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One of our many awesome jumping shots we did in Turkey, on the site of one of the Roman baths in the ancient city of Hierapolis.
I know I know, how unoriginal, but we had a good laugh doing them in different spots around the country!
After our relaxing time along Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, it was time to return to the interior to check out Hierapolis-Pamukkale, one of the country’s most incredible sites. Hierapolis-Pamukkale is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made up of two components: the ancient city ruins of Hierapolis, and the natural white terraces of Pamukkale.
Ruins of Hierapolis
The ancient city of Hierapolis was originally constructed as a healing Spa in the 2nd Century BC, taking advantage of the area’s naturally occurring geothermal hot springs. Having switched hands from the Greeks to the Roman Empire to the Seljuks, and survived through various devastating earthquakes over many centuries, the city has a mix of architectural styles from all periods.
Hierapolis is home to Turkeys best-preserved necropolis, which is home to over 1200 tombs spanning a variety of empires and periods. There are also many well-preserved bathing rooms, and a couple of triumphal arches.
The ancient city sits atop the white cliffs of Pammukale, so the visit to the site continues on to the top of the cliffs, which can then be climbed down to the bottom, and both sites are included in the same ticket.
White Terraces of Pamukkale
The name Pamukkale, which literally means Cotton Castle in Turkish, was adapted to the area only in the 20th Century, when the white terraces and hot springs became a famous tourist attraction. The name seems silly, but the cliffs really do look like a castle made of cotton!
The terraces have been created naturally over the centuries by mineral deposits from the hot springs which have made the area important for so many centuries. The ground inside the hot, milky water of the hot springs is a white, rough clay, the same material that over time has been solidifying to create the iconic terraces.
Coming from Hierapolis above, we walked down the white terraces toward the modern town of Pamukkale, with the warm flowing water of the hot springs (only trickling around the springs themselves about 2 inches deep in most places) guiding us along, just as the sun began to set. Even though the sunset made the cliffs glow golden instead of white, the sights of this natural wonder was outstanding.
Together, Hierapolis-Pamukkale are a must-visit attraction, but even on their own, each site would be worth a visit, as each one is impressive by itself. Hierapolis-Pamukkale is one of those unique sites that will impress for both their cultural background and the wondrous natural setting in which they are located.
During my two years living in London, I came to fall in love with the city’s amazing markets, so much so, that they are one of the things I miss the most about living in London. Going to markets is a great way to spend a weekend morning, and worth skipping brunch to eat in a unique environment. Without further ado, here is a list of eight of my favourite markets in London.
1. Maltby Street Market
Maltby Street Market was a late discovery for me, as I only got to go for the first time a mere six months before I left London; yet, it somehow became my favourite market in town. As it is a bit off the beaten track, Maltby Street is bigger with Londoners than with tourists. The food options are great, with many of the stalls rotating often, which keeps the market interesting to visit again and again, while some restaurants have been established there permanently. The waffles stand is my favourite, so check it out if it’s there during your visit; if not, St. JOHN Bakery sells the most amazing doughnuts. Little Bird Gin also offers delicious cocktails, including the best bloody mary I’ve ever tasted, and has a seating area to eat all your market goodies!
Find Maltby Street Market at 41 Maltby Street, London SE1 3PA
2. Camden Markets
Up in north London, the Camden Markets are the complete opposite: packed with tourists, and you’ll be lucky to find any Londoners on site; however, I loved them from my first visit and returned again and again during my time in London. The Camden Markets are actually a bunch of different markets which merge into each other. Two large markets sell food (one has international cuisine stalls and the other more generic, greasy options), and the rest sell funky boutique clothing and all sorts of knickknacks. The Camden Lock side is the best, with great food stalls (try out shrimp & bacon burgers from Shrimpy), the Lock 17 pub overlooking the canals, and the local gem Cookies & Scream which sells the best vegan, dairy free, chocolate chill shake in the world (according to me).
Find the Camden Markets at Camden Lock Place, London NW1 8AF
3. Brixton Market & Pop Brixton
A visit to the market in Brixton in South London feels like taking a trip to another land, with a large concentration of Caribbean and Latin stalls selling a bunch of produce and packaged food items that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before. Brixton is more of a traditional market rather than a ready-to-eat foods one, selling produce and meats as well as really cheap clothing. The main street market is surrounded by covered arcades which are now full of trendy restaurants and bars. Just around the corner, the newly opened Pop Brixton uses a bunch of repurposed shipping containers to house food stalls, full-on mini restaurants (check out Donostia Social Club for great tapas!), and even pubs, as well as small clothing boutiques.
Find Brixton Market & Pop Brixton at Electric Avenue, London SW9 8JX
4. Southbank Centre Market
Located in Southbank (aka my favourite area in London) just outside Southbank Centre, this new market is open Friday through Sundays only, and concentrates on ready-to-eat food (and ready-to-drink booze) stalls only. The Southbank Centre Market is quite small and is packed with stalls, which means there is not a lot of space to sit down to eat, but with the riverfront walkway just around the corner, that’s a minor inconvenience that’s easy to overcome! A good spot to eat your grub is the staircase towards the east end, which comes with an included view of the market below and iconic London Eye in the distance.
