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.

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!

Los Angeles

“There’s nothing there.” “It’s dirty.” “I didn’t like it.” “Hollywood is a dump.” “I wouldn’t bother.” Just some of the comments I’d heard about the City of Angels, Los Angeles. But I’d seen it in the movies – Hollywood, the Walk of Fame, the beaches, the mansions, the glamour, the Californian sunshine – what wasn’t there to like, right? And so, I floated the idea to my friend of possibly spending a few nights in the city of dreams on the way back from the trip we were planning to Australia, making our flight ticket a round-the-world trip, and the next thing I knew, we’d booked it and were planning our stay. Truth be told, I was as excited about our few days in Hollywood as I was about our 2 weeks in Australia – if not more so! – and despite the various warnings? I loved it. I’ve been back multiple times and still love it. I’ve taken family and friends there and made them fall in love with it. I’m going back there for my 6th visit this summer. I really have no idea why so many people I talk to don’t love it!!

So here’s my guide to LA!

Where To Stay and Getting Around

“It’s impossible to get around LA without a car.” I read or was repeatedly told when investigating my first trip there. Time consuming and complicated at first, maybe. Impossible? No. I’ve not had a hire car on any of my trips to the city and I’ve rarely even used taxis or ubers and yet I’ve still managed fine and seen everything I’ve wanted to see each time. And looking at the traffic in the city, there’s no way I’d ever want to drive there! The trouble with LA is it’s such a big place. Everything is spread out and unlike in New York, although improving, the metro system is currently not comprehensive enough to make getting from one place to another as quick or easy as it should be. Instead you need to make use of a combination of buses and trains. Choosing the right place to stay goes a long way to making getting around easier. I’ve always said that in an ideal world, I’d spend a few days staying in different areas – downtown, Hollywood, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills…but assuming you’ve got just a few days to a week in the city then you need to choose just one area to base yourself in.

For most of my visits, I’ve based myself in Hollywood, as close to the corner of Hollywood and Highland as possible. From here, most of the Hollywood sights are walkable, you have plenty of entertainment options to keep you occupied in the evenings along Hollywood Boulevard and the red line metro can be accessed easily. This is the line that runs downtown to Union Station in one direction but also to Universal Studios and City Walk in the other direction. Anything not accessible by metro, you can probably catch a bus to it from Hollywood! If you plan on using the hop on/off tourist bus to get around, then 3 of the routes – the Hollywood route, downtown route and Hollywood Bowl bus – all have a stop on Hollywood Boulevard.

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard

I have stayed a couple of times in Santa Monica – which I absolutely love – but it’s not as convenient as Hollywood for getting around. The first time I stayed there we planned on taking the hop on/off bus to Hollywood the one day but it took so long to get there -it’s not even direct, you have to hop off at Rodeo Drive and wait for the Hollywood bus from there! – that we got less time than we thought we would there so decided to go back again the next day – which meant catching the hop on/off bus all over again! (Since then, I should point out that a new metro line has opened connecting Santa Monica with downtown and hopefully making the journey between there and Hollywood a bit easier – I’ll let you know after my trip this summer!) The second time I chose to stay there was for a quick visit before starting a tour which was meeting nearby, so a visit to Hollywood wasn’t on my itinerary and Santa Monica was just more convenient for my plans than Hollywood happened to be.

Santa Monica Pier at sunset

For my upcoming visit to LA this summer, we looked at possibly staying downtown as prices were a bit cheaper than Hollywood and from there we could easily catch the metro into Hollywood or the new line to Santa Monica. But not knowing the area as well, we were unsure which of the cheaper hotel options were in an area where it was ‘safe’ to stay – especially if we were out late and had to walk from the metro back to our hotel in the evenings. So we’ve plumped for a motel just off Hollywood Boulevard again, sticking with what we know!

If you’re arriving into Los Angeles from LAX airport then an easy way of reaching wherever you’ve decided to stay is the FlyAway bus service.
https://www.flylax.com/en/flyaway-bus

These buses run from the airport to most of the main touristy areas of the city – and slightly further a field – and I’ve found them to be a convenient, relatively cheap and easy way to get to and from the airport in the past. If there’s larger group of you then a taxi might be more cost effective and convenient .

If you’re arriving by train into Union Station then the metro is the cheapest way of getting to Hollywood or Santa Monica. Having tried it once, I wouldn’t advise the public buses as not only do they take forever in the LA traffic but there’s not much room to take a giant suitcase on there!!

Sunset on Hollywood Boulevard

To use the buses or metro system in LA you’ll need to get a $2 TAP card which you then load with cash or metro passes (you can add a one-day, 7-day or one-month pass). While cash fares are accepted on buses (exact fare only), you must use a TAP card on the metro so if it’s likely you’ll be using both forms of transport, you may as well just purchase a card. To plan your route, use the journey planner feature on the LA metro site.
https://www.metro.net/riding/trip-planner/

Just don’t expect to get to travel between places as quickly as you can in other big cities – the last time I caught the bus from Hollywood to Santa Monica, it took a good 2 hours to get there. I’m hoping the recent metro extension will cut this down a bit when I try it later this year but looking at the journey planner on the metro site, it won’t be by much!

Tourist cards

Whenever I’m doing a city break, I always weigh up purchasing a ‘tourist card’ where multiple attractions are included in one price against paying for the attractions individually. The problem is, a lot of the time many of the included attractions were never on my ‘to do’ list to start with but when I see them all listed on the card’s website, it seems too good value not to buy it as long as I can fit everything into my visit so I end up actually spending more by buying the card than I would have if I’d made a list of what I wanted to do and just bought admission to those things individually! Not that that’s always a bad thing – sometimes there I things included on these cards that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered going to but because I’ve purchased a card and I’m in the area I’ve popped in and actually really enjoyed then attraction!

Anyway, there are a few tourist card options for LA. On my first visit, we had just a few days stopover on the way back from Australia and were based in Hollywood but wanted to see a bit of Beverly Hills and the beaches too. Starline Tour’s Hollywood Pass was perfect for what we wanted – it included Hollywood attractions such as Madame Tussauds, the Hollywood Museum and Dolby theatre tour, a Star Homes Tour which took us into the Hollywood and Beverly Hills and the Hop on/Off bus pass which we used to get to Rodeo Drive and Santa Monica from which we walked to Venice Beach and back. We even had time to do a loop on the Downtown Hop on/off bus route – albeit without getting off to explore – on the last morning before we headed to the airport. Starline still offer similar passes now as well as add-ons and tickets and tours to many other LA attractions.
https://www.starlinetours.com/

The hop on/off bus tour run by Starline/Citysightseeing in LA will often offer tourist bundles as an incentive to sell tour tickets. When staying in Santa Monica, we enquired about bus tickets but were quite non-committal about it only for the cashier to suddenly offer to throw in a Madame Tussaud’s ticket in with every pass we purchased! Many other tour companies will off various combo packages on attractions so it’s definitely worth shopping around to see what discounts you can get.

Riding the Hop on/off sightseeing bus through Downtown LA

If you’ve got a bit more time and either have a car or are willing to spend time planning a way around the city on public transport, then the Go LA pass is probably the most extensive.
https://www.smartdestinations.com/los-angeles-attractions-and-tours/_d_Lax-p1.html?pass=Lax_Prod_Go

The company offer all inclusive cards valid for set number of days or you can build your own card starting from 2 attractions – the more you add, the more you save. In my opinion, the all inclusive card is only worth it if you’re staying for upwards of 3 days and you are going to spend one of those days at Universal Studios as this is one of the more expensive attractions to visit and goes a long way to getting your money back on the card and ending up in profit on what you’d have spent paying for attractions individually. Even with a visit to Universal, you need to plan your trip well to fit enough in to get the full value of it but if you’re planning to do one of the studio tours and a few of the Hollywood based attractions then it soon adds up.

