Discovering the beautiful city of Porto

Chapel of Souls

Setting off for the city of Porto was the most unprepared I’d felt for an upcoming trip in a long time. Being pre-occupied with work and some recent family issues had meant I’d not done my usual research on a city. I had no idea what there was to see or do, no activities booked – my friend had even booked the hotel so I had no idea where we were staying even!

Annoyingly – but perhaps conveniently – we had plenty of time to research things at the airport that morning as we found ourselves in the now expected lengthy queues to get through security. Leaving us with little time to grab breakfast and a couple of essentials from departures, it did, at least give us plenty of opportunity to flick through a Porto guidebook a friend had lent us and to look up how to get from the airport to our pretty central hotel once we arrived.

After a quick flick through tripadvisor and a few travel blogs, we also made a hasty booking for a highly-recommended walking tour of the city for the morning of our first full day there in the hope that this would throw up some ideas for places to visit or return to in more detail.

Five minutes after finally clearing security, our gate was being called and we were soon on board and ready to go. A speedy 2-hours later, we were landing. Clearing passport control quickly, we soon found ourselves in arrivals and easily navigated our way to the station to pick up the metro line which would take us to the Bolhao area of the city where our hotel was situated. Once checked in, we took a stroll, heading straight away to a nearby church which had caught our eye as soon as we exited the metro station earlier. What made the Chapel of Souls church so striking was the blue and white tiles covering its exterior. The church was just as stunning inside and definitely worth a visit.

After visiting the pretty church, we wandered down Rua Santa Catarina, a pedestrianised street lined with shops, restaurants and cafes. Here, we couldn’t resist stopping at Fabrica da Nata, supposedly one of the best pastry shops in the city to get a Pastel de Nata – the popular Portuguese custard tart-style treat – from. After enjoying our sweet snack, we continued to explore Rua Santa Catarina. Turning right further down the road, we found ourselves stumbling across the entrance to Mercado do Bolhao, a huge food market with stall selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to cooked meats, pastries, traditional sweets and much more. We spent a bit of time enjoying the hustle and bustle of the market and picking up some healthy fruit snacks for later before continuing our walk, heading south towards the Douro River.

Tired from our early start and travelling, once riverside, we found a cafe bar to sit outside at for drinks watching the World go by for a bit before making our way back towards our hotel. From the riverfront, we walked towards the Luis I Bridge before turning away from the river to climb a series of steps tucked away up the narrow back streets passing small local cafes and bars hidden from the tourist trail along the way. From here, we wound our way back to Rua Santa Catarina.

After a bit of time relaxing and freshening up at our hotel, we went looking for somewhere to eat, settling on a nearby Italian restaurant for a pizza dinner followed by gelato from one of the many dessert stores along Rua Santa Catarina.

We awoke the next morning to rain. Armed with umbrellas, we set out anyway to find the meet point of the walking tour we had booked.

Above, and below, Bolsa Palace and Infante Dom Henrique Square

We made it as far as Sao Bento station before having to turn around as the rain became torrential and despite our umbrellas, we were soaked to the skin. Deciding we probably wouldn’t enjoy a walking tour in this weather, we contacted the tour guide to apologise for our absence and transfer our booking to the next day then sheltered in a local cafe grabbing chocolate croissants and hot drinks for breakfast before a quick return to our hotel to change into dry clothes and rethink our plans for the day!

Typically, at this point the rain stopped but worried more wasn’t far behind, we decided to take a tour of Bolsa Palace, Porto’s impressive stock exchange building. Luckily, despite nt pre-booking, there were tickets left for the upcoming English-speaking tour. With a bit of time to spare before the tour began, we took a stroll around the pretty Infante Dom Henrique Square in front of the building and across to St Nicholas Church, another pretty tiled church we had spotted from the steps of Bolsa Palace.

After a quick look around the church, it was time to make our way back to Bolsa Palace to begin our tour. We were taken in a group of about 50 around the building by an informative English guide who told us a bit about the building, its architecture and its uses over the years. Our guide also gave us a bit of background on some of the history of Portugal and the city of Porto.

Sampling a Franceshino

The tour lasted about 45 minutes and after, we made our way towards another, larger church we had seen nearby, the Monument Church of St Francis. Entrance to this church and its museum was ticketed but after stepping inside, we could see it was worth every cent! The church’s ornate, intricate interiors, gilded in gold (and giving the church its nickname “The Golden Church”), are breath-taking.

After our visit to the church and its museum, we were pleased to see the sun was now shining so we walked the short distance back to the River Douro to find somewhere to sit and have lunch.

Above, riverside again, and below, on the Six Bridges river cruise

We had decided that today would be the day we tried Franceshino, a (rather large) Portuguese sandwich which originated in Porto and, traditionally, contains layers of meat including ham, bacon, sausage and steak. The meat is topped with a fried egg then sandwiched between 2 pieces of white sliced bread before being wrapped in cheese and served in a bowl of a spicy tomato sauce!

Finding a local cafe with some outdoor seating, I ordered a traditional Franceshino and my friend a vegetarian version. While I’m glad I tried it, and managed to eat a large portion of mine, it definitely sounded better than it tasted, the spicy tomato sauce especially not being to my tastes!

Full from lunch, we took a slow stroll along the riverside towards the Ribeira area and with the weather now being so beautiful, decided to take a Six Bridges River Cruise along the Douro River. This short sightseeing cruise was offered by numerous companies with booths along the river front, all selling the cruises at similar prices. Some companies offered combo tickets including Port tasting or cellar tours but we opted to just buy a ticket for the cruise.

St Ildefenso Church

Despite not pre-booking, we were sold tickets for a cruise departing in the next 5 minutes and hurried from the ticket counter to board the awaiting boat. As we sailed along the river, there was a commentary telling us about the various bridges spanning the Douro in Porto as well as some information about Porto and the city of Gaia which lies on the other side of the river. The views of Porto with its colourful buildings were really pretty from the river.

Having walked up a long flight of stairs from the river front back into the city centre the previous day, today we decided to take the Ribeira inclined railway to the top of the hill. On the way back to our hotel, we stopped to visit the Church of Saint Ildefenso, another pretty church with a blue and white tiled facade. There was a small fee to enter the church but this gave us access to the church museum as well.

After a bit of down time back at the hotel, we went for a walk towards Praca do Municipio, a square overlooked by Porto’s impressive town hall then on to Rua de Galeria de Paris, a street famed for its nightlife. Being a Thursday night and not particularly late yet, it was quite quiet out and we found a nice cocktail bar to sit inside at for a few drinks before calling it a night.

The following day, we finally made it onto the walking tour we had delayed our attendance on from the previous day.

Passing through Jardim das Oliveiras on our walking tour

Our excellent guide took us on a detailed 3-hour-plus tour of the city, showing us many places we probably wouldn’t have thought to have known about or visited otherwise – such as a McDonald’s set in a former grand art deco cafe and now said to be the most beautiful McDonald’s in the World and Sao Bento station which we had passed a few times but not though to go inside – and gave us some ideas for places to return to later including the so-called “Harry Potter” bookstore, Livaria Lello.

There was also a lot of interesting information about the city, its buildings and UNESCO World Heritage status and about the history of Portugal itself.

The tour finished back by the river and after a snack from a nearby cafe, we decided to walk back to Livaria Lello bookstore. Along the way, we made a quick call into another beautiful church, St Antonio Church just across from Sao Bento station before hiking up a steep hill to reach the bookstore again. There was a huge queue outside the store with a 2-hour wait to enter but staff explained that if we booked online, we could probably get a timed ticket to enter within the next half an hour. Luckily, we had some phone reception and managed to get online and book tickets quickly; 10 minutes later we were showing our barcodes and entering the store!

A Pastel de Nata from Manteigaria

The store was really beautiful inside and its carved wood staircase is especially worth seeing. However, it was so busy inside, it was at times, difficult to move around the store, especially along its narrow upstairs corridors.

Following our visit to the bookstore, we returned to our hotel via a stop at Manteigaria, another patisserie whose Pastel de Nata came highly recommended.

With one final day in Porto, we still had lots to fit in, including returning to a few more places we had stopped at on our walking tour and now wanted to see in more detail.