Find Southbank Centre Market at Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX
5. Brick Lane Market
Brick Lane Market is another popular tourist spot, and it operates only on Sundays, which makes it incredibly busy… but don’t let this stop you from going, as it actually is great fun! The market is centred along Brick Lane, a street known for its high volume of Bangladeshi curry houses, and has a mix of street-stalls and established businesses selling anything from antiques, to clothing, to books. As a foodie, my favourite spot is the Boiler House, an old brewery’s boiler room that now houses the market’s food stalls, which offer over thirty different options of international delights. Now, I don’t usually advocate the closing down of breweries, but for this purpose, I’ll let it go.
Find Brick Lane Market at 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QR
6. Portobello Road Market
Another one-day-a-week market is the popular Portobello Road Market in upscale Notting Hill, in west London, which only operates on Saturdays. The market’s setting is beautiful, along the winding road, lined with pretty Victorian terrace houses and shops on both sides. The buildings house a bunch of maze-like antique shops, while the Saturday market stalls lined on both sides of the street sell all sorts of funky fashions, art, and interesting food items including squared marshmallows in interesting flavours like strawberry-basil. The market is mostly known for its antiques, and its one of the best places in the city to get some.
Find Portobello Road Market at Portobello Road, London W10 5TA
7. Borough Market
The popular Borough Market near London Bridge might be the city’s most popular market, and although extremely touristy, this market has its merits. The market sells fresh produce, meats, cheeses and fish to the general public, while continuing its tradition of selling fresh food items as wholesale to restaurants around the area. The market also has various ready-to-eat booths, and even has some stands selling wine by the glass. Borough market is one of London’s oldest continuously-running markets (although its location has shifted slightly over the years), and while often bashed as being a tourist trap, it’s a great place for locals to buy hard-to-find and locally grown produce.
Find Borough Market at 8 Southwark Street, London SE1 1TL
8. Columbia Road Flower Market
Located just a quick walk away from Brick Lane Market, Columbia Road Flower Market is a beautiful (although again, crazy busy) market to check out. As the name suggests, the main pull of this market is a great collection of flowers, plants, shrubs and trees being sold in stands along the street. The market is only open on Sundays and closes earlier than most other markets, but it’s good to check out before or after going to Brick Lane for some food. Otherwise, you can check out the shops and cafés established along Columbia Road, behind the flower stands. Wether or not you actually plan on buying any greenery, a walk through the market amongst all the plants and colourful flowers is pretty unique!
Find Columbia Road Flower Market at Columbia Road, London E2 7RG
There is nothing I want more, when the temperatures reach the high 30s, than a cold beer and a refreshing ocean to take a dip in every so often. Thankfully, when the temperatures hit 38 degree celsius during my visit to Kaş in Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, that is exactly what I had!
As the weather gets cooler and cooler in Vancouver, I honestly wouldn’t mind going back to that moment right about now. Now that is my happy place.
After our day cruising around the Mediterranean Sea, we headed over to Kaş, another pretty town on the Mediterranean coast, 45 minutes west of Demre.
My friend Ryan and I started exploring Kaş, a town that, despite being on the Mediterranean, seems to be less touched by the masses of tourism. The pretty streets of the town are adorned with bright bougainvillaea flowers, and its streets have many small cafes, bars, restaurants and shops. The city also has a beautiful sea-side walkway with stunning views of the surrounding scenery.
Within 15-minutes of exploring, Ryan and I could not take the heat anymore. Despite having spent the last three days by the coast, under the sun, Kaş proved to be unmanageable at 38 degrees celsius, and so we had to seek shelter in a so-called “beach club,” a multi-level wooden deck with sun loungers and beach umbrellas, and full bar service. Although sand-less, the “beach club” did have direct access to the sea, which was all we needed!
At the “beach club,” we ran into our friend Dacia from the tour, and the three of us proceeded to spend the entire afternoon hiding under an umbrella hanging out and drinking beers, taking a break from the heat every half hour of so to jump into the immaculate sea for a refreshing swim – in other words, another perfect, relaxing afternoon in Turkey.
When the sun set and the temperatures dropped to a manageable high 20s, we headed out for a delicious seafood dinner, and then went on to explore the town’s streets once more, including checking out some of the ancient Lycian Tombs which are spread out throughout the town, and the markets which came to life at night. We had a couple of casual drinks, and to combat the heat of the night, ended up with a Turkish ice-cream instead of a night cap.
Despite the unbearable heat during our visit, I can see Kaş would be great as a destination, as it’s a good starting point for a trip to Kekova Island and overnight cruise expeditions around the Mediterranean Sea, and the town itself is pleasant and has good nightlife. Worse case scenario, if the heat gets too bad, there is always the “beach club” to hide away from the sun!
If you’re going to cruise around the Mediterranean Sea, you might as well do it wearing short shorts and a tight neon pink Jack Daniels sleeveless top. Just saying.
Have you ever cruised the Mediterranean?
After exploring Antalya, we continued on our Turkey adventure by going Southwest to the sea-side town of Demre to embark on another great experience.
We only stopped in Demre for a couple of hours in the afternoon, mainly to grab a hearty lunch in the small town’s centre. After we finished eating our lunch, we walked up the main street towards a central square to check out a seemingly unusual sight: a statue of St. Nicholas (aka my famous namesake Santa Claus).
Why did I find it so unusual? Well, considering that the population of Turkey is over 98% Muslim according to statistics, it seems a little out-of-place to have a statue honouring a Christian Saint.
However, St Nicholas (or average person Nicholas, at the time), was a real person, who happens to be Turkish. Not only that, but he lived most of his life in this small town and was even the bishop of the area’s Orthodox Church.
