Having spent the last 5 days based in the city of Naples on the west coast of Italy, we were now cramming ourselves and our luggage onto the very busy Circumvesuviana train to spend a few days in the coastal town of Sorrento.
It was our third time riding the Circumvesuviana line from Naples having used it already over the last few days to visit the archaeological sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii as well as to visit Mount Vesuvius itself. Sorrento is the last stop on the line and it took us just over an hour to get there.
From Sorrento station, we got a taxi to our hotel for the next 3 nights. Hotel La Badia was situated on top of a hill just a short, but steep, 15 minute walk from the centre of town. Being on a hilltop, there were beautiful, sweeping views of the coast from our room.
By the time we had arrived and settled in, it was already dusk. We had a wander into town and I was surprised at how crowded with tourists it felt after spending time in the much calmer Naples. It did at least make for a jovial atmosphere and despite it being night time, I could straight away see how pretty Sorrento was. We were spoilt for choice for places to eat and settled on pasta from a small restaurant-cafe down a narrow side street.
With our time in Naples being spent constantly on the go either in the city or on trips out to nearby attractions, we decided to spend our first day in Sorrento relaxing. We awoke to beautiful weather – blue skies and warm sunshine – so after breakfast at the hotel, spent the first morning sat by the hotel pool and cooling off with a quick dip before taking a stroll into town mid-afternoon to explore.
The town of Sorrento is made up of a series of narrow cobbled streets all lined with a range of stores and restaurants and we spent the afternoon browsing and shopping for souvenirs. Every other shop seemed to be a Lemoncello store, selling a range of products based on the liqueur famously produced in the region and all offering samples to try and get tourists through the doors.
From the town, we walked down to the marina, strolling along the front to enjoy the views before sitting at one of the many restaurant-bars near the harbour for drinks.
After more shopping back in town, we found another bar perfectly positioned for people watching and sat out in the sunshine for aperitivo – an Italian socialising tradition of having drinks served with various nibbles.
After heading back to the hotel to freshen up, we then walked back into town. Sorrento is just as bustling in the evening with many of the stores lining the narrow streets staying open late so we once again wandered through the centre to look in the shops before going for a late dinner at one of the many local restaurants.
The next day, we took a boat trip out to the nearby Amalfi coast town of Positano.
The town is built into a cliff and we spent the day exploring, shopping, visiting some of its churches and enjoying the amazing views over the coast from the cliffs. After a pizza lunch at one of the many restaurants, we spent some time relaxing on the beach before catching the boat back to Sorrento for the evening.
Once back in Sorrento, we spent the last evening of our trip having drinks in town. I’d enjoyed our time on the Amalfi coast and Sorento had been the perfect place for a relaxing few days after our busy time sightseeing in Naples.
With my friend studying Italian in Rome, I decided to fly out there as her course ended for a couple of nights there followed by a few days in Naples and then Sorrento.
Having been to Rome a few times before, my time there was mainly spent at the bars, cafes and restaurants catching up with my friend and enjoying the sunshine in Villa Borghese gardens. From here we caught the train from Termini station south to the city of Naples.
It would be my first visit to the city although my friend had been once before and we were staying at the same hotel she had stayed in before, La Stanze Del Vicere Hotel, near the Toledo area of the city and not far from the Archaeological Museum. The hotel is situated inside a restored 16th century townhouse and the original 16th century staircase remains leading into the main building.
Checking into the hotel late afternoon, one of the first things we wanted to do was experience the famous Neopolitan pizza – the Margherita pizza is said to have originated in the city of Naples, but more on that later! – so we went for a walk to Piazza Dante, stopping along the way at a tucked away restaurant for dinner, then on to the popular Piazza Bellini for drinks.
The next day, we walked the short distance to Naples Archaeological Museum spending most of the morning exploring its extensive collection of Roman artifacts including many from the nearby archaeological sites of Herculaneum and the more famous Pompeii.
After leaving the museum, we spent some time exploring the historic centre of Naples. Heading south along Via Duomo, we passed Naples Cathedral stopping to have a look inside then we wandered along the busy Via dei Tribunali with its many cafes and souvenir stores.
After stopping for coffee and pastries we decided to buy tickets for the nearby Naples Underground attraction. Here, visitors can take a tour of a series of tunnels running beneath the city once used as Roman aqueducts and, more recently, as bomb shelters in the Second World War.
The tour was really interesting but not one to take if you don’t like confined spaces – at one point we had to squeeze along an extremely narrow passageway with just a candle to light the way!
Following on from our underground tour, we continued to walk south towards the marina stopping in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, overlooked by the church it is named after. Unfortunately, the church’s doors were closed so we didn’t have chance to look inside but instead, we sat out at a cafe in the square having drinks to cool us down before continuing our walk to the seafront.
Finally reaching the seafront late afternoon, we visited Castel Nuovo, a medieval castle overlooking the marina.
While not the most exciting attraction in the city, the views across the bay with Vesuvius looming in the distance made the small entrance fee worth it.
From Castel Nuovo, we walked towards Piazza del Plebiscito, a large pedestrianised square beside the Royal Palace of Naples before taking a stroll along the sea wall to the imposing Fontana del Gigante, a 17th century fountain and then along the peninsula to Castel dell’Ovo.
It was free to look around this castle overlooking the harbour and as the sun was starting to set, we spent a bit of time enjoying the views.
After visiting Castel dell’Ovo, we walked back along the sea front to Piazza del Plebiscito and the nearby Pizzeria Brandi.
