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Next Stop TBC

Next Stop TBC

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12 Hours in Boston – 1 Day Itinerary and Walking Tour Map

12 Hours in Boston – 1 Day Itinerary and Walking Tour Map

Boston was one of the first cities in the United States that I visited, and the skyscrapers, fascinating history and atmosphere made a huge impression. How was it to return 30 years later? Well, the city that was founded in 1630 has changed a lot […]

Things to do in Lagos: Caves Kayaking and more

Things to do in Lagos: Caves Kayaking and more

Portugal’s southwestern coastline offers amazing views to the Atlantic Ocean over scenic beaches and impressive sandstone rock formations. Seeing the beaches, caves and grottos from the sea is something you shouldn’t miss if the weather permits! Also the Lagos old town is a charming place […]

15 things to do and tips to Lisbon and Cascais – active city break

15 things to do and tips to Lisbon and Cascais – active city break

Lisbon is one of the world’s oldest capital cities, built on seven hills and on the banks of River Tagus. The climate, history, architecture, food and wine have allured millions of visitors and made it one of the top 10 visited cities in Southern Europe. I was intrigued to visit, and totally charmed by the city that ended up exceeding my high expectations!

eBike tour over the hills of Alfama

Bicycling around Lisbon? Yes, sounded like a fantastic idea to see the city! But with an electronic bike? Hmm, I have to admit I wasn’t convinced it would be sporty enough. But on the other hand, I had thought about giving it a try for some time already and now was a perfect opportunity as Lisbon is known for its numerous hills! I found the tour with Boost via Tripadvisor and it sounded like a lot of fun. I booked it on my mobile on the same morning – very pleased with how well everything worked! I needed to get to the office 15 minutes before for check-in and soon our guides were calling the group together. In addition to great views and insights to the city, the tour was also good exercise, fun and informative – learned a lot of interesting facts about the city’s past. It was a hot day with over +30 degrees Celsius and I could feel the morning run in my legs, so I was a bit worried how it would work out. Luckily soon I noticed that it was pleasant to ride the bike as it was easy to turn on or off the electricity and switch gears just as on a normal bicycle. The chopper vintage style eBike actually looked stylish too!

eBike tour Alfama

Tagus River Waterfront Promenade

The southern part of the waterfront promenade stretches over 10 kilometers (I ran from my apartment close to Apollonia Station to Belem Tower) and provides a great flat path for walking, jogging and bicycling. There’s a few areas of cafés and restaurants with lovely terraces as well as some of Lisbon’s key sights: Cais do Sodre, MAAT, 25 de Abril Bridge (that has a bit similar looks as the Golden Gate Bridge), Padrao dos Descobrimentos, and Torre de Belém. Time flies when running on this route and (although first I thought of taking the train back) found it still interesting on the way back as well.

Tagus river promenade

Cais do Sodre

The atmosphere of Cais do Sodre is trendy and energetic with people flocking to the numerous restaurants and bars. There’s a nice spot with reclining benches to sit down and relax, possibly listening to a street artist perform while gazing at the river.

Cais do Sodre

Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology (MAAT)

MAAT portrays striking modern architecture and with its white tiles and curvy form. The building’s roof invites to walk up to slope to the terrace with amazing views to the river and city.

MAAT Lisbon

Padrao dos Descobrimentos

Padrao dos Descobrimentos is monument for the Portuguese explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. Portugal was the first European country that sent explorers to search for the sea route to Asia. Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Columbus – just some of the names from history books of extraordinary explorers of the seas. It’s fascinating to think that over 500 years ago here the ships departed to trade and explore the world.

Padrao Descobrimentos

Torre de Belém

The Belem tower was originally built to protect the city. It’s quite rare to have such a military construction also look magnificent but Belem tower indeed is especially beautiful and impressive. Unfortunately, the lines are long so it’s not a place for a quick pop-in. However, it’s beautiful to see from the outside and worth the visit even if you don’t feel like queuing for the entrance.

Belem tower

Miradouro Nossa Senhora do Monte Belvedere

There’s a number of viewpoints on the Lisbon hills and the views are spectacular over the city and São Jorge Castle at Miradouro Nossa Senhora do Monte Belvedere. There’s a small chapel that can be visited for a quiet moment. The best part was the Maria Limao stand serving fresh homemade lemonade that tasted heavenly after the cycling in the afternoon heat.

