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Hotel Tip of the Week: Hotel Hesperia Sevilla | Spain

hotel tip of the week

Welcome to our Hotel Tip of The Week series. Being on the road every day of the year means we stay at countless hotels along the way. For all the disappointing  digs, there are as many accommodation gems. We post one hotel tip of the week, every week, of places we feel confident recommending after having tried and tested them ourselves. This week: Hotel Hesperia in Seville, Spain.

Hotel Hesperia Seville
A few years ago we flew in to Seville for the first part of our Train through Spain vacation and, both enamored by this steamy southern Spanish city; we knew we would be back. When the time came for us to visit again this year, we also knew that we would again book in to the Hesperia Sevilla. The Seville hotel sits right in that sweet spot of location, price, service and room quality that made our decision to stay there again this year easy to make.

After a quick 15-minute ride from the international airport, we found ourselves standing in the cool marble lobby at the Hesperia Sevilla, which oozes Spanish style from its public spaces to the Art-Deco style rooms. Because the hotel is located outside the historic center, the bright rooms here are a spacious, purpose-built 24 square meter size with deep, comfortable beds, making it just as satisfying to spend time in the room as enjoying Sevilla. The bathrooms are equally spacious and bright, towels are perfectly fluffy, and toiletries include everything from the sewing kit to a full-size toothbrush.

Hotel Hesperia SevillaThe free in-room wi-fi connection worked without a hitch. Simply pick up a password at the front desk and sign-in one time and you are connected for the duration of your stay. The staff at Hesperia Sevilla, though not masters of the English language, is guest-oriented and helpful, while the large leather couches arranged in the lobby are great to sink into meet with friends at night or read the paper in the morning. The on-site parking lot is great for those guests traveling by car. We opted not to eat at the hotel Tapas bar, choosing to dine instead at a couple of ‘cervecerias’ nearby.

We appreciated the location of Hesperia Sevilla, in a bustling neighborhood where locals drink their morning coffee, gossip over late lunches with friends or enjoy tapas late into the night at the many tapas bars. The four-star Seville hotel conveniently sits right on the main Avenida Eduardo Dato so cabs are readily available, but Hesperia is only a 15-minute walk to the center of the Andalusian capital, just up the road from the train station where high-speed AVE trains leave for destinations throughout Spain, and around the corner from good shopping/dining options at the El Corte Ingles shopping mall, a Spanish shopping institution.

Stand-Out Feature: Value For Money

Hesperia Seville offers competitive rates for a four-star Spanish hotel. The hotel works closely with several booking websites and also offers deals and packages on its own website. When a bed in a shared dorm room can cost around $25-35 per person in most European cities, a rate of $70 for two at Hesperia Sevilla is that much more attractive. The hotel is perfect for business travelers (offering business & meeting facilities) but the price and location make it also perfect for families, couples and even large tour groups.

Room for Improvement: The Noise Factor

In a city like Seville, where there are ways to fill your day from morning until the wee hours, most guests spend limited time inside the hotel. If that sounds like how you travel, the paper-thin walls might not bother you in the least. But for loved-up couples or parents with vocal children – your neighbors will hear you and you will hear them.

Overall – Hotel Hesperia in Seville, Spain

We found Hesperia Sevilla to be a bright, stylish mid-range hotel in a great location with all the necessary services and facilities to meet the needs of both business travelers and tourists to Seville.

Hotel Hesperia Seville

Location: Avenida Eduardo Dato, 49, Sevilla, Spain
Price: from 50 Euros for a double room
LGBT Friendly: yes
Digital Nomad Friendly: Yes
Amenities: wi-fi, meeting rooms, desks, mini-bar, oversized bathtubs

Like this hotel? Book it here.

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Hotel Tip Of The Week: Belmonte Vacanze in Tuscany, Italy

hotel tip of the week

I had spent 12 days in Tuscany before the true meaning of the Italian expression ‘Dolce Vita’ became clear. This happened roughly two hours after checking in to our apartment at Belmonte Vacanze near Montaione in the Chianti region of Tuscany. The Italian expression means ‘the sweet life’, or the good life, and while the lifestyle involves a dedication to eating platefuls of pizza and pasta and necking down countless carafes of delicious Italian table wine, to really feel the Dolce Vita, you must reach a state of such intense relaxation that the concept of stress is lost from your mind entirely.

This feeling struck us both somewhere between attending the early evening on-site wine-tasting at Belmonte Vacanze and watching the glowing spring sun set over the rolling green hills with a belly full of truffle fettuccine.

Belmonte Vacanze Sunset

The resort property has a variety of double, triple and quad apartments in three buildings set on 200 hectares of truly breathtaking countryside. Each apartment offers comfortable beds, a bathroom, a living room with a sofa and large dining table, a fully equipped kitchen with four stove hobs, all yellow 1950s American style refrigerators and an outdoor patio with a second table for al fresco dining. There is high speed wi-fi in all apartments.

Kitchen at Belmonte Vacanze

As comfortable as the apartments are inside, the well-manicured lawns outside allow guests to sun themselves in their own front yards while sipping their morning coffee or a glass of red or white each night. Here you can enjoy the breeze as butterflies and birds whiz past your head, or play peekaboo with the tiny green Tuscan lizards that scuttle by along the hot concrete sidewalks nearby.

Belmonte Vacanze holiday apartments in Tuscany

The Lotti family, who own and run these Tuscany apartments, have thought of every last detail to keep their guests free of stress, including a morning delivery service from the local market. Using a shopping checklist, you can order milk, coffee, chocolate croissants and anything else you might need for breakfast, and the market delivers the food to your doorstep first thing in the morning. On arrival, we were also presented with a full listing of restaurants and services in the local area and a map.  The family is incredibly attentive in this way, and get to know most of the guests on a first name basis. A visit to their Facebook or Twitter page reveals online conversations with past guests – from greetings and well-wishes to promises of plans to see each other next summer.

Belmonte vacanze breakfast on terrace

Belmonte Vacanze’s web presence is maintained by Lauro Lotti, whose grandfather bought the property over 40 years ago. Back then, farming of olives and grapes, as almost everywhere in Tuscany, was the main source of income. Today, as in most of Tuscany, tourism is the focus at Belmonte Vacanze.  Lauro and his parents, who took over the property in 2003 and converted it into self-catering apartment rentals, go above and beyond, pouring their heart and soul into customer satisfaction. They also focus on creating an environmentally-friendly resort, incorporating eco-friendly policies at every turn.

Belmonte vacanze vacation rental apartment

The resort is perfect for families of all sizes, offering everything from a large, clean pool, bikes for rent, horse stables with eight horses (kids can be dropped off for a day of riding lessons and activities), a playground and acres and acres of safe space to play. With the kids here having so much fun, the parents seemed to feel just as relaxed as the loved-up childless couples drinking Prosecco and gazing out at the verdant view. Belmonte Vacanze is also a pet-friendly vacation property, providing plenty of space for pets to roam.

View from apartment Belmonte VacanzeStand Out Feature: Location

Not known for its nightlife, Tuscany holidays are all about spending your days out enjoying the countryside, villages and towns. Belmonte Vacanze is perfectly located for exploring Tuscany. The property is just 15 minutes from (our secret gem) Montaione in one direction and the medieval towns of San Gimignano (our absolute favorite Tuscan own) and Volterra in the other. The popular city of Siena can be reached within an hour, and you can even comfortably visit the Northern Tuscan cities of Pisa, Florence and Lucca and be back by sunset. During our stay we made the 2 hour ride to the Cinque Terre region one day, and the beaches along the Tuscan coast can be reached in about 90 minutes.

Belmonte vacanze olive trees & view

Standout Feature: The Friendliness Factor

We can’t emphasize this enough: the good people at Belmonte Vacanze run a family-friendly, LGBT-friendly, couple-friendly, pet-friendly and environmentally-friendly resort – all while managing to simply be the most people-friendly hosts we met in Italy.

Standout Feature: The Swimming Pool

The swimming pool is the centerpiece of this Tuscan farm holiday resort, and when the sun is shining, guests of all ages gather here to swim, tan, or gaze out at the view. Dozens of comfortable deck chairs surround the pool, with another handful point away from the water and out at the Tuscan hills. This is easily the most relaxing and fun element of the property.

Belmonte vacanze pool & view

Room for improvement: Signposting

After you book your stay at Belmonte Vacanze, go directly to the website and copy down the directions word for word. Once in the car and on your way, enter the exact address into your navigation system. Using both, you should arrive without a problem. Directions in Tuscany can be difficult to follow, which is why reading the directions on the website is key to stress-free arrival. It would be great if  Belmonte Vacanze would have a few signs along the way from the highway and San Gimignano. Tip: In addition to following the directions on the website, follow the signs along the way to Parco Benestare. You’ll run right into Belmonte five minutes before reaching the nature park.

