A few days in Toronto

After beginning to plan a 2-week summer trip to the USA, we discovered our favourite pop group, the Backstreet Boys were touring North America during our trip. Unable to make any of the US dates work with our plans, we decided to add on a few extra days to our vacation to visit Canada and made plans to attend the concerts in Toronto and Montreal.

View of Nathan Phillips Square from our Sheraton Centre hotel room

Flying into Toronto late evening from New York, we took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, the Sheraton Centre. We’d won the 4* hotel for a heavily discounted nightly rate on the Priceline website’s Name You Own Price feature and were immediately impressed by the large room and extremely comfortable beds.

The next morning, after a pancake breakfast at one of the hotel restaurants, we went to find out about buying tickets for a hop on/off tour. We had hoped to find some leaflets at the hotel about the tours on offer but unable to find the information we needed, we decided to ask the hotel’s concierge. Before we knew what had happened, reservations had been made for us and we were handing over our money but upon heading outside to wait for the bus, we saw the City Sightseeing bus we had hoped to get pull up across the road at a different bus stop.

Moments later, our tour bus pulled up – a small fully enclosed minibus rather than the open-topped bus we had hoped to ride. Unable to change our tickets, we jumped on board and tried to make the most of it but although the commentary from our driver was informative, it wasn’t the best way to see the city, especially through the scratched-up windows.

Visiting the CN Tower Observation Deck

The minibuses were less regular than the City Sightseeing buses would have been meaning we had to plan our stops carefully so we wouldn’t be hanging around too much waiting for the next bus. We decided to hop off at the Royal Ontario Museum, an art and natural history museum. A spending an hour or so looking around, we wasted a bit more time in the museum gift store until it was time for the minibus to come around again.

View from the CN Tower, and below, Yonge-Dundas Square and shopping along Yonge Street

With the bus schedule not really being conducive to repeatedly hopping on and off, we decided it would be best to just stay on board for the rest of the loop and return to anything of interest later. So once back at the hotel, we walked down to the CN Tower and bought tickets to go up to its observation deck. It was a pretty clear day and the views from the top were amazing!

From the CN Tower we walked to Yonge-Dundas Square, a public square in the city similar to Times Square in New York or Piccadilly in London with its huge billboard screens flashing up their adverts. Then we went shopping at the Eaton Centre, a huge city mall.

Arriving at the concert venue

That evening, we attended the concert at the Molston Amphitheatre before returning to our hotel for an early night.

We’d be up early the next day for a full day tour we’d booked to Niagara Falls.

After being picked up by the tour company, we boarded our minibus for the day and after a few stops to pick up other passengers, we began our journey around Lake Ontario to the falls.

Viewpoint of the US-Canadian border

Along the way we made a few stops, the first at a Lake Ontario viewpoint then another at a winery for a quick tour and spot of wine-tasting. We then passed the smallest chapel in the World at Niagara-on-the-Lake (where we were due to stop to take photos but were running late so didn’t), pulled over at a viewpoint of the Canada-USA border and made one final stop at Niagara’s famous Floral Clock before finally arriving at Niagara Falls!

It was worth the wait, our first view of the falls was breath-taking.

Passing the American side of the Falls

We were assured we’d have plenty of opportunity over the day to stand and stare but first of all, we had tickets included in our tour to ride the Maid of the Mists boats. As we boarded, we were handed huge blue ponchos and it didn’t take long for us to realise why. The boats sailed as close to the falls as they could get, the spray from the waterfall drenching us all as we stood out on the boat’s deck. It was great fun and an amazing experience to get that close!

The Candian Falls

After our boat trip, the rest of the day was at our leisure and we were just given a time to be back at the minibus for in order to return to Toronto. We headed across from the falls to the nearby Sheraton Hotel and its Hard Rock Cafe for lunch from which we could see a view of the falls while we dined.

We then spent way too much time stood at a viewpoint taking photos and just staring at the waterfalls before taking a stroll along Clifton Hill in the entertainment district.

