Christchurch, New Zealand

Having decided upon taking a 7-day tour of New Zealand’s South Island with small group tour company Haka Tour, I set off on my journey from London Heathrow to Christchurch via short stops in Dubai, Bangkok and Sydney before finally landing 35 hours later. While I was not looking forward to such a long flight, I found it went a lot quicker than the longest flights I had previously taken to Australia, maybe helped by all the stops breaking the journey up; but I was still exhausted when we landed and the last thing I needed was to find my suitcase damaged and split open as it came round the conveyor belt at Christchurch airport!

The earthquake damaged Christchurch Cathedral

Customer services were very apologetic and offered to loan me a temporary case while mine was sent to be repaired but said that as it was a holiday weekend for ANZAC day, I would have to return to the airport in 2-3 days to collect it once it was fixed. I explained I was departing on a tour of the island and wouldn’t be in Christchurch then to be able to return to the airport and after a few calls, they agreed to give me a similar suitcase there and then.

A Christchurch tram passes by

It took me a while to repack and transfer everything from one case to the other and by the time I was ready to leave the airport, I’d abandoned all my plans to use public transport into the city and instead hopped straight into a taxi to take me directly to my Ibis hotel.

The temporary Re:Start Mall

It was afternoon when I arrived and with my room ready to check in straight away, I set my alarm for a quick nap before dragging myself out into the city. Finding my way to the Cathedral Square, I had my first glimpse of what was left of the cathedral, severely damaged in the 2011 earthquake.

An autumn stroll along the river

Hoping to find somewhere to eat in the city, I continued to wander through Christchurch but the city was like a ghost town with little about and failing to find anything I wanted to eat, I returned towards my hotel via a walk through Re:Start Mall, a temporary shopping area replacing stores damaged in the earthquake with stores in shipping containers, then along the river and once back, ordered room service before having an very early night to catch up on my missed sleep.

The Chalice sculpture in Cathedral Square

Having seen a leaflet advertising it in the reception of my hotel, I decided to take a walking tour of the city the next morning. There tour was free and there was no need to book, I just needed to be in Cathedral Square, by the Chalice sculpture, at 10am to meet the guide. 7 of us turned up for the tour, a mixture of solo travellers and couples and we were taken around the city hearing about it’s history and the ongoing repercussions of the 2011 quake.

The eerie, ghost town feel to the city made much more sense having heard the stories of the city’s struggles to rebuild and how many people and businesses had moved out to the suburbs to restart.

Above and below, art work covering up earthquake damage in Christchurch

There was still uncertainty about what would become of the damaged Cathedral and we were taken past the temporary ‘Cardboard Cathedral’ being used int he meantime as well as shown the 185 Chairs earthquake memorial with one chair standing for every life lost in the earthquake. The city was also covered in street art and murals trying to cover up the damage and we had plenty of examples pointed out to us.

Rebuilding, art work, car parks and empty space – Christchurch still recovering from a devastating earthquake

Mentioning to the guide that I had struggled to find anywhere to eat in the city with even cafes serving snacks and breakfast being thin on the ground, he took the group to the C1 Espresso, a cafe with a quick bites menu of sandwiches, fries etc., for lunch.

The cafe had an interesting way of serving fries to the tables sending them through pneumatic tubes rather than the serving staff bringing them over!

Above and below, autumn in the botanic gardens

After lunch, I said goodbye to the group and took a walk to the city’s Botanic Gardens then visited the Canterbury Museum before collecting my luggage from my hotel and moving to the nearby YHA to meet my Haka Tours group. Having arrived from completing their tour of the North Island, the group were just checking in to the YHA and the few of us joining just for the South Island leg of the tour were introduced before we all went out for food at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

Above and below, visiting the Canterbury Museum

The group was made up of mainly Brits, a few Canadians, an American and one Australian varying in age from early 20s to mid-30s and despite most of the group having already spent a week together travelling the North Islands, I felt immediately included and knew we were going to have a good week together exploring the South Island.

Glad to have upgraded to a private room for the trip, after dinner, I headed back to the YHA and my room to again catch up on my sleep before our early start the next morning to begin our South Island adventure starting with a visit to Lake Tekapo.

Trek America Northern BLT Days 18-20: San Francisco

Driving into San Francisco
Entrance to Pier 39

This morning, after a stop for a pancake breakfast in a Mariposa diner, it was off to San Francisco, a city I had visited twice before and is one of my favourite cities in the USA.

City views from the pier

We arrived early afternoon and were dropped in Fisherman’s Wharf and given a couple of hours to explore. Most of us walked down to the busy Pier 39 where we looked around the many souvenir and gift stores before walking down to the end of the pier to see the famous Pier 39 sealions which gather on the decks floating in the bay. Unfortunately there were only a few there compared to the hundreds I’d seen gathered there on my previous visits but it was still fun to watch them jump on and off the wooden decks and scramble around each other before lazing in the sun.