Overall: Belmonte Vacanze in Tuscany

Belmonte Vacanze might be a family operation, but this is no mom and pop affair. As guests here, we felt we had the full attention of a four or five star hotel with the freedom of having our own apartment. Despite spending nearly two weeks in this fairytale region of Italy, it was our stay at Belmonte Vacanze that became our defining moment of what it truly means to escape to Tuscany.

Location: Via Torri 62, 50050 – Montaione
Price:
Starting at €35 per person per night, but check the website for special weekend or last-minute offers.
LGBT Friendly:
Absolutely!
Amenities:
swimming pool, sunchairs & umbrellas, fully equipped kitchen, living room with dining table and sofa, each apartment has its own balcony or terrace, wi-fi internet, free parking, sulfur springs, horse stables, tennis court, table tennis, playground, barbeque, bicycle rental, laundry facility.

Book your stay at Belmonte Vacanze on Booking.com.

Bedroom belmonte Vacanze

Like this hotel? Book it here.

 

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First impressions at sea…Cruise Ship Surprises

Geirangerfjord cruise

One day in to our week-long Royal Caribbean Mediterranean cruise this summer, and we found ourselves in the midst of an identity crisis. We loved cruising…and this went against everything we thought we were!

We’re nomads, world travelers…we live out of backpacks! We can’t love cruising. Normally we are slow travelers who prefer to delve deeply in to each travel destination and absorb as much of local life and customs as we can. But we had decided to jump on a seven-day Med cruise with my parents as a part of a spring European family vacation. And so, there we were, back in port from our first day, loving every minute of our dinner, enjoying the sunset from the safety and comfort of our home for the week.

Adventure of the seas Royal Caribbean

We loved the cruise ship

Except for the day trips in port, the entire experience hinges on the ship, so it’s a good thing we loved being on board so much – but it is also no big surprise.  These massive cruise ships are designed to cater to everyone’s wishlist. Our main goal while on board was to catch up on some much needed rest and relaxation, so we spent some quality time in the fully-equipped gym, which also had a sauna, steam room and a jacuzzi.

Had we wanted to learn to cook, perfect our jumpshot or spend our time shopping, we could have done any of that, too. Our ship – the Adventure of the Seas – had a full basketball court, mini-golf course, a rollerblading area, a pool, a kiddie pool, three more jacuzzis, countless bars, a casino, an outdoor climbing wall (pictured below), a library full of interesting books, even an ice skating rink (where we not only watched a great dancing on ice show, but ice skated ourselves the next day), plus a games room, a cafe, a movie theater and a 500-seat theater and hang-out rooms for various other activities.  This was all spread out over 14 floors, and it was not only the variety of activities but the massive scale of this floating city that fascinated us so much.

Outdoor climbing wall Royal Caribbean Cruise ship

We loved the cruise food

Each time we hit a port, enough supplies were brought on board to serve up food in the main dining room, a massive buffet, a Johnny Rockets restaurant, plus smaller eateries throughout the ship for when 3,000 people feel peckish outside of meal times. We only ate in the dining room once, as it was the buffet we enjoyed, not because we could stuff ourselves silly, but more because the formality of the dining room seemed silly, at least to us. cruise ship dessert buffetWhy should we sit down to be served almost exactly the same food as is available in the buffet, but have our dining times dictated to us (9:30pm) when we could take as much of the fresh fruit, salads, soups, fresh orange juice and bottomless coffee as we wanted in the buffet? However, as cruises cater to everyone’s tastes, you could clearly see by the fancy dresses, suits and ties that plenty of our fellow cruisers loved to get fancy for their food.

cruise ship dining room table

Stability for nomads like us

Having slept in over 100 beds in our first year on the road, sleeping in one bed for seven nights is some serious stability – even if we wake up in a different destination each morning! We hung our clothes in the closet, knew where we would be eating dinner and breakfast each day and made plans for theater and other activities for the whole week in advance. Although rooms on board are small, the size was comfortable, and bigger than plenty of rooms we stayed in while traveling. Plus, rooms are only used to sleep, shower and wind down, while everything else is done outside in this massive floating city. The key was that we had hot water and our bed was definitely comfortable enough to sink into each night.

cruise inside cabin

Cruising is a viable budget travel option (as long as you know what you are in for)

The cruising industry has exploded in recent years, both in the number of ships and the number of passengers on each ship (new mega-ships hold up to 6,000 passengers). This increased supply means lower rates, opening cruising up to travelers of almost all budget ranges. In fact we found booking a cruise to be a smart, economical travel option with the various cruise deals available year round. For $500 per person (always based on two sharing an inside cabin), vacationers can easily find a seven-day cruise in the Mediterranean or Caribbean which includes all of the recreation and amenities listed above, food and non-alcoholic drinks, and of course accommodation is also included. What is not included is airfare to and from the departure port, so finding great flight deals is essential to keep costs down.

cruise ship vegetables & saladAside from possibly being a great vacation deal, what we really loved is that a cruise is essentially a travel buffet. We don’t say this because we love buffets (although, it must be clear by now that we do!). You can sample several new locations, dipping in and out in a day. For example, we sampled Italy, Spain and Corsica, France, and though we had been to two of the three already, the quick trip to Corsica had us thinking about returning for a longer period of time. Had we taken a cruise in a completely unfamiliar part of the world, this would have been a great to way to sample many places, with no long-term commitment necessary unless we decided to return on our own time.

Two major downsides: Endless up-sale and cultural disconnect

As independent travelers, we do not rely on tours to get us around a city, but are more likely to consider the option in a place where we do not speak the language and have limited knowledge of the culture. However, some of the tours cost half the price of the cruise itself, completely negating the great travel deal on the one hand, and on the other, we felt that these cruise tours were not justified in terms of value for money. Comparing the tour agenda with the same stops done independently, we were able to spend a tiny fraction of the cost of what Royal Caribbean offered as a package tour. Back on board, we found the prices of alcohol, and even soda, to be just plain silly. We felt that Royal Caribbean was taking advantage of our being ‘stuck’ on the ship, charging $8 a beer or $7 for Coke. California wines started at $32. Local Spanish, Italian and French wines were available in port for less than $5 a bottle, but we had to either  down a bottle each day at lunch or declare the bottles when coming back on board, and the wine was returned to us at the end of the week-long cruise.

cruise ship pool deckAlcohol, shopping and extra restaurant charges (not to mention tips) could really have added up for us on board. However, while so many others were settling massive bills at the end of the cruise, we realized something important…

We are not like other cruisers

We have no problem spending money when it is worth it, but we insist on value for money. We can’t speak for other cruise lines, but it seemed that Royal Caribbean is stuck in a travel industry time-warp that should no longer exist. Whether short-term or long-term, luxury or budget, in our experience we see that consumers today want honesty, up- front pricing, and value for money. While many can rationalize themselves into accepting the $8 beers, what about the astronomical wi-fi prices? In our opinion, Royal Caribbean is actually losing money for setting their on-board internet and wi-fi fees so high. On our ship, it would have cost us over $55 per hour to use the wireless internet, and a shade less had we used one of their ten computers. As location independent workers, we would have been willing to pay a high price for on-board access if that meant that pounding out some work during the at-sea days, but at $55 an hour we could have hired business consultants, drunk seven beers each or, after a few hours a day throughout the cruise, bought a plane ticket to Bangkok. Realistic pricing would mean that hundreds, if not thousands, of passengers would actually pay to sneak peeks at work emails (we’re all guilty of it). These prices are a barrier that few are willing to jump.
first cruiseThe other major issue we had with the cruise was the disconnect to the local culture at each port. Each evening, passengers receive a newsletter filled with information on several available excursions, arrival and de-boarding times, but this information is the abridged version of the Wikipedia cliff notes. Where were ‘hot tips’, ‘hidden gems’, some ‘local shops or sights not to miss’. While the rest of the travel industry has gone ‘social’, there was no sign of past cruisers recommendations or tips. The newsletter also had vocabulary tips, but they were all related to shopping, much less so food, and almost unrelated to the actual culture of each country. The newsletters, along with the self-produced travel programs shown throughout the cruise, are treated only as part of a sales funnel to market available products, not to actually connect cruisers to locals once in port.

first cruise

Specialty cruises

Some would argue that there are plenty of specialty cruises, one to float everyone’s boat. The industry is so varied, that there are cruises tailored to the most specific of tastes – Technology cruises, Star Trek cruises and even within the LGBT cruise market, it is split between singles cruises and those for gay families. In the future, we will be checking out cruises more related to our specific interests.

We’ll do another cruise for sure – we loved it!