Clifton Hill, Niagara’s entertainment district

We were surprised at the contrast of the complete tackiness of Clifton Hill with its numerous tourist attractions including a wax museum, arcades and minigolfs. We took a ride on the large Ferris Wheel to get more spectacular views of the waterfall then it was time to walk back to the viewpoint for our last glance before we met our minibus to head back to Toronto.

View of the Falls from the Sky Wheel

Back in Toronto early evening, we went for dinner at one of the hotel restaurants before taking a walk down to the waterfront.

The next morning, we checked out of our hotel and took a taxi to Union Station from where we’d be catching a train to our next destination, Montreal. It had been a whistle stop visit to Toronto and it hadn’t been nearly enough time there but one day I hope to return!

Back in Brisbane

Once again, the lone passenger on the Loka minibus

After New Year in Sydney and spending some time in Airlie Beach and the Whitsundays, Townsville and Magnetic Island and Cairns, I’d started to travel southbound down Australia’s east coast on a flexi-tour with Loka stopping at Tully Gorge National Park, returning to the Whitsundays and visiting Emu Park, Fraser Island and Noosa.

It was currently Australia Day and, after spending the morning walking along the riverside in Noosa, I was now onboard a Loka minibus heading to my next stop of Brisbane.

Crowds gather for the Australia Day fireworks

I’d been to Brisbane once before but not spent a lot of time in the city itself. During the time I did spend there, it had mainly rained, not leaving me with the best impression of the city. But I felt that maybe I hadn’t given it a fair chance and this, coupled with my desire to visit the nearby Australia Zoo, had made me decide to include it as a stop on my trip.

Waiting for the fireworks to begin

My journey to Brisbane was similar to most of the others I’d experienced since joining the Flexi-tour because I once again found myself the only passenger heading southbound. Once in Brisbane, I checked in for 3 nights at Base hostel. I’d booked a private room with shared facilities and the tiny room had just about enough room for my bed and not much else!

The hostel had a rooftop barbecue planned for the afternoon to celebrate Australia Day but heavy rain meant it had to be called off so instead, I went for a walk refamiliarising myself with the city, doing a bit of window shopping and taking a walk along the river.

That evening, I walked back to the South Bank and lined up along the riverside along with hundreds of other visitors and locals for the Australia Day fireworks. There was a great atmosphere and the display was one of the most impressive I’d ever seen.

The following day, I was up early to make my way to Australia Zoo.

At Australia Zoo, hanging with the locals

I’d spent quite a bit of time researching the best way to reach the zoo and eventually decided on using the Greyhound bus service. Picking up from the bus station in Brisbane, it dropped me at the entrance to the zoo at a reasonable time in the morning, picking me up late afternoon to return me to Brisbane.

Above, giant tortoises, and below, a fun day at Australia Zoo

I was worried how much fun I could actually have wandering around a zoo by myself but there was so much to see and do, I really enjoyed my day.

The next day, I’d planned to spend exploring the city. I was hoping to be able to do a bike or walking tour but was disappointed to find none of them were running on that day.

New Farm Park

So instead, I decided to take a river boat along the Brisbane River. I got off the boat at New Farm Park and spent some time wandering through the park, enjoying the skyline views of Brisbane city in the distance.

The park is home to Brisbane Powerhouse, an old tram power station now used as an entertainment venue hosting plays, concerts and exhibitions.

With the weather turning drizzly and then to pouring rain, I jumped back on a boat to head back to the city.

Above, looking out at the rain from the river boat, and below, at the Queensland Museum

Arriving back on the south bank, I took a stroll to Brisbane’s up and coming West End area, stopping for lunch in one of its many cafes. Then, with the weather still being dull and drizzly, I decided to visit some of the museums along the South Bank, starting with the Queensland Museum.

The museum had lots of natural history exhibits on the history of Queensland and was an interesting way to spend a few hours.

From there, I walked to the nearby Gallery of Modern Art and then across to the State Library of Queensland which had an art exhibition on.

Streets Beach, Brisbane’s Lagoon, and above, art at GoMA and the State Library of Queensland

I finished the day with another stroll along the South Bank down to Streets Beach -Brisbane’s lagoon – then walked back across the bridge to the city centre for a spot of shopping along Queen Street Mall.

