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Back in January, I dragged my boyfriend Eamonn and a few friends over to a gay travel expo in London, hosted by Gay Star News Travel.

The expo was small (having worked in the travel industry for over seven years now, I’ve been to my share of travel expos and markets, so I know!) but, surprisingly, had a raffle with a grand prize that consisted of a trip to Vienna, to see the Eurovision song contest final!

For those who don’t know what Eurovision is – so basically everyone who isn’t from Europe or Australia (not sure why, but Eurovision is super big there too!) – it is a huge multi-national European singing contest, in which countries submit a singer with an original song, then award points to each other to pick a winner. The winning country usually hosts the following year’s Eurovision, and the show goes on.

Despite most people outside of Europe (and Australia) not knowing about this event, Eurovision has launched the careers of a couple famous people over the past few decades – most notably, Sweden’s ABBA, and believe it or not, Celine Dion, my fellow Canadian that for some reason sang for Switzerland, taking that year’s prize for the country.

Last year, a lovely bearded drag queen named Conchita Wurst from Austria, rose to the top of the competition with her song Rise Like a Phoenix, earning the country the chance to host the singing contest this year in its capital Vienna.

And so, as fate would have it, my boyfriend Eamonn participated on the “Pin the Beard on Conchita Wurst” game at the Gay Star Travel Expo (a funny version of the popular pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game), and his entry to the raffle won him the grand prize!

Eamonn Pinning the Winning Beard on Conchita Wurst!

Eamonn Pinning the Winning Beard on Conchita Wurst!

And so, this coming Friday we are off to Vienna, on the winning trip sponsored by the Vienna tourism board. Our trip includes return airfare on national flag carrier Austrian Airlines, three nights accommodation at the funky 25 Hours Hotel in Vienna’s museum ring, a city pass which offers us discounts to various attractions, and of course, tickets to see the Eurovision final!

I’m especially excited about this trip as it will be my first 2015 trip visiting a new city (and country!), after re-visiting Rome, Madrid, and Bangkok so far this year. It will also be Eamonn’s first time visiting the city, so we already have a list of things we want to do, and most importantly for our foodie selves, places where we want to eat!

So if you’re watching the Eurovision final this year, keep an eye out for me on the television… You never know, you might see me there!

Last weekend I got to re-visit Bangkok, the crazy capital of Thailand, with a small group of agents from my company. It was a whirlwind, unexpected trip that left us all with some amazing memories.

The trip lasted only 72 hours (plus 12 hours per direction on flights!), but it was packed with fun activities, lots of partying, and just the right amount of relaxing by the pool!

Selfie at the Grand Palace, May 2015

Selfie at the Grand Palace, May 2015

While I got to do many new activities – which I will write about eventually, as usual! – I also got to re-visit some beautiful spots in the city, including the stunning Grand Palace.

Have you ever been to Bangkok’s Grand Palace before?

After a few days in Ankara, Turkey’s grand capital, we headed over to the other-worldly Cappadocia region in the centre of the country. On our way there, to break down the drive, we stopped at LakeTuz, Turkey’s second-largest lake.

Entrance to Lake Tuz, Dried-Up in Summer

Entrance to Lake Tuz, Dried-Up in Summer

Lake Tuz is a massive but shallow salt-water lake for most of the year, but in the hot and dry Summer season (just before our visit), large areas of the lake dry up, leaving behind thick remains of salt, creating a salt pan… This was the first time ever in my travels visiting a salt flat! If you’ve never been to a salt pan, it is a weird experience like nothing else I have experienced. The vast, pure-white colour of the salty ground stretching as far as you can see, creates a weird notion of space that makes it hard to differentiate things that are close by or far away, therefore also distorting your notion of size.

Salt Pan of Lake Tuz

Salt Pan of Lake Tuz

We spent about one hour at Lake Tuz, walking around the salt pan itself (barefoot, allegedly to absorb the minerals through our soles, which I’m not so sure is actually a thing, but it was nice to be barefoot anyways!), and took some nice photos of the flat, as well as the first of our group’s many “jumping photos” though our trip (yes, we were those people).

Jumping at the Salt Pan of Lake Tuz

Jumping at the Salt Pan of Lake Tuz

Afterwards, we had a quick Turkish coffee at the café overlooking the vast whiteness of the salt pan, and shopped for a variety of salt / mineral SPA products that are sold at the shops by the entrance to Lake Tuz. If you’re traveling through Turkey, I recommend you stop at LakeTuz… not only does it make a nice break on the road to Cappadocia, it also is a great place full of photo-ops and a chance to get some unique souvenirs or gifts.