Even if we don’t go and work on a cruise just yet, we are keeping our eyes peeled for deals on cruising websites out there, and in every cruise newsletter we find another great deal and toss around the idea when and how to get back on a cruise ship in the near future. We’re headed to Asia next and might cruise there, or maybe head back west for a Caribbean cruise in the summer? Who knows!

Have you been on a cruise? What cruise lines or specialty cruises would you recommend (we’re looking for the next one!!)? We would love to hear your recommendations. Have you worked on a cruise? What were your experiences and would you recommend it to other readers who might be considering it as a way to see the world?

first cruise

What is your opinion on cruising – have you been on a cruise, and if so, did you enjoy it? Are you an avid cruiser, or is this kind of travel not for you at all? Join the discussion in the comments below!

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Five Epic European Road Trips

southern iceland dani car

Everybody loves a good road trip, and Europe has more scenic roads than you could cover in a lifetime. Majestic castles in Austria, half-timbered houses in Germany, rolling green hills in England, Alpine landscapes in Switzerland, majestic fjords in Norway, and vineyards lining the country roads as you are driving in France – these are just some of the things that lift my heart and keep me driving. As more and more European countries are re-opening their borders for tourism post-COVID-19, travel to Europe is starting to pick up. European road trips are one of the best ways to travel around Europe while staying safe. RV rental companies have already seen an increase in bookings,

If I had to pick just five, this would be the list of my favorite road tips in Europe:fiat 500 & san gimignano

Five Epic European Road Trips

1. The Amalfi Coast | Italy

The Amalfi coast in the south of Italy is the country’s most beautiful stretch of coastline, where quaint terraced villages are spread through the hillsides stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea are around every corner. The coast route follows the shoreline from Sorrento in the north to Salerno in the south. Your hearts will pound as you hug the road past steep cliffs, and soar when you pass the many vineyards where you may wish to stop and spend a few days. The four main towns on the Amalfi Coast are Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Ravello, and stops in all of them are essential! This is without a doubt one of the most picturesque European road trips.

Best time for a road trip: March to May, when Spring is in full bloom and the summer tourist season has not yet begun.
Recommended number of days: 2 to 4 days
Level of difficulty: It is a beautiful drive, but challenging. Drivers should be confident on winding, narrow roads.

Cinque Terre coast1

2. The Highlands | Scotland

Scotland’s Highlands are unlike anywhere in the world and a Highland road trip covers some of the most spectacular places in the UK. I recommend a loop, starting your trip in Glasgow and finishing in Edinburgh, heading north through the mountains and locks that make the Highlands so famous, and then heading back down to the Scottish capital. Start in Glasgow and head to Loch Lomond before continuing north to the small outpost of Fort William from there. Here you can hike the mighty Ben Nevis, the highest mountain of the British Isles, or head west towards Mallaig with a stop at the picturesque Loch Shiel. From Mallaig, take the car ferry over to the Isle of Skye, and head back to the mainland via the Skye Bridge. Fro here it is a short drive to fairytale-esque Eileen Donan Castle.road trips in EuropeDepending on how much time you have left, I recommend driving further north to the fishing town of Ullapool and the little village of Lochinver, with its white-sand beaches. Otherwise drive straight east towards Fort Augustus, which is the perfect base to explore Loch Ness. Drive along the Loch to the quaint town of Inverness and take the scenic route via Pitlochry to Edinburgh, and you will see most of the iconic Scottish landmarks like the Lochs, Whiskey distilleries and Highland cows.

Best time for a road trip: April – October
Recommended number of days: 5 to 7 days
Level of difficulty: Roads are narrow and driving is on the left – drivers should be experienced and confident.

Scotland highlands sheep

3. The Romantic Road | Germany

The Romantic Road in the south of Germany offers some of the most stunning scenery of the country. Driving from Würzburg to the foothills of the Alps near Neuschwanstein Castle, you will pass sweeping views, ancient cathedrals and castles, castles, castles. You will drive through the pretty Tauber Valley before you arrive in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, which dates back to the 13th century with medieval streets and thick city walls – doubtlessly the pearl of the Romantic Road! Other highlights include the gorgeous town of Nördlingen, Augsburg with its stunning cathedral, Hohenschwangau with its jaw-droppingly beautiful Neuschwanstein Castle and Hohenschwangau Castle and the nearby historic town of Füssen. If you have more time, you can drive up to Munich from here and end your road trip in one of Germany’s most traditional cities. Don’t forget to pack your lederhosen!

Best time for a road trip: Spring or summer, but fall is also a beautiful time to visit.
Recommended number of days: 5 to 7 days
Level of difficulty: The road is fairly easy to navigate, though it can get narrow at times.

European Road Trips

4. France beyond Paris | France

This road trip is the ideal way to combine a trip to Paris with an additional few days to explore the idyllic French countryside. I would recommend starting in Paris and driving through Chartres, Le Mans, Rennes, Caen, Rouen and then circling back to Paris. Just outside of the city, stop in Versailles to see Napoleon’s remarkable palace, and then move on to Chartres, home to a UNESCO World Heritage cathedral, before exploring Renne, which still has plenty of well-maintained wood-edifice buildings typical for that area of France. North of Rennes is the spectacular Le Mont-St.-Michel, a rocky island set in the English Channel, just off the coast, that is almost entirely inhabited by the medieval Benedictine Abbey and church – not to be missed! Rouen is home to the extraordinary cathedral made famous by Monet’s painting, and makes for a fabulous last stop on this French road trip.

Best time for a road trip: Between April and October
Recommended number of days:4 to 5
Level of difficulty: All roads on this trip are easy to navigate.

road trips in Europe

5. Dublin – Kilkenny – Cork – Galway | Southern Ireland

Traveling around Ireland by car is on many people’s wishlists, and this is indeed one of the most beautiful European road trips. Southern Ireland has some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, especially along the coast. Our Southern Ireland road trip starts in Dublin and brings you to Kilkenny, Cork, Limerick and Galway, and ends back in Dublin. This road trip is the perfect way to get to know the culture, landscape and history of Ireland, passing impressive castles as well as picturesque Irish villages. Some of the highlights of this road trip are County Kerry, which has a rugged coastline and tall mountains, and is especially famous for the Ring of Kerry, a circular road that follows a trace of coastline of mountainous fingers jutting out into the ocean. The infamous Cliffs of Moher, which tower 700 feet above the ocean, are another highlight of this trip. Earthtrekkers have a detailed 10-day itinerary for this ultimate Ireland road trip.

Best time for a road trip: Between March and October
Recommended number of days: 5 to 7 days
Level of difficulty: Left side driving and narrow roads. Not for novices.

European Road Trips

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Please don’t go to…Berlin

Berlin Brandenburg Gate

That’s right. We said it. You really shouldn’t visit Berlin.

Why would you? The Germans themselves will tell you Berlin is dirty, crowded, infested with foreigners and low-life unemployed lazies leeching off the social system the rest of the country pays for.

BerlinAnd believe us, the locals don’t want you there either. Talk of neighborhood gentrification and skyrocketing rental prices is what you’ll hear them talk about.

The funny this is, if locals are having a conversation, it is most likely taking place in English, not German. ‘Locals’ are just the hodge podge mix of expats who got here before you from around the world. We heard English everywhere.

berlin love on berlin wallExpats and foreigners of all kinds have always felt at home in Berlin. Turkish immigrants came to West Berlin as extra labor in the 1960s, while East Berlin welcomed their fellow communist Vietnamese comrades during and after the Vietnam War. Today, those two communities are very large and integrated into Berlin’s fabric.

The German capital has always been a haven for creatives from across Europe and beyond. When the war ended, West Berliners were exempt from otherwise mandatory military service. This drew Social activists, pacifists, anarchists, musicians and artists in droves – the latter two even received state subsidies to support their projects. The post-war culture laid the groundwork for what has easily become the least German German city.

There is a state of controlled chaos in Berlin, yet it is a chaos so controlled it could only exist in Germany.

berlin wall
Remaining parts of the wall can be seen throughout the city

At first glance, or even after five weeks, it would appear that half the city is unemployed.

This is judging by the number of people sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes all afternoon long or spending the day grilling in the park or drinking wine well past sunset on riverbanks and other green spaces around town. Berlin is, in fact, one of the greenest cities we have ever spent time in.

berlin treptower parkAnd yet nothing ever seems to get out of control with all this free time and even more free space despite the fact that many locals walk around in some degree of altered state.

It is a mystery why things stay on such an even keel, especially since there is hardly ever a police officer in sight.

The German capital moved to Bonn after the war, leaving much of Berlin leveled. Lack of development and investment in the city throughout the following decades is what kept it so green. Upon re-unification, Berlin regained capital status in 1991, though offices only really moved back in 1999. Still today, many government officials work from offices in Bonn. This explains how in the capital of one of the world’s mightiest economies, you’d have to really search for someone wearing a suit.