Miradouro

Elevador de Santa Justa

The Elevador de Santa Justa is a unique lift designed in the 19th century by Gustav Eiffel’s student – it’s easy to see the resemblance to the Eiffel tower in Paris. The lift was built to allow people to move from the Baixa district up the Carmo Hill but today the stylish lift and the viewing platform at the top make it a popular tourist attraction and you can expect long queues if you plan to visit. However, it’s impressive with the lightning just walking by it in the evening.

Parque das Nações

Parque das Nações is the modern part of the city that was originally built for the Expo 1998 and is quite a contrast to the historic city center. There’s green parks and a riverside promenade for walking and jogging. The views to Vasco da Gama bridge – the 2nd longest bridge in Europe with a total length of over 12 kilometers (7,6 miles) – and Vasco da Gama Tower over the river are impressive.

Vasco da Gama bridge and tower

There’s also a telecabine or cable car lift from the Vasco da Gama Tower to the Ocenarium over the river but it’s a good idea to check the schedules in advance – we weren’t lucky to be in time to give it a go.

Cable Car Lisbon

Praca do Comercio

The commerce square was destroyed in the devastating earthquake, tsunami and fire that hit Lisbon in 1755 but it was rebuilt later. You can walk through the beautiful arch and along the Augusta pedestrian street with lots of stores towards the Rossio Square in the city center.

Praca do Comercio

Shopping

In addition to Rua Augusta and other streets in Lisbon city center, there’s lots of other shopping centers and malls. El Corte Ingles is a high-end department store with restaurants on the top floor. Vasco da Gama mall in Parque das Nações was our favorite as a modern mall with lots of international brand stores and a variety of restaurants. For a completely different shopping experience you can try the Feira da Ladra “Thieves market” that’s an open air flea market in Alfama open on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Vasco da Gama mall

Restaurants and Cafes

Dinner at Time Out market

is a modern indoor market or food court with lots of different restaurant stalls with a wide selection to choose from: local food, pizza, hamburgers, salads, sushi – about anything really. There are long tables that bring a communal and relaxed feeling to the dining experience even if you’re traveling solo. It can be loud and crowded at peak times, so it might be a good idea to go early – at least on a Tuesday evening at 9 pm it was super busy but finally managed to find some free seats!

Time Out Market

Pastel de nata at Pastelaria Alcôa

Ask anyone and indulging in Pastel de nata is one of the things not to miss when visiting Portugal! I’m usually not a big fan of pastries and cake (except raw cake) but I have to admit that the Pastel de nata with some cinnamon and powder sugar sprinkled on top are an incredibly tasty treat. One of the best places is Alcoa.

Pastel de Nata

Brunch at Deli Delux

A combined deli store and restaurant and located across the street from Apollonia station with a seaside terrace. There’s 3 options of brunch sets as well as the menu to choose from. I selected the menu with eggs benedict. The cold cuts and cheese were high quality, but I missed having some fresh greens. I arrived after 11 am and there was plenty of space but an hour later the place was packed so it’s a good idea to come early to get a nice table.

Deli Delux Lisbon

Late lunch at Nicolau 

This became one of my all-time favorite cafes! I was so hungry after the bicycle tour and thankful to find a table outdoors and the menu had so many healthy options to choose from! There’s also all-day brunch available. I got the guacamole, quinoa and smoked salmon salad and the green detox juice as well as sparkling water – all for under 20 euros. The cafe closes at 8pm so it’s best for brunch or late lunch. I liked the self-service with paying the bill at the counter and found the interior of the cafe stylish and child-friendly.

Nicolau Lisbon

All-you-can-eat dinner at Arigato Sushihouse

Amazing sushi, very fresh and beautiful like pieces of art. Perfect when really hungry as the waiters go around offering more and more options, also exotic ones and dessert sushi.

Sushi

Cascais

Cascais is a small coastal town easily reachable from Lisbon city center by train. The train from Lisbon Cais do Sodre station takes just about 30 minutes. The public transportation ticket is valid on this trip and although it was hot the trains had at least some air conditioning. On the weekend it can get crowded so it’s a good idea to be early to ensure getting a seat on the train. Optionally, taking an Uber isn’t a bad idea especially if there’s more persons and luggage – the cost of the half hour drive was less than 30 euros.

