JUMPERS IN THE HEAT AND THE LARGEST BOOK IN THE WORLD: Quick stop in Mandalay

mandalay 01

Mandalay is not super easy to like – walking downtown there doesn’t seem to be that much to do, and the busy roads are not in great condition. But you do find interesting things around, like the odd street market with nice food stalls.

I was unlucky with the weather in Mandalay as it was cloudy and a bit rainy (very cold for locals at 22 degrees). So I skipped Mandalay Hill as I wouldn’t get much of a view and instead explored the pagodas at the foot of the hill, including Kothodaw pagoda that has a claim to fame as being ‘the largest book in the world’.

mandalay 04

I don’t think Mandalay is a necessary stop in a trip to Myanmar, but as I walked around the city grew on me. The area to the east of Mandalay Palace has less traffic and so is nicer to explore on foot.

For dinner I went to the popular Mingalabar, a restaurant serving delicious food with the most insanely large portions (a small feast for one including drinks and tip for 9,500MMK).

mandalay 03

I stayed at Diamonds Inn, a really nice hotel ($25 per night including breakfast) that was centrally located and perfect for a break after a hot day exploring.

I went for a foot massage at Innwa and it was great. The service was excellent and it cost only 7,000MMK (about £4!).

mandalay 02

Advertisements

COOL RESTAURANTS AND A LIVELY PAGODA: A good time in Yangon

yangon 009

I didn’t have very high expectations about Yangon and I was pleasantly surprised.

Downtown Yangon is easy to navigate and you can go everywhere on foot (if you can stand the heat). It’s definitely not as busy as other cities in Southeast Asia. It’s a mix of large roads with big offices and little streets with food and vegetable stalls. You can lose yourself for a few hours covering the many different areas to see.

yangon 002

Bogyoke Aung San Market is a large market selling lots of different types of handicraft, and a good place to explore even if you’re not planning to buy anything.

Shwedagon Pagoda is the main highlight of Yangon. To avoid the heat it’s best to visit at sunset, and you also get to see the lights come on when it’s dark. The place is incredible, there are lots of amazing buildings and you can easily spend a few hours taking in all the details and people-watching.

yangon 004

yangon 005

yangon 007

yangon 011

yangon 012

Sule pagoda: this is not the most impressive pagoda (tickets 2,000MMK), but it’s worth a visit as it’s quite central. Next to it there’s a big park and lots of street food stalls.

yangon 001

Health Blessing: at the end of my trip I decided to visit this massage spa for a foot massage (1h for 12,000MMK). The service was very good and they have many locations around Yangon.

Circular line: You can take a train around Yangon. It takes 3h for the full loop, and you see busy markets, farmland and people going about their lives. Inside the train, people selling all sorts of snacks come and go. My carriage was taken over by vegetables being taken to markets, which was an unusual sight (but there are many). This is definitely a fun thing to do in Yangon. Buy your ticket for 200MMK at platform 7 at the Central Station. It’s best to go early to avoid the heat.

yangon 016

yangon 015

It’s easy to spend a few days in Yangon – underneath the surface, there are lots of cool places: nice restaurants and a modern feel to Myanmar living.

yangon 003

Food:

  • Nourish is a vegan place catering for expats and tourists. The food is good (meal with a drink for 14,500MMK, expensive for Myanmar) and it’s a good place to go for a change. They also have a yoga studio on site.
  • Monsoon is a nice restaurant serving food from Myanmar and beyond. Friendly service and big portions (lunch for 10,500MMK).
  • Kafe in Town: this is a great spot for coffee and dessert (for 6,500MMK). It’s a brand new cafe where you can chill and lounge about for a bit.

yangon 014

yangon 013

COCKTAILS BY THE ACROPOLIS AND TOO MANY CAKES: Food and drink in Athens

athens 003

Athens is full of amazing places to eat and drink. Cafes are everywhere, serving great coffee and even better cakes and sweets. Here are my favourites:

DESSERT:

MELIARTOS

Meliartos is a bakery selling all sorts of sandwiches, cakes, coffee and ice cream. There’s lots on offer at the shop downstairs and table service upstairs. I had a delicious feta filo pastry and coffee (7.50€ including tip). Then I came back for some cake (a generous slice for 3.80€).

athens 007

LUKUMADES

The most popular dessert place in Athens, Lukumades is a great place to visit. They serve the Greek equivalent of donuts, and they’re really delicious. There are many flavours (I chose the ones with honey and cinnamon – 3.20€ for 10 little donuts), and portions are huge! They are made to order and served hot, which is really nice.