Kekova Island & Mediterranean Sea
Ok, so we learned an unexpected fact about Father Christmas and had another great lunch, but the reason why we visited Demre was to participate on yet another amazing adventure: cruising the Mediterranean Sea!
Cruising along the Mediterranean was one of the coolest experiences we had in Turkey –I know, I know, I keep saying that about everything… can’t help it! But in all honesty, the cruise was a really cool experience that is going to be one of my top travel memories of all time.
Our group of 14 (plus our guide) boarded our private boat in Demre and took off into the beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean, along with our Captain and a young handsome (but not very friendly) deckhand.
Our boat was basic (but not a shack!), consisting of two levels. The bottom level had a long table in the centre and two benches stretching the length of the boat on either side, a fully stocked bar and a bathroom, as well as the captain’s room, and a small outside deck. The second level, which was reached by a staircase on the first level’s deck, was simply a large rooftop open terrace.
During the day, we cruised around the Mediterranean, often without any other boats in sight in any direction. Every so often, our captain set anchor so we could jump into the refreshing sea and swim around its azure waters. When on the boat, we spent time enjoying the sun with cold Efes beers on hand.
Most of our cruising was done around the pretty Kekova Island, a small uninhabited island which has remains of an ancient Byzantine empire-era town crumbling on its hills. Most impressively, we were also able to admire under the sea below us the remains of buildings and pottery from an even older settlement, which sank into the sea during an earthquake back in the 2nd Century AD.
At sunset, we stopped at a pier in the small village of Kaleköy on the mainland and climbed to the top of a hill, which is home to the ancient Simena Castle. The views from above were fantastic, and the remains of the castle itself quite cool!
As the sun set and night approached, we returned to our boat and set anchor along the coast. Our captain and the handsome-but-not-very-friendly deckhand built a fire on land and barbecued an amazing dinner consisting of fish and chicken, stuffed peppers, rice, and salads. We had our dinner and then sat around the fire, enjoying more drinks and talking for a few hours until the fire burned out.
Before going to sleep, we lay on the rooftop terrace of the boat in comfy make-shift beds, and looked at the night sky. Without any artificial light anywhere around us, the sky looked spectacular, pitch black and illuminated by thousands of shinning stars… we stared at the night sky in awe, which was made even more magical by constant shooting stars!
We woke up the next morning floating on incredibly still waters for a light breakfast of Turkish tea and fruit. As we ate, we noticed that the spot where we had anchored the boat was home to a family of wild goats, which sheepishly (pun intended) came to say good morning – or “baaaa,” anyways – to us.
Saying goodbye to our goat friends, we sailed off back towards Demre, taking in one more refreshing dip in the sea, and one more long look at the stunning scenery of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.
Remember the good old days of plane travel? Those days when you used to get food on your flights (but no on-demand entertainment systems) and passengers dressed up for their flight?
Well, I found this little gem, a photograph of me (on the left) with my brothers Michael and Andres flying from Vancouver to Mexico City in Summer 1989!
I’ve been flying since I was a baby, but as far as I know, this photo of me only weeks before turning six years old is the oldest photographic evidence that I was destined for a life of travel.
When was your first flight?
After a week of exploring Turkey’s interior, we arrived in Antalya, a sea-side city which has some of the most beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen.
Although lacking public beaches in the city itself (there are some on the outskirts, but we didn’t bother making the trek), Antalya has some private beach clubs that are available for a charge. We found the beach clubs overcrowded, so instead satisfied our lust for being by the seaside by strolling around the beautiful harbour.
Raised above on the cliffs surrounding the harbour, flower-filled parks and pedestrian plazas offer stunning views over the entire bay, which glittered under the sun during our visit. These pubic spaces are home to a number of rotating art exhibits and permanent statues, the expected Atatürk monument, and the 2nd Century Roman-era Hıdırlık Tower, a small fortress. Near the parks and plazas, a couple of nice bars and cafes hanging from the cliffside offer some of the best views in the city.
Antalya is best enjoyed by the sea, but there is much more to this seaside city than its Mediterranean setting. Antalya has a beautifully restored old city, which is now home to fancy hotels, delicious restaurants and lively bars, and various shops selling clothing and souvenirs. The old part of the city is surrounded by a Roman Empire-period wall and its streets are largely car-free; although quite touristy nowadays, it’s a charming little place to hang out in.
Outside the wall surrounding the old city, the modern development of Antalya is a chaotic, busy mess of traffic and people, but it’s still worth visiting for great shopping at the street-side markets, yummy food along its busy streets – many of which are also pedestrian-only, and less-touristy nightlife options. The “new” part of the city is also home to some colourful parks with views of the bay.
Other sites worth checking out include Hadrian’s Gate, a beautifully preserved Roman triumph arch which now serves as the gate between the old and new parts of the city; the Ottoman-era clock tower; Yivliminare Mosque, the city’s main Mosque; and Kesik Minare, a Roman-temple-turned-church-turned-mosque which now lays in partial ruins. All sites are found within a quick walk from each other, so it’s easy to visit them all on a stroll.
Antalya is the biggest Turkish city in the Mediterranean coast and one of the country’s most visited resorts, but it never felt overwhelmingly busy, and despite walking around all day and night, it still felt like a relaxing break on our trip.
If you, like me, are the kind of person that enjoys being by the sea but having things to keep you busy, Antalya is a city you would probably enjoy visiting!
