Dublin

The River Liffey running through Dublin city

Despite it being just a short 45 minute flight from my local airport, its only been within the last few years that I first visited the Irish capital. I loved it so much, I’ve been back a few times since, trying to see a bit more of this colourful city each time.

Here are some of my tips and favourite things to do on a short city break in Dublin!

Getting around

Samuel Beckett Bridge

Generally arriving at Dublin’s international airport, I have always made use of its airport link bus with its regular and, in my experience, reliable services in and out of the city. It is also possible to use the local buses between the airport and the city. While a slightly cheaper option, these buses make more stops along the way so the journey takes longer but depending on where you are staying, might possibly drop you more local to you accommodation so are worth looking into.

For the most part, Dublin itself is a pretty walkable city, but for those attractions a bit further afield, it is well served by public transport with an easy to use tram service running alongside the local buses.

Customs House

On my first visit to the city, I made use of the hop on/off tourist bus to get around. Most of the buses came with a live guide rather than a pre-recorded commentary and we found it a convenient way to get out towards those attractions which weren’t quite walkable from where we were staying – such as the Guinness Factory and Phoenix Park – while also learning some of the history of the city.

Where to stay

Ha’penny Bridge

Each time I have visited the city, I have stayed in different areas of the city as well as very different types of accommodation. On my first visit, we stayed north of the River Liffey where we found prices to be cheaper. This put us close to O’Connell Street and it was still walkable Temple Bar and other more touristy areas across the river. Our accommodation on that trip was Anchor House, one of the many small, family run guesthouses in the area and was perfect for what we needed for a 4 night break in the city.

The Spire on O’Connell Sreet

If it’s a bit of luxury you are after then I couldn’t fault the beautiful and very conveniently located Westin Hotel by Trinity College. I stayed there after winning it at an extremely reduced price last minute in a priceline bid and it has to be one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in.

To cut down the cost of eating out, a city apartment is always a good bet. We booked an apartment for 4 located in the Temple Bar area though The Key Collection and making full use of the kitchen to save a bit of money.

For budget hotels in the city, you can’t go wrong with a Travelodge and we found the St Stephens Green Travelodge to be particularly well-located for the price.

Things to do

On my first trip to the city, seeing as many sights as we could was the main priority. We spent 4 nights in the city giving us 3 and a half days to explore and we easily managed to fill this time.

Guinness Storehouse

Visiting the Guinness Storehouse attraction

Using the hop on/off bus, we started with the famous Guinness Factory. While not a big drinker and certainly not a drinker of stout, visiting the Guinness Storehouse while in Dublin just seemed like a must-do.

My diet coke next to a pint of Guinness, and below, views from the Gravity Bar

The self-guided tour through the factory traced the story of the drink showing the brewing process, providing samples to try along the way and also covering the role of the drink in popular culture and adverting for the brand. The highlight though, came right at the end with a visit to the Gravity Bar, a bar on top of the Storehouse which offers views across the capital. After trying a sample of Guinness along the tour and deciding it definitely wasn’t for me, I opted to exchange the voucher we had been given for a free Guinness in the bar for a Diet Coke instead!!

If whiskey is more your thing, then there are a few distilleries you can tour in Dublin including the original site of the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street.

Trinity College and the Book of Kells

The next day, we walked across the River Liffey to south Dublin and visited Trinity College. While it is possible to take a guided tour of this historic campus, we chose to look around by ourselves, picking up some pamphlets from its visitors office. Here, we also booked tickets into the college’s Book of Kells exhibition. The Book of Kells is an illustrated Gospel dating back to the first century and it was really interesting to see pages of the intricately decorated text and learn about it.

Kilmainham Gaol

Touring Kilmainham Gaol

That afternoon, we hopped back onto the tour bus, riding it out towards Phoenix Park and hopping off at Kilmainham Gaol. This former prison can be visited by taking a guided tour. Our small group was lead around the building with its history and stories of former inmates explained to us. With Ireland having such a rich history of civil unrest, there were plenty of tales to be told and while this was one of the more unusual attractions on our list, we found the tour fascinating.

Shopping

The Temple Bar pub

Staying more central the next day, we wandered back towards the River Liffey, veering off O’Connell Street for a spot of shopping on Henry Street. Running west from the huge Spire sculpture on O’Connell Street, Henry Street is a great place to shop with a huge selection of high street stores including Penney’s, the Irish version of Primark.

The Molly Malone statue

Heading next across the bridge to the Temple Bar area with its cobbled streets and snapping a photo with the famous Temple Bar pub, we then walked along the river to take photos with the iconic Ha’penny Bridge before walking further into the city, past the Molly Malone Statue and up to Grafton Street.

This is the main shopping street in Dublin, lined with department stores such as Brown Thomas and high street favourites like the Disney Store. It is also well-known for its buskers. Acts can only play there for an hour before moving on so there’s usually something different on offer each time you walk down the street!

Dublin Parks

Above, and below, exploring St Stephen’s Green

At the top of Grafton Street, lies St Stephen’s Green, a pretty city park with landscaped gardens, fountains, a lake and sculptures dotted around. We found the park to be an oasis of calm from the busy city and enjoyed our stroll through.

If you enjoy exploring green spaces then head to Phoenix Park in the west of the city. This park is one of the largest in Europe and also home to Dublin Zoo.

Literary Links

Oscar Wilde sculpture in Merrion Square

Not far from St Stephen’s Green is smaller Merrion Square. Our main reason for visiting this park was to see the Oscar Wilde sculpture surrounded by some of his famous quotes.

If you’re a fan of Irish literary works, then a visit to Dublin’s Writers’ Museum on the north side of the river at Parnell Square is a must do.

The Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square

The museum celebrates the works of Irish writers including Wilde, Yeats, Joyce with letters, books and personal artefacts on display and an audio tour guiding you through is included in the admission.

While in the area, we also visited the Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square.

Dublin Castle

I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know Dublin had a castle until it was pointed out to me on the hop on/off bus tour of the city!

Above, and below, visiting Dublin Castle

We decided to visit and took the guided tour option which took us through the state apartments and more. We found the tour interesting, providing plenty of history on the city although after taking the bus tour and Kilmainham Gaol tour, we felt we had heard some of the stories over and over again by now.

We did especially enjoy seeing the many opulently decorated rooms of the castle.

River Liffey Boat Cruise

Looking out across the River Liffey

We got out on the River Liffey taking a 45-minute guided river cruise with Dublin Discovered Boat Tours. The boats were fully enclosed allowing the cruises to operate in any weather but had large glass windows allowing us good views out as we sailed down the river.

The tour took us down to Dublin Docklands from Grattan Street bridge in the city centre and back as the history of some of the many bridges we passed under was explained as well as important building such as Customs House pointed out.

Evenings out

Attending a concert at The Point’s o2 Arena

Since my first visit to Dublin, I have returned a further three times, each time the main reason being to attend a concert. The city’s o2 Arena, east of the city on the north bank of the River Liffey at The Point, is a great venue and easy to get to on public transport from the city if you don’t fancy the walk.

Irish entertainment at The Arlington Hotel

If you’re after some Irish culture, there are a few venues in the city offering traditional Celtic nights with Irish dancers and music. We attended one at the Arlington Hotel. Although it was possible to attend it as a dinner show with a 3-course meal included, we opted to just sit in the bar area and have drinks while watching the entertainment.

Dublin has a lively nightlife with the Temple Bar area being especially popular with clubbers and stag and hen parties. We chose to stay away from that area in the evening but did enjoy a visit to Cafe En Seine on Dawson Street with its Art Nouveau decor and delicious cocktails.

Dublin’s General Post Office, home of the GPO Museum

Dublin has lots to offer and plenty of other attractions to visit including many World-class museums such as the National Gallery of Ireland, the National Museum of Ireland’s Natural History Museum, The Little Museum of Dublin and the GPO Museum.

It is a city I love to return to over and over again!

New York at Christmas

View of the Empire State Building from Herald Square

Despite having visited New York multiple times (you can read my guide to the city here), it had always been at Easter or during the summer. As a teacher, I was only able to take trips in the school holidays and it usually worked out that the Christmas break began right before Christmas itself and then continued into the New Year meaning unless I wanted to be away for Christmas Day – which I didn’t – there was never time to fit in a short break before Christmas and make it back in time.

