10 things you should know before visiting Stockholm

Nicknamed ‘The Beauty on the Water’, Stockholm is the ideal place for a weekend trip for first-time visitors to Scandinavia. Here are a few things worth knowing before you visit the Swedish capital!

1. It’s expensive!

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The famous Stortorget square in Gamla Stan

Like many Scandinavian cities, I had heard that Stockholm was pricey, but I didn’t realise just how expensive food and drink would be! This is especially true for alcohol which is subject to a 25% tax (think £9.50 a pint!) Despite the high prices, there are lots of al fresco bars and restaurants that are worth splashing the cash at in the summer months. Malarpaviljongen (don’t ask me to pronounce that!) is a picturesque bar on the river in Norr Malarstrand. Set on a floating pontoon, it’s a perfect spot to have a couple of sunset drinks by the water. Over in trendy Södermalm, the popular Mosebacketerrassen is a lively outdoor theatre bar with an unbeatable view over the city. This spot is the best place to watch the sunset with a Spritz, but get here early if you want to find a spot at one of the long, communal trestle tables. Over in Östermalm, hidden in a leafy park, is Omnipollos Flora, a laid-back beer garden that serves an eclectic mix of beer, seafood and ice cream! Any of these outdoor spots are perfect for making the most of the long, light evenings in the brief Swedish summertime!

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Drinks on a floating pontoon at Malarpaviljongen
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Sunset gathering at Mosebacketerrassen in Södermalm

 

2. Fika is life

The Swedish tradition of ‘fika’ – essentially to stop for a coffee and cake, is firmly entrenched in daily life in Stockholm. Make sure you pop into a cosy coffee shop and get your fika on with a traditional ‘kanelbulle’ (the classic Swedish cinnamon roll!) My favourite ‘hygge’ cafes to visit were trendy Johan & Nyström in Södermalm, and cosy little Fabrique bakery in Gamla Stan.

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Freshly baked bullar!
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All the Fika options on offer at Fabrique bakery
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Fresh ‘kanelbulle’
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Scandi style on point
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Fika time at hip Johan & Nystrom

 

3. Embrace ‘B&B’

‘B&B’ stands for Beer and Balls! Because you can’t visit Sweden and not have meatballs. Meatballs for the People is the most popular spot for tourists to tuck into a plate of this traditional Swedish staple, which is served with creamy mash, pickled cucumber and lingonberries. The craft beer scene is also huge in Stockholm, with lots of breweries serving delicious, locally produced beer. There are two Brewdog bars in the city, and many other independent breweries, such as Mikeller and and Omnipollos Flora, where you can try  a locally-produced tipple.

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Brewdog have bars all around the world – with 2 in Stockholm! Don’t forget your beer passport…
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Visit the Mikkeller brewery and try a Swedish beer
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Meatballs are traditionally served with pickled cucumber and lingonberries!
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Dark wood and furry throws at Meatballs for the People

 

4. Don’t skip the subway

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Stockholm is a big city, and the main areas of Norrmalm, Södermalm, Östermalm and the island of Gamla Stan are quite far from each other. The easiest and quickest way to get around the city is to make use of public transport. You can buy a 24 hour ticket from most supermarkets for around £12, which grants access to trams, ferries and the subway.  Alternatively, a single ticket only costs around £4 and gives you 75 minutes to do some underground exploring. Stockholm’s subway stations are a destination in themselves, an arty underground network that is a stark contrast to the clean, untouched buildings above. A good starting point is T-Centralen, from where you can take the tube to the most impressive stations. Don’t miss Kungsträdgården, which was designed to resemble an archaeological dig, and Stadion were you can find the end of the rainbow. (No leprechauns or pots of gold though…disappointing.)

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Kungsträdgården station
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T-Centralen station, Blue Line
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Solna Centrum
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Stadion station

 

5. Swedes are stylish 

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In the pink at Greta’s at Haymarket

It’s a well-known fact that Swedes are an attractive bunch, but apparently they’re also seriously stylish. Stockholm is filled with young, attractive people mixing pretty summer dresses and sharp tailoring with full-sleeve tattoos. (I developed a fair few girl-crushes on the subway!) There are lots of stylish spots to grab a drink too, like Gretas which is possibly the most instagrammable restaurant in the city, housed in the 1920’s-esque Haymarket Hotel. Be sure to pop in here for brunch, or a quick fika break!

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6. Scooters are everywhere!

Everywhere you look, you’ll see teenagers zipping around on little electric micro-scooters. You’ll also see a heap of them lying, seemingly abandoned, in the middle of the street. (The scooters that is, not the teenagers.) These scooters work a little like rental bikes in London, except when you’re done with your scooter, you don’t need to return it to a docking station –  you just leave it in the street for the next person to find. Using the Voi app, if you find a discarded scooter you can ‘unlock it’ and then scoot off into the sunset. Or to the bar.

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Discovering cute little huts in Stockholm’s leafy parks

 

7. Cash won’t get you far

One thing we wish we’d known before withdrawing a wad of krona for the weekend was that Stockholm is practically cash-free. Sweden was recently named as ‘the most cashless society  on the planet’ and the vast majority of places are card-only. Luckily most bars will let you set up a tab, which avoids forking out a transaction fee every time you buy a drink!

