Yosemite National Park: Things to know before you go

Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular national park destinations in the entire US. The landscape is astonishing, which is why Yosemite is one of the ultimate destinations for hikers, climbers and anyone who loves to be outdoors.

We had three days in Yosemite during our California road trip, which is just enough to check out some of the park’s most famous natural sights, as well as get outdoors for some hiking, a welcome active break on what is typically a food and drink heavy American experience! This is our guide for anyone who is visiting Yosemite for the first time, to help you plan your stay and get the most out of this incredible place over a few short but busy days.

How to Get There

Yosemite is located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, so you will need to make your way to the park either by bus, train, car or a combination of the three. Many people choose to fly into San Francisco chill for a few days before hiring a car and driving to Yosemite. The scenery along the route is pretty breathtaking when you start climbing into the mountains, but just be aware that it’s a fairly long trip and will take around 4-5 hours depending on stops and traffic.

There’s also Fresno/Yosemite International Airport, which is only 1.5 hours from the southern entrance to the park, but you will still need to make your way into the valley by bus or car.

Entrance & Passes

Like most national parks, there is an entrance fee payable when you arrive. A pass will cost you $35.00 per car (price at Jan 2020) this can be easily purchased at one of the park’s entrances and is valid for seven days. We bought the America the Beautiful National Park Pass for $80.00 because we also wanted to check out Sequoia, so if you are thinking of doing a couple of parks during your trip, this is something to consider. If you are interested in this pass you don’t need to pre-book just ask at the entrance and they will sort it out for you there and then 🙂

Once you are in the valley however, car parking is free! Just make sure to get there early as car parks fill up fast, especially during peak times of the year.

When to Visit

The weather will have a huge impact on your stay in Yosemite. It can potentially make or break your trip, which we found out the hard way. We visited at the end of spring in May, which we read on several guides is one of the best times to visit, as the park is accessible but not too busy. Unluckily for us, May 2019 saw the worst weather California had seen for 25 years (typical ☹) and snow was still around higher up the valley, closing off access to Glacier Point Road and all the viewpoints, as well as some of the main hiking trails. Plus, it rained heavily and even snowed at times for two of the three days we visited the park. Gutted!

To avoid this disappointment, head to Yosemite in the summer months to try and catch the best of the weather. The park will likely be much busier, but it’s better than not being able to hike up and see all of the amazing scenery with bright sun and blue skies. You dont want to miss out on the higher trails and viewpoints! The best times in our well-earned opinion would be late June or early September.

Even so, altitude in the park varies dramatically depending on where you are or if you are hiking out of the valley, so the weather is often unpredictable, and temperatures vary dramatically. It’s very important to check the forecast each day, and for the specific area where you will be spending your day.

Where to Stay

There are a lot of options for staying both in and near to the park, so choose one that best fits your taste and budget. A general rule is the closer you are to the park, or in the valley itself, the more expensive your accommodation will be, with some exceptions.

The ideal option is to base yourselves in, or as close to the valley as you can so you can make the most of your time. However, accommodation close to the park gets booked up several months in advance, so be prepared to book early if you want to stay in the park.

We have friends who stayed at Yosemite View Lodge and gave it really good reviews. It’s only a 20-minute drive to the park entrance too! For the best balance of value and location, we would recommend this as your best bet. For a two night stay at the end of June prices are around $260.00.

The view from their hotel room

A cheaper option for staying in the park is to camp. Camping plots can either be reserved in advance, or you can simply turn up to some sites and spaces are available on a first come first served basis. Prices start from as little as $6.00 per person per night depending on the time of year and the specific site. Just remember to read up on the guidelines and make sure you have everything you need, unless you want a hungry bear sniffing around your tent during the night…

For those on a budget who don’t mind staying a little further away from the park, Mariposa is a good option too. Mariposa is a small town located about an hour and a half drive from the entrance to the park. This is where we stayed while visiting Yosemite and the drive into the park is along a deep canyon with a wide flowing river, so it’s definitely not the worst commute we’ve had!

We stayed at an Airbnb close to Midpines which was around a 20-minute drive from Mariposa and actually a little closer to the park. It was very isolated so when we drove through the woods in the dark it was a little unsettling. That being said, Christine, the lady who hosted us was wonderful to say the least! Her knowledge of the park is invaluable and really helped us to plan out our days, and her breakfasts are to die for! We couldn’t recommend her place enough.

Mariposa has all you need during your visit with plenty of bars, restaurants and supermarkets. 1850 Restaurant & Brewing Company gets an honourable mention from us for their great beers and steak!

Hikes

Yosemite is one of the most popular hiking spots in the USA. There are so many trails to explore that it would take years of living near the valley to find your way around most of them. For first time visitors, the trails below are some of the most popular, and rewarding hikes in the valley, taking you past some of the park’s most well-known attractions and vista points.

Yosemite Falls

If you feel like standing on top of the 5th highest waterfall in the world, this one’s for you. The hike to Upper Yosemite Falls is very challenging, it’s a 7-mile round trip with 3,000 feet of elevation gain, but also very rewarding with amazing views of the valley below, and the falls as you make your way up. At least when it’s not raining and covered in cloud as it was for us!

Don’t we look cool!

If this is too much for you, you can easily walk to the lower falls as it’s only a short 1.5-mile round trip that takes you on a loop on the valley floor to the base of lower falls. Prepare to get wet though as the spray from the falls will catch you along both trails.

Mist Trail

Another waterfall hike, this one will take you up to Vernal and Nevada Falls along stone stairs. It’s a 3.5-mile round trip to the top of Vernal Falls and 6.5 miles to the top of Nevada Falls. The trail gets its name from the spray from the waterfalls, which means you will likely get pretty wet while walking the route. Waterproof outerwear is essential for this one so make sure it’s in your backpack. This also means that the stairs can get slippery, so be careful and climb at your own pace.

Half Dome

The hike to the summit of Half Dome is one of Yosemite’s most popular hikes. So much so that in 2010 the park introduced a lottery where hikers need to apply for a permit to walk the trail, and only 225 are issued per day! One for the adrenaline junkies, this walk is considered one of the most dangerous in the USA. It is one of the longest and most challenging day hikes in the park at 17 miles with 4,800 feet of elevation gain. Be prepared if you are one of the lucky few who are picked for a permit, the last section of the hike will see you take on the infamous Half Dome cables, a steep climb up the slick granite rock with only two wire cables to hold on to, not the best place to be if you have a fear of heights or for those of you prone to tripping over your own feet like Joe!

Mirror Lake

Get off the shuttle bus at stop #17 and its just a short 2.5-mile round trip to the base of Half Dome and Mirror Lake. The trail is a good orientation hike for your first day in the park as you learn to navigate the shuttle busses and generally find out where everything is in the valley. When the lake is at its fullest it gives great reflections of the scenery around it, hence its name. It’s a great photo spot and also one of the most popular swimming spots during the warmer summer months so pack swim stuff if you fancy cooling off in the water.

It’s also a good spot for a cold one 😉

Bridalveil Falls

This is a short walk to the base of the first waterfall you will see when driving into the park. It’s only a 0.5-mile round trip along a mostly level, paved pathway, so we recommend checking it out as you’re leaving the park or on your way to Tunnel View (more on that later).

Viewpoints

Seeing as the weather wasn’t really on our side during our visit, we missed out on most of the best viewpoints in the park ☹ We don’t want the same for you, so here’s our roundup of the must-see views and photo spots that you need to check out during your visit.

El Capitan

When you first enter the park, you’ll be greeted by one of Yosemite’s most famous landmarks, El Capitan. A mecca for rock climbers, El Capitan is the first cliff face you will see as you drive into the park, and you will definitely want to stop off to have a look around. Luckily there’s parking all along the road here so just pull up wherever you like and take some time to enjoy your first Yosemite photo spot! This rock face has been famous amongst climbers for years but made headlines in 2017 when Alex Honnald became the first person to free solo (thats climb without ropes or safety gear) the 3,000-foot face. Something to think about when you’re standing at the base looking up.

Can you see the heart? <3

Tunnel View

One of the best views of Yosemite Valley. Tunnel View is only a short drive from the entrance to the park and is best enjoyed later in the day at sunset to round off a great day in the valley. With El Capitan in the foreground and Half Dome in the far distance, staring down the entire length of the valley is not to be missed! Just remember that a lot of people will likely have the same idea, so you may have to wait a little to get space on the car park.

Glacier Point

If you type Yosemite Valley into Google, photos taken from Glacier Point will likely be the first thing you see. The viewpoint is located directly across the valley from Half Dome, with the valley floor 3,200 feet below, this might not be one for those of you with a fear of heights but if you love photography, you will likely be up there for quite a while!

You can drive to Glacier Point or take a shuttle from the valley floor. Alternatively, for the more adventurous, you can hike up as well along the Four Mile Trail, which will take you around 3.5-4 hours each way.

Taft Point 

Afraid of heights? If you’re not sure, you will be after visiting Taft Point! Unlike Glacier Point, Taft Point doesn’t have a protective wall, and you can walk right up to the edge of the cliffs to look directly down to the valley floor below. This is one of the best viewpoints for El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. Make sure to check out the huge fissures in the cliffside as well while walking the 2.2-mile round trip from the car park/trailhead.

Sentinel Dome 

360-degree panoramic views of the Sierra Nevada mountains are your reward for hiking up to Sentinel Dome. It shares a car park with the Taft Point trailhead and it’s a similar distance round trip. All the park’s main attractions are visible from here, including Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and Nevada Falls, as well as the surrounding mountain range.

Sample 3 Day Itinerary

Day 1;

Arrive in Yosemite Valley as early as you can (before 8am is best) and stop to check out El Capitan.

Drive down to the visitor’s centre/village, find a parking space and get your bearings. Grab a bite to eat or some food for the day from the store if you haven’t already, you will need plenty of energy exploring the park! Have a walk around and find the closest bus stop to your car, you will be using the shuttle a lot during your stay.

Walk the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail and the Mirror Lake Trail during the morning. These are easy orientation walks with rewarding views from the bases of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome. 

After lunch, get back in the car and head up Glacier Point Road to check out the viewpoints at Taft Point, Sentinel Dome and Glacier Point. Spend some time taking photos and enjoying the scenery before heading back down later in the afternoon for sunset at Tunnel View to round off your first day.

Days 2 & 3;

For your next two days we recommend checking out some of the longer, more challenging hiking trails. Pick the hike to Upper Yosemite Falls or the Mist Trail and just head off. Make sure you have enough food and water for your journey as you will likely be out most of the day on these hikes.

For those of you lucky enough to get a Half Dome permit, you will spend time on the Mist Trail as well, as this forms part of the hike up to the cables. Just make sure you have an easier day planned either before of after this one as it will be very challenging!

