Lisbon

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I’ve just returned from a few sunny days in Lisbon, a city that I’d previously made the mistake of overlooking. Portugal just wasn’t on my radar – not part of my European canon of long-cherished dream travel experiences. I’m happy to admit that I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Lisbon is white-hot at the moment and buzzing like crazy. As I write, they are hosting Eurovision and the city is reaching fever pitch with passionate fans of the annual song contest descending in droves. The food in Lisbon is fantastic, the people are friendly, and the prices are reasonable – for example, we made their excellent transit system our bitch for 3 days and it cost less than 15 euros each, including our trip to the airport.

I’d tell you to go, but the secret is already out – it seems like half the people I know are already planning to visit, or are wandering around those crazy cobblestone streets right now.

Armchair Travel

I love sharing other people’s wonderful media and photography and no matter how much I fill my phone with snaps, I appreciate the next level photography I find online:

Richard Ayoade just slays me – his Travel Man series may veer off into silly an awful lot, but you still get a good sense of the city:

Also,

15 Photos That Will Make You Want to Visit Lisbon – Condé Nast Traveler 

and

These 18 Pictures Will Convince You That Lisbon Is the Most Beautiful City in Europe – Culture Trip

Food and Drink

We really lucked out on this trip for eating well. I did a little bit of research and ‘starred’ a few noteworthy places (something I talk about here), but we also threw a few random walks down random streets into the mix and were handsomely rewarded for our adventurous spirit.

Honorato Hamburgueres Artesanais – totally random pick, saw it across the street while walking in our AirBnB’s neighborhood, knew we were on to something awesome before we even crossed the threshold. They have a simple menu of burgers, and they endeared me to them further by offering mini versions at smaller price points. Wash your burger down with a fishbowl-sized gin & tonic – flip through their impressive cocktail menu, or order their cocktail of the day.

 

Time Out Market – all I can say is WOW! This place! Bring your appetite, bring your patience, suppress your aversion to crowds, because this place is absolutely amazing. I’ll let Time Out explain it in their own words:

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Have a look at their Instagram page here to get a sense of the size and scale of the market. Our group opted to sit outside – it was such a lovely, sunny day and a bit more peaceful to sit and get table service at Balcão da Esquina. My pork sandwich seemed like a quick choice while scanning the menu but it was damn tasty, on some of the best bread I’ve eaten in ages. While wandering around the market after lunch, I could see myself coming back to Lisbon on a longer trip, simply to have more opportunities to eat at all the other excellent restaurants.

 

And a huge thanks to this Guardian city guide for tipping me off to Palácio Chiado, a palatial (#sorrynotsorry) set of five restaurants under one roof. The best part?  You can order off all five menus no matter where you are seated. This meant we could start with Spanish acorn-fed 100% Ibérico ham, olives and bread, move on to a Hawaiian poke bowl filled with bite-sized chunks of sushi-grade raw salmon and Japanese flavours, while the husband could go another healthy direction – grilled tuna covered in chimichurri sauce on a bed of millet and sweet potatoes. Then I veered over into Italy for some gelato, and Jeff finished things off with a nice glass of port. A great restaurant if you and your group aren’t quite sure what you’re in the mood for, but you know you want great food in beautiful surroundings. Sounds like me, all the time.

Fun

You don’t go to a city dubbed ‘The City of Seven Hills’ without craving a few lookout points. A few of my favourites:

Miradouro de Santa Luzia – calling it an observation deck just seems so clinical. Resplendent with red roses, a pergola, and sweeping views of the city and the Tagus River.

Castelo de S. Jorge – a Moorish castle from the 11th century. Of course, there’s much more to explore than just the view.

Padrão dos Descobrimentos – take the elevator to the top of this monument for stunning views of the Tagus River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean, and a beautiful suspension bridge called Ponte 25 de Abril.

I’m a big enthusiast of simply wandering, especially in such a sunny, warm city – stroll through ancient squares, have a glass of Vinho Verde on a sidewalk while watching the world go by, do a bit of shopping, and enjoy your city break. But if you need ideas….

The best things to do in Lisbon – Time Out

Top things to do in Lisbon – Lonely Planet

21 things to see on a weekend trip to Lisbon – lastminute.com

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Paris, encore

Paris in winter.jpgExcept this time, I didn’t have jet lag.

This won’t be a super long post. If you plan to visit Paris, you already know what you want to see. There are enough amazing resources out there, and your imagination has already been captivated by films, books and tv shows. Just go with it. And don’t forget to wander.

