STREET FOOD AND PAINTED FACES: Day of the Dead in Merida

We knew we wanted to experience Day of the Dead in Mexico, and Merida is the best place for it in Yucatán. There are events throughout the week, but the highlight is the Paseo de las Animas, a parade which starts at the cemetery and finishes at the city centre.

The parade itself is not huge, but the whole town becomes a huge festival where you can see decorated altars, eat lots of local street food and get your face painted. It’s an amazing experience and although there are plenty of tourists it’s still mostly locals enjoying themselves and kids running around in traditional costumes.

During the week there are plenty of other activities. We saw a display of Pok-a-Tok, the traditional Mayan ballgame.

Merida is a beautiful city with colourful architecture and a traditional centre full of nice cafés and restaurants. The historic town centre is a lively region with plenty of places to explore. Merida is a big city but there is a relaxed vibe.

Paseo de Montejo is another interesting area: a beautiful boulevard with impressive mansions and upmarket shops.

Food:

  • Organico bar & cocina: a cool café serving a varied selection of veggie dishes made with local ingredients. Highly recommended. Brunch for two including drinks and tip for $270.
  • Sorbeteria Colón: a traditional ice cream parlour serving a range of seasonal flavours. One flavour for $45.
  • Casa Savia Vegana: a vegan restaurant with friendly service offering a limited but delicious selection of local flavours. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for $250.
  • Tacos Ne: this vegan taco truck is very popular. They serve six options of tacos (all delicious) which your top up with different garnishes. A simple and yummy experience. Tacos for $15.

HOW TO DO IT:

  • Stay: we stayed at Hotel Montejo which is well-located in a beautiful building.
  • Go: we took the ADO bus from Valladolid, which took about 2h15. Merida is well-connected with other places in the region.

MAYAN RUINS AND COLOURFUL HOUSES: Exploring Chichen Itza and Valladolid

Valladolid was the first town we visited in Mexico, and it was a great starting point. The town centre is pretty, with lots of little shops painted in bright colours. During the day students hang around the town centre and in the evening people go to the main square for a walk.

There are plenty of shops selling local handicraft, busy restaurants and street food stalls.

Yerbabuena del Sisal: a vegetarian restaurant serving a varied selection of delicious local dishes. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for $335. This restaurant is located at the end of a pretty street which is definitely worth exploring.

Wabi Gelato: a small gelato shop selling amazing flavours. The guava was particularly great. A small cup for $40.

Las Campanas is a popular restaurant by the main square. Vegan options are limited but delicious. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for $450.

Chichen Itza

These famous ruins are the most popular attraction in Yucatán. The site is impressive: aside from the pyramid that is instantly recognisable, there are plenty of other great buildings to visit.

You can cover the whole site in about three hours, and you should arrive there early to beat the crowds and explore before it’s unbearably hot.

Valladolid is a good starting point if you want to get to Chichen Itza early. We got the first collectivo bus from Valladolid at 7am (tickets for the bus for $35), getting into the archaeological site just before doors open at 8am (tickets to the site for $480).

HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: Getting to Valladolid right after a transatlantic flight is a long journey (that’s what we did). From the Cancun airport, you can take the ADO bus to Cancun bus station, then another ADO bus to Valladolid (the trip takes about 3h). Another option is to stay overnight at Playa del Carmen and then take a bus to Valladolid.
  • Stay: we stayed at Hotel Catedral which was well-located and staff was very friendly.

PLANNING IN ADVANCE AND RESEARCHING LOCAL CUSTOMS: My travel checklist

The other day I wrote about how I find that having a standard travel routine helps make travel planning easier.

So I decided to write my list of the things I do for my trips – but of course depending on the trip you may not need to spend much time on these things.

1. Travel-related activities to do before you even know where you’re going:

These are best-practice things that you will want to have in place at all times.

  • Ensure your passport is valid and renew it 6 months before the expiry date
  • Save a photo of your passport to your email so that you can always retrieve it
  • Always have valid multi-trip travel insurance
  • Get a credit card that doesn’t charge extra for using abroad

2. Planning a trip:

When you decide where you’re going and start planning a trip, these are the key things you will want to do:

  • Book flights (inform of special meal requirements)
  • Book time off from work
  • Research and plan itinerary
  • Book accommodation
  • Book any activities/excursions (inform of special meal requirements)
  • Book any local transportation (buses, trains) or research what the options are

3. Get the paperwork sorted:

These things are boring but crucial to do.