Useful Tips and Things to Bring Along

  • Pack for all weathers – As we’ve already mentioned, weather in the park is unpredictable and will likely vary day to day if not hour to hour. Be prepared and bring several warm layers with you as well as waterproof jackets and trousers.
  • Wear sturdy footwear – Although you can do some of the easier walks along the valley floor and to the higher viewpoints in trainers, we would recommend sturdy hiking boots or shoes with plenty of grip on the sole. Many of the trails are past waterfalls or up steep, rocky steps that can get slippery even when dry. Make sure to get yourself some good quality walking socks too.
  • Start early – Yosemite is one of the most popular tourist destinations in California, as such, in peak times the valley and viewpoints can get very crowded. Beat the masses and get into the valley and on the trails early.
  • Start late – You read that right. As important as it is to get on the trails early to avoid the crowds, the same can be said for starting later in the day. Once day trippers have started to leave, the valley becomes much less busy, and the scenery with the sun setting against the cliffs is not to be missed. One guide recommends grabbing a pair of binoculars and spotting the climbers on El Capitan hanging their tents thousands of feet above the valley floor after a day on the rock face. Something we wish we had known before! Plus, as Yosemite is isolated in the mountains, artificial light is scarce, which makes for breath taking night skies.
  • Book early – Accommodation in and around Yosemite Valley gets booked up months in advance, especially for peak times. We would recommend booking your stay at least 6 months in advance to avoid disappointment.
  • Pack a good quality water bottle – While out on the trails there are limited spots to grab fresh water, and you will need plenty of it for a long hike on a hot day. Carry at least a one litre bottle per person during the day. We would recommend grabbing some purification tablets or a filter bottle so that you can simply fill up at a stream or lake during the day and save some weight, which when climbing 3000 feet out of the valley will make a noticeable difference.

That’s everything you need to know about planning your first visit to Yosemite National Park. We were so disappointed that the weather prevented us from doing everything we wanted to during our stay, but on our one day of sunshine and two days of torrential rain we still got to appreciate the beauty of Yosemite, and think that anyone travelling to California should include it in their plans! 

This guide barely even scratches the surface of what the park has to offer, so we will definitely be heading back one day, hopefully a few times!

Cheers folks and happy hiking!

Joe & Nat xxxxx

San Francisco – A first timer’s guide to the city by the bay

San Francisco is one of the most diverse and colourful cities in the USA, from world famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, to small independent craft beer breweries and a pier filled with sea lions! The city by the bay has something for everyone and is the perfect place to start your Californian adventure 🙂

We had heard such good things about San Francisco and Nat was so excited to visit the home of one of her favourite childhood programs “That’s so Raven?”, that we couldn’t think of anywhere better to start our road trip around California. 

We spent three days exploring the city but this didn’t really give us enough time to explore everything San Fran has to offer, although it is enough time for a first time explorer to make their way through the city’s highlights. These are our top picks as well as hints & tips to help you discover the best of what San Francisco has to offer.

Quick jump-around guide

Getting Around Town

Despite how big San Fran is the transport links are generally very good. We made heavy use of the Muni busses during our stay and for a cheap, convenient way to get around, we would suggest you do the same. The busses run all over the city and you will never be far from a stop no matter where you are.

The easiest way to use the Muni is to download the Munimobile app and buy your tickets on there. A single adult ticket will cost you around $3.00. You can also pay in cash to the driver, but exact change is required so we found it much easier to use the app.

Another option for getting around is to use Uber Pool. For those of you like us who had never heard of Uber Pool before, it’s Uber’s taxi sharing service where you share your ride with other passengers travelling to a similar destination. You usually have to walk a little bit as pool drivers will pick you up and drop you off within an area and not a specific location. Don’t worry though, it is never more than a few minutes’ walk and more often than not, you get picked up and dropped off at your desired spot.

Using Uber Pool can reduce your fare by up to 50% so we would recommend using pool as much as possible when getting taxi’s, and if you haven’t signed up with Uber before here’s our code : natalieh4280due for a further discount.

So now that you know how to get around, lets get into how you should split your time in San Francisco.

Food first (always) make sure you grab a hearty breakfast…

If you hadn’t gathered by now, you’re probably going to have a busy few days, and busy days need to start with a good breakfast! Head to Honey Honey Café & Crepery just down from Union Square for one of the best in town. Their huge menu and HUGE portions will satisfy any hungry tourist and will definitely set you up for an action-packed day in San Fran.

Explore the Golden Gate Bridge, The Presidio of San Francisco & Golden Gate Park…

We’re guessing that like us, and 99% of people visiting San Francisco, that your top priority as soon as the plane touches the ground is to head straight over to see the Golden Gate Bridge (and it should be!). However, we recommend spending a little bit of time to explore the Presidio of San Francisco, the park and former military base on the western side of the city. Start off by checking out the Palace of Fine Arts. The rotunda and surrounding structures are visually stunning.

A great place to get some cool photos of the famous R2-D2 shaped building!

From the Palace of Fine Arts, it’s a 45-minute walk to the Golden Gate Bridge through Crissy Field, a former US Army air base. The paths and beaches along the waterfront are great to stroll along and take in views of San Francisco bay on clear days. Plus, closer to the bridge there are some great viewpoints, and a café at Torpedo Wharf where you can even pick up a crafty cold one 😉

Take one of several hiking trails up the hill for great vistas of the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge and its iconic red/orange painted towers are the cities’ top attraction and a symbol of San Francisco & the USA in general all over the world. 

Walking or cycling over the bridge and down into Sausalito is a great option for spending a few hours. There are ferries that will take you back to the city for around $12.00 that run hourly. If you have the time, you can also do what we did and hike some of the trails around Land’s End for more great views of the Golden Gate looking out at the Pacific Ocean. 

Head down into Golden Gate Park and check out some of the museums such as the California Academy of Sciences and their rainforest dome.

Or you can just relax and enjoy the quiet with your beer buddy 🙂

Tour Alcatraz island…

We could write a whole blog about Alcatraz just on its own (and we might). Alcatraz has earned itself the nickname of the ‘worlds most notorious prison’, and with former inmates like gangsters Al Capone and George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, its easy to see why.

Tours must be booked online at https://www.alcatrazcruises.com/ and cost around £30 per person for a day tour and £36.50 for a night tour. Ferries leave from Pier 33 and the whole tour generally take around 3 hours.

The tour ticket includes an easy to follow audio guide which takes you around the cell house & the infamous solitary confinement cells in D-block as well as walking you past locations of escapes and prison riots. The audio tour guide is one of the best and most informative we’ve experienced so make sure you make good use of it!

Explore Fisherman’s Wharf…

Be prepared Fisherman’s Wharf is very touristy and in Nat’s opinion might not be for everyone, think of Blackpool on steroids! It’s still a fun way to spend a couple of hours and there is a lot to do here – plenty of seafood restaurants, souvenir stores, museums to check out and SF’s main attraction sea lions! Our personal picks are: 

  • Grabbing a sourdough bread bowl of Clam Chowder at Boudin Bakery.
  • Indulging your sweet tooth at Ghirardelli square, the home of world-famous Ghirardelli Chocolate.
  • Enjoying an Irish coffee from The Buena Vista.
  • Visiting Pier 39 to see the colony of sea lions that live on wooden decks next to the pier.

Cruise around the bay at sunset…

A sunset cruise around the bay is the perfect way to spend an evening. We went with Red and White Fleet California Sunset Cruises and paid around £50 each for our tickets which included food and 2 drinks on the boat, but there are also plenty of options on Get Your Guide and Airbnb which we would suggest looking into.

Hopefully you will have better weather than us! 🙁

Take a perfect postcard photo of the ‘Painted Ladies’…

These Victorian style houses on Alamo Square have been featured in an estimated 70 movies, TV shows (That’s so Raven 😉 ) and ads over the years and are one of the must snap photo spots in San Francisco.

Relax in Mission Dolores Park…

Dolores Park is a great place to chill and soak up authentic local San Fran vibes. Head down to the park on a weekend and you’ll find tourist and locals aplenty sunbathing, picnicking, playing sports, enjoying some beers or just hanging out with friends. 

Nat clinging onto the 90’s – Britney style 😉

Get lost in Chinatown…

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest in the USA and the most densely populated area of the country outside of Manhattan (if you’ve ever been to Manhattan, you know!). The main area for tourists is Grant Street, however Chinatown covers 24 city blocks so spend an afternoon just getting lost around its streets and alleys sampling all of the food and tea you can! Number 1 tip : follow the locals!

Drive, or watch cars wind their way down Lombard Street…

Lombard Street is one of the most famous roads in the world. It is mainly known for the one-way block on Russian Hill, where eight hairpin turns past beautiful Victorian mansions (some of the most expensive in the city) make this the worlds most crooked street. 

Driving down the switchbacks is on many tourist’s bucket lists so wait times to actually get onto the street can be up to 20 minutes, and there are plans in place to introduce a system where drivers need to reserve a time slot in advance to reduce the congestion. If you’re nervous about driving Lombard Street then don’t worry, there are stairs on either side with plenty of great photo spots. But be aware, you will be sharing your perfect Instagram shot with hundreds of other wannabe photographers so you may be competing for the best angles.

Ride around in a tram…

The San Francisco cable car system has been a part of the culture of the city since the late 1800’s and it is said to be the world’s last manually operated tram system. Only 3 of the original 23 lines remain in use today but most people recommend the Powell-Hyde line for the best views of Coit Tower, Alcatraz Island and San Francisco Bay.

Get 360 panoramas from Twin Peaks…

Many locals will tell you that the best views of the city are to be had from the top of Twin Peaks. The two summits rise almost 1000 feet above the sea level and give unobstructed 360-degree views over the entire city, as long as you don’t head up on a foggy day that is! The best way to visit Twin Peaks is by car as they are located away from the rest of the city, but you can also grab an Uber or hop on a city sightseeing bus, as some of the routes do drop off and pick up at the base of the hills. Remember to dress warm too, the weather up there can be unpredictable!

Eat at the Ferry Building…

One thing that San Fran definitely isn’t short of is foodie hotspots, and you will definitely find something that takes your fancy at the Ferry Building. As the name suggests this is the main terminal for commuter ferries all around San Francisco Bay but it is also the home of the Ferry Building Marketplace, a hub of food stores, bars and restaurants that are a food lovers delight. A variety of vendors serve up everything from artisan cheeses to burgers and tacos with some of the best Californian wines to go with it.

We ate at Mijita Cocina Mexicana and would recommend for all fellow taco lovers!

