CRAFT BEER AND FREEZING TEMPERATURES: A weekend in Riga

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We went to Riga on a quick break in mid-March and were greeted with subzero temperatures! Still it was a nice place for a weekend away and we had fun exploring. The city has lots of really cool bars and restaurants and a great craft beer scene.

These are our favourite places:

Central Market

This market is one of the most popular attractions in Riga and it’s definitely worth a visit. There are lots of fruit and vegetable stalls selling all sorts of local produce including mountains of pickles.

Inside the market we found Labietis, a local brewery offering lots of delicious beers. You can have a drink on the spot or fill a litre bottle to take home.

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Old Town

Riga’s Old Town is small but pretty, and you can spend some time looking at the nice architecture or taking a walk by the river. It’s the best area to stay as everything is within walking distance.

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Skyline Bar

A popular place for brunch and cocktails, this bar at the Radisson has great views over the city and it’s a great place to chill for a couple of hours. A bit pricey for Riga standards but definitely worth it (2 drinks and tip for 15€).

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Folkklubs ALA Pagrabs

This huge and popular underground bar has a great selection of local beers and other drinks. It is very cheap – even more at happy hour when you can get a beer for just 1.80€.

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Fat Pumpkin

This veggie restaurant serving delicious food and plenty of vegan cakes is a great find (dinner for two including dessert and tip for 42€).

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Miit Coffee

This is a nice veggie place. Their brunch costs 9.50€ and it includes lots of delicious salads and fruit.

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Indian Raja

The veggie place we were going to was closed, so we ended up at Indian Raja. This restaurant served lots of yummy food, including a delicious naan bread filled with potatoes (dinner for 2 including drinks and tip for 35€).

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WINTER SUNSHINE AND GLAMOUR: A weekend in Nice and Monaco

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We decided to go to Nice in February for a bit of winter sun – it was beautiful!

We arrived in the afternoon and had time for a nice walk by the Promenade des Anglais. The architecture there is really amazing.

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In the evening we went to the Old Town, exploring the little streets with cool bars and restaurants. We quickly found our favourite place: Distilleries Ideales, a great bar with an impressive choice for beers, cocktails and wine (two drinks for 7.80€ plus tip).

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In the morning we hopped on a train to Monte Carlo (7.80€ return per person). The trip from Nice takes only 24 minutes and goes through beautiful beaches, so it’s definitely worth it.

Monaco itself is what you’d expect, other than spotting Ferraris and yachts there isn’t that much to do, but it’s fun to recognise all the places from the Formula 1 GP.

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In the evening we headed back to Nice Old Town, where the crowds were getting ready for the carnival parade. We went back to Distilleries Ideales for a couple of drinks, then we had dinner at Delhi Belhi, which despite the name served delicious Indian food (dinner for two including tip for 42€).

On Sunday we started the day visiting the impressive Russian Orthodox church. We then headed to the Marc Chagall museum, which is small but has a good selection of his paintings (tickets for 10€).

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We headed back to the Old Town where we had lunch at Caju, a vegan cafe with great food and friendly service (lunch for two including dessert and tip for 35€). They suggested we should check Castle Hill nearby, where there is a waterfall and great views over the city and the promenade.

We finished our little break joining the crowds by the promenade as they left the carnival parade and we boarded the bus back to the airport.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Stay: We stayed at an Airbnb flat close to the station. The location was good but it was really noisy at night. But there are lots of options to choose from and they are not necessarily that expensive.
  • When to go: We went in February, which is definitely off season but the weather was a pleasant 15 degrees. During low season it’s best to stick to the main areas of the city centre and Old Town as otherwise restaurants and shops may not be open.
  • Get around: Nice’s centre is easily accessible on foot. The city is also served by a good network of busses. You can get a bus to and from the airport for 6€ each way (the ride only takes 20 minutes). Nice is also a good gateway to other destinations in Cote D’Azur, such as Monaco and Cannes, so it’s a good base from where to explore the region.

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SANGRIA BREAKS AND MODERNIST TILES: A weekend in Barcelona

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For our first trip of the year, we decided to go to Barcelona for a chilled weekend. Barcelona is always great, and it was just what we wanted!