So as soon as I made the decision to take a break from my teaching career, the first trip I booked was a mid-December visit to New York City. We made the decision to stay outside of Manhattan for the first time, just across the East River in the borough of Queens, to cut costs. We ensured the hotel was just a short walk from the nearest subway station and therefore it took us no longer to get to and from midtown Manhattan than it would have staying in lower Manhattan. The main problem our location caused us was getting to and from the airport as we were flying into Newark, New Jersey, west of Manhattan. We pre-booked a taxi service for our arrival but were met with unexpected costs from toll roads and bridges to get to Queens so for the return trip, we cancelled our booking with the same service and instead got the subway into Manhattan then a yellow cab to Penn Station and used the NJ airport express train to get to the airport from here. Taking luggage on the subway wasn’t ideal but the journey not only cost a lot less than the outbound taxi but also took a lot less time!

We arrived at our hotel late afternoon and after checking in, caught the subway straight into the city getting off at the Rockefeller Centre for our first glimpse of the famous tree. Being a Sunday evening at this point, Rockefeller Plaza was ridiculously busy with huge crowds of people trying to get in and out while police controlled the various entrances and exits to the area. Deciding to come back when it would be quieter, we instead walked down towards Times Square and went for dinner at one of my favourite places to eat in the city, Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This is the restaurant where all of the waitstaff are wannabe Broadway performers and entertain diners with a song in between serving them and is a really fun place to eat!

Off to Santaland in Macy’s

We had purchased a New York Pass each valid for the duration of our stay and wanting to make the most of it, decided to head to one of the few places open late, Madame Tussaud’s, to make use of our card. To be honest, I’ve never really understood why so many people flock to these wax museums around the World – just hang out at a stage door and you can meet the actual celebrities! – but if it’s included on a pass then as long as you go in the evening when it’s quiet it can be a fun way to spend an hour.

One of our must do Christmas activities for the city was a trip to Macy’s Santaland to meet the man himself. I had researched beforehand and heard that it got very busy, especially on weekends but was open til reasonable late and that the best time to go was after 8pm so after leaving Madame Tussaud’s, we walked down to Herald Square and made our way to the top floor grotto. Luckily, the wait time was around 20 minutes and within 10 minutes we had entered the grotto area and were surrounded by gingerbread houses, enchanted trees, dancing snowmen and elves making their way up and down the line checking everyone was having a good time.

I hadn’t been to a Christmas grotto since I was a kid but I’d still say that this was one of, if not the, best grotto I’d ever been too and passing slowly along the line, it didn’t feel like we were queuing at all as there was so much to see and take in. All too soon, we reached Santa’s house and were taken in to meet Santa Claus. Surprisingly, we were allowed to have photos with Santa taken on our own cameras, rather than being forced to buy the official ones and we were given a Santaland badge as a souvenir of our visit!

Macy’s
The Manhattan skyline from the boat to Liberty Island

Before leaving Macy’s, we spent some time looking around their Christmas store where the millions of tree decorations were already heavily discounted and we made a few purchases. Then it was back on the subway to head back to our hotel in Queens for the evening.

The Statueof Lierty

The next day, we had a rest from Christmas and instead took the ferry across to Liberty Island as this was included on our New York passes. The pass gave us access to the island and audio guides but did not allow us entrance into the pedestal or to climb the Statue itself. We were glad we had wrapped up warm as it was freezing out on Liberty Island! We spent some time exploring and listening to the commentary on our audio guides before catching a second ferry over to Ellis Island. Although I had visited Ellis Island and its immigration museum before, I hadn’t spent a great deal of time there so this time, I took more time exploring and found the museum to be really interesting.

Once back in Manhattan, we spent some time exploring downtown and visited the 9/11 Tribute Museum This small museum, separate to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, presents stories from people that were actually there such as survivors, responders and volunteers and is definitely worth a visit.

Store display in Little Italy

After dinner at Denny’s, we walked the short distance to China town then wandered through Little Italy where Mulberry Street was decorated for Christmas and we found some Christmas stores to look around. Then that evening, we headed to Broadway to see a show.

Day 3 and we decided to make use of our tourist passes along the museum mile. We started off at the Museum of the City of New York, a museum I hadn’t visited on my previous trips to the city. The museum houses ever-changing exhibits showcasing its collection of art and artefacts from the city’s past and was an interesting way to spend an hour.

Looking up at the roof inside the Guggenheim
Classical sculpture in the Met

Next up was the Guggenheim to scratch our heads at the displays of modern art and then onto the Metropolitan Museum of Art where a huge Christmas tree stood in the main atrium. From here, we walked across Central Park to the Museum of Natural History where a Christmassy looking dinosaur had been erected outside!

The famous Rockefeller Centre Christmas Tree

As we left the museum and walked down towards the south end of Central Park, we stumbled across a small Christmas market at Columbus Circle and spent some time wandering through, browsing the stalls.

All museumed out, we decided to return to Rockefeller Plaza to see if the crowds had died down from the weekend. Luckily, it was a lot quieter now and we could get close enough to the famous Christmas tree to take some photos with it. It is just as impressive as it looks in all the photos and movies!

Bryant Park
Christmas Tree and market stalls in Bryant Park

Next stop on a jam-packed day was Grand Central Terminus where we found another Christmas market – the Grand Central Holiday Fair – in full swing! Across the road from the station, at Bryant Park, the Christmas spirit was in full swing and an ice rink and Christmas tree had been erected along side another Christmas market. Unable to resist purchasing something any longer, we picked up a few more trinkets to take back for our tree at home!

Houses decorated for Christmas

For that evening, we had booked ourselves on an organised Christmas lights tour which would take us out of Manhattan to a Brooklyn neighbourhood where competitive residents dress the houses, gardens and anything else they can find in an array of bright lights and glowing ornaments!! It was a fun tour and some of the displays were jaw-dropping. Along the way, the coach stopped regularly so we could walk up and down the streets admiring the decorations and take photos. One house even had a Christmas song on rotation being broadcast on an unused frequency and invited cars to tune in as the watched its Christmas lights ‘dance’ in time to the song!

Once we’d been dropped back in the city, we decided to make the most of what was left of the evening with a late night trip up the Empire State Building.

I knew from past experience that it was always a lot quieter late at night and as expected we didn’t have to queue to get in and once at the observation deck, we had plenty of room to move around. New York always looks amazing lit up at night so it’s a good time to go all round!

Tiffany’s, 5th Ave

After an extremely busy day, we decided to take it a bit easier the following day and spent most of the morning on Fifth Avenue to see the stores’ Christmas windows.

The Rockefeller Centre

We then made use of our tourist passes by jumping on a walking tour of the Rockefeller Center which was really interesting giving us some access to parts of the complex you can’t otherwise enter as well as pointing out a lot of the art and sculpture in and around the building, much of it which I must have walked past many times before but never really noticed.

St Patrick’s Cathedral opposite the Rockefeller Centre

Top of the Rock

The weather today wasn’t great and was getting colder and cloudier by the second but as it was our last full day in the city, we decided to use our passes to take a trip up to Top of the Rock. We were warned by the staff that it was currently zero visibility at the top but as it was the only time we’d have to go, took a chance and luckily, it had cleared enough that there was some kind of view from up there. While at the top, it started to snow although when we got back down to ground level, it hadn’t quite reached the pavements of Manhattan just yet!

Rockette costumes

To get out of the cold for a while, we used our passes to take another walking tour, this time, a tour of Radio City Music Hall. This again gave us behind the scenes access to parts of the building you ca’t otherwise enter as well as giving us some history of the building. At the end of the tour, we got to peer into the live Christmas Spectacular show going on and then to meet one of its stars, a Rockette. It really made me wish I’d bought tickets to see the show while in the city for Christmas but maybe I’ll get the chance again one day.

Dinner at Dallas BBQ

That evening, after dinner at a branch of Dallas BBQ, we went to see an off-Broadway show. These shows tend to be held in much smaller theatres but ticket prices are a lot less than the bigger shows and there’s usually some really good productions on!

The Rockefeller Tree at night

As it was our last night in the city, we finished the evening off with one last visit to the Rockefeller Centre, this time, to see the tree all lit up at night. While there we also happened to catch the Saks Fifth Avenue Christmas Laser Light show which was beamed onto the walls of the building!

The Freedom Tower in Downtown Manhattan

Display at the 9/11 Museum

We had one morning left in the city before catching our flight home and we’d booked tickets to visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. This was a really moving experience and despite allowing ourselves the recommended few hours to go around the museum, we ran out of time in the end and had to rush through the later part of the museum.

Christmas time in New York had been everything I was expecting and more and had definitely put us all in the Christmas spirit! It’s something I would definitely recommend doing if you can!

Watch a video montage of my Christmas trip to the New York City here:

San Francisco

The city of San Francisco was my first experience of the state of California and it was pretty much love at first sight – for both the city and the state.  This year, I was planning my fifth visit to the city until the pandemic got in the way but I can’t wait to reschedule my trip.

Here’s my guide to how I like to spend my time in this Northern California city.

