouring Royal Botanic Gardens. The parks are definitely worth a stroll through and you can walk down to the Shine of Remembrance at the south end of the park.

View of Melbourne skyline from St Kilda Pier

Just outside of Melbourne city, and easily reachable by tram, is the beach suburb of St Kilda. St Kilda is a lovely place to stroll around, grab a coffee and cake on Acland Street, walk along the pier from which you can make out Melbourne City skyline on a clear day, visit it’s Sunday flea market or for a bit more excitement, visit Luna Park, it’s amusement park with its huge clown-face gates!

On ‘Ramsay Street’

Fans of the long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours can pay a visit to ‘Ramsay Street’ or Pinot Court as it’s actually called in the suburbs of Melbourne. While it is possible to drive out to the street yourself, tours are available daily from the Neighbours store in Melbourne’s CBD. These tours are great fun with clips from the show being played on the bus as you drive out and locations such as the school being pointed out along the way. On weekends, tours of the set are also offered so you can have photos with the exteriors of Lassiters, Harold’s General Store etc as well as the houses on Ramsay Street. While the infamous ‘Neighbours Night’ (a weekly club night attended by various cast members) is no longer offered, sometimes cast members do pop along to greet tour buses and have photos!

At the Nobbies, Phillip Island and, below, photos from a day tour to Phillip Island

Like I mentioned before, Melbourne is a great base for exploring more of Victoria from. If you don’t have access to a car, there are plenty of companies offering day tours out of the city. My favourite tour to take is to Phillip Island to see the Little Penguins.

This tour can be done as a full day trip or as a half day afternoon trip, depending on how much you want to see along the way and at Phillip Island itself. Most tour companies offer a stop at a wildlife park along the way where you can hang out with the kangaroos and other Australian animals before crossing into the beautiful Phillip Island. Full day tours will usually give you time to explore beaches and coastal walks at various parts of the island while even afternoon-only tours will usually stop at the Nobbies where you can follow the boardwalk for amazing coastal views. Whichever tour you take, the final stop will be at the Penguin Parade where you will sit on the beach and watch as the Little Penguins swim in and run across the sand to their burrows. It really is incredible to watch!

The Twelve Apostles

Another popular trip out from Melbourne is Great Ocean Road. Running along the coast all the way from Melbourne to Adelaide, the distance is too far for one day but you can at least make it as far as the famous Twelve Apostles rock formations and back although it’s a long day!!!

Apollo Bay

I first travelled Great Ocean Road using public transport, catching a train to Geelong then picking up a bus which stopped at Apollo Bay then at the Twelve Apostles and other rock formations, giving us enough time at each stop to get off and take photos before dropping us at a station to catch a train all the way back to Melbourne. It was a cheap way of doing it and we saw what we wanted to see but without a tour guide to provide a commentary or the social aspect of a small group tour, the day felt even longer than it was.

I have since taken a guided small group one day tour of Great Ocean Road and while this was also a long trip, especially the drive back to Melbourne at the end of the day, and we didn’t make it to as many of the rock formations as on the independent trip, I found this to be a much more enjoyable option. We made many stops along the way to break up the journey at pretty bays and towns, at a rainforest boardwalk, a lighthouse and even somewhere to see koalas in their natural habitat before stopping at the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge rock formations.

Trips to Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley wineries are other popular options for easily reachable days out from the city.

Overall, Melbourne is a great place to visit but make sure you take the opportunity to get out of the city itself as Victoria has a lot more than Melbourne city to offer!

Birmingham

Being a tourist in my own city

I’ve lived in Birmingham all my life so to me it’s just home. These days, I rarely even visit the city centre despite it just being a 10 minute drive or 15 minute train journey away but after making friends from all over the country and even from around the World while travelling, I’ve had a lot of them visit me here expecting to be shown around everything Birmingham has to offer. Which got me to thinking, what does the UK’s second city (yep, it’s Birmingham, not Manchester as many assume!) have to offer it’s visitors?

Here’s my take on the best things to do in my home city and surrounding areas!

Unusual Buildings

Birmingham Library

Looking out at Centenary Square from the library at Christmas

A library might not sound like the most exciting place to start a visit to a new city but this relatively new addition to Birmingham’s city centre is housed in a rather interesting-looking modern building. The gaudy boat-like design has divided locals but is certainly eye-catching. As well as thousands of books inside, there’s a cafe and 2 roof-top gardens providing great views over the city.

The Cube

If interesting architecture is your thing then Birmingham has plenty to offer. As well as the Library Building, our famous Selfridges building (see the section on shopping!), and the Bullring’s Rotunda, you might be interested in seeing The Cube, so called for it’s dice-like shape and home to a few shops, restaurants, apartments and even a hotel. Visit Marco Pierre White’s skyline Steakhouse Bar and Grill for views over the city as you drink and dine.

Birmingham’s Venice

The NIA Arena, canalside at Brindley Place

Birmingham is said to have more canals than Venice and you can experience these without leaving the city centre as the central canal system network is easily accessed from the Mailbox shopping centre and Brindley Place. Take a stroll along the towpath or, in the city centre, sit out at one of the canalside bars or cafes.

Lego Giraffe outside the canal-side Lego Discovery Centre, Brindley Place

If you want to get out on the water, you can catch the water taxi or there are barges offering sightseeing and dinner cruises all departing from near Brindley Place.

Right next to the canal at Brindley Place is Birmingham’s National Sealife Centre which along with the usual ocean life, has exhibitions on the wildlife found in Birmingham’s canals!