After grabbing snacks and ice creams we spend the rest of the time walking around the Fisherman’s Wharf area visiting more souvenir stores and soaking in the atmosphere before reconvening with the rest of the group ready to head to our Union Square accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we would be staying in a hostel located a short walk from Union Square. As hostels go, it wasn’t too bad and once we were settled in our dorms, we headed back out and down the hill to the Union Square cable car turnaround.

San Francisco Cable Cars

It was early evening by now and the huge queues which gather earlier in the day for the cable cars and gone down leaving just a handful of people. 10 minutes of waiting and watching the cable car operators push the cable cars around on the turntables and it was time for us to board.

View from the cable car

The more adventurous of us in the group, including me, took our places on the outside of the cable cars, stood on the narrow steps and clinging to the bars as the cable cars climbed and descended the famous hills of San Francisco. We managed to survive and got off at the stop at the top of Lombard Street. Lombard Street is known as the ‘crookedest street in the World’ and cars line up to drive down it’s twisty turny section of road. We walked down stopping to watch the cars manoeuvre its tight turns and posing for photos from the bottom of the road from where you can see the wiggly road more clearly.

View of Telegraph Hill from Lombard St
Lombard Street

From Lombard Street, we walked towards the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, passing Washington Square Park and the church of Sts Peter and Paul – famous from many movies set in the city and as the church where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMagio posed for photos outside after they married.

Church of Sts Peter & Paul in Washington Square
The Coit Tower

It was dusk by the time we reached Telegraph Hill and the Coit Tower was bathed in blue light. The city around it was lighting up and we spent some time taking in the views and taking photos before walking back down the hill towards the North Beach area of the city. North Beach is the city’s Italian quarter and we ended the night with a delicious meal in one of the many small Italian restaurants in the vicinity before catching an Uber back to the hostel.

Looking back at the city from the Alcatraz ferry

The next morning, we were dropped at the Embarcedero area of the city to catch the ferry across to Alcatraz Island. I’d toured Alcatraz on both of my previous visits to San Francisco but as this was another included extra on our tour, meaning we didn’t have to pay any extra for it, I was more than happy to return!

Nearing Alcatraz Island
On Alcatraz

Upon arrival at the prison, visitors are handed audio guides which give instructions on where to walk around the prison while talking about what it is you are seeing. It’s a really interesting place to visit, especially as many of the audio clips are narrated by previous Alcatraz workers and inmates.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Alcatraz
The Painted Ladies

After catching the boat back to the mainland, we were taken back to Union Square where the group split up to spend the rest of the day in different ways. Some went shopping in and around the Union Square while some of us went sightseeing.

In Haight-Ashbury

As I was already familiar with the city, I took some of the group out towards Haight-Ashbury. We used public transport and took the bus to Alamo Square to see the Painted Ladies houses then walked from here along to Haight-Ashbury to explore the quirky shops, cafes and see the many wall murals.

The Mrs Doubtfire House

From here we took a local bus to the Mrs Doubtfire house before heading back towards Union Square. We still had a few hours to kill before we had to meet with the rest of the group so we decided to visit the Cable Car Museum, a free museum near Chinatown before catching a streetcar to Fisherman’s Wharf for dinner at the Rainforest Cafe.

On the boat under the Golden Gate Bridge

That evening, the whole group was booked on a sunset cruise on the Bay. We could tell as soon as we arrived at the pier that we would not be seeing much of a sunset and as we cruised around, the Golden Gate Bridge repeatedly appeared and disappeared under a cloud of fog!

Sunset Catamaran trip
Dessert at the Hard Rock Cafe

It was still a fun, if a little chilly, way to spend the evening though and after, a few of us rounded the evening off with drinks and dessert at Hard Rock Cafe at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Abou to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge

On our final morning in San Francisco, and our last full day of the tour, we had breakfast at the hostel before checking out and driving to the Golden Gate Bridge. We were dropped off on the city side and told to walk across where the van would meet us at the other end.

Crossing the bridge

As I had crossed the bridge by bus and then bike on my previous 2 visits to the city, it was nice to get a different perspective by walking across this time but like the previous night, the fog kept rolling in hampering the views slightly.

Once at across the bridge, we were jumped back on the bus ready to continue our journey down the Californian coast.

Northern BLT Day 4-5: Chicago

Day 4 of our coast to coast Trek America tour and we were up early to leave our Ohio KOA cabins and begin our journey to Chicago.

Horse and cart on the streets of Shipshewana
Exploring Shipshewana

Our first stop to day was just across the border of Indiana state in the Amish town of Shipshewana. I’m not exactly sure what I expected but it wasn’t what we got. Shipshewana was in many ways a typical American town like any other I’d visited. Except for the occasional horse and cart rolling down the streets and the odd person in traditional Amish dress passing by. With it’s Amish market selling handmade food and crafts and the opportunity to take a ride on the traditional horse and carts, it felt like a very touristy look at Amish life rather than getting an accurate snapshot but we enjoyed wandering around and especially enjoyed the homemade ice cream we purchased before leaving to continue our journey.

