Reykjavik has a small but vibrant city centre, with plenty of restaurants, cafes and shops to explore. Spend some time walking around Laugavegur (I ended up buying a coat at Icewear) or stopping at the local sights.
Hallgrimskirkja: This church that can be spotted across Reykjavik is a great viewpoint. Take the lift to the bell tower on a sunny day for the best views of the city centre and its colourful architecture.
Harpa: The famous Opera house is an attraction in itself, an impressive feature of the Reykjavik coast. Nearby is the Sun Voyager, a sculpture of a Viking ship overlooking the sea.
Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach
A bit off the city centre, this beach is popular with locals, with three heated areas for swimming, including a hot pool where you can keep warm even in the winter. Entry is free in the summer, and there are lockers to rent for a small fee. Nearby is Perlan, a museum set in within a beautiful local park.
Food and drink
Mama Reykjavik: A vegan restaurant in a central location with a varied selection. The famous cheesecake is delicious.
Gardurinn: A friendly place with a homely feel serving generous portions of a small and tasty daily menu.
Chickpea: A veggie cafe serving generous portions of falafels and other sandwiches.
Skuli: A cool bar with an impressive selection of local and imported beers.
How to do it
We booked flights, accommodation and excursions through Icelandair, as it is simple to organise a trip through their website. It is very easy to travel around Iceland, as different travel agencies all coordinate tours with local hotels.
There are different options to choose from, but all offer similar options. Reykjavik Excursions is one of the main local providers.
We stayed at Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura (slightly off the city centre, but still within walking distance). The breakfast was generous and delicious, and the spa was worth a visit (great price for about £18).
I had been to Iceland before. Then, it was a winter trip to see the northern lights. It was a memorable holiday, and I knew I wanted to return for a summer adventure, when milder weather makes it easier to explore the island.
I’ve always wanted to go whale-watching, and a milestone birthday celebration in Iceland was the perfect opportunity. It is an excellent place for whale watching in the summer, when the chances of spotting different species are very high.
We saw humpback and minke whales, as well as dolphins – all surrounded by playful puffins and the atmospheric landscape of the coast off Reyjkavik.
After a couple of hours of spotting these beautiful animals, the boat returned to the harbour and we decided to warm up in the cafe below deck. As we sat down and watched seagulls bobbing in the sea, a minke whale swam by a couple of times, mostly unnoticed by others around us, and we marvelled at this little private show.
Whales of Iceland experience
Our whale-watching trip also included tickets to the Whales of Iceland, a museum with life-size models of whales. It is a good attraction to go to right after seeing the animals in real life, but a short visit is sufficient.
The exhibition is located inside a warehouse in an area full of independent shops and restaurants, and a stop at the local chocolate factory Omnom is a must. It is a popular stop where you can buy a huge variety of chocolate bars and try their delicious ice cream.
Golden Circle and the Secret Lagoon
Not far from Reyjkavik, the Golden Circle is a popular region to visit, with many iconic highlights from Iceland.
Our tour started at Þingvellir National Park, which is where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. We then visited Strokkur Geyser, located in an area full of thermal activity, where hot water and steam spouts from the ground at regular intervals.
The next step was Gullfoss, a huge waterfall with amazing views.
The tour ended at the Secret Lagoon, a thermal pool that is perfect for a relaxing break at the end of a day of exploring. It is smaller and less busy than the famous Blue Lagoon, but you benefit from fewer tourists and a more authentic experience.
How to do it
It is very easy to book different tours in Iceland, as all the main companies work with hotels to coordinate everything. We booked both of our tours with Icelandair when planning our trip. The whale-watching trip was done with Special Tours and we visited the Golden Circle with Reykjavik Sightseeing.
This was my first European break since the start of the pandemic! As I do when I’m in Rome, I spent a lot of time trying new food and visiting some old favourites.
Garbatella, Ostiense and Testaccio
My favourite area of Rome is around Testaccio and Ostiense. This time I also spent some time exploring Garbatella, another local neighbourhood. There you will find the Mercatino Usato, a second-hand shop where you can spend hours among all sorts of antiques.
And I added a couple of new places to my list of favourites:
Marigoldis the best place for an upscale brunch, with countless options of delicious treats (the tebirke is highly recommended)
Pizzeria Ostiense not only serves amazing pizza (and the best potato croquette), but it’s also an ideal place for people-watching.
Not far from Testaccio is the beautiful Giardino degli Aranci, a garden with amazing views over the city. It is next to the Buco di Roma, where you get an impressive view of St Peter’s Basilica through a keyhole.
Trastevere is a popular area for dining, and although I try to stay away from the places with the long queues of tourists, there are many good stops around.
Seu Pizza Illuminati is one of my favourites, with a long menu of unusual and consistently delicious flavours. You will need to book in advance.
Otaleg is a small and popular gelato shop that has a great selection of ice cream flavours.
On Sundays, the Porta Portese market takes over the streets, with countless stalls selling all sorts of mostly Chinese goods. It’s worth a visit, but you might not want to stay very long.
I also spend a lot of time walking around new and old places, as Rome is a great city to explore on foot. Around Campo di Fiori we had gelato at Marave, which has a great selection of flavours, including a signature one which is worth trying.
Terrazza des Etoiles is a hotel bar and restaurant that is also open to the public. Grab a drink with an amazing view over St Peter’s basilica, and enjoy a moment of calm away from the crowds.
We decided to spend the weekend in Twickenham for a change of scenery. The area has plenty of local restaurants, particularly around Church Street, and there are lots of green spaces by the Thames. We were lucky with the weather, so we enjoyed plenty of time in the sunshine by the river.
The beautiful garden around York House is a popular option. You can grab a coffee at The Stables Café to drink by the river at Marble Hill Park, or take a walk on the Thames path and cross the river to reach Richmond.
We took advantage of the recent changes to local restrictions to visit local food places:
Sidra: a Lebanese café serving a great selection of mezze. Very generous portions. Lunch for two for £21.
Ruben’s Bakehouse: a local bakery and pizza place. The long queue in the morning was a great sign, and I was not disappointed. Great selection of pastries and bread.
Avocado & Lemon: a nice place for brunch with plenty of delicious vegan options. Brunch for two for £24.
Thakers: a veggie South Indian street food place with a great selection. Takeaway meal for two (with plenty of leftovers) for £39.
It was great having a little holiday, even without going far. I can’t wait for more of this in the near future!
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.