Where to stay

View from my room at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel

On each of my visits to San Francisco, I’ve stayed in very different accommodations – a luxury hotel on my first trip, a budget hotel on trip number 2, a hostel on my third visit and a roadside motel the last time – but on 3 out of 4 of my visits, I at least stuck to the same area of the city – Union Square/Nob Hill.

The area is one of the most central areas of the city, convenient for the theatres and shopping malls and with plenty of transport links – including a terminus for the famous San Francisco cable cars – to easily reach other parts of the city.

The Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel, perched on the top of Nob Hill near to Grace Cathedral, was one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in – although having to walk up the city’s largest hill from the bottom of Union Square at the end of each day was not my favourite! 

At the Top of the Mark martini bar

We won our stay there on a Priceline bid so stayed there for a fraction of the usual cost and we spent most of our evenings sat in its top floor martini bar, Top of the Mark, listening to the piano player while looking out at the city through its floor to ceiling windows.

Wherever I’m staying in the city, I try to make a return visit to the Top of the Mark bar to enjoy the city view overs a drink and watch the fog roll in over the city.

If you’re looking for something a bit more budget for your stay, I found both the Hotel Beresford and the nearby USA Hostels to offer clean and comfortable accommodation also in a convenient Union Square adjacent location.

Union Square shops

My only reason for not staying in the Union Square area on my last visit was having a car.  We were visiting the city as part of a road trip so looked for somewhere within our budget that was easily accessible without too much city driving and had free parking. The roadside motel La Luna, somewhere between Fisherman’s Wharf and the Presidio area, was where we ended up and was a comfortable budget option for a couple of nights.

Getting Around

San Francisco City Hall

On my first visit to the city, we barely used public transport. In the city for 4 nights/3 days, we bought tickets for the hop on/off tour bus which lasted us for the first 2 days and used the cable car, and even a taxi, for the third day.

The hop on/off bus worked well for us on our first visit, helping us to get our bearings and to see the highlights of the city and learn a bit about it without having to navigate our way around an unfamiliar public transport system.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on the hop on/off bus, and below, riding the famous Cable Cars

There were 2 routes to ride, one which took us from Union Square out past Alamo Square – home of the famous ‘Painted Ladies’ houses – to Golden Gate Park then back via Fisherman’s Wharf and a second which took us across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and back and we decided along the way which stops to hop off and explore at.

On my subsequent visits to San Francisco, being more familiar with the city, I have made the effort to use the public transport system, usually purchasing a 1 or 3-day MUNI Visitor Passport allowing unlimited rides on the buses, metro, streetcars and cable cars and have found it to be and easy and convenient system to navigate.

The famous, historic San Francisco cable cars are, in my opinion, the most fun way of travelling across the city but the queues to ride at the terminus for these can be quite long and often, it is difficult to hop on elsewhere as there isn’t always room for new passengers when the cars reach these stops unless people are getting off there.

Waiting to board a cable car

I try to head to the the Union Square or Hyde Street cable car terminuses either early morning or late evening/night as these are the best times to avoid long queues. If there is a queue, it is at least fun to watch the cable cars come in before swivelling around on the turntable and heading off in the opposite direction again.

When riding, I love to stand on the ledge on the outside of the cable cars, clinging on tightly as they ascend and descend the city’s huge hills but it is possible to find seats inside the cars if you prefer!

The Golden Gate Bridge

Probably the most famous of San Francisco’s sights, the suspension bridge painted the iconic shade of International Orange is a must-see on any visit to the city and there are a range of ways you can cross the bridge.

Tour bus

With the bridge not being visible from a lot of the more touristy areas of the city, it took to the end of my first visit to the city before we caught a glimpse of it while on a visit to the Presidio area. Later that day, we used the hop on/off buses’ Sausalito route to cross the bridge.

At the Palace of Fine Arts

The bus took us from Fishermans Wharf to the Marina District where we made a stop at the beautiful Palace of Fine Arts building before we drove across the bridge and see it up close. The main thing I remember about this is the wind in my face, whipping my hair into one huge tangle as we sat on the outside deck upstairs on the bus, whizzing across!

I managed to cling onto my camera long enough to take a few photos and luckily, it was a clear afternoon meaning the bridge was completely visible – which isn’t always the case!

Looking out from the viewpoint actross the bridge

Once across the bridge, the bus made a 10 minute stop at a nearby viewpoint where we could look back at it and at San Francisco city across the bay. The bus then continued to the pretty town of Sausalito where it was possible to hop off and explore. Being short on time, we instead stayed on the bus to return back across the bridge to the city.

Bike

Getting closer to the bridge, and below, photos of the views as we cycled to the Golden Gate Bridge

On my second visit to the San Francisco, we decided to hire bikes from the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city and cycle across the bridge. Our hire bikes came with a map and detailed instructions of the route to reach the bridge, Sausalito and continue further to Muir Woods should we wish to.

The cycle to the bridge was mainly easy with some on road and steep uphill sections and it was great fun then cycling across the bridge, being able to stop along the way to take photos and enjoy the view.

Finally at the Golden Gate Bridge, and below, exploring Sausalito

The weather was mainly on our side with the unpredictable San Francisco fog only occasionally drifting in to obscure the peaks of the bridge. Mainly though, it was clear and sunny.

Once across, it was then down hill into Sausalito where we stopped for lunch and a look around this beautiful bay side town with its cafes, restaurants, galleries and boutique stores before catching the ferry with our bikes back to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Walking

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge

My third visit to the city was as part of my Trek America coast to coast tour across the USA through the Northern states and this time, we were dropped off at one side of the bridge early morning and walked across to then meet our tour guide at the other side.

It was an easy walk across but unfortunately the weather wasn’t the best with the fog covering the bridge for much of our walk across and only clearing occasionally.

Our catamaran heads under the Golden Gate Bridge

Boat

On this trip, we also took a sunset catamaran cruise out to the bay but, as much fun as this was, the weather clouded over and the fog descended meaning we didn’t see any sunset and could hardly make out the bridge at all until we were right up close to it!

Self-drive

The fog obscures the view as we drive across the Golden Gate bridge early one morning!

On my final visit to the city, we were on a self-drive trip where we needed to make a very early start. This meant the fog hadn’t had time to clear at all and we couldn’t see the structure of the bridge at all, it could have been any other road, which was a shame!

If possible, I would definitely recommend cycling across the bridge and including a stop in Sausalito before returning, definitely my favourite way of seeing this famous structure!

Alcatraz Island

Saining across to Alcatraz

Another must-do on my first visit to San Francisco was a trip over to Alcatraz Island to explore the infamous former prison. Boats to the island leave from one of the piers near to Fisherman’s Wharf and need to be booked in advance – often well in advance! – from the official Alcatraz Cruises site. We decided on an evening visit, departing the mainland just as the sun was setting – not that we could tell as it had long clouded over.

Nearing Alctaraz Island, and below, touring Alcatraz

Once on the island, we were handed headsets and listened to a commentary which guided us around the building while explaining the significance of each room or block and recounted stories from when it was an active prison. Night had fallen by the time we completed our tour and it was an eerie experience being on the island in the dark.

I have since been back in daylight hours and after we’d finished touring the prison, it was possible to stay on the island longer to join Ranger-led talks and find out more.

Fishermans Wharf

Probably the most touristy area of San Francisco and a popular area for many visitors to stay in, Fishermans Wharf is home to a variety of shops, restaurants and tourist attractions including Pier 39.

The Pier 39 Sealions

I love walking to the end of the pier where you will usually find the famous San Francisco sealions clambering onto pontoons in the bay, barking loudly at each other. It’s always amusing to watch if you can put up with the smell!

You’ll also find the Victorian-style carousel towards the end of the pier, notable for unusually being a double-decker carousel!

The Embarcadero Clock Tower, and below, Hyde Street Pier

From Fishermans Wharf it is possible to walk along the bay front in one direction towards the Embarcadero area with the various piers and jetties and its striking Embarcadero Clock Tower or towards the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park in the other direction. It’s visitor centre is free to look inside or for a fee, you can board some of the old ships docked in the bay at Hyde Street Pier or explore the Maritime Museum.

A bust Ghirardelli Square

A bit further along from Hyde Street Pier but still in the Fishermans Wharf area is Ghirardelli Square, site of the former Ghirardelli chocolate factory and now home to various stores and restaurants including the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop and cafe for amazing ice cream sundaes!!

Lombard Street

Crowds watching the cars weave down Lombard Street

A quirkier attraction of San Francisco city, this road is often referred to as ‘the crookedest street in the World’. It is walkable to the top of the street from Fishermans Wharf if you don’t mind steep uphill walks – we had to make a few stops along the way up to catch our breath! – or the cable cars stop here. From the top, you can see the street winding down and watch the cars slowly crawl their way down before walking down to the bottom end of the street for a view of it from the other end.