Brisbane’s oldest building – The Old Windmill

The next day, I had an early afternoon pick-up scheduled but before leaving the city, I took a morning stroll to see Brisbane’s oldest building, The Old Windmill, a heritage listed building sat on top of a hill just a short walk from the hostel. Then, it was time to wait for the Loka minibus to arrive to take me to my next destination, and my penultimate stop in Australia, Byron Bay.

Exploring Dublin

My tips for a Dublin sightseeing itinerary

The River Liffey running through Dublin city

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

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

Getting around

Samuel Beckett Bridge

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

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

Customs House

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

Where to stay

Ha’penny Bridge

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

The Spire on O’Connell Sreet

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

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

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

Things to do

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

Guinness Storehouse

Visiting the Guinness Storehouse attraction

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

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

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

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

Trinity College and the Book of Kells

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

Kilmainham Gaol

Touring Kilmainham Gaol

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

Shopping

The Temple Bar pub

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

The Molly Malone statue

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

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

Dublin Parks

Above, and below, exploring St Stephen’s Green

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

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

Literary Links

Oscar Wilde sculpture in Merrion Square

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

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

The Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square

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

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

Dublin Castle

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

Above, and below, visiting Dublin Castle

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

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

River Liffey Boat Cruise

Looking out across the River Liffey

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

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

Evenings out

Attending a concert at The Point’s o2 Arena

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

Irish entertainment at The Arlington Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

A US Road Trip: Philadelphia

Passing through the state of Delaware

It had been over 4 weeks since we had arrived in the USA. After spending 3 weeks looping Chicago to Chicago travelling around the Midwest states, we had spent one final week on the road ticking off a few more states as we travelled through Indiana to Michigan then through Ohio and West Virginia into Pennsylvania.

After spending the morning at Hershey’s Chocolate World, we were now making our way to Philadelphia airport to hand back our rental before making our way into the city for one last night in a hotel.

Our route to the airport briefly took us into Delaware, a state which we had travelled through before on a Trek America tour but not stopped in so we had made plans to divert slightly to the city of Wilmington. We had left it to the last minute to look up where to aim for in the city but after a bit of googling in our motel the night before, had found a National Park Service site there so decided to stop there.

The site where the first Swedish and Finnish settlers arrived in the USA

Pulling up at Fort Christina Park, the National Historic Site on the banks of the Christina River, we walked down to the monument which stood there. Unsure at what we were really looking at, we were pleased when a Park Ranger came down to chat with us, answering some of our questions and explaining that the site was like the ‘Plymouth Rock of Delaware’, being where the first Swedish and Finnish settlers had arrived in the USA.

Just down the river from the monument, was a replica of the ship they sailed on, the Kalmar Nyckel.

A rainbow after the storm after we arrived in Philadelphia, and below, views from the One Liberty Place Observation Deck

After leaving Fort Christina Park, we continued to the airport, saying a fond farewell to our rental car then catching the train into the city of Philadelphia.

We arrived at the end of a horrendous thunderstorm and made our way to the Sheraton hotel having decided to spend our last night in a bit of luxury after 4 weeks of roadside motels.

That evening, we walked the short distance to the One Liberty Place building to visit its 57th floor observation deck. The rain had cleared and the sun was starting to set which made for some pretty views across the city.

Outside Independence Hall, and below, touring the site

The next day, we had a late night flight back to the UK so we could spend the day exploring the city. We had visited Philadelphia before on our Trek America tour but it had been a short, one hour visit so we hadn’t seen anything in any detail. This time, we had booked tickets to tour Independence Hall in the morning.

We arrived a bit earlier than our ticket time so we could first visit the nearby Independence Visitor Centre and pick up Junior Ranger booklets to fill in.

The tour was interesting and we especially enjoyed seeing printings of the Articles of Confederation, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the Great Essentials Exhibition.

After our tour, we joined the lengthy but quick-moving queue to see the Liberty Bell before returning to the Independence Visitor Centre to hand over our Junior Ranger booklets to earn our badges.

After a Philly Cheesesteak lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, we decided to get tickets for the hop on/off city tour bus in order to see as much of the city as we could in a short amount of time.