On our first day we hit the city centre to check out some highlights. We started at la Rambla and Barrio Gotico, then made our way to Barcelona Cathedral. We stopped for lunch of delicious vegan burgers and beers at Cat Bar, which is great (service was okay) – lunch for two including beers and tip for 25€.

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We wandered around and ended up at culture centre El Born, an amazing market where you can see ruins of old Barcelona.

In the evening we reached Barceloneta, where we watched surfers brave the cold as the sun set. We stopped for drinks at Bar Celoneta, a vegan sangria bar that served delicious food (and definitely the best sangria I’ve had, although I’m no expert!) – tapas and a pitcher of sangria for two for 40€ including tip.

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We woke up to blue skies, so on our second day we headed to Park Guell for outdoor fun. It was a beautiful day, so we took lots of photos. We only visited the free areas, but you can also pay 8€ to access an area of the park where most of the Gaudi sculptures are.

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We then headed to El Bosc de les Fades, which is an old favourite. This whimsical bar looks like a little forest, and it’s an amazing place to get a drink after a few hours of exploring the city (two drinks for 6.50€).

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The Picasso museum is free on Sundays, so we headed in that direction – on arrival the queue discouraged us, so we instead we went to Ale&Hop, a veggie bar with a great selection of local beers (tapas and beers for two for 22€). This bar is in a great area, so we spent some time just wandering around.

And then it was back to out flat for a quiet evening before our early flight back to London!

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Stay: We chose an Airbnb flat a bit further from the centre, which is always a good way of saving money. There’s lots of options in Barcelona and prices are generally good.
  • Transportation: The metro is the best way to travel. You can buy 10 single tickets for less than 10€, which is nice and easy. You can also get the metro from the airport to the city centre (tickets cost 4.50€), which is very convenient.
  • Money: With the current exchange rate between the pound and the euro we weren’t sure how expensive things were going to be, but Barcelona is still definitely cheaper than London. We also found that there are lots of budget options for food and drink.

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TRAVELLING IN THE WINTER: Don’t wait for the weather to be good!

It’s very easy to find places to go in the summer. But who wants to wait this long to go somewhere? Here are a few ideas of places to visit this winter:

1. Go to a big city

The big European capitals have a lot to offer, so it’s easy to find something to do indoors. Berlin is a good option, as you can spend a lot of time in museums and cafes, but there are also good Christmas markets around.

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2. Escape the cold

You don’t need to travel halfway across the globe to find somewhere warmer. Morocco and Egypt are quite warm during the winter, and can be reached within 3-4 hours.

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3. Discover somewhere new

Last December we went to Ljubljana just because we wanted to go somewhere – it was great! Very cold, but a great little trip.

There’s still time to go somewhere this winter!

FOUR DAYS IN REYKJAVIK

We were looking forward to this trip as we planned it ages ago, and it was great!

Iceland is a very easy place: things work, people are nice (and everyone speaks English), everything is good quality and it’s very chilled out. A great place to go to wind down. Also great for all things nature.

TOURS:

Everything in Iceland is done through organised tours. These are the easiest way to get around and prices are good for what you get.

It is really easy to book things – you can do it in advance, at your hotel, at the plane, at the bus terminals… you really can’t miss it. And you can normally do it on the day of the tour as well, which makes it really easy.

In the winter tours are subject to last-minute cancellations, but most tours are refundable or you can choose to go on another day if available. Tours pick you up at your hotel so again it’s very convenient.

The most popular tour provider is Reykjavik Excursions.

Icelandair was the tour provider we used and they have many options. They use Reykjavik Excursions as their tour provider.

WHEN TO GO:

We went in the winter to see the Northern Lights, but it seems that is only popular with the British. The high season is actually in the summer.

In the winter it is very cold, and you will always risk having your day tours cancelled because of poor weather conditions (we were going to do a glacier walk but that was cancelled), so you should take that into account. In the summer you can go whale watching and it’s also the best time to go to the national parks to see geysers and waterfalls.

The winter highlight is definitely the Northern Lights – if you’re lucky enough to see them (we were). The heating is very good everywhere, so at least you don’t feel cold when you’re inside places.