Shipshewana, Indiana

We had one more stop before arriving in Chicago, Illinois – at the childhood home of Michael Jackson in the town of Gary, Indiana. The house had become something of a shrine with fan messages and gifts covering the gates around the house.

Then it was on to Chicago where we were staying at the HI Hostel in the Loop area. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived so as we got ourselves settles into our rooms – it was a really nice hostel and us girls had our own en suite dorm! – deep dish pizza was ordered in from a nearby Gino’s East area which we ate down in the common area. Having had Gino’s deep dish fresh at the main restaurant in the past, I didn’t enjoy the take out pizza as much and many of the others in the group were unimpressed.

At Bobby’s Bike Hire in Chicago

That evening most of us had taken up the option to take a bike tour of Chicago, something I’d not done on my previous 2 visits to the city. Short on time, we caught taxis uptown to the headquarters of Bobby’s Bikes where we were each provided with hi-vis jackets, helmets and a bike before setting off to follow our tour guide. Our first stop was on the shore of Lake Michigan but unfortunately the fog had moved in over the city obscuring any views we should have had. Then we rode uptown to see some of the huge mansions including the original Playboy mansion.

The Cloudgate sculpture in Millennium Park

We were all a bit nervous when told we’d be riding on the main road alongside all the Chicago traffic for the next section of our tour but it was less scary than it sounded and we paused for photos down by the Chicago river before cycling back lakeside and down to Millennium Park to see the amazing Cloudgate sculpture then further south past Grant Park to the museum campus where, completely coincidentally, fireworks started going off at an event being held there just as we arrived.

Fireworks at the end of our tour

Bike tour over, we walked to the Hancock Tower where the rest of the group were having drinks in the sky bar. We joined them for a drink but left shortly after as the cloud meant there was zero visibility and it was an expensive place for drinks when there was no view! Instead, we walked back to the hostel and spent the rest of the evening in the common room playing table tennis and pool.

Chicago River
Willis Tower

The next day we had a full day in Chicago to do what we liked. Most of us decided to use it to try and see as much of the city as we could in a day and as I’d been before and vaguely knew my way around, I lead the way. We started at Willis Tower, formerly Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the World. The queues for the viewing platform weren’t too long so we bought tickets to go up and spent some time enjoying the views over the city.

Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park

Next, we walked back towards the lake and visited Grant Park to see Buckingham Fountain. There was a food festival going on in the park so we stopped for a few free samples as we walk through towards Millennium Park. At Millennium Park, we stopped to see Crown Fountain, also known as the ‘spitting’ fountain as digital faces each end appear to spit water out at regular intervals. Then we walked back to the Cloudgate Sculpture which we’d seen on our bike tour the previous night but is always a fun place to visit in the city as you can see yourself reflected in it!

Next up was Navy Pier where we had lunch at the huge food court before taking a boat cruise on Lake Michigan. The pier has a few fair rides so as lunch had gone down, we took a ride on the flying chairs.

Ride on Navy Pier

From Navy Pier, we walked back alongside the Chicago River to Michigan Avenue, also known as the Miracle Mile. Similar to New York’s Fifth Avenue, this is where all the big stores are and we spent a while browsing in the shops as we went past.

Beach on Lake Michigan
Gino’s East

Getting hungry again, some of the group decided to go to the Cheesecake Factory in the Hancock Tower for food while two of us decided to give deep dish pizza another go, this time at Gino’s East restaurant. Eating the pizza at the restaurant made a huge difference and this time, it was just as good as I had remembered!

It was evening by the time we all met up again and the sunshine had disappeared and been replaced by big, black clouds. As we walked back down Michigan Avenue, it started to pour down with rain causing us to decide to call it a day and run back to the hostel to shelter. But we’d had a fun day sightseeing in the city and managed to fit a lot in in a short time.

Watch my Trek America adventures in Chicago here:

My first solo travel adventure

Coast to coast with Trek America

If you’ve read my previous post about my decision to travel solo for the first time, you’ll know that rather than spending my entire trip completely by myself, I opted to join a small group tour. Specifically, the Southern BLT Tour with the established small group tour company, Trek America.

I booked the tour through the touradar website in their Christmas sale and the tour was to begin mid-February meaning I didn’t have too much time to dwell on my decision. With the extra nights I had added in LA and New York either side of the 3-week tour, I would be away for 4 weeks in total, the longest I had ever been away from home before.

As the departure date approached I decided to take up Trek America’s offer of a free FairFX prepaid currency card rather than just taking cash as I would on a shorter trip. This came with access to an app which I could use to top up the card with dollars if I was getting low at any point as long as I had internet access and as the tour was advertised as having on-bus WiFi and I knew from previous visits stateside that WiFi was easy to find, finding internet access shouldn’t be a problem.

The tour required us to take a sleeping bag for the night spent in a cabin and I also went out and bought a pair of special walking trainers from Sports Direct for any hiking we’d do, a quick-drying travel towel for use at the hostels and various other bits and bobs that I wouldn’t ordinarily take on holiday but I thought I might need in a trip like this!

