I was in Italy, one of my favourite European countries, and after spending a few days in the Tuscan city of Florence and its surrounds, it was time to move on to our second destination, Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of North Italy.
Arriving from Florence by train, we took a taxi to our hotel. It was late afternoon and once settled in, we grabbed a map of the city from the hotel reception and headed straight out to familiarise ourselves with our surroundings.
A short distance from where we were staying, we found ourselves in Piazza Maggiore, the city’s main square.
The square is surrounded by some of Bologna’s most important buildings including Biblioteca Salaborsa- a historic library – and the Basilica di San Pietro and in the centre of the square lies the Fountain of Neptune.
From Piazza Maggiore, we walked along Via d’Azeglio, a pedestrianised street lined with high street stores and cafes before looping back around to the main square again.
That evening, we walked north of the square finding ourselves in a maze of narrow streets and choosing a small Trattoria to have dinner at before walking back to our hotel.
With one full day left to explore the city, we found a self-guided walking tour online to follow around the city.
Returning to Piazza Maggiore, we visited the Basilica di San Pietro and then Biblioteca Salaborsa. While this is the main public library in the city, the main reason for visiting actually lies beneath the building. Through the floor in the centre of the library, it is possible to see the ruins of an ancient building underneath.
We walked down to the basement level of the building where for a small fee, it was possible to get a bit closer to the ruins, viewing them from an open walkway that has been built above.
Next, we crossed the square to visit Palazzo Communale. Formerly a palace, it now houses some of the city’s administrative offices but is also home to the Civic Art Collection.
We wandered through the building looking at some of the art on display and enjoying the views over Piazza Maggiore from the building’s windows.
From Piazza Maggiore, we walked the short distance to the Archaeological Civic Museum.
The museum is worth visiting for its building alone, being housed in a 15th century Palazzo, and it contains exhibitions which include Greek, Roman and Egyptian artefacts.
After spending an hour or so looking around, we continued our self-guided tour of the city walking down to the Basilica of San Domenico, a historic church known for its multitude of priceless works of art.
We then walked back on ourselves and along Via Rizzoli towards Two Towers Piazza with the St Petronius statue stood in front of the tall, imposing structures.
After stopping for gelato from Gelateria Gianni, we walked through the Quadrilatero area to Basilica di Santa Stefano, a maze of 4 (originally there were 7) connecting churches.
For our final stop on our sightseeing tour, we walked back to Piazza Maggiore and then headed north to find Finestrella di Via Piella. Here you can peer through a window in a wall to see one of the remaining sections of one of Bologna’s historic canals, Canale delle Moline. Taking a picture through the window, it could easily have been a photo taken of the more famous canals of Venice!
Feet aching from walking all over the city, we returned to the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero, an old medieval market area just east of Piazza Maggiore. Here, we sat out at one of the many bars for Aperitivo, enjoying a selection of breads, cheeses and meats over drinks.
Returning to our hotel for a bit to rest, we then ventured out once more that evening, again finding a small tucked away Trattoria just north of the main touristy areas of the city for a late dinner.
I’d enjoyed my visit to the city of Bologna, less touristy and busy than Florence had been but still with plenty to see and do. Next up, Venice!
A city break visiting Florence, Lucca, Pisa and Siena
With one of my friends studying at a language school in Florence, it wasn’t long before I arranged a trip out there to coincide with her course finishing so we could spend some time travelling in our favourite European country, Italy.
We planned that I would spend a few days in Florence during which my friend would show me around the city she had been living in the last few months and from where we could also take day trips out to nearby towns and cities then we’d travel by train up to Bologna for a few days, a city which neither of us had previously visited and finally, catch the train to Venice where we would end our trip.
Not being able to find any reasonably priced flights into Florence itself, I instead planned to fly to Milan, then catch a train to complete my journey. Being used to just being able to buy a ticket and hop onto a train in the UK, I assumed that the same could be done in Italy, my friend suggesting that this was the case too, but upon arrival in Milan and making my way from the airport to the Central Station, I found that all tickets on the intercity trains had to be pre-booked and as that weekend was a public holiday, most of the train leaving in the next few hours were fully booked!
Luckily, I had taken an early flight into Italy and it was still morning so, managing to get myself on a train leaving late afternoon, I checked my case into the station’s Left Luggage for a few euros and had a wander into central Milan, a city I was vaguely familiar with from a previous visit. After spending a few hours window shopping and gasping in awe once again at the breath-taking Duomo, I grabbed some lunch and walked back to the station ready to finally catch my train to Florence!
Arriving in the city early evening, I managed to navigate my way to the centrally located AirBnB apartment we had booked to finally meet up with my friend and once I’d settled in, we went out for drinks followed by a pizza dinner at one of the local restaurants and gelato for dessert.
The next day, a day we had designated for sightseeing in the city, we awoke to heavy rain. Not letting the weather deter us, my friend took me round the city past its impressive Basilica, The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and up to Piazza della Signoria, the city’s main square, overlooked by Palazzo Vecchio. The square is home to a variety of sculptures including a copy of Michelangelo’s David.
The square was extremely busy with it being both a weekend and public holiday and looking out across the square from the steps of the Loggia dei Lanzi sculpture gallery, there was nothing but a sea of umbrellas in front of us!
