Bavarian Castles day trip from Munich

Visiting Linderhof Palace, the town of Oberammergau and Neuschwanstein Castle

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

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

Linderhof Palace

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

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

Fountain in front on Linderhof Palace

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

Watching the fountain before our tour of the palace

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

Traditional Bavarian-style houses in Oberammergau

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

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

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

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

Walking through Oberammergau
View of Neuschwanstein from the village of Schwangau

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

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

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

The very busy Marienbrucke

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

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

The view of Neuschwanstein from Marienbrucke

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

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

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

Views of the castle from within the grounds

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

Looking up at the castle from within the courtyard

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

Munich City Break

Day trip to Salzburg

One day in Salzburg

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

Getting there

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

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

Sightseeing

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

Mirabell Palace and Gardens

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

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

Getreidgasse

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

Mozart’s Birthplace

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

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

Pretzel stand in Universitatplatz
Mozart statue in the centre of Mozartplatz

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

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

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

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

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

In one of the state rooms

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

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

A slice of Sacher Torte!

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

Read about my Munich city break.

Munich City Break

What did Munich have to offer?

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

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

Travelling to the city from Munich airport

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

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

Where to stay in Munich

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

Sightseeing in Munich

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

Fountain at Karlsplatz
Karlsplatz Gate

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

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

Off on a Segway Tour

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

Our Segways lined up during a break in Englischer Garten

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

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

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

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

The Biergarten in Viktualienmrkt

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

The Monopteros in Munich’s Englischer Garten

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

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

The boating lake in Englischer Garten

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

Travel mascots

Do you have a travel mascot?

I do.

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney

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

Copenhagen

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

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

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

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

First time trip to Dubai

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

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

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

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

Walking by Dubai Marina

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

The roof at the Marina Mall

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

Atlantis, The Palm
Entering The Lost Chambers Aquarium

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

Looking out to sea from Atlantis Hotel

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

The Walk

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

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

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

Camels on the beach!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burj al Arab

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

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

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

The Vengaboys on stage at Zero Gravity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dubai Marina at night

The Hollywood Sign

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

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

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

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

View of the sign from the road

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

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

Warning signs hiking through the Hollywood Hills

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

Hiking to Mount Lee, view from behind the Hollywood sign

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

Getting closer to the sign

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

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

LA Overview

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Downtown LA

Beach Cities

LA Studio Tours

Los Angeles Studio Tours

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

Warner Brothers Studio Experience

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

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

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

The recreated Central Perk set at WB

Universal Studios Hollywood

Universal City Walk

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

The Simpsons Ride at Universal

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

Sony Pictures Studio Tour

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

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

Paramount Studios

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

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

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

LA Overview

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

The Hollywood Sign

Downtown LA

Beach Cities

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

Santa Monica and Venice Beach

I really love the beach cities of LA, such a chilled out relaxed vibe! I’ve made Santa Monica my base for 2 of my trips to the Los Angeles and make a point of visiting here and Venice Beach on every trip I make to the city.

Watching the sunset over Santa Monica Hills from the beach
Statue of St Monica in Pacific Palisades Park

If you’re not staying in the area and haven’t hired a car, getting to Santa Monica has recently been made slightly easier with the opening of a new metro line running there from downtown LA. If you’re staying in Hollywood, just catch the red line downtown and transfer to the new line! If you’re staying where you can’t easily access the metro then Santa Monica is served by a variety of bus routes including a direct bus from Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills. The Hop on/off sightseeing buses also have routes which include stops in Santa Monica.

The Beach

The main attraction at Santa Monica is it’s vast beach and if you’re so inclined, it’s easy to spend a day just relaxing here in the hot Californian sun. The beach is peppered with the famous ‘Baywatch-style’ lifeguard huts (the show was actually shot on site at the north side of the pier!) and in peak times, lifeguards are present keeping an eye on bathers and surfers.

Having paddled in the ocean here, I can say there are strong current and big waves so just be careful! We bought a cheap body board from a beach side stall and had great fun riding the waves in but if you fancy a go at proper surfing, there are quite a few Surf Schools offering beginners lessons in the area. There’s also plenty of beach hire stores at the back of the boardwalk hiring and selling beach chairs, mats, parasols etc. As we were once visiting in August, the sand was red hot making it unbearable to walk on without something on our feet and meaning something to sit on and to shelter us from the powerful sun was a necessity!