My biggest worry was what size case to take. Or whether to take a case at all as I figured a lot of the passengers might be serious backpackers with, well, a backpack. For just a 2 week holiday, I would usually take my large case but I knew luggage was to be stored in our minibus as we travelled and would have to be dragged in and out of our accommodation every day or so (we had no more than 2 nights in any one place on the tour) so maybe a large case was too much. But would there be chance to do laundry or would I have to take enough clothes to last the entire trip?!

What to pack in itself was another problem. I’d assumed when I booked the tour that travelling through the Southern states meant that even in February/March, it’d mainly be warm although I did realise once we reached Washington DC and New York it would be chillier. But after googling the weather for some of our stops, I realised it was likely to be cool in quite a few places along the way so layers, a few jumpers, hoodies and even my winter coat might be necessary!

I eventually opted to take my medium-sized case, squashing as much as possible in and deciding if there was no opportunity for laundry, I could probably get a couple of wears out of most tops!!

Alone on Santa Monica Beach

So with lots of excitement, and some trepidation, I headed to the airport a few days before the start of the tour to begin my trip. I had booked 2 nights by myself in Santa Monica at a motel I had stayed at with my family a couple of years before and would then spend the third night staying at Trek America’s “gateway” hotel – the one the tour departed from – the night before the tour began.

Sunset over Santa Monica Pier

Whereas I would usually share a taxi with my travel buddies to get us to our hotel quickly and easily after a long flight, it was a lot of money to spend for just one person so I had researched how to get to Santa Monica on public transport. So after arriving at LAX, I went to wait for the Airbus service hoping to save a bit of money. But after waiting and waiting and seeing numerous buses come and go for Hollywood, Downtown, Anaheim and various other districts of Los Angeles but none for Santa Monica, I gave up and, just wanting to get there, ended up in a cab!

Breakfast feast for one at Denny’s

It was odd finding myself alone in a city I had visited many times before with family and friends and needing food, I was unsure what to do. Not being brave enough just yet to go to a restaurant alone, I instead opted for the food court in Santa Monica Place shopping mall before heading down to the beach to watch the sunset.

Sony Studios Tour

To keep myself busy over the next few days, I’d planned plenty of activities, again extensively researching how to reach places on public transport. After breakfast at Denny’s (eating alone wasn’t actually that bad!), my first stop was Sony Studios for a backlot tour. Using public transport ran smoother than it had the previous day and after asking for directions just once when I got off the bus, I found my way to the tour check in point with plenty of time to spare.

Walking to Venice Beach

After the tour, I wandered around the nearby area of Culver City before catching the bus back towards Santa Monica. I spent the afternoon in Venice following a self-guided walk around the canals which I had downloaded before my trip, another part of the city I had not seen before.

Exploring the canals at Venice
On a tour to Malibu

The following day, I had booked onto another tour to see the Star Homes in Malibu and then, after lunch alone at Barney’s Beanery – my favourite Santa Monica eatery – I hired a bike and rode to Marina del Rey, again ticking off a few more places I’d not been to before. In all honesty, I kept myself too busy to even notice I was by myself and I actually enjoyed not having to compromise on anything and being able to do what I liked and at my own pace.

Malibu Beach
After cycling to Marina del Rey

Watch my Vlog of my time spent in Santa Monica before the tour here:

That evening, it was time to move from my cosy Santa Monica B&B to my Trek’s departure hotel, the Custom Hotel bear LAX. Wanting to avoid paying out for another taxi, I had again looked up how to get there on public transport. One direct bus which would drop me outside my new hotel seemed doable although I hadn’t factored in travelling in rush hour with a case and bag!

6 weeks before your Trek America tour departs, participants are given access to an online group where you can ‘meet’ other members of your tour group. This only works, of course, if other members are active in the group and no one seemed to be using it for the tour I had booked. Undeterred, and curious as to whom I would be spending 3 weeks travelling with, I instead, left a message on the Trek America forums asking if anyone else was going to be on the Southern BLT tour departing that week. By the time I had left for LA, there had been no replies but a few days later, 2 people had answered saying they too would be on the tour.

So the evening before the tour departed, once settled in at the ‘gateway’ hotel, I made my way up to the hotel’s rooftop bar where I had arranged to meet 3 of my fellow travelling companions. Everyone seemed nice – we were all solo travellers who were travelling solo for the first time and it put my mind at ease slightly about the next few weeks. After a few drinks and some small talk, it was off for an early-ish night ready to start my 3-week cross-country adventure the following morning.

It was an early start the next day where I met the rest of the group in the hotel lobby. 11 of us in total, 7 guys, 4 girls, aged 20-34 from the UK, Australia, Sweden and Switzerland. After brief introductions, some form-filling and a talk from our American tour guide, it was time to load our luggage on to the trailer and board our minibus ready to get on the road!

My first Small Group Tour travel experience Part 1

Going it alone

Going it alone

Travelling solo for the first time.