Soak in the views from Coit Tower…

You’ll find the 210-foot-tall concrete column of Coit Tower on the summit of Telegraph Hill which boasts stunning panoramas over the city and the bay. Skip the line and book your tickets in advance online for $9 per adult, $6 for teenagers (12-17) and $3 for children. We would have loved to head up the tower during our stay, but the weather was so bad that the view would have been totally obscured. So, naturally we decided to grab a couple of cold ones instead 😉 Speaking of which… 

Try all the craft beer you can…

San Francisco has a seriously diverse bar scene, with independent craft beer microbreweries and pubs all over town, there’s no shortage of cool places to enjoy a drink or two. We tried a load of great bars during our stay, but our personal favourites are; 

Black Sands Brewery – For an awesome beer in a modern setting, head into Lower Haight and treat yourselves to lunch at Black Sands Brewery. Not only do they have a great selection of home brewed beers but their fish tacos are also not to be missed! 

Southern Pacific Brewing – A little further out of town in Mission District is Southern Pacific Brewing’s impressive bar/restaurant/brewery. Situated in a former industrial unit, the bar is one of the best we visited in America featuring an upper mezzanine and outdoor patio, both perfect for those hot summer nights enjoying a cold one. Pair the California Blonde Ale with the Brass Hat Burger and you’re in for a good time!

The Detour (Brewcade) – Another cool spot in Lower Haight. Definitely one of the quirkier bars we checked out in SF and absolutely worth a visit! This bar pairs a quality beer list with classic arcade games such as Pac-Man, Mortal Kombatt and Super Mario, we had lots of competitive beer drinking fun here! Pick up your game tokens from the bar and away you go.

Mikeller – Grab a seat at the bar in this classy brick lined beer pub in central San Fran and work your way across as many of their 40 taps as you can. Make sure you head downstairs into the cellar, this is home to The Tivoli sour room, where you will find the best Lambic and sour beer selection in the entire city. You won’t regret it!

Woods Cervecería – At the north west corner of Dolores Park this small bar has a great ‘lounge in somebody’s house’ vibe. Relax with a cold one and an empanada (a cute Spanish pastry), pick a board game or playing cards up from one of the shelves and enjoy some downtime in the busy city.

To finish the most important tips we can give would be:

  • Bring a jacket! The weather is so unpredictable and the majority of the time it can be very windy, our visit was late May and it felt like November time 🙁 We were very unlucky with the weather for that time of year but still being prepared never hurt anyone!
  • Whatever budget you’ve made (unfortunately) double it!   San Francisco was the most expensive place Nat had ever been too and Joe said it was on par with New York prices, so make sure you’re also prepared to part with a lot of dollar during your stay.
  • You don’t need a hire car in SF!  If you’re planning on arriving into the States via San Francisco don’t plan to pick your car up until you’re ready to leave. Parking spaces around the city are rare and pricey, and like we said the transportation links are very good and probably the only thing in SF that’s fairly priced. Save that dollar for your first beer, trust us you’re going to need it!

San Francisco is one of the most diverse cities we’ve ever travelled to. It can be a bit daunting at times because there is so much to see and do that there’s no way you could cover everything in a single visit, so don’t worry! Narrow down the things you really want to do and get stuck in. There’s a lot we didn’t get around to so who knows, maybe we will head back to the bay one day!

Let us know if you have any questions about SF or if you have any other suggestions for our next trip 🙂 Watch this space too as we are finally getting around to writing more blog posts from our Californian road trip adventure, including “Things you need to know before your first road trip”, to provide you with some useful tips we know now that we definitely wish we’d known before!

Happy road trippin’ folks,

Joe & Nat 

xxx

Brussels and Ghent: one weekend, two cities, three thousand Delirium beers…

World famous chocolate, the best waffles and an endless choice of beer should be more than enough solid reasons to add Belgium to your travel bucket list!

We only had a weekend in Belgium due to us having no holiday left from work, oops! Luckily for us though we’re only an hour’s plane journey away, and by now we’re pretty good at drinking our way around a new place in a couple of days! We managed to visit both Brussels and Ghent, spending a full day in each city. For us, we would recommend spending longer in Ghent (we would have if we had the time), the bars have the same endless beer choices as Brussels but tasted so much better overlooking the canal in the sunshine!

Getting there…

Our go to budget airline (good old Ryanair) offer cheap enough flights from the UK to Brussels South Charleroi airport pretty much all year round. We flew out after work on a Friday evening and arrived in Brussels at around 10.30pm. Because we landed so late, we decided to book a hotel in Charleroi rather than travelling into Brussels. 

Leonardo Hotel Charleroi City Center was around a 10-minute taxi journey from the airport so it’s ideal for a stopover! That being said, we weren’t impressed with the greeting from the taxi drivers outside the terminal! Be prepared to get ripped off here as there are no other transport options to get into town late at night and the drivers know it! The whole experience was far from welcoming! 

Despite our late arrival in Charleroi we were still able to get in one quick beer (obviously) just before the restaurant next door to the hotel closed. Jupiler was our first beer on Belgium soil and Nat’s favourite of the trip! The fact Jupiler is Belgium’s answer to a cheap beer when all the UK has to offer is Carling makes us super sad ☹ Head here for our list of must try Belgium beers! 

The Leonardo hotel is conveniently within walking distance of Charleroi Sud train station, which was ideal for our early train journey to Brussels the following morning. We booked our tickets through the trainline app. Its so easy to book European rail tickets on the app and it saves the need for paper as the tickets are just scanned directly from your phone 😊

The central station in Brussels is Bruxelles-Midi and there is a direct train from Charleroi Sud which takes approx. 50 minutes. If you’re in Brussels for longer than a weekend and don’t have an early check in time to drop your bags, we would recommend using Luggage Hero, so you can spend the day exploring luggage free. At October 2019, code: 2FREE gives you 2 hours free storage 😊

Brussels

Belgium’s capital city is a food and beer lovers dream, so don’t expect to go home from a weekend in Brussels without gaining a few pounds. The city is packed full of history and anyone who is interested in architecture will love checking out all of the photo-worthy Gothic and Baroque style buildings on the walks between waffle shops and beer halls 😉

Things to do

The centre of Brussels is relatively small, so it’s easily doable to see it all in one day. Here’s a few places we suggest you check out:

  • Grand Place: The highlight of Brussels! The UNESCO world heritage site is the central square of the city and should be number one on your sights to see. Make sure you head there both in the day and when the sun’s gone down.
The square is beautiful at night when all the buildings are lit up! 

There aren’t any bars in the square, so we followed the locals and grabbed some good quality beers from a convenience store (for a couple of euros each) and enjoyed these perched on one of the ledges around the edge of the square. 

That age old question – blonde or brunette?! 😉

The other suggestions below are all within a 10-minute walk from the Grand Place (we used this as our main reference point). Brussels is an easily walkable city, so no public transport is required.

Moving on to one of Nat’s favourite things…

Waffles

You should be eating a minimum 3 Belgium waffles a day 😉 Our top picks for places to indulge your sweet tooth are:

  • Maison Dandoy: Sat just off one of the side streets from the Grand Place, the pricier option but their waffles and coffee are worth it. Expect long wait times as this is pretty popular, but they do have outdoor seating for the warmer weather. 
  • La Funambule (cash only!): Located opposite the Manneken Pis statue, this little shop has an amazing selection of waffle toppings to choose from their window display! There’s nowhere to sit so we recommend grabbing your waffle to go and sitting somewhere outside to enjoy them. 
  • Waffle Factory: Although this is actually a chain, it’s still ranked as one of the best waffles in Brussels. You can watch the bakers making the waffles unlike other waffle stores and they provide something different with the Lunchwaf (a waffle stuffed with lunch meats and veggies).

Beers

We won’t mention how many beers you should be trying a day, or how many we had! Our top picks for bars and cafes are:

  • Moeder Lambic: This was our favourite place to have a beer in Brussels! Their craft beer selection is amazing, coupled with a modern, cosy setting with the best bar area we’d seen. Their meat platters looked delicious too!
  • Au Brasseur (cash only!): This bar had a really traditional feel, we imagine it is always busy due to its central position just past the Hard Rock Café down the street from Grand Place. The perfect location to grab a table outside and people watch the day away. Try the 6-beer taster for a taste of Belgium’s most famous brews. Great value for money with very generous servings for a tasting board, which means you can get away with sharing one with your beer buddy!
  • Delirium Café/village: No trip to Brussels would be complete without a visit to Deliruim! This is the bucket list bar that boasts the world record for the greatest number of beers available. We would recommend visiting all the bars in the ‘village’ as each has something unique to offer. Our personal favourite was a little dive bar downstairs from the main taproom, which is decorated with bottles, glasses and plenty more beer related décor. It also has live music in the evenings for when you end up hanging around all day trying to get through as many of the 3000 beers on offer as you can. 
  • Toone (cash only!): A real hidden gem of a pub in the heart of Brussels. Quaint and charming with a great selection of beer and a puppet theatre! Puppet show performances are on Thursday to Saturday evenings (bear in mind they are in French). It can get very busy in the evenings so try and go in the afternoon if you can.

Accommodation

We chose to base ourselves near the station again (in the Saint-Gillies area) as we planned to catch another early train to Ghent the following morning. This time we booked an Airbnb and although it cost £46/ night for a room and shared bathroom, we still saved significantly compared to city hotel prices.  

Money saving tip: If you are travelling around try and plan it so you’re not in the capital on a weekend (mainly Saturday night) as accommodation is already going to be expensive enough and for those of you who haven’t yet used Airbnb, using the link below will save you £25 off your first booking !

https://www.airbnb.co.uk/c/natalieh9827?currency=GBP

Ghent

Ghent is just a half an hour train ride away from Brussels and you can catch a direct train from Bruxelles-Midi to Gent-Sint-Peters station. The centre is a short tram ride away and you can catch one from just outside the train station, head towards Wondelgelm on line 1 and get off at Korenmarkt for the medieval centre.

Ghent is often overlooked by people visiting Belgium, which is a real shame. With its medieval old town and canal side bars that rival Amsterdam, Ghent is a great lesser known destination to visit!

Everything we’ve picked out below is within walking distance of Korenmarkt and you can easily cover everything in a day. 

Things to do

The main things we would recommend checking out in Ghent are:

  • The views from the Belfry Tower: The views from the 91-metre-tall tower of Het Belfort Van Ghent are not to be missed! For only €8 you can head up the tower for a great panorama of the old city and St Nicholas Church. You can climb the stairs to the top of the tower but there is a lift at the first level which will take you up to the top for no extra charge!
  • Gravensteen: This 12th Century castle is city’s most famous landmark. It has a reasonable entrance fee that includes an audio tour of the Castle, which is very different to any audio tour we have listened to before, it’s actually quite funny at times as well as factual! We would recommend picking this up as there are no information boards around the castle. The view from the top of the main tower looking out over the roof tops is definitely a bonus.
  • St Michael’s Bridge: One of the best views of the old city is from St Michael’s Bridge, with a 360-degree vantage point to snap some cool shots of the canals and St Michael’s Belfry with Gravensteen in the distance. Head here at dusk when the lights come on for the best selfie backdrop.