Berlin Reichstag
The Reichstag, home of the German parliament, therefore a rare ‘buttoned up’ place in Berlin.

The lack of investment met with limited major industry is partially what has kept much of the population underemployed and created some of the characteristic Berlin grit. Now, this is grit by German standards, of course.

Compared to New York or Bangkok, Berlin is downright tidy. And with food, drinks and over cost of living expenses so low, we often did compare Berlin to Bangkok.

Our rent for five weeks was only $200 more than what we paid in Thailand and our average meal was $6 a plate.

Berlin Cheap Eats
Lunch is usually around €5. The special on the right includes soup, bread, rice, salad and a main course for €4.90.

So Berlin is green, and cheap, and populated with bon vivants. But there is a serious, sad side to the city that is impossible to overlook.

Every single cobblestone you stumble on is connected to history, starting quite literally, with the Stolpersteine, or ‘stumble stones’ – 5,000 gold plated memorial stones on sidewalks in front of homes of Jewish and other people who lost their lives in concentration camps. There are 38,000 of these now all around Europe, but Berlin is home to one of the largest concentrations of them.

berlin stolpersteine
‘Stolpersteine’ have the name of the person, when they were deported, and when and where they were killed.

Look closely at some buildings on either side of what was the Berlin Wall, and you’ll see plaques marking where escape tunnels were dug under the Wall over the years. There is a constant feeling in Berlin that you are somewhere that really matters, a major player in world history. Just imagine what the streets of the city have witnessed from the city’s founding in the 12th Century through to today.

Berlin wall plaques
The plaque on top marks where the wall was located, the one on the bottom left where a person was arrested in the attempt to escape over the wall, the one on the bottom right marks the successful escape of three men.

The Berlin Wall itself is an ever-present feature of the city. Individuals slabs are found throughout the city as memorials, but the largest concentration of remaining wall can be found at the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining piece of the wall.

However, in true Berlin form, the East Side Gallery isn’t just a sad memorial of concrete slabs. Each individual slab is a canvas used to express and communicate message related to the wall, the war, hope, freedom, intercultural understanding or simply incredible graffiti art.

Berlin Wall MuralsThe heavy irony was not lost on us as we cycled back and forth between the east and west sides of Berlin everyday. We did so freely and yet, as a child in the former DDR, Dani would not have even been allowed into West Germany (she could have been shot for it) let alone would she have been cycling back and forth across it with her American girlfriend one day.

east side gallery dani and jessAnd did we ever cycle!

Berlin is such an amazing city for cycling, with countless miles of bike lanes that crisscross through neighborhoods and lead to lakes and parks far out of town, too.

We cycled 20km almost every day, past major sights like Alexandarplatz and the TV tower, through the Brandenburg Gate, along along the Wall, and through Checkpoint Charlie on our way to visit friends, test out as many international restaurants as possible or have drinks at beach bars or beer gardens.

why visit BerlinSome days we stayed in our own ‘hood, Kreuzberg, which is where Turkish immigrants stayed and settled. Today it is a bustling international area where rebel youth and Turkish grandmas co-exist, often lined up at the same shops for ethnic food, or shopping at the same Turkish market on Tuesdays and Fridays. We went here very week to stock up on fruit, veg, cheeses, breads and olives.

Maybachufer Market Berlin Kreuzberg
Maybachufer Turkish Market in Berlin Kreuzberg

Our other favorite neighborhood is Prenzlauer Berg.

This is one of those places locals love to have the gentrification conversation. Just go on a walk, and you’ll hear how ‘this was an abandoned building two years ago,’ ‘the buildings on this street were all an ugly gray until last year,’ or ‘Rents here have gone up so much since last year.’ We were just swooned by the tree-lined streets, imaginative cafes and weekly food and craft markets set up throughout P-Berg.

Prenzlauer BergEach neighborhood is distinct, with its own feel and a specific type of resident – older hippies and young families in Schöneberg, shopping in Ku’Damm, poor folk and punks in Neukölln…

Most noticeable though is how you immediately know that you have crossed from East to West Berlin – the architecture, the little green and red men on the traffic lights and the tram that exists only on the east side.

alexanderplatz at night
Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower: Iconic East Berlin. The TV Tower can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.

Public transportation options abound in this city. The summer should strictly be for cycling, but in the winter, you can choose between that tram (east only) the elevated S-bahn network, the underground U-Bahn,buses, trains, taxis and there has even been a major boom in services similar to Zipcar. Over 10 companies allow you to rent cars by the hour or for the day – all for extremely low rates.

berlin subway station
Old-fashioned subway station in Berlin

So why do Germans think it is so awful?

Maybe it’s the party and club culture that takes place all night long? Clubs are open so late, you would think you are in Spain, not Germany. Some clubs never even close at all.

And let’s say that sounds appealing to you – good luck getting in. Berlin has been up-and-coming for long enough that there is a very careful curation of cool in most of them. Odds are, you’re not getting past the doorman.

Clubs post very specific signs such as ‘No American Hipsters Allowed’ out front to make sure you know where you’re not wanted.

berlin rockboot
Berlin’s Rockboot party boat

Don’t worry though – it’s not like there is nowhere else to hang out. This is a city where brunch is a meal celebrated seven days a week, and is available until 4pm so you don’t even have to get up before noon.

For more quintessential Berlin spots, there are three places that encapsulate the Berlin vibe.

The first is the Badeschiff.

There is no swimming allowed in the Spree river, so some creative types took an old wooden boat, hollowed it out and made it a pool. A pool, in a river, in the middle of the city and it’s surrounded by a beach and a bar. Entry is only 5 Euros to spend the day there, too.

badeschiff swimming poolThe second is Sunday Karaoke in Mauerpark, where thousands of people gather in amphitheater seating to listen to the few brave souls willing to get up and sing karaoke songs in front of the massive audience.

When you mess up, forget the words, or act awkward, the crowd doesn’t boo or hiss – they encourage you, applaud and cheer you on.

mauerpark karaokeThe third is Tempelhof Airport, a pre-WWII airport closed for good in 2008.

Rather than develop this space with condos (though the fight for this was intense) the massive landspace was left as is and in 2010 officially became a city park. Today, thousands of Berliners sprawl in the fields, jog, cycle, skate or kite-board down the 5km landing strip, play mini-golf, pick vegetables at communal farm-shares or jam at concerts near the terminal buildings.

That locals would seize it and make it their own is not surprising. The fact that condo developers were kept at bay makes us think that some government officials might actually be throwing on their skinny jeans and kite-boarding, too, while their colleagues frequent the city’s opera houses or theaters, spend the night listening to the philharmonic, stroll through contemporary art museums or watch independent international films at art house cinemas.

tempelhofer freiheit Let’s be clear that Berlin is as high brow as it is punk. Hell – you might even find a bar called High Brow Punk somewhere in Neukölln.

It is a city where Spanish hipsters rub elbows with pram-pushing yuppie mommies at Vietnamese restaurants, and the German busker on the corner might suddenly find himself singing a duet with the original British rockstar, out for a walk with his dog.

why visit BerlinThe city demands that you add your own flavor, not to conform to what’s already there. Speak your own language, build your own life, make it your own.

kreuzberg turkish ladiesLook. If you go to Berlin, you’re going to change it. You’ll visit, pick your favorite neighborhood, and pay higher rent for an apartment for a month. Then you’ll start telling people all about how awesome Berlin is…then they’ll come, too.

It’ll be anarchy! Wait…Berlin thrives on anarchy.

why visit BerlinOkay, so you might come to Berlin.

And we can’t stop you.

We just hope that Berlin doesn’t lose the state of controlled chaos. We love it the way it is now, and the fact that we want to dissuade you makes us feel like locals already. Berlin’s not perfect. It’s gritty and green, international and easy-to-maneuver. It’s just right for our taste (except there could be an ocean…).

So if you do go to Berlin, which you really should, it’s such an awesome city – look out for us. We might just be there, too. We’ll meet in the afternoon for brunch…

why visit Berlin

If you visit Berlin, check out our Berlin quick guide.

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Go Beyond… Munich: From Fairytale Castles to the Top of Germany

road to the bavarian alps

To some, a visit to Munich might mean steins of beer, bratwurst and oom-pa-pa music, typical for the city’s largest and most famous party – Oktoberfest. Ask the locals, however and they will describe any number of aspects they love about Munich – from the sprawling parks and world-class shopping to up-and-coming trendy artist neighborhoods. There is one exciting part of Munich life that almost everyone can agree on – getting out of it. And the good news is: Day trips from Munich are easy and plentiful.