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The beer garden at Omnipollos Flora

8. Everyone goes on holiday in July!

Many shops and businesses close their doors completely during the entire month of July, to allow workers to make the most of the summer (which is notoriously short in Sweden!) At times, the city can seem almost eerily quiet and some places we had hoped to visit, such as Pom & Flora, were closed until August. Despite this, the majority of places we had planned to visit were still open, and as many Stockholmers leave the city in the summer, this meant that the popular spots weren’t too crowded!

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The main square in Gamla Stan

 

9. The food is great!

If  you’ve had your fill of meatballs, there are plenty of delicious food options in the city. Don’t miss The Hairy Pig, tucked away in the cobbled streets of Gamla Stan, this family-run restaurant produces their own sausages and serves tasty dishes such as reindeer tacos and wild boar pie. They also import their own wine from small winemakers in Italy and Germany and it is among the best wine I’ve ever tasted! (And believe me, I like my wine!)

If you’re craving a fast-food fix, you can’t beat Flippin’ Burgers, a hugely popular diner which serves incredible burgers and unbeatable shakes, (regular or with a splash of your favourite tipple!) It’s a little out of the way, but definitely worth the trip.

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Grab a platter at The Hairy Pig
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Diner style deliciousness at Flippin’ Burgers

10. Everyone speaks English

I tried to brush up on some basic Swedish before visiting, as I figure it’s always nice to know a bit of the lingo before heading to a new country. But luckily I didn’t need to attempt pronouncing any ridiculously long words, as everyone seemed to speak perfect English! In fact, in the more touristy bars and restaurants, many staff didn’t actually speak any Swedish! In one bar, I asked a waiter how to say ‘Thank you’ in Swedish and he responded with a shrug that he had no idea, he was Italian! If you only learn one word, let it be ‘Skål!’ (Cheers!)

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Riverside drinks

So there you have it, 10 things to know before you visit this wonderful city! Thanks for reading. (Or should I say, tack!)

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Everything you need to know to survive the infamous Inca Trail

In an attempt to take my mind off the grim yet unavoidable fact that I was about to turn 30, I decided to do something a little different for my birthday this year by ticking something major off the Bucket List. Machu Picchu has always been up there on the list of places to ‘definitely visit one day’ but as I entered the last year of my 20s, I realised that if I was actually going to do the famous hike and visit this World Wonder while I was still (relatively) young and fit then I needed to get my ass into gear. So, instead of booking somewhere sunny and exotic like Bali or the Bahamas where I could have spent 10 days relaxing by a pool and ringing in this new decade in a pleasant, rum-fuelled stupor, I booked my spot on the world’s most famous hike and headed to Lima.

Seeing as my last camping experience was a sleepover in my best friend’s back garden at age 11, its safe to say I wasn’t particularly prepared to spend 4 nights up a South American mountain with no hot water. I also didn’t ramp up my workout regime in the months before the hike as many people had suggested, and I definitely wasn’t going to spend a fortune on expensive hiking and camping gear when the price of the trip had already cost me almost 2 months worth of wages. Although luckily the old saying, ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ didn’t hold true this time, there are a few things I wish I had known before hiking the trail.

 

1. It’s hard, but not impossible!

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To be honest, although the hike is certainly no walk in the park, some blog posts I read definitely exaggerated the difficulty level, implying it would be akin to scaling Everest. To be fair, many of these people had terrible luck; suffering from altitude sickness, and twisted ankles, not to mention terrible weather over the entire 4 days, which made their hiking experience pretty unpleasant. (We tackled the trail in mid-May and were lucky to have perfect weather!)

In terms of the fitness level required, there is no ‘standard’ you need to achieve before attempting the trail. I did see some people walking in the opposite direction that were, frankly, extremely overweight and also passed one girl who had been hit hard by the altitude and needed an oxygen tank, but these were rare cases. Noone in our group failed at the hike and we all made it to Machu Picchu on day 4, which is pretty impressive seeing as we were quite a mixed bunch. An elderly Swedish couple had quite a rough time; a fall on some loose ground knocked their confidence on the first day, and they took the trail super slow, arriving at camp hours after the younger people in the group. But this didn’t stop them from making it into camp with cheers of encouragement each evening

The trail is tough, but you can take it at your own pace, and if this means arriving at camp miles either miles ahead or hours behind the rest of your group then that’s absolutely fine. You can take as many breaks as you need on the steep sections, but as long as you keep plodding along at your own pace and remember that the steep bits always peak eventually: what goes up must come down! (Although the hardest parts for me were actually the downhill sections – not fun on the knees!)

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The view from the top of Dead Woman’s Pass
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5 hours of uphill hiking later…

2. Be prepared for the altitude to hit in Cusco

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While I had been worrying that altitude sickness would hit me halfway up the mountain, I actually felt the effects of being at high altitude as soon as I stepped off the plane in Cusco. This mountain town is actually higher above sea level than Machu Picchu itself,  and the air is so much thinner here that your chest tightens and your breathing can feel laboured. It also doesn’t help that a lot of Cusco’s streets are super steep! Try to resist Cusco’s party scene and take it easy on the first night, but make sure you pop into the 180 Eco Bar at the very top of the hill for an incredible panoramic view of Cusco!

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3. Walking poles will become your best friends

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Walking poles might not be trendy, (and the expression ‘pr***s with sticks’ isn’t reserved solely for skiers!) but they are invaluable for saving your knees! The trail includes several steep, downwards sections where you’ll definitely need them! Make sure you buy a decent pair of hiking trainers too, your feet will thank you. (One girl in our group managed to do the entire trek in a battered pair of Vans and had no issues, but I’m pretty sure she was superhuman and I wouldn’t recommend this!)