Me at the Salt Pan of Lake Tuz, Turkey

Me at the Salt Pan of Lake Tuz, Turkey

Lake Tuz seems to be quite a natural stop for travellers doing the same route we did, but due to its size, it’s still quite easy to get away from the crowds and experience the flat pans in peace.

Ankara seen from Anitkabir

Ankara seen from Anitkabir Monument

After a wonderful first few days in Istanbul in September 2013, Ryan and I, along with the small group of people we were traveling with, headed over to Ankara, Turkey’s capital. Yes, despite many people’s misconception, Istanbul is not the capital of the country… rather, the much smaller, less talked about, but still impressive city of Ankara, is.

Me on the Road of Lions at Anitkabir

Me on the Road of Lions at Anitkabir Monument

“The heart of Turkey,” as it is sometimes lovingly referred to, is the official centre of the government for the country, and although the city is not as vibrant and seeping with history as Istanbul, Ankara is still a city full of monuments and museums that are well worth visiting.

Soldiers Marching Down Road of Lions at Anitkabir

Soldiers Marching Down Road of Lions at Anitkabir

An unexpected aspect about the city as a whole is that, despite begin a large city (with over 5 million inhabitants), Ankara is a surprisingly clean place. The streets and public areas are free of litter, and there seems to be a high number of parks and green spaces within the city itself… so much so, that at times I felt as if I was in a smaller, less urbanized town.

We had a very short stay in Ankara, but from what I could see, the city is very modern and Westernized. In many occasions I could have sworn I was in the Netherlands (in fact, Ankara reminded me of my very VERY short drive through The Hague).

Ankara has a variety of trendy, modern and busy restaurants, and from a walk we took after dinner, we also found a very lively nightlife scene… however, we were a little disappointed that a modern(ish) city of 5 million people did not have a single LGBT venue!

Guard Outside the Hall of Honour

Guard Outside the Hall of Honour

Anitkabir
During our stay in Ankara, we visited the stunning Anitkabir Monument, dedicated to Turkey’s hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who led the country to Independence, becoming the republic’s first president, and plunging Turkey into the modern country it is today. Atatürk’s influence over Turkey is visible in pretty much every city in the country, but is nowhere as pronounced as it is at the Anitkabir Monument.

Anitkabir is a visually impressive, symmetrical monument built in the 1940s and 50s from a variety of cut-stones. The monument includes a number of buildings which house Atatürk’s mausoleum and a museum about his life’s accomplishments. The buildings, all uniformly mirroring each other, surround a large open plaza, and are in turn surrounded by beautiful landscaped gardens.

The monument is further decorated with marble statues depicting lions and multiple human figures, giving Anitkabir a sense of grandeur, without the monument feeling pretentious.

Ankara Kalesi
One of my favourite things about any city, real or imaginary, are castles, so I was ecstatic to learn that Ankara has a castle, and that we had just enough time to go check it out before heading out of the city!

With Old and New Friends, Overlooking an Ankara Castle Tower

With Old and New Friends, Overlooking an Ankara Castle Tower

We drove up to the base of Ankara Kalesi, a medieval castle on top of a hill in the centre of old Ankara, and climbed up to the very top. Discovering the different areas of the crumbling castle as we climbed up the stone steps was quite fun, but most impressive were the views of the entire city surrounding the castle, up from the top.

***

Despite only being in Ankara long enough to visit Anitkabir and the Ankara Castle, I still think a visit to the Turkish capital is worth it if you are planning on doing a trip around Turkey in-depth. There are numerous other museums that I hear are worth visiting, but if nothing else, a visit to these two attractions is well worth an overnight stay!

Ankara seen from Ankara Castle

Ankara seen from Ankara Castle

Have you visited Ankara? What were your thoughts on this capital?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s most important attractions. The structure itself is an architectural wonder, the art inside it is priceless, and the history of the Hagia Sophia is an important heritage to the world altogether.

Outside of the Tombs of Hagia Sophia

Outside of the Tombs of Hagia Sophia

However, more than the Hagia Sophia itself, there are other areas included within the Hagia Sophia Museum, that I didn’t write about… so here you go, a post dedicated specifically to the lesser-known, but just as important, Sultan Tombs.

During my visit to Turkey in September 2013, I went to check out the Sultan Tombs with my friend Ryan. The Tombs are a series of beautifully decorated mausoleums, each which contains a number of sarcophaguses that happen to be the final resting place of various sultans and their families.

Each mausoleum is intricately decorated in its own individual manner, with different colour schemes and designs on its tiles and carved doors, and are hence worth visiting individually. The older mausoleums date all the way back to the 16th Century, so the historical significance is no less important than that of other buildings in Old Istanbul.