Cascais train

Cascais has lots of beautiful buildings and views.

Cascais lighthouse

There’s several lovely beaches in Cascais and despite the crowds it didn’t feel too crowded (at least outside of the holiday season, maybe August could be too busy).

Cascais beach

Cascais has been nominated as European Youth Capital 2018 and despite it’s small size is a vibrant place. I happened to visit during the LUMINA Festival da Luz / Festival of Light. The Festival is organized as a celebration of colors and forms and it welcomes lots of people and families who come to enjoy the light shows with music and street food.

Cascais lights festival

There’s plenty of restaurants and all types of cuisines to choose from. I enjoyed a vegetarian buffet dinner at Café House of Wonders. The café is known for its rooftop terrace and vegetarian buffet (possible to request gluten free). Unfortunately, the terrace was closed due to the light spectacle, but I got a nice table outdoors downstairs.

Cascais restaurant

Where to stay

Lisbon: Hello Lisbon Apollonia serviced apartments

I was reviewing Lisbon hotels and was really happy to find this spacious and modern studio apartment in with self-check-in close to the Alfama district and many of Lisbon’s main sights. Based on the description online I thought it would have a balcony to a courtyard but as a positive surprise it turned out to be a French balcony with views all the way to the sea over the buildings across the street. The impressive Pantheon was just around the corner too.

Hello Lisbon Apartment

It was first time for me to book a self-check-in place. First, they send a code to your email to get through the front door. The self-check-in kiosk was easy to use, just needed to have the reservation number (in the email), as well as my passport and credit card ready. Just like everywhere in Lisbon, you need to pay the city tax (1 euro per person per night but max 7 euros) even though you’ve prepaid the stay. The kiosk printed out the access code to the room as well as the WiFi code.

Apartment check-in Lisbon

My apartment was on the second floor and I was pleasantly surprised of its size and the view in the morning sun when waking up. I was a bit concerned at first about the noise and sound-proofing of the apartment, but I slept very well in the end. I liked the location in the old part of Lisbon and within walking distance of the shoreline and services. The only issue was that the WiFi was quite patchy, otherwise it was a great stay.

Cascais: Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel

If you’re looking for a bit of luxury weekend escape from Lisbon, Grande Real Villa Italia Hotel is a perfect place. At check-in I got upgraded to a bigger room with a nice large balcony. The bathroom with a tub was wonderful. A long swim in the outdoor sea water pool couldn’t have been more refreshing on a hot afternoon!

The hotel is located a bit outside the town center but it’s just about one kilometer pleasant and safe walk along the seaside. The hotel gym access is included in the room fee but use of the spa (indoor swimming pool and sauna) costs 20 euros. The breakfast was incredibly good with a broad selection of cold and warm options without forgetting special diets. They served an excellent macchiato with almond milk and the outdoor seating was superb.

Cascais breakfast

Tip:

Don’t book a hotel before doing some research on the city districts first. Lisbon has different districts with strong characteristics. I almost booked a hotel far away from the city because it seemed like a great deal and had good reviews, but it would have required taking public transportation to access all the places I wanted to go. Know what’s important to you when you travel, do some research, and compare hotel offers. Personally, if possible I prioritize walking distance to the seaside (especially if there’s a promenade for jogging/bicycling) as well as proximity to restaurants and shops.

Transportation: from airport to the city and out and about

Overall, the public transportation in Lisbon is cheap and works well. However, if you plan to use different modes of transportation (metro/train/bus/ferry, etc) don’t take just any ticket – Via Viaggem Zapping card is the best option as you just upload cash to it and can use it across the whole public transportation system. But note that what you upload on the card stays on the card without possibility to get refunded. Lisboa card (available for 24/48/72 hours) that includes admission to public transportation and a number of sights  could also be a good option.

Yellow trams are a famous part of Lisbon and are fun to watch rolling in the streets. However, especially the route 28 that’s popular with tourists can be very crowded and risky due to pickpockets, so watch out if you decide to go on-board.

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At the airport, the metro station is right outside of the arrivals hall.  There can be long ques to the ticket vending machines, but the line was moving quite quickly – big thanks to the employee who was helping out the tourists! After 2 stops at Oriente, I needed to change from metro to train. It was a bit confusing how to find my way but eventually figured out that it required moving up a couple of floors to get to the trains. I think I just missed one train as I needed to wait about 15 minutes but then it was just another couple of stops before arriving at Santa Apollonia station from where it was just a short walk to my apartment.