Supposedly the birthplace of the Margherita pizza, there was a long wait for a table but it was worth it to eat in such a historic venue as well as it being the best pizza I had all trip!
Then we walked to a nearby metro station to catch the train back to our hotel, stopping first for more drinks (and dessert!) at one of the many bars along the way.
The next day, we caught the metro to Central Station where we would be catching the Circovesuviana train out to the archaeological site of Herculaneum.
The Circovesuviana runs between Naples and Sorrento with stops including Pompeii and this would be the first of a few trips along this route during our trip.
Herculaneum is an ancient town which, like the better known Pompeii, was buried under ash following the explosion of Mount Vesuvius.
The site is even better preserved than Pompeii – there was a lot less structural damage to the town than there was to Pompeii so there are buildings almost entirely intact with perfectly preserved mosaics and many household objects still there. Visiting the site was almost like walking around a Roman town as it would have been back then.
After spending a few hours exploring, we stopped for lunch nearby before catching the train back to Naples where we spent the evening having drinks in Piazza Bellini.
Day 3 of our stay in Naples was once again spent outside of the the city, this time visiting the island of Capri.
We’d booked our ferry ticket in advance catching the metro down to the marina early morning ready to board. Once in Capri, I was really looking forward to seeing the Blue Grotto, a sea cave you can go on a boat tour to visit, but after a tumultuous crossing from Naples – causing sea sickness among many passengers! – it was announced that the conditions were too rough for the small rowing boats to make trips out to it.
That gave us a bit more time in Capri itself and we decided to spend some time relaxing on the small pebble beach enjoying the sunshine for a while in order to recover from the ferry trip!
From the beach, we took the bus to Anacapri, one of the towns on the island situated high up on the island. Being summer, there were huge queues for the bus – a tiny minibus with very few seats and we were packed on like sardines trying our best not to fall over as we raced up the steep hills of Capri.
Once at our destination, we spent some time enjoying the views over the bay before wandering down the streets for some window shopping and then finding somewhere just about affordable for lunch.
After lunch we walked to Capri town for more window shopping before catching the funicular railway back down to sea level and catching the ferry back to Naples.
Our last full day in Naples and we were again riding the Circumvesuviana, this time to Pompeii.
The Pompeii archaeological site was somewhere that had been high on my list of places I had wanted to visit for a long time and while I did find exploring the site fascinating, I do wish that I had taken a guided tour of the site to get more out of my visit and learn more about what I was seeing.
Arriving early, we spent all morning at Pompeii. After eating lunch at a local cafe, we then went to visit the crater of Mount Vesuvius.
We booked transport on the Busvia del Vesuvio which dropped us at the start of the path which lead up to the crater. It was an easier hike than I expected and once at the crater, there were guides at the top ready to answer any questions and reassure us that we weren’t in any immediate danger of an eruption! After retracing our steps back down the path, we were picked up by the bus and returned to Pompeii station to catch our train back to Naples again.
The next day, we would be leaving Naples for a few days on the Amalfi coast but first, we had the morning to spend in the city.
We decided to walk to Via San Gregorio, often referred to as ‘Christmas Avenue’. The road is famous for being the home of a row of shops selling Christmas ornaments and gifts all year around. After spending some time browsing, we picked up some ornaments as souvenirs to take with us.
Then it was time to collect our luggage from our hotel and once again make our way to the train station to catch the Circumvesuvio, this time, all the way to the end of the line in Sorrento.
I’d really enjoyed my time in Naples and the surrounding area. Away from the touristy marina area, I had found it to feel a lot more authentically Italian than some of the other more touristy Italian cities I had visited with its narrow lanes, cobbled streets and residents busily going about their day and I hoped to return someday.
Despite it being just a short 45 minute flight from my local airport, its only been within the last few years that I first visited the Irish capital. I loved it so much, I’ve been back a few times since, trying to see a bit more of this colourful city each time.
Here are some of my tips and favourite things to do on a short city break in Dublin!
Generally arriving at Dublin’s international airport, I have always made use of its airport link bus with its regular and, in my experience, reliable services in and out of the city. It is also possible to use the local buses between the airport and the city. While a slightly cheaper option, these buses make more stops along the way so the journey takes longer but depending on where you are staying, might possibly drop you more local to you accommodation so are worth looking into.
For the most part, Dublin itself is a pretty walkable city, but for those attractions a bit further afield, it is well served by public transport with an easy to use tram service running alongside the local buses.
On my first visit to the city, I made use of the hop on/off tourist bus to get around. Most of the buses came with a live guide rather than a pre-recorded commentary and we found it a convenient way to get out towards those attractions which weren’t quite walkable from where we were staying – such as the Guinness Factory and Phoenix Park – while also learning some of the history of the city.
Where to stay
Each time I have visited the city, I have stayed in different areas of the city as well as very different types of accommodation. On my first visit, we stayed north of the River Liffey where we found prices to be cheaper. This put us close to O’Connell Street and it was still walkable Temple Bar and other more touristy areas across the river. Our accommodation on that trip was Anchor House, one of the many small, family run guesthouses in the area and was perfect for what we needed for a 4 night break in the city.
If it’s a bit of luxury you are after then I couldn’t fault the beautiful and very conveniently located Westin Hotel by Trinity College. I stayed there after winning it at an extremely reduced price last minute in a priceline bid and it has to be one of the nicest hotels I have ever stayed in.