From Piazza della Signoria, we walked to the Uffizi Gallery, a huge museum which houses famous works of art including Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Unfortunately, with the city being so busy over the holiday weekend, there was a 2 hours wait to get into the gallery for anyone who hadn’t pre-booked tickets so, as my friend had visited previously, I decided to give it a miss!
Instead, we continued on towards the River Arno to cross the Ponte Vecchio, the famous stone bridge lined with jewellery stores before walking up past Pitti Palace and along to Piazzale Michelangelo walking through the pretty Rose Garden along the way.
The panoramic views over Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo were really beautiful.
In the square itself, as well as finding yet another copy of the artist’s David sculpture, we also found a gelato festival going on! Investigating further, we discovered that for a set price, it was possible to get a sample of gelato from each of the stands, exchanging your final ticket for a second sample of the flavour you liked most.
We didn’t need much convincing to take part and were soon parting with our money in exchange for a stamp card.
After spending the afternoon going from stall to stall enjoying the gelato on offer, we were unanimous in our decision that the Nutella gelato was our favourite and both went back for seconds!
Full up on gelato, we waddled our way back across the River Arno and walked to the Basilica of Santa Croce, spending some time exploring inside the beautiful church.
Next,we walked back to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore where, seeing that the crowds from earlier had disappeared, we joined the short queue to go inside and see the amazing dome interior painted with a representation of The Last Judgement.
Finally, walking back to our apartment, we stopped at the Basilica of St Lorenzo, one of Florence’s largest and oldest churches.
The next day, we had made plans to travel out of Florence to the city of Lucca. Catching the train from the main station in Florence, we arrived in Lucca mid-morning.
After exploring the city and some of its churches, we had lunch in one of the pretty squares before visiting the Puccini Museum – Lucca is the city the famous Opera composer was born in.
Then, after visiting its impressive Cathedral, Duomo di San Martino, there was just enough time for spot of shopping before returning by train back to Florence.
We took another trip away from the city of Florence the next day, this time to the walled city of Siena.
We spent the day wandering through the city, having lunch in the beautiful Piazza del Campo – the city’s main square – before walking to its Cathedral, the striking Duomo di Siena, with its distinctive stripey decor!
I was up early the next day, our last full day in Florence before moving on to Bologna. We planned to spend the day out of the city again, this time travelling to Pisa, but first, I wanted to visit the Accademia Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s David sculpture.
I arrived at the gallery about half hour before it opened so I was one of the first in the queue and was through the doors within a few minutes of it opening. The museum was pretty quiet at that time of day meaning I could take my time admiring the many works of art that were housed there.
After visiting the Accademia Gallery, it was back to the central station to catch a train out of the city to Pisa. From the station we walked through the more modern part of the city grabbing some lunch at a bakery before reaching Piazza dei Miracoli.
The large, walled square is home to a collection of buildings including Pisa Cathedral but more famously, and the reason we were there, it is also where the Leaning Tower of Pisa stands!
We spent some time trying to get the standard photo of us holding up the leaning tower before visiting the other buildings. Then I decided to buy a ticket to actually go up the Leaning Tower, an odd experience as you try to walk on the slanted floors but worth it for the views from the top!
Then, it was back to Florence for our last evening in the city. After a pizza dinner, we went out for drinks, stopping to take photos of the Duomo lit up at night.
The next morning, we wandered through the city of Florence one last time, stopping to take a few more photos of the Duomo seeing as the weather was finally a bit better! Then it was back to the station, this time to leave Tuscany behind and catch the train to our next destination, the city of Bologna.
We began our day in Oban, checking out of our hostel and loading up the bus one final time.
Like everyday of the trip, we had a busy day ahead of us with lots of stops along the way, the first of which was at Loch Awe to visit St Conan’s Kirk, a historic church building famous for its architecture. We spent some time looking around the church and in its grounds enjoying the picturesque views across the Loch.
Next up was a stop at Kilchurn Castle. Paring in the car park at the head of the trail, we began to follow it towards the castle, stopping to pet a friendly sheep sat along the way. Like St Conan’s Kirk, the castle sits on the edge of Loch Awe.
We spent some time exploring the castle ruins, climbing the stairs in the turrets to enjoy the views from the top before walking back along the trail to the car park and climbing back on board the minibus.
After a quick stop at Tyndrum services to visit their award-winning toilets and grab a few snacks, we continued on to our lunch stop in the pretty town of Callander where we browsed in some of the stores and sampled the award-winning pies from the bakery before getting ice cream and walking alongside the river.
Lunch finished, we continued towards Edinburgh stopping at the National Wallace Monument in Stirling. The monument is sat on top of a steep hill and after walking to the top, we enjoyed the views across Stirling.
Most of us deciding not to pay to go in to the monument, we instead followed some of the circular walks around the monument through the woodlands and enjoyed more views over where the Battle of Stirling Bridge took place, the battle in which William Wallace – famously played by Mel Gibson in the film Braveheart – lead his troops to victory.
Our final stop before reaching Edinburgh was in Falkirk to see The Kelpies, a huge sculpture of two horses heads in a parkland. This is the largest equine sculpture in the World and reminded me of something I’d be more likely to see on one of my road trips in the USA!
Then it was on to Edinburgh where, following a group singalong to The Proclaimers’ hit I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),we were dropped back at the hostel we had started our tour from a week earlier. With most of us staying in local hotels or AirBnBs that night, we all said our goodbyes and went our separate ways, some of us making plans to meet up in the city that evening.