Beers

Most importantly the bars we would recommend checking out are 😉:

  • Dulle Griet: This was our favourite bar in Ghent, it had a Delirium style vibe with a cosy atmosphere. With 500 different beers to choose from, the staff are more than happy to share their knowledge, the most helpful bartenders we came across in Belgium! And for the perfectionists, the beer always comes in the corresponding branded glass, which you can then purchase on request.
  • Kaffee The Planck (cash only!): This pub is in such a unique setting based on a converted barge. Really nice indoor and outdoor seating areas and reasonably priced considering you’re on a boat. 
  • Trollekelder: Is another pub located in a cool setting within a 200-year-old building, they also have a nice outdoor seating area with views of the nearby Cathedral. 
  • Meraki: We were lucky enough to grab one of the tables here right on the edge of the River Lys, we didn’t even need to venture inside due to the rapid table service. Definitely a place for a summer drink!
  • Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant: One of Ghent’s traditional pubs and another one for the beer loving tourist! There are 160 beers to choose from, but the stars of the show are the three home brews Gandavum, Klokke Roeland and Mammeloker.
  • ‘t Dreupelkot: Next door to Waterhuis is this gin lovers paradise! A traditional jenever café with over 200 gins to choose from, including 50+ that are homemade and distilled in house. The terrace outside along with Waterhuis, overlooking the river, is a great spot to enjoy a drink in the sun.

Journey home 🙁

We caught the train back to Bruxelles-Midi early evening to catch the (Flibco) airport shuttle bus back to Brussels South Charleroi airport. The bus runs every 30 minutes and operates from 3.30am to 10.30pm. The journey time is just under an hour. It was very easy to pre-book tickets online (we did this on the train journey back) and also handy for us as we hardly ever carry cash! 

We did find the tickets pricey at €15 each for a one-way ticket, so if you are lucky enough to be travelling in a big group you should enquire into taxi prices first. The bus stop is located just outside Bruxelles-Midi station and the google maps location is accurate, check it out here if needed.

If you have more than 2 days in Belgium…

We would recommend a day in the beautiful city of Bruges, again easily accessible from Brussels being only an hour train ride away. Another one of Belgium’s best-preserved medieval cities with a historic centre lined with cobbled streets and canals, much like Ghent. We will definitely be returning to Belgium to check out Bruges for a weekend, hopefully around Christmas time so the festive markets are in full swing!

We hope you have as much fun exploring Belgium as we did! Just remember that Belgium beer is strong, so drink responsibly! (ish…) 

Click here for the Belgium beer bucklist to tick off for yourselves and add to your Instagram stories 😊 Make sure to tag us @backpacksandbeverages ! 

Lots of drunken hugs,

Joe & Nat xxx

BEER SCRATCH MAP

The rules : We’re only allowed to fill with a photo if we’ve drank the beer together in that country and we’ve crossed through the beers we’ve had separately in that country!

We would love to see your beer photos around the world, tag us in them on instagram @backpacksandbeverages and comment below if you have any suggestions!

Kiev: Europe’s Most Underrated Capital City?

To make it clear from the outset, we fell in love with Kiev! Another one of our ‘off the map’ destinations, it’s gilded churches, quirky street art, cheaper than cheap beer, excellent food and interesting architecture. All of this was enough for Nat to crown Kiev “one of my favourite European cities”, and she’s been to a lot!

Interest in Ukraine’s capital city has skyrocketed since the release of the Sky Atlantic series Chernobyl. If you want to read all about our trip into the Chernobyl exclusion zone (home to the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disaster), check out our guide here

This is the itinerary we followed for the rest of our long weekend. There is so much more to see and do around Kiev as well as taking a trip into a nuclear wasteland. 

Beer of the trip – American Amber Ale, Solomianska Brovarnia

Scratch map beer – Chernihvske

Getting there…

Boryspil International is the main airport for travelling into Kiev. We were lucky to bag flights from Manchester for £45 return over May bank holiday. Having a quick browse flights have dramatically risen since then, most being around £100 return from the UK. Don’t be put off by this though as the amount of money you will spend in Kiev is less than a quarter of the amount you would spend in most European capitals. 

They also have the cutest airport signs

The airport is 19 miles from the centre of the city and we only paid £12 in an Uber to drop us at Independence Square, Uber is easily the best way to get around the city. 

Just be careful before you book as they have a specific taxi pick up and drop off area for all terminals, we think this was on the second floor. Don’t just head outside and hit the button like we did as you may be charged a cancellation fee (don’t worry if you do though it was only small!).

Currency…

Ukraine still operate their own currency, the Ukrainian Hryvnia (UAH), which makes the British pound stretch even further (yay!). The exchange rate at August 2019 is £1 to 31 UAH. To put this into a context that everyone is interested in, on average one domestic beer (0.5l) is 29 UAH, or 94p 😊 and a 3-course meal for 2 people in a mid-range restaurant is 650 UAH, or £21.

Where to stay?…

A word of warning, Kiev is huge! For your first visit, Shevchenkivskyi or the northern edge of Pecherskyi district (where we stayed) are probably your best bets. These areas are central and a good base to explore the outer reaches of the city. Fancy hotels and Plus Airbnb’s are happily affordable, so you don’t have to splurge to get excellent accommodation or if you want to be extra savvy (like us) regular Airbnb’s are super cheap.

Day 1: Independence Square, Kreshchatyk, Churches & Craft Beer

After dropping off your bags at your accommodation order an Uber or walk to Independence Square and the Independence Monument.  These are located at the northeast end of Khreshchatyk, the main street running through the centre of the city.

You will more than likely be approached by street performers for pictures in the square which can be quite funny if you feel like a laugh but beware, they will demand a decent payment for their time (150 Hryvnia per person is what they managed to blag from us)!

Still, not every day you have a photo with Garfield while a Dove sits on your head…

Take a stroll down Khreshchatyk after visiting the square for a look at some imposing soviet architecture, plenty of shopping and a variety of bars and restaurants. One thing we didn’t know beforehand (that we wish we did) was that during the evening on Sundays (and on public holidays), Khreshchatyk and Independence Square are closed off to vehicles, and locals come out in force to see a host of street performers and musicians. Finding somewhere to eat and grab a drink al fresco is the best way to enjoy the atmosphere. Make sure you come back during the evening.

After Independence Square and Kreshchatyk you should spend the afternoon exploring some of the city’s famous golden domed churches. There are so many to see that you would be hard pressed to visit them all, but each church is beautiful in its own right so try and visit as many as can!

Firstly, walk up to St Sophia’s Cathedral and take a walk around the church grounds.

For amazing views over the city, make sure you climb the bell tower, which is just a small additional fee over the £1 entry to the grounds.

From St Sophia’s walk down the street to St Michaels Golden domed Monastery (the blue church in the picture above). It’s free entry into the grounds of the monastery and it is stunning! The sky-blue walls of the church and the gilded domes are a photographer’s dream.

If you have time to go inside the churches you should, they are just as impressive inside as outside.

A short walk away is St Andrew’s Church. Unfortunately, the church was closed when we were there however around the rear of the grounds is a viewing platform with great panoramas over northern Kiev looking over the Dnieper River.

Of course it wouldn’t be complete without a beer pic!

You will definitely be thirsty after checking out all the sights, so you should head down the street from St Andrew’s to Solomyanska Brovarnia, A two-storey microbrewery. The ground floor has more of a local pub feel while upstairs is reserved for the restaurant and dining. Grab the tasting flutes to try out their in-house brews, find your favourite and pair it with some of the tasty appetizers from the menu, the tempura prawns are a must.

A little further north is Drunken Monkey, a quirky basement bar with 20 taps of their in-house craft brews on rotation. Famed for their ‘different’ naming style for their beers, classics such as White Walker weizenbock (for all of Joe’s fellow Game of Thones fans), Fat Girlfriend brown ale, and F*ck Like Chocolate Rabbits stout will keep you entertained and tipsy all night long!

Kiev will also not disappoint all you foodies. The food in Ukraine is different to what you would typically find in the rest of Europe, but you can find plenty of international food on offer all around the city. We had great meat & potato skillets at Sunduk, a traditional pub a 5-minute walk from Kreshchatyk (near St Volodymyr’s Cathedral) and make sure you grab a drink from Pilsner Bar just down the road if you’re still thirsty.

Skillet at Sunduk restaurant, still drooling!

Day 2: Botanical Gardens, Motherland Monument & Steaks

Start your second day by grabbing breakfast at one of Kiev’s small cafés. The breakfast at Blue Cup Coffee Shop is worth an honourable mention and will not disappoint!

Head south into the Pechersk district to find The Motherland Monument, a colossal 102m tall statue standing on top of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War. 

The Motherland Monument

The monument and grounds are worth exploring on your way down to the Hryshko National Botanical Garden. The gardens cover 1.3 km² and are home to 13,000 types of trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants from around the world. There is a small entry fee but it’s a great place to leisurely explore and snap some pretty good views of the city from the higher areas of the park.

It’s also an ideal spot to pick up a couple of beverages and enjoy them on the grass in the sun 😉

If you are a fan of steak you need to head over to Syndicate Beer & Grill during your stay! A microbrewery and steakhouse decorated in a prohibition style, with an extensive menu of great home brewed beer and tasty beef that won’t break the bank. 

We would go back tomorrow just for the parmesan fries 😊

Day 3 – Chernobyl

No visit to Kiev would be complete without taking a tour of Chernobyl! The city is only two hours away from the Chernobyl exclusion zone and is the main starting point for guided tours visiting the power plant site and the 30 km nuclear wasteland surrounding it. There are a variety of tour operators offering trips into the exclusion zone so be sure to do your research before booking up. You can read all about our experience at Chernobyl in our blog here

You will probably arrive back into Kiev quite late after your trip so the bars and restaurants along Kreshchatyk will be your best bet after getting dropped off back at Independence Square. We recommend Moments, the pork lion wrapped in bacon is delicious!

Kiev is without a doubt one of Europe’s most underrated destinations. Both inside the city and out, there are places to explore that you would struggle to find anywhere else. If it isn’t already, Kiev should definitely be on your travel radar!

We hope we have been able to help you with your travel planning and you have a wonderful trip to this amazing city.  We would also be more than happy to provide any additional info if needed, drop us a comment below or message us on Instagram @backpacksandbeverages.

Cheers guys,

Joe & Nat xxx

Pasteis De Natas in Portugal

Pasteis De Natas in Portugal: A Weekend in Lisbon

We spent our gloomy UK May bank holiday in Lisbon and it very quickly became one of our favourite European cities! If brightly coloured pastel buildings, terracotta rooftops, riding on old rickety trams and eating pastries by the dozen sounds like fun to you, we’re sure you’ll love Lisbon too! The historic centre of Portugal’s capital city is home to beautiful architecture, incredible views and of course, plenty of great bars to enjoy a drink or two after leg burning walks up and down the winding streets (do NOT underestimate how hilly it is!)

