With neither of us having any experience at driving something which seemed pretty huge to us (but seems a pretty standard car size in the US!), we were a bit wary at first but were soon cruising along the freeway towards our final destination of the day, Savannah, Georgia.
As with our previous US road trip, we had tried to plan regular stops along the way on each drive day at road side attractions and sites of interest. Today’s first stop was in the Floridian town of Christmas which, as well as having a Christmas tree on display all year round, is also home to Swampy, the World’s Largest Alligator (sculpture!). The huge sculpture sits outside the Jungle Adventures Animal Park and while we didn’t visit the park itself, it was fun to pose alongside – and in the mouth of – the sculpture!
Already running late on our rough schedule after delays picking up our hire car and our first stop, we soon hot roadworks causing us to divert. Finding ourselves in St Augustine, we stopped to grab lunch and supplies at a Walmart then followed signposts to Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, deciding it might be a good place to sit and eat lunch at.
If we’d had more time, it would have been fun to pay the entrance fee and actually see the fountain but after eating and stretching our legs, it was time to get back on the road again and cross the border into the state of Georgia.
We had booked a dolphin-watching sunset boat trip out of Tybee Island, on the outskirts of Savannah for that evening thinking we’d have plenty of time to make it but as we were till running late and hit more diversions around roadworks, it was looking less and less likely we would. Not having any access to the internet or being able to ring the company with the cost of calls from our UK phones, we had to make a decision whether to see if could make it or just give up and head straight to our Savannah accommodation. It could have gone either way so we decided to continue to Tybee Island and hope for the best.
Arriving at the departure point right around the time of departure, we quickly found a parking space and ran to the dock only to see the boat pull away and sail down the river without us.
Disappointed but not surprised, we drove into Savannah and checked into the hotel we’d be staying at for the next couple of nights, briefly venturing into the city to grab a snack before returning to our room.
The next morning,we were up early to get out and explore the city. Being early August, it was a hot and humid day as we wandered along the streets and through the pretty squares. We stopped at Chippewa Square, famous for being where the Forrest Gump bench scene was set. The bench he sat on in the film isn’t actually in the Square, it was a prop but the Square itself is very recognisable.
After passing some other Savannah landmarks including the historic Savannah Theatre and the huge Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, we found ourselves in Forsyth Park with its canopy of oak trees leading to its pretty fountain.
Next, deciding we needed to get out the heat and into some aircon, we walked to the Savannah History Museum to learn a bit more about the southern city.
We bought a combo ticket which also gave us access to the Jepson Centre, a contemporary art museum, which we made our next stop, and Owen House, one of the city’s historic homes.
Our tour of the large house was really interesting and our guide even gave us some recommendations for our upcoming stay in Charleston, SC.
Following our tour of the historic home, we walked down to the waterfront, strolling along the banks of the Savannah River and visiting some of the shops there.
We then walked through the busy City Market area with its many shops and restaurants before returning to our hotel to once again cool off in some air-con!
That evening, we returned to the waterfront, visiting one of the River Street restaurant bars for dinner.
While the heat had taken some getting used to, Savannah had been a really beautiful city to spend a day exploring! We’d be briefly leaving he state of Georgia the next day to visit Charleston in South Carolina but we were looking forward to returning later in our trip to spend some time in and around the city of Atlanta.
Starting our East coast road trip with one day in Miami
After spending months planning another adventure driving through the USA, it was finally time to set off. We’d be catching a morning flight from Heathrow that would have us in Miami mid-afternoon. Once through passport control at Miami airport, we followed signs to the station to catch a bus into the city. We’d researched which number bus to catch and which stop to get off at for our South Beach motel and as the stops flashed up on the screens inside the bus, it was a pretty straightforward – and cheap – way to get to our destination.
Once checked in, we went out for a walk. Our motel was conveniently located across the road from the famous South Beach so after heading north along Washington Avenue finding somewhere to grab a snack and popping into the few souvenir stores we passed along the way, we walked east along Lincoln Road Mall, a shopping and entertainment district and looped around to South Beach following the path that runs behind the beach south, parallel to Ocean Drive with all its art deco buildings.