To cut down the cost of eating out, a city apartment is always a good bet. We booked an apartment for 4 located in the Temple Bar area though The Key Collection and making full use of the kitchen to save a bit of money.
For budget hotels in the city, you can’t go wrong with a Travelodge and we found the St Stephens Green Travelodge to be particularly well-located for the price.
Things to do
On my first trip to the city, seeing as many sights as we could was the main priority. We spent 4 nights in the city giving us 3 and a half days to explore and we easily managed to fill this time.
Using the hop on/off bus, we started with the famous Guinness Factory. While not a big drinker and certainly not a drinker of stout, visiting the Guinness Storehouse while in Dublin just seemed like a must-do.
The self-guided tour through the factory traced the story of the drink showing the brewing process, providing samples to try along the way and also covering the role of the drink in popular culture and adverting for the brand. The highlight though, came right at the end with a visit to the Gravity Bar, a bar on top of the Storehouse which offers views across the capital. After trying a sample of Guinness along the tour and deciding it definitely wasn’t for me, I opted to exchange the voucher we had been given for a free Guinness in the bar for a Diet Coke instead!!
If whiskey is more your thing, then there are a few distilleries you can tour in Dublin including the original site of the Jameson Distillery on Bow Street.
Trinity College and the Book of Kells
The next day, we walked across the River Liffey to south Dublin and visited Trinity College. While it is possible to take a guided tour of this historic campus, we chose to look around by ourselves, picking up some pamphlets from its visitors office. Here, we also booked tickets into the college’s Book of Kells exhibition. The Book of Kells is an illustrated Gospel dating back to the first century and it was really interesting to see pages of the intricately decorated text and learn about it.
That afternoon, we hopped back onto the tour bus, riding it out towards Phoenix Park and hopping off at Kilmainham Gaol. This former prison can be visited by taking a guided tour. Our small group was lead around the building with its history and stories of former inmates explained to us. With Ireland having such a rich history of civil unrest, there were plenty of tales to be told and while this was one of the more unusual attractions on our list, we found the tour fascinating.
Staying more central the next day, we wandered back towards the River Liffey, veering off O’Connell Street for a spot of shopping on Henry Street. Running west from the huge Spire sculpture on O’Connell Street, Henry Street is a great place to shop with a huge selection of high street stores including Penney’s, the Irish version of Primark.
Heading next across the bridge to the Temple Bar area with its cobbled streets and snapping a photo with the famous Temple Bar pub, we then walked along the river to take photos with the iconic Ha’penny Bridge before walking further into the city, past the Molly Malone Statue and up to Grafton Street.
This is the main shopping street in Dublin, lined with department stores such as Brown Thomas and high street favourites like the Disney Store. It is also well-known for its buskers. Acts can only play there for an hour before moving on so there’s usually something different on offer each time you walk down the street!
At the top of Grafton Street, lies St Stephen’s Green, a pretty city park with landscaped gardens, fountains, a lake and sculptures dotted around. We found the park to be an oasis of calm from the busy city and enjoyed our stroll through.
If you enjoy exploring green spaces then head to Phoenix Park in the west of the city. This park is one of the largest in Europe and also home to Dublin Zoo.
Not far from St Stephen’s Green is smaller Merrion Square. Our main reason for visiting this park was to see the Oscar Wilde sculpture surrounded by some of his famous quotes.
If you’re a fan of Irish literary works, then a visit to Dublin’s Writers’ Museum on the north side of the river at Parnell Square is a must do.
The museum celebrates the works of Irish writers including Wilde, Yeats, Joyce with letters, books and personal artefacts on display and an audio tour guiding you through is included in the admission.
While in the area, we also visited the Garden of Remembrance at Parnell Square.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know Dublin had a castle until it was pointed out to me on the hop on/off bus tour of the city!
We decided to visit and took the guided tour option which took us through the state apartments and more. We found the tour interesting, providing plenty of history on the city although after taking the bus tour and Kilmainham Gaol tour, we felt we had heard some of the stories over and over again by now.
We did especially enjoy seeing the many opulently decorated rooms of the castle.
River Liffey Boat Cruise
We got out on the River Liffey taking a 45-minute guided river cruise with Dublin Discovered Boat Tours. The boats were fully enclosed allowing the cruises to operate in any weather but had large glass windows allowing us good views out as we sailed down the river.
The tour took us down to Dublin Docklands from Grattan Street bridge in the city centre and back as the history of some of the many bridges we passed under was explained as well as important building such as Customs House pointed out.
Since my first visit to Dublin, I have returned a further three times, each time the main reason being to attend a concert. The city’s o2 Arena, east of the city on the north bank of the River Liffey at The Point, is a great venue and easy to get to on public transport from the city if you don’t fancy the walk.
If you’re after some Irish culture, there are a few venues in the city offering traditional Celtic nights with Irish dancers and music. We attended one at the Arlington Hotel. Although it was possible to attend it as a dinner show with a 3-course meal included, we opted to just sit in the bar area and have drinks while watching the entertainment.
Dublin has a lively nightlife with the Temple Bar area being especially popular with clubbers and stag and hen parties. We chose to stay away from that area in the evening but did enjoy a visit to Cafe En Seine on Dawson Street with its Art Nouveau decor and delicious cocktails.
Dublin has lots to offer and plenty of other attractions to visit including many World-class museums such as the National Gallery of Ireland, the National Museum of Ireland’s Natural History Museum, The Little Museum of Dublin and the GPO Museum.
It is a city I love to return to over and over again!