Lisbon is great for a short weekend break, but there is so much to do that you could easily spend a lot of time getting lost around its seemingly endless backstreets. Here are our recommendations to help you come up with that perfect Lisbon itinerary.

Visit Belem

Brits abroad know to always have a brolly handy 😉

Spend a morning exploring Belem, considered to be the city’s most cultural district. Here you’ll find the 500-year-old, UNESCO World Heritage site Torre de Belém or Tower of Belem. The Belem is one of the most famous monuments in Lisbon. It is one of the most photographed landmarks and as a result, gets very busy. If you want to go inside the castle, get there as early as you can as the entrance line is pretty long, although the general opinion is you could pass on this as the outside view is the most impressive part. We arrived mid-afternoon and the queue was steadily building up, so we just took in the tower from outside, and snapped the traditional photo of course 😉

A short walk down the river from the tower is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Monument of the Discoveries, a huge 52-meter-high structure featuring sculptures of the most famous explorers of Portugal’s ‘Age of Discovery’ during the 15th & 16th centuries. There are lots of cool street vendors serving cocktails, wine and ice cream near the grassed areas, so this is a great spot to grab a drink and relax by the river.

We do put down the beers occasionally for a cute photo 🙂

Be sure to take a walk past Jerónimos Monastery on your way back to the bus or tram stop. Also, part of the UNESCO world heritage site, the monastery took 100 years to build and is another amazing example of renaissance architecture. 

Try a LOT of Pasteis de Nata

Now for a subject that is very close to Nat’s heart, the Pastel de Nata <3

A small egg tart pastry that you should always enjoy dusted with cinnamon. Please do not be put off thinking they are like an English egg custard tart, as I cannot stand those either! Think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of 65 who enjoys those (no offence to our older readers!).

The best place to grab a Pastel de Nata if…

…you’re visiting the Belem region: Pastéis de Belém, which is thought to be the home of the original Pastel de Nata recipe. This is proven by the size of the queue outside the shop door, the largest queue we saw (this was even in the pouring rain!). Pastéis de Belém opens at 8am every day, so if you don’t fancy queuing for half an hour make sure you get there nice and early 😊

…you’ve spent the day at Castelo de São Jorge: Pastry Santo Antonio, this place was my personal favorite and the best Pastel de Nata I had in Lisbon, it was baked to perfection. The perfect espresso and pastry stop after a long afternoon exploring the beautiful castle. 

…you want to watch the bakers in action: Manteigaria allows you to see the Pasteis de Nata’s being made while you watch through the glass windows. There is no space to sit so take your pastries away and enjoy them in the sunshine or grab a large take away box – they will keep for up to 3 days. 

Eat at Timeout Market

Time Out Market is one of the most well-known places to grab a bite to eat in Lisbon for good reason. There aren’t many places where you can find 24 restaurants, 8 bars, shops and a high-end music venue all under one roof! There are tons of different options apart from the award-winning Portuguese cuisine (they have a Manteigaria bakery here too!), including Asian, seafood, burgers and desserts. Time Out Market has something for everyone! Check out the Super Bock Experience while you’re there for an education in pouring your perfect pint. Also, a great option if you are unlucky (like us ☹) to have an afternoon or day of rain as the majority is based indoors. 

Head to the top of the Santa Justa Elevator

For one of the best viewpoints in the city, make sure you head down to the Elevador de Santa Justa. The elevator was opened at the turn of the 20th century to assist with navigating the hilly districts of  Baixa and Largo do Carmo (Carmo Square). Nowadays the elevator offers tourists a seven storey ride to the top of the viewing platform.

TIP: there is a very easy walking route up to the viewing platform which avoids the seemingly endless queue for the elevator itself, read about how to get there here (Please do this 😊).

Drink some craft beer

Something that might surprise you about Lisbon is that Sagres and Super Bock aren’t the only choices of beer on offer nowadays! (although we do love them too! 😊). The craft beer scene has well and truly taken hold in Portugal and there are several great spots in the city to enjoy a few crafty cold ones.

Our personal favourites are; Duque Brewpub, Lisbon’s first brewpub, specialising in local beers as well as their in-house brews. 

Their cured meat platter and homemade bread is amazing as well!

Crafty Corner, just around the corner from Timeout Market, which offers 12 taps on rotation with cool décor touches such as bar stools made of empty beer kegs, and a laid-back daytime atmosphere perfect for an afternoon pint;

and Quimera Brewpub (Lisbon’s second after Duque), which is located in a converted 18th century coach tunnel (this was Joe’s favourite!).

The menu is inspired by the bar’s American owners, with pastrami sandwiches and hot dogs amongst some of the choices to pair with their experimental IPAs that are brewed in house. They also have regular live music, with a jazz guitar duo providing the background ambiance for our visit.

As well as all of these, there is a craft beer festival held every September in the nearby beach suburb of Cascais, so Lisbon is really an up and coming destination for the international beer lover.

Take a day trip to Sintra

Superman / Super Bock

Sintra is a picturesque town located roughly 25km from Lisbon that is famed for its grand palaces, castles and gardens that has made the town a popular day trip destination for people visiting the city. Taking in this stunning scenery is a must during your visit! 

Sintra is just a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon Rossio station, and we would advise taking the train as the roads around Sintra are always jammed with people visiting, plus its only €1.90 each way!

The historic centre of Sintra is a short walk from the station and is a great spot to grab a bite to eat or a drink. We’re guessing though that you (like us) will want to head up to explore the Palácio da Pena, a 19th Century Romanticist style palace once used by the Portuguese royal family. With its colourful facades, turrets and domes, the palace will no doubt be the highlight of your day.

The castle sits high in the Sintra Mountains with incredible views over the town, valleys and Portuguese Riviera below. Head round to the back along the ‘wall walk’ for the best views but there are plenty of Instagram-worthy photo spots all around the palace and grounds.

We decided to walk up to the palace, to work off all the past few days’ craft beer and because the roads were gridlocked with people heading up to the palace. If trekking for 1 hour up a mountain doesn’t sound like fun, then you can catch the 434 tourist bus from town.

Ride the Trams

Trams have been an icon of Lisbon and a traditional mode of public transport since the network opened in 1873. The number 28 is the classic Lisbon tram journey most tourists want to experience. The route winds its way around tight bends and climbs steep hills through several districts, passing many attractions, so it’s a great way to take a tour of the city while screeching around in a quaint, yellow 1930s Tram. Just be aware, the trams do get very busy so board early to get yourself a seat or at least some space. Pickpocketing is also a reality so make sure you are extra vigilant with your belongings during any journey.

Walk around Commerce Square

Take a walk around Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) and check out the Triumphal Rua Augusta Arch and the statue of Joseph I (not our Joseph, unfortunately 😉).

Sit outside one of the many restaurants and cafes enjoying a drink in the sun, watching the world go by to recharge your batteries before you get back to exploring. Also make sure you check out the Ginjinha stand! Ginjinha or Ginja is a sweet cherry liquor, and second place in Nat’s Lisbon loves <3

For around €2 you can enjoy not one but two shots in a delicious chocolate cup, who doesn’t love a free refill?! 😊  

The square is a great starting point for walking along the River Tagus or wandering the back streets of the central Baixa district. Just to let you know, people will probably try to sell you weed here, each to their own.

Take in the view at Castelo de São Jorge 

For the unquestioned best view of Lisbon, you need to make your way up to Castelo de São Jorge. The history of the castle dates back to the first century and it overlooks the centre of the city with incredible panoramic views. The 25 de Abril Bridge and Cristo Rei (the sister statue to Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro) can be seen from the castle walls, making this spot the best for capturing the entire city in its terracotta glory.

It seemed a shame to take in such epic scenery without a beverage in hand 😉 So we treated ourselves to two glasses of red from Wine With a View, a small cart selling local wines within the castle grounds. Good value and delicious, the perfect way to enjoy your time at the castle!

The definition of a wine with a view!

Check out Lisbon Cathedral

A short walk from the Castle is Lisbon Cathedral, better known as Sé de Lisboa. It is the oldest and most important church in the city, dating from around the twelfth century. The cathedral is now used partly as a museum and as an archaeological site after a roman road was excavated in its central courtyard. For only €2.50 it’s definitely worth exploring.

Well there you go folks…

If you want even more hints and tips to get the most out of your Lisbon visit and more importantly, avoid the mistakes we made 😉 Check out our other Lisbon blog post ‘Lisbon, Portugal: The things No-one Tells You’ here.

Lisbon has something for everyone tucked away around every back street, so just get lost exploring this fantastic city! If you guys think we have missed anything, let us know down in the comments below. We will absolutely be returning to Lisbon one day, so we’ll be sure to check it out!

Enjoy your travels 😊

Love, Joe & Nat xxx

Chernobyl tour : What it’s really like visiting one of the most radioactive places on Earth?

When we booked to go on a day trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone we received a mixture of reactions from our friends and family. “Why on earth would you want to go there?”, “surely it’s not safe and still full of deadly radiation?” and the odd “interesting, I’d like to learn more about Chernobyl myself!”.

Following on from the recent success of the Sky Atlantic series, Chernobyl, these reactions have changed slightly. People are now a lot more interested in finding out for themselves how the desolate area surrounding Chernobyl looks today, only 33 years after the fatal nuclear disaster.

About the disaster…

On 26th April 1996, an experiment on reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went catastrophically wrong, causing an explosion that resulted in radioactive material being released into the atmosphere, and deposited over most of Europe. 

Watching the series for ourselves has really made us appreciate the importance of where we were. So we have summed up our experience for any of you who may be interested in visiting the Chernobyl exclusion zone, to visit a place that is said to be uninhabitable for at least 3,000 years. 

Tour details

We booked our tour with Solo East, one of several Kiev based firms that run daily trips into the exclusion zone. They had a lot of positive trip advisor reviews and they promised a maximum group size of twelve (which they kept true to) so everyone on the tour could make the most of the guide’s knowledge of the area. Plus, it keeps queue sizes down through each of the checkpoints within the zone, making for much quicker entry. 

How long do the tours last?

We opted for the one-day trip into the zone, which at May 2019 cost around £90 pp. You can also do a two-day tour which includes spending the night in the exclusion zone for around £250 pp. The price gap between the one and two-day tours may put you off taking the longer trip, especially as the price of pretty much everything else in the Ukraine is so low compared to the rest of Europe. However, after doing some research and speaking to various tour guides on the day, you do get a much more in-depth experience compared to the one-day trip.