The sun was setting by the time we reached our motel so being jet-lagged from travelling, we called it a night making sure we got plenty of sleep for the busy day we had planned for the next day.
Having just one full day in the city, we had decided to take a combo tour which would include a visit to the Everglades, a city tour and a sightseeing cruise on Biscayne Bay. From the reading on the booking site, we were expecting this to be one long day tour run by a single company where we’d be with the same group all day but we soon realised this was not the case but instead, 3 different tours run by 3 different companies tenuously linked together in a rather disorganised way!
After checking in for the tour at a Lincoln Road Mall tourist information centre, we were told we had some time to kill before our scheduled departure so we walked along to South Beach to get some photos with its colourful beach huts. Then, back at the tour company office, we were eventually shepherded onto a double decker bus to be ferried out to the Everglades.
After being dropped at the head quarters for boat trips in the Everglades, we were given a number depending on the type of boat trip we had opted to take.
Having taken a private airboat trip along the Platte River in Nebraska the year before, we had opted to take a standard boat trip this time. Once our number was called, we queued up to board a larger airboat and this took us through the swamps to spot some ‘gators. As we cruised through the Everglades, we made regular stops so our guide could talk to us about what we were seeing.
It was great fun speeding through the swamp land and we managed to spot a few alligators hiding in the lilies and reeds along the way.
After our boat trip, we were given the opportunity to watch a presentation about the alligators and to meet one then we were provided with a sandwich lunch before boarding the bus again to return to Miami.
Once back in Miami, we were expecting to begin our city tour straight away but instead arrived back to chaos as various groups of people all booked onto different combo tours etc were gathered trying to find out where to go. We were eventually told by harassed staff that the buses lining the road were not the ones we needed to catch and that our bus was running late so we used the opportunity to go get cold drinks to cool down from the heat returning just as our bus pulled in.
Our city tour turned out to be similar to a hop on/off tour bus. The bus had a live guide who gave a commentary as we travelled through the city along Ocean Drive, Will Smith’s Miami blaring out, and out towards the downtown financial area. We sat on the outside upper deck of the bus and typically, as we drove towards our first stop in Little Havana, it started to rain heavily. Luckily, it was just a short, sharp shower!
Once in Little Havana, we were lead immediately into a Cigar shop to try and entice some group members into buying something from there. After a quick look at the staff rolling the cigars, we made a swift exit and instead wandered down to ‘Domino Park’ where locals famously sit and play dominoes and chess. The heavens opening again, we found shelter looking around some of the local store then under a shop parapet until it was time to board the bus again.
Leaving our first stop in Little Havana, the rain stopped again but we were instead harassed by an alarming number of low hanging branches on some of the residential roads! It was lucky that there wasn’t really anything to see at this point as we all spent most of the ride ducking down between the bus seats to avoid being smacked by a branch! While we all laughed about it, it wasn’t the safest I’d ever felt on one of these sightseeing tours!
The tour continued towards downtown Miami but we found that there was still very little of interest to see along the way, or at least on the route we were taken.
We were dropped off downtown at the marina a couple of hours before our Biscayne Bay Cruise was ready to leave by Bayside, a large shopping and entertainment mall by the marina, so we spent some time looking around and having dinner at pizzeria there until it was time to board.
While we had enjoyed visiting the Everglades, the organisation once we returned to Miami and the city tour being a bit of a disappointment had put a slight dampener on our day but I was looking forward to our cruise and it didn’t disappoint. The views were beautiful, especially once the weather started to clear and the dark clouds dispelled and I enjoyed the commentary as we sailed pointing out some of the celebrity homes we passed as well as Miami landmarks.
By the time the cruise finished, we were exhausted by what had been a long and busy day. We once again boarded the city tour bus and were dropped back by Lincoln Road Mall from where we once again walked the short distance along Ocean Drive back to our motel.
Trying to see Miami in what was effectively one day was probably not the best idea in hindsight and I would have liked to have been able to take more really exploring the different districts and just to have spent more time around South Beach enjoying the atmosphere and relaxing. But the next day, we had to be up early to get to the airport and pick up our one-day hire car to drive to Orlando for a few days of Disney fun. I really hope I get to return to Miami sometime in the future and give it the time I feel it deserves.