As LA is such a huge city, I’ve written separate pages on different parts of the city and things to do:

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Studio Tours

Downtown LA

Beach Cities

The Hollywood Sign

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Visiting Hollywood and wondering what there is to do and see? Read through my ideas and tips to get the most out of your visit!

Hollywood Boulevard

No matter where you’ve decided to stay, A visit to Hollywood Boulevard is probably going to be on your itinerary. So what to expect? Yes, it’s tacky. Yes, it’s full of crowds of tourists all congregating in the same small areas of pavement. Yes, the far ends of the Hollywood Boulevard and anywhere slightly off the Boulevard, does not feel the safest place in the World to wander. But go with your expectations not too high and you’ll find plenty to enjoy.

The Four Ladies Statue, Hollywood/La Brea Gateway

You’ll more than likely find yourself wandering along the Walk of Fame eyes down with exclaims of ‘oh Britney Spears!’ , ‘Look, there’s Tom Cruise!’ and ‘Kermit the Frog!!!’ – no, not pointing out the actual celebrity of course but just shouting out the name on every other star you walk past with no real reason why you’re doing it. Be prepared to get annoyed as fellow tourists decide to sit in the middle of the pavement to get photos with various stars only to find yourself doing exactly the same when you see one of your faves.

Then as the pavement opens out in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, push your way through the crowds waiting for your turn to see how your shoe size measures up to your Hollywood faves. When in Hollywood…!

Looking for a particular celebrity’s star? Then download the Walk of Fame app which will pinpoint the exact place of any star you are looking for or look on the Walk of Fame’s official site. You can also find out if there’s any new stars ceremonies going on while you’re in town.
https://www.walkoffame.com/

View of he Capital Records Building from the Hollywood & Vine intersection

If you can raise your eyes from the pavement long enough to notice, you’ll find various costumed individuals around the area in front of Madame Tussaud’s encouraging tourists to have photos with them – remember, they are expecting hefty tip in return – and many competing tacky gift stores selling cheap and cheerful souvenirs – fake Oscar statuette with you name on anyone?! Look out for the $10 store which seems to constantly have an ‘everything is just $5’ sale on!!


Looking out towards Hollywood Boulevard from the arch at the Hollywood & Highland Center

For a handful of high street stores and chain restaurants, the Hollywood and Highland Center, a 3-storey entertainment complex, is a good bet and also provides some great photo opportunities with it’s over-the-top Babylon Gate entrance flanked by elephant statues, the jumping water jets/fountain in the central courtyard and the ‘casting couch’ from which you can follow the Road to Hollywood with it’s anonymous stories of industry stars’ rise to fame.

From the walkways across the arch at the back of the center, there are views of the Hollywood sign in the distance. Not really close enough for you to get a photo with the sign but you can definitely get a photo of it. (You can find my tips on getting closer to the Hollywood sign here.)

From the center, you can access the neighbouring Dolby Theatre – famous for being the most recent location of the Oscars ceremonies. Take a tour of the theatre and if you’re lucky and there’s no current production on there, you’ll get to step onto the stage where so many winners have accepted their award. Or for free, just pose on the red carpet steps leading up to the theatre’s entrance!

A few doors down, you can also take a tour of the Chinese Theatre to hear some of it’s history although personally, I didn’t really feel the tour was worth it and you can see just as much of the theatre by seeing a film there!

I much prefer a visit to the Hollywood Museum, just off Hollywood Boulevard opposite the Hollywood & Highland Center. The building it’s housed in is the former Max Factor Building and now contains props and costumes from Hollywood films and TV shows. The museum changes and updates a lot of its displays regularly so I like to return whenever I’m visiting Hollywood to see what’s currently on display.

Next door to the Hollywood Museum is one of my favourite places to eat in Hollywood, Mel’s Drive In, a traditional 50s style diner.


Mel’s Drive In Diner next to the Hollywood Museum

Slightly cheaper fare than at the Hard Rock Cafe across Hollywood Boulevard and better value, in my opinion, than the similar Johnny Rocket’s in the Hollywood Highland Center, it offers the usual burgers and sandwiches-type diner menu.

There’s plenty of other entertainment opportunities along the strip including Ripley’s Believe It or Not and two wax museums. If you’ve bought a tourist card such as the Go Los Angeles pass or Starline’s Hollywood Pass then it’s likely you’ll have a visit to Madame Tussaud’s included. If nothing else, a walk around the heavily air-conditioned museum is a welcome relief from the hot summer days or if you’re looking for a quieter visit, go in the evening after 8 when the queues are usually non-existent and you can move around much easier once inside.

Star Homes Tours

When my brother and his wife visited LA, they googled a map and headed of into the Hollywood Hills from Hollywood Boulevard by foot the one day and into the Beverly Hills on foot from Rodeo Drive another day!! It was the middle of August and sweltering heat but they had a great time exploring. If you have hired a car or also enjoy a hike then maps of the Star Homes can be purchased in many stores around the Hollywood area or you can indeed find plenty of information just using google but if not, there are plenty of companies offering these tours departing from Hollywood Boulevard!


View of the Hollywood sign from a scenic lookout on Mulholland.

I’ve taken 3 of these tours from Hollywood – and one to Malibu from Santa Monica – all with different companies and quite honestly, they’re all pretty similar – driving up into the Hollywood Hills via a stop at the Mulholland Drive lookout point to see the Hollywood sign in the distance before continuing through the Hollywood Hills and into Beverly Hills all the time with the driver shouting out the names of the celebrities that supposedly live at the various gated mansions you pass along the way! I say ‘supposedly’ because quite honestly, they could be saying anything and I’d have no idea if they were telling the truth or now but it’s always fun to see the huge compounds and see how the other half lives if nothing else!


One of the mansions on the tour

A Star Homes Tour is included on the Go LA tourist card and also in a lot of the tourist combo tickets available but if you haven’t purchased one of these then I recommend just walking along Hollywood Boulevard bartering with the tour guides – they are all trying to get you on their tour and are willing to offer competitive prices to gain your custom so don’t sign up at the first price offered or the first company you come to, see what’s on offer and haggle!

To read about the Malibu Star Homes tour I took, see my post about LA’s Beach Cities here.

Studio Tours

If you’re a movie buff or US TV fan then you’ll probably enjoy one, or all, of the 4 film studio tours LA currently offers. All are pretty easily accessible from Hollywood via the metro or public buses and while I do have a favourite – the Warner Brother’s Studio Tour – they all have their merits and are worth doing if you are a film and TV fan. The studio tour at Universal is only available with entry to Universal Studios Hollywood amusement park and is almost like a ride rather than a traditional backlot tour as you stay on an almost constantly moving bus past the film sets and there are many effects laden set pieces to add to the fun. (A more in-depth ‘VIP’ tour where you do get to tour some of the sets is also available but at a much higher cost.)

Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures and Paramount all offer more traditional backlot tours at their working studios with the opportunity to step foot on some of their sound stages and see the sets of some of their current shows. The tours are quite similar in some ways so you probably wouldn’t want to do all 4 on one trip as they could all end up blending into one. To help narrow it down, it could be worth looking into what’s currently filming at each one to give you an idea of what sets you might get to see although it’s all dependent on what’s not being used on the day. It is possible to apply to be an audience member at some of the shows but many have long waiting lists making it difficult to guarantee tickets for the days you are in the city.

For a more detailed account of my own experiences of the various Studio Tours available in LA and what they each have to offer, see my page here.

Griffith Park and Observatory

Griffith Observatory

I’d often see Griffith Observatory high up in the Hollywood Hills while in LA and was familiar with it from various films and TV shows, but it wasn’t until my most recent visit that I finally paid it a visit. The observatory lies in Griffith Park but on top of a steep hill so unless you want to hike up it, the easiest way to get there is on public transport.