After an afternoon exploring the city of Konya, we headed towards Lake Beyşehir, roughly 90km west of Konya, where we partook in one of the coolest experiences we did in Turkey: staying at a rural home stay.
We spent the night in a small, rustic home in the countryside of Turkey, a mere 10 minute walk away from the lake itself. The accommodation was quite basic, but it was a unique experience that was very memorable for all of us.
Eflatun Pınar Hittite Monument
Before dropping our things off at the home stay, we stopped at a prehistoric monument dedicated to Plato (its Turkish name Eflatun Pınar stands for Plato’s Spring), built around a natural spring.
The modest monument is largely unexplored, and although not as impressive as other archaeological sites in size or content, it is incredibly important historically, considering it was built in the Bronze Age, around 3,350 years ago!
Lake Beyşehir & Our Home Stay
That evening, we visited our home stay to introduce ourselves to our host family and drop our things, and then we took a stroll down to the lakeside (amongst a parade of cows – no joke), to see the skies turn all shades of pink and orange as the sun set.
We returned to our rustic little house before it got too dark, to have a delicious traditional homemade meal with our host family, which consisted of lentil soup, rice-stuffed peppers, and a chicken stew with chickpeas and rice, all washed down with plenty of ayran (typical Turkish drink made of yoghurt and salt), and finished off with tea. After dinner we spent a couple of hours playing card games before bedtime.
The relaxing countryside was a welcome break on a so-far packed itinerary, and a chance to meet the locals and get to see the way of life in the Turkish countryside.
After a quick, light breakfast at our home stay, we bid farewell to our host family. Before leaving Beyşehir to our next stop, the beautiful resort town of Antalya in the Mediterranean coast, we stopped at the pretty Eşrefoğlu Mosque, a traditional wooden Seljuk mosque dating back to the 13th century.
Eşrefoğlu Mosque is unique in that the main infrastructure is made of wood, with a flat wooden roof sustained by tall cedar columns; Eşrefoğlu also happens to be the biggest and best preserved wooden mosque in the entire Islamic world. The inside walls are decorated with intricate blue and brown tile works, which contrast beautifully with the dark wood.
During our visit, we were fortunate enough to witness the local imam performing the call to prayer – a chilling and inspiring experience for anyone who has ever witnessed it!
The famed silk route had a number of roadside inns (known as caravanserais) throughout Turkey, which were built to provide shelter for the merchants traveling the route.
During my visit to Konya in September 2013, I got to check out the Sultanhani Caravanserai, one of such inns which was built in the 13th Century.
The Sultanhani Caravanserai is well-preserved, and worth checking out if you are traveling in the area.
And so the time has come, and before I know it I am back in Vancouver after a wonderful two-year adventure living in London, England.
I decided to come back to Canada only two months ago, and the best part is that my boyfriend Eamonn is moving here with me. I am very excited about our new chapter living in Vancouver together, but here are some of the things I will miss most about life in London (in no particular order).
1. The Markets
Public markets are a common occurrence all over the world, and many have their charm for different reasons, whether it is for what they sell, how they look, or their general feel. London has many amazing food markets that are second to none that I’ve visited before. One of my favourite things to do on the weekends in London was to visit one of the many markets around the city and try out all sorts of yummy food, grab a cocktail or two, and eat some more.
2. South Bank / Bankside
South Bank / Bankside became one of my favourite parts of the city from my first visit, which happened to be on my very first day in London. Running along the south side of the Thames, South Bank / Bankside has a lovely riverside pathway that has some of London’s most iconic views, including Big Ben (with the Palace of Westminster) and the London Eye on one end, and St Paul’s Cathedral, the modern architecture of the city, and London Tower Bridge on the other.
3. The Arts & Culture Scene
It is well-known that London is one of the most culturally-rich cities in the world, but you really have to be there to understand how amazing the arts & culture scene of the city is. London is home to many of the world’s best museums, many of which happen to be free, and even walking around admiring the architecture is a great lesson in history. The West End offers tens of musicals and plays, and theatre, cabarets and other shows are spread out throughout the city.
4. The Pubs
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read my blog, or anyone who knows me or follows me on twitter, but I love pubs, and London has a unique pub culture that I will miss SO MUCH. Yes, Vancouver has pubs, but not in the same sense how London has pubs. Pubs there are each so unique, with their own little history and personality, and that’s something that simply can’t be replaced with a shiny and new, fancy “public house.”
5. Potentially Running Into the Royals
Well, this isn’t actually something that would possibly happen, but I feel like I have a better chance of running into Prince Harry at the supermarket in London than I do in Vancouver. And there was that one time when I did meet Queen Elizabeth at my friend’s 30th birthday party – we chatted for about 15 minutes before I realized it was simply a cardboard cutout! You can always go check out Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle though.
6. Amazing London
Yes, one of the things I will miss most about living in London is none other than, well, London. As a whole. I had never visited the city before moving there, and I have to admit it took me a few months to properly fall in love with the city. But once I did, it was true love. I love the energy of London; the fact that there is literally something fun and different to do every day, the multiculturalism of its people, the food, the pubs, the parks. I love London. I. Love. London.
I have already declared my love for London, so I am not ashamed to confess that one of the things I will miss most about London, is being able to leave the city behind and have all of Europe at my doorstep. Traveling out of London to other European countries is so fast and inexpensive, that I was able to take a number of long-weekends and longer getaways and really get to explore various parts of Europe during my time there.