Venice was an Italian city I’d been curious about visiting for a while having heard mixed reviews about it from various friends. After spending some time in Tuscany visiting Florence and some of its nearby cities, we had caught the train north for a few nights in Bologna, a city we had found a nice contrast being less touristy and more authentically Italian and we were now travelling to the last city on our Italian adventure, Venice.
Arriving into the city by train, we had not thought at all about how we were going to find our way to our hotel. Normally, if the hotel wasn’t close to the station or easily accessible by public transport, we’d hop in a taxi to take us there and as we were both travelling with hefty luggage, this would have been the ideal situation today. But, of course, there’s no traffic allowed in Venice and public transport in by the waterways only.
After seeking advice from the information office at the station, we realised we would need to take a water taxi along the Grand Canal to the stop closest our hotel and then walk the rest of the way. The first part of this was relatively easy. We were quickly able to purchase water taxi tickets and were soon loading ourselves and our luggage onto a boat.
The stops were well signposted making it easy to see where to disembark. Things got a little trickier at this point as we had to cross lots of small bridges over the canals and drag our luggage down a maze of narrow roads to try and navigate our way to the hotel.
We eventually made it there and breathed a sign of relief – that was until we found out the hotel was on the third floor of a building without a lift and we’d have to carry our luggage all the way up the stairs!
It was a beautiful, sunny day so, that little adventure over, we spent a bit of time settling into our room before venturing out into the city for the afternoon.
Our hotel was in a pretty good location – in a quieter, less touristy area but only a 5-10 minute walk from the Rialto Bridge and many of the other tourist attractions.
Armed with our map, we made our way along the narrow cobbled streets. As we neared the main area of Venice, the streets became noticeably busier. We soon discovered that every street looked the same and we seemed to be going around in circles getting nowhere fast when suddenly we found ourselves at the Grand Canal with the Rialto Bridge ahead of us!
Nearby we found a small market going on so had a quick look around the stalls before walking back to the canal and crossing the bridge.
Here, we found a cafe to sit out at and had drinks in the sunshine watching the people, boats and gondolas go past.
Deciding you can’t go to Venice and not have a gondola ride, we began to investigate the cost. Prices seemed to be per boat so it was more for a private gondola ride and there were extra charges to get the gondolier to sing. We hovered around the canal banks wondering if we could find another group to share a gondola with and before long, a family of 4 asked if we wanted to split the cost with them.
Jumping in, we were able to sit at opposite ends of the gondola so sharing didn’t spoil the experience and the family even offered to switch places with us half way around so we could sit up the other end of the boat for a while. It also meant we could take photos for each other so they were able to get a family photo together on the gondola then take one of the 2 of us.
The gondola ride took us out on the Grand Canal and under the Rialto Bridge then down some of the narrower canals leading off it. It was a really fun experience and we got a decent amount of time on the water for the price we paid.
After our gondola ride, we continued to walk down the narrow streets, eventually finding ourselves out in St Mark’s Square. The square was busy but as there was only a short queue to go into St Mark’s Basilica, we joined the queue and soon found ourselves inside.
We spent some time looking around the grandly decorated cathedral then started to find our way back to our hotel. That evening, we ate at a restaurant we found near to where we were staying to avoid the inflated prices in the more touristy areas, walking back to the Grand Canal after.
The next day, we made our way back to St Mark’s Square and bought tickets to visit Doge’s Palace.
Our tour was self-guided and it was interesting to see the ornate decor and artwork inside the impressive building.
From the palace, you can also peep into the Bridge of Sighs, so called because it lead from the palace to the prison across the canal. Those who crossed it were mainly prisoners who were said to sigh as they lost their freedom.
After exploring the Palace, we walked around the outside of the building to see the Bridge of Sighs from the outside.
Returning to St Mark’s Square, we watched the clock in St Mark’s Clock Tower chime on the hour, its two bronze figures appearing to strike a bell, before walking away from the square to find somewhere cheaper to have some lunch.
With the already dull weather turning to rain that afternoon, we took the opportunity to visit some museums starting with the National Archaeological Museum of Venice and then moving on to Museo Correr, an art museum overlooking St Mark’s Square.