After checking back into the travelodge I’d stayed at a week before, I made my way into the city to find the meeting point for an Edinburgh ghost tour I had booked. The tour was a ‘free’ walking tour where you pay what you feel the tour is worth at the end.
It was fun to tour the city hearing some of the creepy stories although I mainly found them amusing rather than scary!
The next day, I took the city’s hop on/off bus tour to see a bit more of the city and find out more of its history. While a couple of the stories were repeats of what I’d heard on the ghost tour the previous night, it was still worth doing as the commentary was interesting and it was a quick and easy way to get around.
That afternoon, I visited Edinburgh Castle. The castle sits on the top of castle rock, a huge hill, meaning it can be seen from across the city and there were great views across the city from the castle grounds. The castle was definitely worth a visit and it was interesting to find out about the history of the building and the city.
I had a late evening flight out of the city back to Birmingham the next day giving me a bit more time to explore. I decided to spend the morning hiking Arthur’s Seat, the highest point of Holyrood Park. This hill is actually an ancient volcano. There is a well-marked path to the top and there were plenty of other people hiking to follow anyway.
Although the path was steep in places and it was a warm summer’s day, I took my time and made it to the top to enjoy the beautiful views across the city.
With the hike not taking as long as I expected it to, I returned to my hotel via a detour taking me past both the Burns Monument and the Nelson Monument. Then, it was time to pickup my luggage and make my way to Edinburgh Airport, my trip to Scotland at its end.
I’d had an amazing time exploring Scotland over the last week or so and hoped to return to see more of this incredible country one day in the future.
I was coming to the end of a one week tour of the Scottish Highlands. Following a trip to the Orkney Islands, I’d flew back to the mainland to begin the tour in Edinburgh. Travelling minibus with a small group of other, mainly solo, international travellers, we had so far visited Loch Ness, the Isle of Lewis and Harris and the Isle of Skye and today I was briefly waving the Scottish Isles goodbye as we took a ferry from Armadale on Skye to Mallaig on the mainland.
It was the shortest of the ferry crossings so far at just 45 minutes but also the most exciting as we saw porpoises swimming nearby from the deck.
Once on the other side, it was back on the bus to make our way to Glenfinnan.
The Harry Potter fans amongst us were very excited as here, we’d be going to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct in time to watch the ‘Hogwarts Express’ cross it. The steam train and viaduct are the ones seen in the film and it is possible to purchase tickets to take a ride on it. While we didn’t have time for this, it was fun to see the steam train race across the viaduct from the crowded viewing point.
Glenfinnan is also home to the Glenfinnan Monument and there was a visitor centre with a store and cafe by the car park which we had some time to visit after watching the train go by.
From here, we drove towards Fort William where we’d be stopping for lunch, making a quick stop at a viewpoint of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Once in Fort William, we had some free time to wander through the town, looking in some of the local stores and having lunch at one of the many cafe’s along the high street.
Our main stop today would be at Glencoe where we’d be hiking to the Lost Valley.
The 2 mile hike was challenging in parts as we followed a path that was steeps and rocky in parts, crossed a river by either paddling through or hopping over rough stepping stones, scrambled up loose rocks and over fallen trees and climbed boulders masquerading as steps!
It was all worth it though as we were surrounded by pretty scenery throughout the walk and the views in the valley itself were amazing.
After taking photos and sitting down for a while to consume our snacks and drinks, we followed the same track to return to the car park rewarding ourselves after with food and drinks at a nearby pub before continuing on our journey to Oban.
We’d be spending the next 2 nights in the town of Oban, staying in a busy hostel where the group was split between 2 dorms. The next day was a free day for us to spend as we wished and after grabbing dinner from the local chippie, we sat down to discuss the options on offer. Activities on offer included a trip across to some of the nearby Inner Hebrides islands, kayaking in the bay, cycle hire, distillery tours or just having a relaxing day exploring the town.
After dinner, some of us walked up to McCaigs Tower, sat on top of a steep hill in Oban, taking in the views across the town and its bay.
With two of us deciding to spend our free day on the island-hopping tour, I had an early night as it meant foregoing the planned lie in.
The next morning, I was up early to get breakfast and the two of us then made our way down to the marina. We had purchased our tour tickets on line the night before so just needed to check in before catching our first ferry of the day.
This ferry took us from Oban across to the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides.
Upon arrival in Mull, we were met by a coach which we boarded to drive us across the island. Our coach driver pointed out anything of interest along the way but it was difficult to see through the not-as-clean-as-they-could-be windows and we didn’t make any stops until we reached the marina to catch the ferry across to the Isle of Iona.
Once on Iona, we had the rest of the day free until we had to catch the ferry back to Mull at the end of the day. Our day ticket included a return ferry to the nearby Isle of Staffa and although we could catch this across at any point of the day, we decided to do it immediately so we wouldn’t be rushing to fit it in later in the day.
The uninhabited island of Staffa is famous for two things – Fingal’s Cave and its abundance of wildlife, especially it’s puffins! Fingal’s Cave is at the Scottish end of the Giant’s Causeway and is formed from hexagonal lava flow. While we couldn’t go inside the cave, as we approached the island by boat, we sailed as close to it as we could to get photos from the sea and once on the island, were able to walk down and along the rocks to peer inside.
We then walked across the island and along the cliffs to see some of the puffins gathered around the rocks. Obviously used to being stared at by visitors to the island, I was surprised at how close we were able to get to the small sea birds.
