Stepping foot in Havana for the first time

While my time in Havana seems like a mere dream now, it’s still a place very deserving of recognition for its culture, vibrancy and history. While influenced by Europe in its wonderful bohemian architecture and Spanish cultural traits, it still feels like you’re very much in the Caribbean thanks to the hot weather and the jungle-like exteriors fringing the city.

It might seem clichéd to describe visiting Havana as like taking a trip back in time, but it really is true. While they may have most of the modern conveniences we recognise in our own daily lives, there’s none of the excessive technology or flashiness of other 21st century cities. Vintage is very much the norm, from Smeg fridges to classic cars.

Havana 1.jpg

While you’d expect the historic buildings of Old Havana to be worn away by time and a lack of money to restore them, the same is actually true of the rest of the city as you’ll see on your way to and from the airport. The edges where the plantations begin are evidently poor, and even the newer part of the city has an air of neglect about it.

You’ll also notice that modern cars are few and road rules even less; expect to see seven person-strong families packed into chugging Chevys, and horse and carriages sharing the busy roads with the cars.

Havana 8

I didn’t expect to see quite so many of the old cars that Havana is known for, but it turned out that about eight out of ten of the vehicles on the roads dated back to at least the 1960s. While most of them are hired out by tourists, regular people used them too as their everyday modes of transport.

Hiring an old car with a driver for an hour, although touristy, was definitely one of the highlights of my trip. With a huge choice of bright colours and attractive styles to choose from, it’s important to pick your car wisely before you climb in. We went for a lime green open top car, and our friendly driver took us on a brief tour of the city’s main attractions.

IMG_2922.jpg

We stopped at a couple of places for photos, including the Plaza de la Revolución and the gorgeously green Parque Almendares that was home to some of the most gigantic trees I’ve ever seen! We also drove along the seafront and were given a glimpse of the newer part of the city with its less picturesque seventies high-rises.

There’s far too much to write about this glorious city in just one post so here are just a few tips that I wish I’d been told before heading to Havana:

Don’t expect to get phone signal and Wi-Fi everywhere you go. Some hotels and bars may advertise that they have access to internet, but it’s usually very limited or doesn’t work. It’s best to download Google maps, learn any useful phrases before you go, and store up your photos to post on social media once you’re back home.

In the summer, Havana is HOT and there’s little to no respite. Only hotels, cigar stores and some more high-end shops have air-conditioning so you will almost certainly get a bit sweaty. It’s best just to embrace the heat by walking around the streets slowly, drinking water regularly and staying refreshed with a mojito every couple of hours (you are in their birth-place, after all!).

The food in Cuba is not like food in the rest of the Caribbean. It’s actually quite bland and mainly consists of simple meat or fish dishes paired with beans, rice and vegetables. Simple and wholesome is how I’d describe it.

Havana 4

Have you been to Havana? Let me know what you thought of the vibrant city in the comments below 🙂

 

Visiting London on a budget

Whether you’ve visited London dozens of times before or you’re planning your first trip there, it’s undeniable that the city can be quite an expensive destination. From eating out to paying for entry into magnificent monuments, the costs can all add up.

As a former resident and now a frequent visitor to the city, I thought I’d share five free or super cheap ways to make the most its delights without spending an absolute fortune.

 

1. Go up the Sky Garden

This is my absolute top-tip when planning a visit to London! While the world-famous Shard offers up panoramic cityscape views, it’s also quite pricey at £32 for a ticket. The Sky Garden at the top of the so called ‘Walkie-Talkie’ building on Fenchurch Street is a much better alternative as you get the same amazing views for literally nothing.

All you have to do is book a free time slot in advance on the Sky Garden website and then turn up just before your allotted time. Slots go fast, though, and they’re released online every two weeks so make sure you book at least nine days in advance of when you want to visit.

IMG_3905

Interiors and view from the Sky Garden

 

2. Skip the Thames riverboat tour and simply take the TFL ferry

Keen to see London’s most iconic attractions from the river? Instead of shelling out for one of those riverboat tours, all you need to do is get on one of the TFL-run ferries that travels up and down the river all day long.