  • Check visa requirements (and apply for visa if needed)
  • Check if any vaccinations/anti-malarials/other health-related preparation is advised
  • Buy local currency if you can (or research how to buy it in country) and check if credit cards are widely accepted

3. Do your local research

  • Use Google maps and download offline maps of the places you are visiting
  • Add local spots you want to visit to Google Maps
  • Check Happy Cow for vegetarian and vegan options
  • Make reservations and check opening times to any restaurant, show or attraction you won’t want to miss
  • Check if tap water is safe to drink
  • Research the local tipping etiquette
  • Check the local weather forecast
  • Check the local dress code (not required for most trips!)
  • Read about local security measures (not required for most trips!)
  • Check if your mobile will work and what the charges may be

4. Pack

I use my ultimate packing list.

5. Final preparations

  • Check in as early as possible and print or download the boarding pass
  • Print any essential paperwork (vouchers you may need, instructions to give to a driver at the airport)
  • Research transportation from the airport
  • Sometimes hotels/tour operators/Airbnb hosts ask you to confirm your arrival in advance, so keep them informed

6. Unpack

I always unpack as soon as I’m back home, this is how I know I’ve fully arrived!

What are your tips on preparing for a trip?

10 tips on visiting every European country when you work full-time

I have recently completed my long-term goal of visiting every single European country. Many people ask me how I’ve done it while working full-time. Here are my tips:

1. Good planning is important

I do all my travel planning on a spreadsheet – I realise this is not necessarily the most fun way to do it, but it makes life easy when you’re planning multiple trips at the same time. I keep a list of where I want to go, how many days I plan to stay there and how many holiday days I will need to use.

2. Save your holiday allowance as much as possible

In the UK we have pretty good holiday allowance, but if you’re travelling pretty much every month (that is what I did for a while), you will need to keep track of your holidays. This means making good use of bank holidays and planning ahead to get good prices even at busy times.

3. Get an early flight

One way to use as little holiday days as possible in your travels is to book flights late in the evening or early in the morning. You can leave work on a Friday straight to the airport and come back to work on Monday morning from Poland, France, and many other places. The downside is that these trips can be quite tiring, as waking up at 4am in Latvia then going to work in London is not the most relaxing commute!

4. Visit the capital cities

Different places have different things to offer, but in general capital cities are the gateway to a country, particularly where you don’t have a large tourism industry. I’m an urban soul, so that worked well for me.

5. Always book ahead

Most of my European trips were weekends or long weekends, which meant that it was usually best to book flights as soon as I decided on a date for a trip. For hotels you don’t need to book as early, but particularly in big cities it might be worth doing that to ensure that you can choose the perfect location.

6. Follow a system

Besides my travel spreadsheet, I also have a standard packing list and a general routine that I follow when I’m travelling. This means that I don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about logistics every time that I’m travelling.

7. Enjoy the challenge

Travelling is amazing, but not everyone likes planning trips, packing, and other holiday preparation. When you’re going to 50-odd countries though, it’s much better to enjoy the whole process! This also helps when you get towards the end and start planning trips to more inaccessible places.

8. Visit multiple countries in a single trip

We visited Finland and Estonia in one trip and the Balkans in two trips covering multiple countries. Smaller countries are easy to visit as a longer trip, and you get to see many different places at once. Just make sure to research the border crossings in advance (for example, you can’t travel from Kosovo into Serbia).

9. Bring a buddy

I love travelling by myself, but going through this amazing adventure with my husband was even better! On a more practical level, travelling with someone else is always cheaper.

10. It’s all about having fun!

Even though I have visited every European country, I also travelled to many countries I’d visited before in the same period. I wasn’t trying to complete a challenge as quickly as possible. I did it because it was fun: I like going to new places, so every new trip was an opportunity to discover somewhere different!

EXPLORING NEW FAVOURITES AND SELF CARE: What I learnt by visiting every European country

A few years ago, my husband and I decided to visit every European country. We work full-time, so years of weekend trips, 6am flights returning straight to work and many adventures followed! We have now completed our big European tour – it was so much fun! 

Here are my reflections on this experience: 

1. If you stick with your goal for long enough you can achieve it

Looking at a list of 50-ish countries years ago and deciding to visit all of them, it seemed like a huge thing to do. But once we started going to places, little by little the list got smaller and we realised that our idea was very much possible.