Inside One of the Tombs

Inside One of the Tombs

A single entry ticket will allow visitors access to all the tombs, and the Istanbul Museum pass includes the entry to this area of the Hagia Sophia Museum as well. Keep in mind each individual mausoleum is considered a sacred structure, so make sure to respect the traditions and rules of Muslim places of worship, including the use of acceptable clothing and removal of shoes before entering!

Have you been to the Hagia Sophia Museum Tombs?

Had a fantastic weekend away re-exploring Madrid, the grand capital of Spain, with my boyfriend Eamonn.

Eamonn & Me at the Rooftop of Circulo de Bellas Artes in madrid, Spain - April 2015

Eamonn & Me at the Rooftop of Circulo de Bellas Artes in Madrid, Spain – April 2015

I visited Madrid for the first time eight years ago in 2007, on my first trip to Europe, and it was great coming back to an old favourite!

Happy Earth Day – 22 April 2015!

I took this photo of a mural of Earth in downtown Belfast, Northern Ireland, during my visit with my boyfriend Eamonn in December 2014.

Colourful Mural of the Earth in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Colourful Mural of the Earth in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Belfast is a wonderful little city, and one of my favourite things about it was the amount of murals everywhere!

During my visit to Istanbul, Turkey, in September 2013, I got to admire first-hand the magnificent Blue Mosque, one of the world’s most recognized buildings, and arguably, one of its most beautiful.

Path Leading to the Blue Mosque

Path Leading to the Blue Mosque

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, as it is officially named, has dominated the skyline of the Old City in Istanbul for over 400 years, and continues to be a working mosque; as such, you are likely to overhear the overpowering call to prayer, which plays out of the Blue Mosque’s six towering minarets, five times each day.

Main Chamber Inside the Blue Mosque

Main Chamber Inside the Blue Mosque

Although the outside of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque has a slightly blue tint, the Blue Mosque actually received its famous nickname due to the blue tinge (which is also a bit pink) of over 20,000 handmade Iznik ceramic tiles which adorn its interior.

Detail of Iznik Ceramic Tiles Inside of the Dome of the Blue Mosque

Detail of Iznik Ceramic Tiles Inside of the Dome of the Blue Mosque

A visit to the Mosque is free, but make sure to dress appropriately as you will be denied entry otherwise – or be offered the chance to wear a wrap-around skirt to cover your “indecent” attire… like I did!

The Blue Mosque & Fountain at Night

The Blue Mosque & Fountain at Night

During my visit to Istanbul I went to check out the Blue Mosque twice. The queue to enter can be long, but the mosque is well worth the wait. And for those that don’t believe me, here is the Blue Mosque dress code guidelines sign, and the result of wearing shorts deemed “too short!”:

If you want to read more posts about Istanbul, click here!

Cologne Cathedral & Statue

Cologne Cathedral & Statue

Hope everyone had a fun and relaxing Easter weekend. To mark this day, I thought I’d share some photos of the beautiful Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, from my trip to this city in May 2014.

The Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom, if you’re feeling German), is a stunning Gothic-styled Catholic landmark, which towers high above the city of Cologne – 144.5 metres, to be exact. The Cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark, attracting over 20,000 visitors every day, and has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

During my visit to Cologne, I took the opportunity to climb up one of the bell towers, 509 steps up to a viewing platform. After the climb, I was rewarded with beautiful views of the Rhine River and the city, and I also got a better, close-up view of the intricate decorations of the Cathedral’s many spires!

Entry to the Cathedral itself is free of charge, but a ticket must be purchased to climb up to the viewing platform.

The Cologne Cathedral houses a number of beautiful works of art, including five massive, stained glass windows depicting popular scenes from the Bible, including one of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in a distinctly German 19th Century style. Also housed inside the Cologne Cathedral, the Shrine of the Three Kings is triple sarcophagus gilded in gold, which is said to contain the remains of the Three Wise Men.

Stained Glass Window Depicting Crucifixion in Cologne Cathedral

Stained Glass Window Depicting Crucifixion

Happy Easter!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day 2015!!

Yes, this post is a few days old, but it was worth being a little late so that I could make my way to Northern Ireland, and take a photo of Saint Patrick’s grave… and I’m not even kidding!

This past weekend I went over to Northern Ireland to visit my boyfriend Eamonn’s family (for his niece’s baptism). His family lives close to Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland.

It just happens to be, that Downpatrick is home to the Down Cathedral, which is home to the recognized historic burial-place of Saint Patrick himself, so it was only natural that, on our way back to the airport in Belfast, we had a quick stopover to check it out!

So yes, I spent St. Patrick’s Day last Tuesday drinking Guinness with a group of Irish people at a pub in London like everyone else… but can you beat meeting St. Patrick himself (or seeing his grave, anyways)? I think not.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

One of Turkey’s most iconic buildings is Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish), a  one-time Greek Orthodox church turned into a Mosque and eventually converted into a museum over its 1500-year history.