Shopping

If shopping is your thing then Birmingham is the place for you! The main shopping centre, Bullring, is home to another of the city’s most recognisable buildings, Selfridges, as well as 3 floors of high street stores and restaurants.

‘Bully’ dressed up for Christmas!

Look out for ‘Bully’, the Bullring Bull sculpture outside the centre and often dressed up to mark special occasions such as Christmas, St Patrick’s Day and Birmingham Pride and, in complete contrast to the modern mall, St Nicholas’ Church, still standing in the square below.

Just across from the church, you will find Birmingham Markets selling a variety of fresh produce, household items and clothing at bargain prices.

Next to the Bullring shopping mall is High Street, home to the World’s largest Primark store. This recently opened store hosts 5 floors of fashion as well as a beauty salon and 3 cafes, including the much talked about Disney cafe!

Grad Central and New Street Station below

If you arrive to the city by train then you’ll more than likely find yourself at New Street Station, home to the new Grand Central shopping centre. The centre is mainly home to slightly more eclectic stores than Bullring but also a large John Lewis store. There’s also a food court with plenty of eating options.

If your tastes are a bit more high scale, then head to the Mailbox, also a short walk from New Street Station where you’ll find designer stores including Emporio Armani and Harvey Nichols. (It’s also home of the Birmingham BBC Studios which you can book a tour of!)

The Mailbox and the Cube, canalside in Birmingham
The German Market fills New Street at Christmas

Visiting at Christmas? Then you might be in the city in time for the annual Frankfurt Market. Sellers from Germany descend upon the city each year to set up a traditional German Market which runs all down New Street and up into Victoria Square. This year, the market will be back, bigger and better than ever, running from November 7th through to December 23rd.

Jewellery Quarter

Just outside of the city centre, this area is full of jewellery factories – a good proportion of the UK’s jewellery is made here – and independent jewellery shops. The area has been rejuvenated over recent years and is now a popular place to visit. As well as the many jewellery shops, there is a museum where you can learn the history of the Jewellery Quarter and take a factory tour and a growing number of bars, restaurants and cafes. There district is easily accessible by train, tram or a walk along the canal from the city centre.

Museums

For culture vultures, Birmingham is home to plenty of museums and galleries. Walk to Chamberlain Sqaure, past the Town Hall and Council House buildings and you’ll find the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Free to visit, the museum houses a large collection of art, an Ancient Egypt collection, exhibits on local history, a natural history collection and various temporary exhibits.

Nearby, just off Broad Street, is the Ikon Gallery. Also free to visit, the gallery houses 2 floors of contemporary art.

If science is more your thing then head to Thinktank, the Science Museum at Birmingham’s Millennium Point. The museum offers interactive exhibits on Science, Industry and Natural History that will keep kids entertained for hours. My personal highlight is the outdoor Science Garden – an educational playground!

For a bit of Birmingham history, visit the National Trust owned Back to Backs. The last surviving 19th Century back-to-back houses have been restored and can be toured by appointment.

Cadbury World

The Cadbury Chocolate Factory in Bournvile

Birmingham is famous for producing the UK’s favourite chocolate, Cadbury’s, and no visit to the city can be complete without venturing out of the city centre to Bournville Village, home of the original Cadbury Chocolate Factory. Cadbury World is home to interactive exhibits on the history of the factory in Birmingham and allows you to see inside the factory where the chocolate is still produced today. And best of all? You get a load of free chocolate to try along the way!!!

Cadbury World is easily reached by a short train journey from the city centre’s New Street Station to Bournville and the pretty, old-fashioned village itself is well worth a look around while you’re there.

Parks

Cannon Hill Park

I’ve always felt one of the things missing from the city centre is a green space, a park for workers to sit out in in their lunch break or to visit after work or a place for visitors to enjoy between shopping trips…we’ve plenty of nice open Squares but where’s our Hyde Park, Central Park or Boston Common?!

Cannon Hill Park

While not in the city centre itself, Cannon Hill Park is worth the short trip out to the suburb of Edgbaston. With plenty of open grassy areas for picnics or ball games, woods to wander through, pretty flower-filled gardens, a large boating lake on which you can hire pedalos, a fun park with children’s rides, a land train to take you around, an adventure golf course and two well-equipped children’s play areas, you can easily spend a day here. The park is also home to the Midlands’ Art Centre or MAC, host to various exhibitions, galleries, small theatre shows and a cinema usually showing cult classics and independent films.

Next door to the park is the Birmingham Conservation Park, known locally as the ‘Nature Centre’ where for a small fee you can see a variety of mammals, reptiles and birds including red pandas and monkeys!

There’s plenty of parking at the various entrances to the park in Edgbaston and Moseley but my favourite way to enter the park is to park up on Moor Green Lane opposite the Highbury pub and walk through Holders Lane Woods (entrance next to the Moor Green Lane Medical Centre) which leads into the south side of the park.

The Shires

Birmingham was home to JRR Tolkein, writer of the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and you can wander around much of the area that inspired the lands he created in the books. Head to Moseley Bog and the nearby Sarehole Mill, now part of the renamed Shires Country Park where you can pick up a leaflet detailing the sites that inspired him and follow the ‘Tolkein Trail’!

Lickey Hills

Further out of the city, but worth the journey into South Birmingham in my opinion, is the vast Lickey Hills Country Park offering well-marked woodland and parkland trails and rewarding views across the city from it’s highest peaks.