2. The old favourites are still favourites

We visited lots of new countries, but we also went back again and again to some of our favourite places. When people ask me about my top places, some obvious choices appear: Berlin, Paris and Barcelona are always fun!

3. But we discovered new favourites too

Vilnius in Lithuania is a cool town with a good craft beer scene. Taking the train across Transylvania was a memorable journey around scenic towns. Visiting Donetsk for the 2012 Euros (before the war) stayed with us: a unique experience of spending a lot of time in a place that doesn’t have many tourists.

4. Historical events come to life

We loved the Balkans. The Old Town of Mostar was beautiful, Croatia has amazing views, Tirana is great for bars and cafes. But travelling across the region, its history comes to life. Bosnia and Kosovo are still recovering from war. Visiting these places makes them more real.

5. Your world gets a little bigger

We often buy Romanian snacks from our corner shop, and we see familiar places in Scandi crime shows. All the places we visited are now part of our lives, and this experience means that we see the world in a different way.

6. You learn something about yourself when you travel

Travelling is probably my favourite thing to do, and I always learn something when I travel. This quote from recent Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk sums it up beautifully:

“When you’re travelling you need to take care of yourself to get by, you have to keep an eye on yourself and your place in the world. It means concentrating on yourself, thinking about yourself and looking after yourself. So when you travel all you really encounter is yourself, as if that were the whole point of it. When you’re at home you simply are, you don’t have to struggle with anything or achieve anything.”

Olga Tokarczuk

7. There is always more to explore

When I tell people I’ve now visited every European country, they often ask me what my next goal is. But of course you are never really done with travelling – there are always more places to see. Within Europe, the waterfalls of Plitvice and the national parks of Iceland have been on my list for a long time. And of course there’s a whole world out there to explore too!

DELICIOUS COFFEE AND GREEN MOUNTAINS: Kosovo on a business trip

This was my second time in Kosovo, and this time I travelled for work. The good thing about travelling for work is that you see a different side of the places you visit: you learn more from the people who live there and get to understand the culture better.

I was welcomed at the airport by a driver who shared with me a bit of the history of his family and pointed out interesting things on the road. He also bought me a great cappuccino with cream telling me that coffee is a big source of pride in Kosovo.

I stayed a couple of days in Peja, which is a famous gateway to the mountains. The town itself doesn’t have that much to offer (and the rainy weather didn’t help), but there is an old bazaar and plenty of cafes where locals hang out.

We had big dinners where people talked about everything, from preferred local dishes to the lasting effects of the war. Hearing first-hand from people who lost relatives, fled to nearby countries and had to rebuild their lives is a unique experience that changes your perspective of a place.

This was my third time in the Balkans, a region where I’ve learned a lot about history and Europe. Other than Croatia, it’s not a tourist destination for many people, but there is a lot to discover and explore.

BEAUTIFUL MOUNTAINS AND SULPHUR BATHS: Exploring Tbilisi and Georgia

Georgia was the final European country on our list! Georgia is actually between Europe and Asia, which is clear: the architecture, food and culture are western and eastern at once. You can spend a couple of days exploring Tbilisi and take a couple of tours to other regions.

It’s an interesting country where change is clearly underway. A common topic of conversation is wondering what the country will look like in a few years’ time and then agreeing this is the perfect time to visit.

Tbilisi Old Town:

Tbilisi Old Town is a mash-up of traditional architecture, rundown buildings and plenty of lively cafes and restaurants. The narrow roads are filled with cool bars and shops in the traditional architecture.

The traditional bath houses have been done up, and behind them you will find a nice path leading up to a beautiful waterfall. Or you can walk up to the Mother of Georgia statue, which is a great place to get the best views over the Old Town and the main sites. Nearby is the Botanical Garden (entry 4 GEL) and the Narikala fortress which also has great views.

Over the river you will find the unfinished Opera House which, alongside the Bridge of Peace, provides the modern background to the Old Town. It’s also fun to walk around at night to get a different view of the sites.

Orbeliani Sulphur Baths

Tbilisi is famous for its sulphur baths and Orbeliani, with its impressive mosaic facade, is the most famous one (one hour in a large private room with hot and cold pools and sauna for 120 GEL). It’s good to book at least a few hours in advance. This post explains how things work.