Above, making our way to the cathedral tower, and below, enjoying views over the city.

After stopping at Mercado do Bolhao to grab some fresh pastries and fruit for breakfast, we made our way back to Se Cathedral. We had stopped outside the Cathedral on our city tour but wanted to see inside. With it being a Saturday morning, everywhere was a bit busier and there was a bit of a queue for entrance tickets but this moved quickly and we were soon entering the Cloisters.

From here we climbed some stairs up one of the towers for views over the city and looked around the small museum before entering the main chapel of the Cathedral.

Above, and below, Douro River views crossing Luis I Bridge into Gaia

Next up was a walk back towards the river where we finally crossed Luis I Bridge from Porto to the city of Gaia on the other side of the Douro River. The bridge has two pedestrian walkways, one at ground level and one higher up. As advised on our tour, we chose the higher walkway and this offered stunning river views as we made our way across although we did have to be careful of the trams which also used this level to whizz back and forth.

Once in Gaia, we took a walk along the river front from where there were beautiful views across to Porto with its colourful building facades.

Porto view from Gaia

Gaia is home to most of the region’s Port Houses and we had hoped to do a tour of one the cellars but we hadn’t thought to book in advance and with it being a busy weekend, everywhere was sold out.

Above, looking across to Porto from Gaia, and below, at Sandemans Port House

Instead, we popped into the foyer of Sandemans, one of the most famous Port Houses where there was a small museum which was free to look around before visiting its bar where we sat outside in its large courtyard area overlooking the river to purchase a glass of Port to sample for ourselves.

Crossing back to Porto along the lower level of Luis I Bridge, we walked to Clergios Church and Tower. The tower is visible from points across the city and for a fee, it is possible to climb a series of steps to the top to enjoy the views.

The joined churches of Carmo and Carmelitas

As we had been to the top of the Cathedral tower earlier that day, we decided against climbing this tower but the church was free to enter so we did have a quick look inside.

Not far from here was another church which had caught our attention on our walking tour, the Churches of Carmo and Carmelitas so we stopped by for a look in here as well.

The churches of Porto had all been so beautiful and this one didn’t disappoint either. Like many of the others we had visited, there was a small museum of church treasures to look around inside too.

Having eaten a large dinner in Gaia earlier that day, we decided to visit Majestic Cafe that evening for a smaller bite to eat. Not too far from our hotel, on Rua Santa Catarina, this cafe is said to be one of the most beautiful in the World with its decor reminiscent of Parisian Cafes from the early 1900s. It is also one of the oldest cafes in the city.

Being a popular tourist attraction, the prices inside are not cheap with a tea and a slice of cake costing me as much as a full meal in many Porto restaurants but you’re paying for the experience of dining there as much as the food so as a one off, it was worth it.

I was sad to say goodbye to Porto the next day. Having no expectations of the city before my visit, I was more than impressed by what I found and would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a city break.

A summer city break in Athens

Strolling through the Plaka district

After planning a summer island-hopping trip to Greece, we could see the only way of making our way between the Sporades islands we were starting at and the Cyclades islands where we would be spending most of our time in would involve passing through the country’s capital city, Athens. With it being a city neither of us had visited before and one that had long been on my ‘must-do’ list, it seemed silly not to extend our stay there to a few nights.

Crowds lining up to get ticlets for the Acropolis Museum

We both knew that temperature and crowds-wise, late July/early August was probably not the best time to visit this city but weren’t sure when else we’d get the opportunity so we planned in 4 nights there, staying in a budget hotel in the Omonia district – walkable from many of the main attractions and also near a metro line.

Taking a flight out of Skiathos to Athens at the break of dawn, we arrived in the city early and were surprised and extremely pleased to find that our room was ready for us to check in.

After freshening up and dropping our bags, we set straight out, walking towards the Plaka area stopping at a local cafe along the way for a pastry snack.

The narrow, bustling streets of the Plaka district were perfect for a spot of souvenir shopping and – with temperatures reaching their late 30s – grabbing an ice cream.

Passing by the Panthenaic Stadium on our evening segway tour of the city

We eventually found ourselves in the shadow of Athen’s most famous attraction, the Acropolis where we had our first glimpse of the Parthenon perched on top of the hill. Opposite, was the Acropolis Museum, a long queue of tourists winding its way out of the museum grounds and onto the main thoroughfare.

Luckily, we had pre-booked timed entry tickets to the museum and were able to waltz past the hoards of people waiting and straight through the main doors into the lovely, cool air-conditioned building.

The museum houses artefacts found on the archaeological site of the Acropolis as well as providing background information on the site making it well worthwhile visiting before heading up the Acropolis hill itself.

Views of both Mount Lycabettus and Acropolis Hill at sunset

After spending some time exploring, we exited the museum and walked down to the visit the ruins of a Roman village being excavated beneath the museum – something included in the museum ticket price.

Above, and below, exploring the ancient cemetery Kerameikos

That evening, we had a segway tour of the city booked which we hoped would help us to get our bearings and possibly give us some ideas on things to do and see in the city. Being unfamiliar with the city still and short on time before our tour, we opted to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe rather than hunt around for restaurants. Then we went to meet our segway tour guide.

Despite it being high season, we found ourselves to be the only people to have booked meaning we got a private tour. As it was just us, our guide asked us what we were interested in seeing, how long we’d spent in the city so far and tailored the tour to us rather than following the usual route.

The sprawling archaeological site of the Ancient Agora

Segways were a quick and easy way to get around the city and highlight of the extensive tour was riding uphill to a viewpoint over the Acropolis that we would never have found or thought of seeking out otherwise! Taking the tour in the evening meant we didn’t have the sun beating down on us although it was still uncomfortably hot at times.

Exhausted from a long day by the time the tour finished just after 10pm, we decided to head straight back to the hotel and continue our exploration of the city bright and early the next day.

In the museum of the Ancient Agora

Day 2 we ate breakfast at the hotel and caught the metro to the Monastiraki area of the city from where we would be spending most of the day visiting the city’s many archaeological sites. We had pre-purchased a combo-ticket giving us access to a variety of sites and we began with a visit to Kerameikos, the site of an ancient cemetery and well worth a visit if you have plenty of time in the city.

After spending some time exploring the ruins here, we walked the short distance to the Ancient Agora, one of the most important – and larger – archaeological sites in the city and a must see. The site includes a small – and thankfully air-conditioned – museum on its site and we spent a good few hours wandering through ruins of the old market area and up to the Temple of Hephaestus, one of the best preserved temples in the city, still with its roof intact.

The Temple of Hephaestus at the Ancient Agora

There was little shade from the midday sun at the Ancient Agora site so when we left, we decided it was time for an ice cream from one of the many cafes and stores lining the streets of the Monastiraki district.

Once we’d cooled down a bit, we walked to the third site on our combo ticket, Hadrian’s Library, the Roman ruins of a library created by Roman Emperor Hadrian. This was much smaller site than the Ancient Agora and didn’t take long to walk around. Close by was the site of the Roman Agora, another smaller but still interesting archaeological site.

Needing a break from exploring Greek and Roman ruins, we made our way back to the Plaka district where we came across the Church of Panagia Kapnikarea, one of the oldest churches in Athens. From here, we found ourselves in a more modern area of Athens, Ermou Street, a typical high street lined with all the usual stores. After visiting a few stores – mainly for the aircon! – and grabbing a drink from McDonalds, we found ourselves at the other end of Ermou Street in Syntagma Square.

Above, one of the oldest churches in Athens, and below, watching the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Passing the pretty square with its central fountain, we made our way towards the Old Royal Palace where the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier lies. Traditionally-dressed palace guards constantly stand in front of the war memorial and on the hour, every hour, crowds gather as the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard takes place.

It was interesting to watch the solemn ceremony and as we wilted in our flimsy summer attire, I wondered how the soldiers coped stood in the summer heat in their heavy ceremonial garb.

Indulging in a peinirli at SMAK

After watching the Changing of the Guards ceremony, we wandered back through the Syntagma area towards Monastiraki stopping at SMAK cafe for a Peinirli or ‘pizza boat’ snack before heading back to our hotel for a few hours to rest our feet, cool down and freshen up.