You need to be aware that the one-day trip is a very long and tiring day! The tour involves an early get up, meeting at around 8am, arriving back into Kiev between 7 and 9pm (depending on the traffic.) Also, due to the amount of stop offs during the day at each of the tour sites, it can seem a rush to see all the main locations. We were exhausted by the time we arrived back into Kiev!

What should you wear for a Chernobyl tour?

Chernobyl tours operate a strict dress code policy. You will need to wear a long sleeved top or jacket, with long trousers and closed toe shoes. No sandals, shorts or skirts are allowed.

Make sure you pack light and preferably take a backpack, as it’s forbidden to place your bag on the ground at any time. If one of your possessions does come into contact with radioactive material and it cannot be cleaned, you will have to leave it behind.  This shouldn’t happen if you stay on the path advised by your tour guide and don’t sit down or put anything on the ground!

Is the Chernobyl tour safe?

It is perfectly safe to enter the zone with a guided tour, providing you stay with your tour group and listen to the safety briefings.

During a Chernobyl tour, the level of exposure falls within a range which is similar to the radiation you would be exposed to on a long-haul plane flight. Just remember to always follow your tour guide, the Ukrainian military patrols within the zone do not take kindly to tourists that wander away from their tour groups to explore on their own and DEFINITELY DON’T take anything away as a souvenir from the zones. 

Things to consider…

1. If you are booking the tour online make sure you opt to rent a Geiger counter, a device used for measuring background radiation. It is interesting to monitor the radiation levels throughout the day and as we can’t see, hear or smell radiation, it would be like visiting an art gallery without your glasses! and they also make for great photo opportunities!

Throughout the day the counters remain quiet with a general ticking noise, until you are advised to hold them against a known ‘hotspot’ by your tour guide and you see them go wild. This really makes the tour come to life. Don’t worry, the radioactive areas you will be taken to cannot give you a harmful dose.

2. Another point to note for the girls especially, the toilet stops are extremely limited, and the only decent bathroom stop is for lunch at the canteen. Make sure you have a pack of tissues and anti bac gel at the ready! Ladies, Nat would recommend planning your Chernobyl trip for a time when you know you won’t be having your period, as she can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would have been. 

3. We would recommend packing enough snacks, snacks and more snacks to last you for the day. There is only one stop off for food during the day for lunch at the canteen, so you will need plenty to keep you going for the 12-14 hours you will be on the tour. We were getting very hangry by the time we made it back to Kiev!

What to expect during the trip…

Tours leave from Independence Square in the centre of Kiev at around 8am, your tour rep will meet you, check your passports, confirmation and then advise which minibus you’ll be on. There is a McDonalds conveniently located nearby so we would recommend grabbing a breakfast or even taking one with you to eat on the journey.

It is a 2-hour drive from Kiev to the first checkpoint at the edge of the exclusion zone. You do stop at a petrol station on the way down where you can also get drinks and snacks. You should definitely use this opportunity to take a bathroom break as well!

At the first checkpoint you need to show your passport to the guards (you need to send your passport info to your tour operator before the trip) while they do a quick search of the tour bus. Your tour guide will issue you with individual tickets for the tour at this point and a Geiger counter if you’ve reserved one.

From here, you will enter the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and visit several locations throughout your day. For us our first stop was one of the many abandoned villages inside the zone, where we saw what life would have been like in rural Soviet Ukraine. Despite the whole area being completely overgrown, most of the buildings were still standing, sort of!

Next up was the Chernobyl town sign, which interestingly, still has the Soviet hammer & chisel symbol. Inside the exclusion zone is the only place throughout all the former Soviet Union that you can still see Soviet propaganda symbols, as these were removed from everywhere else following the downfall of the USSR.

From there we went to a former military base which is home to two enormous radio antennae called “The Russian Woodpecker”, this was used during the cold war to detect incoming ballistic missiles fired at the Soviet Union.

At this point it was time to stop for lunch, which was surprisingly good for a small canteen in a nuclear wasteland! The food is typical Ukrainian fare of meat, potatoes and bread, they did offer vegetarian options too.

After lunch we finally made it to the power plant site itself and got surprisingly close to the reactor building. You can’t actually see the damaged reactor as it is contained in a domed metal structure, where automated robots will be working for around the next 100 years to safely dismantle and dispose of what remains of the power plant.

What the Chernobyl Power Plant looks like today.

The last stop on our trip was the abandoned city of Pripyat. Purpose built for the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Pripyat was home to approximately 50,000 people at the time of the disaster. The tour of Pripyat takes you to the main square, the leisure centre, the hospital, the school, the supermarket and the famous fairground which you will have probably seen plenty of creepy photos of.

Here our tour guide is holding a picture of what the main square looked like before the disaster.
The abandoned fair ground – possibly the most iconic pictures of Chernobyl.
The highest level of radiation we experienced was detected when our tour guide placed the geiger counter near one of the carriages.
Pripyat school – a lot of scary dolls left behind.
The scariest doll we came across!
The swimming pool within the leisure centre – glad I left my swimming shorts at home today.

After Pripyat you will make your way out of the exclusion zone, and from there it’s another couple of hours back to Kiev traffic permitting. It took us around three and a half hours to get back to the city ☹

It was a very long (and incredibly interesting) day so do bare this in mind, in hindsight the 2-day tour may have been the better option but as we didn’t have long in Kiev unfortunately it didn’t work as an option for us. If you do have the time we would love to hear your opinion on the 2-day trip, please drop us a comment in the box below or a message on instagram.

We hope that this helps solve your debate on whether to take a trip to explore the most “dangerous” place on Earth 😊 

We also fell in love with the beautiful city of Kiev and will be posting a blog about our recommendations / itinerary as soon as we get chance! So watch this space for more help planning your Ukrainian escape 🙂

Happy exploring!

Joe & Nat xxx

Lisbon, Portugal: The Things No-one Tells You

Seeing as it was our first time in Lisbon, we’d read countless blogs and felt relatively prepared for our weekend exploring. But as always, we couldn’t possibly know everything before we arrived, and part of the fun exploring new places is learning what you didn’t already know. So here are a few hints and tips that we wish we’d known at the start of our trip, that will help you get the most out of your visit and (fingers crossed) save you time and money. 

Quick top tips; 

Don’t queue for the Santa Justa Lift viewpoint |

The Elevador de Santa Justa is Lisbon’s only vertical lift and is located within the historic centre on Santa Justa Street. The iron structure stands at 45 metres tall and provides a viewing platform with spectacular views over all of Lisbon. The queue for the lift ride is insanely long and judging by the trip advisor reviews, this remains a problem all year round. What we didn’t realise is that you can easily walk to the viewpoint platform. 

The walk to the viewing platform is not sign posted, and Joe just happened to stumble upon it on his way back from his second trip to the toilet as we’d already been queueing for nearly an hour at this point, so please don’t let that be you as well!

The stairs above are located next to MUJI opposite H & M. Turn right after these stairs and you will see that there is another set of stairs that takes you further up. Follow these until you reach the top and the large monastery will be directly in front of you (you won’t miss it!). To the right of the monastery you will see a restaurant, Bellalisa Elevador, a beautiful backdrop for a sunset sipping a glass of vino overlooking the terracotta roofs. If you walk up the small steps and carry on past the restaurant, you’ll come onto a bridge adorned with love locks, that leads to the spiral staircase up to the viewing platform. This costs €1.50 per person to enter and you have to pay this even if you’ve come up via the lift, so really, you’re not saving anything, and you’ve earned more beer from climbing those stairs #result!

Sintra Pena Palace |

If you do have a day spare, a day trip to the fairy tale castles of Pena Palace in Sintra is a must! (please see our top tips for travelling there below.)

Purchasing your tickets for Pena Palace can be easily done online on the day and this gives you a 5% discount on the gate prices. They accept screenshot tickets on phones so no need to worry about printing tickets out.

We made the mistake of adding ‘Inside the Castle’ to our tickets, as we thought this was needed to view the Palace and the surreal views over the valley and town below. Unless you’re really into Portuguese history however, we wouldn’t suggest doing this as the queue was ridiculous and easily took over an hour. The palace interior resembles what life would have been like when kings and queens occupied the castle. If like us, you aren’t interested in four poster beds and murals painted on ceilings, don’t bother, save yourself time and money. The Palace grounds are the most impressive part of the day and this is already included in the Entrance only ticket. Plus, you will have the satisfaction of walking up past all the queueing tourists, who will wait for up to two hours to get the same view as you. You’ll likely pass them again on your way back down!

Super man / super bock 😉

Use the time saved at Pena to visit Castelo Dos Mouros | Castelo Dos Mouros is noted as the least visited castle in Sintra, and it’s easy to see why due to its mostly grey exterior compared to the bright colours of Pena Palace. If you do choose to venture over and walk up to the top though, you will be rewarded with some of the most picturesque views of Pena Palace. Something we realised when looking down from Pena and thinking, “I bet this looks great from down there”.

Don’t waste your money on taxi’s | Black cabs and Ubers are surprisingly inexpensive! Bare this in mind if you are planning on pre-booking your airport transfer. You might think if you book early that obviously you’ll save money, sounds normal doesn’t it. Well, that’s the wrong answer for Lisbon! Our flight was delayed, and our airport transfer kindly decided not to show at 1.30am 😊 Luckily, a black cab ride to House Sao Bento cost us €11, significantly cheaper than what we’d paid for our pre-booked ride. So, after fighting for a refund we ended up saving money! Karma’s a great thing.

Uber is also cheaper to use than in most European countries, sometimes working out at the same price or (cheaper!) than if we had paid to do a single journey on the metro. Handy if you’re in a rush or want to explore up until the very last minute, as an Uber from the centre of Lisbon to the airport costs around €9 and takes around 15 mins.

If you do happen to use Uber, here’s our invite code: natalieh4280ue

Visit Time Out Market on a rainy day | If you are unfortunate like us to have the odd rainy day or afternoon, Mercado da Ribeira (Time Out Market) is the perfect place to pass the time without missing out on Lisbon’s best eats. Boasting 32 gourmet food (and drink 😉) kiosks, offering the best of the city’s dishes all under one roof. 

Due to its popularity, try and aim for out of hours meal times if you can, around mid-afternoon or late evening would be best. Finding a seat can be extremely difficult, so if you do stumble upon a free space, we’d suggest leaving a low value jacket or item on the seat (Nat wanted to leave Joe) while you go gather your foodie items!

Our personal picks include: Balcao da Esquina’s Roast Pork Sandwich, Asian Lab’s Pad Thai, Manteigaria’s Pasteis de nata (regarded by some as the best in the city!), Sea Me’s Octopus Hot Dog and Café de Sao Bento’s Garlic Shrimp. Mmm 😊

Buy a Viva Viagem Travel Card | You can purchase a Viva Viagem card for €0.50 from any metro and suburban train station from the automatic ticket machines or from the ticket office. When you purchase the card, you’ll have the option to add 24-hour travel, a single journey or use the “zapping” option and upload €5, €10 or €15 etc, and be charged for the individual journeys you take (similar to contactless on the tube).