That evening, we walked back to St Mark’s Square. The weather had now cleared and the square was busy once again.
Street performers and opera singers filled the Square and we stayed to watch for a bit although decided against taking a seat at any of the bars and restaurants overlooking the Square having heard stories of extortionate prices being charged just to sit before even ordering anything!
We had one more full day left in the city of Venice and still plenty to explore. We began our morning with a stroll to the tucked away Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo, a building known for its beautiful external spiral staircase.
Then we walked through the city’s maze of streets to Ponte dell’Accademia, a huge bridge and one of only four to cross the Grand Canal.
Crossing the bridge, we then walked to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, a domed Roman Catholic church which stands imposingly on the canal side. Looking across the water from there, you can see the bell tower in St Mark’s Square in the distance.
Walking back towards St Mark’s Square afterwards, we explored some of the streets leading away from it visiting some of the more tucked away churches we came across as we wandered.
Later finding ourselves passing Teatro La Fenice, a famous Venetian opera house, we decided to go inside and take a tour. We were given audio guides with our tickets telling us about each room we went into and finishing with a look into the auditorium and the tour also included a special exhibition on opera singer Maria Callas who began her career at La Fenice. While visiting the theatre wasn’t something on our Venice ‘to do’ list, we found the visit really interesting.
With a late afternoon flight booked out of Venice the next day, we still had some time that morning for last minute sightseeing. Once again finding ourselves back in St Mark’s Square we took some last minute photos and enjoyed the atmosphere before my friend had to leave to catch her flight home. With a bit more time to spare and the sun finally shining, I made a spur of the moment decision to go up St Mark’s Campanile, the Square’s famous bell tower.
There was quite a queue but it seemed to be moving so I thought I had more than enough time.
Unfortunately, the queue slowed down and by the time I was finally admitted into the bell tower, I was getting short on time an couldn’t spend quite as long up there as I would have liked to. It was still worth the money and the wait though as the views over the city were really pretty.
After my flying visit to the Campanile, it was time to wave goodbye to St Mark’s Square one last time and to make my way back to the hotel to collect my luggage. From the hotel, I caught the airport water taxi from a nearby stop across the the airport.
I was glad I had finally got around to visiting Venice. The city is a really pretty city to wander around once you get your head around its maze of narrow streets and realise they all eventually seem to lead to St Mark’s Square. I had found the city to be extremely busy, touristy and over-priced but I had gone expecting all those things and it hadn’t ruined my stay too much. There was certainly plenty to do and see and I’d love to return there one day.
I was in Italy, one of my favourite European countries, and after spending a few days in the Tuscan city of Florence and its surrounds, it was time to move on to our second destination, Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of North Italy.
Arriving from Florence by train, we took a taxi to our hotel. It was late afternoon and once settled in, we grabbed a map of the city from the hotel reception and headed straight out to familiarise ourselves with our surroundings.
A short distance from where we were staying, we found ourselves in Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square.
The square is surrounded by some of Bologna’s most important buildings including Biblioteca Salaborsa- a historic library – and the Basilica di San Pietro and in the centre of the square lies the Fountain of Neptune.
From Piazza Maggiore, we walked along Via d’Azeglio, a pedestrianised street lined with high street stores and cafes before looping back around to the main square again.
That evening, we walked north of the square finding ourselves in a maze of narrow streets and choosing a small Trattoria to have dinner at before walking back to our hotel.
With one full day left to explore the city, we found a self-guided walking tour online to follow around the city.
Returning to Piazza Maggiore, we visited the Basilica di San Pietro and then Biblioteca Salaborsa. While this is the main public library in the city, the main reason for visiting actually lies beneath the building. Through the floor in the centre of the library, it is possible to see the ruins of an ancient building underneath.
We walked down to the basement level of the building where for a small fee, it was possible to get a bit closer to the ruins, viewing them from an open walkway that has been built above.
Next, we crossed the square to visit Palazzo Communale. Formerly a palace, it now houses some of the city’s administrative offices but is also home to the Civic Art Collection.
We wandered through the building looking at some of the art on display and enjoying the views over Piazza Maggiore from the building’s windows.