After spending the morning at Hershey’s Chocolate World, we were now making our way to Philadelphia airport to hand back our rental before making our way into the city for one last night in a hotel.
Our route to the airport briefly took us into Delaware, a state which we had travelled through before on a Trek America tour but not stopped in so we had made plans to divert slightly to the city of Wilmington. We had left it to the last minute to look up where to aim for in the city but after a bit of googling in our motel the night before, had found a National Park Service site there so decided to stop there.
Pulling up at Fort Christina Park, the National Historic Site on the banks of the Christina River, we walked down to the monument which stood there. Unsure at what we were really looking at, we were pleased when a Park Ranger came down to chat with us, answering some of our questions and explaining that the site was like the ‘Plymouth Rock of Delaware’, being where the first Swedish and Finnish settlers had arrived in the USA.
Just down the river from the monument, was a replica of the ship they sailed on, the Kalmar Nyckel.
After leaving Fort Christina Park, we continued to the airport, saying a fond farewell to our rental car then catching the train into the city of Philadelphia.
We arrived at the end of a horrendous thunderstorm and made our way to the Sheraton hotel having decided to spend our last night in a bit of luxury after 4 weeks of roadside motels.
That evening, we walked the short distance to the One Liberty Place building to visit its 57th floor observation deck. The rain had cleared and the sun was starting to set which made for some pretty views across the city.
The next day, we had a late night flight back to the UK so we could spend the day exploring the city. We had visited Philadelphia before on our Trek America tour but it had been a short, one hour visit so we hadn’t seen anything in any detail. This time, we had booked tickets to tour Independence Hall in the morning.
We arrived a bit earlier than our ticket time so we could first visit the nearby Independence Visitor Centre and pick up Junior Ranger booklets to fill in.
The tour was interesting and we especially enjoyed seeing printings of the Articles of Confederation, the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the Great Essentials Exhibition.
After our tour, we joined the lengthy but quick-moving queue to see the Liberty Bell before returning to the Independence Visitor Centre to hand over our Junior Ranger booklets to earn our badges.
After a Philly Cheesesteak lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, we decided to get tickets for the hop on/off city tour bus in order to see as much of the city as we could in a short amount of time.
We first hopped off the bus at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, not to visit the museum itself, but to see the building’s famous ‘Rocky steps’. The steps to the museum feature in the Rocky film where Sylvester Stallone runs up and down them to train and we decided to also attempt to run all the way from the bottom to the top.
We spent the rest of the afternoon completing the bus tour loop, hopping off again at Elfreth’s Alley, America’s oldest residential street and also walking to see Betsy Ross’ house, supposedly the place Betsy Ross lived in when she sewed the first American flag.
Then it was time to collect our luggage from the hotel and catch the train back to Philadelphia airport. After more than 4 exciting weeks travelling across 16 states of the USA, it was finally time to return to the UK.
After 4 weeks on the road, 3 spent travelling through the Midwest states and a final week cutting across from Chicago to Philadelphia via Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, we were a just a day away from returning home to the UK.
We had spent most of the day in Ohio, visiting Cleveland then driving through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It was now late afternoon and we still had to make it to tonight’s stopover point at a motel on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Leaving Ohio behind, we briefly cut through a corner of West Virginia, a deliberate detour as it was another state we had not visited before. Here, we had a stop planned in the town of Chester as it is home to the World’s largest teapot! Finding this roadside stop easily – it was hard to miss! – we pulled over and jumped out, posing under it for photos holding empty Starbucks cups we had kept purely for this occasion!
Then, after a quick visit to the local CVS to purchase a West Virginia souvenir, it was back on the road and we were crossing the border into Pennsylvania just minutes later.
Battling rush hour traffic around Pittsburgh, we were relieved when we finally made it to our motel to relax for what was left of the evening.
The next day, we were excited to be visiting the town of Punxsutawney, another last minute addition to our road trip itinerary – and quite a hefty diversion from our original route! – after I had happened to watch Groundhog Day just a few weeks before we departed and, seeing it was set in Pennsylvania, had the idea to visit the groundhog!
Although the movie wasn’t actually filmed in Punxsutawney itself, the annual Groundhog Day ceremony is actually help there each year and the town has plenty of Groundhog-related reasons for stopping by!
Upon arriving in Punxsutawney, we were greeted by a giant, top hat wearing Groundhog welcoming us.
After a quick stop for photos, we continued into the town where we quickly found Phil’s Burrow, we den where Punxsutawney Phil sleeps the rest of the year either side of the Groundhog Day festivities. As we peered in, we could see the cute groundhog snuggled up inside and at one point, he even looked up at us, stretching and yawning before snuggling back down again!
The town had figures of groundhogs dressed in various ways dotted around it and after having a quick look around, we drove to the interestingly-named Gobblers Knob, site of the annual Groundhog Day ceremony, for more fun photo opportunities!
After that fun diversion, it was a bit of a race against time to reach our destination for the day, Gettysburg, where we had booked a historical tour of the battlefields on horseback.
Having done horse-riding in Wyoming on our Trek America tour a few years before, we were both eager to fit it in somewhere on our trip this time and this tour seemed like a good way of ticking that off our list as well as finding out some of the history of Gettysburg.
We arrived too late to spend any time exploring the town, instead having to quickly drop our things at our motel before checking in for our horseback tour.