After a couple of days exploring the out-of-this-world scenery of Cappadocia, we headed over to Konya, a city that is best known for being the birthplace of one of Turkey’s icons, the whirling dervishes.
Konya is the former capital of the Seljuk Turks, a strand of Turks which have a strong Persian influence, and the city as a whole is much more traditional Islamic than other cities in the country. This is most obvious in the attire of its women, which is more modest. Even the mannequins at shops in the markets donned glamorous full-body coats and colourful headscarves.
We only spent an afternoon in the city, but it was enough to visit a couple of the main sights, and even gave us some time to look around the vibrant street markets for a few hours.
The Sultanhani Caravanserai is a historic 13th Century hotel in the famous Silk Road, about 100km north of Konya.
The entrance to the hotel is adorned with an impressive 13metre-high gate, which has a beautifully carved design. The gate leads to a large open courtyard that is surrounded by big rooms which served as stables (on the ground floor) and accommodation (above) for traveling guests. In the centre of the courtyard, a squared stone kiosk-mosque stands, beautifully preserved.
The Mevlana Museum is the mausoleum of Mevlana Rumi, a 13th Century Persian poet who founded the mystic Islamic sect of the whirling dervishes.
Before Rumi’s death, the museum was the official place where dervishes of his sect should go to learn about the religion, and it still is a holy place, so make sure you take the same precautions regarding clothing as when visiting a mosque. Aside from his mausoleum, the museum also houses many of Rumi’s belonging, including his prayer matt and a couple of his poetry books, all dating back to the 1300s!
The building is quite beautiful in its own, surrounded by colourful gardens, and has an iconic green-tiled dome above the cenotaph.
Just behind the Mevlana Museum, the Üçler cemetery is a traditional muslim Turkish cemetery that is well worth a wander around.
Independence War Museum
My friend Ryan and I discovered this random little museum by accident by wandering around the city, and it was a little hidden gem! The museum’s entrance is beautiful, with a line up of flags (all Turkish on one side and those of different Turkish states through history on the other) leading up a wide path to the entrance of a grand old house converted into the museum.
Inside, the museum houses a collection of art dealing with Turkey’s war of independence, with many of the pieces relating to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who led the war. A section of the museum has paintings and tile murals relating to the war itself, while a different section has a number of miniature displays depicting scenes from different aspects of the war, both as lived by the soldiers and civilians.
The markets in Konya are a mix of shopping mall-like buildings surrounded by more traditional street markets, selling anything from fashion and electronics (inside) to candy, food, and all sorts of trivialities in the street stalls.
View from Above
Before leaving Konya, we drove up to the top of a hill, from where we could look at the city sprawling before us from above.
Up until this month, 2015 somehow became my own personal “year of the European capitals,” as all of the trips I booked ended up accidentally being European capital city breaks. As my two-year living in Europe comes to an end in less than two weeks, I figured I should dedicate a blog post to the European capital cities I have visited so far in my lifetime.
Europe is officially made up of 50 countries, each with at least one capital city (yes, sometimes more), which means there are plenty of capitals to explore. However, despite making it a goal to travel around Europe as much as I could over the last couple of years, I have only visited 14 of these capital cities in my lifetime.
Here is a list of the 14 European capitals I have visited (from the official list of European capital cities, not counting those of the different countries within the nation that is the UK). How many have you been to?
1. Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam is a stunning city, most famous for the scenic canals along which it is built. The city is fairly small, which makes it easy to cover by foot or bicycle, which is the preferred method of transportation for locals. When I decided to move to the UK in August 2013, Amsterdam was the first stop on my 45-day trip towards my new home, and thus holds a special place in my heart: the city was the beginning of the next chapter, and also my first return to Europe in 6½ years.
Notoriously known for its loose rules regarding marijuana and prostitution, Amsterdam is often overlooked for it’s incredibly varied cultural scene, which includes two of my favourite European museums – the Van Gogh museum and the impressive Reijkmuseum, containing a large collection of art by Rembrandt. If art museums are not your thing, try out the Heineken Experience, where you will not only learn about brewing beer, but also about how Heineken has branded itself over the years to become one of the most recognized brands of our time.
Aside from “cafés” (code for marijuana-smoking shops), Amsterdam has a number of bars and restaurants, many of which serve traditional Dutch meals, including famous panoekoken (Dutch pancake) shops. As for the nightlife, Amsterdam is much more laid back than I expected; the Dutch capital is more about having casual drinks at pubs or bars, than parties that last until the early hours of the morning (although that can definitely be found). During my stay, I went to a couple of gay bars, many of which had outdoor seating along the canals.
2. Ankara, Turkey
My three-week travels around Turkey in September 2013 included a visit to the country’s impressive capital, Ankara. Often overshadowed by Istanbul, Turkey’s most popular city, Ankara is an underrated city that has much to offer.
Ankara is home to a strong cultural scene, including museums and mosques, but the city’s crown jewel is its monumental Anitkabir Monument, an impressive symmetrical complex that honours the country’s national hero, Kemal Atatürk. The beautiful symmetry of the 1940s monument is a contrast to Ankara’s crumbling Ottoman-era castle, another major landmark.
Ankara’s streets, which are surprisingly immaculate for a metropolis of nearly 5 million residents, were vibrant well into the night, with a number of restaurants and bars open until late. Surprisingly however, for a modern city of this size, Ankara’s only gay bar had closed down at the time of my visit, so we had to settle for a couple of beers at a restaurant before calling it a night.