Segwaying down Lombard Street

Feeling a bit more adventurous on our last visit to the city, we not only drove our hire car down it but also took an ‘advanced’ segway tour of the city which involved segwaying down Lombard Street as crowds of tourists videoed and photographed us!

Museums

The deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, and below, the Cable Car Museum near Chinatown

If it’s culture you want, then San Francisco has plenty! As well as the previously mentioned Maritime Museum in Fishermans Wharf, San Francisco is home to a variety of museums. Golden Gate Park is home to the de Young Museum – an art museum – and the science museum, The Californian Academy of Science. If art is your thing, the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park is also well worth a visit.

A small but excellent free museum that is worth a visit is the Cable Car Museum, not far from Union Square in the Nob Hill area.

Viewing the cablecar system mechanics at the Cable Car Museum

As well as exhibits on the history of the city’s cable car system, the museum is housed at the powerstation for the cable car system and there is a viewing area where you can see the huge wheels whirring and cables shifting powering the cars along through the city!

My favourite San Francisco museum is the Walt Disney Family Museum in the Presidio area of the city. The museum explores the life of Walt Disney and tracks the establishment of the Walt Disney company with plenty of clips from his early animated features and is really interesting for any Disney fan.

Golden Gate Park

The Japanese Tea Gardens, and below, views across the park from the deYoung Museum observation deck

Named Golden Gate Park despite it not actually being anywhere near the Golden Gate Bridge, this huge park – larger than Central Park in New York – is definitely worth a visit. Along with the aforementioned museums, the are plenty of other attractions in the park including the Conservatory of Flowers and the Japanese Tea Gardens.

Above, and below, exploring Golden Gate Park

If you don’t want to pay entrance fees into the attractions, there’s plenty to do and see for free. It’s possible to visit the viewing platform at the deYoung Museum without paying to go into the museum itself and there are plenty of gardens, sculpture parks, open spaces, lakes and even waterfalls to explore.

Ocean Beach

We explored the east side of the park before exiting and catching a bus down to the west end where the park reaches Ocean Beach.

San Francisco Hearts

The only heart permanently in Union Square and painted International Orange – the same shade as the Golden Gate Bridge!

If you’re wandering around Union Square, you might notice four heart-shaped sculptures, one on each corner of the square, each uniquely decorated. These hearts, part of an art installation and inspired by the Tony Bennett classic I Left My Heart in San Francisco, can be found all over the city.

Above, and below, heart-spotting in San Francisco

A google search will bring up various websites listing some of the locations, some in obvious, easy to access places like at the end of Pier 39, some in harder to find places – we found one in a corner of Macy’s in Union Square and another in the foyer of a bank!

It can be fun trying to track them down and a good way to explore the city!

Exploring different areas of the city

The city of San Francisco is made up of many very distinctive areas, including Fisherman’s Wharf and the Union Square/Nob Hill areas which I’ve already mentioned, all of which are worth exploring.

Haight-Ashbury

Above, and below, brightly painted stores and murals in the Haight-Ashbury area

The historic Haight-Ashbury area was made famous in the 1960s for being the birthplace of hippie culture.

Near to the east end of Golden Gate Park, the area has the quirkiness of Camden in London and Venice Beach in LA with its colourful houses, brightly painted murals and eclectic array of mainly independent stores.

The Painted Ladies houses in Alamo Sqaure

If you are in the are, it is also possible to walk to Alamo Square from the main street to see the famous ‘Painted Ladies’, a row of colourful Victorian houses. There’s also great views of the city from the top of the hill in Alamo Square Park!

Chinatown

Not far from the Union Square/Nob Hill area, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest outside of Asia. It’s always fun to walk down its bustling streets with the many market stalls and souvenir stores but my favourite place to visit there is the the Fortune Cookie Factory.

Fortune cookies piled up at Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown

It’s free to enter and watch the fortune cookies being made, although if you want to take photos or videos you are asked to leave a donation, and it is even possible to write your own message to be put into a fortune cookie to give to someone!

North Beach

The view from outside City Lights bookstore in North Beach, and below, Washington Square

Right next to Chinatown is the North Beach area which, confusingly, is not actually anywhere near a beach! This is actually the Italian district of the city and a great place to head to in the evening to find a nice Italian restaurant to eat out at.

Apart from the many Italian restaurants other points of interest in the area include the City Lights Bookstore, a large independent bookstore founded in the early 1950s; The Stinking Rose restaurant – the original garlic restaurant where it’s even possible to order a dessert made with garlic! – The Beat Museum which traces the history of The Beats generation from the 1950s onwards; the pretty Washington Square overlooked by Saints Peter and Paul Church (famous for being the site of Marilyn Monroe & Joe DiMaggio’s wedding photos) and Telegraph Hill where you’ll find San Francisco’s Coit Tower.

Enjoying the sunshine in Washington Square

Above, the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, and below, views from Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower observation deck

Often said to resemble a firefighter’s hose, and coincidentally a monument to San Francisco’s firefighters, the Coit Tower stands atop Telegraph Hill and can be seen from many points in the city.

Walking up to Telegraph Hill there are views of San Francisco bay in one direction and the financial district with the distinct pyramid-shaped TransAmerica building on the other direction. It is possible for a small fee to go up to the top of the Coit Tower to a small observation deck but there’s not lot of room up there and I found the views to be slightly obscured by scratched windows in need of a clean!

A pagoda in Japantown

There are many other areas of the city worth a visit, the Mission area is a great place to head to for a night out with its many bars and on my next visit I’m planning to visit its Delores Park which is supposed to have great views of the city skyline. Japantown offers many Japanese restaurants and Japanese-style spas and I’m yet to visit Treasure Island, an artificial island across the Bay Bridge.

Beyond the city, its also possible to take a trip out to Yosemite National Park to see the highlights – although I would argue that a day there really isn’t enough! – or to the closer Muir Woods which is on my ‘to do list for my next visit. Or head across the bay to visit the cities Oakland and Berkley.

However you spend your time in San Francisco, you’re bound to have a great time in this eclectic, beautiful city.

Auckland, New Zealand

Walking through Albert Park

Having had a few hours to familiarise myself with the area surrounding my Auckland hotel before departing for the Bay of Isles just a few days ago, upon my return to the city, I quickly found my way back to the centrally-located Ibis Styles from the coach station.

Wandering through Auckland Domain

I’d arrived back in Auckland from Paihia with with most of the day still to spare so after dropping my bags and freshening up, I was keen to get straight out and spend the afternoon exploring.

Above, and below, at the Auckland War Memorial Museum

I decided to walk through Albert Park and towards the Parnell district of the city then into Auckland Domain, another of the city’s parks and home of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I spent the next few hours exploring the museum which had an extremely varied collection of exhibits on New Zealand’s history.

Above, and below, at the Sky Tower

After visiting the museum, I walked back to the city centre and bought a ticket for the observation deck at Auckland’s famous Sky Tower to enjoy the views over the city and the surrounding area.

Mission Bay

The next day was my last day in the city and I’d be moving from my hotel near the waterfront to the Haka Lodge hostel in the less-central Ponsonby area of the city as that is where my tour would start from the next morning.

Short on time, I decided the best way to see the as much of Auckland as possible would be on the hop on/off tour bus.

Passing the Parnell Rose Gardens

The bus had 2 routes which crossed over in Auckland Domain at the War Memorial Museum. Route one took me out towards Bastian Point where the bus stopped at the Michael Joseph Savage Memorial. Hopping off, I walked down to the nearby Mission Bay beach then back to the memorial from where there were some pretty views of Auckland city and across the bay.

Crater at Mount Eden

From here, the bus took us through the Parnell are of the city, passing the Parnell Rose Gardens and towards Auckland Domaine for a stop at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. I would be switching bus routes here and had some time to kill between uses.

As I’d already visited the museum the day before, I instead took a stroll to the park’s Winter Gardens and had a quick look around before making my way back to the bus stop.

Passing Eden Park Stadium

The route two bus took me out to Mount Eden where I hopped off again to explore. Mount Eden is Auckland’s highest volcanic cone. The bus couldn’t drive to the summit so instead dropped us further down and I made the walk to the top from where there were some great views of Auckland’s skyline.

Back on the bus, we passed Eden Park, New Zealand’s largest sports stadium and home of the All Blacks. Then it was back to Auckland Domain where I swapped back onto a route one bus.

Visiting Parnell Village

The route one bus took me back into the Parnell district where I hopped off in Parnell Village, grabbing some lunch, browsing the stores and visiting the nearby Holy Trinity Cathedral. Then it was back towards Auckland’s waterfront and to the stop I’d got on at in the morning.