After spending some time watching the colourful birds, we made our way back along the cliff tops and down to the boat to make our way back to the Isle of Iona.
Once back on Iona, we spent a few hours exploring, wandering around the ruins of the Isle of Iona Nunnery and paying the small fee to visit Iona Abbey.
Then it was time to board the boat back to the Isle of Mull where the coach was waiting to transport us back across the island to the ferry terminal.
We caught the ferry back to Oban having dinner at a pub by the marina before returning to the hostel.
That evening, after meeting back up with the rest of the group and swapping stories from our day, it was time to make sure everything was packed and ready for the last day of our tour. Tomorrow, we would be boarding the minibus for one last day on the road as we returned to Edinburgh where I’d be saying goodbye to the rest of the group and spending a couple of days exploring Scotland’s capital city by myself!
Following a trip to the Orkney Islands for a friend’s wedding, I was half way through a 7 day small group tour of the Scottish Highlands with Macbackpackers. Since leaving Edinburgh we had travelled north past Inverness to Loch Ness before catching the ferry across from Ullapool to the Isle of Lewis and Harris.
Today, after waking up in our blackhouse accommodation on Lewis, we were travelling south into Harris to catch the ferry from Tarbert to Uig on the Isle of Skye in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides.
Arriving in Tarbert, we were told we’d once again be boarding the ferry on foot, our guide driving the minibus on and meeting us on board. Tickets in hand we had a bit of free time before the departure so we spent it looking around the gift store at the nearby Isle of Harris Distillery before settling down at a table in its cafe for a mid-morning snack of tea and cake!
The ferry crossing took just under 2 hours. It was a much nicer day than it had been for our crossing to the Isle of Lewis and Harris a few days earlier and I spent most of the time out on the deck hoping (but failing) to spot some wildlife.
Once on the Isle of Skye, we didn’t waste any time, continuing our Scottish adventure by driving to Duntulm Castle. Along the way, we made a stop at a cemetery to see the grave of Flora Macdonald, our guide telling us the story of how she famously helped ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ evade capture following the Battle of Culloden in the 1700s.
Then it was on to Duntulm where we were dropped at a nearby viewpoint from which we walked along the coast path towards the ruins of Duntulm Castle.
After spending some time enjoying the views and taking photos of and with the castle ruins, we walked back to the minibus ready to continue to our next stop, The Quiraing. Formed by a huge landslip, The Quiraing is now said to provide some of the most spectacular landscape in Scotland.
After parking in a nearby road, our guide led us towards the rocky hills and cliff in front of us and started following a steep path up into them.
While it was difficult to keep up sometimes, most of the group having to stop to catch our breath as we climbed the steep, grassy hillside, it was definitely worth it as we were soon met with stunning views stretching out in front of us.
Sitting on a cliff top, we then downed water and caught our breath again before beginning the almost as difficult descent and returning to our bus. We then continued our drive through Skye.
Our next stop was at Lealt Falls. Just before we arrived, we spotted some sheep shearing going on at a farm we were passing so pulled over to get a closer look!
Arriving at the falls, we followed the path to a viewing point from where we could see the waterfall in the distance then carried on following the path around to a coast path with some pretty views of a beach below.
With early evening now approaching, it was back on the bus to drive to the nearby town of Portree. We made a quick stop along the way to see famous Isle of Skye landmark, the Old Man of Storr, a distinctive rock formation high up on a hillside then arrived in the pretty harbour town of Portree for a spot of shopping to top up on snacks for the next day.
Our final destination on the Isle of Skye was in Kyleakin, a seaside village on the east coast.
Here, we were spending one night in a local hostel. Unlike at other hostels where the only other people in our dorms had been other members from our group tour, here we found we had all been split up with some of us sharing dorms with other people who just happened to be staying there that night but it was nice to get the chance to speak to other people and hear their stories of their experiences in Scotland so far.
We had arranged to all meet to walk to one of the local pubs for dinner. When we arrived it was way busier than we had expected but after a bit of a wait, we were eventually all seated in small groups and couldn’t wait to tuck in to our ‘pub grub’.
As we walked back to the hostel afterwards, the sun was just starting to set.
It had been a busy but fun day exploring the Isle of Skye.
Tomorrow, we’d be up early to drive to Armadale and catch a ferry back to the mainland and continue our adventure.
Having decided to tour the Scottish Highlands to justify the cost of flying north for a wedding in Orkney, I was one day in to a small group tour with Macbackpackers. We awoke this morning in our hostel dorm on the banks of Loch Ness after a busy first day travelling there from Edinburgh and following breakfast in the hostel’s common area, we loaded up the minibus, climbed on board and set off for Ullapool. From here, we’d be boarding a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, spending 2 nights on the Isle of Lewis and Harris.
Arriving in Ullapool ahead of schedule, we were given our tickets to board the ferry as foot passengers – our guide would be driving the minivan on board and then meeting on the ferry – and then had just under an hour of free time. It was pouring in rain so we decided to spend this time in a local cafe drinking tea and sampling the homemade cakes before walking over to the ferry terminal in time to board.
It took just under 3 hours to make the crossing from Ullapool to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis during which time we amused ourselves playing I-Spy type games, going for walks out on the deck to enjoy the views once the rain had stopped and looking around the ferry’s gift stores and cafes, buying some snacks for lunch.
As we approached Stornoway, we all made our way back to the minivan parked in the bowels of the ferry and once we had docked, our guide drove us off the boat and back onto dry land.