ZUCCHERINO

Zuccherino is a nice ice cream and dessert shop in a cute square close to Ermou street. Their ice cream is really delicious and creamy, and their desserts are also yummy (unnecessarily huge portions for 3.80€).

athens 019

FRESKO

There are many places to try Greek yogurt in Athens, but Fresko is one of the most popular. I tried the one with honey and walnuts (3.20€ for the small size), and it was really creamy and delicious.

ASSIMAKOPOULOS BAKERY

I ended up here because I read something about it online, but it is located in a bit of a rough area. This is a traditional pastry shop and bakery with the most amazing displays. I tried a pistachio mousse (cheap at 3.40€) which was absolutely amazing!

athens 038

BARS:

  • BRETTOS: Brettos comes up in any list of Athens recommendations, and it’s a definite must. They distil their own liquor and also have a huge wine and cocktail list. Plus their colourful display of bottles is so cool! Cocktails for 8€.
  • SIX DOGS: This popular bar is Athens’ equivalent of a ruin bar. The place looks really cool and gets quite busy. Drinks for around 5€.
  • CITI ZEN: You need to go up to the fourth floor to get to Citi Zen, but when you get there, you are greeted with the most amazing views of the Acropolis (make sure to sit outside)! Drinks for 6€.

athens 040

FOOD:

MAMA ROUX: I found this place by chance on my last day and it was a great find. It’s a popular brunch and cocktails place serving international food, and they have plenty of veggie and vegan options (meal and drink for one, including tip for 15€).

FALAFEL HOUSE: This veggie falafel place serving wraps and salads was really good – and cheap: dishes cost 3€ to 3.50€ and portions are massive.

athens 023

AVOCADO: Located between Syntagma Square and the Plaka, Avocado is a great veggie restaurant (dinner for two including drinks and tip for 34€). The food is delicious and the menu very varied.

ZAHARI & ALATI: This little cafe serving mostly vegan food is a great find. The food is delicious and portions are generous. Lunch for two including drinks and tip for 21€.

athens 005

HOW TO DO IT:

STAY: I stayed at two Airbnbs and both were good (prices were great). This place was perfect in terms of location – the Plaka is definitely the best choice as you can explore everything on foot easily.

WHEN TO GO: I visited in November, and I got some bad weather. But other than a few days of rain, this was a good time to visit as temperatures are still 10-20 degrees and it’s low season. For travelling around it’s best to visit between March and October as transportation to Greek Islands or to tourist sites in mainland Greece is mostly seasonal.

TRANSPORTATION: You can cover pretty much all of the key areas of Athens on foot. The metro network is good but doesn’t go everywhere (single tickets 1.40€, tickets to the airport 10€).

athens 015

athens 016

DORIC COLUMNS AND SCENIC VIEWS OF THE PARTHENON: Highlights of Athens

athens 041

Athens is a lively and interesting city. The Acropolis provides a scenic backdrop to the city, but in truth Athens is not as focused on its past as other places (like Rome).

There are many different places to explore, the Plaka with its traditional streets, Meliartos with its cool cafes and bars. But Athens is not a place for doing lots – it’s a place to slow down with a cup of coffee and cake, preferably with a view of the Parthenon.

athens 001

ACROPOLIS

Athens’ most famous attraction is the Acropolis. Hosting the Parthenon and other temples, it really is an impressive sight. To get there you need to go up a hill, and along the way you already get great views over Athens.

athens 014

Tickets cost only 10€ during the winter (November to March), and you also avoid most of the crowds.

There are a few different things to see at the Acropolis, the Temple of Athena, the Theatre of Dionysus and, of course, the Parthenon.

athens 017

The Parthenon itself has been going through a big renovation project over many years, so inevitably there are cranes around it. You still get a feel for the scale of it though.

athens 008

athens 009

athens 010

athens 011

athens 012

ACROPOLIS MUSEUM

Near the Acropolis is the interesting Acropolis Museum (tickets 5€). It hosts all sort of objects from the Acropolis, from statues from the Parthenon to vases and household objects.

athens 013

It is a new museum which opened in 2009, and there are lots of explanations and videos, many of them highlighting the pillaging of key features of the Parthenon (British Museum, I’m looking at you).