Philly cheesesteak lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe

We first hopped off the bus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, not to visit the museum itself, but to see the building’s famous ‘Rocky steps’. The steps to the museum feature in the Rocky film where Sylvester Stallone runs up and down them to train and we decided to also attempt to run all the way from the bottom to the top.

View form the top of the steps

We spent the rest of the afternoon completing the bus tour loop, hopping off again at Elfreth’s Alley, America’s oldest residential street and also walking to see Betsy Ross’ house, supposedly the place Betsy Ross lived in when she sewed the first American flag.

Then it was time to collect our luggage from the hotel and catch the train back to Philadelphia airport. After more than 4 exciting weeks travelling across 16 states of the USA, it was finally time to return to the UK.

A Midwest Road Trip: Chicago

After spending over 6 months planning a self-drive road trip of Midwest USA, the time had finally come to depart for our gateway city of Chicago. Being used to taking either short city breaks in the USA or escorted small group tours for longer trips – neither of which required us to do any of our own driving – it was the first time any of us had undertaken such a trip and we were equally excited and nervous for the weeks ahead.

At the airport waiting to board

To help to calm the nerves, we had chosen to begin our trip with a few (carless!) days in a city familiar to us all – Chicago. The three of us had all spent a few days here as part of the Trek America coast to coast tour through the Northern states we previously taken – the trip we had actually met on – and I had visited a few times prior to this and knew the city pretty well (read my tips for visiting the city here).

After meeting up in the arrivals at Chicago airport (we had all flown in from different parts of the UK), we managed to navigate our way into the city and then drag our luggage the short distance from the subway to our Michigan Avenue hotel. It was already early evening so after checking into our room, the only thing on our mind was food and sleep. We grabbed take away from the first place we stumbled across and then settled down in our room for the night.

Rising early thanks to the jetlag, we began the next day – our only full day in the city – with a stroll along Michigan Avenue up to the John Hancock building. After stopping for breakfast at Starbucks, we continued across the DeSable Bridge and onto the ‘Magnificent Mile’. This area is a shoppers paradise and we couldn’t resist popping into a few of the stores we passed including Dylan’s Candy Bar and the Disney Store.

Above, and below, views from Chicago 360

Eventually, we reached the John Hancock building where we had booked tickets up to its observation deck, now rebranded as Chicago 360. On our last visit together to the city, we had instead visited the observation deck at the Willis Tower but having been up both before, the John Hancock building’s observation deck was my favourite. Feeling adventurous, we had also purchased tickets to try out Chicago 360’s latest attraction, TILT. Branded “Chicago’s newest thrill ride”, here visitors can stand against a glass window on the 94th floor observation deck as it slowly tilts forward over the city below.

It was a clear, sunny day and the views over the city from the top, especially looking towards Lake Michigan, were beautiful. The TILT ride was fun, if short-lived, and not nearly as scary as it looked in my opinion although the screams from other visitors showed that not everyone agreed with me on that!

Walking along Lake Shore Drive

Once back at ground level, we walked east towards Lake Shore Drive, crossing to the path running alongside the lake and following it south past the beaches towards Navy Pier. Wanting to get out on the lake but having taken the Shoreline Sightseeing company’s Lake Michigan cruise on our last visit, this time we opted for a jetboat ride.

With some time to kill between booking our boat trip and its departure time, we walked the pier and had a go on some of the amusements before returning to board.

Navy Pier fun

The jet boat trip was great fun as we sped across the lake twisting and turning, getting us just wet enough to cool us down a bit from the the strong, summer sun without soaking us.

We returned to the pier at a slightly slower pace allowing us the opportunity to take some photos of the Chicago skyline in front of us.

Above, and below, having fun at the Cloudgate Sculpture

Leaving Navy Pier behind, we walked south to Millennium Park, home of my favourite Chicago attraction – the Cloudgate Sculpture or ‘the silver bean’ as we prefer to call it. Here, we spent more time than was probably necessary staring at the reflections of ourselves ad the city skyline in the sculpture, walking beneath and finding lots of different angles to take photos from.

Also in Millennium Park and not far from Cloudgate, is the Crown Fountain and with it being a boiling hot summer’s day, it was full of children – and some adults – cooling off by paddling their feet and waiting for the faces on the screens at each end to ‘spit’ water over them.