When I visited, an easy public transport option didn’t exist so I caught an Uber there and walked back but now you can catch a red metro line train a few stops from Hollywood Boulevard to the Vermont/Sunset Station and catch a DASH bus from here which will drop you right outside the observatory! DASH buses are not included on TAP card fares but having a TAP card will get you a discount, making the fare just 35 cents, otherwise, it’ll set you back a whole 50 cents – bargainous either way!!

The observatory itself is free to enter and has some really interesting space-related exhibitions but the big attraction for me was the view.

From the observatory it is possible to pick up hiking trails that will eventually lead you closer to the Hollywood sign but if you do plan on taking one of these, make sure you have plenty of water on you and the right footwear as it’s quite a long walk! Otherwise, I recommend strolling back down the hill and through Griffith Park itself before walking or catching a bus back into Hollywood!

Griffith Observatory on top of a hill in Griffith Park

Sunset Boulevard

Running parallel to Hollywood, a block south, is Sunset Boulevard. After passing along this road a few times on the sightseeing bus but never hopping off to explore I finally decided to take a walk down there on my last visit to the city.

The main reason I’d decided to head down to Sunset Boulevard was to visit Amoeba Records, the World’s largest independent music store. The store did not disappoint with 2 floors of cds, dvds, vinyls and music merchandise and is definitely worth a visit if you’re a music fan.

Walk a bit further west along Sunset Boulevard and you will come to Hollywood’s Rockwalk outside another music store, this one selling instruments. Like a mini-versions of the pavement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre only this time, for musicians, the Rockwalk at the Guitar Centre has the handprints of many famous rock artists as well as bronze plaques on the walls for some well-known names.

Moving into West Hollywood by continuing a few miles along Sunset Boulevard, you will come to the infamous Sunset Strip. Here, Sunset Boulevard is lined with bars and clubs. The strip is a short taxi ride from Hollywood Boulevard and comes alive at night with clubs offering live music and comedy. During the day, there is shopping at Sunset Plaza.

The Viper Room on Sunset Strip

The Grove and Farmers’ Market

If you are heading out of Hollywood towards Beverly Hills on public transport, then it’s likely you’ll turn south on Fairfax Avenue and pass The Grove Shopping Centre and neighbouring Farmer’s Market along the way.

Both worth a stop, The Grove is a pleasantly laid out open shopping mall with lots of high street stores, department stores, cafes, restaurants and even a cinema all set around a pretty lake and fountain area. A tram runs through the Grove complex connecting it with the LA Farmers Market where you will find a variety of food stalls selling both fresh produce and plenty of lunch or snack options.

While visiting The Grove and Farmers Market, why not walk a block south to the corner of Fairfax and Wiltshire where you’ll find LACMA – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. While I’ve still not got round to actually visiting the museum, I did enjoy walking through it’s ‘Urban Lights’ sculpture while waiting for the bus back to Hollywood. Next door to LACMA, you’ll find the La Brea Tar Pits which I plan to visit for the first time on my LA visit later this year – can’t wait!

Beverly Hills

While most of the Star Homes Tours offered from Hollywood will drive through Beverly Hills past the huge mansions and along Rodeo Drive passing the designer stores, they don’t tend to make a stop here so you may decide to go back to explore this area a bit more by yourself.

A Beverly Hills shield

Whether you’ve hired a car to drive yourself or if you’re getting a bus from Hollywood or Santa Monica, you will probably find yourself at the large Beverly Hills sign in Beverly Gardens Park.

Across the road from the park, you’ll find the Beverly Hills Visitors Centre where you can get a photo with one of the famous Beverly Hills shields. It is also just a short walk to Rodeo Drive which I have walked down window shopping many a time but never had the nerve to enter any of the high end designer stores!!

Nearby is the Beverly Hills City Hall which is the building used as the police station in the Beverly Hills Cop films.

If you want to experience a bit of Hollywood glamour, walk to one of the 2 famous Beverly Hills hotels. The Beverly Wiltshire at the end of Rodeo Drive featured in the film Pretty Woman and the Beverly Hilton is just to many red carpet events including the annual Grammy awards!

LA Overview

Downtown

The Hollywood sign

Studio Tours

Beach Cities

New York, New York

Right, let’s get this out of the way.  As the slogan says, I Love NY. I really do.  I’ve made multiple trips out there already and can’t wait to return someday for what will be my 11th(!) visit.  It wasn’t even somewhere that was ever on my radar to go when I was younger, in fact the USA at all was never top of my list. My first visit only happened when I was invited to join my friend on a trip to New York with her parents. When that fell through, we decided to go anyway, just the 2 of us. And that was it. I was smitten. There’s just something about it, an atmosphere, a buzz, an energy – the bright lights, the constant noise, the endless list of things to do…  That first trip was in 2005. I went back in 2007. And again in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013. The first thing I did when I quit my job? Booked a December break to the city to experience it at Christmas time. 

So I guess I see myself as a bit of a New York expert. I certainly know my way around the city enough to give directions when stopped and asked (apparently I look like someone who knows where they’re going rather than a tourist now as I’m often stopped and asked!) and to show friends who around the city on their first visits.

My visits have ranged in length from 2 nights (as part of a multi-city trip) to 6 nights but I’d say for a first visit, 4 nights like my own first trip was, is enough to see the essentials.

If at all possible, I would definitely recommend going with someone who has been before the first time you visit but if this isn’t an option, then definitely do your research, get an idea of the layout of Manhattan and plan what to do in each area to save time and get the most out of your visit.

Arriving

Getting Around

Where to stay

Getting the most out of your visit

Empire State Building, Top of the Rock or One World Observatory

Broadway

Times Square

Rockefeller Center

Shopping

Central Park

TV and Film Locations

Venturing out of Manhattan

Museums

The Statue of Liberty

Sporting Events

Other notable sites

Eating out

Arriving to Manhattan

Having been to the city so many times, I’ve arrived into Manhattan in a few different ways.  I  have a friend who once insisted we got a flight that arrived into New York’s JFK rather than Newark in New Jersey as it was more ‘iconic’ but honestly, I really don’t think it matters and I mainly just got for the cheapest, most convenient flights no matter which of the 2 airports they land at. My first trip to the city we booked through a travel agent as a package with Virgin Holidays so our transfers from the airport to the hotel and back were included. All my other trips I’ve booked independently, usually using a site like Expedia and I’ve therefore organised the transfers myself.  I tried a shared shuttle service once – never again. We were, of course, one of the last drop offs so it took forever before we were at our hotel then we were one of the first pick ups returning, after which, we seemingly spent hours driving around JFK Airport dropping other passengers off at various terminals before we finally got to ours – we’d wondered why our pick up time was so early! Not only that but the driver’s driving was crazy, horns were blasting constantly, and we didn’t feel safe travelling in either direction! I’ve had good experiences with shared shuttle services elsewhere – even with the same company this particular trip was with – but that one put me off using one for New York again. My next few visits, we used taxis from the airport into the city. At JFK, this involved fighting our way through a throng of drivers from private companies trying to talk tourists into their sedans and limos for which they charge hiked up fares to the standard yellow taxi cabs.  If you plan on getting a taxi from the airport, make sure you turn down any offers from driver stood around inside and outside the terminal and instead follow the signs to the official New York Taxi ranks.