NORTHERN LIGHTS:

You have to be lucky, but this is definitely the highlight of any trip to Iceland.

Because the weather is so unpredictable, tours are often cancelled, or worse – you might be driven around in the middle of the night and not even see anything!

We were very lucky to see it – the night before tours went but the lights were not there to be seen, and in the two days that followed our trip the tours were cancelled. If your tour is cancelled you can do it on the next night.

There’s no point trying to photograph it unless you have a SLR. Normal point and shoot cameras will not register anything. Which is just as well because the lights move around quite quickly and you wouldn’t want to miss it!

Be prepared to feel cold. The whole set up is a bit difficult, as you’re just driven to the middle of nowhere, get off the bus and wait around in the cold for an hour or so before you even see anything. As someone said when we were there “this whole experience would be much improved by the availability of deck chairs” (and blankets, I would add). You really need to layer up for this.

BLUE LAGOON:

We hadn’t booked this tour originally, but decided to go as people were raving to us about it.

It’s the easiest thing to book – we just turned up at the bus terminal 20 min before the departure time and straight away were on our way.

The tour cost about £50 per person and can be booked here.

This was really lovely and definitely worth it – the contrast between the hot water and the cold outside makes it a great winter activity, and the setting is also very nice.

Tips:

  • There are clay masks on the sides of the lagoon, and you can just put them over your face while you bathe. These are free.
  • The queue system to get into the building is a bit silly, and you have to queue up even if you already have a ticket. Make sure to go straight to the queue when you get there to save time.
  • You can also get extras such as robes and towels, or you can bring them with you.
  • Lockers are available outside the building for large luggage (as many people stop at the Blue Lagoon to or from the airport) at a cost, but they are also available for free inside the building for you clothes etc.

REYKJAVIK CITY CENTRE:

There isn’t that much to do in Reykjavik, but it’s quite nice and very easy to walk around. The main street is called Laugavegur, where you will find most things.

  • Hallgrímskirkja Church: this is the ideal place to go to see the sunset if the weather is good. You get whole views of the city and the mountains in the background
  • Street art: there’s lots of very nice street art around.
  • Harbour: The harbour is a nice place to go to if it’s dry. This is also where the Harpa (Opera house) is. It’s a lovely building designed by Olafur Eliasson and definitely worth a visit just to look around.
  • The settlement exhibition: this is an exhibition in the city centre, and a good option for a rainy day.

NIGHTLIFE:

Reykjavik is a quiet and small city, but there are nice places to go to at night in the city centre. Here are a few (all in the main road):

  • Lebowski: An American-style bar that is quite popular. They show football and have live music on.
  • Dillon: A rock bar that also has live music occasionally.
  • Bravó: A chilled-out bar made better by the manager, who is quite chatty and likes to talk about music with the customers.
  • Listings: there are two local free publications which are useful: What’s On, which is definitely worth a read as it’s as hilarious as it is useful; and Grapevine, which is good for gigs.

FOOD:

Glo is a great find with mostly vegan and veggie food. They serve a few dishes everyday, all accompanied by a generous side salad. There are lots on offer and you can pick three types of salad for your dish. Prices are around 1800isk per dish.

If self-catering, Bonus is the cheapest supermarket, but smaller shops which are open 24h are also available.

DRINKING:

Alcohol in Iceland is slightly more expensive than in London, but most bars have happy hours with 2-for-1 or half-price deals, including for beers.

Another option is to buy alcohol at the government-run Vinbod (or something like that), which are not always open on Sundays and are not easy to find. There’s been in supermarkets, but those are very light at about 2%.

Our favourite beer was Viking Classic, and we tried the local spirit (schnapps) Brennivin which tastes pretty much like vodka.

ACCOMMODATION:

Most packages will include accommodation, and there are many options to choose from.

We stayed at Klettur, which we chose only for the price, but it was very nice and centrally located. Staff was really helpful and even made breakfast early (at 4am) on the day we left because there were a bunch of guests on an early flight that day.

SHOPPING:

Although our travel guides said otherwise, most shops close on Sundays. Things are not cheap, but there are nice knits and things like that.

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