Tickets cost around £5 and you can use your contactless card or Oyster just like you would on the tube or bus. Depending on the route, they tend to run at least every half an hour, plus they go all the way up to Greenwich if you fancy a walk around the park or Naval College grounds.

IMG_4012.JPG

The pretty streets and pubs of Greenwich that can be reached on the ferry

 

3. Visit a whole host of free galleries and museums

Unlike a lot of big cities around the globe, the majority of London’s museums and art galleries are free to visit. Check out some modern art at the Tate, learn about the city’s genesis at the Museum of London or discover facts about the world at the Natural History Museum.

Occasionally, you’ll have to pay a small supplement to enter certain temporary exhibits but the rest of the art, artefacts and knowledge is complimentary. 

4. Travel into the city by train for 2 for 1 attraction tickets

If you’re arriving in London by train, make the most of the rail network’s 2 for 1 deals on hundreds of London attractions. Seeing sublime sights like the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace or Kew Gardens close up can be expensive if you’re travelling in a group but this deal cuts the cost in half.

There’s also 2 for 1 deals on things like restaurants and theatre tickets if historic palaces aren’t your thing. All you have to do is browse which place you want to visit on the Days Out Guide website and then download and print off the relevant voucher. You’ll need to keep hold of your rail ticket too to gain admission into your chosen attraction. 

IMG_3910

Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast – both included in the 2 for 1 attractions

 

5. Wander around one of city’s many markets

London is jam-packed with great markets, many of which detail the city’s long and fascinating history. They’re a great way to soak up the hustle and bustle of the capital while spending as little or as much money as you like.

Take a wander through the tempting stalls and cafes of Borough Market — one of the oldest food markets in the capital — or head to covered Leadenhall Market to view its ornate Victorian facades (although note the shops are all closed on weekends).

Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill is the place to go for antiques (it’s the largest outdoor antiques market on the planet!), while picturesque Columbia Road Flower Market in Bethnal Green — located on what was once the city’s most notorious Victorian slum — sells dozens of varieties of fresh flowers and plants on Sundays.

IMG_4003

The incredible Leadenhall Market

 

Bonus tip: Go to Pizza Union for food

If you’re arriving or leaving the city from Euston or Kings Cross station (or simply staying in that area), Pizza Union is a must for cheap yet delicious pizza. The wood-fired pizzas start at less than £4, plus there’s a range of toppings to suit meat eaters, veggies and vegans.

They also serve up cheap cocktails (and bottles of prosecco for just £16 which is a real bargain in London!). Don’t forget dessert, either  — there’s tasty gelato (the pistachio one is sublime) as well as pudding calzones stuffed with mascarpone and Nutella.

 

Let me know if you have any other great budget tips for London in the comments below!

A long weekend in Budapest

I usually prefer to head to cities in the winter and beachy destinations when it’s warm, which is why I opted to visit Budapest in the middle of December. Thankfully, it’s a city with much to offer during this chillier time, from the heart-warming wintery food to the thermal baths Budapest is famed for.

With affordable flights and a journey time of under four hours, it’s definitely possible to experience Budapest in just a couple of days. That’s what I did, and here is my (hopefully!) useful guide to visiting Hungary’s handsome capital.

First of all, what’s there to see in Budapest?

There’s innumerable things to see and do in this beautiful city. As mine was just a short trip, we picked out some of the major attractions and a couple of less obvious ones.

IMG_0097.JPG

To bathe or not to bathe?

Budapest is famous for its thermal spas that are popular spots for both tourists and locals alike. I didn’t actually experience any during my trip as the bath house we wanted to go to (Géllert baths) wasn’t open to both males and females on the day we chose to visit. If you already have a bath house in mind, it’s vital that you check in advance if they have gender-specific visiting days!