Nightlife

If you want to party the night away, then there’s really only one place to head in Birmingham – Broad Street is lined with bars and clubs and drunken students and is your best bet for a lively night out. For something a bit more sedate, or a few drink before hitting the clubs, try the canalside bars at Brindley Place or the popular afterwork bars at the Mailbox.

Nearby attractions

River Avon walk with the RSC in the background at Stratford-upon-Avon

One of the best things about living in Birmingham is it’s central location and proximity to other cities and attractions. From the city centre, day trips can easily be made to Stratford-upon-Avon for all it’s Shakespeare attractions and beautiful riverside setting or to Worcester, a cathedral city situated on the River Severn. For some child-friendly fun, West Midlands Safari Park and Dudley Zoo are in easy reach for animal lovers or try Alton Towers and Drayton Manor theme parks for thrill seekers. The Black Country Museum is also close by for some living history where costumed actors show visitors what life was like in Victorian times.

A Long Weekend in Prague

Usually when I have a city break – or any kind of trip – planned, I’m well prepared for it by the time it comes around. I research places to go, things to do. I pre-book attraction tickets to expedite entry or get an online discount, I find out how to get to the places I want to visit and even come up with a rough plan of how to spend each day. But for this trip to Prague, I felt wholly unprepared. I’d just been so busy over the past few weeks, I’d not had the time to look things up. In fact, I only realised a few days before departing that I needed Czech Krona and not Euros to spend – luckily with just enough time to order some in to my local currency exchange branch. My friend had mentioned possibly doing a bike tour but with time ticking away, we’d not got around to looking any up, ever mind booking it and as the morning of departure approached, I’d only just about managed to look up the weather forecast – it was going to be hot but showery – and how to get to our hotel from the airport.

Our flight out of Heathrow was early, which must have felt like a good idea at the time of booking but felt less so when the 4am alarm went off at our airport hotel. We’d landed at Prague airport by 10.15am and the small bit of research I had done told me to save a bit of money by avoiding the Airport Express to the main station and instead catching the local 119 bus to the start of the metro Line A then catching the metro into the city – all for the equivalent of just over £1! It was an easy way to get into the city – we got off the metro at Muzeum Station, the stop for the National Museum and Wenceslas Square and it was a short walk to the lovely Hotel Sunrise in the Prague 2 district from here.

Charles Square

While it was too early to check in to our room, we were able to leave our luggage at reception and were told they could have our room ready for us within the next hour. Not knowing where we really were, we wandered downhill and found ourselves in Charles Square where we grabbed some snacks from a convenience store and sat rifling through some tourist leaflets which we’d picked up in the hotel lobby before walking back and checking in.

Dancing House

After settling into our room, we ventured out into the city again. We walked downhill towards the Vltava River where we couldn’t help but notice a rather odd shaped building on the street corner which didn’t exactly fit in with the other building in the area. This was ‘Dancing House’ which we were later to learn had been built on the site of an area bombed and destroyed during the Second World War. The building is sometimes referred to as ‘Fred and Ginger’ as it is supposed to resemble two dancers.

Old Town Square

From here, we followed the river towards the Old Town, stopping at the bridges along the way to take photos of the famous Charles Bridge in the distance and Prague Castle on the hill across the river. As soon as we reached Charles bridge itself and the street leading to the Old Town, we were astonished by just how busy it was and found ourselves battling through the crowds filling the narrow streets.

Tired from the early morning and not feeling up to fighting our way through, we went to eat at the first place we came across – we found menu prices to be surprisingly reasonable despite being in the touristy centre – then briefly visited the Old Town Square. Old Town Square is home to the Old Town Hall and Astronomical Clock and crowds gather each hour to watch the clock chime. We had just missed its last display so instead just wandered through the Square admiring the architecture and shrugging our shoulders at the bizarre displays of street performers dressed as pandas and polar bears dancing about.

A huge Trdelnik filled with ice cream

Leaving the Old Town the same way we entered, we stopped to buy a Trdelnik – a kind of doughnut spiral, spread with your choice of filling. These are not exactly traditional, more something dreamed up to get tourists shelling out their money, but they looked so delicious we couldn’t resist! We chose to have ours spread with salted caramel and then filled with ice cream. It was extremely messy to eat, especially as the heat was making the ice cream melt quicker than we could eat it but still really yummy! We then fought our way across the Charles Bridge and walked back along the other side of the river through Kampa Island before crossing back by Dancing House and walking back to our hotel.

First view of St Vitus Cathedral in the castle grounds
Guards at the castle entrance

The next morning, over breakfast, we decided that due to our lack of research, we would buy a hop on/off bus ticket to take us around the city then we could explore anything that looked interesting as and when we came to it. We opted for the City Sightseeing company’s 48 hour ticket and caught the red line bus at a stop near to our hotel. The bus took us across the river and up the hill to Prague Castle where we decided to hop off. It is free to explore the grounds of the castle including it’s courtyards and gardens or a ticket could be purchased to visit the various exhibitions inside. We opted to just look from the outside and found an online self-guided walking tour of the grounds to follow to learn a bit of the castle’s history and find out what we were looking at as we went.

The castle is more of a series of palaces and buildings than a castle in the traditional sense. Being a Saturday morning, it was extremely busy and although we seemed to just beat the crowds to get through the security queue, once inside we found ourselves once again battling our way through all the people as we tried to make our way from courtyard to courtyard.

The buildings were impressive, especially that of the Cathedral in the centre of the grounds which unfortunately had yet to open it’s doors to visitors at the time of our visit.

