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!!

First time trip to Dubai

Dubai. I’d been through the airport (and what an airport!) on trips to Australia and New Zealand many a time and always said that one day I’d leave the airport and actually visit the city either as a stopover or as a holiday in itself. Despite this, each year, it never came up as a destination I ever seriously thought about going to, maybe because I do a lot of trips independently and it felt like the type of holiday to do with friends and almost definitely because of the cost – it always seemed a lot to spend on flights and a hotel for somewhere I’d only want to spend a few days. But when my friend and I were awarded some compensation for a heavily delayed flight, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally see beyond the airport’s passport control gates!

Our compensation money went a long way towards funding our 6-night stay. Deciding on practicality over opulence, we settled on a stay at the Barcelo Residence Dubai Marina, serviced apartments rather than a hotel, meaning we could save a bit of money making our own breakfast and lunch and even dinner if we wanted to. The stay and the flights with Royal Brunei Airlines came to under £600 each in total. As we’d be arriving very early in the morning and leaving very late at night, we could have had the option of saving some money by not including the first and last night of our stay but that would have meant having to hang around to check in at 2pm after arriving at 5am on our first day and having to stay out all day til midnight on our departure day. So instead we decided to bookend our 4 full nights with extra nights each side. This worked out well as it meant when we arrived just before 5 in the morning, our apartment was ready and we were able to have a few hours sleep before getting up at about 11am, feeling refreshed and ready to go; and on our flight home day we were able to leave our things in the apartment all day and go back to shower and freshen up before checking out just after midnight to get to the airport.

Although living nearer Birmingham, we flew from Heathrow as the flights were a lot cheaper from here. Despite regularly flying from Heathrow, I’d not been to Terminal 4 before and was surprised at how small it was compared to the other terminals with just a handful of shops and restaurants on the departure concourse. Flying with Royal Brunei Airlines was another first for me – again chosen purely because they were the cheapest flights on offer – but I was impressed with theHub flight, staff and in-flight service and wouldn’t hesitate in booking with them again. I would usually look into using public transport to travel between the destination airport and my accommodation but seeing as we arrived at 3.30am, and especially after a very long process waiting for shuttles to take us to passport control in the huge Dubai airport, we just wanted to get there so jumped in a taxi instead. Luckily our driver was familiar with our apartment block and we were soon there, checked in and in our room asleep!

Our 32nd floor serviced apartment was lovely – good sized, well-equipped kitchen, living area with a large TV, separate bedroom with a huge king-sized bed and a really nice bathroom but the best thing about it was the view of the marina and the beach! It was so nice to open our curtains each morning and look out to blue skies and that view and just as amazing to look out and see Dubai all lit up at night.

Walking by Dubai Marina

We had roughly planned how to spend each day in advance, deciding on buying a Turbo Pass tourist card which basically gave us access to the hop on/off sightseeing bus service for the entirety of our stay along with all the inclusions that usually come with it (boat trips, Atlantis aquarium…) and also included a trip up the Burj Khalifa observation deck and a desert safari so after a quick trip to the convenience store next to our apartment block to pick up some supplies, we took a stroll to the Marina Mall where we could redeem our Turbo Pass e-ticket.

The roof at the Marina Mall

We easily navigated our way to the Marina walk and found the Mall. We had been slightly worried about dress code inside the malls of Dubai and had both worn cut-offs that covered our knees and slipped on cardigans when we entered the mall but most tourists we passed inside were dress like they were heading to the beach in shorts and vest tops! The mall was huge and it took a while to find the Dubai Bus vendor but once we had located it, our e-ticket was quickly exchanged for our bus pass. The bus offered 3 different tour routes and we jumped on the Marina route bus which would take us to Dubai’s famous Palm Jumeirah and Atlantis hotel.

Atlantis, The Palm
Entering The Lost Chambers Aquarium

We hopped off at the Atlantis and were given wristbands for our included entry into The Lost Chambers Aquarium just inside the hotel. The hotel really reminded me of the themed hotels in Vegas with it’s attention to detail. We had a quick wander around the parts open to non-residents including a ‘street bazaar’ down one of the passageways before heading to the aquarium. While not being much different to visiting the local sealife centre, we had still had fun looking at all the colourful fish on display.