I was advised by a couple of friends that the huge outdoor Széchenyi baths is one of the best options (plus it always tends to be mixed bathing days). However, after doing some research online I couldn’t help but think it looked like a glorified public swimming pool! I liked the idea of somewhere a little smaller and less crowded which is why the Art Deco Géllert baths at the bottom of Géllert Hill would have been my top choice.

Walk up Castle Hill instead of taking the funicular

Unless you’re incredibly short on time or can’t physically cope with too much walking, I’d recommend skipping the queues for the funicular railway that takes you from the base of Castle Hill to the top. The zig zagging pathway up is equally as picturesque and gives you the chance to discover viewpoints you might miss if you take the more direct route.

IMG_0093.JPG

View of the city and Fisherman’s Bastion

Once you reach the top, you’ll find stunning cobbled streets and beautiful attractions like the fairy-tale Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church with its rainbow coloured roof. Baroque Buda Castle itself is a stunning World Heritage Site that’s currently home to the Hungarian National Gallery and The Budapest History Museum. They both have a small entrance fee but you can walk around the castle gardens free of charge.

Check out the Hospital in the Rock

Located below the surface of Castle Hill, this museum is perhaps one of the most captivating I’ve ever visited (and I’ve been to a fair few around the world!). It gets its name from its role as a hospital during the first and second world wars when it treated wounded soldiers during the city’s occupation by German and, later on, Soviet forces.

Explore a warren of underground tunnels turned into operating rooms and wards on an excellent guided tour before heading into the museum’s nuclear bunker. While there are some quite harrowing images depicting the aftermath of nuclear bombings in Japan, it’s also a thought-provoking reminder of how many people across Europe lived in fear of attack.

For an even more in-your-face history lesson, the morbidly named House of Terror — with its torture chamber basement — is worth a trip. Be warned, though, that most of the exhibitions aren’t in English (there’s paper translations at the entrance to each room, however) and that you have to follow a specific route through the museum instead of leisurely wandering.

See the whole city from above at the top of Géllert Hill

Another one of Budapest’s hills is Géllert, which has the city’s Citadella at its summit. It’s quite a hike to reach but well worth it for the unbeatable views. A lot of tour companies will offer transport up the hill but if you fancy a challenge, I’d definitely recommend walking the winding path instead.

IMG_0111

The walk up Géllert Hill

An easy way of starting your journey is to walk across the Elisabeth Bridge and follow the path up past the iconic statue of Gerard of Csanád (the first bishop of Hungary). It’s quite a steep ascent but you can take it slow and stop off for a rest at various benches and viewpoints along the way.

Stroll down to the Hungarian Parliament Building

Admittedly, walking along the Pest riverside to this iconic building seemed like a picturesque idea but it was freezing on the day we did it! Nevertheless, we were rewarded with stunning views of the Hungarian Parliament and basically zero crowds.

On your way, you also pass the poignant Shoes on the Danube memorial that’s dedicated to Jewish people who were forced to jump into the freezing river during World War II by Arrow Cross militia.

IMG_0117

Shoes on the Danube memorial

 

Useful bits and pieces

Great bites in Budapest 

Mazel Tov — This is a great restaurant in the Jewish Quarter with gorgeous décor — think lots of fairy light and plants — that had an interesting menu of wholesome Hungarian-Jewish dishes. I booked a table in advance online as I’d heard it can get quite busy (and it was by the time we left). The night we went there was also a live saxophonist playing which was a nice touch.

Fröhlich Kóser Cukrászda — I read about this Jewish bakery in a guide book and was a little hesitant to visit as I thought it might just be crammed with tourists. It was surprisingly authentic and relaxed, though, as well as being conveniently located around the corner from Dohány Street Synagogue. The perfect place for a sweet snack, we had mugs of genuinely decent coffee and shared impossibly fluffy sponge slices of coffee and vanilla cake.