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4. Pack for all temperatures!

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We were incredibly lucky on our hike as we had sunshine during the entire 4 days despite it having rained the previous week. The weather conditions can vary constantly so make sure you pack a variety of layers and a lightweight rain jacket, not to mention enough sun cream to last the entire trek!

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5. It gets freezing at night – especially the second night at high altitude

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Although you may find that you’re so exhausted from trekking that you fall into a blissful sleep as soon as your head hits your blow-up pillow, (or rolled up bundle of unwashed clothes in my case), I definitely struggled with the sleeping situation. The second night was SO cold I barely slept and felt frozen to my bones the entire night. I would definitely recommend packing proper thermal layers designed for sub-zero conditions as well as a thick, woolly hat and gloves. You can bring a super-thick sleeping bag with you but be aware that this will take up a lot of space in your backpack. (The campsite on the last night is much lower in altitude and therefore generally much warmer,  I slept outside of my sleeping bag on the last night because it was so hot!)

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6. Pack snacks! Hiking is hungry work

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G adventures provided us with a small bag of snacks, with a couple of pieces of fruit, a juice box and some biscuits, which most people consumed on the first day.  If you dont have room for snacks then make sure you bring cash to buy some snacks from local women along the way (the last one is just before the climb up to Dead Woman’s Pass) These stalls are quite pricey, think £2.50 for a Mars bar, but you can buy a tonne of little packs of Peruvian biscuits for 25p (1 sol). Its a good idea to bring fruit if you want healthy snacks on hand (one member of our group carried an entire pineapple with him for 2 days waiting for it to ripen… I would suggest carrying smaller, lighter fruit!)

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Coca tea helps avoid altitude sickness apparently!

 

7. The toilet situation is… interesting.

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Your choices at camp are either seriously whiffy squat toilets which you have to venture down to in the dark and risk losing your phone down the hole if you’re using it as a torch (bring a headlight!),  or a person-sized pop up tent with a glorified plastic bag to pee in. Lovely. There are no toilets along the trail, so if nature calls while you’re hiking you’ll need to venture off the path to ‘pick a flower’….

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8. There are showers! (But no hot water…)

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I had resolved myself to the fact that I wouldn’t be showering for 4 days, so I packed a load of wet wipes and hand sanitiser, prepared to be pretty pongy.  But, some campsites do have icy-cold showers, which are incredible if you’re lucky to have a hot, sunny day and arrive at camp before sundown!

9. Porters are superhuman, but woefully underpaid.

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Our group of purple porters preparing to start the trail

Porters are incredible. They will swiftly overtake you as you heave and grunt your way up the mountain with only a light daypack, heaving heavy bags filled with the rest of your gear up the mountainside. Despite the back-breaking work, they’ll still give you a cheerful ‘Buenos Dias’ or an encouraging ‘Vamanos!’ as they pass by.

Throughout the hike, our guide repeatedly told us how little the porters are paid and told us how much we would be expected to tip at the end of the trail.  Although I agree that leaving a tip to the porters is a nice gesture, I felt uncomfortable with the enforced, so-called ‘recommended’ tipping amounts and the strange farewell and tipping ‘ceremony’, especially as the porters literally sat in a huddled group outside the dining tent and watched us put money in an envelope before publicly counting it and sharing it amongst themselves. After paying a lot of money to do the trail, hikers shouldn’t feel pressured to add on a hefty tip for the porters and guides and this should be done discreetly, not as a presentation which felt awkward and uncomfortable for both hikers and porters.  G adventures really need to pay these guys a better wage for the incredible work they do and leave tipping as an optional gesture for hikers.

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10. The view at dawn from the Sun Gate will make it all worth it!

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Catching that first glimpse of Machu Picchu inthe distance, will make you forget that you’re exhausted, smelly and that you’re covered in blisters and insect bites. After waking up at 3am to hike for an hour in the darkness before tackling the last slog, the near-vertical ‘Monkey Steps’, we finally made it to the gate to watch the sun rise slowly over this ancient wonder, with a collective feeling of achievement and elation. I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate turning 30! Here’s to another decade of adventures!

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(P.S, you can get enjoy a well-deserved beer or bottle of wine on the super-comfy train back to Aguas Calientes. Enjoy!)

10 things not to miss in Lisbon, Europe’s trendiest city

Easily accessible from both the UK and the US, and still much cheaper than other European capitals, Lisbon has been the city on everyone’s lips for a while now. Its popularity has especially exploded in recent years, with the rise of millennials posting preset-edited photos of themselves in front of a sea of tiled walls and terracotta-roofs. While Lisbon is an undeniably beautiful city, the filtered images you see on Pinterest do tend to hide the rougher edges of the city, which isn’t short of a decrepit building or two covered in sprawling graffiti. (Street art is a huge part of Lisbon’s culture, as the first spot on this list shows!) The recent rise in popularity also means that Lisbon is busy. Seriously busy. Don’t expect to stroll into a famous brunch spot after 10am and be seated without waiting outside in a long queue, and most restaurants don’t take bookings so dinner is often a case of waiting to be seated.

That being said, Lisbon is an incredible city, infused with an infectious energy and youthfulness. Visit with an open mind and you’ll fall in love with its vibrant streets, delicious food and friendly locals.

Here are 10 things you absolutely must do on a trip to this happening capital!