Unfortunately, it was a sweltering humid day and way too hot to be sat on the back of a horse, out in the middle of a field with no shade, listening to a history lesson on the American Civil War! At one point, I was so uncomfortable, I thought I was going to pass out! Luckily I didn’t but I spent so much time concentrating on not fainting in the heat that I found I wasn’t really following what was being said by our guide.
We also both felt that the tour had taken for granted that those on it would have some background knowledge of the Civil War as I guess most Americans would have studied it at school whereas being from the UK, our knowledge was less than even basic which made the tour even harder to follow.
I did at least enjoy the parts of the tour where we were trotting past the battlefields with a slight breeze blowing through my hair but these parts came too few and far between.
The next morning, we visited the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Visitor Centre and Museum which we felt we got more out of than on the horse back tour the previous evening. Then it was back on the road to drive towards the final destination of our road trip, Philadelphia.
We still had a few stops scheduled before returning our hire car to the Avis drop off at Philadelphia Airport, starting with a visit to Hershey’s Chocolate World!
As well as the huge Hershey store, Hershey’s Chocolate World operates a free tour to all visitors. We arrived early just after opening time but the site was already pretty busy. The queue for the tour moved quickly though and acted as part of the attraction as information boards along where we queued told us the history of Hershey’s chocolate. The main attraction though was a ride through a mocked up Hershey’s chocolate factory. We sat in a small car which took us around the factory while Hershey products including chocolate drops, talked and sang to us explaining how the chocolate was made.
As part of the tour, we were also given some free chocolate bars to sample. Definitely worth the stop!
From Hershey World, we continued on our way and soon found ourselves in Amish Country, finding ourselves sharing the roads with horse-drawn Amish buggies a few times as we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside stopping briefly in Lancaster.
After our stop, we would be leaving Pennsylvania briefly, driving into Delaware en route to Philadelphia to finally complete our road trip!
Our first stop, just across the Michigan-Ohio border in the city of Toledo, was at a restaurant we had spotted on a roadside America website, Tony Packo’s. The Hungarian-American restaurant specialises in hot dogs and is a local institution having been in the area since the 1930s and while the food was fine (we especially enjoyed our cookies and ice cream dessert!), we were stopping by because it also doubles as a museum of signed hot dog buns!
All the walls were plastered with autographed hot dog rolls from celebrities who had stopped by over the years and it was fun trying to spot the stars we recognised!
Staying overnight in a Toledo motel, we were up early the next morning to drive to the familiar surrounds of Sandusky, home of the best amusement park we had ever been to, Cedar Point. We had spent the afternoon at the park on our Trek America tour a few years earlier and it just wasn’t long enough so today we were heading back to make a day of it!
Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a corporate day out meaning the park was a lot busier than it would have otherwise been but we still had a fantastic day riding the many World-beating roller coasters.
Leaving the park late evening, we drove the short distance to the outskirts of Cleveland where we were staying the night in a Travelodge on the edge of Lake Erie.
The next morning, we drove into Cleveland itself to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a museum we had passed on our last visit to Ohio but not stopped at. The museum, sat on the bank of Lake Erie, had lots of music-related artefacts including costumes and instruments belonging to many popular rock and pop artists from over the ages.
Despite it being a ‘rock’ museum, the displays covered a diverse array of artists including Elvis, the Beatles and Roy Orbison, Aerosmith and Michael Jackson all the way up to modern day popstars including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and it was fun to explore.
After our Cleveland visit, we drove south to spend the afternoon in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one of the lesser known National Parks of America.
Knowing little about the park, we made the visitor centre our first port of call, talking to a park ranger to help us decide on an itinerary for the afternoon.
Having entered the park at it’s north entrance, it made most sense to head south and exit at the other end so we drove along the main park road stopping along the way at some of the short trails to see waterfalls, rivers, woodland, marshlands and a covered bridge!
From Cuyahoga Valley National Park, we continued to drive through Ohio towards the state of Pennsylvania where we would be spending the remaining couple of nights of our trip. It had been fun revisiting Ohio and I’m sure we will return again one day!
We were back in Chicago after a 3-week road trip through the Midwest states and after saying goodbye to one of our tripmates, two of us were continuing the adventure for one more week to tick off a few more states as we travelled to our final destination of Philadelphia.
After grabbing breakfast to eat in Millennium Park (because we couldn’t possibly spend a few hours in the Windy City and not visit the Cloudgate sculpture), we retrieved our rental vehicle from the hotel car park and hit the road again, driving north towards the state of Michigan.
Today’s destination would be the lakeside town of South Haven. From Chicago, we’d be following the east shore of Lake Michigan up through Indiana and into Michigan State.
Our first stop of the day was at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park). After calling into the Visitor Centre, we drove down to shore to have a picnic on the beach and walk along the lakeshore gazing up at the huge dunes backing the beach.
Back on the road, we continued towards Michigan and our South Haven motel. After checking in and grabbing some food from the Arby’s next door, we drove further north along the lakeshore to the town of Saugatuck where we had booked a dune buggy ride.
Sat in the back of a trailer, we were taken out on an off-road trail through the dunes. Racing up and over the dunes was great fun and half way through our tour, we stopped at a view point on top of the dunes and were given some time to take photos before we were on our way again.
After our dune buggy ride, we returned to the pretty lakeshore town of South Haven. We had booked a sunset lake cruise and luckily it was the perfect weather for it. We spent the next hour or so relaxing as we watched the sun go down on the horizon.
The next day, we drove east across the state towards Detroit. Today, we had a roadside stop scheduled that we were especially looking forward to – a trip to Hell!