The Hagia Sophia was an architectural masterpiece in the time it was built (532AD) and to this day it’s still an impressive two-storey domed structure that has survived the test of time against wars, loots, and a number of natural disasters.

While the outside structure itself is not nearly as breath-taking as that of the nearby Blue Mosque, the inside of the Hagia Sophia is incredibly beautiful. The building maintains aspects of both the Christian and Islamic religions in a unison that is not seen anywhere else.

One of the greatest assets of the Hagia Sophia is its collection of mosaic murals, dating back to its many centuries as a church. While the mosaics were covered with white plaster after the building was taken over and converted into a mosque, extensive restoration work has seen many of the mosaics restored.

I visited the Hagia Sophia twice during my time in Istanbul and was able to appreciate the graciousness and history of this great building both as much on my second visit as I did the first time! If you visit, make sure to also check out the Sultan Tombs at the next-door Hagia Sophia Museum.

To read more posts about Istanbul, click here.

I had dreamed about visiting Turkey for a long time, and took the opportunity to do so on my way to my new life in London. After ten days exploring the Netherlands and Belgium, I flew to Istanbul to start a three-week trip around the country. My friend Ryan flew from Canada to meet up with me as we went on to explore Turkey over the next three weeks, a trip I will never forget!

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

As a first point of arrival, Istanbul immediately changed my perception of what I should expect from the country as a whole; it was not better nor worse, it was simply different from what I had imagined. Istanbul is a lot more modern and westernized than I had expected.

I spent a couple of days in Istanbul at the beginning of my three-week Turkey trip, and a few more days at the end of it. I was also lucky (well, I planned it) to spend my 30th birthday in Istanbul, so it is a city that will always have a special place in my heart.

Istanbul is a city full of contrasts, seeping with history at its core. From the traditional bazaars, hamams and impressive Mosques of the old city, to the incredibly westernized shopping arcades and trendy bars of Beyoğlu district, to  the somehow different Asian-continent side of the city, Istanbul offers a little bit of everything for everyone.

The Old City
Istanbul’s old city is a great base to explore the city. During my stay (both at the beginning and at the end of my trip) I stayed in this area, as it is within a quick walk from the city’s top attractions, as well as a multitude of restaurants, most of which have outdoor sitting areas, perfect for enjoying the city in good weather.

The old city is fairly modern, but still retains an aura of history and mythicism that took me back to another era. This area is home to incredible historical landmarks, buzzing bazaars, and remnants of history sprinkled throughout the area, as a reminder that Istanbul (as Constantinople) was for many centuries one of the world’s most important cities.

At the heart of the old city, stand two of the world’s most recognized landmarks, the beautiful Hagia Sophia and the stunning Blue Mosque, standing across from each other, separated by the landscaped gardens and fountains of a park.

Me, by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

Me, by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

•Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia has an extensive history that has seen it transformed from a Greek Orthodox Church, to a Mosque and now into a museum, over the more than 1500 years of its existence.

The building itself is impressive, a true architectural masterpiece, especially given the era when it was originally built (532 AD). Remnants from the different eras of The Hagia Sophia’s history are visible, including beautiful mosaic murals depicting the Virgin Mary, Jesus and various Saints, dating back to the building’s beginning as a church, as well as impressive chandeliers and medallions inscribed with Islamic relics, dating back to its centuries as a mosque.

As a museum, the Hagia Sophia gives visitors a chance to explore and understand facets of both the Christian and Islamic religions, as well as admire valuable art pieces stemming from both religions. The different components of both a traditional (massive) church and a traditional Mosque coexist together in a way that is unseen anywhere else.

I had the opportunity to visit the Hagia Sophia twice during my trip, and was able to appreciate the beauty of it both times. I also visited the next-door Sultan Tombs at the Hagia Sophia, which are quite beautiful as well. Entrance to the building and museum is quite affordable and worth every penny, and the 72 hour Museum Pass includes one entry.

Interior of the Blue Mosque

Interior of the Blue Mosque

•The Blue Mosque
Across a pretty park from the Hagia Sophia, stands the stunning Sultan Ahmed Mosque, a still-functioning mosque known world-wide by its nickname, the Blue Mosque.

An impressive structure dating back to the early 1600s, the Blue Mosque can be seen from many parts of the old city as well as from the water and across on the modern part of the European side of Istanbul. The multi-level mosque, topped with multiple blue domes and surrounded by six towering minarets, is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen.

As beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, the Blue Mosque receives its famous nickname due to the blue tint of over 20,000 hand-made tiles which adorn the interior of the mosque. Multiple forged iron chandeliers hang from the ceiling, providing extra light to the already naturally-lit interior, from the Mosque’s multiple exquisitely decorated stained-glass windows.