Uber service in Lisbon is fantastic and would also be a good option from the airport especially if you’re staying at a place further away from the public transportation network.

I took the train from Lisbon Entrecampos station to Albufeira-Ferreiras to visit Algarve region. The first class ticket cost just a bit more than second class and made the 2,5 hour travel pleasant on board the high-speed train traveling at top speeds over 200 km per hour. It’s easy to buy the tickets online and if you book early you could find a nice discount on the ticket. It was a nice experience to cross the 25 de abril bridge by train and say goodbye to the city  from the train window.

On the way back, we had a rental car to return and it was super easy as it was right next to the airport without too long walking distance.

Tip:

Lisbon is a big city that has the traffic jams of a metropolitan city at peak commuting hours which means that buses may be behind schedule if caught in congestion. In any case, don’t jump on a bus going to your destination before double-checking the route. I was happy to find a bus going to the right destination and hopped on – only to realize a few minutes later that it was going in the wrong direction and it would take around triple the time!

Next time

Next time in Portugal I’d love to visit Porto as well – here’s a 3 days in Porto itinerary from Sidewalk Safari for inspiration. There would also be much more to see and do in Lisbon than what was possible to fit into a weekend! I really enjoyed the city and would be more than happy to return to see and experience more, especially:

  • Ferry from Cais do Sodré across Tagus river to Cacilhas
  • Cristo Rei Monument to Christ
  • Museum MAAT from the inside
  • Estoril beaches
  • Sintra castles and national park

Have you been to Lisbon and would you have other recommendations on things to do?

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10 things to do in Curacao: diving, snorkeling, beaches, and more

10 things to do in Curacao: diving, snorkeling, beaches, and more

Are you dreaming of diving or snorkeling in the Caribbean but would also like to have other things to do? Curacao could be the perfect destination for an active outdoorsy vacation with white beaches and turquoise waters but also a lot of other things to […]

Hong Kong Disneyland memories

Hong Kong Disneyland memories

We visited Hong Kong Disneyland on a Friday afternoon in November. The weather was surprisingly warm and it was crowded with long lines to almost all rides. We ended up mostly just walking around and admiring the parades and enjoying the Disney atmosphere. I’ve visited […]

Top 10 places to visit in Naples and Salento regions – Southern Italy long weekend itinerary

Top 10 places to visit in Naples and Salento regions – Southern Italy long weekend itinerary

Does culture, history, turquoise sea and amazing food sound like an ideal combination? If yes, Southern Italy won’t disappoint you! My long weekend in Southern Italy started with a two-night stay in Naples. In advance, I had a bit of mixed feelings based on what I had learned about the city in media and doing a bit of research online before travel. I knew to expect it to be hot, crowded, possibly dirty and noisy – people seemed to be divided to those who had loved it and those who weren’t impressed. I was even thinking of skipping central Naples altogether and just going to the smaller towns close by. However, in the end I decided to stay in the city and it turned out to be a positive surprise!

Naples traffic is often described as chaotic so I decided not to rent a car but use public transportation instead and I was amazed at how well it worked. Alibus from the airport to the city cost 5 euro and worked well although it took a while between the central station and the last stop in Porto Beverello.

Long weekend in Southern Italy Naples and Salento regions map

There’s plenty of options where to stay in Naples – from bed and breakfasts to Airbnb and boutique hotels and it’s relatively affordable. I stayed at La Ciliegina hotel and room was very small but the location, rooftop terrace and breakfast were just magnifico!

La Ciliegina hotel rooftop terrace

Naples city

Naples’ location by the sea charmed me instantly since first stepping out of the airport bus in Porto Beverello.

Castel Nuovo is a medieval castle rising behind Porto Beverello. The walking path from the harbor to Municipio metro station and my hotel went around it so I had plenty of opportunities to admire this impressive landmark.

Castell Nuovo in Naples

Castel dell’Ovo is a seaside castle with free entry and fantastic views to Naples coastline. I found it to be especially beautiful in the evening. It’s also nice to sit at one of the close by restaurants, have a gelato and watch the sea. Some people were even swimming at a small beach between the castle and the harbor.