Traditional entertainment at Greek night

That evening, we had booked a ‘Greek night’ – a dinner accompanied by traditional entertainment – in the Plaka district. Making our way back to Monastiraki, we wandered through the pretty, narrow streets of the Plaka and up a set of winding steps to the restaurant indicated on our dinner confirmation. Showing our confirmation to the host outside, there seemed to be some confusion after which we were eventually led up some stairs to a rooftop veranda where we were seated at a table with Acropolis views. It was not what we had expected – we had imagined the night to be some kind of group thing with everyone sat at group tables for the meal and entertainment – and when we were brought over our menus, we again showed our confirmation to check we were in the right place and to check what we could order.

Above, beginning our climb up Acropolis Hill, and below, visitng the site of the Acropolis

We were told what drinks we could have as included in our package and that we would be brought a selection of traditional starters then asked to order a main off the menu, both going with the pork souvlaki. The starters were all delicious but as our mains arrived, we could see into another part of the restaurant below where cheers and singing made us notice some kind of entertainment already going on.

Confused, we finished our mains before attracting the attention of a waiter and again questioning that we were in the right place for the package we had bought and specifically pointing out the ‘show’ part of our itinerary. After going to speak to someone, we were asked to move and lead back down the stairs and into the room where the dinner show we should have been in attendance at was in full swing! There was an empty table in the corner where we were told to sit but as we’d already eaten and food was just being served here and with everyone else at communal tables where they’d already had time to chat and get to know each other, we felt a bit out of it. We stayed for a while as traditional Greek songs were played and various dances including Zorba’s dance were performed with some audience participation (the one moment we were glad to be seated in the corner at the back out of the way!) and when we enquired about the dessert we had not yet had, we were bought a couple of baklava-style pastries on a plate but after a while, decided to leave feeling a bit like gate-crashers of a party we hadn’t been invited to!

Views from Acropolis Hill

An earlier night than planned did at least mean we were up bright and early again the next day and after another adequate hotel breakfast, we were up and out ready for a final day of sightseeing in the city. With it being early, we decided to head straight to the Acropolis thinking we might beat the crowds. We thought wrong as it turns out 9am is when most of the tour groups from the cruises come in and it was absolute mayhem!

A heavily scaffolded Temple of Olympian Zeus

Our archaeological sites combo ticket did at least mean we got to skip the lines and walk straight through the main entrance at the base of the hill and the walk up to the top wasn’t too crowded either but we soon reached the spot where the crowds entering at the ‘groups’ entrance merged with the rest of the visitors and the last few metres up to the Parthenon involved just being swept along in a throng of people while being barked at by the staff to ‘keep moving’ in a variety of languages.

Visiting the Panathenaic Stadium

The main site itself was at least large enough for the crowds to disperse across the space available so it was still easy enough to access the information boards available, get close to the ruins and take photos although there was a bit of a wait to find spaces at the viewpoints over the city below.

We then had to queue to exit the area and make our way back down the hill. It wasn’t quite what I expected and if I was to visit again I think I’d either aim for the very moment the site opens in the morning or at the very end of the day.

We still had a few archaeological sites to visit on our combo ticket so from the Acropolis we walked to the Olympieion or the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Unfortunately, the remains of the main temple here were under renovation and heavily scaffolded with just a few lone columns standing freely.

Visiting the Lyceum of Aristotles

Nearby was the Panathenaic Olympic Stadium, not included on our combo ticket but somewhere we had passed on our segway tour a few days earlier which looked interesting and worth a visit. The entrance fee to the stadium included an audio guide and rather than follow the instructions to look around the stadium as we listened, we instead found some shade to site in at the very back of the stadium and listened to the guide in one go enjoying the views over the impressive structure, site of an ancient Greek race course and host to the first modern Olympic games. The ticket also included entrance to a small on-site museum containing paraphernalia from the modern Olympics.

The Alice in Wonderland themed Little Kook cafe

The final site on our combo ticket was the Lyceum of Aristoles, a site which although it has a lot of historic significance, did not have much to see! After a quick stroll around, we caught the metro back to the Monastiraki district and from here took the short walk to the neighbourhood of Psiri, where we wanted to visit another place that had caught our eye on our segway tour of the city, Little Kook cafe.

Tucked away up a back street, this cafe spread out over multiple buildings is covered in Alice in Wonderland decorations with staff dressed as either the Mad Hatter or Alice herself. It was not the kind of place we expected to come across in the historic centre of Athens but it looked a fun place for a sweet treat. With ice cream, waffles, crepes, American-style pancakes and various delicious looking cakes on offer, it took a while to decide what to order but eventually, I went for a crepe with hazelnut spread and strawberries and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. What came when the order was served was that and so much more, marshmallows and colourful wafer pieces scattered over the creation.

Full of sugar, we waddled away from the cafe and back to Monastiraki. We had one more ‘must do’ sight on our list, a trip to the top of Mount Lycabettus, the summit of which is the highest point in the city. We had seen the hill from afar from various viewpoints around the city and now we wanted to see the city from here.

Above, the Mount Lycabettus funicular, and below, views from the top

Catching the metro to Evangelismos, the closest stop to Lycabettus, we then began our initial ascent uphill through a residential area of the city. We had no intention of hiking all the way to the top in the blistering heat but instead would be taking the funicular that ran at regular interval to the summit and back. Unfortunately, it was still quite a long, uphill walk to this point but we made it with plenty of rest stops along the way.

Once aboard the funicular railway, we were at the top in no time. It was relatively quiet at the summit and easy to find room to sit and admire the 360 degree views. Also at the top was a small church which we visited and a restaurant and bar for anyone that wanted to extend their stay.

Having taken all our photos of the city from above, we caught then funicular back down to the station and walked back downhill to the station, catching the metro back to our hotel for a well-deserved rest before heading back out for dinner in the Monastiriaki area.

The next day, although we would once again be staying in Athens, we would be taking an excursion out to the Saronic Islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina and the following day we had an early ferry out to our next stop, the island of Naxos so for now, our time in Athens had come to an end. Despite the often stifling heat, we had managed to cram a lot into our stay. I had really liked the city of Athens and would love to visit again some day.

Visiting the South of France – a day trip to Nice

Won back in 2019, our prize of a 5* trip of a lifetime to Cannes in the South of France had been a long time coming with various lockdowns and travel bans forcing us to cancel and reschedule multiple times in the intervening years but we had finally made it and after walking up in our luxurious 5* hotel room at the Five Seas Hotel, we were excited to see what was on offer at our included breakfast.

Once up in the rooftop breakfast room, we were not disappointed as we were greeted enthusiastically by courteous staff, shown to a table with views across to the Cannes sign in Le Suquet district, poured fresh juices and handed a menu each. On our table already lay two baskets, one full of fresh bread – crusty chunks of white French stick and slices of a seeded bread – the other filled with delicious pastries. Further to this, the menu contained a wide range of options from cereals to cheeses and meats, fruit and hot, egg-based options. Not wanting to come across greedy, we ordered a selection of cheeses between us to eat with our bread and a cheese omelette each with a side of bacon. The staff seemed surprised that this was all we wanted so my friend added an order of the salmon to eat with her bread and I added a bowl of fruit to my order along with a pot of tea.

The bright blue sea

Waiting for our choices to arrive, we munched on the light, flaky Pain au Chocolate pastries. As each of our courses arrived, we were running out of room on our table. Everything that arrived was just as delicious as the course before it from the tasty selection of hard and soft cheeses to what we both agreed was the best cheese omelette we had ever tasted. The fruit salad that followed, full to the brim with fruits including apple, kiwi and pineapple finished it off perfectly.

Fontaine de Soleil

We were on a schedule that morning having booked onto a walking tour of Nice, a 40-minute train ride from where we were staying in Cannes. With the Cannes train station being just a short stroll from our hotel, we had just enough time to return to our room and grab what we needed for the day before heading straight out.

Above, Nice Opera House, and below, my travel mascot, Mr Ted, visits the old sweet shop, Henri Auer

At the station, the ticket machines were easy to navigate and the station platforms well-signposted. The train followed the coastline offering beautiful views of sandy beaches and blue seas as we made our way into Nice. Unfortunately, it was an overcast day with rain forecast later. Pulling into Nice station, we followed google maps to the main shopping street, Avenue Jean Medecin, from where it was about a 20 minute walk down to the seafront.