Kuglóf — If you’re after somewhere to warm up after a refreshing walk up Géllert Hill, this cute and cosy café sits just across the river on the Pest side of the city. The menu was an enticing mix of filled sandwiches and pastries (the pistachio croissants sounded amazing!). Sadly, they weren’t serving hot food the day we went as the kitchen was closed but we did have some delicious mulled wine.

Street markets — For fans of street bites, Budapest has no shortage during December when there’s various festive markets spread throughout the city (including one with an ice rink outside St. Stephen’s Basilica). Sample delicious meaty baguettes or satisfy your sugar cravings with some chimney cake, a local dessert made by spinning flavoured pastry around a cone and suspending it over a warm fire. There’s also a couple of indoor food markets that are open all year round — I didn’t make it to any but a friend recommended trying the roast duck.

IMG_0102

Dohány Street Synagogue

Where to stay

There’s obviously a handful of branded and independent hotels in the city (even ones overlooking the river) but you’ll also find Budapest an excellent place for holiday lets. I found a cute apartment on Airbnb located on the fringes of the Jewish Quarter that was ideal for our needs – and a fantastic price, too!

Getting from the airport to the city

I can hands-down say that our journey from the airport into Budapest was one of the easiest and smoothest I’ve ever undertaken. As our flight was due to land quite late, I knew we wouldn’t be able to get public transport very easily. Instead, we decided to take a taxi from the official taxi stand outside arrivals.

All you have to do is tell the person at the booth where you want to go. They then print out a ticket with your taxi’s number on it and the price of the journey. Within two minutes, our taxi had arrived and it then took less than half an hour (although it was the middle of the night so the roads were quiet) to get to our apartment. We then paid the amount on the receipt in cash.

On the way back, we decided to take the airport bus from the stop just down the road from St. Stephen’s Basilica. You pay when you get on the bus (it was roughly £5 each) and it takes around 40 minutes.

IMG_0125

Budapest’s yellow trams

Let me know if you need any other tips on exploring this beautiful city in the comments!

Fairytale New York: The Big Apple in December

We may be almost heading into February but I’ve decided to throw it back to just before Christmas when I finally got to tick a major destination off my travel bucket list — New York City! If you’re tired of all the usual European winter breaks or, like me, the Big Apple has been a dream destination for a while, I encourage you to make 2019 the year you finally take the plunge and book a trip there.

There’s something particularly magical about visiting NYC in December; when Central Park is an icy wonderland, there’s festive cheer in the air and the city’s skyscrapers and brownstones look particularly eye-catching against a backdrop of cool, blue sky.

While it may be frosty — and currently eleven months away from when I’m writing this— I’ve put together a few tips on how to make the most of this iconic city in one of my favourite months of the year.

Definitely see the city from above

IMG_3497.JPG

Seeing the bright lights and iconic buildings of New York from above is truly a must. I always love seeing cities from a more vertical point of view, whether that’s picking out London’s historic monuments from the Sky Garden or watching boats sail past the Bund from the top of the Shanghai World Trade Centre.

There’s a few choices for panoramic rooftop views in New York, including the classic Empire State experience and the Top of the Rock viewing deck. I decided to go for the newest option which is the Observatory at the top of the One World Trade Center. The sleek, modern building sits just metres from Ground Zero, and an ultra-fast elevator speeds you up 100 floors for perfect views of Manhattan and Upper Bay.

While the experience is a little Disney-esque and some very chirpy employees will try to persuade you to hire an interactive iPad that tells you what all the buildings on the skyline are, the views were spectacular! It was also lovely and warm being all indoors, plus it was conveniently positioned next to the Oracle Westfield shopping centre (great for picking up some last minute Christmas gifts).

It’s definitely worth booking tickets in advance for the One World Observatory though so you can skip part of the queue when you arrive. They cost about £27 and you can buy them from various tour sites or the Observatory’s official website.

Skip the boat tour to Liberty Island

img_3417

Catching a glimpse of Lady Liberty is on most people’s New York to-do lists. If you’re visiting on a budget and don’t fancy paying for a tour, though, there’s two easy solutions. Many people choose to take the free Staten Island ferry from the Whitehall Terminal in Lower Manhattan which glides right past Liberty Island. Once you disembark, you’ll either need to run round quickly to catch the return ferry or have a look around Staten Island while you wait for the next one.