The city’s proximity to the idyllic Alpine landscape means that the verdant foothills can be reached in less than an hour; the most extreme peaks of the Alps within two. We’re no mountain climbers and we certainly don’t ski, but, like us, everyone can enjoy the classic Bavarian villages, cheese factories, beer gardens, hiking and biking, and there is one mountain everyone is more than welcome to climb. So let’s start right at the top.

day trips from Munich

Four day trips from Munich worth taking

Top of Germany – The Zugspitze

Just south of the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we drove our tiny Smart car along a road which snakes through a valley dotted by half-timbered houses and ends abruptly on the shore of an ice-blue lake, called the Eibsee. As we stared out over the sea and looked up, we spotted thousands of feet of reinforced steel cable which transport cable cars stuffed with people  2,962m or 9,718 ft up to the mountain in under ten minutes.

Zugspitze GermanyThe Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany, actually sits on the Austrian/German border, and although the restaurant, beer garden and all the skiing is located on the Bavarian side, the viewing platform is split between the Bavarian side in Germany and Tyrol, Austria.

In fact, in addition to the Eibsee Cable Car, the top of the mountain can also be reached from Austrian side by the Tyrolean Zugspitze Cable Car. There is a third option to reach the top as well: The Bavarian Zugspitze Railway. The 45-minute train ride begins by chugging up and through the fresh pine forest before slicing its through the inside of the mountain. While I found it nerve-wracking to speed through three climate zones while zipping up the side of a glacier in a cable car, it was far better than the train ride back down through the dark 3-miles long tunnel, which is just a much slower, more claustrophobic method.

Bayrische ZugspitzbahnNo matter how you choose to reach the summit, make sure to dress warm, as the Zugspitze is also the meeting point of three glaciers. Whether you are skiing or just out enjoying the view of the Alps, even summer days at the top can be chilly. Of course, if you get cold, there are two restaurants, a beer garden and a Zugspitze Museum to keep you warm indoors.  While you are up at the top, make sure to get your picture taken with the Zugspitze Photostop Camera, and once you get home, you can download the picture from the website for free.

Eibsee & clouds

Out to Sea: Lake Starnberg

This lake, Germany’s fourth largest, sits just 27km (16 miles) outside of Munich, but its expansive blue waters dotted with sailboats, jet skis, and canoes make it feel worlds away from the bustle of the Bavarian capital. The lake is no hidden gem, but rather a popular escape for everyone from Munich socialites sipping wine in elegant lakeside restaurants (we’re pretty sure we spotted at least one German celebrity) to families hiking and biking their way around the lake’s well-paved perimeter path. We stopped off at several points along the lake by car, but the main town of Starnberg can also be reached by commuter train from Munich. Starnberg itself is an upmarket yet traditional Bavarian town with shops, restaurants and quaint homes lining narrow village roads.

day trips from Munich

The Disneyland Castle: Schloss Neuschwanstein

That’s right…the famous Sleeping Beauty castle located in California’s Disneyland Park was based on this famous 19th century castle.  Neuschwanstein, which literally means ‘new swan stone’ in German, is a magnificent structure, perched neatly on hill overlooking the sprawling valley and village of Hohenschwangau near Füssen in southwest Bavaria.

Newschwanstein CastleCommissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria as his personal refuge, the reclusive king spent less than six months here in his still unfinished castle before he was captured and fell from power. The barely-lived in symbol of 19th century Romanticism was an extravagantly designed homage to classical composer Richard Wagner and also contains thousands of depictions of swans sewn into pillows, drawn into wallpaper and carved into wooden door handles and frames.

Since opening to the public immediately upon the King’s death in 1886, over 60 million people have visited the castle, making this one of Germany’s most popular tourist attractions. Ironically, the town below, where 1.3 million people per year line up for tickets, felt to us very similar to Disneyland, with traditionally-themed restaurants and hotels (with their costumed staff) lining village streets crowded with horse and carriages waiting to take visitors up to the castle, street performers and, by 10am, crowds of people heading up to visit the castle, which sees over 6,000 visitors pass through its gates each day in the summer.

Throne room NeuschwansteinWe would most certainly recommend taking part in the 35-minute guided tour of Neuschwanstein, which is the only way to see the inside of the castle, and a combo ticket will get you entry to Ludwig’s second castle, Schloss Hohenschwangau, located on the hill right next door. However, make sure to hike up and around Neuschwanstein, stopping for a picture along the Marienbrücke bridge, which affords spectacular views of the structure itself.

On your way back down, opt for the path alongside the river (which flows under the bridge above). At times the path lays lazily along the wide river bank, while other times you are suspended over river rapids on steel steps bolted into the side of boulders. The path is perfectly safe, family-friendly and gets some hunger-inducing adrenaline flowing right before you arrive back in the town for lunch! If you have time, you can even hike to Austria from here. There are both long and short distance walking trails, and paths leading all the way round the Alpsee lake at the bottom of the hill.

day trips from Munich

Into The Mountains: The Allgau Alps

This mountainous region about 80km (50 miles) south west of Munich includes several traditionally Bavarian stop-offs plus fabulous hiking and biking opportunities for outdoor lovers,  but unless you’re up for a major round trip cycle, we’d suggest picking up a rental car in Munich for the day. We rented our tiny Smart car from Enterprise for just €16 ($22) per day.

Our first stop was Schloss Linderhof, the third and smallest of King Ludwig’s palaces and the only one he lived to see completed. The palace was inspired by the French palace of Versailles, and its gardens, which combine Baroque and Italian Renaissance styles, are considered one of the most beautiful creations in Europe. Close to the palace you find the village of Ettal, and its ornate 14th century Benedictine Ettal Abbey is also worth a visit.

day trips from MunichThe fresh air, sunny skies and great weather have made this part of Bavaria a popular health resort location, with Ettal located near the picturesque villages of Oberammergau and Unterammergau and countless spa towns found in this area of Southern Bavaria such as Bad Kohlgrub and Bad Tölz (don’t be fooled by their names ‘Bad’ means ‘spa’ or ‘bath’ in German).

day trips from Munich

The best ways to take day trips from Munich

There are a number of ways to take day trips from Munich, and depending on your budget and your comfort of driving a car, i.e. navigating Germany’s notorious autobahn, I want to focus on the three easiest ones: car rentals, train travel, and organized group tours.

Renting a car in Munich

Depending on your itinerary, you may want to rent a car right up on arrival at the airport – that’s the easiest way and means you’ll have the flexibility of being able to go anywhere at any time. I usually have Autoslash send me a quote for a car rental for my dates and then double check with Rentalcars.com to see if they have a cheaper offer. If not, I rent through Autoslash.

If you arrive in Munich without a car, there’s no need to head to the airport to rent a car – all the major car rental companies also have inner city pick-up locations, usually easy to get to by S-Bahn (light rail) or U-bahn (underground rail) or a ride share.

There are also a number of app-based car rental companies operating in Munich, which gives you more flexibility when it comes to renting a car – you are not limited to regular office opening times and you have more cars available throughout the city. Check out Share-Now or Drive Now.

Driving in Germany is pretty easy, however, a basic understanding of the language is helpful to make sense of signs along the autobahn (highway) or country roads. Have a dictionary app ready, and a passenger who can help you navigate.

If you are not comfortable driving stick, make sure to rent an automatic car (they’re not common in Germany, you will have to ask for one, and you’ll pay a surcharge for it.)

Taking trains in Munich

Train travel in Germany is reliable, fast and easy. I personally love taking trains in Europe. It can, however, be expensive – unless you book your tickets in advance. I use the Omio app or website to book all my train tickets at a discount price. It’ll limit your flexibility because you’ll have to commit to a date rather than being able to just hop on a train spontaneously, but it’ll save you a lot of money (up to 50% per ticket).

You can easily reach Füssen by train (2 hours from Munich), Starnberg (for Lake Starnberg). A day trip from Munich to Zugspitze would be quite a long day if you take the train (the trip via Garmisch-Partenkirchen takes about 3 hours) but it’s doable.

Guided Tours

There are a number of organized day trips from Munich you can book via GetYourGuide. The advantage of taking an organized day trip? You don’t have to worry about driving, getting lost, dealing with language barriers. It’s not as flexible as going on your own, but it’ll allow you to just relax and have someone else deal with all the planning.

The best ones include:

 
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Lisbon, sweet Lisbon: Our favorite breakfasts in Portugal

pastry selection & cafe lisbon

**Warning: This post contains an outrageously high amount of calories and the meals talked about in this post should in no way considered as a healthy diet.**

I shot out of bed each and every morning in Lisbon, not because of the clear blue skies or gorgeous summer weather – it was all about the pastries! Like a match made in heaven, I’ve got a super sweet tooth and Portugal is famous for its delicious pastries. It was amazing to us just how many bakeries, or ‘pastelerias’ there are in Lisbon. In fact, just within 2 minutes walking from our guest house there were no less than SIX different bakeries, all filled with dozens of chocolate eclairs, Portuguese-style doughnuts, cakes, cookies, and  last but not least pasteis de nata, the signature pastry of Portugal. Breakfast in Portugal meant indulging in mouthwatering sweets!

