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.
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.
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!
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.
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).