All in all, the ferry option takes over an hour which isn’t always ideal if you’re only in the city for a flying visit. If that’s the case, simply take a stroll down to Battery Park and you’ll be able to spot the heroic sight of the Statue of Liberty just across the harbour.

Plan to watch a show on Broadway

img_3468

Whether you’re a theatre fan or not, you’ll swiftly discover that performances on Broadway are on a whole other level and also make the perfect pre-Christmas treat. There are dozens of shows opening their curtains at any one time, from Disney favourites like The Lion King to long-running comedies like The Book of Mormon.

I went to see Anastasia at the smaller Broadhurst Theatre and it was incredible. It was one of my favourite films as a child, however, the Broadway version had an altered storyline that made it — slightly — more historically accurate. I think its run is sadly due to finish soon but there are many other shows to see. Hamilton is definitely top of my list!

Take a turn around Central Park — but not all of it!

img_3565

I didn’t realise until I was actually in New York just how large Central Park is! It would take you a good few hours to walk around the whole thing which is fine if you’re in the city for a week but not so great if it’s just a weekend.

The day we went to Central Park was also the coldest day we were there so strolling leisurely around it wasn’t the most comfortable outing in the world. It’s still definitely worth a visit, if only to walk — or take a horse drawn carriage —  the short distance to Bethesda Terrace, which any Gossip Girl fan will undoubtedly recognise from the show!

If you can hack it, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (also a Gossip Girl hotspot) is on the east side of the park, about half way up if you’re walking from the south to the north. To break up your walk and warm up, you can stop off in the café at the Loeb Boathouse (it’s behind the main restaurant) for hot chocolate. There’s also a fair few festive attractions in the park, which leads me to…

Experience Christmas like a New Yorker (or a tourist trying to pose as one)

img_3496

Yes, New York does have Christmas markets — but only a few. While European cities are peppered with festive markets come November (some notably better than others), the Big Apple prefers to ring in the Christmas season with bold light displays, ice rinks and pre-Christmas sales. If, like me, you enjoy wandering around craft markets and sipping on mulled wine, you’ll be relieved to hear that it’s still possible to get that experience in New York.

Bryant Park sits just off Fifth Avenue and it’s where you’ll find one of the city’s Christmas markets complete with souvenir stalls, an ice-rink and a large Christmas tree. As it’s illegal to sell or drink alcohol on the streets in the US, there was a designated tent with a bar that sold suitably festive beverages. The mulled wine was certainly warming but perhaps not worth its $20 price tag!

There’s also a great Christmas craft market on the corner of Central Park, just as you come out of Columbus Circle subway station. The items for sale were a little bit more unique and included things like nice local artwork, cute Christmas tree decorations and handmade jewellery. A fifteen minute stroll into the park and you’ll also hit another ice rink that was less busy and more atmospheric than the one at Bryant Park. And then, of course, there’s the Rockefeller Centre.

Head to the Rockefeller Center to see the iconic Christmas tree

img_3450

The tree set up just in front of the Rockefeller Center is somewhat of an institution in New York. If you’re walking up Fifth Avenue, you can tell when you’ve nearly arrived at it as the crowds start to thicken and people stand in rows trying to capture the perfect photo of the skyscraper and its twinkling tree.