If you’re combining a New York trip with another east coast city then train is the perfect way to get to the city.  We once caught the Amtrak from Boston which took about 3 hours to arrive into Penn Station in midtown Manhattan.  The train was roomy and comfortable and for a tip, we had help boarding our train with our luggage from a ‘red cap’ – like a station concierge.  You can also arrive into Penn Station if you decide to use public transport to get into the city from Newark Airport.  The airport train is a quick, easy and relatively cheap way of getting between the airport and the city.  Once you’ve arrived at Penn Station, if your hotel isn’t walkable then I’d recommend taking a taxi as the New York subway system is not easy to navigate with large suitcases! Unlike the London Underground, the subway has very few wide barriers for you to get your luggage through and many stations have a lot of stairs to climb with no lifts or escalators.

It is possible to travel from JFK to Manhattan on public transport too using the AirTrain which links up to the subway but I’ve not had experience of this myself as the one time I was going to use it, it was closed and I had to get a replacement bus – which took forever in rush hour traffic! – instead.

Getting Around

For the most part, Manhattan Island is laid out in a typical American grid system which, in my opinion, makes getting around a piece of cake. Streets run east to west with numbers ascending as you head ‘uptown’ or north and descending as you walk ‘downtown’ or south.  Avenues run north to south with the 1st Ave being furthest east and 12th Avenue being furthest west.  Broadway kinda cuts across diagonally.  Therefore, you get out of any subway station unsure of where you are and it doesn’t really matter just note the street you are on, walk a block and see if the street numbers increase or decrease to know if you’re walking in the right direction. The iconic tall buildings are also great for determining location as if you know where the Empire State Building, for example, is, you just need to look for it and head in that direction to reach lower midtown.  Things get a bit complicated downtown in the financial district as this is below where the grid system starts and roads just have normal street names rather than numbers but everything is well signposted.

Subway art

I mentioned exiting a subway station but the first couple of times I visited the city, I didn’t make use of the metro system.  Instead, we bought tickets for one of the hop on/off tourist buses that runs in the city and used this to get downtown, hopping back on later to get back to midtown and walked everywhere else. We also did a complete loop on the Uptown bus route taking us up and around Central Park but stayed on the whole way round that time. This worked fine on a short visit with a bit of planning. We decided the only place we’d need to hop off would be at Battery Park, the southernmost point of Manhattan from where you can see the Statue of Liberty so while we were in that area we made sure we ticked everything down there off our list so we wouldn’t have to return.

The first time I did attempt the metro was on the longest of my visits, a 6-night trip in 2008. On my previous trips I had stayed in midtown making many attractions walkable but this time we stayed a bit further downtown at Union Square on 15th Street meaning a short commute on the subway each day to get to where we were going that day. And I have to say, when I first looked at the map, I found it a really complicated system compared to London’s underground. I don’t know if it was the use of numbers and letters that confused me or lines of the same colour branching out to different places but I just couldn’t get my head around it!  We bought a 7-day metro pass (cheaper than a one-day London underground pass at the time!) and after a couple of days, what had seemed impossible to navigate that first evening was a piece of cake!

Where to stay

New York City, and Manhattan especially, is not a cheap place to stay.  Midtown is probably the most convenient location – close to many of the attractions, not too far to get uptown or downtown – but it will cost you for that convenience. On my first visit, we stayed in Midtown, a block from the Empire State Building. Macy’s was at the end of our street, Times Square was a 10 minute walk away cutting up Broadway.  I’ve stayed in a few hotels in this area and it’s always a very convenient location. I’ve also stayed near Grand Central Station, in the Times Square area and by Columbus Circle at the south end of Central Park.  I’ve always tried not to stay any further uptown than this as it always feels a bit out of it to me and it’s a long way to downtown but as long as you’re near a metro station and don’t mind using the subway, it shouldn’t matter too much. I’ve never stayed downtown in the financial district either but there are bargains to be had there if you don’t mind the subway trip to midtown every time.

The Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan

Despite being slightly downtown of the main attractions, I found Union Square to also be a convenient location as a few of the midtown serving subway lines crossed here meaning we could get to Times Square, Rockefeller or Central Park without having to change lines or to the financial district easily when heading further downtown.  To cut costs on my last few visits, I’ve stayed outside of Manhattan, firstly at a motel a couple of stops across the East River in the borough of Queens. We made sure we researched the area before booking and that the motel was just a short walk from a subway station. It mainly worked fine although the subways from there were not as regular as they can be in Manhattan and there was no opportunity to pop back at any point in the day like there often was when I’ve stayed more central as it was too out of the way – once we were out for the day, we were out.  The same applied to the motel we stayed at in Jersey City on my last visit to the city. We chose that location as we were visiting the city midway through an East Coast roadtrip and didn’t fancy driving in Manhattan!  Again, staying out of the city mainly worked fine except for rail works on the Sunday we arrived causing us to take a lengthy diversion downtown on another line, almost curtailing a pre-booked time-slot dependent visit to the Top of the Rock observation deck!

Getting the most out of your visit

The first thing I would say here is don’t waste any time.  Yes, it might be getting late by the time you’ve cleared the long lines at customs, made your way into the city and checked in and yes, you might be tired from a long flight but this is New York. Things stay open late here. Despite it being dark on my arrival to the city before I once fitted in a visit to the bright lights of Times Square (and a little shopping while there!) followed by a post-midnight trip up the Empire State Building – there’s a lot less people and a lot more room up on the observation deck at that time of night! Another time we went straight for a meal at a favourite restaurant, visited Madame Tussauds and met Father Christmas in Macy’s Santaland again taking advantage of their being less people around that there would have been visiting these places during the day.

As I said before, have a plan and when you’re visiting an area, especially one that might be a further ride out from where you’re staying, do everything in that area while you’re there so you don’t have to go out of your way to return.

I’m a big fan of tourist cards and there’s a few options to choose from for these with New York. I’ve found the most comprehensive to be the New York Pass.  You choose a pass by the number of days you need and for that period it gives you access to a long list of attractions as well as discounts and offers at shops and restaurants – we found a daily $10 off at Planet Hollywood (which could be used in the restaurant or shop) and a daily free scoop of ice cream at Dylan’s Candy Bar one year to be particularly useful but these offers vary from time to time.  The pass also allows you to skip the line at some attractions which can save time at the more popular ones although it is just the ticket-buying queue you skip, you can still have a long wait in the security lines. 

Purchasing these passes requires a bit of research beforehand. Make a list of what you want to do – being realistic about what you can fit in – and work out how much it would cost you to pay for these on the door/online in advance and weigh this up against the price of the pass. I’ve always managed to get more than my money’s worth from the pass but being familiar with the city and the subway system have definitely helped me here as I can get around from one attraction to another relatively quickly and easily.

The other pass I have tried is the City Pass. This works well if you like museums as it includes all the main ones along with a trip up the Empire State Building and a boat ride around lower Manhattan and past the Statue of Liberty and also includes some skip the line privileges.

Empire State Building, Top of the Rock or One World Observatory

There are currently 3 observation decks in New York. So how do you choose which one to visit? Ideally, I’d say to do all 3 if you can! Being positioned in different points of Manhattan, all offer unique views of the sprawling metropolis that is New York City.  If you’re thinking of picking 2, then one during the day, one at night is a good option. But if you’re short on time or want to save money, here’s my perspective on the 3.