3. Athens, Greece
When compared to other European cities, the capital of Greece often gets a bad reputation for being dirty, busy, and disorganized. Yes, Athens could be tidier, but there is a feeling of really old history floating in the air, and the sometimes-messy state of the city is part of the charm. Athens was at one point one of the most important cities in the world, and despite economic struggles over the past decade, I really hope this capital will shine once again.
Culturally, Athens is as important as Rome, with an array of breath-taking ancient ruins scattered throughout the city and world-class museums. A visit to the Parthenon and other ruins that comprise the Acropolis is a must, as is the National Archaeological Museum, which contains artifacts from throughout the entire country. For sports fans, or Olympics-fans like me, Athens has a few hidden jewels that are interesting to check out, including the sparkling marble main stadium of the modern Olympics, dating back to 1906.
After visiting the city’s many cultural spots in May 2007, we spent our days shopping along the neoclassical buildings of the Plaka district and visiting the cafés for a traditional Greek coffee and a tasty balaclava. When the sun set, we headed out for some beers and ouzo at one of the taverns there, or grabbed a gyros dinner in one of the many outdoor patios with a view of the lit-up Acropolis leering at us from above the hill.
4. Berlin, Germany
My trip to Germany in May 2014 ended in the country’s eccentric capital, Berlin, an interesting city that is worlds apart from the rest of the country. With grand architecture, a vibrant nightlife, world-class museums and its notorious history, Berlin is now a modern city that is unlike anything else I’ve seen in Europe.
For museum lovers like myself, Museum Island is a not to be missed attraction: a collection of five museums, all housing different types of art and found within a single island in the Spree River in central Berlin. For history, you can visit the remains of the infamous Berlin Wall, best viewed in the memorial at Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg district. Berlin also has a number of beautiful monuments worth checking out, with the most famous being the Brandenburg Gate, and the many touching memorials found around the Tiergarten park, honouring various groups who were persecuted during WWII.
Nightlife in Berlin is fantastic and varied, and will cater to all sorts of likes. For LGBT travellers, there are multiple gay areas within the city, with the biggest centred around the Schöneberg area. Although Berlin is as a whole very sexually liberated, not all nightlife has to be crazy sex dungeons and kink bars (although that’s an option) – there are plenty of restaurants, cafés and bars, many of which have fantastic outdoors sitting areas perfect for people-watching.
5. Brussels, Belgium
Brussels is a cute little capital, and although I only visited on a day trip during my stay in Antwerp in August 2013, I got a good feel for the city and would recommend it. Brussels has the honour of not only being the capital of Belgium, but also the official capital city of the entire European Union; yet, this doesn’t take away from the laid-back nature of the city, which is surprisingly less hectic than most other capital cities I’ve visited.
For international visitors to Europe, Brussels doesn’t always from part of their Euro-trip itinerary, and it is surprising, as the city has everything that a tourist spot should offer: great food, fantastic beer, history, art, and friendly citizens. Not only that, but Brussels is small enough to walk around everywhere, and can easily be fit into a day or two. Brussels is filled with beautiful monuments, but the highlight for me is its beautiful Grand Place, in which each surrounding building is a masterpiece on its own. And let’s not forget the city’s most recognized landmark, the fountain of a boy peeing Manneken Pis.
Brussels has great restaurants, including many serving traditional Belgian cuisine, and bars in which you can try one of Belgium’s many local beers. As I was there only during the day, I am unable to comment on the city’s nightlife, but if you’re happy sitting in a bar, tasting a few hundred different craft beers, then Brussels may be your kind of place!
6. Dublin, Ireland
The capital of the Republic of Ireland is another small city that can easily be covered in a couple of days. Dublin is interesting in that there is not as much “to do” as there is simply to enjoy the atmosphere of the city itself, which is quite fun.
Having said that, Dublin is home to some beautiful landmarks, including the stunning medieval Christchurch Cathedral and the not-so-castley-looking Dublin Castle. The city’s pubs are also a big highlight for me – no surprise for those who know me and my love of beer, but I’m not even talking about the drinking part, but the way traditional Irish pubs are well-preserved, and decorated with colourful flower pots during summer. And while we’re on the topic of beer, a visit to the Guinness Storehouse is a must, to learn about the Guinness brand and enjoy the city’s best high-up views from the Storehouse’s Gravity Bar.
Dublin has a large food and beverage scene that seems to be quite cosmopolitan, along with a big handful of trendy cafés in the up and coming areas. Nightlife is also quite varied, with many tourist pubs playing live music in the popular (overrated) Templebar area, as well as pubs and bars spread out throughout most of the central city.
7. Lisbon, Portugal
One of Europe’s most underrated capital cities, Lisbon absolutely blew my mind in April 2014! The White City, as it is lovingly referred to due to incredible luminosity emanating from its buildings, is absolutely gorgeous in a different way to any other European city. This beauty can be best appreciated from a higher view – something that is quite easy, as Lisbon, built on seven distinct hills, offers plenty of lookouts to admire the city from
Lisbon offers a multitude of attractions and museums, but the charm of the city, in my opinion, lies on the city itself. There is something about walking the vibrant streets, full of old history and current life, that is unlike any other European capital. The city also boasts multiple plazas and open public squares, and an incredible riverside pathway, excellent for walking, jogging or cycling. If you do opt to go for an actual attraction, the one I recommend is a visit to the Lisbon Castle. Perched on a hill in the centre of the city, Lisbon Castle is a fun place to visit, allowing you to walk up and down the remains of the crumbling structure, while admiring 360 degree views of all of Lisbon.