 

1. Hang with the hipsters at LX Factory

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Cute boutiques stock retro brands
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On Sundays, the market is in full swing and the whole area is buzzing and lively
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Street Art around every corner

 

Undoubtedly Lisbon’s hottest spot, the LX Factory should be at the top of your itinerary. Often dubbed ‘the Shoreditch of Lisbon’, this stretch of disused textile warehouses, full to the brim with awe-inspiring street art, hipster cafes and pop-up shops housing quirky souvenirs, has a uniqueness all its own. Visit on a Sunday when the market is running and the area is buzzing and you’ll discover a real feast for the senses. Wander past stalls selling local cheeses and wine, handmade ceramics and jewellery while mellow music plays in the background. There is an abundance of delicious food options here, especially if you have a craving for something sweet. Pop into the popular Wish Slow Coffee Shop for coffee and cake, or head to LXeesecake by Madame Cheeselova for quite possibly the best lemon meringue cheesecake of your life. Spots not to miss are the famous bookstore, Livraria Der Levagar, and Showu for indie labels and quirky garments.

 

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Don’t miss this quirky installation at Livraria Der Levagar
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Veer off the main path for drinks in the sunshine in this colourful back street
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Some of the street art is a little too real…
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Colour poppin’
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Perfect spot to take in the art with a beer in the sunshine
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Spot Lisbon’s ‘Golden Gate Bridge in this mural’

2. Take a Day Trip to Sintra and Pena Palace

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Queen of the Castle

 

We weren’t quite sure what to expect from Sintra, as we had done 0 research about this mountain town, other than spotting a few pretty pictures of technicolour castles on Pinterest. So instead of checking the best way to get there (hint: take the train!), we decided to take an Uber all the way to the top of the mountain. This was great as we skipped the walk up and had a good long chat with our friendly Brazliian driver (who couldn’t speak a word of English but did show us some lovely Youtbe videos of his hometown!). What was not so great was the traffic, which snakes its way up the one-way mountain road at a snail’s pace, taking us an hour and a half to reach the top.

At the entrance to Pena Palace, there are fairly long queues to buy tickets and then another queue to enter the palace grounds. We decided not to go inside the palace itself, instead opting for cheaper tickets which granted access to the exterior and the huge park. I would not recommend buying tickets to actually enter the palace as the queue is ridiculously long, (a minimum 2 hour wait in the scorching sun) and the real beauty of this place is its colourful exterior! 

The castle is like something out of a fairytale, or a Super Mario game, with its bright yellow walls and turrets poking out all over the place. If you can nab a table, be sure to stop for a while at the outdoor seating area. The views over the lush green landscape and ocean in the distance are incredible and we ended up sitting here for over an hour, taking in the view and drinking ice-cold bottles of Super Bock.

The town of Sintra itself is small but picturesque, with narrow winding streets filled with bustling shops and cafes. We stopped for lunch and a couple of glasses of sangria after the long walk down from Pena Palace, before heading back to the city with a few Pastel de Nata in our pockets for the journey.

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Those views..!
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Princess Peach.. are you in there?

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3. Brunch with the cool kids

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Flora & Fauna
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Comoba

 

Over the last 5 years, tourism has exploded in Lisbon, especially among the younger generation and the city has done well to keep up with the demands of millennials desperate for instagrammable cafes and hip brunch spots.

There are several places that fit the bill dotted around the city, mostly within the Bairro Alto district. Queues can be long, as we discovered on the first day when we naively assumed we could just stroll into Hello, Kristof at 11.30am and be seated immediately. Most cafes open at 9am, so get there early if you’re after a table. Alternatively, later in the day is a quieter time to pop in, after the lunch rush has subsided. Flora and Fauna was my favourite place, with friendly staff and  foliage covering every surface. The açai latte is delicious, and this place also does cocktails so it’s perfect for a late afternoon pit stop!

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3. Stroll up the ‘Elevador da Bica’

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Low key risking my life for the gram
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Colourful corners

 

Bright yellow trams are an iconic Lisbon attraction. Have you even visited the city if you haven’t watched them trundle up and down the steep cobbled streets while sipping sangria at a cheap and cheerful quiosque? The best place to snap a picture next to this national icon is at the top of the steep and colourful Elevador da Bica. Here, you can also snap a selfie with the graffiti tram, which is giving old yellow a run for its money in the popularity stakes. Most tourists visit just to see the trams before heading elsewhere, but if you linger until early evening then you can grab a drink at one of the cheap and cheerful bars that line the sides of the street. Barbica is a small cafe right at the bottom where you can sit out on the terrace and watch the trams go by. Further up, Let’s Rock is a tiny local favourite that pumps out rock music and sells pints of Super Bock for only €1.50. Win.

 

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4. Eat at TimeOut Food Hall -but get there early to avoid the lunch rush!

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‘Can you see a spare seat anywhere…?!’

 

Lisboa locals love their food, which is unsurprising given the plethora of tasty options available. The famous TimeOut Food Hall, housing 32 restaurants and 8 bars, is a right of passage for any foodie. This place gets absolutely rammed at lunchtime (are you noticing a theme here?) and you’ll need to be eagle-eyed and quick on your feet to nab an empty seat at one of the long trestle tables. Don’t be overwhelmed by the crowds though, start with a drink at a bar and take it all in, before heading to Henrique Sa Pessoa for Portuguese fare, such as the delicious suckling pig burger.