The town of Hell did not disappoint. Playing on the town’s name, we were greeted with ‘Welcome to Hell’ as we entered Screams store and got to walk through the Gates of Hell to enter the grounds of the Hell Chapel of Love, a popular wedding venue!
While grabbing lunch from the Hell Hole Bar, we wrote the Hell postcards we had bought from Screams then visited the post office to send them. Before dropping them in the postbox, the cashier stamped them with ‘Been Thru Hell’ and singed them so they looked like they’d been through the fires of Hell!
A really fun roadside stop!
Our final stop in the state of Michigan was just outside the city of Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum.
We had read that this was a great museum to visit, on par with the Smithsonian Museums in Washington but it was even better than expected. As well as popular culture exhibits, the museum had a huge collection of historical artefacts including George Washington’s camp bed, the Ford Theatre chair President Lincoln was sat in when he was shot, the Rosa Parks bus and the car which President Kennedy was assassinated in.
It was a fascinating museum to visit.
After leaving the museum it was also time to leave the state of Michigan as we continued towards Ohio where we were staying that evening but we’d really enjoyed our first visit to the state.
Crossing into Indiana early afternoon, we stopped for lunch at an IHOP on the outskirts of Columbus before driving into the town centre to visit Kids Commons, an interactive science museum we had seen listed on a roadside America website due to it housing the World’s largest toilet!
The toilet was part of the museum’s ExploraHouse! exhibit where children can find out how different components come together to make a house by scrambling around different rooms and playing with the interactive elements like light switches. The toilet, in the bathroom area, doubled as a slide so you could mimic being flushed down it! A hilarious roadside stop and well worth the $6 entrance fee.
While there, we had fun looking around the rest of the museum, playing on the other interactive exhibits including a giant bubble machine!
Next stop was another giant rocking chair. Like the Red Rocker we had stopped at in Missouri, Big John which sits outside a furniture store in the town of Franklin IN, also shares the title of Former World’s Largest Rocking Chair. The chair didn’t seem as impressive as the Red Rocker but was still a fun roadside stop.
While planning our trip, we had had the idea of visiting a State Fair somewhere and luckily, found that the Indiana State Fair was being held on the days we just happened to be in that area.
This had made finding affordable accommodation in the city a challenge and after even considering hostel accommodation, we had eventually settled on a loft room in a small bed and breakfast on the outskirts of the city.
Conveniently, it lay on the bus route to the State Fair grounds so after arriving mid-afternoon and checking in, we caught the bus out to the state fair grounds to spend the evening there.
We weren’t completely sure what a state fair was, we’d seen pictures and footage on TV shows and knew it usually involved a fairground and food stalls and we guessed there would be local exhibits from around Indiana state. Expecting it to be busy being a Friday evening, we had booked our tickets in advance to save time queuing to buy them there.
Once inside, we found endless rows of food stalls mainly offering fried goods or tooth-rotting sugary treats! We each bought a corn on the cob, one of the healthier treats on offer, but even that was dripping in butter! Later, we grabbed delicious BBQ pulled pork sandwiches for dinner.
Away from the food stalls, we found, as expected, lots of local stalls offering samples and selling their farm produced goods – we especially enjoyed sampling various strengths of maple syrup at one stall! – but also some interactive events.
There was a tent housing a variety of farm animals to pet and we sat and watched a pig race cheering on our chosen porcine hero as it raced around a track through various obstacles.
We walked around the fairground to see what rides were on offer but decided the prices were a bit much and left without having a go on anything.
Deciding we should try at least one of the fried or sugary treats on offer, before leaving we bought a Funnel Cake between us. This calorific snack ticked both boxes being fried dough drizzled into a web so big it hardly fitted the paper plate it was served on then dusted in powdered sugar and drizzled in chocolate sauce!
Feeling we had now experienced pretty much everything the state fair had to offer us, we then caught the bus back to our b&b.
The next morning, we were leaving Indianapolis to make our way back to Chicago in time for one of us to make an evening flight back to the UK. We left early with plenty of time to spare and a few stops scheduled along the way, the first being at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. We didn’t have any plans to pay to go into the museum, we just wanted to see the huge dinosaurs surrounding the museum building.
After taking photos of the dinosaurs, we had a quick look in the museum gift store and, after seeing information about what the museum had to offer, decided it actually looked worth a visit. Agreeing to drop any other stops we had planned for the day, we worked out that we could fit in an hour or so at the museum and still make it to Chicago on time.
As well as displays on dinosaurs,interactive science exhibits and plenty of opportunities to dress up, the museum also had lots popular culture exhibits including one on toys from the past, housing items we recognised from our own childhood. On the top floor, there was a fun circus exhibit and we also found a carousel we just had to have a go on!
We spent a bit longer than anticipated at the museum but still had more than enough time to reach Chicago on time. That was until we stopped for lunch at seemingly the busiest McDonalds ever where it took us almost an hour to get served and suddenly it was a race against time to make it to Chicago in time. As soon as we arrived, we had to say a hasty goodbye as our friend raced to the airport while we checked back into the hotel we’d began our adventure in 3 weeks ago.
It had been an exciting 3 weeks exploring America’s Midwest states and we’d seen and experienced some amazing things. And our adventure wasn’t over yet – we still had one week left on the road travelling to Philadelphia via Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia…
After more than 2 weeks on the road, we were on the home stretch and close to completing our 3-week tour through America’s Midwest. Looping anti-clockwise from Chicago, we had so far spent time in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri and now, we had just 2 states left before we returned to the Windy City. Starting with Kentucky.