Instead, let me tell you about some favourite little experiences that made this trip sing. It will soon be clear that we stayed in the Marais district.

  • Bonjour Vietnam: Reader, I am not ashamed to say I actually shed a happy tear upon tasting their pho. That delicate broth had perfectly balanced flavours, better even than anything in Toronto. I thought I’d been eating pho in Leeds, but I was wrong. It’s a tiny spot. We lucked out by arriving at 6:59 pm on a Monday evening in January, but make a reservation. 5th arrondissement
  • La Chaise Et Le Vin: A lovely wine merchant with lots of space to relax with a glass or two, steps from Place des Vosges. Incredibly knowledgeable proprietor will steer you to a great glass or bottle. Le Marais
  • America and Paris have strong emotional and historical ties, and this extends to their food as well. We didn’t bother with bistros for the most part, especially the overpriced ones that appear on almost every corner. (Make Yelp your friend to avoid the worst). Being a bit homesick for North America led us to Breakfast in America and Schwartz’s (no affiliation with the venerable institution of smoked meat in Montréal). Both great spots for unpretentious, belly-busting meals, perfect for long walks in chilly weather. Le Marais
  • There is one bistro we bothered with – Vin des Pyrénées – based on this rave review from TimeOut, and I’m very glad we did. I’m still thinking about those fondant leeks. We went back the following night to their beautiful, über cool cocktail bar upstairs. Le Marais

We went ever-so-slightly off the beaten track with our art gallery and ancient cathedral choices, choosing Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée d’Orsay over the Louvre, and Sainte Chapelle instead of Notre Dame. Sainte Chapelle.jpg

 

Bristol and Bath

The Circus, Bath

Bristol and Bath; Bath and Bristol.

I honestly can’t separate the two cities in my mind, kind of like when you’re compelled to say someone’s entire name, first and last, out loud due to some pleasing rhythm or alliteration.

I’ve found these city pairings throughout the UK – a small beauty queen of a city near a larger, more Miss Congeniality-type metropolis. Think York and Leeds, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and now Bath and Bristol.

Base yourself in the larger for cheaper hotels and more food options, and nip over on the train to the beauty queens on day trips. What you’ll miss in tourism trappings you’ll gain in seeing real UK cities just going about their business. Both types have a fond place in my heart, the beauty queens for all the work that goes into maintaining so many layers of history, and the larger cities, not being quite as shackled to the past, have opportunities to grow and evolve, and yes, plenty of their own beauty spots as well. In this creaking metaphor, they did still make it to the pageant, after all!

This was my first visit to southern England that didn’t involve being sucked into the vortex also known as London. Bristol and Bath are in the southwest, Bristol is the last major English city before you hit Wales, while Bath is a short train ride southeast of Bristol.

Bristol

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My first Banksy

Armchair Travel

I was too busy catching up with friends on this trip to take loads of photos, but why sweat it when there tons of great photographers out there? Get started with 39 stunning photos of Bristol and 10 amazing photos of Bristol. And when doesn’t BuzzFeed have an opinion on something? Living in Bristol ruins you for life.

Food, drink and kitties 

While scrolling through TripAdvisor I noticed that Bristol pretty much has any type of food you could be craving. The usual suspects are all here, plus a few places I’m happy to pull over for whenever I see them, like Gourmet Burger Kitchen. I’m just going to pretend that the server didn’t hear me yelp in happiness as I bit into The Taxi Driver. But she totally heard me.

If you’re not sure what’s next, and you miss Yorkshire beer prices, deliberate over a pint at the King William Ale House. Cosy and just what you need, especially if it just started to drizzle. It’s on King Street, and you’ll want to walk over to Welsh Back for pretty river views and lots more dinner and drink options.

And if it’s getting late and you all just can’t decide what to eat, stop talking and just start walking to Catch22, where you will be in the opposite of a paradox because all the solutions to any possible craving are on their menu. As they say themselves, ‘100% the best place to go if you’re hungry’. Fish (obviously), burgers, salads, hot dogs, pies from PieMinister, ice cream, booze. You’re good. Just go.

Because I am going to tell you to go check out Clifton Suspension Bridge, I also need to tell you about Boston Tea Party. It’s one of those cafes that just solves all of your problems. Coffee, tea, bottled water, snacks, sandwiches, a loo, and if you grab a spot at the counter upstairs, the window overlooks the busiest t-intersection of Clifton Village for people watching, and you can even keep an eye on the buses that head back to the city centre from there. Super friendly staff too.