A variety of restaurants, serving anything from Portuguese tapas, to Belgian Waffles, to French cuisine, can be found lining the streets, along the riverside, in the centre of the city, and up around the lively suburb of Bairro Alto. The city also offers plenty of bars, many boasting patios with gorgeous views, perfect for grabbing a beer and people-watching on a sunny day… and of course, let’s not forget the delicious bakeries, serving Portugal’s iconic tarts! As a LGBT traveller, I felt very welcome in Lisbon, as there are many gay bars (and even more gay-friendly bars), especially within the Bairro Alto area. If you, like me, fit into the slightly bulkier-than-typical category, you will feel right at home, as Lisbon’s gay scene seems to cater more towards the bear / cub / muscle-puppy / whatever-any-other-animal-you-want-to-be crowd.
8. London, United Kingdom
Over the past two years, I have learned to call London my home, and I am massively sad to be leaving my life here behind. London is one of the most incredible places I’ve ever had the pleasure of being in, and despite my attempts to uncover all that the city has to offer, I have barely scratched the surface.
London is chock-full of world-class museums that can keep one entertained for months and, incredibly, many of them are free to visit! If you’re not interested in visiting a museum, London has a lot more to offer, and even walking around its famous sights is an experience in itself. One of my favourite areas, Southbank, offers beautiful views of landmarks such as the Parliament Building and the London Eye on one end, and St Peter’s Basilica, London Tower Bridge, and the modern architecture of the financial district on the other, all within a 30 minute riverside walk. Other entertainment of course includes world-famous musicals and theatre concentrated mainly in the West End.
London has an inexhaustible amount of restaurants that will serve anything from traditional British food (fish & chips, pies, bangers & mash, etc) to cuisine from pretty much every country in the world, and its easy to find a meal that will cost anywhere from a few to a few hundred pounds. The city is home to a number of markets, each which is unique in its own way, and visiting a market to eat more than I probably should, has become one of my favourite weekend morning activities. For nightlife, the city has thousands of pubs for casual drinks, as well as nightspots which are spread throughout the city. The city also offers multiple LGBT options, which are spread out through various parts of London, with the highest concentration found in the central, central-south and central-east areas of the city.
9. Madrid, Spain
During my first visit to Europe in April 2007, Madrid was the first city I properly explored. One of the things I loved about the city from the get-go was the city’s architecture with immaculate details, carvings, even full-on statues on top of the buildings. During a re-visit eight years later, in April 2015, I realized Madrid still has all of that, but there is even more to the city than I got at first glance.
The heart of Madrid contains various beautiful public areas, such as Plaza Mayor, surrounded by pretty buildings and housing a variety of bars and restaurants with patios from which to enjoy the view. Madrid also has multiple grandiose buildings including the Metropolis building and the stunning Palace of Communications, both of which are architectural masterpieces on their own. For amazing views over Madrid, La Azotea at the Circulo de Bellas Artes offers some of the best in the city, which you can enjoy over a coffee or a glass of Rioja at the bar. If you prefer a lazy afternoon, visit the beautiful Parque del Buen Retiro, the biggest city-centre park, which is also full of fountains and statues.
Despite its great museums, plazas, markets, parks, and architecture, Madrid’s main attraction is probably the city itself: the way that people go about the town, the city’s great bars and restaurants, its tapas and pinchos. If you are a foodie, Madrid is probably the city for you, as long as you don’t mind eating lots of carbs, salted meats, and seafood! Just around the corner from Plaza Mayor, the trendy San Miguel Market has various stands selling Spanish delicacies in a fun, social setting, perfect for catching up with friends.
10. Paris, France
Paris was my first introduction to Europe back when I was 23, during my incredibly naïve One Night in Paris, and will always hold a special place in my heart… not only because it made a great first impression, but simply because Paris absolutely rocks!
Often criticized for being “too uniform,” it is undeniable that the City of Lights is absolutely gorgeous. Paris is actually quite diverse, with beautiful funky areas outside the main city centre, like the popular bohemian Montmartre. The pretty bridges that cross the Seine are all different from one another, and beautiful architecture and stately parks can be found all over the city. Moreover, let’s not forget that Paris is home to some of the most iconic buildings in the world, including the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral, my favourite church in the world: the Sacre Coeur, the Arc de Triomphe, and the glass pyramid at the Louvre Museum. And of course, there is the Eiffel Tower, arguably the most recognized structure on earth! Paris is also home to some of the world’s most visited museums, with the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay being the most famous.
Paris has some great restaurants and bistros, and not all of them are over-priced, as tourists often like to complain. It is possible to find a decent cup of coffee and pan au chocolat for a few Euros around the corner from popular tourist places, and there are restaurants to cater for all sorts of budgets. In a nice summer day, you can also buy some bread, cheese and wine at the local supermarket and host your own picnic at one of the many parks. For LGBT visitors, Le Marais area of Paris is a lively gay haven, with a variety of restaurants and bars, and a laid-back atmosphere.
11. Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland’s capital might be one of the continent’s smallest, but Reykjavik left a big impression on me during my visit with friends in August 2015.