At midday, we watched the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the entrance gates before wandering through the gardens which offered views of the city below.

Strahov Stadium and ventilation tower

We hopped back onto the bus planning on staying on until we had reached the stop nearest to the Old Town (traffic is not allowed in this area so the bus has to stop just outside of it) only to be told that the bus would be stopping for a 30 minute lunch stop at the Strahov Stadium stop. The rather unattractive concrete stadium sits at the highest point of the city but other than the view of the city, there was nothing to see at the stop making it a rather bizarre choice for a lunch stop. Our bus guide pointed us in the direction of a canteen-style restaurant a short walk from the bus stop so we grabbed drinks and snacks from here then walked back to catch the bus again.

View from outside Strahov Stadium

If we had realised how little there was at this stop, we’d have got off at the Monastery at the previous stop instead but we just assumed that since the Stadium had been chosen as the 30-minute stop, that there must have been something worth seeing or doing there. There wasn’t!

Inside Old Town Hall Tower

We completed the loop on the red line bus and walked into the Old Town. It was just as busy as it had been the previous evening. We wanted to go up to the observation deck at the top of the Astronomical Clock but had read it often had long queues. Seeing the crowds, we expected the worst but were in fact surprised to find no queue at all. We bought our tickets and caught the lift up to the top. The city looked really pretty from above, looking down on a sea of red roofs below us, and it was definitely worth the small entrance fee to climb the clock tower.

We made it back down just in time to see the Astronomical Clock chime on the hour. The display didn’t last very long and we wondered what all the fuss was about – some people had been waiting in the square for ages to get a good view but I was glad we had just turned up last minute as it would not have been worth the long wait!

After leaving the Old Town, we found a small Pizzeria down one of the side streets to eat at then walked back to our hotel to get ready for a concert we’d be attending that night at the city’s O2 Arena. The public transport in Prague was easy to navigate and there were a few options for getting to the arena. We took the number 16 tram which dropped us just a short walk away and then caught the last tram back after the show.

Entrance to Vysehrad Fortress

We had another day left on our hop on/off bus ticket so the next day jumped onto a Purple line bus. Unlike the red line which used the traditional double decker, open top bus, this line must have been a less popular route as instead, a small enclosed mini-bus turned up. We had decided to hop off at Vysehrad Fortress on the outskirts of the city. From where the bus dropped us, there was no sign of the fortress so we asked our guide where it was. She looked confused and waved her arm in the direction of where it was only for the bus driver to get off the bus and tell us that she had pointed us in the entirely wrong direction and tell us to walk another way!

We soon found the fortress following his directions. Like Prague Castle, it was free to wander the grounds and we set about walking the entire caste walls. There were great view of the city and the river from the fortress walls and it was a really pleasant way to spend the morning.

Vltava River views from Vysehrad Fortress

Luckily, we arrived back at the bus stop just as the bus pulled up. The rest of the route took us up past Prague’s TV Tower – yet another place to get city views – Prague has plenty of opportunities for this! – and back towards the city centre.

Wenceslas Square and the National Museum

We hopped off the bus at the Wenceslas Square stop. The square is the heart of the city. It is positioned in front of the huge National Museum and is lined by high street stores, cafes, restaurants and hotels. After a coffee break at one of the many cafes, we walked down towards the Old Town.

The ridiculously crowded Charles Bridge

Experts at navigating our way through the Old Town now, we quickly made our way towards the always busy Charles Bridge and walked along the river in the opposite direction to before to the Prague Boats terminus. The sun had finally decided to come out and we decided to take the opportunity to do a one-hour river cruise. We opted for the small boat cruise which would have a live rather than recorded commentary and allow us to enter “Prague’s Venice” – the smaller waterways off the main river. We definitely felt we made right choice as our guide was full of interesting facts and the scenery was really beautiful.

After the cruise, we walked across Charles Bridge into the Mala Strana area passing some of the waterways we had just cruised down. We passed Lennon Wall, covered in grafitti then walked to Kampa Island and through the park retracing the route we’d taken on our first evening in the city but being a bit more awake to appreciate it this time!

After a quick put stop to freshen up back at our hotel, we walked back into the Old Town and went for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. Our hop on/off bus tickets came with a voucher for a free dessert there with the purchase of a main meal so being Hard Rock fans, we decided we may as well make use of the offer!

Sunset from Charles Bridge

We left the restaurant just as the sun was starting to go down so decided to walk back down to the river to watch what was left of the sunset. It had unfortunately started to cloud over a bit from the blue skies if the afternoon but the castle still looked pretty under the twilight sky.

With an early evening flight to catch out of the city airport the next day, we had about 3 hours left in the city the next morning. On a longer trip to the city, we’d have still had plenty of things to do to fill the time – we had not made it to Letna Park or the Eiffel Tower-inspired Petrin Tower and it would have been interesting to have done a walking tour of the Old Town or Jewish Quarter or even take a trip out of the city to Český Krumlov or Kutná Hora. But with none of these things fitting our timescale for the day, we instead walked back to the river and hired a pedalo for an hour. It was a beautiful day with blue skies and temperatures reaching 30 degrees but being out on the river there was a bit of a breeze and it was a relaxing way to spend an hour.

We then took a quick walk through the city’s Jewish Quarter, past the many Synagogues in the area before returning to our hotel to retrieve our luggage and make our way back to the airport.