The Empire State Building is the most iconic of the 3 buildings and arguably the most recognisable but the problem with being on top of building is that it’ll be missing from the skyline in your photos!   While queuing for the elevator to get to the top, you’ll be asked to pose for a souvenir photo in which the building will be superimposed in to make up for this but obviously this photo will cost you a few extra bucks to keep. That’s not to say that the view from the top isn’t worth it – the first time I visited was on a busy Easter Monday and it took 3 hours to reach the top but as soon as I saw the view, it made it all worth it! The building is perfectly situated in midtown meaning you’re pretty central with views of downtown, One World Tower and even the Statue of Liberty way in the distance to the south and Times Square and the Rockefeller Centre buildings to the north. Straight down is Macy’s and the nearby Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, the highly recognisable Chrysler Building is also close by.  The main observation deck is on the 86th floor but there is the option of purchasing a ticket to a smaller deck way up on the 102nd floor.  While I wouldn’t say visiting this higher floor is essential, it does feel higher and make some difference to the view.  Whereas the main observation deck is open, the view from the higher deck is through small glass windows.  I’ve visited the Empire State Building at various times of day and queue times seem to be pot luck. The quickest I’ve ever made it to the top was when I visited after midnight, the longest it ever took was 9am on the Easter Monday.  Having pre-booked tickets or a tourist pass to skip the main queue definitely helps but you will still need to queue to get through security and then join whatever queue there is for the elevators. If it’s busy waiting to get up, it’s going to be busy on the deck itself.  Most times I’ve been, space up top has been limited and finding a space to get your photos can be a bit of a mission. First thing in the morning or last thing at night tends to be the quietest time to visit.

On the whole, I have always found Top of the Rock to be a much more enjoyable experience.  I have never had to queue extensively for it, most times finding myself in the elevator to the top within 10 minutes of arrival and once at the top there is a lot more room that at the Empire State Building. The one time this wasn’t the case was when we’d pre-booked sunset tickets for a Sunday in the summer but every other time it’s been fine. As soon as you arrive at the observation deck it is tempting to take photos straight away through the large glass windows but be patient and find the escalator up to the roof level where it is more open and you won’t have any reflections from the glass.  The main selling point of this observation deck is that you get an amazing view of the Empire State Building in your photos looking South.  The building is also well-situated for views of Central Park which you can’t see from the Empire State although this view gets more and more obscured everytime I visit with taller and taller skyscrapers being built and blocking the park out which is a real shame.  On a clear day you can still see to downtown but the Statue of Liberty looks minuscule from here!

The newest of the New York observation decks is at the One World Tower downtown.  I’ve only visited this observation deck once, a sunset visit not long after it had opened so until I’ve been back I feel like it’s not the best of circumstances to judge it on.  Queue times-wise it was a quick amount of time from arrival to getting to the top compared to the Empire State Building. Once at the top, the observation decks are spread across 2 floors. Unlike the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock, all the views are through large glass windows so be prepared for some reflection in your photos.  We did find it difficult to get up close to the windows, not because it was particularly busy up there but because for some reason a lot of people seemed to be sat on the ledges all around, not even looking out at the view but chatting or making use of the free wifi!! The location of the building means great views across to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and the Empire State Building will once again be in your photos looking uptown. But overall I prefer the views from the midtown observation decks to this one downtown.

Broadway

Seeing a show on Broadway is often on people’s to do list in New York.  I’ve always tried to see shows that are not currently on in the West End although as it’s turned out, most of the shows I have seen did eventually transfer here. Tickets are probably not going to be cheap so you might not want to risk going for a newer show that you’ve not heard of but if something is previewing over there, this is usually where the ticket bargains can be found – back in 2007, we saw Legally Blonde during it’s preview period for just $25. Once the show had officially opened just a few weeks later, the same seats were more than twice this price! I’ve also used the Times Square TKTS booth on a couple of occasions. This is an official Broadway ticketing booth where last minute available tickets are sold at a reduced price, the same as the one in Leicester Square, London.  I don’t recommend this if you have a specific show in mind that you want to see as the shows available vary daily and even if they do have the show you want when the ticket booth opens, one the tickets have  gone, that is it. Both times I have used the Times Square TKT booth, the queue has moved quickly and there was a good choice of shows once I reached the counter. I got excellent stalls tickets to Kinky Boots one night and to Jersey Boys another at half the usual cost.  There are further TKTs booths downtown at South Street Seaport and uptown at the Lincoln Center if you happen to be in those areas.  I’ve not used the Lincoln Center one but found the South Street Seaport booth to be a lot quieter than Times Square if you happen to be in that area!

If Broadway is too expensive then consider and off-Broadway show.  Sometimes well-known shows such as Avenue Q, show off Broadway but even if it’s a show you’ve not heard of it could be worth a try. I saw a hilarious musical spoof of Saved By The Bell off-Broadway a few years ago that cost under $30 a ticket and enjoyed it as much as the show I saw on Broadway on the same visit that cost 4 times the price!

Times Square

Times Square can be magical, especially at night – the bright lights, the noise, the atmosphere. But it can also be a nightmare – the crowds of people stopping without warning to take pictures when you’re just trying to make your way through, the traffic, the crazy-expensive restaurants and bars… But I find it difficult to avoid and it’s a great marker when trying to find your way around – walkable to the Rockefeller Center, 5th Avenue shops and even Central Park heading uptown and to the Empire State Building and Macy’s heading downtown as well as being the point where various subway lines cross if you’re heading elsewhere in the city. While I try to avoid most of the restaurants in the Times Square area, there is one just slightly uptown of it which I do like to visit and that’s Ellen’s Stardust Diner, home of the singing waitstaff. The queue is often around the block but it moves quickly – someone usually comes along the line asking how many are in your party and if a table comes up for your number you might even get to jump the queue.  The staff are all Broadway wannabes awaiting their lucky break and will be serving you food and drinks the one minute and serenading the whole diner the next. It’s loud and not the place to go if you want to hold a conversation over dinner but it’s great fun.

Rockefeller Centre

30 Rock

Take a stroll uptown along 5th Avenue heading towards Central Park and opposite St Patricks Cathedral and Saks 5th Avenue you will find Rockefeller Plaza.  Home of a shopping centre, a subway station, offices, TV studios, the famous Rainbow Room restaurant, Top of the Rock and Radio City Music Hall, the famous gold Prometheus statue, the popular ice rink in the winter and, of course, the huge tree at Christmas! I’ve already talked about the merits of the Top of the Rock viewing deck but it’s not the only thing I’d recommend doing while in the area.  The Rockefeller Centre guided tour is really interesting with the guide taking you into parts of the centre you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access as well as giving you a bit of the history of the building and pointing out some fascinating architectural features that would probably otherwise go unnoticed.

The NBC store

As a fan of Saturday Night Live, I was eager to tour the NBC studios but after failing to fit it into my itinerary on earlier visits to the city, I found it closed on later visits. Luckily, the tours are now running again and I finally made it there on my last visit to the city.  The tour again took us into parts of the Rockefeller Centre you wouldn’t usually be able to access and we were taken into 3 different studios – an NBC newsroom, the Saturday Night Live Studios and the studio used by Jimmy Fallon in his later night chat show – SO much smaller than I imagined it from watching it on TV!! While some of the tour was a bit over my head not being familiar with a lot of the shows or presenters mentioned, it was still interesting to see active studios and NBC employees in action.  As a side note, even if you don’t do the tour, look out for the Centre’s NBC Store selling a variety of merchandise from it’s most popular shows including Friends!

The Radio City Music Hall tour is another interesting one. The venue has a lot of history with many music icons having played there over the years.  While we were touring, the famous Rockettes Christmas show was running and we got to peep in as the show ran before meeting a Rockette at the end of the tour.

Shopping

Honestly, shopping is not really my thing. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid it! So I’m probably not the best person to ask for New York shopping advice. My go to stores in Manhattan were always the big toy stores, Toys R Us in Times Square with it’s indoor ferris wheel and FAO Schwartz on 5th Avenue, home of the giant piano made famous in Tom Hanks’ classic, Big. But unfortunately these have now closed down along with my other favourites, the old World of Disney store  with it’s character meet and greets and Times Square’s huge Virgin Megastore – I really don’t have much luck when it comes to my favourite NY stores!!  But all is not lost. A new Disney Store opened a few years ago in Times Square. It’s no World of Disney but is still a pretty comprehensive Disney shop. And the giant piano from FAO Schwartz can now be found in Macy’s in midtown.  Talking of Macy’s, that is one New York store I do like to wander around. Taking up an entire block, it is the World’s largest department store. As well as the giant piano, look out for the furniture department where I’m always amused to find people having a snooze in the comfy chairs and settees on display!