After a couple of nights in the city, we left our St Louis hotel for Louisville, Kentucky with, what we thought was, plenty of time to spare. We had an unusual activity booked their for that afternoon – ziplining underground in some caves – so needed to make sure we arrived in plenty of time to check in.
Unfortunately, we had completely forgot, or just hadn’t realised at all, that we’d be crossing a time zone and because we were travelling East, we would be losing an hour!
It wasn’t until we checked on the traffic as we left St Louis and saw that our arrival time was out that we suddenly realised. Luckily, we were still able to make it on time, it just meant we had to do the drive in one go without any of our planned stops including the stop at a KFC just because we were in Kentucky and at the Louisville Visitor Centre to take photos with a Colonel Sanders wax statue.
Arriving in Louisville and finding the Mega Cavern complex relatively easily, we checked in for our Mega Zips tour and got decked out in our safety equipment. Our guides and ziplining experts took us into the caverns where we manoeuvred around via 6 ziplines and 2 rather precarious rope bridges, often with just the torch on our helmet for light! It was an amazing experience leaping into darkness, often not being able to even see the other end of the zipline as we left the platform, although for the most part, the caverns were well-lit as we zoomed over the cavern below us.
After our zipline adventure, we drove to Cave City where we checked in at accommodation for the next 2 nights at the Wigwam Village! Here, our motel room was an en suite concrete tepee. It was a fun alternative to the standard motel rooms we had become used to and there was a lot more room inside than it looked like there would be from the outside!
The next morning, we drove into Cave City and after breakfast at the Cracker Barrel, visited its Dinosaur World attraction. The park had a collection of life-size dinosaur replicas. It was definitely somewhere aimed at kids and wouldn’t have been my choice of how to spend a couple of hours but one of my travel buddies was a big dinosaur fan and seemed to enjoy it!
After Dinosaur World, we returned to Cave City to look around its few stores and grab some snacks before driving up to the nearby Mammoth Cave National Park. The park is nestled above Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the World. We had booked a Cave Tour and after picking up junior ranger booklets to fill in from the visitor centre, checked into head underground.
There were a variety of tours to choose from, all differing length and group sizes, but we chose the Historic Tour as it fitted best with our plans for the day. The tour was really fascinating, taking us through the cave to see all the highlights and following in the footsteps of explorers from as far back as the 1800s. We heard the stories of these explorers and saw graffiti etched into the cave walls from long ago.
Once back in the daylight, we used what we had learnt to complete our Junior Ranger booklets and earn another ranger badge!
That evening, after dinner at a nearby Pizza Hut, we visited Ralphie’s Fun Centre for a change from our usual night in and a game of bowling!
Our journey from Kentucky to Indiana the next day meant retracing our inbound route slightly. This gave us the opportunity to call into one of the stops we didn’t have time for before, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. The site housed a memorial to President Lincoln inside of which was a replica of the Kentucky cabin he was born in.
Then it was time to say goodbye Kentucky as we continued on our road trip, Indiana-bound!
After years of visiting major American cities on various city breaks and then spending some time travelling across America on small group escorted tours, I was really starting to tick the 50 states of America off, having even managed to visit Alaska which isn’t part of the ‘Great 48’ mainland states. A visit to Denver, Colorado marked reaching my 30th state (ok, some states I’d just passed through without stopping at at this point, but it still kinda counted!) and it seemed silly now not to try and aim to tick off all 50.
Looking at a map, it became clear that the majority of the states I had left to visit, were congregated around the middle – the Midwest states – and as it seemed to be agreed on most travel sites that there wasn’t a lot to see in this part of the USA, none of the small group tours I looked at visited any of these in much detail, if at all.
Having made a great group of friends on the tours I had previously done, I began to see if any of these would be interested in adding to the number of states we had visited and eventually, this lead to a group of 3 of us deciding to plan our own tour, a roadtrip of the Midwest states, lasting around the 3-week mark.
We were all drivers so would hire a car, plan a route and take it in turns to drive each day. The aim was to tick off the states in the middle and find our own adventures along the way, proving the websites which said there was nothing to see in these states wrong!
Having never planned a trip like this before – we were all used to jumping on a group tour and having everything done for us – we were unsure where to start but having seen our tour guides in action, how difficult could it be driving across America, getting to places on time and finding interesting places to stop at along the way, right?
Deciding that Chicago would be a good ‘gateway to the Midwest’, we began to plot a possible circular route passing through as many states we hadn’t yet visited as possible before arriving back in Chicago.
Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri were all on our list and, similar to our Trek trips, we decided to aim to spend just one or two nights at each stop along the way.
We had very little idea on what each of these states had to offer but we’d heard of St Louis, Missouri and all wanted to visit its Gateway Arch and one of us knew someone who had visited a Wizard of Oz-themed attraction in Kansas which sounded like fun – who doesn’t like the Wizard of Oz after all – so we added those ideas to our list as a starting point.
Wanting to try and recreate the feel of our Trek America trips, we also made a list of all the activities we had enjoyed on these tours so that we could find similar opportunities along the way this time – National Park visits, white water rafting, horse riding, bike or Segway tours… were all jotted down on a document we had created and shared via Google Drive.
On our Trek America trip across the Northern states, we had spent a lot of time travelling through South Dakota but never made it across the border into North Dakota. It was a bit out of the way, to say the least, of the other states we were aiming to cross off this trip but as we were unsure when else we would ever get there, we started to look into whether we could somehow add it into our itinerary.