After almost 10 years of fitting in city breaks around my teaching career, I finally took the plunge and quit my full time job in order to travel more extensively. Up until now, any trips I’d taken had been with friends, often fellow teacher also tied down to taking trips in the school holidays, and had mainly been short breaks with the odd 2-week trip when there was more time over the summer break. But now I was no longer tied down to travelling in the school holidays – which was great as it meant I could take advantage of the cheaper term time flight and accommodation prices – but it also meant that my teacher friends were not available to come with me and, with wanting to go away for longer than the standard week or fortnight, no one else was able, or willing, to get the time off work either. The choice was simple. Stay at home, taking the first long term supply teaching job I was offered and continue to make the odd trip at weekends and in the holidays, or really make use of the situation I had put myself in and go it alone.

I chose the latter and started to research solo travel. Having visited many of the main US cities over the last 10 years, America was a country I knew I felt comfortable in and wanted to see more of – specifically travelling outside of the cities – so that seemed like a good place to start. I’d been receiving brochures from the group travel company Trek America and it’s sister company, Grand American Adventures, for a few years after entering a competition to travel with them once and ending up on their mailing list and I had always flicked through them half-heartedly before throwing them in the recycling but now when the new brochures arrived, I paid a bit more attention and started doing some online research into the companies and their tours. I’d had a few friends do larger group tours with companies such as Contiki and was pretty sure this wasn’t for me but a small group tour sounded more appealing.

Trek America offered a wide range of tours In North America aimed at 18-38 year olds. The majority of the tours offered were camping based, which I knew I did not want to do! – but they also offered some of their tours as BLTs or Budget Lodging Tours which used a mixture of hostels, motels and cabins. I’d never stayed in a hostel in my life and it didn’t particularly appeal to me but if it was just for a few nights here and there between hotel/motel stops, I figured I could cope. The alternative was to choose a tour with another company such as Grand American Adventures which used hotels and motels only but these were a lot more expensive and were open-aged tours which worried me in case everyone else on the tour was a lot older than me. Being in my mid-30s at this point, there was always the risk that doing a Trek America tour would find me as the only ‘older’ traveller in a group of 18 year olds but I decided that choosing a BLT tour over a cheaper, more affordable camping tour plus the 21 years old drinking age in America, would minimise this risk and hopefully the tours would attract a slightly older age group.

Once I’d narrowed down which tour company to use, the next step was choosing which tour to do. There were about 6 BLT tours on offer, all varying in length and visiting different areas of the US. Having spent a lot of time in the obvious cities – at this point I had already visited New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Washington DC on city breaks – I wanted to find a tour that went to enough new places for me that it would make it worth while. A lot of the west coast trips mainly spent time in LA, Vegas and San Francisco and the North East BLT tour went to New York, Boston and Niagara Falls which I’d also seen before. Their Deep South BLT certainly looked a possibility as I’d always wanted to see New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville but it was only a one week tour and, not being a drinker, I did worry again about it attracting a partying, younger crowd. Also, I thought that if I was going to do this, maybe I should go all in and go for a longer amount of time rather than testing the waters on a one week tour.

The company’s most encompassing BLT tour was the Grand BLT, a 6 week trip travelling coast to coast from New York to LA through the Northern states before returning to New York travelling back through the Southern states. The trips for that year had already departed and didn’t start up again until the following summer but I was itching to get going sooner than that so I saw that the trip could be split. The company’s Southern BLT tour ran through the winter months as well as the summer months. Paired with the Northern BLT which ran just through the summer months, it creates the Grand BLT. Maybe I didn’t have to do the entire trip in one go but could split it into two 3-week trips, one now and one in the summer. That way, if it turned out it wasn’t for me, 3 weeks is less of a commitment than 6 and I just wouldn’t book onto the second leg.

The Southern BLT Tour route

So after a bit more inning and ahhing, talking it through with various friends and family members who all encouraged me to go for it, I booked myself onto the February departure of the Southern BLT tour, adding on a few days completely by myself in Santa Monica, LA before the trip and in New York after the trip – both cities familiar to me so a few days alone in both seemed manageable!

Trek America tour van

I’ll write about my experiences on the trip in a future post but suffice to say I loved it, it was without a doubt the best thing I have ever done. I did book myself onto the Northern BLT that summer and I have done numerous small group tours since with Trek America and various other companies.

So if you are thinking thinking of travelling solo but maybe don’t want to spend your time completely by yourself, definitely consider a group tour!

My first solo travel adventure

Spending time in Melbourne, Australia

I’ve been lucky enough to make a few visits ‘down under’ and 4 of my 5 trips to Australia have included a stop in the city of Melbourne, Victoria. Partly because a good friend of mine moved to the suburbs of the city 10 years ago so whenever I’m in Australia, I like to try and visit but also because, it’s a great city and a good base to explore the surrounding area.

Flinder Street Station

The city of Melbourne and the surrounding area certainly has plenty to offer visitors.