Macy’s

If you’re downtown near the World Trade Centre then Century 21 is a good call for bargains on designer wear and accessories and is in a similar vein to our TK Maxx stores. For your full price designer clobber, 5th Avenue has it all and is where you’ll find well known department stores Saks and Bergdorf Goodman as well as Tiffany’s, the Apple Store and many more.

Further uptown, a couple of blocks east of Central Park, is Bloomingdales, another famous and impressively large department store notable for its photo-worthy art-deco design. 

At Dylan’s Candy Bar

While in the area, I always like to pay a visit to Dylan’s Candy Bar, a huge sweet store with ‘candy stairs’ and an ice cream parlour on the top floor often serving unusual flavours – the Oreo cheesecake flavour is my personal favourite!

Central Park

Bow Bridge in Central Park

The thing I love about Central Park is that it’s such an oasis of calm and serenity despite being in the middle of the craziest, busiest, noisiest city I’ve ever been to! Take a walk into the park and the tall buildings, the crowds, the sounds of sirens blaring out all but disappears. My exploration of Central Park has mainly been resigned to the southern end but the park actually stretches over 50 blocks right up to Harlem. In the winter, Wollman rink is at the south end of the park – a cheaper alternative to the Rockefeller Centre for skating. Nearby is the Victorian carousel.  Wandering further North through the park you will probably eventually stumble on Bethesda Fountain, recognisable from many New York-set films.  Another smaller fountain not too far from this, the Cherry Hill fountain, is said by many to be the one the fountain in the opening credits of Friends is based on though it’s not the actually one as it was shot at a set in LA!

Another location you might find familiar from various films is the Central Park Boating Lake with it’s lakeside restaurant the Loeb Boathouse and Bow Bridge crossing over it. Hiring a rowing boat is a fun activity in the summer although the rowing part is harder than it looks and it gets quite busy out there – I managed to crash into another boat a couple of times!!

Cherry Hill Fountain

On the east side of the park is Central Park Zoo, not the biggest of zoos but worth a look if you’ve got it include on a tourist pass. Not far from the zoo you’ll find another boating lake, this one for small motorised boats, and some of the Central Park sculptures including the popular Alice In Wonderland sculpture – useful tip, don’t get too close to it on a hot day, it gets red hot!!!

In the summer months, keep an eye out for Central Park events going on.  We saw Jonas Brothers perform in the park for free as part of Good Morning America’s concert series and there’s often other shows and performances going on including the free Shakespeare in the Park performances at the Delacorte Theater. Sometimes you might even stumble across a bit of filming in the park. We found ourselves inadvertenly becoming blurry extras in a Jonas Blue/Liam Payne video after sitting by Bethesda Fountain just as a film crew rocked up. We had no idea at the time what was begin filmed until I happened to see the video on a music channel a month or so later!

Balto, one of the Central Park sculptures

Across the road from Central Park on the West Side is the Dakota Building, infamous as the building where John Lennon lived and was shot outside of in 1980. Inside the park just opposite is Strawberry Fields a pretty, landscaped section of the park dedicated to his memory.

Walking a bit further north in the park you might find Belvedere Castle, a popular Central Park wedding venue but it’s quite a walk from the south end of the park.  If you want to see more of the park or want to get around a bit quicker, there are a few bike hire companies at the south end, some of which offer guided tours or a highlights map to do a self-guided tour. Official walking tours are offered by the Central Park Conservancy and companies such as Free Tours By Foot also offer walking tours of the area.  You’ll see Rickshaw/Pedicab rides being offered around the park too but be careful as some charge by the distance you go or by the minute rather than having a set price for a 30 minute or 1 hour tour.  There is also the Central Park Carriage rides – you will see (and smell) the horses lined up at the south end of the park and they loop around the bottom end of the park with the guides pointing out sites of interest. The prices for these are not always set in stone so haggle a price if you do want a carriage ride!

Attempting to row around the boating lake!

TV and film locations

Another reason I love New York – and America in general for that matter – is that it’s like being on one giant film set. Everything is recognisable from some TV show or film you’ve seen.  There are companies which offer guided tours of filming locations. While I’ve never been on a general location tour, I have been on a couple of TV show specific ones, namely the Sex and the City tour and the Gossip Girl location tour.  On both occasions we were taken around the city on an air conditioned coach and shown clips from the show before pulling up at that location and hopping off the bus for photos! While both tours were enjoyable, the Sex and the City one had the edge, mainly because of the free Magnolia Cupcake from the popular Greenwich Village bakery and maybe also because the series had finished at that point – the first film had just come out at cinemas – so they had 6 seasons worth of episodes to raid for locations whereas Gossip Girl was only a few series in at the point that I did that tour and the tour itself was quite new.

The ‘Friends’ apartment block

It’s pretty easy to look up movie sites and find out where they are in the city before your visit. One that I’ve been to a few times having visited the city with various friends that have all wanted to see it, is the Friends apartment in Greenwich Village. Another favourite of mine was the restaurant from THAT scene in When Harry Met Sally, Katz’ Diner, which serves the biggest deli sandwiches I’ve ever seen.  I’ve also visited the Empire hotel ‘owned’ by Chuck Bass in Gossip Girl, the bar at which serves themed Gossip Girl and Sex and the City cocktails and McGee’s – the pub at which McClaren’s in How I Met Your Mother is based on.

Venturing away from Manhattan

While most of the main attraction you’ll want to see in New York are on the island of Manhattan, there are things to do away from the city and the subway system makes it pretty easy and quick to get to other New York boroughs. For unparalleled views of Manhattan’s skyline, head across the East River into Brooklyn either by walking across the Brooklyn Bridge into DUMBO or catching the subway to Williamsburg. As well as the views, you’ll find various flea markets while strolling through Williamsburg on a Sunday while across the Brooklyn Bridge in DUMBO there’s galleries and bookstores galore, the famous Grimaldi’s pizza restaurant and Jane’s Carousel in the waterfront park.

View of Manhattan from DUMBO

A bit further out but still in Brooklyn, why not take a trip to the seaside and visit Coney Island? Here, you can ride the famous Coney Island Cyclone coaster or the Wonder Wheel in one of the amusement parks, indulge in a hot dog from the original Nathan’s, watch a ‘freak show’, walk along the boardwalk or relax on the large sandy beach! To reach Coney Island, just take a downtown bound NRQ train out of the city. It takes about 40 minutes from Times Square!

Casinos line the boardwalk at Atlantic City, NJ

If gambling is your thing, take the Greyhound bus out to Atlantic City, New Jersey – the setting of HBO’s hit series Boardwalk Empire. Here, casinos line the boardwalk alongside souvenir stores, fast food outlets and stores selling every possible flavour of salt water taffy. If you’re tired from walking along the boardwalk then take a ‘rolling chair’ – a tradition dating back to the 1880s, this is exactly what it sounds like, sit in a chair on wheels while someone runs behind pushing you along the boardwalk!!

Museums

The Metroplitan Museum of Art

If you like museums, New York has plenty, from the grand, traditional art and history museums to the more obscure, smaller niche museums, you’re sure to find something that interests you.  You’ll find many of the museums bordering Central Park including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and The Museum of the History of New York on the east side of the park and the Natural History Museum on the west.  Many of these museums are included in the various tourist passes although it’s worth knowing that the stated usual admission prices for some of the museums are actually voluntary donations and if you’re not using a tourist pass, you have every right to donate as little as you like for entry when you reach the counter.  I’ve never had the nerve myself but I have friends who have paid just a dollar for entry to the Met! Another tip is that some of the museums advertise one afternoon/evening a week as being free entry so you might want to take advantage of this.