Being a working Mosque, the Blue Mosque diligently plays recordings of the call to prayer five times a day from speakers attached to all six minarets. The Blue Mosque’s call to prayer can be heard all throughout the old city, echoed in the distance by the call to prayer of other mosques further away.

Access to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is free of charge, but visitors must follow Islamic traditions when entering, including taking off your shoes at the entrance, and making sure that you are wearing appropriate attire (no sleeveless tops for men or women, and no shorts / skirts that go above the knee). If you happen to be wearing “indecent” attire, you will be provided with a throw to put over your shoulders or tie around your waist as a skirt. I had to wear one as my shorts were about 1cm above my knee and it was slightly embarrassing, so make sure to go prepared!

Topkapi Palace Gate

Topkapi Palace Gate

•Topkapi Palace
This traditional Ottoman Palace stands in the heart of the old city, surrounded by Sutanahmet Park, a quick walk from the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.

Topkapi Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for multiple centuries starting in the 1400s, and is now an important museum in the city, not only due to the historical significance of the building itself, but also for the collection of important holy relics of Islam housed within it.

The main entrance to Topkapi Palace, which can be viewed from the public gardens outside, is a good indication of what can be admired inside; it is a beautiful marble imperial gate, decorated with gilded Ottoman calligraphy depicting verses of the Qu’ran.

Once inside, the palace complex consists of four large courtyards surrounded by multiple small buildings. Many of the building complexes overlook the sea or Sutanahmet Park from up above the hill. The courtyards include beautiful landscaped gardens and have small one-room structures scattered around them. Big, elaborate stone gates, all of them different from each other and beautiful on their own, separate each one of the four courtyards.

Some of the buildings within the Palace house important relics relating to the Muslim world, including art, a large porcelain collection, weaponry, coins, religious artifacts, and a jewelry room. Other buildings are simply to be admired based on the beauty of their decor, whether it is intricate tile work, murals, or beautifully carved wooden doors.

The Harem at Topkapi Palace

The Harem at Topkapi Palace

The Topkapi Palace complex also contains a Harem area: the place where the sultan’s parents, his wife and children, and his many concubines, used to reside.

The Harem complex contains a number of intricately decorated bedrooms and bath chambers, many containing original furnishings and beautiful (amazingly preserved) decorative tiles from the Ottoman Empire era. The Harem also has a number of courtyards and gardens, each with its own individual appeal.

The main Topkapi Palace complex entry does not include access to the Harem (there is a minimal additional fee to see it, and you must purchase the main ticket to the Palace itself to access the Harem); however, the 72 hour Museum Pass includes the entry to both the Topkapi Palace complex and the Imperial Harem area.

•Istanbul Archaeology Museums
The Istanbul Archaeology Museums are located next to Topkapi Palace. The complex, all of which is under a single entry fee (and is, again, covered by the 72 Hour Museum Pass), consists of three museums, with the larger Archaeological museum containing most of the relics, and two smaller niche museums (Museums of the Ancient Orient and Museum of Islamic Art).

My favourite part of the Archaeology Museums was in the lower level of the main museum, a large collection of Turkish and Hellenistic stone sarcophaguses, all decorated with detailed carvings depicting stories related to the person buried in them. The most famous of all is the Alexander Sarcophagus, thought to be the final resting place of Alexander the Great!

The museum also houses a large collection of Turkish, Hellenistic and Roman artifacts, including many statues of gods, people and animals; a big collection of coins; and stone tablets.

My Friend Ryan at the Spice Market

My Friend Ryan at the Spice Market

•Spice Bazaar
At the advise of our guide, we skipped a visit to the more famous (and from what I hear extremely overrated) Grand Bazaar, and went to the more manageable, smaller Spice Bazaar.

The Spice Bazaar (sometimes referred to by the translation of its Turkish name, Egyptian Bazaar), is the city’s second largest covered shopping complex, with 85 businesses selling spices, sweets (including turkish delight and baklava), dried fruits and nuts, teas, and an array of souvenirs including knock-off watches, Turkey t-shirts, jewelry, belly dancer outfits, and traditional Turkish lamps.

Shopping at the Spice Bazaar still feels uniquely traditional, with hospitable store owners trying to get your attention with friendly chat, or by offering tastings of their goods (hello turkish delight paradise). The Bazaars halls are packed with shoppers (both locals and tourists) and a visit, even without shopping, is quite cool!

And then there is the shopping. My friend Ryan, who I traveled with, bought a beautiful set of turkish hanging lights from one of the stalls. While simply looking around, the owner invited us to have tea, and showed us an array of lamps until Ryan found the one. The purchase wasn’t over right then though, as negotiations at the Spice Bazaar (especially for high ticket items like that) are not over until a friendly game of haggling takes place.