It was late afternoon so after picking up my luggage, I caught the bus down towards Ponsonby and found my way to the Haka Lodge hostel.

It had been a busy couple of days in the city and I felt I’d seen quite a bit of what it had to offer but now I was looking forward to starting my tour of the rest of the North Island.

Adelaide and Kangaroo Island

Needing to justify another trip to an already much-visited Melbourne for a concert, I decided to spend a couple of weeks beforehand exploring parts of Australasia I’d not been to before. Travelling alone until I reached Melbourne, I eventually settled on a one-week tour of New Zealand’s South Island followed by a few days in one of only 2 Australian states I hadn’t visited before, South Australia. I’d be spending just 2 nights in the city of Adelaide giving me just one full day and most of the following day with a late evening flight to Melbourne.

Arriving in the evening after a rather bumpy flight from Christchurch via Sydney, I checked into my city centre Ibis hotel accommodation and headed straight to bed ready for an early start the next day.

Upon the advice of an Australian friend back in the UK who once lived in Adelaide, I had decided to spend my full day on a trip out of the city to Kangaroo Island. I had booked myself on a full day escorted tour and just needed to be waiting across the road from my hotel for the coach to pick me up early the next morning.

Seals along the path down to the beach and, below, seal spotting at Seal Bay

Once on board and the rest of the passengers picked up, we were taken on a rather long drive to the ferry terminal to catch the boat across the sea to Kangaroo Island. It was a cool autumn day and with the sea being rather choppy, I mainly stayed inside on the ferry, grabbing some breakfast from the on-board cafe and settling in for the 45 minute ride. Once there, we were met by our drivers for the day and invited on board our assigned minibus to begin our tour.

A seal lazing under the boardwalk

Stop number one was at Seal Bay where we battled our way through the rain and strong winds along the boardwalk and down to the beach for a bit of seal spotting. The seals were everywhere – along the path, under the boardwalk, on the beach and in the sea and despite the weather, I loved spending time on the beach watching the seals clambering out of the sea and waddling up the beach to find shelter under the boardwalk!

Our second stop of the day was Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

A koala high up in the eucalyptus tree and, below, kangaroos on Kangaroo Island!

The weather had thankfully started to improve and we followed the sanctuary’s Koala Walk trail , soon spotting the cute koalas tucked high up in the eucalyptus trees as well as kangaroos lazing in the grounds.

We continued our journey across the island and into Flinders Chase National Park where we stopped at the visitors center and then at Bunker Hill Lookout before continuing down to the coast and the Remarkable Rocks.

Here, we followed the short path down to the strange rock formations and spent some time exploring and taking photos.

Admiral’s Arch and, below, following the boardwalk to Admirals Arch and back

Our final stop of the day was at the nearby Admiral’s arch, also part of Flinders Chase National Park. Here we followed the boardwalk past Cape du Couedic Lighthouse and down to view the naturally created rock arch.

The views of the coast from the boardwalk were really beautiful and we spotted more seals, this time lazing on the rocks as the sea crashed in around them.

At the South Australia Museum in Adelaide

After a busy day, it was time to be dropped off back at the ferry terminal to catch the boat back across to the mainland where we were met by a coach to take us back to Adelaide. Back at the hotel, I was exhausted after a fun but long day.

I’d enjoyed seeing some of the highlights of Kangaroo Island but wish I’d had time to make it a longer, overnight stay there to spend more time exploring what it had to offer.

Autumn at the Botanic Gardens

The next day, I checked out of my hotel and headed off to spend the day exploring the city before catching my flight to Melbourne that evening. After grabbing some breakfast from a nearby cafe, I walked to Adelaide’s North Terrace to visit the South Australian Museum. The museum was free to enter and housed a variety of Natural History exhibitions including a huge collection of Aboriginal Australian artefacts.

The museum is situated right on the edge of Adelaide’s Parklands and after my visit I wandered along to the nearby Botanic Gardens to explore. The park looked really beautiful with the autumn colours of the trees.

The River Torrens and, below, wandering along the river in Elder Park

Next up, I walked to Rundle Mall, Adelaide’s shopping district to browse the stores, pick up some last minute souvenirs and find somewhere to have lunch at then down to Victoria Square with its fountains where I was surprised to see a variety of lawn games including swing ball and skittles set up on the lawn for passers by to play with!

From here, I took a walk up to Adelaide’s Elder Park, taking a stroll along the River Torrens, across the bridge and looping back into the city. Then it was time to head back to the hotel to retrieve my luggage and catch the bus to the airport in time for my flight. I’d enjoyed my day strolling through the city getting a glimpse of what it had to offer and I’d like to return to Adelaide in the future maybe as a base to explore the region further.

A weekend in Rome

Taking a European city break in a pandemic

I thought I’d pause on recounting my memories of a pre-pandemic trip to New Zealand for a one off post on an unexpected trip I took to Rome last weekend. Not unexpected because it was unplanned – quite the opposite in fact – but unexpected because having had various other trips I’d had planned for this year cancelled, I never once thought this one would actually go ahead with the way things currently are.

On board my Jet2 flight to Rome

The trip had been planned many months ago as a long weekend away for my friend’s 40th birthday. We’d booked return flights from Birmingham airport and a hotel a just a few metro stops out of Rome city centre but as the situation with the global pandemic continued, we became less and less confident of the trip happening so decided against booking any tours or attractions in case we didn’t have time to cancel and get refunded.

As September came to an end, Italy remained on the UK’s travel corridor list, meaning we’d not have to quarantine upon return from a trip there. But in the week leading up to our Friday departure date, as Covid cases in Italy continued to steadily rise, rumours began to circulate in the media that it was sure to be added to the UK’s quarantine list when it got it’s weekly update.

As the list is updated on a Thursday evening, this would not give us much time to cancel or rearrange things and it was a stressful day waiting to find out whether our early morning departure the next day would go ahead or not.

Luckily, Italy was saved for another week and I had to rush to pack for a trip I never thought would actually go ahead!

Outside the Colosseum and below, going inside the Colosseum on a previous visit to Rome.

Friday morning we were up early and at the airport the standard 2 hours before our 8am departure. It was the first time I’d travelled abroad since the World began to lock down in March and only the third trip abroad I’d taken this year following two February half term trips, one to Milan and one to Disneyland Paris. Little had changed about the airport experience except for having to wear face coverings everywhere unless sat down at the restaurants and cafes and despite less flights meaning less people, the queues through security didn’t move any quicker as there were a lot less lanes open.

Once in the departure lounge, I just had about time to munch down a bacon sandwich from Costa and buy a bottle of water from Boots before we had to make our way to the gate for boarding.

We were flying with Jet2, an airline I’d never flown with before. We were all on the same booking but despite being sat in the same row, had been given the middle and aisle seat on the left of the row and the seat across the aisle on the right meaning my friend in the middle seat was sat next to someone she didn’t know in the window seat and I was sat next to a couple I didn’t know across the aisle. I was surprised that with things as they are, that more effort wasn’t made to seat parties in the same bubble together rather than next to random strangers.

Roman ruins at the Forum
View of the Roman Forum and below, visiting the Forum on a previous trip to Rome

Our masks had to be worn throughout the 2.5 hour flight unless eating or drinking and we were encouraged to stay in our seats as much as possible with queuing in the aisle for the toilet no longer permitted. I was surprised to see that there were magazines, menus and safety cards tucked into the pouch in front of each seat as usual for us to flick through during the flight especially as no sanitiser was being provided by the airline.

Luckily I’d taken my own bottle on board in my handbag which I used regularly throughout the flight.

Even though signs up around Fiumicino Airport said arrivals would be subject to temperature tests, we only had to clear passport control once we’d landed. We had had to fill in a declaration form on the plane saying that we hadn’t tested positive for Covid in the last 14 days but this was collected in by the flight attendants to hand in upon arrival on behalf of all the passengers.

Above and below, visiting Palatine Hill on a previous trip to Rome

We had booked a private taxi transfer to our hotel and the driver was waiting for us at arrivals. We had to gel our hands before touching the seat belts and like in the UK, our masks had to stay on for the journey. As we travelled, the driver informed us that due to rising Covid case numbers, from noon that day it had been made mandatory in Rome and the region of Lazio to wear face coverings at all times, inside and out, and it would be enforced by fine from midnight.

Throughout the weekend, we saw police and military out in force on the streets of Rome blowing their whistles and shouting at the few people who may have removed their masks but overall, there was 99% compliance everywhere we went.