Eat and drink

Veganism is not a thing in Georgia but most places have plenty of options – even when they are not clearly labelled. This is a useful list of Georgian dishes that are vegan. There are also plenty of veggie options with cheese, including the famous khachapuri (bread with cheese). In the streets there are lots of places selling churchkhela, a traditional sweet with fruit and nuts which was really nice.

  • Fabrika: a popular place to hang out, this hostel is laid-back and offers loads of places to have a drink, eat and shop. It’s a bit off the Old Town, but easily accessible by Metro and located in an interesting local neighbourhood.
  • Kiwi Vegan Café: a chilled café close to Liberty Square, serving plenty of yummy options. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 35 GEL.
  • Hummus Bar: this place is slightly hidden-away, making for a quiet spot in a busy area. There are plenty of varieties of hummus – the ones we tried were delicious. A light dinner for two including drinks and tip for 46 GEL.
  • Sioni 13: a wine bar good for people-watching. A light bite for two including drinks and tip for 40 GEL.
  • Bridge Hostel: A new hostel next to Peace Bridge with a cool bar.

Day trip to Kazbegi:

We booked a tour to visit Mount Kazbegi. Georgia is famous for its mountains and landscape, and a day trip from Tbilisi is a good way to see it.

It is a long journey to Trinity Church, but the views along the way are great. The church itself is simple, but the location is amazing. From there we visited the Friendship Monument, which again is set in an impressive location with breathtaking views. We finished the day exploring Ananuri fortress and Jinvali reservoir for more great views.

This was a great trip to see the Georgian countryside. We bought this tour which was cheap and really good. It is a long day but definitely worth it!

Day trip to Mtskheta

We took another day trip to check out some other sites. We started at Uplistsikhe caves, an ancient city built on caves overlooking the countryside. From there we headed to Gori, where Stalin was born. We skipped the Stalin Museum and instead headed to the fortress, but the town doesn’t really have much to offer.

We stopped for lunch at a nearby place: a house where a local family prepared a good selection of veggie dishes, including fresh cheese and a traditional Georgian dish of aubergine and walnuts.

The next stop was Jvari Monastery, set in a hill overlooking Mtskheta, the old capital of Georgia, where we visited the local church and wandered around the little roads full of stalls selling sweets, before heading back to Tbilisi. We joined this tour.

How to do it:

  • Go: Georgian Airways is the only company offering direct flights from the UK, but it can be tricky to book through their website, so we ended up booking through lastminute.com.
  • Stay: we stayed at Betlemi which was well-located in the Old Town and had friendly service.
  • Money: prices vary significantly from place to place, but for UK standards, everything is cheap – most of our meals cost less than £15 for two people. You can change Georgian Lari at the airport, but most places accept credit cards.
  • Transportation: you can cover Tbilisi mostly on foot, but they also have a Metro network that is useful outside the Old Town. You buy a card (which can be used by multiple people) and top it up at the station. Transport from the airport is by taxi only, and you will need to negotiate (we paid 70 GEL from the airport and 40 GEL from the centre when we arranged it through our hotel).

FLYING KITES AT SUNSET: A week in Afghanistan

I went to Afghanistan for work, and it’s definitely a unique experience. As you may imagine, there isn’t much in way of tourism.

Because of security, it’s not possible to go exploring, but when you’re in a car you see glimpses of normal life: market stalls piled high with fruit, carpet sellers and all sorts of shops. But there are also plenty of security alerts and military helicopters flying overhead.

After a few days in Kabul, I flew to Masar-i-Sharif, where everyone wanted to meet us, and make sure we were well fed (we were). It was 42 degrees when we arrived and wearing a headscarf doesn’t help.

Gender segregation is very much a thing. Women don’t speak up often, and men and women are usually separated in social contexts.

Veggie food in Afghanistan is not the norm, but the dishes that are available are delicious and well-seasoned. Afghanistan is famous for its fruit, and people are proud about it: we tried melons, mangoes and peach, and everything was delicious.

In the streets of Masar you see goats, decorated tuk-tuks, and carpets being washed. Things look like they’re from a different time. At sunset, children take to the rooftops to fly kites – everyone is just trying to have a normal life.