Reykjavik boasts a beautiful waterfront setting, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery and an air that remains fresh and crisp well into summer. The centre of the city, built along only a couple of main shopping streets, is only a few blocks from the waterfront promenade, and you can walk pretty much everywhere within half an hour. Reykjavik’s main landmark is surely its towering Cathedral, the Hallgrímskirkja, which has an observation deck offering pretty views over the city and surrounding nature, although to me, a dip in one of the city’s many geothermal pools takes the prize!
The main commercial street Laugavegur and the surrounding streets (many of which are pedestrian only) are home to most of the city’s restaurants, offering a range of food options as well as bars and nightclubs. When visiting, also keep an eye out for food carts, offering anything from hot dogs, to mini doughnuts, to mouth-watering lobster rolls! Reykjavik is home to only one gay bar, Kiki Queer Bar, but with the city being probably the most gay-friendly place I’ve visited to date, it is easy to find a comfortable spot to grab a few beers.
12. Rome, Italy
I have visited Rome now three times, and every visit has made me fall a little more in love with the city. History can almost be felt as you walk down the streets, and you can’t go more than a couple of blocks without coming across some sort of monument or ancient ruin, so for sight-seeing, there is nowhere as impressive as Italy’s capital.
The historic centre of Rome is absolutely stunning, with the impressive Coliseum at its heart, the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum, and an array of other remains scattered throughout. But Rome is not all about the Roman Empire ruin remains; the city also has monuments to boot, with the impressive monument to the nation (1925AD), the famous Trevi Fountain (1762AD), and the Spanish Steps (1725AD) being some of the most popular ones. Roman-era treasures found outside the main historic centre include the beautiful Pantheon (126AD), an ancient Roman temple turned into a church, that happens to be the final resting place of Renaissance artist Rafael, and the cylindrical Castello di Sant’Angelo (135AD), just outside the Vatican.
Italy is well-known for its delicious food, and Rome will not disappoint on this front – from cheap pizzerias, to fancy fusion cuisine restaurants, and a bunch of wine bars, gelato shops and cafés, Rome has got you covered. For the LGBT community, Rome has come a long way in the 8 years since my first visit in 2007, and now boasts not only a few gay bars, but also a designated “gay street,” which has a couple of bars in a row. The gay street closes to traffic at night, becoming a lively patio that gets quite busy on a warm night, and which offers views of the impressive Coliseum, making it one of the hottest night-time places in the city!
13. Vatican City, Vatican
I know what you’re thinking: “Really, Vatican City as a capital city?” And the answer is: yes, Vatican City! Although everywhere else in my blog I include the Vatican City as part of Rome, this list is going by the official list of countries and capitals in Europe, in which the Vatican is its own individual nation.
Within the confines of Rome itself, stands an entire other city nation: the Vatican. While a small area of Vatican City is devoted as living space for the nation’s 850 residents, the city is mostly devoted to St. Peter’s Basilica and the amazing Vatican Museums, which have some of the most impressive collections of art in the world, including the murals by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.
Visitors can’t stay at Vatican City, and there are no restaurants or bars other than the ones at the museums, so your visit to the Vatican is likely to be confined to a few hours exploring St. Peter’s Basilica and the museums. The good thing is, Rome is just outside the border!
14. Vienna, Austria
Vienna is a stunning city with impressive architecture. Everything in the city is grand, from the buildings themselves, decorated with intricately detailed statues, to the beautifully landscaped parks, and the palaces which have now been turned into museums. It doesn’t get more European than Vienna; during our visit in May 2015, Eamonn and I kept commenting that Vienna is pretty much the city one thinks of when thinking about ‘Europe.’
For culture lovers, Vienna offers enough attractions to keep one busy for weeks (believe me, four days was barely enough). The city is home to a heavy concentration of museums, mostly found right in the centre of the city, including art galleries, science, natural history, and even an interactive music museum. The city is also home to pretty parks, and the former palaces are worth visiting for the buildings themselves, let alone the art that they house.
Food in Vienna is delicious, and not as expensive as I imagined it would be. We mainly fed ourselves with standard Austrian fare: beef stock with shredded pancakes, schnitzel (three times over four days!), potato salad, sausages, and of course, the famous Sacher Torte, which was created in Vienna. As for nightlife, Vienna has a large number of bars and pubs. We checked out a couple of the LGBT bars and found that they were mostly tiny (too small to hold the large attendance of a busy weekend night during Eurovision), but quite fun. The only downside to me, a non-smoker, was discovering that smoking inside is still legal and very popular in Vienna, so be prepared for some second-hand smoke if you go out!
So that is 14 out of 50 of Europe’s capital cities done and dusted… Still need a lot of exploring to do, and with my move back to Canada it might be a little harder, but I got to try. Guess I have some planning to do for my next visit to Europe!
Only a couple of weeks after visiting Ireland as country #24, I headed over to Iceland with some friends this past weekend to explore a little. Iceland is not only now officially the 25th country I visit in my lifetime, but it is also the last trip outside of the UK that I will do before I move back to Canada in just over a month.
We had an amazing time during our visit to Europe’s western-most country, staying at an apartment in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, and visiting some of the country’s most iconic sights, including the stunning Blue Lagoon and the very scenic Golden Circle.
I will eventually get to writing more in depth about this trip, but in the meantime, enjoy this photo of the gorgeous Gullfoss Waterfall, one of Iceland’s most famous natural attractions, found in the Golden Circle route.