And finally, if you like cats and beer, has Bristol got a pub for you. Bag of Nails is at the very bottom of Brandon Hill Park, and well, just go. Yes, I was the kind of imbecile who arrived the second they opened one fine Saturday noon. Worth it for the peaceful pint and cat watching.IMG_4990.jpg

Fun

Climb up into Brandon Hill Park (you’ll see what I mean when you get there) and enjoy the gardens and another climb up Cabot Tower for even more impressive views of the city. Bonus points if you bring peanuts to feed to the squirrels.

The Last Bookshop – all books are under £3, just try to walk out without a new book.

Clifton Suspension Bridge – mebbe not quite as spectacular as the Brooklyn Bridge, but nonetheless it’s always great to see some excellent Victorian engineering up close and Bristol’s icon and calling card is no exception. Take a look down into the steep gorge the Avon River flows through, and a gander through Clifton village while you’re over that way.

Bath

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Armchair Travel

I can honestly say that Bath swept me away not just with its beauty, but with how consistent that beauty is – in my eyes it’s up there with Paris and Venice. No false moves, no ‘who the fuck thought that 1960s monstrosity would look good there?’ moments. Just pure Georgian glory, with a little bit of Roman interest kept around for history. I love Unesco World Heritage Sites. In fact the only thing that marred the day was that we weren’t swanning around in Regency gowns and having British soldiers dance attendance on us. Some stunning shots here

Food and Drink

We just tootled in for a day trip but still managed to hit a couple of tearooms. The famous Pump Room connected to The Roman Baths turned us away at lunchtime after determining (by outright asking us at the door) that we didn’t plan to fork out £26 each for a full afternoon tea, and told us to come back after 2:30 pm. Ah, the cheekiness and confidence of a place that knows the dining room will be filled, so why not with punters willing to fork out the big bucks?

We shook the brief disappointment off quickly and found another tea room that was a little less haughty – Hands Georgian Tearoom. Their menu happened to have lots of delicious things for lunch, and all three of us ended up with their substantial Ploughman’s Lunch. Hey – touring beautiful cities is hungry work!

We did end up having a cream tea at The Pump Room later on that afternoon, and damn their eyes, it was splendid!

Fun

Top of your list should be The Roman Baths. Then go for a walk over to Pulteney Bridge, up to the Circus, and over to The Royal Crescent.

Venice

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Oh Venice. I resisted you for so long, but a little voice told me to go. So we did. I’m glad I listened.

The resistance came from a lifetime of generalisations, of other people’s stories of a hot, smelly, overpriced Venice completely taken over by hoards of tourists disgorging from cruise ships. And Venice had always seemed like the biggest travel cliché, ever. How could it possibly live up to all the hype?

Then I watched the Venice episode of Travel Man. Richard Ayoade and Jo Brand were wearing coats, scarves and cozy, warm hats while eating cicchetti and gelato, or learning how to row gondolas. Wintertime. That was the answer. An answer this introverted misanthrope is almost loathe to share. But hey, my readership is miniscule so I figure any Venetians hoping for winter peace and quiet will continue unmolested by my rapturous praise.

We had a wonderful stay at Hotel Al Ponte Mocenigo – a small, well-priced hotel I’m certain we’d never have managed to snap up in a busier season. In the San Polo district, it was a very short walk to everything, mere metres from the San Stae vaporetto (waterbus) station, and our hosts were friendly and anxious to make sure our stay was a blissful one. Our luxurious room’s decor wouldn’t have been out of place in the Doge’s Palace; golden green silk-panelled walls, a gilt headboard and heavy, opulent curtains over windows that looked out into an ancient courtyard.

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For stunning photos, check out National Geographic‘s Venice Photos  and Harper’s Bazaar‘s 20 PHOTOS THAT WILL MAKE YOU WANT TO BOOK A FLIGHT TO VENICE. (ALL CAPS necessary, therefore not removed)

We referred to Design Sponge‘s 24 Hours in Venice, Italy again and again. It steered us toward great areas that we might not have thought to visit.

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Scotland – Glasgow

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Ok people – what the damn hell? Over the years I’ve heard so many negative things about Glasgow. After visiting I am extremely happy to report that what I’d heard is about as clichéd and out of date as the people who think the UK only serves fish and chips, warm beer and doesn’t have ice cubes.