From the ferry terminus, we drove straight to the most northerly point of the island, known as the Butt of Lewis. Parking up by the lighthouse, our guide then lead us on a circular walk along the cliff tops with some beautiful coastal views along the way.
After our walk, we made a quick supermarket stop to pick up supplies for the next few days then drove towards our accommodation. For the next 2 nights, we’d be staying at Gearrannan Blackhouse Village in a restored traditional Scottish blackhouse built in the 1800s.
We had a building to ourselves – a large, stone blackhouse with a dorm at each end of the building and a common area and kitchen in the middle. The building was situated right on the coast and after settling in a few of us went for a walk down to the beach before dinner. We spent the rest of the evening cooking another group meal then chatting and playing party games over drinks.
We got to have a slight lie in the next morning then after breakfast, boarded the minibus to be taken to our first stop – Dun Carloway Broch, a stone structure found only in Scotland which was thought to have been constructed around 200BC. The Broch had recently been closed after becoming unstable so we had to admire it from afar but the museum was open giving us a chance to learn more about it and see what it would have looked like inside.
As we left the Broch, we were excited to see a huge herd of sheep being driven down the middle of the narrow country lane as they moved fields!!
Then it was back onto the minibus to head to our next stop, another ancient structure, the Callanish Stones.
Similar to the stones I had seen in Orkney a few days earlier, the Callanish Stones are large, ancient stones arranged in a stone circle with a central stone in the centre. We spent some time exploring the site as well as making use of the facilities including a cafe.
Stop number 3 of our busy day on the Isle of Lewis was at Bosta Beach. Here we went on a lengthy circular hike up onto the cliff tops. The views along the way were incredible and we finished off with a walk down onto the sands.
We made a quick lunch stop next at Miavaig Harbour where some of the group chose to sample the fresh seafood. Then, after a snack and petrol stop, it was on to Uig Bay where we walked along the beautiful, huge expanse of sand at Acosta Beach, paddling in the sea when we finally reached it!
The rain started to set in just as we left and it started to really pour down as we drove to our final stop of the day, the Mangersta Sea Stacks. With the rain not showing any signs of abating, the stop was a lot quicker than we had originally planned with most of us having a quick look and taking a photo before jumping back on to the minibus.
Back at our blackhouse accommodation, we cooked dinner and had a quiet night relaxing and an early night – we had an earlier start the next morning to drive down to the ferry terminal on the Isle of Harris (not actually a separate island to Lewis but just the southern third of the island!).
From here, we’d be catching the ferry across to the Isle of Skye.
Up and ready early the next day, a few of us took a walk along the cliff tops, following the coastal path from the Blackhouse Village and back. Then, it was time to load up the minibus, wave goodbye to the Isle of Lewis and Harris and set off for our next destination.
Having travelled all the way north to the island ofOrkney for a wedding weekend, I was now in Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital city, from where I would be departing the next day on a tour of the Scottish Highlands with small group tour company, Macbackpackers.
Arriving into Edinburgh early evening, I got the airport bus straight into the city and found my way to my city centre Travelodge accommodation for the night. All checked in, I headed out into the city to grab some food and find the meeting point for my tour the next day so I wouldn’t be panicking looking for it in the morning then it was back to my room to catch up on some sleep before the early start the next day.
After getting breakfast from a nearby cafe the next morning, I checked out of my hotel and dragged my luggage through Edinburgh’s cobbled and steep streets to the hostel my tour would be departing from.
There were a few Macbackpackers tour leaving that morning and we all gathered in the hostel’s common room where we could help ourselves to drinks while we waited for our tour to be called. Gradually working out who else would be on the same tour as me, we started to bundle together, starting the introductions.
Our tour finally called and our names ticked off, we didn’t waste any time loading the minibus with our luggage and climbing aboard. I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one bringing a medium-sized case along rather than a backpack – always a worry of mine when I join a group tour!!
After formal introductions on board, we were off out of the city, across the Forth Bridge and heading towards the Highlands. We made our first stop of the day at the side of the road by the Scottish Highlands welcome sign taking pictures with it and tasting the occasion with a shot of Scottish Whiskey!
Our next stop was in the pretty town of Pitlochry where we all piled into one of the cafes recommended by our tour guide for lunch then we continued on to Newtonmore to visit the Highland Folk Museum. The open air museum recreates Highland life from the past and we attended an old ‘school’ where the school mistress sternly watched over us as we practised our handwriting before exploring the old working croft with its traditional blackhouses, old farm machinery and chickens milling around.
The museum was used as a location in TV series Outlander which excited some members of the group who were fans of the show.
From the Highland Folk Museum, we continued north to Culloden Battlefield, our guide detailing the story of the Jacobite Rising in the 1700s, culminating in the Battle of Culloden. We had the option of buying a ticket to the museum or just exploring the grounds, most of the group opting for the latter.
Outside the visitor centre, we also had our first encounter with some ‘hairy coos’, or Highland Cattle, the famous long-haired and large-horned cows which we were all very excited about!
We made one more stop at a supermarket just outside of Inverness to buy supplies for dinner which we’d decided would be a communal effort at the hostel then continued on to our Loch Ness-side accommodation pulling over once more for a quick photo opportunity at a viewpoint overlooking Urquhart Castle and the Loch. There was no sign of the Loch Ness Monster yet so with that, we went and checked into our accommodation where we were staying in dorms for one night.