Dinosaur at the Natural History Museum

I loved seeing the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum – although don’t expect everything to be in the same place it appears to be in the film ‘Night at the Museum’!! – and my friend spent hours admiring the sculpture collection in the Greek and Roman section of the Met. The Guggenheim is worth a visit just for the quirky building but if it’s contemporary art you’re into, I much preferred  MoMA – the Museum of Modern Art – in midtown.

The Statue of Liberty

There are plenty of options for seeing the Statue of Liberty depending on how close you want to get.  There are great views from Battery Park at the southernmost point of Manhattan and where the boats to Liberty Island depart from or if you have chance to get into New Jersey, Liberty Park offers amazing views of her along with the Manhattan skyline. But if you want to get closer, you’ll need to take a boat.  If you’re on a budget, the Staten Island Ferry is a great option. This free commuter ferry makes regular crossings to and from Staten Island passing right by the Statue of Liberty and giving great views of the New York skyline. You can catch it from the ferry terminal near Battery Park. I’ve never stuck around in Staten Island long enough to explore, always getting the next ferry back but there’s usually a 20-30 minute period between arriving and the next departure which is long enough to grab some food at the terminal or to go for a short walk. The one time I caught the ferry, a National Park Service Ranger was on board and gave a commentary as we made our way across to Staten Island before taking anyone who wanted to join him down to the 9/11 memorial, ‘Postcards’, explaining some of its significance to use in the short time before the next ferry back to Manhattan departed.  I’m not sure how often Rangers are on board the Staten Island ferry but something to keep a look out if you do make the trip!

Another way of getting close to Liberty Island without setting foot on it is on a Circle Line boat tour. This tour company runs a variety of cruises departing from a west side pier including a 3-hour cruise all the way around the island of Manhattan and the shorter semi-circle cruise around the south part of the island. Both pass close by to the Statue of Liberty for photo opportunities with the added bonus of a commentary on the New York skyline pointing out some of the buildings you can see along the way.

On Liberty Island

The only way of getting to Liberty Island itself, is on the official boats which depart from Battery Park in downtown Manhattan or from Liberty Park in New Jersey. Tickets can be booked in advance on the official website or can be bought from Castle Clinton nearby to where the ferry leaves from. Booking in advance is definitely recommended as queues at the Castle Clinton ticket offices can get quite long. An advance ticket – or using a tourist pass such as the New York Pass – allows you to bypass these queues and head straight to the security queues to board a ferry. General tickets just give you access to the island and include an audio tour which you can pick up on arrival to the island.  The island is a National Park Service site which means Park Rangers are on hand to talk to and they give regular guided walks leaving from the flag pole.

If you want to go into the Statue building, there are 2 options – a Pedestal ticket which lets you into the base of the Statue and a Crown ticket which allows you to climb a long, narrow staircase winding up the middle of the Statue to a tiny observation deck in the crown.  These tickets are very limited and need to be booked well in advance.

Ellis Island Immigration Museum

All ticket types give you access to Ellis Island too. The ferry back from Liberty Island will stop here on the way back to Manhattan giving you the option to either disembark or continue back to Manhattan. It’s definitely worth stopping for a look around the Immigration Museum and again there are free Ranger tours offered if you want to find out more.

Sporting Events

Citi Field – home of the New York Mets

Now I’m into my sports even less than I’m into shopping and that’s saying something. However, my for some unknown reason, my friend and I decided we wanted to experience attending a US sporting event and as it was late summer, baseball was pretty much the only option. there happened to be a Mets baseball game on at CitiField while we were in the city so we used the team’s official site to book cheap seats at the back of the bleechers. The experience wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. It seemed that for a lot of the crowd, attending the game was more of a social thing and for the most part, people were sat around chatting, eating and drinking rather than paying the blindest bit of attention to the game. At that time I thought maybe this was an unfortunate consequence of buying the cheap seats but after giving baseball another go at a higher profile game in Boston with much better seats, I found the crowd’s participation to be pretty much the same!

Needless to say, we had no idea what was going on game-wise. It seemed very slow with more time spent out of play than in play. Occasionally, the audience would come alive out of nowhere with chants of “Let’s Go Mets!” repeated for a few minutes before everyone settled back down to their conversations again and, highlight of the evening for me, as the game was being televised, everytime there was an ad-break, the crowd was treated to some ridiculous game or stunt to pass the time such as ‘pass the pizza along the row’ (the quickest row got to keep the pizza to share between them!) or the kiss-cam was on!

So even if you’re not a sports fan, it’s worth going to a game of some kind if you get chance just for the experience! As well as the Mets baseball team, New York also has, of course, the Yankees baseball team. Games are schedules on various afternoons and evenings in the summer season and you can also book to do tours of the stadiums – while I’ve not toured the New York teams’ grounds, I did do a tour of Fenway Park in Boston which I enjoyed despite my cluelessness on the sport! If you’re in the city over the winter months then there’s a bit more choice sports-wise with basketball and ice hockey games going on. I’ve not attended games for either of these sports but I’m sure there’s fun to be had at both!

Other notable sites

I feel wrong putting Grand Central Terminus in the ‘other notable sites’ category seeing as it would be one of my top places to visit in New York but I just haven’t got round to mentioning it yet so I will at least put it at the top of this section! Situated on 42nd Street, right on Park Avenue, it is essentially a train station and yet so much more offering a range of stores and dining options not to mention the impressive building itself. The word ‘Grand’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.  The main concourse with its famous clock in the centre, grand staircases and the zodiac mural adorning the ceiling is jaw-dropping. If you’re hungry then there’s plenty of choices at the huge food court – I highly recommend Two Boots’ pizza! If you want to find out more about the station, you can pick up audio guides from the information point under the clock but if you have a bit more time, take the free walking tour of the area starting across the street from the station on Friday afternoons. As well as taking you through the Grand Central Building, the tour will take you into other building in the area, some of which you wouldn’t ordinarily get access to.

New York Public Library

Another impressive building that is free to visit is the New York Public Library not far from Grand Central and Bryant Park (see below). The building is a National Historic Landmark and worth a wander around or if you’ve time, look into taking one of the free walking tours to learn more about the building and it’s history.

If you need a rest from all the walking in the city then try one of New York’s many public parks and squares.  You might find it difficult to find an empty seat in Times Square so try one of the other quieter areas. Bryant Square is not far from Grand Central and as well as plenty of places to sit and rest your legs there’s a seasonal café serving drinks and snacks. Herald Square is the pedestrian area just outside Macy’s filled with tables and chairs. Madison Square Park is another small park situated right by the famous Flatiron Building and full of art and with plenty of places to sit and rest. A bit further south is Washington Square Park where you’ll find Washington Square Arch, which again, you will probably find familiar from various films and TV shows. The park has a fountain in the centre and plenty of places to sit and watch the World go by. It is near the university so often buzzing with students and is also near Greenwich Village with Bleecker Street being just a few blocks south.

One if Manhattan’s newest ‘parks’ is the Highline, a reclaimed elevated rail road line which has been converted into a green space with almost 1.5 miles of path to wander along on the city’s west side. My one visit to the Highline was on bitterly cold March day and I don’t feel it was the best time to make the most out of my visit so I’d definitely like to revisit sometime, maybe on a guided walking tour and definitely when it’s looking less wintry and little greener!

Washington Square Park and Arch

If you’re downtown in the financial district then you probably won’t be far from Battery Park, located at the southern tip of Manhattan and departure point for the Liberty Island ferries.  As well as having great views of the Statue of Liberty, there’s often a variety of street performers to watch from street magicians to people dressed up as Lady Liberty herself.