If it’s shopping you’re after then Melbourne won’t disappoint. As well as department stores and shopping malls aplenty, you’ll find great souvenir shopping at Victoria Market, outlet stores at the relatively new Dockside area and boutique stores hidden down narrow lanes. In need of a coffee after? Melbourne is famous for its cafe culture and you’ll find independent coffee shops around every corner!

Flinders Street

Melbourne’s CBD area is easy to get around, it’s layout borrowing heavily from the American grid system. The city offers a free trolley service which loops around the outside of the CBD, passing Federation Square, the Dockside area, Victoria Market and Melbourne Museum amongst other places of interest and even includes a recorded commentary for tourists! Another free bus service runs along the river Yarra towards Melbourne’s Cricket Ground and back. These services are mainly used by tourists and can get busy, especially the circle line trolley.

Federation Square is a good place to start exploring Melbourne from. The Square is a busy meeting place in the city with large open spaces often hosting events and exhibitions and here, you’ll find the city’s tourist information centre.

The Crown Casino Complex

One of my favourite places to stroll in Melbourne is its Southbank area. From here you’ll find great views of the city looking across to Flinders Street Station across the River Yarra. Street entertainers often line the pavement and there’s the huge Crown Casino complex alongside the Southbank with its many shops and restaurants to explore too. Boat trips are offered along the River Yarra from various companies along the riverside, some offering roundtrips with a commentary, others taking you out at sunset or ferrying you to nearby Williamstown.

Eureka Tower and, below, views from the top

Looming over the Southbank, you can’t help but notice the Eureka Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. The tower has an observation deck at the top with 360 degree views across the city and Victoria state.

The Shrine of Remembrance

A short walk off the Southbank you’ll find Alexandra Park and the neighbouring Royal Botanic Gardens. The parks are definitely worth a stroll through and you can walk down to the Shine of Remembrance at the south end of the park.

View of Melbourne skyline from St Kilda Pier

Just outside of Melbourne city, and easily reachable by tram, is the beach suburb of St Kilda. St Kilda is a lovely place to stroll around, grab a coffee and cake on Acland Street, walk along the pier from which you can make out Melbourne City skyline on a clear day, visit it’s Sunday flea market or for a bit more excitement, visit Luna Park, it’s amusement park with its huge clown-face gates!

On ‘Ramsay Street’

Fans of the long-running Australian soap opera Neighbours can pay a visit to ‘Ramsay Street’ or Pinot Court as it’s actually called in the suburbs of Melbourne. While it is possible to drive out to the street yourself, tours are available daily from the Neighbours store in Melbourne’s CBD. These tours are great fun with clips from the show being played on the bus as you drive out and locations such as the school being pointed out along the way. On weekends, tours of the set are also offered so you can have photos with the exteriors of Lassiters, Harold’s General Store etc as well as the houses on Ramsay Street. While the infamous ‘Neighbours Night’ (a weekly club night attended by various cast members) is no longer offered, sometimes cast members do pop along to greet tour buses and have photos!

At the Nobbies, Phillip Island and, below, photos from a day tour to Phillip Island

Like I mentioned before, Melbourne is a great base for exploring more of Victoria from. If you don’t have access to a car, there are plenty of companies offering day tours out of the city. My favourite tour to take is to Phillip Island to see the Little Penguins.

This tour can be done as a full day trip or as a half day afternoon trip, depending on how much you want to see along the way and at Phillip Island itself. Most tour companies offer a stop at a wildlife park along the way where you can hang out with the kangaroos and other Australian animals before crossing into the beautiful Phillip Island. Full day tours will usually give you time to explore beaches and coastal walks at various parts of the island while even afternoon-only tours will usually stop at the Nobbies where you can follow the boardwalk for amazing coastal views. Whichever tour you take, the final stop will be at the Penguin Parade where you will sit on the beach and watch as the Little Penguins swim in and run across the sand to their burrows. It really is incredible to watch!

The Twelve Apostles

Another popular trip out from Melbourne is Great Ocean Road. Running along the coast all the way from Melbourne to Adelaide, the distance is too far for one day but you can at least make it as far as the famous Twelve Apostles rock formations and back although it’s a long day!!!

Apollo Bay

I first travelled Great Ocean Road using public transport, catching a train to Geelong then picking up a bus which stopped at Apollo Bay then at the Twelve Apostles and other rock formations, giving us enough time at each stop to get off and take photos before dropping us at a station to catch a train all the way back to Melbourne. It was a cheap way of doing it and we saw what we wanted to see but without a tour guide to provide a commentary or the social aspect of a small group tour, the day felt even longer than it was.

I have since taken a guided small group one day tour of Great Ocean Road and while this was also a long trip, especially the drive back to Melbourne at the end of the day, and we didn’t make it to as many of the rock formations as on the independent trip, I found this to be a much more enjoyable option. We made many stops along the way to break up the journey at pretty bays and towns, at a rainforest boardwalk, a lighthouse and even somewhere to see koalas in their natural habitat before stopping at the Twelve Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge rock formations.