Arriving early for our tour, we took at stroll through Jardin de Albert 1er, a small urban park dotted with sculptures, and along the sea front where I was surprised by the bright blue colour of the sea, before making our way back to the Fontaine du Soleil meeting point.

After admiring the fountain, which is dedicated to Greek god Apollo, we followed our guide into Nice’s old town stopping to hear about the old sweet store, Henri Auer, and the Nice Opera House before continuing to Marche Aux Fleurs, a bustling market selling flowers and food. From here we made our way to Place du Palais de Justice, a square in the old town in front of the courthouse and then to Place Rosetti where Nice Cathedral stands.

Enjoying views from Castle Hill

Our guides then led us along some more of the winding, narrow old town streets until we were back out at the far end of the seafront. Here, we took an elevator up Colline du Chateau or Castle Hill where the Castle of Nice once stood. Now, the hill is parkland with a cafe, children’s playgrounds and beautiful views over Nice.

Unfortunately, the occasional drizzle had now turned to heavy showers but while the views did not look much like the blue-skied picture in a complimentary postcard we were given, it was still pretty spectacular and our guides explained that the bright turquoise colour of the sea was caused by large grey stones on its seabed.

Above, and below, the man-made waterfall on Castle Hill

After visiting three viewpoints on Castle Hill, one of which looked across to the port on the east side of the town, our tour came to an end leaving us to find our own way back down to the centre of Nice. Before taking the elevator back down, we took the short walk to see the man-made waterfall built into the hill and visible from the fountain we started at.

Back down at the seafront

Back down on the seafront, the rain was getting heavier so we decided to shelter at one of the bars along the promenade ordering a few snacks to keep us going. The rain stopping again, we headed back out walking back through the old town and exploring more of its narrow streets lined with shops, cafes and restaurants.

Eventually, we ended up back out in the main town where we walked along Promenade du Paillon back to Fontaine du Soleil. With the rain once again getting heavier, we headed back into the old town and found a cafe to sit in and have drinks before looking for somewhere to eat dinner.

Place Massena, the square that is home to Fontaine du Soleil

With Nice once being part of Italy before joining France, there is a heavy Italian influence in the restaurants there. We had passed many lovely looking restaurants in the old town over the course of the day but now found many of them to be closed until around 7pm – by which time we had to be making our way back to the train station – so unfortunately, we had to settle for one of the more touristy restaurants near to the market area.

After dinner, we started our walk back to the train station only for a heavy rainstorm to set in. We arrived at the station soaking wet and were glad when we got back to Cannes and our hotel to dry out and warm up! It was a shame the weather had not been on our side today but we had still enjoyed our trip to Nice and our walking tour of the city. We had one full day of our trip to the South of France left and planned to use it to visit Monaco and we were both hoping that the weather forecast for a return to sunshine the next day would be correct!

A Liverpool City Break

Liverpool was one of those UK cities I’d been to multiple times but never really seen anymore than my hotel room and the concert arena due to always being short on time. Visiting again on a pre-Christmas concert break, I was determined that this time would be different. Despite having just the one night in the city, we had made plans to drive up early so we could have most of the day exploring the city.

Arriving too early to check in at our hotel near the docks, we dropped our bags off and walked straight into the city centre.

Road trip to Liverpool!

Our first stop was at Liverpool One, the city’s large outdoor mall for a spot of shopping. The mall has all the usual high street stores and a range of well-known restaurants on its top level. After working up an appetite shopping, that was exactly where we headed, settling on Zizzi Italian restaurant a pizza and pasta lunch.

Liverpool One shopping centre

After lunch we wandered further into the city towards the Cavern Quarter. Passing the city’s famous Hard Days Night Hotel (where I’d had an excellent afternoon tea on a previous visit to the city!), we found our way to Matthew Street, home of historic live music venue, The Cavern Club.

Turning into the street, we were met by themed bar after themed bar and with the Cavern Pub and Cavern Restaurant also bearing the famous bar’s name, it took us a while to work out which venue was the one we were looking for!

Inside the Cavern Club

Finally spotting the Cavern Bar’s entrance across the street, we paid our £5 entrance fee and began our walk down the staircase to the basement, stopping to view some of the pictures lining the walls showing some familiar (and in some cases unexpected) faces who had performed there over the years. The bar was a lot smaller than I’d expected it to be with low ceilings and stone walls. We spent a bit of time looking around finding a larger, more open room with a stage at the back of the venue and a smaller but busier room at the front.

The main stage at the Cavern Club

Memorabilia from the Beatles’ career as well as from other famous rock and pop acts covered the walls and a gift store sold a range of Beatles and Liverpool-themed souvenirs while Beatles’ hits were performed by live acts in each room.

After buying drinks from the bar, we found a free table in the smaller room. The structure of the room with its archways and stone pillars meant there wasn’t a clear view of the stage from many of the tables but video screens dotted around showed a view of the stage and it didn’t matter too much anyway as there was such a great atmosphere as everyone sang along to the Beatles’ and other popular 1960s’ hits.

Highlights of the afternoon included mass singalongs to Let It Be and Hey Jude and after the latter, the singer took a well-earned break. We decided that was our cue to leave having spent a lot longer there than we had planned to!

Above, and below, down by the docks and the Liverpool Tate

Before heading off to explore more of the city, we stopped to get photos with the sculpture of John Lennon outside the Cavern Pub and then went on a search for the Cilla Black sculpture. Unable to find it where google maps said it should be, we stopped to ask a local who informed us it had been temporarily removed for renovation. Guess we’ll have to return to see that one another time.

We’ll also have to return to visit the Beatles Museum. Spending longer than planned in the Cavern Club meant we didn’t have time for this, or any other, museum.

Albert Dock and the Wheel of Liverpool behind it

Retracing our steps back through the Cavern Quarter and through Liverpool One, we made our way towards Liverpool’s docks area. Passing Salthouse Dock, we walked along Hartley Quay, past the Maritime Museum and towards the Tate Liverpool where a giant colourful sculpture stood aloft outside.

It was now early evening and after stopping for windswept photos beside Albert Dock, we took a stroll around it passing the currently quiet cafes, bars and restaurants. With the winter sun already going down, the dock was lit up with lots of twinkly lights. We were hoping to end our day with a ride on the Wheel of Liverpool, the city’s equivalent of the London Eye but despite it being a Friday evening and the city filling up with weekend visitors, it was closed.

The view across the Mersey from Kings Dock

So instead, after enjoying the sunset views across the River Mersey, we returned to our nearby hotel to get ready for our concert over at the M & S Bank Arena at King’s Dock.

It had been a brief but fun trip to the city and it was nice to finally spend some time there being a tourist but there was so much more to see and do and I’m really looking forward to returning.

A family trip around the World – Sydney

Upgraded to a penthouse apartment

I was half way through a 3-week trip around the World with my parents, my brother and sister-in-law. So far, we’d spent a few days exploring Melbourne and the surrounding area before heading to the sunshine of tropical Queensland for a relaxing stay in Port Douglas, just north of Cairns. Now we were on the final part of the Australia leg of our trip, a few nights in Sydney before we flew to the USA.

We flew from Cairns Airport into Sydney late-morning, arriving mid-afternoon and got a maxi-taxi to our apartment at World Tower, situated somewhere between Museum station and Darling Harbour.

A stroll to Darling Harbour

We were delighted to find upon checking in that we’d upgraded to a Penthouse apartment and when we walked in to find a spacious, modern, 3-bedroom apartment with beautiful views over the city.

That afternoon, we stayed in the local area visiting the Coles supermarket in the mall beneath our apartment block and taking a stroll to the nearby Darling Harbour that evening.

Stopping at a viewpoint on our tour – Sydney skyline in the distance

The next day, we had a tour booked to the beach cities of north Sydney. Our reason for booking this tour was that it’s main stop was at Palm Beach, the filming location for long-running Aussie soap, Home and Away. Both my parents and my brother were fans of the show and after looking into it, we decided taking a small group tour would be a hassle-free way of getting there rather than attempting pubic transport involving multiple buses.