A beautiful day in Old Town Square

Apart from the crowds, I really enjoyed my first visit to the city of Prague and would definitely like to return someday to explore a bit more, see some of the many museums on offer in the city and spend more time learning about he history of the city.

Bavarian Castles day trip from Munich

Visiting Linderhof Palace, the town of Oberammergau and Neuschwanstein Castle

While on a city break in Munich (which you can read about here), we took the organised tour to Linderhof Palace and Neuschwanstein Castle with Grayline Tours. Being big Disney fans, our main reason for doing the trip was to see Neuschwanstein, said to be the inspiration for the original Disney Castle at the California Park. We looked into making the trip ourselves using public transport but it involved trains and buses and not speaking any German, we decided it looked to complicated and an organised day trip would better suite our needs. All of the English speaking tours we saw offered online on sites such as Viator and Expedia seemed to be offered by Grayline so we decided to book their full day trip which also went to Linderhof Palace. The price included travel from Munich to Linderhof and Neuschwanstein with an English speaking tour guide and also a stop at Bavarian town of Oberammergau but excluded lunch and admission fees to the castles which would be collected by the company on the day. After the online booking process, we received a voucher and instructions to meet the tour nearby Munich Hauptbahnhof at least 20 minutes before departure.

On the day of our trip, we left our hotel and walked to the station arriving a good 10 minutes before the recommended time but still found crowds of people queuing for the tour. Unlike many of the small group day tours on minibuses I have done in the past, this was tour was a much bigger affair with multiple double decker coaches lining the street waiting to be boarded. Helpful Grayline representatives pointed us in the direction of the queue for the English speaking tour and despite the long line in front of us, the boarding process was quick and we easily found seats together on the top deck of the coach. As soon as our coach was full, we departed ahead of schedule leaving the remaining people in the queue to board a second coach so it was worth arriving a bit earlier to get a head start on the tour.

Linderhof Palace

As we travelled to our first stop, about 1 hour 45 minutes out of the city, our guide introduced himself and explained the day’s itinerary before coming along the coach and taking the money for the castle tours. Anyone that didn’t want to do the guided tour could opt out of one or both but we paid for entry to both Linderhof and Neuschwanstein.

Most of the journey was on the German autobahn with little to see along the way, made worse by the dreary, drizzly weather but we were assured the scenery would improve once we turned off to our first stop. As we neared Linderhof – via a steep, narrow road up a mountain which did not feel suitable for a large coach to travel up! – our guide explained what would happen once we arrived. We were given strict instructions to follow him to the ticket office, making use of the toilets if we wished to while he picked up our tickets before taking our ticket and walking to the palace entrance. Tours were timed so we were warned not to stop at the shop or cafe for anything as if we missed our times entry, that was it. We were also told that the coach would leave on the dot at 10.45 so if we ended up on the second tour slot, we needed to walk quickly back to the coach after – again no time to stop for souvenirs, drinks or snacks!

Fountain in front on Linderhof Palace

Those who had gone to get the tickets off the guide straight away were put on the first tour at 10am while we decided to use the toilets so got allocated on the second tour 10 minutes later. By this time, the drizzle had become heavy rain so we wished we weren’t in the group that had to hang around as there was nowhere to shelter. Our guide told us to watch the fountain show as we waited – every half hour, the fountain outside the palace started up – while the first group would be out by 10.30 and would be able to watch then. As soon as the fountain stopped, our group was called in for the tour.

Watching the fountain before our tour of the palace

While not particularly impressive from the outside, the palace – which like Neuschwanstein, belonged to King Ludwig II, the last King of Bavaria -is definitely worth seeing from the inside! If I had to use one word to describe it, it would be gold. Gold, gold and more gold. Everywhere. It was completely over the top with each room more gaudy and ornate than the previous one. Highlights were the master bedroom and the famous ‘room of mirrors’. Our tour was given by an English speaking guide and we were given a little history behind the building of the palace and the mysterious circumstances of King Ludwig’s premature death. It was a short but interesting tour – we were inside no longer than 20 minutes and were shown just the one floor – and unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any photos inside.

Traditional Bavarian-style houses in Oberammergau

Once our tour was finished, we took a brisk walk back to the coach making it back 5 minutes before the deadline. Luckily, everyone else on the tour was just as conscientious and we were able to depart on schedule.

Theatre where the Passion Play is staged once a decade.
Painted building in Oberammergau

Our next stop was at Oberammergau, a town famous for its painted houses and for its staging of the Passion Play in a purpose built theatre once every 10 years. We drove around the town on the coach as our guide pointed out some of the fairytale inspired designs painted onto many of the houses, along with the essentials like the souvenir stores, cafes and best place for ice cream, before we were dropped off and given about 50 minutes to explore. Luckily, the rain had stopped for the time being so we wandered along the streets looking around at what the town had to offer.

After a spot of shopping and photo taking, the rain started up again so we ducked into a local cafe and ordered some tea and cake before heading back to the coach.

Walking through Oberammergau
View of Neuschwanstein from the village of Schwangau

Next up was the day’s main attraction – a visit to Neuschwanstein Palace. This was just a short distance from Oberammergau and we soon caught our first glimpse of it on a hill in the distance. As we made our way there, our guide explained how the afternoon would run. The time slots for our groups wouldn’t be until at least 3pm meaning we had a few hours in Schwangau, the village in the valley below the palace. During this time, we could get some lunch (not included in the trip price) and had to make our own way to the palace entrance. There were a few options for this – we could walk up the hill to it, take a trip in a horse and cart or, the option recommended by our guide, catch the bus there. Whichever we chose, we were warned we must be there for the time on our ticket as if we missed our slot, there were no transfers to a later time.