I originally had visions of a grimy city with uninspired architecture and angry, sullen residents. Edinburgh’s ugly step-sister. But then I started reading about Glasgow, how it’s a city that has been allowed to evolve and change, not being shackled by Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage Site status. From that I inferred, wrongly, that Glasgow’s city centre wouldn’t necessarily blow my mind. I really didn’t do my research obviously. My friend was visiting from Canada, wanted to see a bit of Scotland along with London and some Yorkshire countryside and I chose Glasgow because I wanted to avoid the costs and crowds of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. And then I spent 90% of my time planning our London itinerary and day trips in Yorkshire. I think the extent of my Glasgow planning involved picking a hotel and making note of a great whisky pub my friend recommended.

I will be the first to say that Edinburgh is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. You should go. I’ve already covered it in an earlier post and I was very happy to return for a second visit.

But Glasgow. Street after street of stunning Victorian and Mackintosh architecture, culminating in George Square. After wandering around the crazy streets of Leeds, York and London, the city centre’s right-angled grid of wide streets was reassuring and homey to this Torontonian. Glasgow has done a very nice job of juxtaposing its modern buildings into the mix. And the scale of the buildings made the streets feel more like the canyons of Manhattan (and oddly, Budapest) than any place in Europe I’ve yet been.

With all the tourists flocking to Edinburgh, we really felt like we had the place to ourselves. I saw one store selling plaids and kilts, and another selling knicky-knacky thingies, but otherwise, the shops and businesses had more to do with people’s everyday needs and wants.

Armchair Travel
It’s true enough that when I read Glasgow’s slogan on their official visitor’s site – People Make Glasgow I thought of all the warm and friendly people we spoke to during our visit and yeah, it’s a great, fitting slogan.

I think it’s photos like the one used on the front page of Lonely Planet’s Glasgow pages that might have had me expecting a very modern city centre. (Not that there’s anything wrong with modern architecture!)

EDIT: How could I have forgotten about researching Glasgow in Scotland Now? A true forehead-slapping oversight: 10 hidden gems you didn’t know were in Glasgow

Food and Drink
This is a short list as we really didn’t spend much time in the city itself. In order of how happy they made me:

The Pot Still  – Whisky Bar
So great we went twice in the same day. Bartender was worried about my choice of such a peaty whisky (LAPHROAIG QUARTER CASK) and wondered if I’d like a taste first before he poured it, bless him.

Cafe Wander
Three words: Full Scottish Breakfast. Everything perfectly cooked, friendly service and my new litmus test for a breakfast joint – when I ask them to hold the eggs, I really like it when a server asks me what I’d like more of, instead.

Bread Meats Bread – gourmet hamburgers
Hungry travellers fresh off a train that contained an exuberant, heavily perfumed hen party, this place caught our eye on Yelp. Jeff and I both ordered burgers, but Ann really won this round with the Angry Bird Poutine. Happily it was so huge she needed help.

The Butterfly and the Pig – The Dining Room Downstairs
Shabby chic and a super quirky menu of comfort food classics. It was nice and cool in Glasgow after a hot week in London so I could dig into mac and cheese with bacon. Big portion, could only eat half. Really wished our hotel room had a kitchenette so I could have taken the second half with me.

Regretfully, we didn’t spot a single deep-fried Mars bar, deep-fried pizza or a munchy box. But then, I don’t think I was drunk enough to really want any of those things anyway.

Fun
Trust me there are tons more things to do than we managed owing to the whirlwind nature of our trip but we managed to fit these in:

Glasgow Botanic Gardens
I can imagine how nice it would be to enter the glass houses during a dull, wet day in January for a fresh transfusion of green, tropical plants.

Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis
Over 800 hundred years old, we went because I had an Outlander fan moment and they had used it as a location, but that soon turned into simple appreciation of its beauty. The nearby Necropolis is great for an uphill walk and good views of the city.

Discover Scotland – coach tours and day trips
We did the Jacobite Steam Train, Glenfinnan and Mallaig tour, which was spectacular. Great driver/tour guide, lots of great stories and anecdotes about the points of interest. It was about a 12-hour day (tour van leaves George Square at 8:00am sharp and returns at about 7:30 pm) but very relaxing to let someone else plan the day’s events and stops! Our feet thanked us for taking a day off.

I am going to finish my thoughts here today with the realisation that I – gasp – prefer Glasgow to Edinburgh and look forward to visiting again.