 

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Suckling Pig Sandwich 

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5. Experience the nightlife of Pink Street

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A cockroach may or may not have scuttled past my feet after this picture was taken

 

I’ll tell you right now to avoid disappointment, Pinterest lied. Pink Street is not pretty. It is a grubby strip of tarmac that runs under a bridge and is lined with seedy bars filled with raucous backpackers. But it it pink? Yes. And it’s worth a trip; if only to see Bairro Alto’s party side which comes alive after dark. Pink Street is infamously known as Lisbon’s bygone Red Light District and, fittingly, its most notorious bar is Pensao Amor. This former brothel, housed in a creaky old mansion and spread across several floors, is a somewhat surreal experience. Swing by during the afternoon to avoid the nighttime queues and have a drink in the dimly lit main bar, while erotic images play out across the wall on a giant projector. It’s a unique experience, but maybe not one for a family trip!

 

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Risqué artwork covers the walls at Pensao Amor

 

6. Eat all the Pastel de Nata you can get your hands on

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I’ll take all of them, please

 

I don’t know what they put in these little custard tarts that make them so damn tasty, but they make a perfect little breakfast or mid-afternoon snack with a coffee. These tarts originated in Belem, but if you don’t have time to make it out that far then the next best thing is served at Manteigaria (there’s a stall in the TimeOut Food Hall). Be careful though, these things are addictive and you might want to brig a box home with you as the cheap custard tarts you get in Tesco just aren’t the same!

 

7. Join the queue for ceviche and pisco sours at A Cevicheria

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For a little taste of Peru, and possibly the most photographed foam octopus in the world, head to A Cevicheria. This tiny restaurant is famous for its ceviche, but as there was (yep, you guessed it) already an enormous queue outside when we arrived we decided just to stay for a quick Pisco Sour from its ‘hole in the wall’ bar. We queued for around half an hour for our drinks, (!) but it was worth the wait for the atmosphere of other people waiting outside and when they arrived they were incredible! (Next stop: Lima! Seriously though, the Peruvian capital is next up on our travel list so stay tuned!)

 

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Pisco Sours with a smile!

8. Take in the tiles!

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Tiles for miles

 

When you think of Lisbon, there is one thing that springs to mind: tiles! The city is covered in them, from the classic Portuguese blue and white to terracottas and pastels with intricate patterns, flanking almost every vertical surface. The best way to find your favourite tiled wall is to start in Alfama and just keep walking, along the winding streets, through narrow alleys and up and down secret stairways. And if you consider yourself a tile super fan, be sure to stop in at the Tile Museum and become a true tile connoisseur.

 

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Miradoura Views

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9. Drink outside with the locals at a ‘Quiosque’

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A quiosque at the Portos do Sol Viewpoint in Alfama

 

What I first assumed to to be lots of little magazine stands dotted around the city, actually turned out to be mini bars or ‘quiosques’, where you can stop mid-exploring for a quick drink al fresco’. Great for people-watching and brushing up on your Portuguese by chatting with the friendly locals over a glass of Ginja. Saúde!

 

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11. Finish the day with sunset drinks at Topo Chiado

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Round off a long day spent roaming Lisbon’s hilly streets with a bottle of wine at Sunset Bar ‘Topo Chiado’, which is tucked away behind impressive Carmen Convent and has gorgeous views over swathes of orange-roofed houses. If beer is more your thing and you’re not fussed about catching the sunset, then Crafty Corner is a great place to try some local craft beers. (And their burgers are fantastic!)

 

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Beer barrel stools at Crafty Corner

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So there you have it, 10 things not to miss on your next trip to Lisbon! Have I missed anything? I’d love to hear your suggestions on what I should add to the list below! I’ve also created a handy check list of some of the most insta-worthy places to eat, drink and snap pics of dotted around Lisbon! Print it out, grab a pen and your camera and book a flight! 😉

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How to spend a winter weekend in Malta

With its gorgeous weather and picturesque spots such as Comino and the Blue Lagoon, the Mediterranean island of Malta, sitting unassumingly between Southern Italy and the tip of Libya, attracts thousands of sun-seeking tourists in the summer months. However, winter is also a great time to visit if you want to skip the beaches and explore the island while avoiding the crowds.

Visit the Silent City of Mdina

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Pretty alleys make for cute photo stops

Mdina is a photographer’s dream. The entrance, an impressive stone archway, was used as a filming location for Game of Thrones and leads through to a fortified medieval city filled with winding passageways with cute doorways and balconies around every corner. While these narrow alleys are crammed full of tourists in the summer months, in January the ‘Silent City’ is just that, making for people-free photos!

Fontanella is the perfect spot to take a break for a coffee and enormous slice of cake. In summer, the terrace has beautiful views across the island to the ocean, but in winter you can head inside and find a cosy spot next to the log burner. The cake menu is huge, but be sure to also grab a couple of pastizzi, a savoury Maltese pastry filled with either crushed peas or ricotta. Delicious and cheap at only 65 cents!