Here is the best value for money options, if you’re planning on:

  • Travelling around a lot on the bus, tram and metro = 1-day ticket €6.40 (valid for 24 hours). 
  • Purely travelling from Lisbon to Sintra/Cascais/Estoril on the train = zapping option €1.90 each way.
  • Travelling around a lot on the metro and train to Sintra/Cascais/Estoril = 1-day ticket €10.55 (valid for 24 hours).

The train from Rossio (in central Lisbon) to Sintra is one of the most popular journeys and you will most likely see a huge queue of people in the train station purchasing train tickets to Sintra. DO NOT JOIN IT! You can purchase these tickets from the automated machine in Rossio Metro (5 mins walk away) or any other close Metro station with zero time wasted queueing. 

Another point, we went on a Saturday so bad planning from us, but the train was PACKED, so try and aim to get there as early as you can. There were 9 carriages though (a commuter’s dream 😊)

Try Ginjinha |

You must make sure you visit a Ginjinha stand during your visit to Lisbon, try Ginginha do Carmo conveniently located at the bottom of our favourite walking street filled with endless bars and restaurants. Make sure you opt for the chocolate shot cup, by doing this you get an extra shot and it tastes so damn good! 😊

Be savvy at Castelo Sao Jorge | The best views over the beautiful terracotta roofs can be found during a visit to Castelo Sao Jorge. Unlike Pena Palace they don’t offer online tickets, so bare this in mind if you are tight on time as you do have to queue, although the line does move quickly. Also, anyone lucky enough to be under 25 benefits from a half price ticket so make sure you bring some form of ID if you are asked to prove this.

The ultimate wine with a view!

There we have it, 8 things we wish we knew before arriving in Lisbon. We really hope these help you out and help you make the most of your trip to this fantastic city. If you have any suggestions that we might have missed, we would love to hear them in the comments below!

As always happy drinking folks 😊

Cheers,

Nat and Joe xxxxxx

Gdansk: Cathedrals, Cranes & Craft Beer!

Witaj (welcome) to Gdansk! This small city on the Baltic coast may not be on every tourist’s radar, but the stunning architecture and its rich history as Poland’s main seaport, make the former free city of Danzig an ideal place for a weekend getaway. Not to mention the numerous craft beer bars and polish dumplings, of course! Here are our picks for the top ten things you must include in your Gdansk itinerary.

Scratch Map Beer: Tyskie

Favourite local beverage: Zubrowka (Bison Grass) Vodka

Getting there… 

We picked up one of Nat’s best flight deals to date, with return flights from Liverpool for only £37 each with Whizz Air. Even though we went out of season in March, return weekend flights from the UK up until the end of June are still on average £50 each so still a great deal!

To get from the airport into the city, the easiest, but also most expensive option is to grab a taxi, which will take around 15 mins to the city centre. Our flight arrived in Gdansk at 1am so we pre-booked our taxi through hoppa.com, paying around £17. This seems crazy compared to our flight price but the last thing we wanted was to be stranded at 1am, so we opted for safety over savviness ! One thing to keep in mind is to be aware of private cabs, check that your car has telephone numbers written on the sides and/or bonnet and lights on the roof to make sure you’re travelling with a legitimate firm.

If you arrive at an acceptable time, another (far cheaper) option is to catch the train to Gdansk Glowny Station (Gdansk’s main train station), which will cost around 3.80zl (£0.75) and only takes 30 mins. Although, not all trains travel directly to the main station, you may need to change at Gdansk-Wrzeszcz, but this still only takes 45 mins. There’s also City bus line 210, which will get you to the city in about 35-50 mins. Tickets are 3.40zl (£0.67) one way and can be brought on the bus from the driver.

Accommodation…

Dom & House Apartments (Expedia.com £45.00 for two nights)

Our apartment for the weekend was on Wyspa Spichrzów, an island just 5 mins walk to the Old Town and Long Market. Accommodation in Gdansk is abundant and affordable, from cute little apartments like ours to exclusive hotels like Hotel Gdansk, that counts the FC Barcelona squad amongst some of its former guests. The whole central district of the city is easily walkable, so you won’t have to worry too much about where to stay.

Now that’s taken care of, let’s get stuck into…

The 10 best things to do in Gdansk!

1. Old Town

Priority number one after you arrive should be to head down to the historic old town and begin exploring! We headed down to Long Market/Dulgi Targ to start our trip. Long Market is the main pedestrian walkway through the old town and is home to some of the cities’ most recognisable landmarks, as well as a host of bars and restaurants, although these can be slightly pricey being in the centre of town.

Priority number one also being a coffee for Nat 🙂

While here you will want to check out Neptune’s Fountain and the Town Hall. The hall was built in the 14th century, but partially destroyed in WWII. Luckily, the building was rebuilt following the war and is now home to the Gdansk History Museum, which you may want to have a look around. You can also climb the tower for great views of Dulgi Targ. This is a great starting point to get your bearings and allows you to take in the beautiful scenery of the city before really getting into your day of sightseeing.

Neptune’s Fountain and the Town Hall

2. Gdansk Crane (Zuraw)

Zuraw is one of Gdansk’s most recognisable landmarks. Formerly the largest working maritime crane in the world, it was used to raise ships masts and unload cargo back when Gdansk was Poland’s main trading port. Almost fully destroyed in 1945 during the battle of Gdansk, the crane was carefully restored post-war, making it the only one of its kind remaining in the world. Now, it’s part of the National Maritime Museum, and if you’re interested, for an entry fee of 8.5zl you can go inside and explore the inner workings of this medieval machine. If not, the photos are equally great from outside!  

3. Piwna Street

If like us you’re interested in having a few drinks while in Gdansk, you’ll want to spend some time on Piwna (Beer) Street. This block in the Old Town used to be home to several of the city’s historic breweries, and nowadays the entire street is lined with a dozen craft beer bars and pubs serving up an endless selection of local and international beers, as well as quirky cocktails and wine! Our personal picks are Kafebe, The Old Gdansk Beer Pub, Browar Piwna and Café Joseph K.

Quirky Cafe Joseph K
Kafebe

4. St Mary’s Basilica

Next up is to climb the 409 steps to the roof of St Mary’s Basilica for some panoramic views of the city. The Basilica was built in the 14th century and is one of the largest brick-built churches in the world, with alleged space for up to 25,000 people inside. For only 10 zloty, it’s worth making the leg burning climb up the 700-year-old winding staircase for some of the best views Gdansk has to offer. 

Na zdrowie (cheers!)

An alternative viewpoint which still has great views over the Old Town that include St Mary’s Basilica is St Catharine’s Church. A less arduous climb, the bell tower at St Catharine’s still offers great views of Gdansk but it is only open to the public during the summer months.

5.  Motlawa River Waterfront

There are plenty of great bars and restaurants from the Green Gate all the way up to the Wapienniczy Bridge. Further up the river you will stumble across the Gdansk Sign and The Gdansk Panoramic Wheel, which offers great views over the Old Town from 50m up. 

Seeing as the waterfront is one of the most picturesque areas of the city, it would be a shame not to walk the length of the river up to The Museum of the Second World War, which is only a 10-minute walk from The Crane. Most people don’t know that on September 1st 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland at the Westerplatte Peninsula, only 7 miles from the centre of Gdansk, beginning the second world war. There are far too many exhibitions and exhibits to talk about in detail here but for only 23zl (£4.60,) the museum should be on your Gdansk itinerary.

While up in the northern areas of the city you might also want to check out the Eurpoean Solidarity Centre, a museum and library which tells the story of the Solidarity Movement of the Polish Trade Unions and the opposition to communism in Eastern Europe during the 20th century.

6. Mariacka Street

A stroll along the cobbles of Mariacka Street is a must! It is one of the most picturesque streets in Gdansk. Walk through St Mary’s Gate from the waterfront and check out the cool cafes and small shops selling Amber Jewellery, famous in the Baltic region. Keep your eyes peeled for the gargoyles that double up as rainwater pipes and spray water out into the street.

7. Micro-Breweries

We know that Poland is famed for its Vodka, but Gdansk was once the centre of Polish beer production, with an estimated 400+ breweries in the 16th Century. Unfortunately, there isn’t quite that many left nowadays, but there are two microbreweries that should be up there on your list;

Brovarnia

Hotel Gdansk and their award-winning microbrewery Brovarnia is a must for any beer lovers visiting! They use only water, yeast, malt and hobbs to make their beer. They produce 3 kinds of excellent beer; Brovarnia Light, Brovarnia Dark and Brovarnia Wheat Beer, these can all be tried on the Brovarnia tasting board (see picture below.) There is also a range of bottles, cocktails and spirits to choose from (and the food looked damn tasty as well!) So, if anyone you’re travelling with isn’t keen on beer, they can still find something while you treat yourself to the alleged ‘Best Beer in Gdansk’. 

Browar PG4

If you find yourself over by Gdansk Glowny train station, you MUST call in to Browar PG4. This two-storey ‘micro’ brewery and restaurant offer 4 homemade beers on draft that are brewed on site in the huge vats that you can explore while enjoying your drinks fresh from the keg. 

Try the tasting board first to decide which of PG4’s brews are your favourite before diving in to one of their larger offerings, a yard of ale or souvenir tankard perhaps? Another beer lovers dream! The food menu is also not to be missed with classic polish fare (dumplings! 😊) as well as traditional beer snacks. 

8. Dumplings!

If you are even remotely interested in taking a trip to Poland, dumplings (or pierogi) are likely already on your to do list! The best in Gdansk are at Pierogarnia Mandu Centrum, where you can watch this local delicacy being freshly made to your order by expert and friendly staff. Your taste buds will thank you for making the 15-minute walk from the Old Town over to Oliwa District!

9. Cathead

For the ultimate brew with a Polish view, you must head back down the river to Cathead Multitap. Just a short walk from Long Market’s main square, with 28 taps, over 90 bottled beers and great bar staff to help you choose, Cathead is a beer lovers dream! Take your pick from hoppy IPAs, Polish stout, Danish sour ale or strong Belgian-style wheat beer to name a few, and enjoy outside on Cathead’s terrace overlooking the river for a great afternoon drink to round off a days exploring.

10. Sopot

If you are lucky enough to have longer around Gdansk, getting out of town and to the nearby seaside city of Sopot is a great day trip idea if you do have that extra day to spare. Travelling between the cities is straight forward, you should take SKM kolejka (a commuter train). They run every 10-15 mins during the day and through until midnight, just less frequently. Tickets can be bought from machines on the platforms or from the conductor on the train (tickets are normally cheaper purchased from the machines.) Ticket prices to Sopot will cost around 4.20zł and the journey takes about 20 mins.