Looking out to sea from Atlantis Hotel

After leaving Atlantis, we jumped back on the bus and listened to the commentary for the rest of the route, hopping off again once we’d reached the marina again. The sun was just starting to go down so we returned to our apartment to freshen up before going to find somewhere for dinner.

The Walk

For dinner that – and most – evenings, we visited The Walk, a lively area sandwiched between Jumeirah Beach and the Jumeirah Beach Residence where lots of cafes and restaurants are situated. Over the course of the trip, we had good and relatively well-priced meals at restaurants in the area including Margherita Pizzeria and Mighty Quinn’s BBQ.

Full from dinner, we wandered around The Walk a bit more before fighting the jetlag to visit Hilton The Walk’s Skybar. We’d had this recommended as a nice rooftop bar by friends who had previously visited and had read that every Tuesday was ‘Ladies Night’ where there were free drinks for all ladies after 9pm! We had the rules explained to us by bar staff – coupons were provided for a few free drinks from a set list and there was also unlimited access to treats including a chocolate fountain with marshmallows and fruit to dip in!

On our second day, we decided to take the marina and lagoon boat tour included in our bus ticket. We made it to the Marina Mall ticket booth in what we thought was plenty of time to make the next boat only to be told we had a 10 minute walk to where the boat departed from! Deciding to make a dash for it, we hurried off and found the boat just in time. The boat was one of the traditional Dhow boats used in the evening for dinner cruises. During the day, the cruises don’t include the food or entertainment but instead cruised out from the marina to the ocean for views of Jumeirah Beach and the Palm. There was a sporadic commentary as we sailed in which we learnt that much of the area we were cruising through had not existed just 10 years earlier and was still just desert. The constant development and expansion of the country was something we saw a lot of during our stay. Construction work was going on in every direction – new skyscrapers, new hotels, new beaches and islands…!

Camels on the beach!

After lunch at a bar along The Walk, we spent a couple of hours on Jumeirah Beach. While sat relaxing, we were surprised as a couple of camels wandered along the shore and continued up the beach towards the Palm. Certainly not something you expect to see everyday!

With it being another hot and humid day, I decided to cool off with a dip in the crystal clear water only to discover it was warm and didn’t really help me to cool down at all!!

This evening, we had booked a place on a desert safari. We were picked up at our apartments and taken along with some fellow tourists out of the city to see the sand dunes of Dubai. Here, we drove around in a 4 by 4 jeep, up and down across the huge dunes. There were a few times I thought the car was going to flip over but it was great fun and I wished we had spent a bit longer on this part of the trip. Instead, we were then dropped at a ‘Bedouin camp’ in the desert where as soon as we exited the vehicle, we were pounced upon by people trying to sell us a variety of trinkets and experiences – a traditional headscarf was placed on my head before I even knew what was going on, someone else tried to place a falcon on our arm for a photo, others shouted at us to take a camel ride to the tallest dunes for yet another photo opportunity.

We politely turned down these offers and instead took the included activities – a free camel ride in which the poor, grumpy camel literally walked around in a circle (this was more than enough of a ride for my friend!), trying on traditional Arab robes and having a henna tattoo – before we were asked to take our seats for the buffet meal and traditional entertainment.

While for the most part, the food didn’t suit my very plain taste, I still found enough to eat to fill up on and the entertainers – a spinning dancer and a flame juggler – were fantastic. The night finished very abruptly not long after the meal service had finished and we all piled out of the camp to look for our driver to take us back to the city and our apartment.

On our way to the desert safari, we had had our first glimpse of the Burj Khalifa, Dubai’s tallest building and the tallest building in the World. We had booked a trip to the observation deck today so began our morning navigating our way there on public transport. Using the metro system turned out to be relatively easy but we we didn’t count on was the long walk from the station and through the huge Dubai Mall to find the entrance to the building!

Once we arrived it didn’t take too long queuing for the elevator to take us to the top. The views were stunning although I was a little disappointed that the observation deck was nowhere near the top of the building (although still higher up than any other observation deck in the world!)

We spent about an hour on the observations deck then managed to find our way back through the huge mall to the viewing area for the Dubai fountains show. Similar to the fountain show in from of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, these fountains ‘dance’ to the music. There are limited show during the day and then more regular shows in the evening. While we enjoyed watching the fountains dance, we both agreed it would be more magical at night and made a mental note to return one evening before leaving the city.