 

Amsterdam

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I’m just going to get this off my chest now because it’s the main reason I didn’t post much on Facebook during my visit to Amsterdam. Yes – sometimes I caught whiffs of marijuana as we wandered through the narrow streets of the city centre, but I get tired of people who assume it’s the top (or only) reason to visit. Even Anthony Bourdain is getting a bit bored and refers to this juvenile assumption in his travel tips. Sigh.

Amsterdam is full of distinctive seventeenth century architecture, more canals than Venice, a swoon-worthy amount of art and friendly, laid-back locals for whom a smart-ass sense of humour seems to be mandatory. Either that or I ask a lot of stupid questions. I loved how they would take my earnestness, set me back on my heels with a wee bit of sass and make me instantly comfortable.

It’s an emotional city for me as well. My parents are Dutch, so being surrounded by soft, guttural Dutch speech transports me back to childhood family gatherings. During one cozy breakfast in a small café, the radio was on and the morning show DJ sounded exactly like my late father. 

And the food! Whether it’s the sausages and cheese I grew up with on every brown café menu, the abundance of pancake houses or the little speculaas or stroopwafel biscuits that appear with each cup of coffee or tea, I’m never far from my roots.

This was our first experience using AirbnbWe planned this trip rather quickly and our visit fell during the Tulip Festival so available hotel rooms either had Manhattan prices, or were so small that we’d be able to dive into the bed from the doorway. Our rented flat was in a great location near the museums and a short walk to the city centre. I’m definitely a convert – for less money than a tiny hotel room, we had a large, airy flat with a huge open-concept living room/kitchen, along with a comfortable bedroom and bathroom. Our hosts were easy to reach by text and email, punctual and helpful. We’ve used other flat and house rental agencies in the past, but Airbnb has moved to the top of the list.

When we last visited Amsterdam in 2011, we quickly realised we could have easily added at least three more days to our itinerary so I whipped up this short trip to right that ancient wrong. And it was my birthday. There’s nothing like waking up in a different, exciting city on your birthday.

Armchair Travel
Stunningly beautiful pictures of Amsterdam (exactly what it says on the tin)

I always love me some travel shows when I’m researching, and my two travel gurus are Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves. Bourdain’s bad boy balances out Mr. Steve’s more wholesome ethos and delivery. But as much as I’d rather have a night out with Anthony,  it’s my man Rick’s insistence on travelling with only carry-on luggage that has saved my ass on multiple occasions, so…I think Rick wins.

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Budapest

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Budapest. Say it with me now; Boo-dah-pesht.

I’m going to let Anthony B. introduce it as I’d just be echoing him anyway:

Once we stepped off the plane, we were struck by how familiar the climate felt, with the temperature hovering around zero and a lack of humidity very similar to a Toronto winter. Intrepid Canadians, we’d brought our A-game; winter coats, scarves, gloves and hats and were perfectly content.

With Christmas less than 10 days away, the city was filled with fairy lights – wrapped around trees marching down major avenues, festooned in café windows and showering down the sides of five-star hotels. Christmas markets were filled with stands selling mulled wine, goulash, kielbasa and tins of paprika.

Taking advantage of Central Europe’s affordability and the off-season, we splurged on a five-star hotel, the Corinthia. While booking it, I couldn’t get scenes from The Grand Budapest Hotel out of my head and was floored to discover this article in Condé Nast Traveler a few moments later. We’re used to staying in three-star hotels in Europe, so this was definitely a new, luxurious experience for us.

We walked and walked down streets filled with distinctive architecture, everything from Gothic and Neo-Gothic to Art Nouveau, looking up at building after building, detail after detail. The chilly nights were certainly helped by mulled wine in paper cups – although it’s not legal to walk around with open alcohol, strict regulations weren’t in place at the Christmas markets (no enclosed, licensed areas like Toronto would have), so we could keep warm as we wandered. I noticed many restaurants and cafés had heated patios; each chair with a blanket neatly folded on it – a nice touch.

Armchair Travel

Check out 29 Places That Prove Budapest Is the Most Stunning City in Europe (BuzzFeed) for some incredible photography – my version of buying postcards to supplement my own trip photos.

And I know his voiceover can come across as a bit hokey, but Rick Steves is brilliant, especially his books. He’s responsible for convincing us to travel with only carry-on suitcases, which makes everything from sprinting across airports to dealing with out-of-order escalators so much easier.

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