Pastelerias are perfect for grabbing a quick espresso and a piece of cake when the tummy starts rumbling mid-afternoon, but they are the most packed first thing in the morning: Office workers, street cleaners, housewives, grandmothers, mothers with children – in short, the entire bustle of the city streets burst out of the bakeries while everyone in Portugal seems to have breakfast here before work or school.

And in Portugal, breakfast means sweets. Pastries!

I couldn’t believe my luck – a country where it is practically mandatory to eat sweets for breakfast! What could be better than starting each day with sugary or chocolatey or creamy doughnuts? Over the years I’ve gotten Jess to like all kinds of sweets, which didn’t interest her in the least before she met me, but sweets for breakfast are still not really her thing, unless it’s granola or yogurt with fruit.

So we set off to find a bakery that also offered yogurt for breakfast, and after seven or eight bakeries, we were finally lucky – this is what we found:

meia de leite yogurt & pastry portugalI’ll admit that her Greek yogurt with berries was delicious, but I was happy with my giant sugar-topped custard pastry, and we both had a Portuguese cappuccino called ‘meia de leite’.

Healthy options are few and far between, however, and the next morning both of us ordered something sweet. So, instead we ordered a small sampling of a variety of pastries to get an overview of Portuguese baked goods:

Portugal breakfastSugar overload! My favorite pastry was the one on the top right, which was similar to a the national pastry – pastel de nata. The pasteis de nata are small round flaky pastries filled with vanilla custard and topped with a mix of cinnamon and sugar. The flavor is unique, distinct and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. This is what they look like:

pasteis de nataOnly one single bakery in Portugal, in Lisbon’s Belem neighborhood, still uses the original recipe, appropriately called Pastéis de Belém. Now juggling its reputation as both a tourist attraction and a legitimate local’s spot, there is usually a long line of people outside the bakery at all times of the day. However, all the other bakeries also make excellent pasteis de nata and some modify them a little bit and fill them with apple or almond sauce instead of custard or use powdered sugar:

Portugal breakfast

Doesn’t this flaky dough crust look delicious?! My favorite pasteis de nata are still the original ones though. If you visit Portugal, you have to try them!

After a few days, we grew tired of the same ol’ sweet breakfasts and just wanted some granola or a hearty breakfast. Not to be found though. Instead we’re  another sweet start into our day…

pastries & meia de leiteThis was actually a very good breakfast and the pastry with the sugar icing and chocolate sauce on top was one of my favorites of all the ones I ate my way through, and Jess also thought that her strudel was delicious.

The next morning, we got breakfast served along with 30 Seconds to Mars sugar… sweet 🙂 !

cafe & pastryYou may be seeing a pattern develop here. Morning after morning, pastry after pastry, with every day we spent in Lisbon, our pants got tighter and tighter, despite our daily hour-long eight-mile exploration walks through Lisbon… Of course we did not eat pastries for the entire three weeks in Portugal – even I got a bit tired of the sweet breakfasts, and at some point we switched them for fresh fruit in the morning.

Please find an array of delicious Portuguese breakfast pastries below:

breakfast portugalA sugar doughnut filled with custard, and a chocolate-covered vanilla custard dream… The Portuguese really love their custard!

portugal breakfastAnother custard-filled doughnut, a custard-filled eclair with sugar frosting, and a selection of cookies – glorious!

portuguese breakfastI couldn’t leave Portugal without one last sweet breakfast, so on our last day, I went to the bakery and got the mini versions of my favorite pastries. Heaven on a plate! Of course I finished them all and I can’t wait to go back to Portugal for more…

What about you – are you a fan of sweet breakfasts? Where in the world have you had the best breakfast? Share in the comments…

 

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Lisbon on Wheels – Get Out and Ride!

yellow tram lisbon portugal

Portugal’s capital city took us completely by surprise when, after booking a three-week stay on a whim, we ended up enamored by Lisbon’s allure. Unlike other European capitals, Lisbon balances its role as a cosmopolitan capital and once-commanding role in global maritime history with endless stretches of sandy beach and cool ocean breeze for relaxing days at the seaside.

Lisbon view rossio squareThe only way to experience all of these charming facets of the city is by imbibing it from as many perspectives as possible. Climb the city’s seven steep hills for sweeping views of the city and beyond to see where the mighty Tagus river estuary to the south empties into the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Or, just get out and ride – whether that be in a car, on a bike or a more adventurous form of three-wheeled transport.

gocar lisbon dani & jess

Rent a car – Lisbon on four wheels

Cruising around downtown can help visitors to get their bearings, but we’ll save city center exploration for a set of fewer wheels below. We rented a car to explore the surrounding areas outside of Lisbon, starting in Sintra, an enchanting little city and UNESCO World Heritage Site 25km outside Lisbon.

sintra houses portugalLuckily we pulled into town just before 10am, early enough to find parking and have the town’s 9th century Moorish castle almost entirely to ourselves. Day-trippers flock to Sintra and its fabulously ornate 19th century Pena Palace, so beat the crowds here and then leave Sintra and loop over to Praia Grande, ‘big beach’, a popular surfing beach and Praia Adraga, a much smaller version of the big beach on your way to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in Europe. During our visit, it was chilly and wet, so when we discovered the six kilometer hike from Adraga Beach to the Cabo da Roca, we had to turn it down and drive instead.

portugal cabo da roca western most point of continental europe After imagining life for Portuguese sailors using the lighthouse as a guide centuries ago, we left Cabo da Roca, and, as we rounded the curve to the coast of Cascais, the rain stopped and sunny Lisbon life returned as quickly as the clouds had suddenly rolled in. Cascais is a not-so-small beach town that retains heaps of charm, and a spot we decided to actually stay in next time we come to Lisbon. The calm waters of the Atlantic are perfect for swimming, restaurants are varied offering anything from Indian to British to Portuguese fare. People here (and there are many, many people here during the summer) are all about relaxing on the beach, so even though we were far from the deserted beaches in Costa Rica we loved so much, and just a few feet from the nearest beachgoers, we just immersed ourselves in a book and enjoyed the sun.

cascais beach lisbon

The late afternoon cruise back to Lisbon along the Avenida Marginal de Cascais made us really realize what a fabulous destination Lisbon really is. The 20km drive along this beach promenade is dotted with beach town after beach town, each with its own patch of wide sandy beach, restaurants, bars and hotels. Everything here is geared toward one thing: the beach. fThere are no ridiculous monstrosities obstructing the view, no theme parks, aquariums, or museums that act as tourist traps on this road. The town of Cascais itself has a surprisingly rich cultural calendar, but along the promenade all the way to Lisbon, the beach remains the main attraction.

cascais promenade lisbon portugalA second day trip option with a rental car in Lisbon is to head south to the Costa de Caparica, over and past two world famous monuments you never knew existed in Lisbon. Cross the Ponte de 25 Abril bridge, which is the spitting image of the more famous Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and at the end you’ll pass directly under the shadow of the Cristo-Rei (Jesus Christ) statue, which bears more than a slight resemblance to the famous Cristo Redentor statue in Rio De Janeiro.  From there, it is just another 15 minutes across the peninsula before there are over 40 miles of non-stop beaches to choose from to spend a relaxing day at the beach. Stop off to eat at any of the beach side cabanas or pack a picnic for the beach.

Lisbon street and bridge 25 de abril

GoCar Tours – Lisbon on three wheels

Back in the city, one way to gain unique access to Lisbon’s smaller streets comes on three wheels with GoCar Tours, which we found ourselves doing one sunny Wednesday morning.

jess cocar lisbonWe turned into a narrow side street near the imposing Lisbon City Gate to find yellow go-carts all lined up in a row. The staff inside could not have been more friendly or helpful, giving us tips on what to see in Lisbon as well as in the surrounding areas. After a quick how-to session, we were given helmets and headed off to explore the Lisbon city streets. We set off and  were immediately welcomed by the English-speaking GPS guide, who not only gives driving instructions, but also explains the history of several attractions and locations throughout the tour.

gocar lisbonWe zipped around town for just under an hour in these speedy yellow three-wheeled machines, but some people rent GoCars in Lisbon for the entire day and even drive it down to Cascais.