When you arrive, you’ll want to check out the Sopot Molo, the longest wooden pier in Europe that stretches out 511 meters into the sea. Sopot is a great place to relax on the beach and it’s also famed in the Tri-city area for its nightlife and party vibe.

So there we have our recommendations for the ten best things to do in Gdansk. Hopefully this will convince you that you need to book yourself a budget friendly weekend in one of Poland’s lesser known gems!

Happy drinking,

Joe & Nat xxx

Edinburgh : Brews, views and chews

Edinburgh is one of Nat’s favourite cities in the UK, so for Christmas she decided that Joe should share her love of the Scottish capital, and at the same time, cross one of the top items off his bucket list, drinking whiskey on the Royal Mile. Nat also invited Joe’s family along for their first Backpacks and Beverages adventure as they were also yet to experience all that Edinburgh has to offer, plus I wanted Joe to share that special bucket list moment with his dad. They both love whisky and always mark a special occasion with a dram, so I wanted this to be another experience they will remember with their favourite drink 😊

Edinburgh is filled with fantastic places to drink, eat and take in the amazing views. From bespoke cocktail bars, to your traditional heritage pubs, we have chosen our favourites from all over the city to cater for everyone. Whether you’re going on a girly weekend and require a disco ball filled with pornstar martini 😊, a group of friends up for a good time with a plush bar & live music, or a couple that want to experience the best cocktails Edinburgh has to offer, we’ve included something for everyone!

Scratch map beer: Tennants Lager 

Favourite local beverage: Glen Scotia Double Cask Whiskey

Brews

Devil’s Advocate

The Devils Advocate had to be the top of the list as this is THE must visit pub no matter your reason for visiting Edinburgh! Located just off The Royal Mile down a little side street on Advocate’s Close, the bar had a stunning rustic décor and boasts one of the most playful cocktail menus in Edinburgh. Make sure you embrace the relaxed atmosphere by sipping on a beautiful handcrafted cocktail that many rate as the best in the city. 

Voodoo Rooms

The Voodoo Rooms is suave to say the least. With its 1920’s New Orleans vibe, the bar is richly decorated with intricate painted ceilings and a long black, leather studded bar and seating area. If you go on the weekend, they regularly host local bands that will definitely get you in the party mood! 

Tigerlily

Tigerlily is one of the most glamourous and elegant bars in Edinburgh. It’s definitely more of a destination suited to girly afternoon cocktails than for a date or lads’ weekend. Don’t worry though fellas if you are dragged along, luckily, they do have a vast selection of beers and big screens for sporting events to help soften the blow 😊  

Girls, if there are around 4/5 in your group, the Pornstar Martini XXL is the way to go! The cocktail is served in a giant glitter ball and comes with a bottle of Prosecco rather than little shots.

More for your money and fancy glitter ball photos for your gram, who can complain at that?!

The Abbotsford 

Don’t worry gents Joe hasn’t forgotten about you! The Abbotsford is a fantastic example of a traditional Scottish Edwardian pub that is well worth a visit if (like me) you can’t resist the lure of an old wooden bar with a few cask ales to work your way along.

The current setup dates from the early 1900’s and boasts a beautiful mahogany island bar, which is well stocked with a vast selection of scotch whisky, superb local ale and a great wine list. Well known as one of the best historic pubs of Edinburgh, The Abbotsford is well worth a visit if you’re a traditionalist when it comes to pubs. Joseph and Pete just can’t resist! 

Bow Bar

Renowned as one of Edinburgh’s best beer spots, Bow Bar is another traditional pub but with a crafty twist. With a selection of ever-changing cask, keg and bottled beers, you wont struggle to find something to your taste. It’s also the perfect place for whiskey connoisseurs (such as Joseph) as above the fridges filed with beers are shelves stacked with over 220 malt whiskies just waiting to be enjoyed. If you’re serious about having a few drinks during your visit, Bow Bar has to be high on your to do list!

Heads and Tales

Heads and Tales refers to itself as “Edinburgh’s hidden gem”, and for good reason! Located in the basement of the Rutland Hotel, Edinburgh Gin’s flagship bar is a gin lovers paradise (that’s right it’s Nat’s turn!). By day the bar is a gin distillery, but from 5pm it turns into a wonderful cocktail bar. As well as a seemingly endless Gin selection, the menu has a G.I.Y section (Gin It Yourself), a four-part process of 1. Choose Glass, 2. Choose Gin, 3. Choose Flavour, 4. Drink & Repeat. It’s a must for gin lovers amongst a city of whisky drinkers!

Scotch Whiskey Experience

Now for the reason we went to Edinburgh in the first place… Natalia bought Joseph a gold tour of the Scotch Whisky Experience, because its always been a dream of his to drink his favourite drink (single malt scotch) on the Royal Mile with his best pal (Pete). For anyone who is interested in Scotland’s most famous tipple, The Scotch Whisky Experience is a must! As part of the tour, you will take a ride in a traditional whisky barrel that takes you through the production of scotch whisky. From there, you will head up to a traditional tasting room to sample a classic malt from one of the 5 regions of Scotland’s distilleries, Highlands, Lowlands, Cambletown, Speyside & Islay. You’ll get to enjoy your taster while taking in the world largest collection of scotch whisky, with over 3,300 of some of the rarest bottlings you will find in the whisky world, and you get to keep your own Glencoe tasting glass to take home.

If you’re lucky enough to have a Nat who buys you a gold tour, you will also get four more samples from the different regions to try before you make your way back out onto the Royal Mile to continue your Edinburgh experience. 

Airport Brews

A heads up guys, Edinburgh airport has a Brewdog! Make sure you go and find it 😉 With 16 taps of their signature craft beers and a great food menu minus the typical airport premium, it hands down wins our vote over your standard Wetherspoons burger and a lager.  Our particular Brewdog favourites are:  5am Saint for Joe, a malty red ale, Elvis Juice for Nat, a very zesty grapefruit infused IPA, and their classic Punk IPA (for both) lightly hopped and always a fan favourite that was also served on our Flybe flight, yay! 😊 

Views

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle is obviously the main attraction in the city. The castle stands tall against the skyline of Edinburgh as it sits upon Castle Rock, the remnants of a dormant volcano. There is no surprise that this is Scotland’s number one paid for tourist attraction, giving you the chance to tour the inside the castle at your leisure, with a host of attractions and historical artefacts, including the Scottish Crown Jewels.


The views are also impressive, with the best photo spots being from the Battery and the top of the Lang Stairs. 

Try and aim to visit at around 1pm if you can as you’ll get to see the firing of gun (be aware though this doesn’t happen on Sunday’s and bank holidays).  

The ticket price on the day is £18.50, and if you would like an audio guide you can hire them at the castle for £3.50 each. You can save a bit of cash by booking tickets online but be careful though, you do need to book them at least an hour and a half before you can enter the castle.

 We would aim to spend around two hours here for the entire visit, including the obligatory photo shoot outside the castle before entering!

Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura is located just down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle, it contains a series of floors filled with optical illusions and puzzles. It also features a show at the end where you see live images of the city down below projected onto a viewing table, via a periscope.

The main highlight is the view over Edinburgh from the rooftop of the tower, it is one of the best views of the city. Unfortunately, we were tight on time so didn’t have chance to visit but Nat had been previously and would highly recommend as it’s a good laugh to have with friends and family of all ages.

The Scott Monument

The Scott Monument is a Victorian Gothic monument located opposite Princes Street, 5 mins walk away from Edinburgh Waverley Station. You can climb the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the monument for £5 per person for some great views along Princes Street and towards to spires of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Calton Hill and St Giles’ Cathedral to name a few. 

Arthur’s Seat

Unfortunately, the weather was that bad for us on the Saturday we couldn’t even consider the trip up to Arthur’s Seat. Arthur’s Seat boasts the best views of Edinburgh, although it is a hike it’s easily manageable right from the city centre and you have the choice of climbing to the top of Arthur’s Seat, or following the paved path along Salisbury Crags. 

Chews

Southern Cross Café

Let’s start of at Southern Cross Café, located on Cockburn Street (we know, lol) just off the Royal Mile near St Giles Cathedral, this is a perfect place to grab brunch or just a coffee and a tasty cake. It’s also a perfect central location to start your day exploring the city. The café is quite pricey, but we found this with most places around Edinburgh, not quite London prices but pretty close. Our personal picks would be the breakfast pancakes, and you should definitely add the bacon if sweet and savoury is a bit of you!

FYI: Cockburn Street is also a location used in Avengers: Infinity War for all you Marvel fans out there.

Makars Gourmet Mash Bar

Makars Gourmet Mash Bar, the perfect “taste of Scotland.” If you want tasty no-nonsense food this is the place to go. Simply pick your starter, your main and your style of mash. Everyone seems pleasantly surprised by this place as it is expected to be your usual tourist trap. We would recommend this to anyone visiting Edinburgh looking for hearty Scottish comfort food, and they do have a few vegetarian options and a vegan dish, so nobody will struggle here. 

Brewhemia

Brewhemia is situated just outside of Edinburgh Waverley Station, the perfect spot to go for either a drink or a bite to eat if you are travelling to Edinburgh by train, or if not it’s only a 5 mins walk from Princes Street. The exterior does not do justice to the sheer size of Brewhemia, the place seems to go on forever! Inside you’ll find a fantastic atmosphere helped along with live music every day of the week, would 100% recommend if you are coming with a large group. Just make sure you book before as we imagine it can get very busy even though it is huge!

Rabble Taphouse & Grill

This bar & restaurant is located within Rabble boutique hotel in the New Town, about a 10-minute walk from the Scott Monument. Rabble is Edinburgh’s first low and slow tap house where all the produce is locally sourced, meat and fish are slow cooked over an open fire pit and craft beer is poured from giant cooper tanks so it’s still fresh from the brewery.

We didn’t get chance to eat here but the food looked divine, especially the nachos. Rabble is also dog friendly if you are bringing along your canine friend or just love seeing some pooches!

The Ox

The Ox is a bit further out of the main city but still within walking distance being only a 13 minute walk from The Balmoral. Joe fell on a right treat when I asked him to find somewhere for us to have Sunday lunch, I give him 100% credit for this little gem of a find. We went for the Sunday Roast menu and I can hold my hands up and say that it was the best pork belly I have had in my life, the crackling was done to perfection. A must try for pork lovers!

That’s our round up of the best views, brews and chews Edinburgh has to offer. Hopefully this will help plan your next escape to the Scottish capital, thanks for reading guys and if you have any questions or comments please feel free to get in touch 😊

Slàinte mhath! (pronounced Slange Var!) that’s cheers in Scottish Gaelic 😉

Happy drinking folks 🙂

Joe and Nat x