When time came to leave to London, the sun was rising and fresh bread was being laid out for sale. I thought of this quote by Maya Angelou:

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

Maya Angelou

FRESH LEMONADE AND SUNNY DAYS: Exploring chilled Bulgaria

Bulgaria was one of the few European countries still left on our list, so we decided to check it out. We spent a few very hot days exploring beautiful Plovdiv and Sofia.

PLOVDIV

The Old Town is picturesque. The cobblestone streets and traditional architecture are the perfect setting for plenty of cafés, shops and street art. You can explore the Roman ruins and traditional houses and cool down with a glass of homemade lemonade.

  • Veggic: a vegan restaurant and café serving great variety of salads, warm dishes and desert. We even came back again the next day! Dinner for two including drinks and desert for 36 lev.
  • Central Perk: a popular Friends-themed café where you can cool down with a drink alfresco. Drinks and snacks for two including tip for 25 lev.
  • Afreddo: a popular ice cream shop with plenty of flavours and clearly labelled vegan options. Two scoops for 3 lev.

Stay: we stayed at Photo House, a traditional Bulgarian restaurant with ample rooms and great location. We paid 176 lev for two nights.

Go: there aren’t many flights to Plovdiv, so the best option is to fly to Sofia, take the metro to the Central Station then get a bus to Plovdiv. The trip takes about 2h20 and tickets cost 14 lev. Buses leave every hour or so and times are available here. From Plovdiv to Sofia, buses depart from the bus station located by the central train station throughout the afternoon. Tickets for 9.50 lev can be bought here or at the Karats kiosk by the train station.

SOFIA

We only had one afternoon in Sofia, but we covered plenty of ground. We spent a few hours exploring the city centre (which is easy to cover on foot).

We visited the Central Market, the impressive cathedral St Alexander Nevsky and the busy Boulevard Vitosha, where locals enjoyed the good weather in cool cafés. Tsar Ivan Shishman Street is full of nice shops and bars, so we spent some time wandering around.

  • Restaurant Kring: a self-service restaurant with a great selection of mostly vegan dishes. 100g for 1 lev.
  • Sun Moon: a veggie restaurant and bakery with plenty of delicious options. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 28 lev.

Stay: we stayed at Hotel Lion Sofia, which was centrally located close to the bus station.

Transportation: Sofia is easily covered on foot, but the metro is easy to navigate and covers many of the main areas. Tickets for 1.40 lev.

PIZZA AND PASTA IN ROME: Eating around Testaccio, Ostiense and more

I went to Rome for work, but had plenty of time to eat all the best food!

Testaccio and Ostiense:

Testaccio is my favourite neighbourhood in Rome, so I spent a good amount of time eating locally:

  • Casa Manco: A popular pizza stall in Testaccio Market, serving delicious and unusual combinations of pizza by the slice. Three generous portions for 10€.
  • La Fraschetta di Mastro Giorgio: A beautiful local restaurant in Testaccio serving a great selection of cheeses and delicious pasta dishes. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for 45€.
  • Pasticceria Andreotti: A local cafe and bakery in Ostiense serving an immense variety of pastries – I had the sfogliatella which was perfect. Coffee and pastry for 2€.
  • Da Remo: a lively local pizzeria in Testaccio, great for people-watching. The pizza dough is perfect. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for 26€.
  • Gelateria la Romana: we joined the large queue of this gelato place in Ostiense and were not disappointed! Great gelato and a good variety of flavours. A medium cup for 3.50€.

Around central Rome:

We also spend a good amount of time exploring other areas. Here’s where we ate:

  • Machiavelli Club: This hidden gem was a lucky find and a highlight of the trip. The seasonal menu includes plenty of veggie options, and the food was amazing. Dinner for two including drinks, desert and tip for 55€.
  • Osteria dei Cappellari: A Roman restaurant that was just the escape from the rain that we needed. The cacio e pepe was delicious, and the pistachio semifreddo was even better. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for 50€.
  • Luciano: a modern Italian restaurant without many tourists. The menu is short but the food is delicious. A light dinner for two for 40€ including drinks and tip.
  • Il Focolare: a local restaurant in a quiet area of Trastevere where local families enjoy the weekend lunch. Lunch for two including a great pinsa (a type of Roman pizza) for 28€ including drinks and tip.

Villa Doria Pamphili:

To enjoy the sunny day, we visited this huge park with a beautiful villa and plenty of greenery. A good option to enjoy a sunny day off the beaten track!