Trips to Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley wineries are other popular options for easily reachable days out from the city.

Overall, Melbourne is a great place to visit but make sure you take the opportunity to get out of the city itself as Victoria has a lot more than Melbourne city to offer!

Birmingham

Being a tourist in my own city

I’ve lived in Birmingham all my life so to me it’s just home. These days, I rarely even visit the city centre despite it just being a 10 minute drive or 15 minute train journey away but after making friends from all over the country and even from around the World while travelling, I’ve had a lot of them visit me here expecting to be shown around everything Birmingham has to offer. Which got me to thinking, what does the UK’s second city (yep, it’s Birmingham, not Manchester as many assume!) have to offer it’s visitors?

Here’s my take on the best things to do in my home city and surrounding areas!

Unusual Buildings

Birmingham Library

Looking out at Centenary Square from the library at Christmas

A library might not sound like the most exciting place to start a visit to a new city but this relatively new addition to Birmingham’s city centre is housed in a rather interesting-looking modern building. The gaudy boat-like design has divided locals but is certainly eye-catching. As well as thousands of books inside, there’s a cafe and 2 roof-top gardens providing great views over the city.

The Cube

If interesting architecture is your thing then Birmingham has plenty to offer. As well as the Library Building, our famous Selfridges building (see the section on shopping!), and the Bullring’s Rotunda, you might be interested in seeing The Cube, so called for it’s dice-like shape and home to a few shops, restaurants, apartments and even a hotel. Visit Marco Pierre White’s skyline Steakhouse Bar and Grill for views over the city as you drink and dine.

Birmingham’s Venice

The NIA Arena, canalside at Brindley Place

Birmingham is said to have more canals than Venice and you can experience these without leaving the city centre as the central canal system network is easily accessed from the Mailbox shopping centre and Brindley Place. Take a stroll along the towpath or, in the city centre, sit out at one of the canalside bars or cafes.

Lego Giraffe outside the canal-side Lego Discovery Centre, Brindley Place

If you want to get out on the water, you can catch the water taxi or there are barges offering sightseeing and dinner cruises all departing from near Brindley Place.

Right next to the canal at Brindley Place is Birmingham’s National Sealife Centre which along with the usual ocean life, has exhibitions on the wildlife found in Birmingham’s canals!

Shopping

If shopping is your thing then Birmingham is the place for you! The main shopping centre, Bullring, is home to another of the city’s most recognisable buildings, Selfridges, as well as 3 floors of high street stores and restaurants.

‘Bully’ dressed up for Christmas!

Look out for ‘Bully’, the Bullring Bull sculpture outside the centre and often dressed up to mark special occasions such as Christmas, St Patrick’s Day and Birmingham Pride and, in complete contrast to the modern mall, St Nicholas’ Church, still standing in the square below.

Just across from the church, you will find Birmingham Markets selling a variety of fresh produce, household items and clothing at bargain prices.

Next to the Bullring shopping mall is High Street, home to the World’s largest Primark store. This recently opened store hosts 5 floors of fashion as well as a beauty salon and 3 cafes, including the much talked about Disney cafe!

Grad Central and New Street Station below

If you arrive to the city by train then you’ll more than likely find yourself at New Street Station, home to the new Grand Central shopping centre. The centre is mainly home to slightly more eclectic stores than Bullring but also a large John Lewis store. There’s also a food court with plenty of eating options.

If your tastes are a bit more high scale, then head to the Mailbox, also a short walk from New Street Station where you’ll find designer stores including Emporio Armani and Harvey Nichols. (It’s also home of the Birmingham BBC Studios which you can book a tour of!)

The Mailbox and the Cube, canalside in Birmingham
The German Market fills New Street at Christmas

Visiting at Christmas? Then you might be in the city in time for the annual Frankfurt Market. Sellers from Germany descend upon the city each year to set up a traditional German Market which runs all down New Street and up into Victoria Square. This year, the market will be back, bigger and better than ever, running from November 7th through to December 23rd.

Jewellery Quarter

Just outside of the city centre, this area is full of jewellery factories – a good proportion of the UK’s jewellery is made here – and independent jewellery shops. The area has been rejuvenated over recent years and is now a popular place to visit. As well as the many jewellery shops, there is a museum where you can learn the history of the Jewellery Quarter and take a factory tour and a growing number of bars, restaurants and cafes. There district is easily accessible by train, tram or a walk along the canal from the city centre.

Museums

For culture vultures, Birmingham is home to plenty of museums and galleries. Walk to Chamberlain Sqaure, past the Town Hall and Council House buildings and you’ll find the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Free to visit, the museum houses a large collection of art, an Ancient Egypt collection, exhibits on local history, a natural history collection and various temporary exhibits.

Nearby, just off Broad Street, is the Ikon Gallery. Also free to visit, the gallery houses 2 floors of contemporary art.