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Turquoise doors set against sun-bleached walls
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Lose yourself in the medieval passageways
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Pretty doors for days

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Recognise this arch? Mdina was used as a filming location for King’s Landing in GoT
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Love the soothing, neutral tones
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Mdina’s labyrinthine passages
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Cake and Pastizzi at Fontanella
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Can I move in?!
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Pretty shutters and balconies overhead
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Hidden corners

 Meander around the pretty little capital of Valletta

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The beautiful Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta

No visit to Malta would be complete without a trip to its tiny capital city. Valletta is set on a hill and its steep, sloping roads lead down to the water, lined with enticing shops and restaurants. There is a church or a palace seemingly around every corner and the tall walls draw your eyes up to the intricate carvings on the corners of buildings or the little balconies and colourful shutters overhead. At the pretty Upper Barrakka Gardens, take in the panoramic view over the harbour and the Three Cities, before heading down a bustling side street for some lunch. Streat Cafe is a central spot that serves up tasty burgers and enormous salads!

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View over the Three Cities
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Colourful little streets in Valletta

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 Visit picturesque Popeye village

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This slightly surreal attraction was originally a film set for the Popeye musical back in 1980 starring the wonderful, late Robin Williams. Perched on a cliff top above the turquoise waters of a secret cove, the set is now open to tourists and is perfect for a family day out. Even without entering the village, the views across the bay are worth the drive over!

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Even in January it’s tempting to jump in that turquoise water!
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Can you spot Olive Oyl?
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This place has an  almost other-worldly feel!

So if you’re planning a quick weekend away for culture, views and some winter sun, Malta should be top of your list!

It’s more fun in the Philippines! How to spend a blissful, budget-friendly week on Bohol island

The Philippines is one of those places that look too good to be true, with its seemingly endless array of white-sand beaches and lush tropical jungle. There are so many equally beautiful places to visit in this country, spread out over more than 7,000 (!) islands, including hotspots such as Boracay for the beach bums and Palawan for a tropical, ‘off the grid’ paradise. With such a vast choice of islands, and with transport options that are both limited and somewhat archaic, visiting every gorgeous spot in this sprawling archipelago is near impossible unless you have several months to spare.

With this in mind, we chose to spend a week on the beautiful island of Bohol, a few miles from Cebu. Here are 6 things not to miss here!

 

1. Visit a Tarsier Sanctuary

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Bohol is probably most famous for being home to the adorable little creature that is the tarsier. There are two Tarsier ‘sanctuaries’ on the island, though the Philippine Tarsier and Wildlife Sanctuary in Corella is touted as the best one to visit as its aim is to preserve these tiny, endangered animals. This place is far less busy than the Loboc Conservation Area which is located on the route to the Chocolate Hills near to the man-made forest and is mobbed by tour buses, mostly full of noisy Korean tour groups. At the Corella sanctuary, a lady leads a small group of us into a small enclosed area of dense trees and shrubs and asks us to stay quiet. After a while, we spot several fuzzy little tarsiers dozing and clinging onto branches. We are able to get very close to them to take pictures, which allows us to see just how cute they really are , but I can’t help but think about how the tarsiers probably aren’t enjoying the up close and personal experience quite as much. This place may advertise itself as a sanctuary but, like any attraction involving live animals, the welfare of the creatures is always questionable.

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Adorable!

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2. Take a day trip to Oslob to swim with whale sharks

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From Bohol, it is possible to take a speedboat over to neighbouring Oslob, where you can swim with these gentle giants. Although ‘swim’ isn’t really the best word for this experience; essentially you will hold onto a wooden boat with your face in the water, sucking up mouthfuls of fishy, salty water through your crappy snorkel, while these incredible giant fish circle the water directly below you. Be warned: they are HUGE and actually quite terrifying close up. Their mouths are wide enough to swallow a human if they wanted to, but don’t worry, these guys only feed on fish. (At least, that’s what we were told…) The feeding aspect of this experience is what makes it so controversial, the whale sharks have evidently become reliant on the food tossed into the water by the boatmen and as a result they have acquired unnatural feeding habits and no longer fear the flailing mob of semi-drowning tourists that have come to poke go-pros into their faces and attempt to touch them despite being told not to by the ‘conservationists’.

Although it was incredible to see these creatures so close up, as with the tarsier sanctuary,  I have to admit I have mixed feelings about this experience. The fact that the whales are fed means that their migration patterns have been altered and they are now completely reliant on the food thrown by the fishermen. Despite this, the whales are not caged and so are still essentially ‘wild; and free to swim wherever they please.

 

3. Take a scooter through the manmade forest to the Chocolate Hills

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Like most places in South-East Asia, the only way to truly experience Bohol is by scooter. There is nothing quite like zipping along well-worn roads, past lush rice paddies and through bustling villages wearing a battered old helmet that doesn’t quite fasten properly.  ‘Safety first’ is not really the motto here and we unfortunately managed to acquire some pretty nasty grazes and bruises when our scooter slipped over a patch of wet, uneven ground. Don’t let that put you off though, as we have always hired scooters to travel around and this was the first time we ever had an issue! We’ll still always choose this mode of transport as it allows you so much more freedom to explore! Head through the man-man forest in the direction of Carmen, where you’ll start to see the unmistakable Hershey’s kisses shaped ‘Chocolate Hills’ spreading out for miles. The top of the mini-mountain of a viewpoint offers incredible panoramic views over these iconic hills.

4. Stay at a cute budget hotel on Alona Beach, while still enjoying the perks of luxury accommodation!

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There are plenty of budget options around, and many of these are based on Panglao, a little island in the south-western corner of Bohol. Alona Swiss Resort is an affordable hostel with a boutique hotel feel, just up the road from the gorgeous Alona Beach. Captain’s Lodge is another great option, with its lush, green courtyard serving as an oasis away from the bustling street.