Crown Fountain

Having spent all day under the hot, summer sun, and now being almost back at our hotel, we couldn’t resist diving under the jet of water suddenly spewed from the fountain. We were absolutely drenched but it felt so good!

Next stop was across the road to our hotel to change – and to try to dry our clothes before the start of our road trip the next day! – before heading back uptown later for pizza at our favourite Deep Dish restaurant, Gino’s East. As usual, the pizza took a while to cook but we kept ourselves entertained adding to the customer graffiti covering the restaurant’s walls and furnishings!

The deep dish didn’t disappoint and full up, we waddled back to our hotel full of anticipation for what the next day would bring.

This was it, it was time to check out of our city hotel, head back to the airport and pick up our hire car for 3 weeks on the road. We would be back in Chicago at the end of it all having hopefully returned from a fun-filled Midwest adventure!!

San Francisco

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

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

Where to stay

View from my room at the Mark Hopkins InterContinental Hotel

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

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

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

At the Top of the Mark martini bar

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

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

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

Union Square shops

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

Getting Around

San Francisco City Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting to board a cable car

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

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

The Golden Gate Bridge

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

Tour bus

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

At the Palace of Fine Arts

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

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

Looking out from the viewpoint actross the bridge

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

Bike

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge

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

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

Our catamaran heads under the Golden Gate Bridge

Boat

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

Self-drive

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

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

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

Alcatraz Island

Saining across to Alcatraz

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

Nearing Alctaraz Island, and below, touring Alcatraz

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

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

Fishermans Wharf

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

The Pier 39 Sealions

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

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

The Embarcadero Clock Tower, and below, Hyde Street Pier

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

A bust Ghirardelli Square

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

Lombard Street

Crowds watching the cars weave down Lombard Street

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

Segwaying down Lombard Street

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

Museums

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

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

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

Viewing the cablecar system mechanics at the Cable Car Museum

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

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

Golden Gate Park

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

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

Above, and below, exploring Golden Gate Park

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

Ocean Beach

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

San Francisco Hearts

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

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

Above, and below, heart-spotting in San Francisco

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

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

Exploring different areas of the city

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

Haight-Ashbury

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

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

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

The Painted Ladies houses in Alamo Sqaure

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

Chinatown

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

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

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

North Beach

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

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

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

Enjoying the sunshine in Washington Square

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

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

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

A pagoda in Japantown

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

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

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

Auckland, New Zealand

Walking through Albert Park

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

Wandering through Auckland Domain

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

Above, and below, at the Auckland War Memorial Museum

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

Above, and below, at the Sky Tower

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

Mission Bay

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

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

Passing the Parnell Rose Gardens

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

Crater at Mount Eden

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

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

Passing Eden Park Stadium

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

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

Visiting Parnell Village

The route one bus took me back into the Parnell district where I hopped off in Parnell Village, grabbing some lunch, browsing the stores and visiting the nearby Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Then it was back towards Auckland’s waterfront and to the stop I’d got on at in the morning.

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

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

A weekend in Rome

Taking a European city break in a pandemic

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

On board my Jet2 flight to Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quiet Trevi Fountain

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

Crowds at the Trevi Fountain on a previous visit to Rome

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

The Spanish Steps

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

Aperitivo in Testaccio

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

Cacio e Pepe at Felice a Testaccio restaurant

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

Hugo Spritz cocktails

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

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

The Pyramid of Cestius

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

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

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

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

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

Another Aperol Spritz!

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

Pizza at Sorbillo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of the River Tiber from Ponte Sant’Angelo

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

Crossing the River Tiber

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

The Pantheon

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

Pistachio Tiramisu from Pompi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Colosseum at night

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

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

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

Touring the Deep South USA: New Orleans

A couple of years ago I was ecstatic to win 2 places on Trek America’s Deep South Budget Lodging Tour (or Deep South BLT as it’s known for short). The 7 night tour would begin and end in New Orleans, taking in Birmingham, Alabama, Gatlinburg/Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi along the way.