Horse and cart rides running to Neuschwanstein from Schwangau and Hohenscwangau Castle in the distance

Once tickets had been handed out – ours with a time slot of 3.05pm – we were left to our own devices until we had to be back on the coach. We’d brought our own lunch with us but struggled to find anywhere to sit and eat it especially as it was raining heavily. We ended up sheltering under a shop awning and eating as we stood there. We spent some time in the souvenir shops, again, mainly to keep out of the rain and also took some photos of Hohenschwangau Palace, another of King Ludwig II’s residences, on the hill opposite Neuschwanstein.

The very busy Marienbrucke

With the queues for the horse and cart being too long and a 40 minute uphill walk in the rain not sounding at all appealing, we decided to catch the bus up the hill to Neuschwanstein. After a steep climb, it dropped us just a short walk from the palace and two nearby viewpoints. Luckily, the rain had briefly stopped so we walked to Marienbrucke, a pedestrian bridge over a gorge which offers amazing views of the palace. There was a huge number of tourists on the bridge, although a handy digital counter just before you reach the bridge told us there was still room for plenty more and we soon found that most people were crowded on the near side.

Once we got past these, there was plenty of room – and better palace views – on the far side of the bridge! While the view of the palace was impressive, it is worth mentioning that it is not the familiar view of the palace used in all the promotional pictures but instead the view of the back of the palace.

The view of Neuschwanstein from Marienbrucke

After taking plenty of photos, we left the bridge and continued our walk to the palace, passing another viewing platform along the way – this one providing sweeping views across to Hohenscwangau Palace and the valley below. From here, it was a steep uphill walk to the palace entrance. We explored what we could of the grounds but the rain started to fall heavily again so we ended up sat in the visitors centre until our time slot came around.

Looking back down at Schwangau and across at Hohenschwangau Castle from the scenic viewpoint

Once inside the palace, we were provided with an audio guide handset each but also told to follow a live guide around the palace. Unlike the informative guide at Linderhof Palace earlier, the only purpose of this guide seemed to be to tell us when to put the audio guides to our ear and unfortunately, our group was so large that it was often hard to see or hear when we were told to do so. The palace interior was not as impressive as Linderhof, being a lot darker and less gaudy and adding to our disappointment, a lot of it was covered up or surrounded by scaffolding as it was under renovation. Like at Linderhof Palace, we were not allowed to take any photos inside but we both agreed the palace was a lot more impressive from the outside than it was in.

Views of the castle from within the grounds

After leaving the palace, we had about 20 minutes to get back to our coach. We had been warned by our guide that we would need to walk back as queues for the buses etc made these more time consuming options and we’d be late. The walk back was at least downhill but still not much fun in the pouring rain. We did easily make it back on time along with everyone else on the trip and left for Munich on schedule.

Looking up at the castle from within the courtyard

Despite hitting the rush hour traffic, we made it back to Munich centre on time and said goodbye to our fellow passengers. Tired from travelling and still damp from the rain, we found somewhere for dinner then walked back to our hotel ready for a quiet in!

Munich City Break

Day trip to Salzburg

One day in Salzburg

While on a recent city break to Munich (read about it here), we decided to take the train to Salzburg, Austria for the day. So how did we spend 1 day in Salzburg?

Getting there

Getting to Salzburg was really straight forward. We booked our tickets in advance and purchased a Bayern Ticket – a travel ticket that can be used on all regional transport including visits inside Bavaria but which also allows travel to the first stop across the border meaning it was valid to travel to Salzburg. The ticket can be purchased for individuals or groups and for 2 of us, worked out at just €32 or €16 return each!

Seats on the train couldn’t be reserved so we arrived at Munich Hauptbahnhof 30 minutes before departure to give us plenty of time to find our platform and get a seat on the train as soon as it arrived. The station was easy to navigate and we soon located the departures board and found our way to the platform to board the train. It took just under 2 hours to reach Salzburg station from Munich!

Sightseeing

From Salzburg Station, it was an easy, straightforward walk towards the city centre. It took about 15-20 minutes to reach Mirabellplatz, home of the famous Mirabell Palace and Gardens.

Mirabell Palace and Gardens

While it is possible to go inside the palace, we decided we probably wouldn’t have time with just a few hours in the city so instead we spent some time strolling around its beautiful gardens, famously featured in the film The Sound of Music. Unfortunately the weather was drizzly and the some of the paths were blocked by large puddles but the rain did nothing to dull the bright colours of the flower filled gardens.

From Mirabellplatz, we passed the small museum at Mozart’s former residence and crossed the pedestrian ‘Love Lock’ bridge from the new side of town to the old town.

Getreidgasse

The street running alongside the river was lined with touristy souvenir stores, pretzel-filled food counters and cafes so we took one of the narrow side roads off the street and found our way to Getreidgasse, a shopping street where ornate signs hang over the store doors. At the far end of the street, we stumbled across the Sound of Music store and museum from where you can take a location tour. Having never actually see the film, I didn’t do this but I have friends who are fans of the movie and have taken the tour and highly recommend it!

Mozart’s Birthplace

Further along Getreidgasse, you will also find Mozart’s Birthplace, now another museum about the composer.

As we wandered up and down the side streets in the old town, we stumbles across Universitatplatz where there was a small market with stalls selling, among other things, souvenirs that were a bit cheaper than in the stores we’d passed. There was also a food van selling giant pretzels in various sweet and savoury flavours – perfect for a lunchtime snack!!