It is a great place to visit right after you see the Acropolis as the two really complement each other – and you even get views of the Acropolis from the museum.

athens 006

PLAKA

Plaka is a pedestrianised area of Athens at the bottom of the Acropolis. It is full of pedestrianised streets with little souvenir shops and taverns, and it looks like what you’d imagine Greece to look like. Even though it’s at the heart of the city, it feels like you’re in a small town – it reminded me a bit of the Old Town in Dubrovnik.

athens 028

You can definitely spend a few hours wandering around and exploring the little streets during the day, or stopping for drinks in the evening. It’s also a great place to stay as it’s very centrally located and close to many of Athens’ attractions.

athens 039

TEMPLE OF OLYMPIAN ZEUS AND HADRIAN’S ARCH

Very close to the Plaka you can find the Temple of Olympian Zeus (ticket 3€) and Hadrian’s Arch (free of charge). These are impressive ruins which are conveniently located with the Acropolis in the background.

The most interesting thing about these is the scale. They are definitely worth a visit but you don’t need more than 20 minutes to see both.

athens 021

athens 024

athens 025

athens 020

athens 018

ANCIENT AGORA

The ancient Agora of Athens (tickets 4€) is a large archaeological site not far from the Acropolis. The site has lots of columns, a museum and marble statues. The main highlight of this site is the temple of Hephaestus, which is the best preserved temple of its kind, and it does look really nice.

athens 032

athens 034

athens 036

athens 037

ROMAN AGORA

Just a few hundred metres from the Ancient Agora is the Roman Agora (tickets 3€) which is a smaller but interesting site, with a range of ruins. It includes the Tower of the Winds, an octagonal clock tower with a really nice design

athens 030

OTHER ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES

Hadrian’s Library and the Kerameikos Cemetery are two other sites to visit in central Athens. I chose not to go into either as you can get a good view of what they offer from the outside. I also thought that the other sites in Athens didn’t offer much in way of explanation, so once you have a look at the ruins you already got all the value from the site.

athens 002

NATIONAL GARDEN

Located behind Syntagma square, the National Garden is a beautiful urban park, full of gardens, lively birds and people running around. When I visited it was autumn, so you got a beautiful effect with the leaves falling. A great place to check out for a couple of relaxing hours.

athens 033

PANATHENAIC STADIUM

Athens is rightly proud of its Olympic past, and you get a glimpse of that at the Panathenaic Stadium, which was built for the first modern Olympic Games. You can pay to go in (tickets 5€), but in reality you can see the whole stadium from the outside which is what most people do.

athens 004

SYNTAGMA SQUARE, MONASTIRAKI AND PSYRI

Syntagma Square is the central square of Athens. It is close to the Plaka and it leads to Ermou street, which is full of the high street shops you see anywhere in Europe. But the area around it, Monastiraki, is also full of really cool bars and cafes, always busy with people having a drink and eating some cake.

Nearby Psyri is home to lots of traditional tavernas and cafes, busy with people and live music.

athens 029

MOUNT LYCABETTUS

The best view of Athens, and particularly the Acropolis, is from Mount Lycabettus. You need to climb up some steps, but the hike up is really nice with great views and – weirdly – the odd tortoise passing by. From the top you see the Parthenon, all the main ruins scattered around Athens, the Panathenaic Stadium and all the way to the sea.

It is a lovely place to visit on a sunny day!

athens 026

athens 027

FILOPAPPOU HILL

Filopappou Hill, or Hill of the Muses, is another great place to get a good view of Athens and the Acropolis. The hill itself is not that high, but it’s located right across from the Acropolis, so you see the ruins on one side and the sea on the other.

A good thing about this place is that it’s right next to the Acropolis Museum, so it’s easily accessible on a day of sightseeing.

athens 031

NATIONAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM

The National Archaeological Museum (tickets 5€) is a bit further from most other attractions in Greece, but it does have an impressive collection. It is home to lots of ancient statues and all the amphorae you may need.

The display itself could use a few more explanations of the context of the objects, but it’s still worth a visit.

athens 035

MUSEUM OF CYCLADIC ART

The Museum of Cycladic Art (ticket 7€) is famous for the figurines of white marble on display. These are interesting and they do have a nice collection, but they also have an interesting display of classic Greek household objects, with interesting explanations bringing it all to life.