If budget isn’t an issue, the Hennan Resort is the biggest and most luxurious hotel on Panglao Island. Sitting directly on the white sand of Alona Beach, this gorgeous, sprawling resort boasts 3 enormous pools and a bar and restaurant mere metres from the sea. If your budget doesn’t quite stretch to this level of luxury, for a modest fee you can still enjoy the pool with its cocktail bar (hello happy hour!) without forking out top dollar for a room.

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The view from the Hennan Resort pool, just metres from the beach!

5. Zip wire across the Loboc river

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About an hour’s scooter ride from Alona Beach is the Loboc Ecotourism Adventure Park, where you can zipline over the river for a small charge. You’ll lie on your stomach on a piece of fabric attached to the line overhead and before you can wonder whether you’re actually going to be strapped in or how safe this really is, you’ll be pushed out and suddenly you’re soaring almost 200 meters above a gorge of lush jungle and over the serene Loboc river. It’s an exhilarating little ride, with incredible views, and the fee allows you to take the zipline back the other way to return to the entrance! The staff here were so friendly and when they saw we had some cuts and bruises from our little scooter accident, they grabbed a first-aid kit and insisted on cleaning our grazes and bandaging us up!

 

6. Live your best vegan life with a smoothie bowl at Shaka Bohol

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Drool…

I hate to say it, but Filipino fare such as Tapsilog (beef, rice and egg) doesn’t quite live up to that of other South-East Asian countries like Thailand or Vietnam (especially when it’s served at breakfast…) But this cute café, just up the road from Captain’s Lodge, serves up bright and tasty vegan and veggie options, such as these gorgeous acai bowls.

 

Getting there

International flights all arrive into Manila, and to get to Bohol most people first travel to Cebu and then take the ferry to Tagbilaran.  You can also fly directly into Tagbilaran which will reward you with some incredible views!

Why you should include the Coromandel Peninsular on your New Zealand road trip

New Zealand is chock-full of gorgeous scenery and with its epic array of road trip possibilities, the lesser known routes are often overlooked in favour of heading straight down the highway to the main attractions. But the winding back roads of this spectacular country are often as amazing as the destination, after all, you don’t want to miss out on quirky roadside stops like a giant bottle of L&P, the world’s most famous public toilets, or the land of teapots now would you?

The Coromandel Peninsular, to the west of Auckland and just north of the Bay of Plenty, is just out of the way enough to often be skipped in favour of heading further north to Cape Reinga or shooting south towards everything else. And although the quaint, quiet town of Coromandel is not particularly exciting, this trip is more about the journey than the destination. Here are 5 things not to miss on your Coromandel road trip!

 

1. An unusual roadside attraction 

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When heading along the scenic route towards the Peninsula, you can take a slight detour to visit possibly the strangest roadside attraction around: a public toilet. After reassuring our passengers, a couple of nervous, Spanish hitchhikers in the back seat, that these are in fact the most famous roadside toilets in New Zealand, we decide to take a look. The toilets, based in the sleepy little town of Kawakawa, were designed by the quirky Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser and feature a colourful array of tiles, topsy-turvy walls and a tree bursting through the roof. Based on the sheer number of coaches parked outside, and the hoards of tourists stopping for selfies, these must be the most photographed toilets in the world. Which is fine, unless you’re desperate for a wee and the queue is a mile long!

2. Hot Water Beach

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Arguably, Coromandel’s most well known attraction is a beach, of which New Zealand has hundreds. But Hot Water Beach is unique. Every day, as the tide changes, tourists and locals alike grab a spade and flock to a small patch of sand between the rocks and the water. This part of the beach is directly above a hidden hot spring deep below the sand and, as you dig, hot water filters up creating your own hot bath on the beach! Pick your spot wisely though, the closer to the source you sit, the hotter the water gets. In some places you can even boil an egg!

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3. Cathedral Cove

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Not far from Hot Water Beach, at the eastern end of neighbouring Hahei, beach you can take a walking track to beautiful Cathedral Cove for some insta-worthy snaps of that famous arch. (Ignore the signs, the walk takes 10 minutes tops.) You might recognise this spot… the arch was one of the entrances to Narnia in the movie! Bring a picnic, and relax.

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4. The legendary 309 road

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A local secret, many road-trippers miss this sneaky little route. Technically a ‘shortcut’ if you’re heading to Whitianga, this route winds through the bush on a loose gravel road and is not for the faint hearted.  If you aren’t a fan of slowing down for the scenery and cant keep your foot off the accelerator you may want to skip this route. But, you will miss out on some hidden gems.

The road is home to ‘The Waterworks’, a quirky little collection of ‘water powered inventions ‘ which makes for a cute pitstop.  From here, follow the winding road, avoiding the local pigs that amble along the roadside, until you reach the signs for Waiau Falls and the Kauri Grove. A short walk through the bush leads to a picturesque waterfall and swimming hole. Great for photos, but tales of eels and slippery things in the water mean it might not be the best swimming spot!

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5. The Tui Lodge

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The Peninsular is a beautiful stretch of land filled with lush greenery and picturesque beaches, while the town of Coromandel itself is like most small towns in the North Island, quiet and peaceful with not much going on.  We set up camp at The Tui Lodge, a friendly, colourful little hostel with a rambling back yard and laid back feel. New Zealand has so many down to earth, home from home hostels like these, filled with like minded wanderers swapping travel tales.  This place is definitely worth a night or two, before continuing your journey to see what the rest of New Zealand has to offer!