From Piazza Maggiore, we walked the short distance to the Archaeological Civic Museum.
The museum is worth visiting for its building alone, being housed in a 15th century Palazzo, and it contains exhibitions which include Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts.
After spending an hour or so looking around, we continued our self-guided tour of the city walking down to the Basilica of San Domenico, a historic church known for its multitude of priceless works of art.
We then walked back on ourselves and along Via Rizzoli towards Two Towers Piazza with the St Petronius statue stood in front of the tall, imposing structures.
After stopping for gelato from Gelateria Gianni, we walked through the Quadrilatero area to Basilica di Santa Stefano, a maze of 4 (originally there were 7) connecting churches.
For our final stop on our sightseeing tour, we walked back to Piazza Maggiore and then headed north to find Finestrella di Via Piella. Here you can peer through a window in a wall to see one of the remaining sections of one of Bologna’s historic canals, Canale delle Moline. Taking a picture through the window, it could easily have been a photo taken of the more famous canals of Venice!
Feet aching from walking all over the city, we returned to the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero, an old medieval market area just east of Piazza Maggiore. Here, we sat out at one of the many bars for Aperitivo, enjoying a selection of breads, cheeses and meats over drinks.
Returning to our hotel for a bit to rest, we then ventured out once more that evening, again finding a small tucked away Trattoria just north of the main touristy areas of the city for a late dinner.
I’d enjoyed my visit to the city of Bologna, less touristy and busy than Florence had been but still with plenty to see and do. Next up, Venice!
A city break visiting Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Siena
With one of my friends studying at a language school in Florence, it wasn’t long before I arranged a trip out there to coincide with her course finishing so we could spend some time travelling in our favourite European country, Italy.
We planned that I would spend a few days in Florence during which my friend would show me around the city she had been living in the last few months and from where we could also take day trips out to nearby towns and cities then we’d travel by train up to Bologna for a few days, a city which neither of us had previously visited and finally, catch the train to Venice where we would end our trip.
Not being able to find any reasonably priced flights into Florence itself, I instead planned to fly to Milan, then catch a train to complete my journey. Being used to just being able to buy a ticket and hop onto a train in the UK, I assumed that the same could be done in Italy, my friend suggesting that this was the case too, but upon arrival in Milan and making my way from the airport to the Central Station, I found that all tickets on the intercity trains had to be pre-booked and as that weekend was a public holiday, most of the train leaving in the next few hours were fully booked!
Luckily, I had taken an early flight into Italy and it was still morning so, managing to get myself on a train leaving late afternoon, I checked my case into the station’s Left Luggage for a few euros and had a wander into central Milan, a city I was vaguely familiar with from a previous visit. After spending a few hours window shopping and gasping in awe once again at the breath-taking Duomo, I grabbed some lunch and walked back to the station ready to finally catch my train to Florence!
Arriving in the city early evening, I managed to navigate my way to the centrally located AirBnB apartment we had booked to finally meet up with my friend and once I’d settled in, we went out for drinks followed by a pizza dinner at one of the local restaurants and gelato for dessert.
The next day, a day we had designated for sightseeing in the city, we awoke to heavy rain. Not letting the weather deter us, my friend took me round the city past its impressive Basilica, The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and up to Piazza della Signoria, the city’s main square, overlooked by Palazzo Vecchio. The square is home to a variety of sculptures including a copy of Michelangelo’s David.
The square was extremely busy with it being both a weekend and public holiday and looking out across the square from the steps of the Loggia dei Lanzi sculpture gallery, there was nothing but a sea of umbrellas in front of us!
From Piazza della Signoria, we walked to the Uffizi Gallery, a huge museum which houses famous works of art including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Unfortunately, with the city being so busy over the holiday weekend, there was a 2 hours wait to get into the gallery for anyone who hadn’t pre-booked tickets so, as my friend had visited previously, I decided to give it a miss!
Instead, we continued on towards the River Arno to cross the Ponte Vecchio, the famous stone bridge lined with jewellery stores before walking up past Pitti Palace and along to Piazzale Michelangelo walking through the pretty Rose Garden along the way.
The panoramic views over Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo were really beautiful.