BENAKI MUSEUM

The Benaki Museum (tickets usually 9€, but when I visited it was free for some reason) also has a good collection of Greek artefacts, from the antiquity to the XIX century. The museum is located in a beautiful building not far from Syntagma square and it’s worth a visit if you’re in Athens for a good amount of time.

QUIET PONDS AND MANICURED TREES: Exploring magical zen gardens in Tokyo

tokyo 004

Traditional Japanese Gardens are great places to relax in Tokyo. They’re usually not very busy and visited mostly by locals.

tokyo 002

KIYOSUMI GARDEN

I decided to visit this place as it was close to where I was staying. What a wonderful surprise!

This is a picture-perfect XIX century Japanese garden, and you can spend a couple of hours taking in the manicured landscape, watching tortoises and carp laze about and having a picnic with a view (tickets Y150). This was the first Japanese garden I visit and one of my favourites.

tokyo 005

tokyo 006

tokyo 007

KOISHIKAWA KORAKUEN

I visited Koishikawa Korakuen Garden (ticket Y300) at the end of my Japanese adventure, and it was one of my favourite places!

This is a massive Japanese garden full of little gems – waterfalls, red bridges, lakes, fruits trees etc. I visited on a beautiful sunny day in early November, when you could catch the red tint of autumn leaves which made it the perfect time for a visit.

tokyo 065

tokyo 069

The place is pretty big, so you can spend an hour or two exploring and having a snack enjoying the view.

Japanese gardens are always amazing, but this one was probably my favourite!

tokyo 066

tokyo 067

tokyo 068

RIKUGIEN

Rikugien Garden (tickets Y300) is inspired by scenes in Japanese poems. It is a large garden full of little places to explore, including a human-made hill with great views over the garden and a little waterfall.

It’s located in a quiet neighbourhood but definitely worth the trip.

tokyo 059

tokyo 058

HAMARIKYU 

Close to Tsukiji Market, Hamarikyu is a nice green area in central Tokyo (tickets Y300). The place is really big, with many ponds (filled with water from Tokyo Bay), traditional buildings and cafes.

As it covers a large area, it’s more like an urban park than a garden, and as you take in the quiet atmosphere you also see the contrasting skyscrapers nearby.

tokyo 017

SHINJUKU GYOEN NATIONAL GARDEN

Gyoen Garden (tickets Y200) is another place to escape the madness. It’s a quiet garden right by Shinjuku with lots of different areas, including a traditional Japanese garden. It’s the perfect place to recharge with a picnic.

tokyo 031

tokyo 032

tokyo 033

Tokyo doesn’t have many green areas, but its gardens really are the best!

HANGING OUT WITH TOTORO AND A TEMPLE FOR CATS: Tokyo off the beaten track

Tokyo has lots of different areas, but many visitors don’t get to explore much outside the tourist trail. These are some cool places I went to in Tokyo:

tokyo 036

GHIBLI MUSEUM

Even before I went to Japan I knew I wanted to visit the Ghibli Museum, but it was still better than I expected!

The museum is located in a park in Mitaka, and even from the outside the place already looks great. Inside, over three floors there are a range of exhibits about the different Studio Ghibli movies, as well as a cool shop and a cafe.

tokyo 052

There’s also a cinema where you watch a short film (in Japanese, but you understand the story from the context). The building is really cool with lots of little nooks and an architecture that brings the displays to life and replicates the atmosphere from Ghibli films.

Tickets cost Y1000 but need to be purchased well in advance on specific dates via this website. They sell out really quickly, which means staying up until 3 or 4am in Europe to get them when they first become available.

kyoto 107

DAIKANYAMA AND SENDAGAYA

I decided to follow the walking tour directions from my excellent Monocle travel guide.

Daikanyama is a cool upmarket neighbourhood full of shops and cafes. The best thing there is the flagship branch of Tsutaya bookshop – two huge floors of inspiration with books (many in English), design objects, a music shop, lounge and lots of sitting space where you can read a book with a cup of coffee. It’s a great find.

Sendagaya is an unassuming area not far from Shibuya. Here you can find little independent shops and many restaurants.