Remembering a brief couple of hours stop we’d had at Wisconsin Dells on our Trek America trip, we thought we could factor in a longer stop there after leaving Chicago then from there it made sense to once again pass through the state of Minnesota from which we could travel up into North Dakota before heading south through South Dakota and into Iowa to begin our original circular route back to Chicago.
So that is where we began, with 2 nights pencilled in in Chicago then 2 nights in Wisconsin Dells. I’d heard a lot about the Mall of America with its indoor amusement park which sounded like fun so we pencilled in a 2 night stop in Minneapolis.
Thinking of Minnesota reminded us of the random stop we had made during our Trek America trip at the Jolly Green Giant statue and museum and got us wondering what other random roadside attractions we might be able to find. This led us to the discovery of The World’s Biggest Ball of Twine, also in Minnesota and suddenly our trip took on a whole new direction.
We decided to try and find as many random roadside attractions as we could to stop at along the way and as we soon found out, if that was our aim, then the Midwest was definitely the right place to be to find them!
Finding a couple of websites that listed this kind of thing, we began to plot our route and itinerary around these random stops! The Roadtrip America and Roadside America sites, both had useful map features pinpointing places of interest in each state and we soon had a long list for Wisconsin alone including the Jelly Belly Factory, a Cheese Castle and giant sculptures of a cow, an elephant and a bicycle!
We had a lot of debate over where our overnight stops should be in each state, how long our drive times each day could reasonably be and what routes to take and there had to be a lot of compromise. Eventually, we realised that adding in North Dakota was too much of a stretch so we dropped the 4 days we’d have spent there and in South Dakota from our original plans, leaving us with a couple of days to add in elsewhere along our route which we ended up allocating to a stop in Branson, Missouri.
A rough route worked out starting and ending in Chicago and taking exactly 3 weeks, the 2 of us who were school teachers and had more time to play with plotted out an extra week or so on the end of our trip with the aim of ticking off the states of Michigan and West Virginia and ending in Philadelphia – a city we’d made an hour’s stop in on our Trek America tours but felt we needed a bit more time exploring.
Flights booked, we went back to the first draft of our itinerary and spent the next few months fine tuning it, looking at where we’d make our one or two night stops and booking roadside motels or convenient city hotels. Here, we found a slight problem for travelling as a group of three in that most accommodations offered rooms with 2 doubles and didn’t offer triple rooms or rooms with an extra bed. This meant that most nights, two of us had to share a double bed while we took turns have the other bed to ourselves! Car parking was also something new for us to consider and while most roadside motels offered it for free, this was rarely the case in the cities so we had to factor this into our budget.
We had originally said we’d aim to keep drive days down to a maximum of 4-5 hours driving but the more we researched the states we were passing through, the more random roadside attractions we found that were ‘just a short diversion off our route’ and just had to be added into our itinerary. We even managed to alter our route to include cutting through a corner of Texas as one of us hadn’t been to that state before!
Suddenly, we found that some of our 4 hour drive days, were now 6 or 7 hour drive days but we told ourselves it would be fine as we could make an early start and share the driving three ways. With two of us making it clear from the start we were much less confident with city driving, we also had to make plans to switch drivers well before we reached any cities on our itinerary.
The last thing we got around to booking were the attractions and activities that needed to be booked in advance. Where possible, we booked these in places where we were staying 2 nights so we were already in the area and didn’t have to factor in possible traffic stopping us from reaching the attraction on time. If we couldn’t do this, then we aimed to book them for first thing in the morning on the day we left that area so any driving was after. There were a couple of activities including ziplining in Kentucky where we had to book for the afternoon we arrived so we made sure we didn’t have any other stops planned along the way that day and added an extra hour or so onto our arrival time, booking a slot for late afternoon. It was good job we did in Kentucky as we had completely forgot to factor in US time zones into our plans and we later realised we would lose an hour crossing a time zone that day!
There were also some activities we had to drop purely because we didn’t have the time – we’d read that in Nebraska, something called ‘tanking’ was a popular summertime activity. It involved floating down a river sat in a giant tub and it looked like great fun. But as we researched it, we realised it was a full day activity with tanking trips taking 4-5 hours and unfortunately there was no way we could fit that in. We replaced it with an air-boating trip on the River Platte so we did at least get out on the eater!
When our trip finally came around, we were very excited but also nervous at the thought of hiring a car and driving around such a huge country, on the other side of the road, with its complicated multilane highways around the cities. We had a great few days in Chicago after arriving in the US but sat in silence on the subway en route to the airport to pick up our hire car on the day our road trip was to begin, probably all thinking about all the things that could go wrong!
Three weeks later, we were back in Chicago after what had been, all in all, a pretty successful trip. While we had learnt that we had way over planned what we could fit in on a drive day, we had made it to many of the roadside stops we had in our itinerary and had made it on time to all of the activities we had booked specific time slots for along the way. We also found out that 6-7 hours drive days were not a good idea as we somehow seemed to add on 3 hours to the timings we had down in our itinerary each day once food stops, petrol stops, stops to switch drivers, time spent at each attraction along the way and general faffing had been added in; so an estimated 4-hour drive day took us 7 hours and a 7-hour drive day took us 10 hours!
Lessons learnt for our next US roadtrip and there have been 2 more equally successful trips since.
I’ll be writing about our trip soon so come back to find out exactly how our trip went and what we got up to along the way soon!!