Arriving at ‘Summer Bay’, the lighthouse in the distance

We were met by our tour guide outside our apartment block and boarded the minibus along with a few other passengers then set off driving across Sydney Harbour Bridge as we headed north out of the city. Along the way to Palm Beach, we made multiple stops, first at a view point from where we could see Sydney’s skyline in the distance then at a small cove which we were told was once used for filming in the soap then it was on to ‘Summer Bay’ itself.

Above, and below Palm Beach aka Summer Bay in Home and Away

As we arrived, it was clear from the various vans and RVs parked everywhere that filming was taking place that day, making my parents very excited. We were told that the cast were usually happy to take photos with fans between filming and given tips on the best place to go to see filming take place or meet the cast then we were given a time to meet back at the van to pick up our lunch and sent off to explore.

We headed straight for the beach, strolling along the golden sands before taking photos with Summer Bay Surf Club then walked along the path behind the beach spotting a few cast members setting up to film a short scene. After watching them film, we continued along the path, bumping into a couple of the other passengers from our tour who told us they had just met a few cast member and pointing us in the direction they had come from. Sure enough, just down the path was a winnebago with cast members stood in front of it happily meeting and greeting fans. My parents recognised the actors and managed to get photos with them, making their day!

It was then time to pick up lunch from the van – chicken, salad and bread – and we set out on picnic benches all discussing who we’d managed to see so far.

Manly Beach, the last stop on our tour

After lunch, we had some more free time so we wondered down to the beach on the east side of the penninsula where ‘Alf’s Bait Shop’ and the pier is situated. We’d been told that the bait shop sometimes opened as a souvenir store but unfortunately, it was closed today. After taking photos on the jetty, we walked back to the main beach were we found more filming going on, this time on the beach. We had a bit of time left so watched them film for a while before it was time to wave ‘Summer Bay’ goodbye and return to the minibus.

The final stop on our Northern Beaches tour was at Manly Beach. Manly is just a short ferry ride from Sydney Harbour and our tour included ferry tickets so we could spend as much time as we liked at Manly Beach then catch the ferry back to Sydney after.

Above, on the boat back to Sydney, and below, back at Circular Quay

After spending some time at the beach then walking down Manly Corso for some souvenir shopping and ice cream, we caught the ferry back arriving in Sydney Harbour just as the sun started to go down. This was my parents, brother and sister-in-laws’ first glimpse of Sydney Harbour and the Opera House so we spent a bit of time wandering around Circular Quay before walking through Sydney back to our apartment early evening.

The bridge at sunset, and below, enjoying a day at Bondi Beach

It had been a long day and my parents were tired and decided to stay in that evening so the three of us decided to take another walk to Darling Harbour and along to Star Casino before returning to our apartment.

Despite it being the Australian winter, the next day was warm (for us Brits at least!) and sunny so we decided to head to the coast and the most famous of Australia’s beaches, Bondi.

Catching a bus from our apartment to Bondi Beach, we spent the day relaxing on the relatively quiet long stretch of sand and playing in the waves to cool off.

That evening, we took a stroll to Circular Quay and The Rocks area by the Harbour Beach to see the bridge and Opera House all lit up.

Skyline views from the Botanic Gardens

On our final day in the city – and in Australia – we split up with my brother and sister-in-law going shopping and exploring by themselves while my parents and I caught the Sydney Hop On/Off Bus to do some last minute sightseeing.

At Mrs Macquaries Point, and below, exploring the Botanic Gardens

Hopping off at the Botanic Gardens, we walked past colourful flower displays overlooked by the towering city skyline and then along to the sea wall to Mrs Macquaries Point to get photos with both the Harbour Bridge and Opera House in shot. Then, we walked back along the sea wall towards the Opera House, dodging the many joggers that were out in their office lunch break!

Above, driving under the Harbour Bridge on our tour of Sydney, and below more sightseeing on the hop on/off bus

Hopping back on the bus, we completed our tour of the city before walking back from Circular Quay to our apartment just in time to watch the sunset over the city.

With it being our last night in Australia, we decided to eat out rather than cook so that evening we walked to a nearby Italian restaurant and sat reminiscing about our trip so far before taking another stroll down to Darling Harbour.

Taking my family with me on a trip to Australia, sharing some of my favourite places and discovering new things with them had been a lot of fun and we were all sad to be saying goodbye to this amazing country. But our adventures weren’t quite over yet, we had one more stop to make, this time in the city of Los Angeles in the USA!

Milan

One of the last trips I took last year before everything shut down and freedom to travel became a thing of the past, was a short city break to the Italian city of Milan. It was right on the cusp of Corona Virus getting a grip and at the time, all those things that we’ve now grown accustomed to – arriving to temperature checks and seeing many members of the public masking up on public transport etc – seemed a bit of a novelty. Milan and its neighbouring areas later became a hotspot for the virus in Italy and a week later I found myself to be the subject of a debate at work as to whether, having recently visited the area, I needed to be sent home or not! I wasn’t, if you’re wondering, but had I been sent home, it would have been worth it for what was a great short break away.

That was my third trip to Milan but only the second of which was planned in advance having once found myself stuck there for a day unable to get a train out of the city to Florence, and while it has never been my favourite Italian city to visit, it still has plenty to offer for a short break.

Closed designer stores – August in Milan

Picking when to visit Milan can have a huge effect on impressions of the city. Being a teacher, my first visit was in August during the main summer break and as part of a longer, city-hopping trip to Italy. What we didn’t realise was that in August, with the heat in the city, many of the businesses there close down as everyone takes off to the nearby Italian lakes. We had trouble finding any restaurants open other than the touristy ones in the centre and many of the designer stores had ‘closed until September’ signs in their windows. The whole city felt like a bit of a ghost town!

Walking towards Sforza Castle in Milan

On that first trip to Milan, I stayed at a small hotel on the edge of the Zona Buenos Aires area. From here, we were able to walk to all the main sites and, choosing to use the hop on/off tour bus as well, found we didn’t need to use the public transport system at all.

On my most recent visit, as we were visiting the city for a concert, we stayed further out of the city towards the arena in the Morivione district. As Milan has an excellent and easy to navigate metro system, this didn’t hinder our sightseeing at all as trains into the city centre were regular and quick.

The impressive Milan Duomo

The main must-see attraction in Milan, and in my opinion, worth the trip alone, is the stunning Duomo di Milano or Milan Cathedral. No matter how often I see this impressive building, the elaborate facade with its intricate carvings never fails to take my breath away. Entrance to the cathedral is by ticket only and these can be purchased online or on the day from the nearby, well-signposted ticket office.

If you have plenty of time, then buy a combo ticket allowing you entry into the church, archaeological area, museum and rooftops.

On a clear day, the views over Milan from the rooftops are pretty good and it’s interesting to be able to get a bit closer to the gargoyles and other carvings decorating the cathedral’s exterior. My visit to the rooftop last February, on a surprisingly warm and sunny day, was punctuated by hearing sharp blows on the guards’ whistles as they reminded visitors to be respectful and not treat it as a rooftop terrace to sunbathe on!

I followed my visit with a trip to the nearby Duomo Museum which houses various artefacts and original works of art from the Cathedral.

Piazza del Duomo

The busy Piazza del Duomo in front of the Cathedral is a bit of a tourist attraction in itself with crowds fighting for the best spot to get a photo of the Cathedral and paying locals for bird seed to feed the square’s famously friendly pigeons. Its also home to various touristy bars and restaurants which, while not as expensive as I was expecting, unsurprisingly don’t offer the best food you are going to find in the city. Around the square, you’ll also find a few high street stores.

Above, and below, a visit to Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

If it’s designer shopping you want then Milan is definitely the place to go. The elegant Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, said to be one of the World’s oldest shopping malls, is full of designer fashion boutiques and, even if the prices are out of your budget, its fun to window shop. The mall is home to a range of bars and restaurants too and we enjoyed a delicious pizza lunch at Sorbillo restaurant followed by gelato from Venchi!

Milan is also home to the famous opera theatre, La Scala. If you want to see a performance here, it’s best to book in advance. Guided tours of building can also be taken.