Castel dell'Ovo Naples

Walking in the historical center Centro Storico at sunset is a great experience. There’s so many restaurants to choose from on especially Via dei Tribunali. On a warm summer night, lively and happy people were having aperitifs and heading to dinner.

Capri

I decided to take the first ferry departing Porto Beverello – whether it would go to Proscida, Ischia or Capri. Capri it was! There’s no need to buy tickets in advance but it’s convenient to check the timetable online. The cruise aboard the high-speed ferry (hydrofoil) was pleasant although I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t possible to sit outdoors (from this perspective the smaller ferries from Sorrento to Capri looked nicer). Luckily the aircon worked well and there was a small kiosk selling drinks and snacks.

Capri

The ferry arrives to Capri at Marina Grande that is a lovely port with luxury yachts to fishing boats. Right next to it is a small pebble beach that can get very crowded in the busy months. The bus stop is next to the beach and if you desire to escape the crowds you can take a bus uphill to Anacapri. The bus  (2,5€ per person, same for luggage) can be packed with mostly standing places and beware of a very narrow and serpentine road – there’s barely space for a newspaper to squeeze through the passing buses! Naturally no seat belts and driving fast is the norm. The ride up was worth it just for the views on the way. Anacapri village is nice, small shops and restaurants. However, it was a surprise to me that it was more inland and no views to the sea. It would have been great to take the chairlift to Monte Solaro or a boat to the blue grotto but timing was too tight. It would be worthwhile to spend a night on the island. Don’t be in a rush or expect the buses to run on schedule during the busy season. It was taking quite long at the bus stop and we decided to group up 4 people and take a taxi – it was much more comfortable but cost 30 euro.

Capri beach

There’s plenty of cafes and restaurants to choose from on the island but if you prefer a picnic there’s a small grocery store in Grand Marina. I got some water and ice cream and went to the beach to enjoy the last moments before it was time for the return ferry back to Naples.

Pompeii

I was thinking of visiting Pompeii already when I was in Rome but it was much more convenient to take a tour from Naples which is only about half an hour away. It’s possible to get there by public transportation and just walk around but if you’re interested to learn about the history and get interesting insights I’d warmly recommend to book a tour or a guide. I booked my tour via Viator only a day before and everything went quite smoothly. Maria our tour guide shared lots of fascinating stories about the life of Pompeii people in the beginning of 1st century. When the Vesuvius volcano erupted in 79 AD the town was buried under 6 meters of ash! The tour started off by taking a look at the big and small Amphitheater that still today has incredible acoustics (thanks Linda for the concert!). Pompeii used to be a vibrant city with tens of shops and restaurants. I found the Roman spa most impressive and especially the sauna section which is remarkably well conserved.

Pompeii

The climate at Pompeii is typically very hot and humid. We were lucky that there was a bit of breeze. Still 8 out of 35 people on the tour gave it up midway so I would only recommend it in the summer if you can stand the heat and walking quite a long way in crowds. Lunch at a close by restaurant was included in the tour and a basic Pizza margarita served Al fresco tasted amazing.

Vesuvius

Mt. Vesuvius was just a 35 minutes’ drive from Pompeii. According to our tour guide Lucinella it’s one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world and it gave a bit of an adrenaline rush to hear her words that this could be the last experience of our lives! On the way up it’s possible to see the lava flows of the 1944 eruption. There had been a big fire last year in the national park and the devastating effects were still clearly visible.

We were given only 1,5h for visiting the volcano so it was better get going fast! There’s 3 cafes at Vesuvius – one at the start of the climb and two at the top. It’s a good idea to buy some cold water. Good walking shoes are essential although the path isn’t difficult as such but there’s gravel and rocks that made walking in sandals look painful. It was a quite an easy hike, hot but we were lucky to have a bit of breeze. The views across Naples and to the sea were amazing. I enjoyed the hike a lot and although sweaty, dusty and far from glamorous, felt re-energized after it.

Vesuvius

In the next morning it was time to say good-bye to Naples and head to the other coast. The metro ticket cost only 1 euro 10 cents and was convenient, modern and clean, although a bit noisy and not sure if there was air-conditioning in the cars so it might not be ideal in the rush hour but in the weekend morning it was fine. I took the metro from Municipio to Garibaldi – the central train station and the bus station and got on-board the Flixbus for Brindisi – 5 hours bus ride for under 20 euros with wifi and aircon seemed like a good deal compared to more expensive trains with having to transfer at least once on the way.