View of Santa Monica Beach from the end of the Pier

At the back of the beach, just off the promenade and south of the pier, you will find the area known as the Original Muscle Beach (there’s another Muscle Beach further along in Venice). As well as training equipment for any fitness fanatics there’s also a few swings to sit and play on!

The beach is often at it’s busiest at sunset and I definitely recommend hanging around until the sun goes down if you can. While LA doesn’t have the reputation for the best sunsets in California due to the smog often filling the air, I’ve definitely never had any complaints about it!

Santa Monica Pier

The iconic Santa Monica Pier is always a fun place to wander along. Here you’ll find plenty of restaurants, fast food outlets, arcades, and amusement park and even a trapeze school! The pier is also the end of the iconic Route 66 and you’ll find a sign marks the exact spot.

If you walk to the far end of the pier and look back, you’ll see sweeping views of beach and beyond.

Pacific Park is the pier’s small amusement park. There’s a (not very exciting) roller coaster, pirate ship and, of course, the much photographed Ferris Wheel, amongst other smaller rides. Tickets to ride can be bought individually or on an all-day pass. The pier and Pacific Park are open throughout the day but, in my opinion, really come alive at night.

Looking down at Pacific Park from the Ferris Wheel

3rd St Promenade

If shopping is more your thing then Santa Monica offers plenty of opportunities for that too. Third Street Promenade is a pedestrianised shopping street and entertainment district where you’ll find department stores and familiar high street brands such as Levi, and Barnes and Noble. Even if shopping isn’t your thing then it’s worth wandering along Third Street Promenade to see it’s public art displays – topiary dinosaurs!

For higher end stores, try the Santa Monica Place Mall or for something a bit different, Main Street is just a short walk away where you’ll find more boutique and independent stores. If you’re after food then I highly recommend Third Street Promenade’s Barney’s Beanery with it’s extensive menu and reasonable prices but wherever you are you’re never far from a cafe or restaurant so you definitely won’t go hungry!

Boardwalk

Whenever I think of LA’s Beach Cities, images of people cycling, skating or jogging along the beaches’ boardwalk always come to mind and it is exactly as you would imagine it to be!

If you fancy joining them, there are plenty of stores hiring bikes around the Pier. It doesn’t take very long at all to cycle south along the boardwalk from the pier to Venice Beach. I remember someone once asking me how they’ll know when they’ve left Santa Monica and entered Venice – trust me, you’ll just know when you get there!! If you fancy cycling a bit further, the cycle path cuts away from the boardwalk and onto the road before turning right onto a back road that leads to Marina del Rey. Once there you can explore the harbour area or find a bar or restaurant for something to eat or drink before cycling back.

Venice Beach

Venice Beach is like Santa Monica’s cooler, quirkier sibling. The area has a very bohemian vibe which I like to compare to Camden, but by the beach, for those of you familiar with the popular area in London, England. While the long, sandy beach is still beautiful and palm trees still line the boardwalk, it certainly has a different feel about it to Santa Monica. A 30 minute or so stroll, or a 10 minute bike ride, from Santa Monica Pier, as soon as you reach Venice, you’ll probably find music playing, bustling market stalls lining the promenade, funky shops and stalls and street performers greeting you.

Spend some time watching the skateboarders whizzing around the huge concrete skate-park, people working out at Muscle Beach or drink in the atmosphere from one of the cool beach cafes.

Entering Venice Beach

To escape the hustle of Venice Beach, turn off the promenade and follow a sign to Venice’s canals. In complete contrast to the craziness of Venice Beach, the canals are a peaceful and serene area to wander around but equally photogenic!

Malibu

Cycle or drive north of Santa Monica Pier and you’ll eventually find yourself in Malibu. My one and only trip into this area was part of a Starline Star Homes Malibu Tour where, similar to the Star Homes Tours I’d taken through the Hollywood and Beverly Hills, we drove through Malibu in an open topped van while our guide pointed out houses supposedly belonging to various celebrities. We made a brief stop at the beach where the rules of the ‘private’ beaches in front of the huge beach mansions were explained to us before driving back to Santa Monica past Malibu Pier.

This year, we’re hiring a car and driving north up the Pacific Coast Highway so a slightly longer stop in Malibu is definitely on the itinerary!

LA Overview

Hollywood & Beverly Hills

The Hollywood Sign

Downtown LA

LA Studio Tours

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