The Spice Bazaar is walking distance from the main area of the old city, or can be reached on a quick tram ride. The area surrounding the bazaar is covered with more market stalls which sell everything from electronics to fresh food, and contains many market eateries and cafés, which are quite nice as well!

The New Mosque

The New Mosque

•New Mosque
Next door to the Spice Bazaar is the New Mosque, a smaller mosque in the old city (compared to the Blue Mosque). While it lacks the fame of the Blue Mosque, the New Mosque is incredibly beautiful in its own right, and well worth a visit.

The outside of the New Mosque is architecturally wonderful, with no less than 66 domes and semi domes stacked on top of each other in a pyramidal shape. The New Mosque has only two minarets, but, with a location close to the water, it still makes for an impressive landmark in the cityscape.

The inside of the Mosque looks surprisingly similar to the Blue Mosque, but in a  smaller scale. This is also a working Mosque, so make sure to practice the same respect to the religion, including the no-shoes and proper clothing policies!

•Basilica Cistern
One of the coolest hidden secrets in Istanbul is a visit to the Basilica Cistern in the old city. A quick walk away from the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque, this cistern, dating back to the 6th Century, is a captivating marvel of architecture.

The Basilica Cistern is an underground chamber with an area of nearly 10,000 square metres and the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water, although it is mostly empty now.

The ceiling of the cistern is supported by 336  9-metre high marble columns, which are methodically arranged in 12 rows with 28 columns each, all spaced 5 metres apart from each other. Most of the columns are typical design, with the exception of three which stand out. The first, often referred to as the Tear Column, has engravings of a peacock’s eye and tears. Two other ones have large Medusa heads as a base; one of the heads is placed upside down, while the second one is placed sideways.

A wooden walkway raised slightly above the water allow visitors to walk around the cisterns and admire the columns from different angles, as well as get close to the medusa column bases and the tear column.

Entrance to the Basilica Cisterns is 10 Turkish Lira, and is not included in the Museum Pass.

Çemberlitaş Hamam

Çemberlitaş Hamam

Çemberlitaş Hamam
One of the coolest experiences in Turkey, is a visit to a traditional Turkish bathhouse (or hamam), and Istanbul is the perfect place to do it.

Why? Because the hamams in Istanbul are multiple centuries old, and there is nothing like having your body scrubbed clean by a stranger in a 450+ year-old building!

The Çemberlitaş Hamam (established all the way back in 1584!) is incredible. I visited at the end of my three weeks in Turkey, on my very last day before flying out, as a goodbye to the country and a cleansing experience after almost five weeks of traveling and carrying my heavy backpack around.

Ready to be Scrubbed Clean at the Hamam

Ready to be Scrubbed Clean at the Hamam

I had done a previous visit to a hamam in Cappadocia, and although that experience was relaxing enough, it did not compare to the one at Çemberlitaş. The setting here was more inspiring: a large domed bathhouse seeping with history, and the man who scrubbed / washed / massaged me seemed much more experienced.

The cost for the experience isn’t cheap, but it is well worth it, and I definitely recommend anyone to visit a hamam when visiting Istanbul. I am not sure about any others as this was the only one I visited in the city, but I can attest to how good Çemberlitaş is, and guarantee it is worth the cost!

Çemberlitaş Hamam also provides visitors with individual private rooms (to store your clothes during the bathing experience and relax afterwards if necessary), as well as a nice rooftop patio where you can refresh with a fresh orange or pomegranate juice from their juice bar. The Hamam is easily found, being a mere 1-minute walk from Çemberlitaş tram stop right in the old city.

Beyoğlu District
Crossing the Galata Bridge from the old city is Beyoğlu District, on the modern part of the European side of Istanbul. Beyoğlu is an area full of outdoor shopping arcades, art galleries, trendy restaurants, cafés and bars. This is Istanbul’s main entertainment district, with multiple restaurants and bars overlooking crowded shopping streets from higher-up balconies, and is also home to the city’s thriving gay scene.

Beyoğlu District, the

Beyoğlu District, the “Modern” Part of the European Side of Istanbul

The Galata Bridge is an attraction in itself: a combined pedestrian, tram and traffic bridge crossing the Bosphorus Strait which separates the old city from Beyoğlu, the bridge also houses a multitude of waterfront restaurants, cafés and bars under the road itself.

Once on the other side, the 1.4 kilometre-long pedestrian-only İstiklal Caddesi (Grand Avenue) and its surrounding streets and alleys offer visitors an array of outdoor shopping and entertainment options that is not found anywhere else in the city. The area is popular with locals and tourists alike, bringing up to three million visitors on a single day! The street culminates at the popular Taksim Square.