The National Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II and below, getting a bit closer on a previous trip

Our hotel was a bit of a hidden gem. A bed and breakfast hidden on the seventh floor of an apartment block in the Garbatella suburb, we were mildly worried when we pulled up to a slightly run down looking side street. But after following the instructions we’d been sent to navigate our way through the rather high-tech, keyless and contactless locking system, we found ourselves in a really lovely, clean and spacious hotel room.

The room lead out into a common area which we assumed would normally be where breakfast was served. Instead, breakfast was a selection of pre-packaged goodies in our room, such as croissants and cookies, which were topped up daily when our room was serviced. We had a coffee machine and coffee pods in our room and a kettle lay out in the common area next to a bottle of sanitiser and wipes although, despite teabags being provided, as I often find the case in Europe, there was no sign of any milk for my tea and I had to buy some from the local convenience store!

A quiet Trevi Fountain

After settling in and freshening up, we headed straight out for the afternoon walking straight down the main road to Garbatella station. The area seemed very authentically Italian with office workers and locals filling the tables at pavement cafes and shopping at the neighbourhood stores and market stands. It was a 10-15 minute walk to the station where we bought a 72-hour travel pass for 18 euros and then caught the metro just 3 stops to Colosseo, the stop for the Colosseum.

Crowds at the Trevi Fountain on a previous visit to Rome

As we exited the station, the impressive, ancient Colosseum building immediately loomed in front of us. Having been to Rome twice before, the first time spending almost a week properly exploring and the second time spending 24 hours just passing through, I had toured the Colosseum before. That time, we had walked to the quieter and less visited Palatine Hill to buy tickets allowing us entry to three sites (Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum) and were then able to skip the line upon visiting the Colosseum later that day. The building was just as impressive from the inside as the outside and I found it fascinating to find out about what it would have been like to be there all that time ago attending a huge event.

The Spanish Steps

This time, we admired the building from the outside taking plenty of photos and fending off ticket touts and tour guides trying to convince us to buy from them, eventually replying to them all with a standard “we’ve already toured it” in order for them to leave us alone!

Aperitivo in Testaccio

From the Colosseum, we walked past the ruins of the Roman Forum. Again, having visited before, we didn’t venture in this time. On my first visit to Rome, it had been an extremely hot August day when I had visited the Forum straight after spending a few hours wandering through the sun-drenched ruins of Palatine Hill. Tired, hot and in need of shade and water, I’m not sure I had fully appreciated what I had seen there with one ruin starting to look like the rest and I’d like to go back sometime and maybe tour both of these places with a tour guide rather than wander through myself. Today, we just took photos of the ruins from the viewing point before continuing on towards the Vittorio Emanuele II National Monument.

Cacio e Pepe at Felice a Testaccio restaurant

This monument is one of the buildings that stands out the most to me from my memories of my first visit to Rome. Taking the open top tour bus from our Termini area hotel, I always remember rounding a corner and suddenly seeing this white, marble building glittering bright in the sunshine and everyone on board simultaneously gasping at the sight of it. Relatively modern compared to the ancient Roman buildings scattered around the city – construction didn’t being until 1885 – it’s classical architecture and sheer size still stands out as a beautiful must-see building in the city. It is free to enter the building but with the current restrictions there was a long queue so we didn’t stay on this occasion.

Hugo Spritz cocktails

Next, we walked along Via del Corso, eventually turning off the main road to follow signs to the Trevi Fountain and grabbing a sandwich and drink from a small cafe along the way. The last time I had visited Rome, the Trevi Fountain was covered with scaffolding while restoration work took place and the first time I had visited, it was difficult to get anywhere near it with the huge crowds of tourists filling the square. Today, I was please to find it was a lot quieter and we were easily able to spend some time admiring the beauty of the sculpture and getting our photos.

Our final stop of the afternoon was at the Spanish Steps as we passed through to get to the metro station. Deciding not to climb the steps today, we took a few photos then caught the train back to our hotel to get ready for an evening out.

The Pyramid of Cestius

We began our evening by meeting with a friend who lives in Rome near her Piramide area flat, one metro stop from where we were staying in Garbatella. From here, we took a short walk to Piazza Testaccio, a small square surrounded by bars and cafes where locals would purchase their ‘aperativo’ – drinks served with bite size snacks – and sit out in the square socialising while their children played in the centre of the square!

There was a great atmosphere and the pizza bites, small sandwiches crisps we were served with our drinks were all a delicious appetiser before the meal we had booked for later!

Murals adorn the buildings in the Ostiense area and below, my friends’Sandwich of the day’ at Marigold Cafe and my gelato from Gelateria La Romana in the same area

For our main meal, our friend had booked a highly recommended nearby restaurant, Felice a Testaccio. Here, the most menu item, and the one ordered by us all, was the Roman pasta dish Cacio e Pepe which literally translates as cheese and pepper. Our pepper-sprinkled Tonnarelli pasta was brought out to us in a bowl absolutely covered in parmesan cheese. We then watched as the servers skillfully tossed together the contents of the bowl and a thick cheese sauce was formed. Delicious!

After dinner, we walked back towards Piramide station, stopping for drinks across the road at the Tram Stop bar, my friends particularly enjoying a ‘Hugo Spritz’ – an elderflower flavoured drink – as a change from the usual Aperol Spritz.

Another Aperol Spritz!

After a big night out the day before, we were late up the next morning. Walking back towards the Piramide area (so called because of a huge, first century-built Pyramid-shaped tomb in the area), we met up with our friend at her nearby apartment before going for brunch. She took us to a small cafe/micro-bakery called Marigolds in the nearby Ostiense. There was a half hour wait for a table during which time we wandered through the local streets before returning to be seated.

Pizza at Sorbillo

Marigolds bakes all its bread on the premises but despite this, I found it’s 11 euro charge for a tiny grilled cheese sandwich and 4.50 for a pot of tea to be a bit on the expensive side. My friends did really enjoy their orders of Shakshuka – eggs cooked in a tomato-based sauce – and the sandwich of the day – a huge pork and coleslaw filled sandwich on sourdough.

An almost deserted Spanish Steps in the rain and, below, at St Peters Square in time for a Papal address.

After brunch, we stopped for dessert at Gelateria La Romana – I highly recommend the Biscotto della nonna (like a cookie and cream flavour) and Crema di nocciola al cacao (hazelnut and chocolate) flavours! – then walked from Ostiense to Circo Massimo. We wandered through the grounds of Circo Massimo, the remains of an ancient chariot-racing stadium and continued on to the Jewish Quarter, passing the ancient Roman Theatre, Teatro Marcello which influenced the architecture of the much more-famous and later-built Colosseum. After drinks sat out a a cafe in the Jewish Quarter, we walked back to the Colosseum and caught the metro back to our hotel to freshen up ready for the evening.

That evening, we had decided to dine at Sorbillo, a popular restaurant in the centre of Rome specialising in Neapolitan-style pizzas. I had eaten at Sorbillo’s in Milan in the past and really enjoyed it so was looking forward to eating at the Rome branch. Sorbillo operated a no booking in advance policy so we arrived early at 8pm, just half hour after opening. The restaurant was already busy and we were told it would be a 45 minute wait for a table to be available. Putting our name down, we went for drinks at a bar around the corner and returned to find our table ready.

For starters, we ordered a highly-recommended potato croquette each. When they arrived they were huge and did not disappoint in their taste. Mains was pizza’s all round and although I went for a basic margherita, it was one of the best I’ve ever had! We stayed at Sorbillos late, having drinks at our table after our meal and then walking back towards the Spanish Steps to catch the metro back to our hotel. It was pouring with rain as we left but this did mean that the Spanish Steps were almost completely deserted making for a rare photo opportunity!

Castel Sant’Angelo and, above, touring the Vatican Museums on a previous visit

We had one full day left in Rome and had decided to spend it revisiting, or rather whizzing past, the sights we hadn’t yet seen on this visit. We started in Vatican City where we planned on visiting St Peter’s Basilica. I had taken a tour of the Vatican Museums, which included access to the Sistine Chapel, on a previous visit to Rome, making sure I pre-booked to avoid the huge queues that tend to form there on a daily basis.

View of the River Tiber from Ponte Sant’Angelo

That time, we had arrived back at St Peter’s Basilica just as a mass started meaning I didn’t get to see as much of the church as I would have liked so I hoped to explore a bit more today. However, as we got closer to St Peter’s Square, there was a heavier than usual presence of security and police as well as large crowds of people. We were redirected to a front entrance to the Square where we had to go through a security check to be allowed into the Square itself.

Crossing the River Tiber

Moments after clearing security, we realised that with it being midday on the first Sunday of the month, the Pope was about to make an appearance on the balcony to say a blessing. This was a completely unexpected coincidence and we stayed to watch him address the crowd.