The hostel lay right on the banks of Loch Ness and after we’d made and eaten dinner, we fought through the mosquitos to walk down to the Loch, some of us paddling our feet while braver members of the group even took a quick dip in its freezing waters!
We spent the rest of the evening in the hostel common room continuing to get to know each other before retiring to our dorms, most of us getting an early night before the next day’s early start.
It had been a fun first day and we’d packed a lot in. Tomorrow we’d be taking a ferry across to the first island of our trip and we were all excited to continue our Scottish adventure!
Having been invited to a wedding by a friend who lives way up north in the Orkney Islands, I began making plans to fly up there from Birmingham for 2 nights. Discovering just how expensive this was going to be, I ended up having to change my initial plans slightly, taking a direct flight with Loganair from Manchester rather than flying to Edinburgh from Birmingham and then having to change flights.
The trip was going to cost so much that it seemed a shame to only be spending a weekend in Scotland when the flights were so much so I decided to extend my trip adding on an extra week touring the Scottish Highlands after my weekend in Orkney.
Flights, itinerary and accommodation sorted, I travelled to Manchester by train and on to its airport on a Friday afternoon only to find my flight to Scotland had been indefinitely delayed. Strike action was going on and it was a scary few hours waiting to find out not only if my flight would run at all, but if it would be scheduled in time to arrive in Orkney before it’s airport shut down early due to the industrial action.
Luckily, a new flight time was eventually announced and we set off with minutes to spare. After a short but pleasant flight – I especially appreciated the free tea and Scottish Caramel bar on board – we arrived, the penultimate flight to land that evening in the moments before the closure.
The airport at Kirkwall couldn’t be more different from the huge, busy metropolis that is Manchester airport. Instead, we walked from the steps of the plane into a small hangar with a single waiting area for departures, a (now closed for the evening) cafe and a small conveyor belt which our luggage promptly appeared on. Meeting my friend who who had scraped in on the final arriving flight of the day shortly after, we walked the short distance outside to the bus stop and waited for the next bus into Kirkwall centre. The journey didn’t take long and from the central bus station, it didn’t take us long to find our hotel – a pub/guesthouse.
After settling into our room, we went for a walk into the town centre. Other than the local convenience stores, the businesses had all closed for the evening but it at least allowed us to get our bearings and find the Cathedral which tomorrow’s wedding would take place at. Returning to our hotel, we had dinner at the pub downstairs before settling down for the night trying to ignore the music coming from the bar!
The next morning, we walked to the local garden centre for a delicious cooked breakfast at their cafe then spent some more time exploring Kirkwall, visiting some of the now open independent and boutique stores. The rest of the day was spent getting ready for and attending the wedding, a lavish and traditionally Scottish affair that was lots of fun to be a part of!
We all had early evening flights booked out of Orkney the next day so planned to use the day to explore Orkney a bit further. We had originally hoped to hire a car and explore the island ourselves but it was a Sunday and most of the car hire services on the island either weren’t open or closed early meaning we wouldn’t be able to return our car at a suitable time. So instead, we had enquired at the tourist information office the morning before about using the island’s sightseeing bus service. The T11 service which doubled as a commuter route, offered an open-topped hop on/off bus tour of the island looping back round to Kirkwall.
The service was busy but luckily they had multiple buses ready to cope with the demand. Despite it being a cool, blustery day with the occasional drops of rain in the air, we bundled ourselves onto the top deck to get the best views along the way.
The bus made stops along the way at points of interest giving us time to get off and see these attractions before either jumping back onto the same bus or waiting for the later service. The buses were not very regular and with our time restraints, we didn’t have the option to wait for later buses if we were going to be back in Kirkwall for our flights back so we made the most of the time we were given at each stop before jumping back on the same bus.
The first stop was at Skara Brae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can explore a Neolithic village of ancient stone houses discovered to be lying on Orkney in the 1800s. The entrance fee into the grounds was more than we wanted to pay given that we didn’t have much time to explore and get our money’s worth so instead, we read about the site at the visitor centre, looking out at the stone houses from there before grabbing a delicious lunch from the on site cafe.
Back on the bus, we continued through Orkney making one more stop at the Ring of Brodgar, a circle of ancient standing stones. We were given time to walk up the path to the stones and take photos before getting back on the bus one last time as we returned to Kirkwall.
While the tour wasn’t ideal, we were at least glad to have had an opportunity to get out and see some of the island while we were there.
Once back in Kirkwall, it was time to collect our luggage and catch the bus back to the airport where I’d be catching my Edinburgh-bound flight, ready to start a new adventure the next day – exploring the Scottish Highlands!
I’ve spent a lot of time travelling in theUSA, ticking off 49 of the 50 States so far, and travelling in Australia and New Zealand. I’ve taken plenty of city breaks inEurope too, travelling for concert breaks or just for fun. But I always feel I should spend more time exploring the UK. The events of the last year have given me some opportunity to do this and I had a great time visiting some of England’s National Parks last summer as well as making my regular annual visit to Pembrokeshire National Park in Wales but Scotland is a country I’d never spent much time in.
When a Scottish friend from one of the Trek America tours I had done got engaged and invited all of the group to her wedding, it seemed like the perfect excuse to see some of this beautiful country. You see, my friend lived in Orkney, one of the northernmost islands of Scotland, and travelling there was going to cost a small fortune!