İstiklal Caddesi is completely different from the old city part of Istanbul, in that it is much more European in style. The buildings along the street follow a Neo-Classical and Neo-Gothic 19th Century style, with a few examples of cool Art Deco structures. Every so often, historic red trams will cruise down the Avenue – the only vehicle allowed on this otherwise pedestrian-only street.

Beyoğlu District is also home to many of the city’s grand consulates, all housed in majestic European-style buildings, as well as for the famous Genoese Galata Tower, which stands out on the cityscape above the rest of the city.

The district can be reached within minutes from the old town by tram, although it is not too far to walk across the bridge if you prefer.

Cruising from Europe to Asia

Cruising from Europe to Asia

Asia side
One of the most unique aspects about Istanbul, is that it is the only city built on two separate continents: Europe and Asia.

Towards the end of my stay in Istanbul, I took a ferry to go explore the Asian side of the city for half a day, simply because I wanted to check it out.

The Asian side of Istanbul feels somehow different, like being in a completely different city altogether. On the Asian side, transit is much harder to figure out, tourists are virtually non-existent, and English is definitely much harder to find.

The Funky Asian Side of Istanbul

The Funky Asian Side of Istanbul

Unlike the European sides of Istanbul (both the modern and the old part of the city), the Asian side doesn’t have any real attractions to go to, and the highlight was the ferry back and forth, which did allow me to see beautiful views of the city, and appreciate the massive size of Istanbul.

If you do make the trip over to the Asian side (whether it is to get the views from the ferry, or simply because you want to be in two continents within half an hour!), you will find some great little authentic food markets (remember they’re not aimed at tourists like the ones on the European side), as well as a bunch of small cafés and boutique stores.

*****

Istanbul has a lot to offer, and even though I was in the city for a total of six days, I feel like I could have spent longer, and I would be very happy to return. From the contrasts between ancient and modern, to the breath-taking architecture and natural scenery of the city, to the delicious restaurants and trendy bars we visited, Istanbul honestly offers something for everyone.

This past Sunday, Eamonn and I went to London’s Chinatown for the Chinese New Years celebrations. The streets were packed, despite the impending rain (which thankfully mostly held back until we were leaving!).

London allegedly hosts the biggest Chinese New Year celebration outside of Asia, and judging from the crowds, I very well believe it! The streets were lively with locals and visitors alike, all enjoying the Lion dances and decorations… Chinatown continues to be decorated with more paper lanterns than usual thought the days-long celebration.

Happy year of the Sheep / Goat everyone!

Last week I wrote about the All the Beers I Drank in Belgium. Yes, Belgian beers are an important part of the country’s culture (at least in my eyes); but how about the rest of the cuisine in Belgium?

Belgium is a tiny Western European country that doesn’t always make it into people’s general travel itineraries when visiting Europe, but in many ways, travellers to Europe who miss Belgium, are missing out on a lot. And cuisine, with my big love for anything edible, is a big part of this!

Despite Belgium being such a small country, Belgian cuisine is incredibly varied. Before my visit in August 2013, all I could have ever attributed to Belgium is beer, chocolate, and waffles… but there are many more dishes to try, so make sure you make your way to Belgium and stuff your face with all the delicious meals!

Chocolaterie in Antwerp

Chocolaterie in Antwerp

Chocolate
Belgium is known worldwide for the quality of its chocolates. What sets Belgian chocolates apart from any others, is that they use the oil from the cacao itself to create their chocolate bars, as opposed to using external fats, as many countries do. What this does, is create a chocolate that is stronger and creamier in flavour, as it is not diluted by an animal or vegetal lard which will reduce the cacao flavour.

But Belgians don’t stop at just eating chocolate as bars. There are products like the Kwatta chocolate spread, a spread similar to Nutella, but is pure chocolate (no Hazelnuts) and comes in either milk or dark chocolate versions. Belgians often eat this spread for breakfast, as well as simple chocolate sprikles over buttered bread, and chocolate milk… this might not be the healthiest way to start the day, but it sure is delicious!

Belgian Breakfast
Traditional Belgian breakfasts are very continental European: a collection of breads (often fancy), cheeses (often stinky), and meats (often pork, although at times horse). On the weekend I spent in Belgium, my friend Timothy set up a nice array of foods for a proper Belgian breakfast, including fresh breads (mostly fancy), meat cuts (including smoked horse), cheeses (some stinky), and assorted spreads like fruit preserves and Kwatta chocolate spread.

Queen of Waffles, Antwerp

Queen of Waffles, Antwerp

Waffles
Another big internationally known staple for Belgian cuisine are waffles, and interestingly enough, waffles are not a breakfast meal (as they are often seen in other countries) but an any-time-of-day snack.