One of the things we loved about the GoCars is the access to the side streets unavailable to cars. Lisbon has countless hilly side streets only no wider than two horses, and these narrow streets offer up some of the best glimpses into true Portuguese neighborhoods.

lisbon alleyIt was great to be able to shoot up and down these hills and hear about the history of these local gems, albeit catching some stares from the bewildered residents peeking down from their windowsills above. As we drove, we always made sure to give fellow GoCars a friendly wave, as well as the dozens of tourists who turned their cameras on us as we tooled by – when you rent a GoCar, you become a tourist attraction yourself!

Tram reflection gocar lisbon

There are a few things to keep in mind if considering a GoCar rental. First of all, you should be looking for a bit of adventure. Weaving in and out of traffic among cars, trucks streetcars, bicycles, buses and pedestrians is an adrenaline rush, especially if you, like us, are not accustomed to go-carting. Also, it is a bumpy ride at times. Lisbon is covered in cobble stones, and you’ll be bumping along very low to the ground for much of any tour through the inner city. If this is a concern, scoot straight over to the Belem area. Not only are many of the famous tourist attractions located here, but this is a flat area right on the shore with paved roads and pathways. If it sounds like fun, but you’re not looking for too much adventure, Lisbon GoCar Tours do make a small set of golf cart-like vehicles available, which are easier to drive and might be more familiar to some users.

lisbon belem monastery

Rent a bicycle – Lisbon on two wheels

For a liberating day out with sun, sand and shoreline, the best thing to do is rent a bike in Lisbon. We started off from Lisbon Hub, right downtown a block from the train station and pedaled the seven kilometers along the bank of the Tagus River.

lisbon tagus river viewThe clearly marked cycle path is popular both with Lisbon’s fit, athletic types out running and cycling and the city’s fisherman, who set up their fishing rods early each morning. Along the way, we passed sexy sunset lounge bars and clusters of slightly upscale waterside restaurants serving up primarily Italian, Portuguese and Spanish cuisine. Once in Belem, we locked up the bikes and headed to sample Pasteis de Nata, Portugal’s most famous pastry, at the renowned Pasteis de Belem, where only three chefs know the recipe for what are considered the best Pasteis de Nata in the world. After filling up on these creamy, sugary delights, we spent the afternoon at the popular tourist sites here like the Belem Tower, Jeronimo Monastery and the Museu Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art before our ride back to the heart of Lisbon.

pasteis de nata lisbon

Cycling this expansive area of the coast in its entirety is too much for one day if you want to catch the ferry back in time to return the bike to Bike Iberia, so just cycle along, stopping off at whatever stretch of beach strikes your fancy for a few hours and then head on to the next.costa caparica waves

Take the bike on the coastal train

Another option is to take the bike right into the train station and hop on one of the coastal trains out to Cascais where the cycleways are perfect for peaceful riding along the shoreline or take the ferry across the Tagus to the Alameida and ride 20 minutes to the wide, sandy beaches of the Costa da Caparica.

Join a guided bicycle tour

If you aren’t entirely comfortable on a bike and feel safer navigating Lisbon with a guide, there are plenty of bicycle tours available in Lisbon. And if you feel like cycling is too hard (which, admittedly, on a hot summer day it sure can be!), there are also e-bike tours and e-bike rentals which make getting around Lisbon a whole lotta easier on your legs.

 

While we loved the freedom we felt with our bikes in Lisbon, those seven steep hills in the center are too much for us mere mortals to attack on two wheels. This means that city center exploration up and down the character-building hills must be done on your own two feet, or you can hop on to one of the many streetcars in town which again evoke pleasant memories of San Francisco.

lisbon tram 28

Lisbon on one wheel…

Exploring Lisbon on a unicycle? Honestly, we haven’t done that…yet? Maybe we will save this on for next time!

Either way, the more time you take to explore Lisbon, the more the city unfolds to reveal the depths of its charming character. Each city side street hides little secrets – a beautifully-tiled building, a centuries-old basement gin joint, tiny art galleries, or a pasteleria overflowing with good-natured Portuguese locals at all times of day, and with the sun and the sand so nearby, we found ourselves as cheerful as ever! Taking the time to explore the city on four, three and two wheels is what made us fall head over heels for Lisbon.

lisbon bike ponte 25 abril

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Polaroid of the week: Beautiful Lisbon, Portugal

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

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polaroid of the week portugal lisbon

We just spent a little over three weeks in Portugal’s capital, and this city became one of our favorite in Europe. We took our time to explore all the diverse neighborhoods, climbed up to the top of the city’s seven hills, sampled dozens of the famous ‘Pasteles de nata’, Lisbon’s trademark pastries and enjoyed lazy days at the nearby beaches. We loved the typical tiled houses, the classic yellow trams that continue to climb up and down the steep hills, the countless mom-n-pop restaurants (and lack of chains), and narrow alleyways in the Alfama neighborhood. We could have easily spent another three weeks in Lisbon and can’t wait to get back to what we consider Europe’s most laid-back and beautiful capital.

 

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33 Things We Love About Lisbon

lisbon portugal

Lisbon turned out to be one of our favorite places so far on our travels, so after three weeks in the Portuguese capital, finding thirty-three things to shout out over the rooftops was easy! Read on for some of the things and places we absolutely love about Portugal’s capital, some random observations about Lisbon, as well as some Lisbon fun facts you may not know (yet!)

33 Things we love about Lisbon:

1. The yellow trams

Similar both in look and feel to the San Francisco trams, these beautiful yellow trams serve as a very useful public transportation system spanning the central city area. The older street car trolleys continue to connect the coastal areas to the high up hilltop neighborhoods, while the trams travel across town on the streets at sea level. Most are slightly aged but in full working order (like much of Lisbon, actually) and they are lifesavers for getting you up and down the steep hills in comfort. Tip: The Number 28 route has become the de facto tourist tram, as it circles the city center. You’ll see tourists seated on the wooden benches, hanging out of the open windows with their cameras, while the locals have tend to cram into the aisles to keep using the line.

yellow tram lisbon portugal

2. Lisbon is multicultural

Lisbon’s mighty maritime history in the 15th to 19th centuries means that Portugal gained several colonies throughout the centuries. The effects of this can be seen in the cultural make up of its capital city today, which, along with more recent immigrants from all over Europe and further afield, make Lisbon a culturally rich cosmopolitan city.

3. Vinho Verde

Despite its name, Vinho Verde or green wine, is not green at all. It is a light white wine, made of green grapes, and is one of Portugal’s specialties along with the more globally known Port wine. At €7 a bottle in the restaurant and much less in the store, there is no excuse not to try this delicious Portuguese wine.

Vinho Verde Portugal

4. The train ride to Cascais

Cascais is the biggest beach town just outside of Lisbon, and it could not be easier to get there. The train leaves from central Lisbon and glides along the coast, with several stops throughout the various beach villages on the way to Cascais. Easily my favorite way to get to the beach, this sunny ride got me right in the mood for a day of ultimate relaxation! Make sure to ride on the left side of the train when traveling from Lisbon to Cascais for the best beach views.

5. Santa Justa Elevator

Lisbon is built on seven hills, and climbing this multilevel city can get tiring, especially without car. Raul Mesnier de Ponsard, a Lisbon native born to French parents, Mesnier served as an apprentice to Gustav Eiffel, and brought the inspiration from the construction of the tower home and applied them with the Santa Justa lift. The lift was commissioned and created to facilitate the movement of people from down in the Baixa section up to Carmo Square. The design is intricate, beautiful, and the lift itself is free, but for just €1.50, you can climb the stairs to the top of the elevator for great views over Lisbon.

Lisbon fun facts6. Cheap bakery breakfasts

Within a one-minute walk from the door of our hotel, we had the choice of six pastelerias, or Portuguese bakeries. While we are sure that plenty of people in Lisbon eat breakfast at home, people are pouring out of these pastelerias, all of them, each morning. We ordered a double espresso and one of the many delicious pastries for around €2 to start our day sugar shocked and uber-caffeinated! You can take a look at some of our favorite breakfasts in Portugal here.

7. The views over Lisbon

In Lisbon, there are views just about everywhere, from hilltops to hotel rooftops, plus countless parks and even from the castle. My favorite place for a view was to climb the streets up to the Miradouro e jardim do Torel viewpoint which is a little park in a residential area just off the Avenida da Libertade. The benches were so comfortable, and the trees provide a breezy, cooling shade. Even on days of intense summer heat, this park is the perfect spot to have a coffee and read a book while the rest of Lisbon is baking below.

Lisbon fun facts

8. The Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Belem

The Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (short: Museo Berardo) has a great collection of the world’s biggest artists of the 20th century- Warhol, Picasso, Dali, Duchamp, Magritte, Miró,  Jackson Pollock and many more. And the best thing: the museum is always FREE.