La Scala Opera House

While not the most obvious place to visit in Italy if it’s museums you’re after, Milan still has plenty to offer with many small galleries and exhibits to visit. The most famous work of art found in the city is Da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper. Tickets are needed to view the painting and often sell out well in advance. On all my visits, I’ve left it too late to book and have yet to get a ticket to visit.

Above, and below, exploring Sforza Castle

The Sforza Castle complex is home to a variety of museums all housed inside the 15th century building. It is free to visit the castle complex itself but there is a small fee for a ticket to visit the museums, the price of which depends on which rooms and exhibits you want to explore.

One of the museums is the Museum of Pietà Rondanini Michelangelo displaying Michelangelo’s last piece of work, the Rondanini Pietà, an unfinished marble sculpture.

Arco della Pace at the entrance to Parco Sempione

Parco Sempione, with its impressive archway entrance, lies directly to the rear of Sforza Castle and is also worth a wander through if you are in the area. Other pretty parks in the city include Giardini Indro Montanelli, Milan’s pretty public gardens.

On my last visit to the city, we found ourselves in the Navigli district, an area of the city we had not visited before.

Above, and below, contrasting daylight/nighttime visits to the Navigli area

The Navigli are a system of canals. Currently, bars and restaurants line the walkways along the edge of the canals. We first visited in the evening. The area was lively but with a great atmosphere as people sat out enjoying drinks and aperitivo. After wandering round for while and stopping for a few drinks, we chose one of the many restaurants to eat at.

We returned to the Navigli district the following morning to find it just as busy with people shopping and sat out at the cafes enjoying the sunshine. It was definitely a fun place of the city to visit!

There’s still plenty of things for me to do and see in Milan and I look forward to the next time I find myself in this exciting city.

24 hours in Boston

Ending our 5-week road trip with a day in Boston, MA

After 5 weeks on the road, it was time to say goodbye to our trusty hire car. Pulling up at the Alamo terminus at Boston Logan International Airport, we scrambled to get everything we needed from the various compartments of our vehicle before making our way to catch the free shuttle from the car rental centre to the main terminals.

Swan Boats docked for the evening in Boston Public Gardens

Then we hopped on to the Silver Line bus to shuttle us into the city. With it being early evening, traffic into the city was heavy but we eventually made it to Boston’s South Station, transferring here onto the Red Line to reach our Back Bay area hotel.

All checked in and not wanting to completely waste the evening, we went for a walk finding ourselves in the Boston Common-adjacent Boston Public Gardens.

George Washington statue in Boston Public Gardens

The sun was starting to set and the sky was a beautiful red colour as we wandered through the grounds past the Swan Boats all docked for the evening and then out of the park past the George Washington statue. We then walked along Newbury Street down to Copley Place stopping to grab a drink and a snack before looping back round to our hotel.

Leaving Boston Harbour

The next day, we had a late night flight out of the city back to the UK meaning we had the full day to enjoy in the city. Having both been to Boston before – this was my third stay in the city – we’d seen a lot of the main sights before. So, wanting to do something a bit different, we had pre-booked a whale watching trip with Boston Harbor Cruises.

The Boston skyline disappearing in the distance

Getting up and out early, we made a pit stop at a Starbucks for breakfast then walked through the city past Boston Common following the Freedom Trail markers down to Boston Harbour. Arriving at the harbour area a little are than needed, we took a stroll along the waterfront until it was time to check in for our tour and board our boat.

It was a large boat and we took a seat inside by the window, staying put for the first few minutes as we left the harbour, a commentary from one of the crew members explaining to us all how the morning would run and a little about what we could see looking back at the Boston skyline.

We soon decided to make the most of the beautiful weather and head up to the open deck where we could move about more freely and enjoy the skyline views unobstructed.

Everyone trying to get a glimpse of our first whale.

As we moved further and further away from the city, our guide continued to give us information on our surroundings and we when far enough out to sea, we eventually slowed to begin our search for whales. Even without the excitement of spotting some marine life, it was the perfect weather for just cruising out at sea watching the World go by. But as it turned out, we didn’t have long to wait before our first whale spotting.

A whale in the distance

Suddenly everyone onboard seemed to be out on the top deck as we all tried to find a space to get a look at our first whale of the day! Luckily, it was the first of many sightings and we even came across a pod of whales floating at the surface as they enjoyed the sunshine before seemingly showing off to us waving their fins and splashing around!

After spending some time watching these magnificent creatures, it was time to turn around and make our way back to Boston harbour. It had been a really exciting way to spend the morning though and we were really glad we’d decided to book the activity.

With a few more hours to spare, we walked to Boston’s Hard Rock Cafe for a late lunch then followed the Freedom Trail markers back towards Boston Common stopping to look around in Quincy Market and passing Boston landmarks including Faneuil Hall and the Old State House.

Arriving back into Boston Harbour

Finally finding ourselves back at Boston Common, we enjoyed the last bit of sunshine before walking back to our hotel to collect our luggage and making our way back to Logan Airport ready to fly back to the UK.

It didn’t feel like 5 weeks had gone since we arrived in Miami.

The Old State House

Since then we’d certainly had a lot of adventures – my first ever trip to Walt Disney World, exploring Savannah, visiting Charleston and Congaree National Park in South Carolina state, learning about the history of Coca Cola in Atlanta, line dancing the night away in Nashville, encountering black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoying the beautiful views along Blue Ridge Parkway, segwaying in Washington DC, visiting Baltimore city, returning to New York, enjoying a sunset sail in Rhode Island, becoming a Junior Range at Acadia National Park in Maine, visiting New Hampshire’s White Mountains and learning all about ice cream production at the Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour in Vermont to name just a few.

While I was sad to say goodbye for now, with a few more States still to tick off and plenty more to see, I knew it wouldn’t be long until I returned for another epic trip.

An East Coast road trip: NYC

Spending 3 nights in New York City

We’d been on the road in the USA for weeks travelling through Florida with visits to Miami and Disney World, on to Savannah, GA, up through the state of South Carolina to visit Charleston and Congaree National Park, on to Atlanta, GA, into Tennessee to visit Nashville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway, through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, spent a day in Washington DC before arriving in Baltimore, MD. Now, it was off to New York City and after a stressful drive through New Jersey state, we were breathing a huge sigh of relief to finally arrive at our motel accommodation in Jersey City, just across the river from Manhattan.

It was already late afternoon and we had evening plans in the city – tickets booked for the sunset hours at Top of the Rock, one of the three observations decks to choose from in New York City.

The view of downtown Manhattan from the Top of the Rock observation deck

Now we just had to find our way to the nearest New Jersey Transit station and catch the PATH train the few stops into Manhattan. Sounded simple enough and we’d researched train times, routes to get to midtown and where to get tickets from. What we hadn’t prepared for, was rail works meaning the line we needed to get to midtown was closed. This, coupled with there being less trains because of the Sunday service timetable, put us into a bit of a panic that we wouldn’t make our Top of the Rock timeslot!

The only trains running into Manhattan were running to the World Trade Centre in downtown Manhattan which meant we’d then have to catch a subway train up to the Rockefeller Centre. Luckily, I’d spent enough time in New York over the years (this would be my 10th visit to the city) that I was pretty familiar with the transport system.

On the Top of the Rock observation deck overlooking Central Park

The platform at the New Jersey stop was extremely busy but when the train arrived, we managed to squeeze on. We were given free transfer tickets to use on the subway at the other end to make up for the inconvenience and were soon on our way on the uptown line to the Rockefeller Centre. From here, we quickly found our way to the Top of the Rock entrance just in time for our timed entry slot.

Top of the Rock has always been my favourite of the three observation decks on offer in New York. There’s more space on the viewing decks than the Empire State Building and I prefer the view, especially as you get the iconic Empire State Building in your pictures. I also prefer my observation decks to have an outdoor viewing area so you can avoid glare from windows in your photos, something the Freedom Tower’s observation deck lacks. Historically, I’d always found Top of the Rock to be the quietest of the three attractions too and had never had to fight my way into a space to take a photo.

That was until tonight anyway. Whether it was because we’d booked one of the sunset viewing slots or because it was a just a busy Sunday summer evening,I had never seen so many people up there! It made our visit a lot less relaxed than my previous visits had been and we stayed for less time than we probably would have done otherwise.