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The ultimate ‘Paris in a day’ itinerary

The route

Belleville – Montmartre – Moulin Rouge – Arc de Triomphe – Champs Elysées – Jardin des Tuileries – Le Louvre – Notre Dame – St Germain des Pres –  Eiffel Tower

With the Eurostar flinging itself into the French capital in less than 2 hours from London, it has never been easier to ‘pop into Paris.’ Short city breaks are a must when you work full time and it’s cheap and easy for us Brits to dash off for a spontaneous day in Rome or a boozy weekend in Amsterdam. Although you could visit these urban hotspots countless times, and still find something new to discover, it is possible to see the best bits in just a few hours. (And without using up any of your precious annual leave!) The City of Light is no exception, so if you are seriously short on time and just want to see the top spots in Paris, then read on for a guide on how to cram all the iconic sights into just one day!

Starting point: Belleville

The hardest part of amy city trip is deciding where to stay. Central Parisian hotels are extortionate so the cheapest option is to find an Air B&B slightly outside the centre and take the tube around the city. This can be daunting for first-timers, but ‘le metro’ is easy to navigate and you can buy a bundle of 10 one-way tickets for 15 euros from the machines inside the stations. We found a great Air B&B in Belleville, an arty eastern suburb, only a 10 minute metro ride from the centre of Paris. This was the perfect base, showing us a ‘real’ side to the city as well as the picture-perfect touristy spots. Not to mention it’s home to the best millefeuille in Paris. (Read about this underrated neighbourhood here.)

 

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Graffiti alleys in Belleville

Metro to Montmartre and the Sacré Coeur

From Belleville we take the metro to Anvers, where a short walk up a cobbled street leads to a grassy hill, at the top of which the impressive Sacré Coeur looks out over the city.

Take a moment to soak in the panoramic view of the capital and, if you’re a fan of French cinema, you can even reenact that scene from Amelie and follow your own trail of blue arrows. Most of the movie was filmed here in Montmartre and there are lots of spots to keep an eye out four, like the Deux Moulins cafe and the famous Maison Collignon Grocery store.

 

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The famous Maison Collignon in Amelie’s neighbourhood
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Take a stroll up to the Sacre Coeur

 

From the Sacré Coeur, follow the winding, cobblestone streets past the cheerful accordion players into the bustling heart of Montmartre, where the streets are lined with charming cafes, pricey boutiques and leafy squares. There are so many little side-roads to explore; great for avoiding the crowds although it’s easy to lose your bearings around here so be sure to have Google maps to hand. (Or one of those big,  fold-out maps if you’re feeling old school.)

 

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Pretty little boutiques dotted around Montmartre

 

Moulin Rouge to L’arc de triomphe

When you’ve finished exploring, head down to Blanche metro station where the historic Moulin Rouge makes for a great photo stop. From here, take the metro all the way to Charles de Gaulle Etoile, where you’ll emerge directly underneath the impressive Arc de Triomphe. Wait for an opportune gap in the heavy stream of traffic before jumping out into the road for a photo, and whatever you do, don’t try to cross the road to the arch! Take the underpass instead and you’ll avoid being écrasé.

 

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Opportune break in traffic at l’Arc de Triomphe

 

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Try your hand at can-can at the Moulin Rouge

 

Walk all the way from the Champs-Elysées to Notre Dame

From the Arc, you can walk all the way down the Champs-Elysées and do a spot of shopping in the designer boutiques. The only way to experience this famous stretch of road is on foot, so wander slowly down, stopping mid-way to take a break to people-watch with an overpriced beer at a café bar. If you fancy indulging, be sure to pop into Pierre Hermé where you can pick up some Occitaine skincare goodies and a box of pretty pastel macarons.

Continue walking until you reach the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries which will lead you to the unmistakable glass pyramids of The Louvre. You can head inside and wrestle your way through the tourists to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa, or skip the interior and spend a while admiring the impressive exterior architecture.

From the Louvre, it’s around a 20 minute walk along the river to Notre Dame, where you can pause for photos and then cocktails at one of the surrounding bars. Arrive at dusk to see the lights appear in the windows, slowly illuminating this this iconic medieval cathedral.

 

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Keeping an eye out for Quasimodo

 

Start the evening in beautiful, bohemian St Germain des Prés

If you’re not exhausted from all the walking, you can continue a little further along to the  fashionable neighbourhood of St Germain des Prés, which is filled with chic bars, gorgeous homeware stores and independent fashion boutiques. Don’t miss Les Deux Magots, old-time Hemingway haunt and possibly the most famous bar in the city. Treat yourself to a giant macaron from a nearby patisserie before stopping for a well earned drink on the terrace at the uber-instagrammable Maison Sauvage which is covered in cascading white flowers and foliage.

 

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Don’t leave Paris without trying at least one macaron!
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Check out Maison Sauvage’s Instagram page for swoon-worthy decor and mouthwatering foodie inspo!
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Write your next novel at famed literary spot, Les Deux Magots

 

Save the best til last…

Finally, to finish the day in style, head for dinner and drinks at Cafe de L’homme, which boasts arguably the best view in the entire city. What better way to end a day roaming Paris than drinking a glass of sparkling champagne in front of the equally sparkling Eiffel Tower? Santé!

 

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No better view to finish the day with

(P.S Getting engaged in Paris is not essential but certainly encouraged!)