This was my second Christmas in Rome. It’s a good place to visit this time of the year as there is plenty to do (including on Christmas Day itself) and the weather is very mild.
The main attractions are closed on Christmas day, but in the city centre there is plenty to do. It was a sunny day so we went for a picnic at Villa Borghese where plenty of families and tourists were enjoying a nice day out.
Attractions off the beaten track:
I know Rome well, so I prefer to avoid the crowds and check out some new sights.
Galleria Sciarra: a beautifully decorated building that not many tourists know about. A nice place to escape the crowds in central Rome.
Centrale Montemartini: This museum in an old powerhouse has an impressive collection of sculptures in a modern space. Tickets for €11.
I visited Palazzo Quirinale, which was hosting an exhibition about the volcanic eruptions of Pompeii and Santorini. It is a beautiful space and a nice place to check out for something different. Tickets €15 (or €8 at lunchtime during the week).
I always have a long list of food places to visit when I’m in Rome.
Seu Pizza Illuminati: this place has been on my list for a couple of years, but it was definitely worth the wait. They serve a mix of traditional and unusual pizzas, as well as a good selection of starters and deserts. Highly recommended. Dinner for two including drinks, dessert and tip for €50. Booking essential.
Necci: Pigneto is an up-and-coming neighbourhood, famous for its cool cafés and shops. When we visited most things were closed for the holidays, but the popular Necci was open, so we stopped there for coffee. Two coffees and a cake for €8.80.
La Forchetta: a local restaurant in Prati serving a good selection of traditional Italian food. Dinner for two including drinks, dessert and tip for €52.
Guttilla: a gelato place serving a delicious selection of flavours (a cup for €2.20).
Cresci: a nice local bar with a good selection of tapas and plenty of other options. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for €30.
Tulum had been on my list for years, and it lived up to my expectations. This relaxed town is famous for Mayan ruins overlooking the sea and perfect sandy beaches.
Tulum’s archaeological site is the postcard view of the town. The site opens at 8am (tickets $75) and it’s good to arrive early to beat the crowds. The site is well-preserved and picturesque. It’s located a bit off the town centre, but easily reached by taxi (we paid $90) or colectivo buses.
Near the archaeological zone are some great beaches. We visited Pescadores which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (and it looks it). The water is warm and there are plenty of boat tours available. It is the perfect image of a Mexican beach that you may have in your head.
Tulum town centre is full of nice cafés, souvenir shops and plenty of veggie restaurants. We visited a couple of nice places:
El Vegetariano: a laid-back vegetarian restaurant in the town centre serving a selection of vegan dishes. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for $380.
Co.con Amor: a vegetarian restaurant set in a beautiful garden in Tulum town. Large portions and delicious food. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for $410.
HOW TO DO IT:
Go: Tulum is well-connected by ADO bus to the main cities in the region.
Stay: we stayed at Biwa which was well-located in the town centre, had good service and excellent facilities. Alternatively there are plenty of other options close to the beach as well.
TRAVELLING AROUND YUCATAN – HOW TO DO IT:
We spent ten days travelling around Mexico, and it was a great experience. This is how we did it:
Itinerary planning: we travelled independently, but followed broadly this itinerary. The best way to get to Yucatán is to fly to Cancun (buses connect the airport with Cancun bus station and Playa del Carmen, where you can travel on to other destinations).
Travelling around: We used ADO bus to get around. Tickets can be booked online from 1 to 2 months before travelling, or directly at the station. The buses are comfortable, have air-con and are generally on time. For shorter routes colectivo minibuses are available and are pretty cheap. Speaking Spanish makes travelling easier as usually people only speak basic English.
Money: things are cheaper than in the UK. Many places accept credit cards, but for smaller purchases cash is ideal, and low denominations is preferred.
Food: Mexican food has plenty of veggie dishes, but these aren’t always clearly labelled. We had no problem asking for modifications to make dishes vegan, but speaking Spanish helps. Happy Cow has good options in most places. We ate very well, and particularly enjoyed the plentiful breakfasts, horchata and vegan tacos.
Bacalar is famous for its beautiful lagoon of turquoise waters. It’s a picturesque place with the most amazing views.
The water in the lagoon is very warm so you can spend a long time bobbing around and trying to spot the seven shades of blue for which Bacalar is famous.
There are many places for swimming (many are paid but it’s generally cheap: we went to Balneario Magico which charged $20 and had a restaurant, parasols, boats and kayaks for hire). You can also go in a boat trip to different parts of the lagoon. We hired a kayak ($200 for one hour) to reach the Canal de los Piratas, a shallow area with very clear water.
Other than exploring the lagoon there isn’t much to do, but you can visit Fort San Felipe (tickets $100) to get great views of the lagoon. The square in front of it is lively in the evenings as there are many restaurants and stalls selling food and handicraft.
La Playita: this beautiful restaurant overlooking the lagoon offers plenty of vegan options on its menu. Food is delicious. Dinner for two including drinks and tip for $405.
Mango y Chile: a popular vegan place serving burgers, tacos and a great selection of smoothies. Meal for two including drinks for $390.
We heard about Calakmul and decided we wanted to check it out. Ka’an Expeditions have a popular tour so we booked a day trip with them.
Calakmul is an impressive Mayan city in the middle of the jungle. You can climb the different pyramids to get amazing views over the jungle and Mayan buildings nearby. There are plenty of howler and spider monkeys on the trees, and you also get to see the local flora and fauna.
It gets very hot, and there are plenty of mosquitoes, but when we visited the rain helped cool us down. Calakmul is very remote so there are few tourists around. It’s a great place to visit to see Mayan ruins without the crowds.
HOW TO DO IT:
Stay: we stayed at Sun Ha which was well-located, had terrace views over the lagoon and friendly service.
Go: Bacalar can be reached by ADO bus from Merida and other popular locations in the area.
Calakmul: Ka’an Expeditions has day trips which include pick up from cities in the region, a four-hour walk of the site, snacks, a light lunch and entrance to the different attractions. Our guide was knowledgeable and we had plenty of time to explore.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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!