If science is more your thing then head to Thinktank, the Science Museum at Birmingham’s Millennium Point. The museum offers interactive exhibits on Science, Industry and Natural History that will keep kids entertained for hours. My personal highlight is the outdoor Science Garden – an educational playground!

For a bit of Birmingham history, visit the National Trust owned Back to Backs. The last surviving 19th Century back-to-back houses have been restored and can be toured by appointment.

Cadbury World

The Cadbury Chocolate Factory in Bournvile

Birmingham is famous for producing the UK’s favourite chocolate, Cadbury’s, and no visit to the city can be complete without venturing out of the city centre to Bournville Village, home of the original Cadbury Chocolate Factory. Cadbury World is home to interactive exhibits on the history of the factory in Birmingham and allows you to see inside the factory where the chocolate is still produced today. And best of all? You get a load of free chocolate to try along the way!!!

Cadbury World is easily reached by a short train journey from the city centre’s New Street Station to Bournville and the pretty, old-fashioned village itself is well worth a look around while you’re there.

Parks

Cannon Hill Park

I’ve always felt one of the things missing from the city centre is a green space, a park for workers to sit out in in their lunch break or to visit after work or a place for visitors to enjoy between shopping trips…we’ve plenty of nice open Squares but where’s our Hyde Park, Central Park or Boston Common?!

Cannon Hill Park

While not in the city centre itself, Cannon Hill Park is worth the short trip out to the suburb of Edgbaston. With plenty of open grassy areas for picnics or ball games, woods to wander through, pretty flower-filled gardens, a large boating lake on which you can hire pedalos, a fun park with children’s rides, a land train to take you around, an adventure golf course and two well-equipped children’s play areas, you can easily spend a day here. The park is also home to the Midlands’ Art Centre or MAC, host to various exhibitions, galleries, small theatre shows and a cinema usually showing cult classics and independent films.

Next door to the park is the Birmingham Conservation Park, known locally as the ‘Nature Centre’ where for a small fee you can see a variety of mammals, reptiles and birds including red pandas and monkeys!

There’s plenty of parking at the various entrances to the park in Edgbaston and Moseley but my favourite way to enter the park is to park up on Moor Green Lane opposite the Highbury pub and walk through Holders Lane Woods (entrance next to the Moor Green Lane Medical Centre) which leads into the south side of the park.

The Shires

Birmingham was home to JRR Tolkein, writer of the The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and you can wander around much of the area that inspired the lands he created in the books. Head to Moseley Bog and the nearby Sarehole Mill, now part of the renamed Shires Country Park where you can pick up a leaflet detailing the sites that inspired him and follow the ‘Tolkein Trail’!

Lickey Hills

Further out of the city, but worth the journey into South Birmingham in my opinion, is the vast Lickey Hills Country Park offering well-marked woodland and parkland trails and rewarding views across the city from it’s highest peaks.

Nightlife

If you want to party the night away, then there’s really only one place to head in Birmingham – Broad Street is lined with bars and clubs and drunken students and is your best bet for a lively night out. For something a bit more sedate, or a few drink before hitting the clubs, try the canalside bars at Brindley Place or the popular afterwork bars at the Mailbox.

Nearby attractions

River Avon walk with the RSC in the background at Stratford-upon-Avon

One of the best things about living in Birmingham is it’s central location and proximity to other cities and attractions. From the city centre, day trips can easily be made to Stratford-upon-Avon for all it’s Shakespeare attractions and beautiful riverside setting or to Worcester, a cathedral city situated on the River Severn. For some child-friendly fun, West Midlands Safari Park and Dudley Zoo are in easy reach for animal lovers or try Alton Towers and Drayton Manor theme parks for thrill seekers. The Black Country Museum is also close by for some living history where costumed actors show visitors what life was like in Victorian times.

One day in Salzburg

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

Getting there

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

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

Sightseeing

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

Mirabell Palace and Gardens

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

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

Getreidgasse

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

Mozart’s Birthplace

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

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

Pretzel stand in Universitatplatz
Mozart statue in the centre of Mozartplatz

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

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

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

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

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

In one of the state rooms

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

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

A slice of Sacher Torte!

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

Read about my Munich city break.

Munich City Break

What did Munich have to offer?

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

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

Travelling to the city from Munich airport

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

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

Where to stay in Munich

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

Sightseeing in Munich

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

Fountain at Karlsplatz
Karlsplatz Gate

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

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

Off on a Segway Tour

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

Our Segways lined up during a break in Englischer Garten

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

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

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

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

The Biergarten in Viktualienmrkt

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

The Monopteros in Munich’s Englischer Garten

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

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

The boating lake in Englischer Garten

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

Los Angeles

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

So here’s my guide to LA!

Where To Stay and Getting Around

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

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

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard

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

Santa Monica Pier at sunset

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

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

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

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

Sunset on Hollywood Boulevard

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

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

Tourist cards

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

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

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

Riding the Hop on/off sightseeing bus through Downtown LA

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

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

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

Hollywood and Beverly Hills

Studio Tours

Downtown LA

Beach Cities

The Hollywood Sign