Despite the crowds, the views from the top were as amazing as ever.

After our Top of the Rock visit, the only thing on our mind was food. We had originally planned to eat before our Top of the Rock timeslot but our delays driving through New Jersey followed by the train problems getting into Manhattan meant we didn’t have time. It was late and we didn’t really want to hop on a subway to a different part of the city but Times Square was busy and everywhere we looked at either had queues or, predictably, an overpriced menu. So instead, we decided to catch the train back to New Jersey figuring we’d be able to find something once back there.

The view of Manhattan from the Statue of Liberty Pedestal

With the train delays, it took us a while to get back and once we did, we found the malls we had passed walking to the station earlier closed for the night along with the restaurants. Luckily, the McDonalds not too far from our motel was still open so we resorted to grabbing some fast food from there to satisfy us.

The next morning, the trains were back to running as normal so after breakfast, we walked to the station to head into Manhattan. Despite it being my tenth visit to the city, there is always something new to experience and I like to make sure I always do something I haven’t done before.

This time, I would be returning to Liberty Island to visit the iconic Statue of Liberty but for the first time, actually going inside the statue. Despite visiting Liberty Island twice before, I’d always had an island only ticket so not even been as far in as the pedestal which the statue stands on.

Once in downtown Manhattan, we made our way to Battery Park to catch the ferry across, enjoying the skyline views as we looked back at the city. Our tickets this time, gave us access to the crown of the statue and we knew there were a lot of steps to climb to reach this so, with some trepidation, we handed our tickets in at the entrance to the pedestal and began our climb. There was an option to take an elevator to the pedestal for anyone who didn’t want to climb the entire up but we decided to walk it taking our time and enjoying the views whilst catching our breath once we reached the lookout point.

Then, from the pedestal, we began our climb up to the crown. It was a strange feeling being inside the huge statue and being able to make out the shape of the the gown as we climbed up through the hollow structure. The stirs got narrower the further we climbed and when we finally reached the crown, the viewing deck there was extremely compact meaning we didn’t feel comfortable spending a lot of time there. After a quick chat with the park ranger who told us a bit about the statue and what we could see, we took a few photos of the view and what was visible of the structure itself and then began our descent. It was a really interesting experience getting to climb up inside the statue and if you can manage the 354 steps to the crown (or just 162 from the pedestal if you use the elevator!) then I’d definitely recommend going up there!

After our climb, we caught the ferry over to Ellis Island where the Immigration Museum stands. Having both visited the museum previous trips, we opted to stay on the ferry and continue back to Manhattan.

That afternoon, we had plans to meet up with a friend from the Trek America Northern states tour we’d done, a New York native. Our meeting point was the amazing Grand Central Station and from here we made our way to Washington Square Park, one of those places I had passed many times over the years but never actually stopped at. The small park was buzzing as groups sat around the central fountain. Walking out of the park under its large, marble arch, we made our way towards Nolita. We were in search of ice cream and our friend recommended the area’s Milk Bar, a ‘hole in the wall’ dessert shop specialising in milk flavoured products. Here, I tried their ‘cereal milk’ flavoured ice cream, supposed to taste like the milk left in the bottom of the bowl after a bowl of sugary cereal. I was a little unsure after my first taste – the smell was more of sour milk than cereal milk! – but found myself quite enjoying it by the time I took my last spoonful!!

From Nolita, we strolled west into Greenwich Village to find the ‘Friends apartment’ – the building used for the exterior, between-scene shots in the famous comedy show. Being a huge fan of the series, I’d visited before but my friend hadn’t so we thought we’d stop by while we weren’t too far away.

Downtown views from a pier along Hudson River Park

After taking a few photos with the building, we continued west along to the Hudson River Park, the pedestrianised greenway which runs north to south along the west side of Manhattan. Strolling along the walkway and along some of its piers, we paused to take photos of the views across the river and of the downtown skyline as the sun started to dip.

The sun setting over the River Hudson

In need of some proper food, we then walked in land again towards Chelsea Market. The market is known for its abundance of food stalls but with so much on offer, we couldn’t settle on anything. Deciding to see what else the area had to offer, we eventually decided to grab some typical New York pizza from a local pizzeria before heading back across the Hudson River to our New Jersey motel.

Interviewing my travel mascot, Mr Ted, at the NBC Studios

We had one more day left in the city and plenty more to pack in. First up was a trip back to the Rockefeller Centre where this time, we’d be visiting the NBC Studios. I love doing the studio tours in LA and while I knew there wasn’t a lot in the way of films and major TV shows filmed here, I’m a fan of old skool Saturday Night Live and mainly wanted to see the studio it is filmed in. The studio, and that used for Jimmy Fallon’s late night chat show, were so much smaller than they appear on TV!

Despite not being familiar with a great deal of the shows mentioned by our guide, it was still really interesting to get a look inside both of these studios as well as a news studio and various other production areas.

Off to shop at Bloomingdales

From the Rockefeller Centre, we headed uptown, popping to Bloomingdales for a bit of shopping and then Dylan’s Candy Bar for some souvenirs and snacks to keep us going on the road for the next few days! It was almost lunch time and while we knew we wanted to eat at the always entertaining but rather touristy Ella’s Stardust Diner that evening, we also really wanted to visit Serendipity, a New York restaurant that had been on my places to visit list for years but I hadn’t yet made it to!

Visiting Serendipity

What we really wanted to try was it’s frozen hot chocolate but after being seated in the quirky dining room, we noticed there was a minimum charge per person that was quite a bit higher than the cost of the frozen hot chocolate between us would have been.

We debated just leaving but really wanting to try the famous dessert, eventually found settled on a plate of fries to share and a drink to just tip is over the minimum spend once the frozen hot chocolate was added in.

It was worth it as the dessert was delicious, like a huge, extremely cold, chocolate milkshake!

After demolishing the delicious dessert, we started to work it off by walking to Central Park where we spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the sunshine.

While in the park, we made sure to tick off our favourite park highlights including some of the bronze statues, the boating pond, the lake, Bow Bridge and Bethesda Fountain.

Above, and below, dinner at Ella’s Stardust diner

After all that walking, we were soon hungry again so made our way out of the park and back towards Times Square to visit the nearby Ella’s Stardust Diner. A complete contrast to the small, cute surrounding of Serendipity earlier, Ella’s Diner is a huge, loud diner where the waitstaff are all Broadway wannabes who sing to entertain you as you eat. It’s always great fun and this time was no different.

After dinner, we walked to Times Square to take some last minute photos of the bright lights. You can;t visit New York without taking in a show so we finished our trip to the city at the theatre watching Frozen on Broadway.

Heading back to our New Jersey motel, I was sad to once again say goodbye to the bright lights and noise of the city. We’d crammed a lot in to our short visit but there was lots we hadn’t got round to. Hopefully sometime in the future I can return again. For now it was back on the road ready to visit some of the states of New England.

An East Coast Road Trip to Washington DC

I was about half way through a self-planned 5 week US road trip. Starting in Florida with a few days in Miami followed by a trip to Walt Disney World, we had since visited Savannah GA, South Carolina state, Atlanta GA, Nashville and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, both in Tennessee, before heading into North Carolina to drive Blue Ridge Parkway and Virginia to visit Shenandoah National Park.

Going to the zoo

After a long day cruising along the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah, we were now heading east to Washington DC for 2 nights in the capital city. It would not be my first visit to DC. It had actually been the second US city I’d ever visited after a few trips to New York in my early days of travelling. That time, I had spent 5 days there fitting in as much sight seeing as possible and I had returned for a 2-night visit as part of my coast to coast Southern States tour with Trek America, filling in some of the gaps by visiting a few museums and monuments that I’d not made it to before.

This time, it was more of a ‘revisiting a favourite city’ type trip where we hoped to return to some city highlights and explore a bit further.

Leaving Shenandoah late afternoon meant we arrived in DC just as the main brunt of rush hour traffic started to ease but it was still busy and navigating our way from the interstate into Arlington where our motel was located, was a pretty nerve-wracking experience! As night was falling, we settled into our room and went for a pizza dinner at a local restaurant before calling it a night.