Both areas were good for seeing a chilled side of Tokyo off the beaten track.

tokyo 042

SUMIDA HOKUSAI MUSEUM

I was planning to visit the Edo Tokyo Museum but it was closed for refurbishment. Luckly, there was a sign nearby with directions to the Sumida Hokusai Museum, so I decided to check it out. This is a small but well put-together space, focusing on Hokusai’s life in the area around Sumida, the river that inspired many of his works (tickets Y1200 including temporary exhibitions).

TSUKISHIMA

Built with reclaimed land in the XIX century, Tsukishima is an island in Tokyo Bay. The area is full of cool cafes and restaurants, and little alleyways where locals live. It’s a great place to wander around for a bit, and off the beaten track.

tokyo 016

GOTOKUJI TEMPLE

Gotokuji is a nice and fun temple to visit in Tokyo. It’s not as impressive as some other temples, but it’s located in a quiet neighbourhood so it’s a good place for a break. The best thing about it are the many Menekineko (cat figurines) displayed around the site. This popular luck amulet is said to have originated here and has become its symbol.

tokyo 056

tokyo 054

tokyo 053

AIN SOPH SOAR

There are a few Ain Soph restaurants in Tokyo, and we visited Ain Soph Soar in Ikebukuro. This is a cool restaurant serving international food and it’s fully vegan.

We had cheese fondue, pasta and their signature pancakes for dessert, and all of it was great. Their Moscow Mule was really delicious too (dinner for two including drinks for Y6300). It’s a great place to visit for a special meal.

tokyo 055

FISH MARKETS AND BIG WHEELS: Tokyo diaries part 4

tokyo 035

TSUKIJI MARKET

One of Tokyo’s most famous attractions is the Tsukiji fish market. People can visit the auction in the early hours of the morning, but I decided to visit the outer area of the market later instead.

Very close to the market is Tsukiji Hongwanji, a Buddhist temple which is not super-impressive but worth a quick stop.

Reaching the market you get to experience the kind of Asian street food you see on tv. You can try fresh sushi, taste local fruit and sample mochi, the famous rice sweets. There are lots of unusual vegetables for sale, although these can be very expensive. Even for a veggie, it was a great place to visit, with lots to see.

tokyo 029

SKYTREE

There are many places to see Tokyo from above, and the Skytree is one of the most famous. I decided not to enter (I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which is free instead), but spent some time exploring the area around it.

There’s a huge shopping centre under it, with lots of shops selling anything from traditional Japanese handicraft to Hello Kitty merchandise.

tokyo 011

TOKYO TOWER AND ZIGOJI

Tokyo Tower is another famous observation deck. The structure looks a bit like the Eiffel Tower, but in red and white. I chose not to climb it either, but on a sunny day the view is supposed to be really good.

tokyo 023

The Zogoji temple is a great place to visit if you’re going to the Tokyo Tower, as you get a nice contrast of old and modern with the temple right in front of Tokyo Tower. There are also lots of little statues with bibs that are really cute and cool.

tokyo 024

tokyo 025

ROPPONGI

A popular area for going out, Roppongi is a nice neighbourhood full or bars and restaurants. It’s also home to Roppongi Hills, which hosts a massive shopping cenrtre and the Mori Art Museum (ticket Y1000), a modern art museum with lots of cool exhibitions. As it’s located on the 52nd floor, you also get amazing views over the city.

tokyo 027

Not too far from Roppongi is Asakasa, an upmarket office area which also has some shrines – I visited Hie Shrine which was very nice.

ODAIBA

By Tokyo Bay, Odaiba is an area with lots of shopping centres and some local attractions. The shopping centres are what you’d expect, but the massive Gundam statue in front of them is worth a visit.

tokyo 060

The Miraikan – National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation – is a fun place to visit (tickets Y620). There are lots of interactive scientific displays, which are exactly what you’d expect of Japanese innovation. But the main attraction is definitely Asimo, the Honda robot that can hop on one leg.

tokyo 019

tokyo 018

Odaiba is also home to a Ferris wheel which was the tallest in the world when it was built. At 115m high it really is huge, and on a sunny day you get amazing views over the bay (tickets Y920).

tokyo 063

You can also get great views over the impressive Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Bay from the promenade next to Aqua City, which aside from the views also has an inexplicable replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Odaiba is not a must see in Tokyo but it’s worth the visit if you have many days in the city.

tokyo 062

tokyo 061