The Pantheon

With the square being so busy, we abandoned plans to stick around after to visit St Peter’s Basilica and instead walked from Vatican City back to Rome past Castel Sant’Angelo and across the Tiber River. On my first visit to the city, I had taken a river cruise along the Tiber which had been included with my hop on/off bus ticket but had found there wasn’t really a lot to see.

Pistachio Tiramisu from Pompi

Today, there seemed to be kayaks and boats for hire along the riverside which would have been fun to take advantage of if we’d had more time! Instead, after crossing Ponte Sant’Angelo, we wandered the back streets of Rome ending up in the beautiful Piazza Navona. Despite being hungry for lunch, I had learned my lesson from a previous experience of sitting out in one of the restaurants in the Piazza only to be met with inferior food and a hefty charge for service and bread so instead, we found a side street with some quieter tucked away restaurants and had lunch there.

Twin churches in Piazza del Popolo
Above, and below, views from the Spanish Steps

Passing the Pantheon along the way, we joined the short queue for the temperature check to enter and had a quick walk around. We had walked into a few churches for a look around over the weekend and it was always worth it no matter how unassuming they looked from the outside!

Next stop was Pompi, a tiramisu store near the Spanish Steps which we had been assured sold the best tiramisu in Rome. We then wandered along Via del Corso for some last minute shopping and down to another pretty square, Piazza del Popolo, flanked by its twin churches, one of which had it’s doors open so we wandered in for a look around.

Realising we’d not yet climbed the Spanish Steps despite passing them more than any other sight over the course of the weekend, we walked back to rectify this and visit the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. On my first visit to Rome, I had walked from here along to Villa Borghese, a huge and extremely pretty park with landscaped gardens, sculptures, museums and a boating lake and I was disappointed that we didn’t have time to walk there today.

The church at the top of the Spanish Steps, and below, walking from the top of the Spanish Steps to Villa Borghese on a previous visit

Instead, we found another back street bar for drinks before catching the metro to Cavour and walking to the Monti area. It was early Sunday evening by now and the cafes and bars in the area were already busy with tourists and locals out for drinks and aperitivo. We had drinks from Antigallery bar, where we were given complimentary tortilla chips and popcorn to munch on as we sat out in Piazza degli Zingari then moved down to Grazie a Dio è venerdi bar where we got a delicious pizza with every 2 drinks!

After seeing an almost constant queue at the neighbouring Fata Morgana gelateria, we decided to sample some for ourselves. The store offered some of the most unusual ice cream flavours I’d seen and while I enjoyed my scoops of chocolate chip gelato and Nutella swirl gelato, it wasn’t quite up there with the ice cream from Gelateria La Romana the day before.

The Colosseum at night

We finished our evening with a walk back to the Colosseum to see it lit up at night before retracing our steps from our first day’s sightseeing to grab photos of the illuminated Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and Trevi Fountain. Then it was time to wave goodbye to Rome’s city centre and ride the metro back to our hotel one last time before catching our flight back to Birmingham early the next day.

Despite the mandatory face coverings and general restrictions with travelling amid a global pandemic, our city break in Rome had felt like a breath of fresh air and a taste of normality in what has been a far from normal year. I certainly had my reservations about going ahead with our trip despite Italy remaining on the UK’s travel corridor list but if anything, my experience has made me more likely to plan similar breaks and, where possible, travel as I would usually.

Have you had any experiences of travelling on holidays or city breaks during the pandemic? Let me know in the comments!

Sydney

One of my favourite cities to visit in Australia; so what are my tips for what to do and see in Sydney?

Sydney Harbour

Looking across to Sydney Opera House

Pretty much the first place I always head to on a visit to Sydney is Circular Quay, the area surrounding Sydney’s famous harbour. From here, you can walk to its famous Opera House on the one side of the Harbour or around to The Rocks area by the Harbour Bridge on the other side of the harbour.

The iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge

On the Opera House side, the sea wall doubles as a seating area where you can relax in the Sydney sunshine taking in the stunning views or grab a drink at the Opera Bar sitting out at one of its tables overlooking the harbour watching the local ferries roll in and out and the occasional huge ship dock across at the Sydney Cruise Terminal.

A busy Opera House Bar

Circular Quay and The Rocks area are full of a variety of cafes, bars and restaurants although they are mainly in the more expensive price range due to their location but if you can afford it, its a great place to sit and watch the World go by.

Taking a ride on the Sydney Jet Boat

Its also the place to go to catch one of the many commuter ferries or to take a cruise on Sydney harbour. We took an exhilarating ride on the Sydney Jet Boat which is great fun if you don’t mind getting drenched!

Sydney Opera House

Touring the Opera House

While I have never seen a performance at the Opera House, no visit to Sydney is complete without a photo outside the iconic building. On my first visit to the city, I took a guided tour of the building to learn more about the building’s design. While the tour was quite short, it was really interesting to go inside the building to see and hear about where the performances take place.

The Opera House ‘sails’

Outside the building is the Opera Bar where you can get a drink and enjoy the views of the Opera House and across the harbour. If you are lucky enough to ever spend New Year’s Eve in the city then a highly recommend the Opera Bar’s new Year’s Eve Party right in the thick of the action!

Sydney Harbour Bridge

The harbour bridge dominates the views around Circular Quay and there’s a multitude of places to get the perfect photo of the structure. But it’s also possible to get a lot closer to the bridge. Cruises sailing both past and under the bridge can be booked leaving from both Circular Quay and Darling Harbour. I taken ferries heading back into Sydney at dusk to see the bridge under the red glow of the sky as the sun sets behind it.

Walking across Sydney Harbour Bridge

To get closer still, it’s free for pedestrians to walk across the bridge. I took a route through The Rocks area and up to the Sydney Observatory before crossing the bridge to Milsons Point and visiting Luna Park, a small amusement park on the Northern shore of Sydney Harbour before catching the ferry back to Circular Quay from Milsons Point ferry terminal. There are some great views of Sydney Harbour looking across to the Opera House from the Bridge but unfortunately, for safety reasons there’s a mesh fence up along the walkway stopping you from really taking a photo in front of this view. It is possible to hold the lens of your camera against a gap in the fence to take photos of the view though.

If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous and have the money to splash out, the most exciting way to see the bridge is from the top of it. On my first trip to the city, I took part in a Sydney Harbour Bridge climb in which small groups of people are taken on a guided walk up to the highest point of the bridge.

At the top of Sydney Harbour Bridge on the bridge climb experience

We were given a special suit to wear and equipped with all the gear we’d need to attach ourselves safely to the bridge and move along it before being give a quick training session on a practise ‘bridge’ inside the bridge climb terminus before setting out on our adventure. The hardest part was climbing the vertical ladders onto the bridge but after this it was more like a walk up a hill than a climb and was a lot easier than I expected it to be.

As you’re not allowed to take your own cameras, our guide took pictures of us when we reached the top and we were provided with the group picture for free on our return. Copies of individual photos taken were available to purchase upon our return to the centre after our climb. This was a really fantastic experience and I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone visiting Sydney!

As part of our Bridge climb experience, we were given free tickets to visit the Sydney Harbour Bridge Pylon Lookout. As the name suggests, this allowed us to enter the Pylon on the south side of the bridge where a small museum is located detailing how the iconic bridge was built. After looking around the museum, we made our way to a viewing deck on top of the pylon which offered stunning views across Sydney Harbour and – unlike during our bridge climb – allowed us to take our own photos of and with the view. You don’t have to have participated in a bridge climb to access the Pylon Lookout, anyone can buy a ticket and visit.

Darling Harbour

Spotting Dugong at the Sydney Aquarium

The other well-known harbour in Sydney is Darling Harbour. Darling Harbour is home to a range of tourist attractions including Sydney Aquarium and Sydney Wildlife Park, the Chinese Garden of Friendship and the World’s largest IMAX screen.

Darling Harbour at night

Darling Harbour is a great place to head for an evening out. It’s Cockle Bay Wharf area houses a variety of restaurants, and bars and clubs line both sides of the harbour.

Botanical Gardens

A bird on a palm tree and, above, exploring the Sydney Botanic Gardens

Lying to the rear of the Opera House, Sydney’s pretty Botanic Gardens are the perfect place for a stroll or to sit relaxing in the sunshine.

I like to follow the sea wall along the harbour to Mrs Macquaries Chair for great views and the perfect place to get a photo with both the Opera House and Harbour Bridge in the same shot!

Beaches and coastal walks

A surfer at Bondi and, above, visiting Bondi Beach

The most famous of Sydney’s beaches is, of course, Bondi Beach. Bondi is in a suburb of Sydney and I’ve always caught the public bus out of the city to get there and back.