View of Jackson Square and St Louis Cathedral
On board our boat through the swamp in Lafitte

Having previously taken Trek America’s Southern BLT, I had visited New Orleans, Nashville and Memphis before so this probably wasn’t a tour I would have paid to take part in but, last time I visited Nashville and Memphis, things hadn’t exactly gone to plan (read all about it here!) thanks to the onset of wintry weather forcing us to abandon most of our plans so I was ecstatic to get a second chance to experience these cities, this time, hopefully, snow free!

Beautiful scenery on our swamp tour

Deciding to invite along my sister-in-law who had only ever been to New York and LA in the USA before, we added on a few extra days in New Orleans before the tour was to begin. Wanting her to get the most out of the experience, I borrowed heavily from my last experience of visiting the city in planning our itinerary for the 2 full days we had there.

Spotting a small ‘gator!

So on day one, we walked from our hotel on the edge of the French quarter to Jackson Square where we would be meeting for a swamp tour. Last time, I had taken Dr Wagner’s Honey Island swamp tour which had been organised by our Trek leader. It was February, cold and wet and not alligator season. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience, I had a great time. But this time, I wanted to visit a different swamp so I booked us on a tour offered by Grayline. The weather was warm and sunny and it was, just, still alligator season.

Alligator!

We were taken by bus to the swamp, where we boarded our boats and headed out onto the bayou. Today, there were plenty of alligators to see as we glided through the water and past the lush, green scenery. While the commentary was sometimes difficult to hear over the conversations going on between passengers, it was still a really fun and exciting way to spend the morning.

The French Market entrance decorated for the season

Once back in New Orleans, we spent the afternoon exploring the French Quarter. It was Hallowe’en week and many of the buildings had been dressed up in preparation. We sampled some beignets from a local cafe and finished up with drinks on Bourbon Street.

View along Bourbon Street from the veranda of one of the bars and, below, New Orleans at night – on the ghost tour

That evening we took a ghost tour with Free Tours By Foot. This company allows you to sign up to its walking tours for free then at the end of the tour, you pay what you feel it was worth or what you can afford. On my previous visit to New Orleans I had taken a ghost tour with a company where you pay a set price up front and I have to say that of the two tours, the ‘free’ tour was much better.

Beignets!!
One of the many grand houses in New Orleans’ Garden District

The next day, we took a street car out to New Orleans’ Garden District. Rather than taking a guided tour like I had on my previous visit, this time I’d downloaded a self-guided walking tour which directed us around the area pointing out houses of interest along the way. The Garden District is a really pretty place to explore and with many celebrities living in the are, you never know who you might bump into!

At City Park and, below, sculptures and scenery at City Park

That afternoon, we took another streetcar, this time, out to City Park, a large park on the edge of the city and a new experience for me. The park is home to a sculpture park which we explored before stumbling across a mini-golf course.

The mini-golf course dressed up for Hallowe’en

As it was Hallowe’en week, the course had been decorated with cobwebs and a range of spooky figures and as we played, we were regularly interrupted by witches cackling and skeleton dogs howling, livening up the game.

City views

Back in the city, we walked towards the Mississippi River and watched the pipes play on the Natchez steamboat. We had booked an evening dinner cruise as I had enjoyed taking one on my previous visit to the the city. After enjoying the delicious buffet dinner, we sat out on the deck enjoying the sunset and city views and listening to the jazz band play.

It had been fun to return to New Orleans a few years on, revisiting some of the places I had seen before and reliving some of my previous experiences but now I was looking forward to beginning our tour of America’s Deep South, starting with a trip to Birmingham, Alabama!

Watch my trip vlog here:

A midweek budget break in Copenhagen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was our third observation deck of sorts since arriving in Copenhagen but all were worth a visit as their different situations in the city each gave a unique vantage point.

After sitting in the church grounds to eat our lunch (once again made up from our hotel buffet breakfast!), we caught the train over to Tivoli Gardens.

Our Copenhagen Card included entry into Tivoli Gardens but any rides were extra. Seeing as ride tickets were a lot more expensive than we had expected we decided to give them a miss and just walk around the grounds. As it was autumn, the park had been decorated heavily for Hallowe’en with hundreds of pumpkins making it a fun place to just wander around and explore.