As much as I wanted to go, it almost didn’t seem worth it for just 2 nights. So I decided to extend my trip and take a solo tour of the Scottish Highlands while I was there.
Rather than taking a tour completely solo, I decided I’d rather join an escorted tour.
While I’d taken a few of these elsewhere – while travelling in the USA, Australia and new Zealand – I wasn’t at all familiar with any companies that operated in the UK. After researching the tours and companies on offer for a solo traveller on a budget, I decided to book with Macbackpackers on their 7-day Best of the West tour. The company aims it small group tours at the 18-40 age group and got excellent reviews and while I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of staying in hostels again, I felt I’d be able to cope for 6 nights if it meant saving some money!
To save a bit more money, I booked the tour through Touradar during one of their sales using credits I had with them from previous bookings to bring the cost down even further!
The tour left from Edinburgh on Mondays so I decided to join the one that left after the weekend of the wedding meaning I’d fly to Orkney on Friday, leave for Edinburgh on Sunday evening and start the tour on the Monday morning, arriving back in Edinburgh where I’d spend a few more days, a week later.
Deciding I’d need a break from hostels along the way, I booked a city centre Travelodge in Edinburgh for the nights either side of the tour within walking distance of the hostel the tour departed from. The hostels used along the tour were pre-booked through the company although the price wasn’t included in the cost of the tour, we had to pay cash upon arrival at each one.
With our accommodation in Kirkwall on Orkney Island sorted for us by our friend, I was excited for the trip, ready to explore somewhere new and ready for adventure!
Boston is one of my favourite cities to visit in the USA and one I take every opportunity to return to. Here’s my guide to this charming New England city!
Where to stay
My first trip to the city, we had very little idea about the best area to stay in and left it to fate winning a 4* hotel on Priceline’s Name You Own Price feature near the Old Statehouse. The location turned out to be perfect, close to the Freedom Trail and nearby shops, in walking distance of the waterfront and Boston Common. When returning to the city a few years later, I booked a more budget hotel in a similar area only to be contacted by the travel company a few weeks before our departure to say they’d double booked and cancelling our reservation. We were offered a similar priced hotel but it was on the outskirts of the city with very little in the way of transport connections nearby and therefore not at all convenient to our needs. With it being Easter weekend, Patriots Day and the Boston Marathon while we were there, we struggled to find any available rooms in our price range, eventually grabbing a last minute cancellation just slightly above our budget in Boston’s South End. While not quite as conveniently located as our original choice of hotel, the area still made for a good base to explore the city and in walking distance of many of the city’s attractions. On my last visit to the city, I stayed close to Boston Common, again putting us in walking distance of many of the city’s attractions and the ‘T’, Boston’s metro system.
Having twice found ourselves trying to navigate our way through or around the city of Boston in a car, I really do not recommend it! The city is extremely walkable and the ‘T’ subway system is easy to navigate if you’re heading to anywhere slightly outside of the city centre.
I’ve mainly used taxi’s to get to and from the airport, only once attempting to use public transport, using the airport link bus to the main station in the city and the subway from there to the hotel. While doable, it wasn’t the easiest way to get our luggage across the city and with us arriving at rush hour, we spent a lot of time stuck in traffic.
On my first visit to the city, we made use of the city’s hop on/off trolley to do some sightseeing, mainly as it was included in the Go Boston sightseeing card we had purchased. This was a good way to get our bearings in an unfamiliar city and to learn about about the city as well as meaning we could mainly avoid using the subway system.
Boston Common and Public Gardens
Boston Common is a great place to start any trip to Boston. As well as being at the start of the historic Freedom Trail, it provides easy access to other areas of the city including Beacon Hill and Newbury Street. The common is right next to the beautiful Boston Public Gardens where as well as wandering past the colourful flower beds, for a few dollars you can take a ride on one of the famous swan boats around the lake.
The Freedom Trail
The Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile marked trail around historic places around the city of Boston, was top of my to do list on my first visit to the city. Seeing a walking tour of the start of the trail included on our Go Boston tourist card, we booked a space, meeting our historically-dressed guide in Boston Common. The tour took us past the Park Street Church and into the adjacent burial ground and then down towards the Old South Meeting House and the Old Statehouse where, after hearing the story of the 1770 Boston Massacre, we were left to continue the trail ourselves.
We opted to visit the Old South Meeting House and then the museum at the Old Statehouse before following the trail down to Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. After using our Go Boston passes to take a narrated harbour boat-tour, we continued to follow the waymarkers to follow the Freedom Trail through Boston’s North End.
Here, we used our passes to visit the Paul Revere House and then made our way to Old North Church.
As it was already early evening, we turned around and made our way back to our hotel at that point and it wasn’t until my next visit to the city that I completed the Freedom Trail, taking a tour of City Hall whose golden dome looms over Boston Common before revisiting some of the sites along the trail and continuing on past the Old North Church to see the USS Constitution, an old warship, and then walking to the Bunker Hill Monument where we climbed the almost 300 steps to the top to see the views over the city.
Following the Freedom Trail is a really great way to see the city of Boston and learn about America’s history!
If you can make it to the end of the Freedom Trail and have enough energy left to climb the hill to the base and then the 294 steps to the top, then the Bunker Hill Monument offers pretty views of the city in the distance.
For more close up views of the city, the Skywalk Observatory on the 50th floor of the Prudential Tower is situated close to Copley Place, right in the centre of the city and offers sweeping views in every direction. It was a beautiful, clear day when we visited and the views over the Charles River in one direction and across South Boston and Cape Cod Bay in the other direction were amazing.