There’s also a very pretty skating rink just below but I think you have to book in advance if you want to show off your skills on the ice. All in all, the experience of seeing the Rockefeller tree takes about ten minutes, however, you’re then perfectly positioned for some shopping at nearby Saks (with its impressive window displays) or to nip into the elegant St. Patrick’s Cathedral just across the road.

img_3521.jpg

December New York checklist

Like the sound of my wintery trip to New York enough to book one of your own for December 2019? If you do, remember to:

  • Apply for an ESTA well in advance! This is the visa you’ll need to be allowed into America. It costs $14 on the official ESTA site and is valid for two years.
  • Pack plenty of warm clothes. New York can be freezing in December, with temperatures dipping below zero. Hats, scarves, gloves and boots are essentials!
  • Take a credit or debit card. Many cafes and restaurants in the city are money free, meaning you have to pay with a card whether you want to or not. It’s a good idea to take some form of travel credit card with you to avoid paying high charges on your normal card.
  • Download a map of New York on your phone if you’re not going to have 3G or 4G. You’ll probably need it at some point, if only to find the nearest coffee shop or subway station.
  • Make sure your suitcase has a TSA lock. If you’re planning on checking in any luggage on your flight there or back, make sure it has a TSA lock otherwise the authorities at the airport in New York will break your lock if they decide to look inside your case.
  • Tip everyone. American tipping culture is very different to the UK. They don’t add service charges to bills so you’ll usually be expected to pay waiters and taxi drivers a 10-15% tip.

Feel free to comment below if you have any questions about NYC or simply if you enjoyed my post! I’ve not quite decided whether my next one will be about a summer or wintery destination yet but I’ll reveal all in due course.

 

 

Paradise Found: The Cayman Islands

A destination that not many people have heard of (unless you’re interested in offshore finance), Cayman is an idyllic group of three west Caribbean islands that I have the good fortune of calling my second home.

It’s a place that you should definitely consider placing on your wanderlust bucket list if, like me, you like the sound of lounging on serene beaches, swimming with turtles and sting rays and spending your Sundays drinking rum cocktails at the aptly named Rum Point.

Touristy cliches apart, Cayman also has so much to offer when it comes to culture. Whether you’re up for tasting local bites like conch fritters and jerk chicken or you’re interested in learning more about the nation’s heritage and local arts scene, there’s certainly more to the Cayman Islands than initially meets the eye.

IMG_3722

Having experienced Grand Cayman like a local rather than a tourist, I’ve come to realise that there are (amazingly) definite downsides to living on a tropical island, too. The heat for one, and the incessant need to be in air conditioning all the time unless you want to be drenched to the skin in sweat. The slow pace of life also begins to get to you after a while, as does the expense of everything; go into any supermarket and you can expect to be paying double the cost of the UK for anything. For instance, my favourite cheese (halloumi) can be $15 a pack!

Heat and the cost aside though, I still find it very difficult to leave Cayman behind every time I visit. I’m very much a summer child and can only usually abide winter for about a week before I’m longing for t-shirt and shorts weather again. That’s exactly why I’ve been trying to make the most of my first Christmas in Cayman before I head back to the the dismal, rainy UK winter.

Enough about the weather, though.

IMG_2465.jpg

As this post is just supposed to be a short intro (and my first ever post!), I’m just going to jot down a few of my favourite experiences in the Cayman Islands so far, of which I’ll elaborate on at a later date. Promise.

  • Horse trekking along Barkers beach and swimming bareback in the warm sea (photo above). Definitely up there as a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
  • Visiting the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Gardens and seeing endangered blue iguanas.
  • Going to Sting Ray City and being scared to jump in the water with them (but finally conquering my fear!)
  • Trying green iguana (tastes like – surprise, surprise – chicken!), lionfish tacos and conch at Tukka restaurant in the East End.
  • Snorkelling off the reef near Rum Point and with green turtles at Spotts beach.
  • Soaking up some Cayman culture at the annual summer Carifesta showcase and various national heritage sites.
  • Exploring Grand Cayman’s great cafe scene – there are so many great coffee shops and healthy eateries.
  • Watching many glorious sunsets (like the one below).
  • Witnessing hundreds of fireworks being lit along Seven Mile Beach on New Year’s Eve.

IMG_3704

Next up, I’ll be writing about my short but sweet trip to New York in December and how you can enjoy both its festive and all-year round attractions in just two days. In the meantime, you can check out more pictures of my adventures in Cayman on my Instagram page (link below).