In the square itself, as well as finding yet another copy of the artist’s David sculpture, we also found a gelato festival going on! Investigating further, we discovered that for a set price, it was possible to get a sample of gelato from each of the stands, exchanging your final ticket for a second sample of the flavour you liked most.
We didn’t need much convincing to take part and were soon parting with our money in exchange for a stamp card.
After spending the afternoon going from stall to stall enjoying the gelato on offer, we were unanimous in our decision that the Nutella gelato was our favourite and both went back for seconds!
Full up on gelato, we waddled our way back across the River Arno and walked to the Basilica of Santa Croce, spending some time exploring inside the beautiful church.
Next,we walked back to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore where, seeing that the crowds from earlier had disappeared, we joined the short queue to go inside and see the amazing dome interior painted with a representation of The Last Judgement.
Finally, walking back to our apartment, we stopped at the Basilica of St Lorenzo, one of Florence’s largest and oldest churches.
The next day, we had made plans to travel out of Florence to the city of Lucca. Catching the train from the main station in Florence, we arrived in Lucca mid-morning.
After exploring the city and some of its churches, we had lunch in one of the pretty squares before visiting the Puccini Museum – Lucca is the city the famous Opera composer was born in.
Then, after visiting its impressive Cathedral, Duomo di San Martino, there was just enough time for spot of shopping before returning by train back to Florence.
We took another trip away from the city of Florence the next day, this time to the walled city of Siena.
We spent the day wandering through the city, having lunch in the beautiful Piazza del Campo – the city’s main square – before walking to its Cathedral, the striking Duomo di Siena, with its distinctive stripey decor!
I was up early the next day, our last full day in Florence before moving on to Bologna. We planned to spend the day out of the city again, this time travelling to Pisa, but first, I wanted to visit the Accademia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s David sculpture.
I arrived at the gallery about half hour before it opened so I was one of the first in the queue and was through the doors within a few minutes of it opening. The museum was pretty quiet at that time of day meaning I could take my time admiring the many works of art that were housed there.
After visiting the Accademia Gallery, it was back to the central station to catch a train out of the city to Pisa. From the station we walked through the more modern part of the city grabbing some lunch at a bakery before reaching Piazza dei Miracoli.
The large, walled square is home to a collection of buildings including Pisa Cathedral but more famously, and the reason we were there, it is also where the Leaning Tower of Pisa stands!
We spent some time trying to get the standard photo of us holding up the leaning tower before visiting the other buildings. Then I decided to buy a ticket to actually go up the Leaning Tower, an odd experience as you try to walk on the slanted floors but worth it for the views from the top!
Then, it was back to Florence for our last evening in the city. After a pizza dinner, we went out for drinks, stopping to take photos of the Duomo lit up at night.
The next morning, we wandered through the city of Florence one last time, stopping to take a few more photos of the Duomo seeing as the weather was finally a bit better! Then it was back to the station, this time to leave Tuscany behind and catch the train to our next destination, the city of Bologna.
We began our day in Oban, checking out of our hostel and loading up the bus one final time.
Like everyday of the trip, we had a busy day ahead of us with lots of stops along the way, the first of which was at Loch Awe to visit St Conan’s Kirk, a historic church building famous for its architecture. We spent some time looking around the church and in its grounds enjoying the picturesque views across the Loch.
Next up was a stop at Kilchurn Castle. Paring in the car park at the head of the trail, we began to follow it towards the castle, stopping to pet a friendly sheep sat along the way. Like St Conan’s Kirk, the castle sits on the edge of Loch Awe.
We spent some time exploring the castle ruins, climbing the stairs in the turrets to enjoy the views from the top before walking back along the trail to the car park and climbing back on board the minibus.
After a quick stop at Tyndrum services to visit their award-winning toilets and grab a few snacks, we continued on to our lunch stop in the pretty town of Callander where we browsed in some of the stores and sampled the award-winning pies from the bakery before getting ice cream and walking alongside the river.
Lunch finished, we continued towards Edinburgh stopping at the National Wallace Monument in Stirling. The monument is sat on top of a steep hill and after walking to the top, we enjoyed the views across Stirling.