Pretzel stand in Universitatplatz
Mozart statue in the centre of Mozartplatz

Not far from University Square is Residenezplatz, where we got our first glimpse of Salzburg Cathedral, and the adjoining Mozartplatz where a statue of the composer stands proudly in the centre. We followed the road leading around the cathedral, past a game of giant chess going on in Domplatz, to the cathedral entrance and went to have a quick look inside.

Next to the Cathedral, was St Peter’s Abbey. We wandered through its grounds, the Petersfriedhof or St Peter’s Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the city of Salzburg and which, along with the Abbey’s catacombes, also featured in The Sound of Music film.

St Peter’s Abbey and Cemetery
View of the fortress on the hill

Behind the abbey, was the terminus for the funicular railway which takes visitors up the steeps hill to Fortress Hohensalzburg. It is possible to hike u to the fortress but we decided against this and instead bought a value ticket which gave us a return trip on the funicular railway as well as entrance to all parts of the fortress and its museums.

The main reason for visiting the fortress has to be the stunning views over the city from the fort’s grounds. We took the audio tour of the salt rooms which took us up to one of the towers for a 360 degree view of the surrounding city and the mountains looming in the distance.

In one of the state rooms

The fortress museums did not take long to look around and in all honesty, our ticket upgrade giving us access to the state rooms probably wasn’t worth it as there really wasn’t a lot to see in the couple of rooms this allowed us into although there did seem to be a few sections of the fortress closed off for renovations on the day we visited.

As we left the fortress, the drizzle turned to a full on downpour. We abandoned our plan to walk down the hill back into the city and instead made use of our return ticket to ride the funicular down. Hoping it would be a passing shower, we made our way back to Mozartplatz and went for tea and a slice of traditional Sacher Torte chocolate cake at Glockenspiel Cafe. Being in a touristy area, the refreshments were a bit pricier than usual but the cake was so light and absolutely delicious!

A slice of Sacher Torte!

With the rain not abating, we walked back to Getreidgasse and spent some time shopping to keep dry before it was time to walk back to the station for our evening train back to Munich. While we could easily have filled another day or so in Salzburg taking a walking tour, visiting the palace and its many museums or, in better weather, taking a riverside walk or a river cruise, a day had been long enough to see the main sights and get a flavour of the pretty city. And it’s definitely a city I’d like to return to someday.

Read about my Munich city break.

Munich City Break

What did Munich have to offer?

Last week, I flew out to Munich for a few days. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s not my first time in the city. On my last visit though, 11 years ago now, I was there less than 24 hours and had only 2 of those hours to get out into the city – and then the main aim was finding somewhere for dinner, not sightseeing!

So this time, while the reason for my visit – a Backstreet Boys concert! – was the same, I wanted my experience of the city to be very different. With this in mind, we booked 4 nights in the city giving us 3 fulls days and 2 bits of a day at either end of the trip to explore.

Travelling to the city from Munich airport

We had investigated in advance our options for getting to our hotel from the airport – taxi, bus or S-Bahn train – and decided to opt for the train. We easily followed the green ‘S’ sign out of the arrivals terminal and to the train station and the ticket machines could be put into English and were straight forward to use. Again, from a bit of pre-planning, we knew which station we needed to get to and the ticket type and price we needed so we could see that the price and details that came up on the screen matched what we expected. For those of you not comfortable using the ticket machines, you could queue for a counter service instead.

The S1 and S8 trains both run in the direction of the Hautpbahnhof – Munich’s Central Station and while our hotel was walkable from here, we got off one stop away at Hackebrucke station which was slightly nearer. We had noted down directions to our hotel from here and found it straight away without any problems.

Where to stay in Munich

We could probably have done a bit more research on this. On my first visit to the city, we had stayed in Hotel Mirabelle which offered triple rooms and was walkable from the station. This was slightly out of our price range this time. Our search concentrated on hotels within our budget which included breakfast and were walkable from the main station so that we could get to the concert easily. We booked at Hotel Munich City which fulfilled both criteria but being west of the station was a slightly longer walk from the main part of the city – about 30 minutes stroll from Karlsplatz, 15-20 mins walk from the main station – than we’d have really liked and not quite close enough to the metro train system that it made using this instead of walking time efficient. Apart from this though, the hotel was fine for our needs. The room was on the small side but we didn’t spend much time in it anyway and breakfast was excellent!

Sightseeing in Munich

After booking our trip and doing some research on the city, we found that maybe we’d overestimated how much time we’d need in Munich as it’s quite a compact city with less touristy things to do – that appealed to us at least – than we’d thought. Therefore we decided to book a few trips out of the city to fill 2 of our full days there (I’ll review these is a separate post when I get the chance!).

Fountain at Karlsplatz
Karlsplatz Gate

Upon arrival at our hotel, our main priority was finding food. Being a Sunday evening, this wasn’t as straight forward as it sounds, especially when you’re two fussy eaters who don’t want to go near the various sausage-filled Bavarian cuisine most touristy restaurants that were open were offering!! While wandering around looking for somewhere that served food that we ate at a price we could afford, we found ourselves passing many of the city’s main squares. Karlsplatz and the shopping street leading from it’s gate, was familiar to me from my last visit although this time the huge fountain in the middle of the square was switched on. The square is surrounded by various shops and fast food restaurants and if you follow the subway escalator down you’ll find an underground mall with more eating and shopping opportunities.