At the National Museum of American History

The next morning, we were up early to walk to Rosslyn metro station, catching the subway across the Potomac into Washington DC and along to the first stop of the day, Washington Zoo. I had visited the zoo here before on my first trip to the city but my travel buddy hadn’t and wanted to see one of the pandas having never seen one in the flesh before. As one of the Smithsonian-run attractions in the city, entrance to the zoo is free meaning we didn’t feel like we had to spend a lot of time there getting our money’s worth. The plan was to get there, find a panda and leave!

Of course, we ended up staying there a bit longer than planned as we got distracted by some of the other animals on our way to the panda enclosure and then by the gift store after. We also spent a lot more time than planned watching the pandas as they played with plastic crates in their indoor areas or just lolled around looking cute!

Back in the centre of the city by the Mall, we walked to the White House to take photos and then to the National Monument. Normally, we would have applied for the free tickets to go up to the viewing platform at the top but on this visit, the monument was closed for repairs.

Two new Junior Ranger badges to add to the collection!

Instead, we walked along the Mall towards some of the many museums. Across my visits to the city, I have visited many of the Smithsonian Museums including the Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Natural History Museum but my favourite is the National Museum of American History with its popular culture displays which, in the past, have included the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz film and various muppet characters.

While I was disappointed to find the Ruby Slippers weren’t currently on display, we still found plenty to keep us interested for a while.

Next, we walked back to the White House Visitor Centre which contains exhibits about, and artefacts from, the White House itself. Here, we requested Junior Ranger booklets from one of the park rangers and spent some time exploring and filling our booklets in before returning our booklets to earn not just one, but two Junior Ranger badges!!

On a segway adventure

We had booked a segway tour of the monuments for the evening so, realising it was getting late, we decided to head in the direction of the meeting point for our tour and to look for somewhere nearby to have dinner. We caught the subway up towards the Dupont Circle area. Struggling to really find any suitable restaurants, we settled for a gourmet burger diner. Finding ourselves ahead of schedule, we then walked down to the Lincoln Memorial.

We assumed we would pass this again later as part of our tour but thought it would be good to take photos while it was daylight as it would be dark by the time we returned.

Back at the White House

We then returned to the segway company headquarters in time to check in for our evening tour. After checking in and filling out the various forms, we had a quick practise session on our segways. We had both ridden segways previously on a visit to Portland, Oregon and then in the city of Minneapolis on previous trips and this time, we felt like old pros settling into it straight away.

The Capitol Building

The tour was good fun and a really great way of seeing some of the city’s many monuments and memorials in a relatively short time. As I’d found out on previous visits to the city, from the National Monument the Lincoln Memorial – or in the other direction to the Capitol Building – is a LOT further than it looks but whizzing along on our segways, we were there in no time!

We began the tour with a stop at the White House for photos outside just as the sun started to set then continued along the mall past some of the museums and monuments and along to the Capitol Building.

Above, back at the Lincoln Memorial, and below, some of the sights on our segway tour

Heading back to the National Monument, we then passed the World War II Memorial before finishing off back at the Lincoln Memorial. While we had been to most of the places we stopped at before, it was nice to see the buildings, monuments and memorials all lit up at night and our guide had plenty of interesting facts and stories to keep us entertained along the way.

Our tour over, we walked back to the nearest subway station to catch the metro back across to Virginia state and walked back to our motel.

The next morning, after checking out of our motel, we drove the short distance to Arlington National Cemetery, paying our respects at the many military graves there as well as visiting the grave of President John F. Kennedy and watching the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Then, after our short but busy visit to the city, it was time to say goodbye as we began our drive into Maryland to visit the city of Baltimore.

A South Carolina Road Trip

Visiting Charleston, its surrounds and Congaree National Park

We’d been in the USA just over a week so far, already having visited Miami and spent a few days in Walt Disney World and now, after 2 nights in the beautiful city of Savannah, we were back on the road to drive further north to the historic city of Charleston in the state of South Carolina.

Posing with a giant peanut

With it being just a short (for us!) 2-hour drive between the 2 cities, we had, as always, planned a few stops along the way at some fun road side attractions!

Our first stop wasn’t far across the state line in the town of Bluffton, home of the World’s Largest Boiled Peanut! The peanut sculpture, built for a boiled peanut festival was outside a market store in the middle of nowhere and we almost drove past it and missed out on getting photos with it!

Above, and below, touring the Kazoo factory and museum

We were even more excited for our next stop – The Kazoobie Kazoo Factory and Museum in Beaufort, SC! Here, after watching a film on the history of Kazoos, we toured the factory to see them being made before getting to build our own kazoo to keep as a souvenir! The tour ended with a chance to tour the small museum containing all sorts of kazoo products and memorabilia. It was a really fun stop.

Despite our busy morning, we were in the city of Charleston just after lunch so, after checking into our hotel, made the most of our afternoon exploring.

Above, down by the waterfront in Charleston, and below, Rainbow Row

After visiting the Charleston City Market and browsing the many stalls, we took a stroll down to the Waterfront Park with its Pineapple Fountain and pretty views. Walking back through the city, we passed Rainbow Row – a row of brightly painted houses – and some of Charleston’s many churches before walking along King Street in the historic district with its high end boutique stores.

Shoppng along historic King Street

We returned to our hotel in time for it’s late afternoon complimentary cheese and wine happy hour. This gave us a chance to mix with some of the other residents and swap itinerary ideas.

That evening ,we went for some South Carolina BBQ for dinner before joining a Ghost Walk of the city. This was a really fun way to see the city and hear some stories from its past.

Above, and below, touring the McLeod Plantation

We only had one night in the city itself but planned to spend most of the next day in the area so the next morning, we were up early to check out of our hotel and drive to McLeod Plantation. There are a variety of plantations to tour around Charleston and we were unsure which one to choose but McLeod Planation was recommended to us by our tour guide at Owen House in Savannah a few days earlier.

Arriving early, we bought tickets and had just a short wait until our tour was called. A guide took us around the grounds explaining the property’s chequered past and we were then left to continue exploring the house and grounds ourselves. It was a really interesting morning and definitely worth a visit.

Seeing as we’d made such an early start to the day, we still had plenty of time to spare so decided to take a ride out to the coast,and more specifically, Folly Beach. As we neared the beach town though, we hit traffic jams and warnings that the cars parks were all already full. Having not researched alternative places to park or if there were any park and ride schemes, and not planning on spending a huge amount of time there anyway, we decided it wasn’t worth the wait or the cost of parking and turned around deciding to make alternative plans.

The huge Angel Oak

While talking to other residents at our hotel the previous afternoon, some of them had mentioned visiting a huge and very old Oak Tree, the Angel Oak. We had looked up the tree and where to find it in case we had time to see it and as the sat nav was telling us it wasn’t too far away, we decided to make a lunch stop there. Said to be the largest Oak Tree east of the Mississippi, the tree, estimated to be over 300 years old, was definitely an impressive site.

Arriving at Congaree National Park

Running out of things to do around Charleston, we decided to hit the road and try to make it to Congaree National Park today instead of visiting the next day like we’d originally planned. We estimated we could be there between 2pm and 3pm giving us a couple of hours to explore before driving to our nearby roadside motel for the night.

Sure enough, we made it to the park in just a couple of hours. Once there, we stopped at the Harry Hampton Visitor Centre, picking up Junior Ranger booklets to fill in before taking a circular walk through the park along the board walks leading from the centre.

Above, and below, walking through the park

The park had a weirdly tropical rainforest feel to it made more intense by the extreme humidity that afternoon and the increasingly loud rumbles of thunder echoing in the distance. We made it back to the visitor centre just as the first few large drops of rain began dripping through the canopy of trees above us and onto the boardwalk.

After completing our Junior Ranger booklets back in the shelter of the visitor centre and earning our Junior Ranger badges, we hit the road again just as the storm began to pass over.

From the park, it was just a 30-minute drive to our roadside motel in Orangeburg, close to which we found our first Cracker Barrel of the trip to visit for dinner that evening.

Fitting in Congaree National Park that day meant we could now wave South Carolina state goodbye and make an early start towards Atlanta, Georgia the following day. It had been a brief first visit to the state of Carolina and we knew that the state had a lot more to offer but we’d fit plenty in and had really enjoyed our time there.