During my visit to Antwerp in August 2013, my friend Timothy took me to the Queen of Waffles, a local LGBT-friendly waffle café that serves a wide variety of waffle styles, topped with a range of yummies. Timothy went for the basic Kwatta chocolate spread while I tried something different: a creamy spread made from the Belgian Speculoos biscuits, which are similar to gingersnaps.

The Queen of Waffles is located in the centre of Antwerp just off of the Grote Markt.

Frites
Frites (or fries, for us non-Belgians – “chips” in the UK) are super common in Belgium; in fact, it is believed that the dish originated there (not in France, as the North American full name “french fries” alludes).

The thick-cut fries are often served accompanying other dishes (even food that in other countries is considered to be higher-class, such as mussels or rabbit!), but can also be bought on their own as a snack. If you go to a frites take-out stand, the frites will usually be served along with a delicious thick mayonnaise to dip them in: the Belgian way.

Moules (Frites not pictured!)

Moules (Frites not pictured!)

Mussels
A nice pot of mussels is a typical Belgian dish, and in fact Moules-frites (mussels & fries) is the official National dish of Belgium.

During my visit to Belgium, Timothy and I went to a restaurant where I got a delicious serving of moules-frites cooked in a white-wine sauce.

There are many variations on mussel recipes, from cream-based to tomato-based to broth-based (usually with either red or white wine in any of them), but you’ll be sure to find mussels in many establishments in Belgium, especially those serving traditional food.

Gentse Waterzooi
My friend and host Timothy was kind enough to cook for me on many occasions during my stay in Belgium. The first time he cooked, he made a traditional Gentse Waterzooi, which is basically a tasty chicken broth, full of hearty chopped vegetables, chicken breasts, and meatballs (variations on the contents can be made, but this is the one he made).

The waterzooi is served as a soup with a big dollop of sour cream on top, similar to a Russian borscht, although some recipes seem to include the cream during the cooking process.

Lapin Aux Pruneaux in Brussels

Lapin Aux Pruneaux in Brussels

Lapin Aux Pruneaux
On our day trip to Brussels, we went to a nice restaurant and I tried the French-cuisine Lapin Aux Pruneaux (Rabbit and Prunes) dish: a juicy chunk of rabbit with prunes, smothered in a beautiful thick beer and prune sauce. The dish is traditional to the French half of Brussels.

Meatloaf with Sour Cherries (& Mash)

Meatloaf with Sour Cherries (& Mash)

Meatloaf with Sour Cherries
Again at his home, Timothy cooked for me another traditional Belgian dish: a nice hearty meatloaf served with cooked red sour cherries.

This is a beautiful dish, combining the heartiness of meatloaf and the boldness of tart black cherries, and is often served along with either mashed potatoes or frites.

Dame Blanche
A delicious, although incredibly basic desert, the Dame Blanche (White Lady, in English) is vanilla ice cream covered with thick melted chocolate. Nothing out of this world, but a nice Belgian dessert to finish off a meal.

Belgian Beers
Belgium has over 180 breweries and an it is estimated they have over 800 unique beers, so beer definitely forms part of the country’s cuisine. During my five-day visit I got to try 20 different beers, and I can attest, Belgian beer is good!

***

Based on the small size of Belgium, I was surprised at the range in its cuisine, and seriously recommend everyone take a trip to this country and check out the incredible fusion and variety in flavours.

Have you ever been to Belgium? What is your favourite dish?!

During my visit to Belgium in August 2013, one of my favourite activities was getting to taste as many Belgian beers as I could.

Why? Everyone who knows me well knows that I am a bit of a beer aficionado. Funny, for someone who, until the age of 21, could not drink beer, as I hated the taste (Thank you university, for changing that)!

Belgium produces an incredible range of unique beers. The small country has over 180 breweries and arguably has over 800 different beers. The beers range everywhere from a normal 4% alcohol proof, to a very high 14% or so.

Also, Belgians take their beer seriously. Everything from the way they pour it (the large amount of head is not the bartender ripping you off… that is the correct way to serve a beer to protect it from getting oxidized by oxygen!) to the glass it is poured in (every Belgian beer has its own unique glass, and it is so improper to serve a beer in the wrong glass, that most bartenders will refuse to serve it until the correct glass becomes available).

Through my five days in Belgium I tried to taste as many uniquely different beers as I could, although sometimes it was not possible due to the places I visited not having as wide a range. In my visit, I drank 20 different kind of beers (that is four per day, so not utterly a failure!). And yes, of course I photographed them.

So here it is, all the beers I drank in Belgium!

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

Belgian Beers

What is your favourite Belgian Beer?

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