Most of us deciding not to pay to go in to the monument, we instead followed some of the circular walks around the monument through the woodlands and enjoyed more views over where the Battle of Stirling Bridge took place, the battle in which William Wallace – famously played by Mel Gibson in the film Braveheart – lead his troops to victory.
Our final stop before reaching Edinburgh was in Falkirk to see The Kelpies, a huge sculpture of two horses heads in a parkland. This is the largest equine sculpture in the World and reminded me of something I’d be more likely to see on one of my road trips in the USA!
Then it was on to Edinburgh where, following a group singalong to The Proclaimers’ hit I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),we were dropped back at the hostel we had started our tour from a week earlier. With most of us staying in local hotels or AirBnBs that night, we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, some of us making plans to meet up in the city that evening.
After checking back into the travelodge I’d stayed at a week before, I made my way into the city to find the meeting point for an Edinburgh ghost tour I had booked. The tour was a ‘free’ walking tour where you pay what you feel the tour is worth at the end.
It was fun to tour the city hearing some of the creepy stories although I mainly found them amusing rather than scary!
The next day, I took the city’s hop on/off bus tour to see a bit more of the city and find out more of its history. While a couple of the stories were repeats of what I’d heard on the ghost tour the previous night, it was still worth doing as the commentary was interesting and it was a quick and easy way to get around.
That afternoon, I visited Edinburgh Castle. The castle sits on the top of castle rock, a huge hill, meaning it can be seen from across the city and there were great views across the city from the castle grounds. The castle was definitely worth a visit and it was interesting to find out about the history of the building and the city.
I had a late evening flight out of the city back to Birmingham the next day giving me a bit more time to explore. I decided to spend the morning hiking Arthur’s Seat, the highest point of Holyrood Park. This hill is actually an ancient volcano. There is a well-marked path to the top and there were plenty of other people hiking to follow anyway.
Although the path was steep in places and it was a warm summer’s day, I took my time and made it to the top to enjoy the beautiful views across the city.
With the hike not taking as long as I expected it to, I returned to my hotel via a detour taking me past both the Burns Monument and the Nelson Monument. Then, it was time to pickup my luggage and make my way to Edinburgh Airport, my trip to Scotland at its end.
I’d had an amazing time exploring Scotland over the last week or so and hoped to return to see more of this incredible country one day in the future.
After a few days on a concert break to Toronto, we were catching a VIA Rail train to our next Canadian destination, Montreal. It was a long train journey but the scenery along the way was at least pretty. We arrived at Montreal’s main station mid-afternoon and walked the short distance to our Marriott Hotel, another 4-star hotel bargain from Priceline’s Name Your Own Price site.
After checking in, we ventured straight out into the city.
Our hotel was close to the pretty Mary Queen of the World Cathedral and there were plenty of shops, restaurants and cafes nearby so we spent a bit of time exploring before choosing a small Mexican restaurant for dinner.
The next day was our one full day for exploring the city. We’d seen the City Sightseeing hop on/off buses go past the day before so decided to buy tickets for it as the quickest way to see as much of Montreal as possible.
The bus took us to Montreal’s old town where we hopped off the bus at Notre Dame Cathedral.
After visiting the Cathedral, we sat out at a local cafe before walking to Place de la Grande-Paix-de-Montreal. Exploring the pretty square, we then decided to visit the Centre d’histoire de Montreal, an interesting museum tracing the history of Montreal and significant events from its past which is housed in a building that was once a fire station.
Then we walked down to the waterfront enjoying the sunshine as we passed through the many pretty parks along the promenade and enjoyed the views across St Lawrence River.
Hopping back on the bus, we continued our tour of the city through Montreal’s financial district and looping round to Mont-Royale, Montreal’s highest point. Passing St Joseph’s Oratory, we then pulled up at a viewpoint over the city.
We hopped off again at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The museum was definitely worth a visit and we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring its extensive collections.
Then it was back on the bus to complete our loop of the city and return to where we started, the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral just across the road from our hotel.
That evening, we attended the concert at the Bell Centre arena. The next day, we’d be checking out of our hotel and returning home to the UK but we had a little time in the morning for some last minute shopping first. Then it was off to the airport ready to wave Canada goodbye – for now!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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 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!