Bondi Baths, an ocean swimming pool

Whenever I’ve been in the sunshine, the beach has been busy with tourists and locals sunbathing, surfing or soaking up the atmosphere but on my last visit, I arrived to torrential rain, finding the area unsurprisingly, almost deserted!

Not sunbathing weather and, below, views walking from Bondi to Bronte

As sunbathing wasn’t an option, I instead took the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk, following the coast path from next to the Bondi lido. It was a really pretty walk and if I had time, I would have continued to follow the path to the beach at Coogee, catching the bus back to Sydney city centre from there but instead, I turned around once I reached Bronte and returned to Bondi to meet my friends.

Walking from Manly to Shelly Beach

Manly Beach is another beach easily accessible from the city. We took the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, walking down its Corso, lined with shops and restaurants, to reach the main beach.

We spent a fun day sunbathing and swimming in the ocean but again, if, like me, you can’t stay in one place for long, you can take a coastal walk past the Cabbage Tree Bay Aquatic Reserve to Shelly Beach.

The lighthouse at Palm Beach

Fans of Australian soap Home & Away might want to head to Palm Beach in Sydney’s North Beach district. Palm Beach doubles as Summer Bay in the soap and is instantly recognisable to fans of the soap with its lighthouse and golden sands. The first time I visited, we took a guided tour of the North Beaches which had Palm Beach as its main stop and were lucky enough to find filming was going ahead that day.

Peninsula views from the lighthouse walk

The cast were more than happy to chat and take photos with fans between takes. Since then, I have returned taking a long bus ride out of Sydney to get there and while no filming was happening that day, I still had a great day walking up to the lighthouse for beautiful views across the peninsula before relaxing on the golden sands.

On my last visit to the city, upon the recommendation of a Sydney-sider friend, I took the ferry out to Watsons Bay.

The Gap at Watsons Bay

While the beaches there were not the best Sydney has to offer, I followed the South Head Heritage Trail, a pretty walking track that loops round past the Hornby Lighthouse and back.

From here, I walked up to The Gap viewing area on top to watch the ocean crashing into the rocks below the cliffs, continuing on along the coast to Macquarie Lighthouse. From Watsons Bay, I caught the bus back to the city, hopping off at Rose Bay for a stroll down to Rose Bay Beach.

Day trips out

Apart from heading to one of the many beaches, its possible to take a range of organised tours out of the city.

On a cable car across the Blue Mountains and, above, stopping to say hello to the wildlife at Featherdale

I took a fun day trip out to see the highlights of the the Blue Mountains. Leaving Sydney, we stopped off at Featherstone Wildlife Park to meet some friendly kangaroos and wallabies before driving through some of the pretty Blue Mountain villages and stopping off at some stunning viewpoints.

About to ride the World’s steepest railway and, below, beautiful views of the Blue Mountains

We spent the main part of the bay at the Scenic World attraction where we rode on the glass-bottomed scenic skyway, the World’s steepest railway and the scenic cable car for more beautiful views. Our tour stopped at Sydney’s Olympic Park on the way back before we took a sunset ferry ride back to Sydney.

Other tours you can take from Sydney include day trips to Jervis Bay and to Canberra, the country’s capital city, both of which I plan on doing on my next visit!

Getting Around

Walking is the best way to see Sydney!

While I’ve never stayed any further south than the Museum/Hyde Park area of the city, from here at least, Sydney is a pretty walkable city with both Circular Quay and Darling Harbour in easy reach. On one of my first visits to the city, I made use of the city’s hop on off bus but while the commentary was occasionally interesting, I didn’t feel that it took me to anywhere I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get to. I have also made use of the city’s efficient rail service with trains running regularly to Circular Quay from Central Station. From here you can connect to the city’s airport service too. Sydney Opal cards can be purchased from convenience stores and used on public transport including local rail services and the buses out to Bondi Beach. It’s even possible to venture out to the Blue Mountains on public transport rather than driving or using an organised tour if you are so inclined!

Sydney is definitely a great city to explore with plenty of things to see and do. Let me know if you’ve been by sharing your tips in the comments!

Find my other posts on Australia here!

A midweek budget break in Copenhagen

Wanting an October half term break without paying over the odds, we used Skyscanner to price flights to ‘Everywhere’ deciding to pick wherever we hadn’t been that was cheapest. Copenhagen won with flights from Luton coming up at under £50 return. We managed to find a well-reviewed budget central hotel for under £100 each making it a pretty cheap break as long as we could keep the costs down while there in what is a notoriously expensive Scandinavian country!

After a bit of research on things to do, we decided to buy a £57 Copenhagen tourist card giving us entry to a variety of attractions and use of public transport throughout the city, including to and from the airport, all for one price. Our hotel included breakfast and, with it being Continental, we were able to make up sandwiches for lunch to take out with us to save on buying anything. It also offered free tea and coffee in the lobby throughout the day so, with it being in a central location, we were able to return to sit down for a while and have this instead of popping into a cafe and buying a hot drink.

Arriving into Copenhagen airport early evening, we easily managed to navigate the public transport system into the city centre and walk the short distance to our hotel. After checking in, we took a walk to Nyhaven then wandered in the immediate vicinity eventually stumbling across a ‘hole in the wall’ type cafe selling reasonably priced take out pizza which sorted that night’s dinner!

We were up early for breakfast the next morning then walked back to Nyhaven where we used our tourist card for a boat ride on the Copenhagen canals. It was a guided tour with an English commentary and helped us to get our bearings a bit, see where some of the attractions we wanted to visit were and learn a bit about the city.

After our canal tour, we walked to the first of many palaces to explore in the city, Christiansborg Palace.

It was free to go up the Palace Tower to enjoy beautiful views across the city and our tourist card gave us access to look around various parts of the palace buildings including the Royal Reception Rooms, the stables and the ruins underneath the palace.

We had lunch sat out in the palace courtyard before moving off to our next destination, the Museum of Denmark to learn some of the history of the country and see artefacts from it’s past. Our Copenhagen Card also got us a free pack of postcards souvenir from the museum!

From the museum, we caught the metro across to the Hans Christian Anderson Fairytale House. The attraction was really aimed more at kids with its exhibit of tableaux depicting the various fairytales written by the famous Danish author and we’d probably have thought it not worth the money had it not been included on our tourist card but as it was, it was worth a quick saunter around.

Returning to the main centre of the city and after quickly popping back to our hotel for a cup of tea, it was off to another palace next, Rosenburg Castle. We walked around the rooms of the castle before descending to the basement to see the Crown Jewels.

It had been a busy day of sightseeing but we still had time to fit in one more attraction on our Copenhagen card so we walked to the Rundetaarn, or the Roundhouse, so called because of it rotunda shape. This is a 17th Century tower which you can walk to the top of up a winding spiral path to an observation deck.

The sun was just starting to set as we reached the top making for some pretty views over the city.

With it now being evening and most of the attractions closing for the day, we instead walked to Strøget, the city’s main shopping street which was still buzzing with shoppers and tourists.

Our first stop on the busy pedestrianised street was the Lego Store, the flagship store for the famous Danish construction toy full of lego reconstructions of famous Danish icons including Copenhagen’s Nyhavn area!

We shopped in a few souvenir stores along the street then went for dinner at nearby buffet restaurant, Dalle Valle. We had seen the restaurant advertised with a money off coupon in a tourist leaflet we had picked up at our hotel and its all-you-can-eat option, along with a variety of foods to suit our plain tastes, seemed a good idea especially being on a budget. Then, exhausted after a jam-packed day, it was back to the hotel.

We began the next day back at Nyhanv where we used our tourist card to visit the Amber Museum before spending a bit more time looking around the area and finding the houses there that were once lived in by Hans Christian Anderson.

Continuing the Hans Christian Anderson theme, from Nyhavn we took the 20 minute or so pretty walk along the waterside out to see the iconic The Little Mermaid sculpture.

While there, we stumbled across Kastellet, or The Citadel, a fortress which is now mainly a park and historic site. We had a stoll around before walking back towards the city and the third palace of our trip, Amalienborg Palace, current home of the Danish Royal family.

Our Copenhagen card included entry to the Amalienborg Museum – access to some of the rooms in the palace and after our visit, we exited the palace just in time to watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony in the palace courtyard.

Getting through the list of attractions included on our card a lot quicker than we had planned to, we decided we had time to fit in one more attraction this morning before heading to Tivoli Gardens this afternoon as planned. So after looking at the map, we decided to head across to the district of Christianshavn to visit the Church of Our Saviour where you can climb the stairs to the top of its steeple.

This was an interesting experience as most of the stairs are on the outside of the steeple and they narrow as they near the very top making it tricky to navigate past those coming back down as you go up. Stopping to let people past does at least give you time to catch your breath though!