9. The beaches

We just can’t get enough of the beaches in Lisbon. The city itself is lined with coastline, along the Tagus River and the Atlantic Ocean – which can be reached by car, train, bike, bus or GoCar within minutes. A second option for more beaches lies just across the 25 de Abril bridge (the Golden Gate Bridge’s twin). A ten minute ride once across leads to the Costa da Caparica and miles and miles of Atlantic Ocean beach access. Both areas have a laid-back beach culture, surfing, and plenty of great restaurants to keep everyone fed and happy.

Lisbon observations

10. Pasteis de Nata pastries

These pastries are a Portuguese institution, and one of Dani’s favorite sweets from our time in Europe this year. They are custard filled pastries, with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top.

11. The Coffee

They love their coffee in Lisbon, and while walking the city streets, an espresso is available just about every 50ft. Known locally as ‘bicas’ these super strong espressos kept us buzzing all day long.

Lisbon fun facts

12. Sagres and Superbock beers

We kept that buzz going at night as well, with these two popular Portuguese brews. Both are light, crisp, and delicious cold – which after a day in that sizzling Lisbon sun feels gooooood.

13. Sculptures everywhere!

One Lisbon observation that filled us with joy: The City is filled with sculptures – the biggest one being the Cristo Rei statue in the Almada neighborhood on the left-bank of the Tagus River, a giant stone Jesus Christ figure, which is overlooking Lisbon and was inspired by the ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue in Rio de Janeiro, but you will come across bronze and stone sculptures everywhere in the city, including the magnificent Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) in Belem, and a gigantic Fernando Botero sculpture on the north end of the Eduardo VII Park.

botero sculpture lisbon portugal14. Tiled houses

The tiles of Lisbon are what help to maintain that intensely old school charm of this capital city. The buildings and sidewalks are both covered in tiles, and form designs or patterns, or even larger murals.

Lisbon observations

15. Bairro Alto & Chiado

This area of Lisbon is a combination of bohemian creativity and classic luxury. A place where art museums and fusion restaurants meet live music and old-world wine and whiskey bars. If we lived in Lisbon, this is where we would go out for all occasions.

16. Indian Restaurants

Goa, India was a Portuguese territory until the mid 20th century, and one culinary result is that Lisbon has over 50 Indian restaurants in the city and counting! We couldn’t have been happier with the Indian food as it was both vegetarian and delicious. In fact…we managed to eat at a different Indian restaurant almost every single night, and no, it wasn’t healthy. But it was good!

Indian sauces Lisbon Portugal

17. The subway system

You may be charmed by the trolleys, the sleek super quiet trams, the buses which provide a great tour for the price of bus fare, or the fun ferries which cross the Tagus river – but don’t forget about the fully functional, easy, clean subway system. Our hotel entrance was at the top of the Almirante Reis exit, so we took the subway often and found it to be very convenient.

18. Ponte 25 de April

We’ve mentioned it before, but we just love how this twin of the Golden Gate – only one of many similarities to San Francisco – adds an extra touch to the classic beauty of the skyline.

Lisbon fun facts

19. Lisbon is affordable

From food and transport to clothing and tourist attractions, Lisbon is a fabulously affordable city. The capital is home to some of the finest theater and hotels, but the luxury here seems present, but muted – Lisbon is also the most no-fuss capital we have visited and can easily be done on a budget.

20. The Alleys of the Alfama quarter

The Alfama quarter of Lisbon is the most romantic area of the city. Built upon dense bedrock, the Alfama survived the 1755 earthquake, which makes a visit to this area like a trip back in time. Stepping through the narrow medieval cobblestone areas brought us to tiny squares, inside mystic churches, and past whitewashed houses decorated with colorful flowers and laundry hanging out to dry.

lisbon fun facts21. Survival of the mom-n-pop restaurants

If we ate seafood, then it would surely be on this list of thirty three things we love, since Lisbon and all of Portugal is known for its fresh, delicious seafood. And although don’t eat seafood (or meat), we can appreciate the way it is sold and eaten here in Lisbon. Even in expensive downtown real estate, streets are lined with family-owned shops and restaurants open for generations. Shops specialize in specific products – fabric, yarn, bags, antique books, florists, tools and, of course, seafood. It’s a great feeling to pay someone for an item and know that the cash is going right to them, not to an (inter)national chain.

22. Wine and whisk(e)y in wooden boxes

Continuing along our love of the old school style of Lisbon and the survival of the mom-n-pop, we love peeking in to the dimly lit downtown booze shops which still sell dusty bottles of wine and whiskey packed individual in wooden boxes.

23. The stunning Santo Domingo church

Its nondescript facade hides one of the most beautiful churches we came across in Europe during this trip, and believe us, we have seen a ton of churches! The salmon-colored walls are so unusual, the detail on the many statues and columns incredible. We don’t actually attend church, but we’d go back to this one again any time!

santo domingo church lisbon

24. Docas – The Santo Amaro Docks

Under the 25 de Abril Bridge in the Alcantara area of Lisbon between Baixa and Belem, former warehouses now house a string of bars and restaurants which now overlook a trendy yacht marina. You can eat everything from Tapas and Mexican to traditional Portuguese, but the best part is enjoying a drink and a view of the lights twinkling on the water at night.

25. The bike path to Belem

The 7km cycle path along the coast leads from the downtown train station to the area of Belem, and is a flat, easy ride under the 25 de Abril Bridge, past countless trendy bars and restaurants and toward some of Lisbon’s most popular and significant tourist attractions.

Lisbon observations26. Baixa

This area is the heart of downtown Lisbon. It’s beautiful, wide squares and great shopping streets were re-built after the earthquake of 1755 leveled the city. The neo-classical architecture today houses some modern shops, but several of these downtown store fronts are still run by sole retailers selling hand-crafted goods and services. Baixa is the main area for public gatherings in Lisbon as well.

27. Street Art

Cities with great street art always win our hearts, and parts of Lisbon are like outdoor art museums, with eye-catching, intellectual street art.

Lisbon observations

28. Avenida da Libertade

This central, tree-lined boulevard across town from the Rossio Square to Parque Eduardo VII, and is the main shopping street and thoroughfare for parades in the city. The Libertade is known as Portugal’s equivalent of the Champs Elysees in France, and with its luxury shops, it sure feels that way.

29. Queijo mestiço de Tolosa

As we do in any European country, we grabbed a bottle of red wine, a freshly-baked baguette and this delicious soft white mestiço de Tolosa cheese and had a picnic in the Jardim do Ultramar. At some point, we ran out of bread, and then out of wine, but we kept right on nibbling at this excellent cheese anyway – so good!

portuguese wine & cheese

30. Campo Mártires da Pátria

The statue that sits on this space, Sousa Martins Statue, is dedicated to Dr José Tomás de Sousa Martins, who, in the 20th century, worked with the poor treating tuberculosis. Today, there are thousands of engraved plaques and stones still thanking the doctor for his help. The attached park, Jardim da Cordoaria, has peacocks, pheasants, ducks and geese paddling around a pond, plus a cafe called O Coreto, which is popular with locals who like the solitude of this peaceful park right in the center of the city.

31. Lisbon GoCar Tours are fun

Exploring the town from the view of a little yellow GoCar is a great way to see Lisbon. Read what we thought about our Lisbon GoCar Tour, and if you are on your way to Lisbon, you can book a Gocar tour here.

Lisbon fun facts32. Portuguese style

Lisbon residents are a handsome bunch. Golden brown from the summer sun and thin thanks to climbing the city’s many hills, people here have the bodies to pull off tight, short and barely-there attire – but no one does. Instead, the style is much more natural and comfortable. Men wear button-down shirts and linen trousers, while women wear long, flowing dresses/skirts and loose-fitting linen shirts. Overall this brings such a relaxed fashion sense to match the laid-back attitude and a lack of pretentiousness that we could really get along with.

33. A Ginjinha

Ginjinha is the name of a liqueur which infuses sour cherries in alcohol with sugar. This super sour shot burns its way down and doesn’t taste all that pleasant at all – the pleasant part is that it shots are available all day long from A Ginjinha, essentially a gritty, singular market stall, right on Rossio Square. The wrinkly old Portuguese vendor slaps shot after shot on the counter for the continuous stream of locals and tourists who gather to spend five minutes with their cherry shot throughout the day.

Lisbon fun facts

If you enjoyed these 33 things – check out the things we love about some of our other favorite destinations:

1. 33 Things We Love about Costa Rica
2. 33 Things We Love About Nicaragua
3. 33 Things We Love About Guatemala

For highlights in Central America, Mexico and Europe, we’d love you to have a look round all our Things We Love articles!

Have you been to Portugal? More specifically to Lisbon – Did you love it as much as we did? What were some of the things you love the most about Lisbon?

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