After strolling down the high street from Karlsplatz, we found ourselves in Marienplatz, home of the Rethhaus or Townhall. This square is famous for its Glockenspiel Clock which chimes at certain times throughout the day. We arrived just in time to see its last display of the day. While it was fun to watch at first, it went on for a long time!!!

Off on a Segway Tour

We also wandered past Munich’s Cathedral with its twin towers and past Promenadeplatz, randomly the home of a Michael Jackson Memorial set up by fans in front of a hotel he once stayed at, before settling on L’Osteria restaurant for dinner, an Italian chain serving huge pizzas.

Our Segways lined up during a break in Englischer Garten

The next day, we had booked ourselves on a Segway Tour of the city with Fat Tyre Tours. We have taken segway tours in a few US citied over the last few years and always find them a fun way of seeing the highlights of a city. We figured we could return to anywhere that looked interesting after the tour had finished and spend more time there.

The 3.5 hour tour started at Karlsplatz and then took us up though the Old Botanic Gardens into Konigsplatz and past some of the city’s museums before a stop in Odeonsplatz to visit one of the beautiful Theatine Church and a ride around the courtyards of the Munich Residenz Palace. Later, we rode into the Englischer Garten Park where we stopped for coffee and watched surfers riding the ‘Munich Wave’ on the River Isar. We followed the river back into the main part of the city and battled our way past the busy Viktualienmarkt and Petersplatz before returning to Karlsplatz.

As well as getting to see a lot of the city in less time than it would have taken walking or using public transport, we also learnt a lot including where the famous ‘biergarten’ had originated from!!

After a lunch stop, we decided to return to the Viktualienmarkt area we’d earlier whizzed past and spend a bit of time going around the market and visiting it’s biergarten. The market is a great place to visit if you’re after some cheap souvenirs or want to grab some food and there was a great atmosphere at its busy biergarten.

The Biergarten in Viktualienmrkt

That was all we had time for in the city that day as we had to get ready to go over to the Olympic Park for the evening’s concert.  The Olympic Park can be reached easily by train from Odeonsplatz and is home to a few of the city’s tourist attractions.  It is where you need to head to if you’re into your cars and want to tour the BMW Factory and Museum and is also home to the TV Tower with it’s observation deck.  We had thought about heading out a bit earlier so we could go up to the observation deck but unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse and we decided there wouldn’t be much of a view at that point!

The Monopteros in Munich’s Englischer Garten

After spending the next 2 days doing trips out of the city, we had a few hours on the last morning of our trip to do some last minute sightseeing. With the rain finally stopping and the sun coming out, we decided to get the train to one of the stops near to the Englischer Garten and explore the park a bit more. We walked in to the park from the west side and followed the main path towards the Monopteros, a Greek style circular structure on top of a hill in the middle of the park.

We climbed up the hill to the tower and sat and enjoyed the sunshine and view across the park for a while before wandering through the park up to the large boating lake and past its biergarten. Before we knew it, it was time to return to the city centre and walk back to our hotel to collect our luggage before returning to the airport.

The boating lake in Englischer Garten

I’d enjoyed my trip to Munich and having more time to see the city this time around and would definitely recommend it as a short break destination!

Travel mascots

Do you have a travel mascot?

I do.

This is Mr Ted. Whenever I take a trip somewhere, he comes along. I’m not really sure how it started. He began life in a Birthdays store and was bought in my past life as a ‘craven’ – someone who goes to meet their favourite celebs at TV shows, concerts etc, Mr Ted would come with me and have his photo taken with any celebrities I met.

He had his own geocities website back in the day – yes, he’s been around that long!

I don’t remember at what point he went from having photos with confused-looking celebrities to having photos in front of famous landmarks and beautiful scenery. I have a few pictures of him at the local park, zoo and theme park back in the early ’00s and I guess at some point this merged into him coming along with me on day trips and holidays. He came with me on my first trip to New York in 2005 and has been with me again on all 9 of my consequent trips to that city!

As a Key Stage 1 teacher, I soon realised Mr Ted was an invaluable teaching tool, especially during geography topics. The more places I visited, the more photos I had and I’d make slide shows of some of his adventures to teach the children about Australia, the USA and Europe. I even took photos of him in Birmingham to teach the children about their local environment and of London during our Fire of London topic!

This became my go to excuse when I’d get strange looks from other travellers as I dragged him out of my backpack and held him up in front of my camera – “I’m a teacher and it’s to help the children with their Around the World topic!” I’d claim. When really, they’d never see most of the photos, they’d be for me – a different take on the usual photos of scenery and landmarks.

Sydney

As social media grew, I started an Instagram page for my mascot. Mr Ted’s Adventures currently has over 1000 followers, many of them other travel addicts with mascots they take everywhere! Here I backposted the thousands of photos I had of Mr Ted in various locations around the World as well as posting more up to date snaps from our current trips.

Copenhagen

On the group tours I often do when travelling solo, it can sometimes take a few days before I feel comfortable pulling Mr Ted out for a photo. I can feel a bit ridiculous sometimes standing there with a bear in my hand! But most of the time, the reaction is positive and people seem to think it’s a good idea.

Once another group member even revealed she also had a travel mascot but had been too nervous to bring it out of her bag until she’d seen me with mine!

So that’s Mr Ted, my well travelled bear. You can say hi to him and follow his adventures on his instagram page, @mr_teds_adventures here.

If you’ve got a travel mascot to accompany you on your adventures, let me know. Maybe they can be Mr Ted’s new friends!!