While on the subject of downtown and the financial district, this is an area worth stopping and exploring other than just a visit to the Statue of Liberty or One World Observatory.  A short walk up Broadway, you will find Wall Street with its bronze Charging Bull statue – a statue it took me years to have a photo with as huge crowds often form around it and I could never be bothered to wait! Wall Street itself is really nothing but a street with a famous name but worth a photo stop and a walk down to the New York Stock Exchange for that reason alone.  A short well-signposted walk to the east side you’ll find access to the Brooklyn Bridge and just south of that, I really recommend a visit to the Seaport District – there’s great views of Brooklyn Bridge from Pier 17 as well as great shopping and plenty of bars and restaurants where you can sit out and enjoy the atmosphere in the summer months.

I can’t mention the financial district without talking about the World Trade Center and the 9/11 memorials.  My first visit to the city was in 2005, less than 4 years after the atrocity and to this day I remember how horrific it was seeing the huge pit left where the Twin Towers once sat and the surrounding damaged buildings, made worse by the numerous street vendors selling, in my opinion, extremely inappropriate souvenirs and smiling tourists posing for photos in front of the area.  Things have changed a lot since then and it’s been interesting seeing how the area has been redeveloped as I’ve visited every year or so since, watching the construction of the new Freedom Tower and seeing the opening first of the National Memorial and then of the neighbouring Museum.  Visiting the museum and memorial is a sombre-ing experience.  I also found the nearby small 9/11 Tribute Museum to be very moving.  If you get chance, try to visit Trinity Church and St Paul’s Chapel, both churches in the financial district who have moving stories to tell about that day.

Eating Out

I’m not into fine dining or Michelin starred restaurants. For me, the main objective when looking for somewhere to eat in New York is keeping the cost down. This along with finding somewhere with food that suits my rather plain tastes along with something that suits my often vegetarian or fellow fussy travel companion!  More often than not, the room rates for New York hotels I’ve stayed in have not included breakfast – the exceptions being the 2 motels I’ve stayed at outside of Manhattan. For breakfast, I’m a big fan of the city’s Café Metro chain offering a range of bagels and various healthy options and also one of the few places I’ve found where I can get a proper cup of tea. (As a side note, I find that whenever I’m in the US, I need to specify that I want HOT tea and also the type I want – black tea/English breakfast tea – depending on where I’m ordering it from!)  If you’re also a bagel fan, there’s plenty of places to find them, from street vendors to bakeries and chain stores such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts.  If you fancy a bigger, American-style breakfast, I find Denny’s in the financial district or the IHOP (International House of Pancakes) a good bet for cheap and cheerful pancakes, eggs and bacon type breakfasts.  There are a few diners about offering similar fare if you want a more authentic New York feel – while I’ve never been for breakfast, Andrew’s Coffee Bar in midtown has a quite reasonable menu – but many, such as the Tick Tock Diner near Penn Station, are part of a hotel and therefore a bit pricier.  While talking of prices, it’s worth remembering that like most of the US, New York State doesn’t include taxes in prices so what you end up paying for your food will be more than the price on the menu. Remember you will also be expected to tip – 18% is the expected gratuity for good service.

Pancakes at the IHOP

A slice of pizza is a good bet for a lunchtime snack.  Pizza is mainly sold by the slice in the US – I’ve been laughed at a few times for trying to buy a whole ‘pie’ especially as the sizing is rather different to here in the UK.  Here, I’d order a medium pizza to myself expecting to get an 8/9” whereas in the US, even a small is made big enough to share.  The Chef at one of the many Ray’s Pizza outlets when gave us enough paper plates for a whole party of us when we once ordered a medium pizza there and looked at us like we were crazy when he realised we were ordering just for the 2 of us! If it is just a slice you want, you won’t have trouble finding one from the $1 ‘hole in the wall’ pizza stops (again, it’ll actually cost you slightly over the dollar with tax!) to Sbarro and the many non-chain pizza cafes. If it’s sandwiches you’re after the you’re sure to find many deli’s about.  I mentioned Katz’s Diner famously featured in the film When Harry Met Sally earlier and I highly recommend it for it’s huge deli sandwiches.  Make sure you request a table as you go in – it’s take away system was crazily busy when we went and there didn’t seem to be a queueing system that made any sense so we ended up having table service instead.

A ‘medium’ (18″!) pizza

Another good bet for a snack is Chelsea Market, located near the Highline in the Chelsea district on the west side of Manhattan. The market’s food hall has a wide range of vendors selling food to suit all tastes and budgets!

If you’re trying to keep costs down for your main meal then my main advice would be to avoid the Times Square earlier.  The main chains there – Hard Rock Café, TGI’s, Applebees etc are all way overpriced so unless you have some kind of money off coupon, like the one I mentioned I once had for Planet Hollywood earlier, or you’re going for the novelty experience – see Ella’s Stardust Diner also mentioned earlier – I’d look elsewhere.

Little Italy is a good bet for traditional Italian fare – and a ‘normal’ sized pizza for one! – and while Chinese food isn’t my thing, I’ve heard there’s good food at bargainous prices galore to be had in Chinatown.  If it’s casual American food you want but not in the form of fast food outlets like McDonalds then in addition to the diners I mentioned before, I also had a good meal (of the burger and chips variety!) at Big Daddy’s Diner, a typical 50s type diner with branches around the city.  For American BBQ food, I liked Dallas BBQ. We went to a lower midtown branch but again, there are various outlets around the city.

Traditional pizza in Little Italy

On my last visit to the city, I vowed to tick off a visit to Serendipity from my ‘things to do in NY’ list.  It’s somewhere I’ve always read about, heard about and said I’d go to one day but for some reason, just never had. So this time, while in the vicinity of Central Park, I made a special effort to go.  I’d heard to expect to queue around the block but instead there was no one about and we walked straight through the door and were seated without any kind of wait! The one item on the menu I’d heard so much about which was one of my reasons for wanting to visit, was it’s Frozen Hot Chocolate so when our server came to take our order, that’s what we requested – between us as it’s pretty big.  The server immediately pointed to some small print on the menu of a minimum spend per table – which our order didn’t fulfil! – so we decided on ordering a portion of fries to make up the money.  To be fair, everything on the menu looked delicious but we already had plans for our ‘big’ meal of the day later on so didn’t want to order much here.  We just wanted the drink!  When it arrived, I’m sorry to say it wasn’t even particularly worth it. It was basically just an expensive chocolate milkshake. But don’t let that put you off visiting. Serendipity itself was a really lovely, quirky café and I’d like to go back in the future and order one of it’s main menu meals and hopefully have room for one of it’s delicious sounding desserts too.

So that about covers my experiences of and advice for a trip to New York City.  If there’s something I haven’t covered then feel free to ask. It might be that I’ve done it and just forgot to include it here. Or of you have any questions about something I have mentioned, feel free to get in touch and ask.  If it’s advice specific to Christmas time in the city then have a read of my post here for advice.

First things first…

Ok, so a bit of background to start off with… I’m a teacher, a profession which I’ve always wanted to do. But after 10 years, found that my time spent in the classroom doing the teaching part that I love became less and less, and the time I spent sat behind a computer screen – planning, assessing, analysing data etc etc etc – was becoming more and more how I spent my time. So I decided to take a career break, join a few agencies to do some supply work but also to take some time out to travel.

I’d always enjoyed doing city breaks when my workload had allowed it and have used past summer breaks to take a few 2 week trips to the US and Australia as well as shorter city breaks to Europe in the half term holidays but I’d always felt there was more to these places than the cities and I wanted to take the time to see it.

So as well as documenting some of my trips and giving tips for the cities I have visited, this blog will follow my extended trips – both travelling solo for the first time and also planning longer roadtrips with friends to see more of my favourite countries.