Burj al Arab

From Dubai Mall, we took another hop on/off bus tour, this time the Beach Tour route. This took us out of the built up downtown area towards Jumeirah Public Beach passing the famous sail-shaped Burj al Arab hotel along the way. We hopped off the bus at Souk Madinat, at shopping centre themed like a traditional Middle Eastern Bazaar. It was a great place for souvenir shopping and out the back there were canals where you could take boat rides and lots of cafes and restaurants to sit out at enjoying the views.

We spent about an hours at Souk Madinat before catching the next bus. The next stop was at the Mall of the Emirates, another huge shopping centre. We had half an hour to wait before our connecting bus back to the marina area departed so had a wander around but had to be very careful not to get lost!

That evening we had a night out at nearby club, Zero Gravity. Most of the venue is outside and the club opens during the day for pool parties too. The club attracts quite a few well known acts and DJs and that evening, Europop group The Vengaboys were playing. It was a really fun night out at a great venue!

The Vengaboys on stage at Zero Gravity

After the extra late night, we slept in late the next morning but once up and awake, we hopped on the metro to the Dubai Mall where the final sightseeing bus route, the downtown loop, departed from. This route took us through downtown past the Egyptian-themed WAFI mall (yes, yet another shopping centre – I’ve never known a city with so many!!) and up to Dubai Creek.

We hopped off the bus by the Creek in Bur Dubai and caught an Abra boat across to the Deira area on the other side. Abras are tradition wooden boats which act like water taxis ferrying locals back and forth across Dubai Creek for just 1 Dirham (approximately 20p in UK money!). It was certainly an interesting way to travel squashing onto the side of the raft-like boat and I was quite glad when we safely reached the other side!

Our sightseeing bus ticket included a cruise along Dubai Creek departing from the Deira area. We had hoped to have time to visit some of the local Souks or markets in the area but traffic had delayed the bus meaning by the time we had crossed the creek, we were just in time for the last departure of the day. Once again, the cruise was on a traditional Dhow boat and there was a bit of a commentary of what we were passing as we cruised back and forth along the Creek.

After our boat trip we caught the last sightseeing bus back to Dubai Mall and spent some time looking around and trying not to get lost! The mall is the largest shopping centre in the world and has a huge aquarium, fountains, an ice rink and many other attractions all under its roof. We ate dinner at the Rainforest Cafe where animatronic jungle animals screech and move all around as you eat before fighting our way through the Friday night crowds to watch the dancing fountains again.

As expected, watching the fountains at night, lit up and dancing to the traditional music, was much more atmospheric and special than it was watching during the day. We just about arrived early enough to find a good spot at the front with a great view but it is possible to book balcony seats at the overlooking restaurants to watch as you’re eating or even to watch from a boat!

Our walk back to the apartment from the metro station took us past the marina – the first time we had seen it lit up at night / so we spent some time wandering past the towering buildings and across the bridges watching the Dhow boats sail past before returning to our room.

It has been a busy week so we decided to have a bit more relaxed final day. We spent our time close to the area we were staying, walking a bit further along the marina walkways and venturing further along The Walk than we had before. After a light lunch at a cafe, we spent a lazy afternoon on the beach before returning to our apartment to pack up our things. After one last meal out on The Walk and one more wander past the bright lights of the marina, it was time to check out and get a taxi back to the airport.

I’d been pleasantly surprised by my visit to Dubai, having a great week exploring and I’d definitely like to return a few years down the line to see the latest developments in the ever changing and growing city!

Dubai Marina at night

The Hollywood Sign

As mentioned in my post on Hollywood, it’s possible to see the famous Hollywood sign clearly from the walkways across the arch at the Hollywood Highland Centre and if you take a Star Homes Tour into the Hollywood Hills, you will most likely stop at the Mulholland Lookout Point. But while both of these places give you good views of the sign and enable you to get a photo of the sign if you zoom in on your camera, they are not great if you want a clear photo with the sign as it looks tiny in the background from here.

Vire of the Hollywood Sign from the scenic point on Mulholland.

If you want to get closer, you are going to need to take a hike!