With Boston being one of America’s most historically rich cities, there are plenty of museums offering opportunities to learn about its past.
Many of the museums are housed in buildings of historical importance such as the Old South Meeting House and Old State House, both on the Freedom Trail and contain a variety of artefacts and interactive exhibits to explore.
Down on the waterfront, as well as the Boston Aquarium and the Children’s Museum, is the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, an interactive exhibition where you get to board a full-size replica of an 18th century vessel and throw ‘tea’ into the harbour like its 1773. While I found the interactive elements of the museum aimed more at children, it was still interesting to learn about such a famous event and the tea-throwing was especially fun.
Boston is also home to the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Slightly out of the city in the Dorchester neighbourhood, the museum is easily reachable via the ‘T’ subway system and a courtesy bus from the UMass station.
The museum has exhibits on the life of Kennedy, his presidency, assassination and legacy and we spent a good few hours exploring its collections. Situated right on the waterfront, the museum grounds also offers beautiful views over the bay.
As well as history museums, Boston is also the home of a range of art galleries including the Museum of Fine Arts
Beacon Hill is one of the most picturesque neighbourhoods of Boston to walk through with its cobbled streets and red brick buildings.
On the northside of Boston Common, the area is great place to visit if you’re looking for boutique shops, small art galleries and antiques stores. It is also home to the famous, and now only, ‘Cheers’ bar in Boston. Formally, there was a themed bar based on the layout of the bar in the popular 80s US sitcom in Quincy Market, but now this has closed leaving just the Beacon Hill bar. While the interior of this bar is not very reminiscent of the bar in the show, the outside, with the steps leading down to the entrance, is instantly recognisable. As well as serving food and drinks, the bar has a store selling Cheers themed merchandise.
As well as being home to some of the stops along Boston’s Freedom Trail, the North End – Boston’s Italian district – is also worth a stroll through to visit one of its many Italian bakeries where you can grab a delicious cannoli. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat out in the evening, you’ll also find plenty of options here with some top class Italian and seafood restaurants.
Fenway Park is the baseball stadium famously home to the Boston Red Sox team and the oldest baseball stadium in the US that’s currently still in use.
I decided to take a tour of the grounds when it was included on my Go Boston tourist card during my first visit to the city and, while not a baseball fan at all, or a fan of any sports for that matter, I still found it to be really interesting finding out about the ground’s – and team’s – history.
On my next visit to the city, I found out the Red Sox would be playing against New York’s equally famous Yankees team while I was in the city so I couldn’t resist going one step further and booking tickets to actually watch a game at Fenway Park one evening. It was certainly an experience and while it was fun for a while, mainly before the game started with the crowd atmosphere and mass singalongs, I had no idea what was going on once the game started and found it to be very stop start and left way before it drew to a close!
There are plenty of ways to get out on the water in Boston from the Codzilla speed boat to the more sedate dinner cruises and even a tea party cruise on a tall ship.
I took a historic harbour cruise and over the 90-minutes on board, a commentary told us about some of the areas history while we looked out across beautiful views of the city’s skyline in the distance.
Another really fun way to get out on the water is to take a whale watching cruise.
This was a really amazing experience as we sailed out to sea, watching the city views fade into nothing before witnessing the amazing sight of huge whales basking on the surface of the water and swimming past us just under the surface.
We swapped the habour for the Charles River on a Boston Duck Tour.
Starting on land with a madcap commentary as we toured the city, we then set sail along the Charles River for some beautiful views of the city.
Across the river, in the district of Cambridge, lies the World famous Harvard University. We took the ‘T’ subway out to have a look around, taking a student-lead tour of the campus. While it is possible to just wander around the grounds without a taking a tour, we found it interesting to learn a bit of the university’s history and the tour also gave us access to a couple of buildings we wouldn’t have otherwise gone inside!
There are plenty of opportunities to shop in Boston, with something for everyone from the high street stores of Downtown Crossing – they even have a Primark! – to the more exclusive boutique stores of Beacon Hill and the eclectic stalls of Quincy market.
Newbury Street is probably the most well known of Boston’s shopping districts. Running along 8 blocks from the west side of the Public Gardens, it is home to a mixture of both internationally renowned designer boutiques, high street brands and local one of a kind boutique stores, all housed in huge Victorian red-brick buildings.
For more high street stores as well as large department stores and more high end fashion houses, the Prudential Centre and Copley Place are also great places to shop in the city.
Venturing out of the city
There are plenty of opportunities to get out of the city of Boston and visit the surrounding area.
We took a train north to the town of Salem, infamous for the 17th century Salem Witch Trials. There were plenty of museums and attractions on offer here to find out about the history of the town and the witch trials but we found many of them to be on the tacky side, the ‘museum’ we chose to visit, consisting of being lead around a series of crude wax figures by a guide dressed up in as a 17th century Salemite retelling the story of what happened and another giving us the opportunity to sit through a reenactment of one of the trials.
Other trips out we have taken have included a drive out to the town of Plymouth to see the Plymouth Rock and out to Cape Cod and the town of Hyannis.
It is possible to take a fast from Boston Harbour out to Cape Cod for a day trip as well as to the Boston Habor Islands State and National Park.
A trip to Boston, Massachusetts is always worthwhile and I look forward to the day I can return to this historic city.