Along with the Walk of Fame, the Hollywood sign will probably be a must-see on any first time visit to LA. As I’ve mentioned previously, you don’t need to leave Hollywood Boulevard to see the sign with it being visible from the arch at the Hollywood Highland Centre and other viewpoints include the stop along Mulholland included in most of the Star Homes Tours or from Griffith Observatory. But if you want to get closer and get a good photo of yourself with the sign, then you really need put on your walking shoes!

View of the sign from the road

Both times I’ve got a bit closer to the sign, I’ve taken a DASH bus from the intersection of Hollywood and Vine – by the Capitol Records Building – towards Beachwood Canyon. The first time I went looking for a good viewpoint, we got a little lost and ended up climbing Deronda Drive where we accidentally stumbled upon a great view of the sign in a residential district.

It did mean standing in the road in between cars passing by to get a photo with it though – probably not the best or safest idea!

Warning signs hiking through the Hollywood Hills

The next time I went looking for the sign, I followed a set of instructions found on line which took me onto the Hollyridge Trail via a pathway by Sunset Ranch. I followed the trail – and other hikers – to a trail that eventually lead me to a path that climbed up behind the Hollywood sign. Unfortunately, access to this trail at Sunset Ranch has now been closed but that doesn’t mean you can no longer hike to the sign.

Hiking to Mount Lee, view from behind the Hollywood sign

You can now pick the trail up at the ‘Deronda Gate’, further along Deronda Drive at it’s intersection with Mulholland. It’s about a 1 mile walk from where the DASH bus drops you in Beachwood Canyon but the path is steep making it a difficult walk especially in the LA heat. If you don’t have a car, you can get a taxi or Uber to the gate then hike the trail from there. Although the main trail takes you behind the sign, there are great views of the front of it too, close enough for you to get a photo with it, or you can turn off the main path to get a bit closer before retracing your steps and hiking back.

Getting closer to the sign

If you’re unsure of finding the sign yourself and think you might end up lost in the Hollywood Hills, there are a few companies offering guided hikes. This year, I’ve booked a sunset tour with Bikes and Hikes LA. While I’m not expecting to get as close to the sign, I’m looking forward to hiking into the hills from Griffith Park and hearing a bit about the area and the history of the sign from the tour’s guide as well as getting a few photos from a different angle.

Another different way of visiting the sign is by horse back. Sunset Ranch in Beachwood Canyon offer various guided horse trail rides into the Hollywood Hills and past the sign throughout the day.

LA Overview

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Downtown LA

Beach Cities

LA Studio Tours

Los Angeles Studio Tours

I’m a huge movie buff and cult TV viewer and I love a good movie tour and LA currently offers 4 of them. For some reason, I never got around to doing any of these tours on my first few visits to the city but I’ve since made up for it doing 2 of these tours on my 3rd visit and the others on my 2 subsequent visits. While I did have a favourite – the Warner Brother’s Studio Tour – they all had their merits and are worth doing if you are a film and TV fan.

Warner Brothers Studio Experience

Our WB Studios Tour was included on our Go LA pass but we wanted to book in advance to guarantee a spot at the time we wanted. This wasn’t a problem as we’d booked our pass well in advance so it was just a case of emailing the studios with our Go Card reference number to get our time slot scheduled in. Getting to the studios required a bus journey from Hollywood, the first time I’d ever used a public transport bus in the city and typically, the next stop announcer wasn’t working. Luckily, we got a friendly driver who took pity on us now knowing where on earth we were going, gave us a shout once we were at the stop we needed!

Anyway, the tour itself was great – we were taken around the studios on a little golf-buggy type vehicle passing exteriors used in shows including Friends – I’ve never been so excited to see a patch of grass but it was the patch of grass that Phoebe ran on!! We also had time to explore the Studio’s museum, one of which had a collection of Batman memorabilia from various shows and films over the years, another a Harry Potter exhibition with many props and costumes and one with a collection of vehicles used in WB films and shows including the Batmobile – as a complete geek who love Harry Potter and any comic book shows, I was in heaven! Next, we got taken to some of the studios’ sound stages seeing inside the studio where the Ellen Show is filmed and another where a comedy show was shot in front of a live audience. Then we saw an outdoor area which, at the time, was set up as ‘Bluebell, Alabama’ in the series ‘Hart of Dixie’ but also doubled as the town in Pretty Little Liars amongst other things. As I watched Hart of Dixie at the time, I was very excited to see the familiar shop fronts from ‘Bluebelle’ and well as walk into the church set used in the show and then see the sound stage where the interior shots are filmed!

The final part of the Warner Brothers Studio Experience, and probably a big selling point for many, is a visit to the Central Perk set from Friends, now recreated in unused studio where you can sit and pose for photos on the couch!

The recreated Central Perk set at WB

Universal Studios Hollywood

Universal City Walk

The day after we visited the WB Studios, we spent the day at Universal Studios not far from Hollywood. To tour the studios here, you need entry into the park. Getting there was an easy ride on the metro from Hollywood/Highland Station followed by jumping on the free shuttle bus up the hill to the Universal City Walk. The City Walk is a vibrant entertainment district with shops and restaurants with the Studios complex itself at the end of it. Despite it being the start of August, the Studios weren’t too busy and we managed to go on most of the rides without too much of a queue. We also enjoyed all the shows on offer.

The Simpsons Ride at Universal

The actual Studio Tour can be taken at any time during your visit. After queuing, we boarded a bus which then rode around the studios while our guide commentated on what we were seeing. Unlike the WB Tour, there was no opportunity to stop and get off the bus on the way around – in fact it moved constantly – and, for the most part, sets were much more in the distance than at Warner Brothers. The tour also felt a bit more like a ride as special effects were timed to go off as we drove past. The highlight for me was seeing ‘Wisteria Lane’ where Desperate Housewives was filmed!

Sony Pictures Studio Tour

I toured the Sony Pictures Studios on a flying visit to the city during which I was staying at Santa Monica. From there, I had to catch a bus to Culver City – part of LA I really enjoyed strolling through and felt had a really nice feel to it! – then walk to the Studio Building where the tours went from. The directions on the confirmation email were not great and I struggled to find the building at first but luckily I’d left plenty of time and thanks to some helpful studio employees giving me directions, I eventually found it. The building housed some props and costumes from various films which we were encouraged to look at while we waited for our tour to be called.

No bus or golf buggy this time – instead we toured the studios on foot. The studios are most famous for being where classic film The Wizard of Oz was filmed and as you enter, a huge rainbow looms over you and can be seen from most points of the tour! I found this tour a lot more informative on the workings of the studios and film and TV production in general than the other tours which made it one of my favourites as I found it really interesting. We were taken to rooms where various stages of post-production take place such as where the sound effects are added and – one of the tour’s highlights – we got to stand in the music studio where Judy Garland recorded Somewhere Over the Rainbow! Sticking with the Wizard of Oz theme, we got to glance into the sound studio where the movie was filmed – obviously set up for a completely different production now. Like in the Warner Brother’s Tour, we got to see inside a current set although this time, I wasn’t lucky enough for it to be for a show I watched.

Paramount Studios

The final tour offered in LA is of Paramount Studios, just outside of Hollywood. I took an easy bus ride followed by a short walk to get there. After photos in front of the famous studio gates, we again boarded a golf buggy type vehicle to be driven around the back lot. I feel we got to spend a bit more time out of the vehicle walking around the back lot than we did on the WB Tour but there were less-recognisable things to see than at Warner – to me at least! I was excited to get to stand inside the ‘McKinley High’ set from Glee which luckily had yet to be dismantled despite the last ever episode being filmed there recently!

At the end of this tour, I really enjoyed seeing the room where a lot of old props and costumes are stored!

While I really enjoyed all of these tours and seeing a bit behind the scenes of some of my favourite films and shows, just a warning that doing a tour will completely ruin your illusions when watching in the future. There are so many times now that I’m watching TV shows or films and I recognise sets from one of the studios and am able to pinpoint which studio it was filmed at, it can take me away from what’s happening on screen a bit! I the same way, the first few films I saw after doing the Sony Tour, I spent the whole time thinking about what we’d been told about sound effects every time there was a background sound or door creak. But if you’re ok with this, then I definitely recommend booking a tour if you’re in LA!

LA Overview

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

The Hollywood Sign

Downtown LA

Beach Cities