Brindisi

In case you do take the bus be sure to check the departure AND arrival places – I got dropped off somewhere at the edge of Brindisi without any taxis in sight and had to walk a couple of kilometers in the afternoon heat to get to the central station and catch the bus to the airport for picking up the rental car. This area of the city wasn’t particularly pretty but at least it was possible and safe to walk. Of course, there would be much more to see but I was very happy to finally get to the airport and get the rental car to continue the journey.

Our rental car
Photo: Heidi Lehmuskumpu

Santa Cesarea Terme

After a couple of hours drive I arrived to Santa Cesarea that was our base for the next few days. It’s a small village that seems to be a popular vacation spot for locals and Italian tourists but not too many foreigners have found the place yet (although we did hear some French and German). Puglia is known for turquoise sea and combined with the rocky coast of this area the views were stunning. Spiaggia Porto Miggiano was an incredibly beautiful spot to go swimming.

Santa Cesarea di Termini

We also enjoyed lovely dinners in restaurants with amazing views:

Il Villino

La Torre

Ristorante del 19 Summer Club

Ristorante Bagno Marino Archi 

Santa Maria di Leuca beaches

Next morning we hopped into our trusted red Twingo and cruised through the narrow Southern Puglia countryside roads towards the beaches west from Santa Maria di Leuca. The beaches stretch 5 kilometers and are also known as the “Italian Maldives”. It was a bit tricky to find a good spot and where to park without knowing the region but finally got to the long white sandy beach to catch some sun, swim in the sea and had lunch at a beachside café Papeete.

South Puglia Beach
Photo: Heidi Lehmuskumpu

Gallipoli

Gallipoli is a charming little town with the centro storico on an island, accessed via a bridge alongside the Castello Angioino di Gallipoli. I was excited to see a group paddling in kayaks – what a wonderful way to discover this beautiful coastal spot!  Walk through the island and reach the lovely beach cove with amazing views to the sea. There was plenty of stylish restaurants with outdoor seating that looked very inviting!

Gallipoli

Otranto

Otranto is the easternmost town of Italy and has a beautiful Port with views to the turquoise sea, a lovely beach walk with restaurants and a white shallow sandy beach. Enjoyed a swim in the warm water and the lunch with a view.

Otranto

Lecce

Lecce is famous for its beautiful old town with lots of churches. Remember to dress accordingly if you plan to go inside the churches. There’s a few nice gelaterias around the central square that make it a perfect spot to relax for a moment.

Gelato in Lecce

Huge thanks to my friend Heidi for inviting me to visit – otherwise I probably would never have discovered this gorgeous region!

Next time

There’s so much to see in Southern Italy that in a long weekend it’s only possible get a first glimpse of this amazing region. Next time I’ll be sure to go to Amalfi coast. I was told that it’s extremely crowded in July and August and therefore decided to save it for a future trip. Capri really impressed me and I regret that I didn’t have more time to spend there. In the future, I’d like to stay overnight and visit the Blue Grotto and take the chairlift to Monte Solaro. Additionally, Procida and Ischia islands would surely be worth visiting.

I almost booked tickets to Naples Opera and heard that the interior of the building is very beautiful. There would be lots to experience also further south from Naples in the Calabria region aka the “toe” of the country’s boot.

Puglia region north from Brindisi is the home of a number of famous cities to be discovered in the future – for example Alberobello, Matera, Ostuni, San Lazzaro, Polignano a mare, and Altamura are terrific reasons to return to Puglia one day…

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Top 5 Tips to Skiing with Kids in Pallas National Park, Lapland

Top 5 Tips to Skiing with Kids in Pallas National Park, Lapland

March to April is the best time to visit Lapland because the darkness and freezing temperatures of the deepest winter are over and the sun is often pampering the winter wonderland’s visitors. In April the days are long already – if you are lucky the […]

Vatican Top 5 Highlights – How to Skip the Lines and Avoid Crowds?

Vatican Top 5 Highlights – How to Skip the Lines and Avoid Crowds?

Vatican definitely deserves one day on your trip to Rome.  I only had a few days to prepare for my trip but just enough to do a bit upfront research and all the reviews on Vatican warned about the massively long lines especially on weekends. […]

Rome – top 10 tips to an active long weekend and walking tour map

Rome – top 10 tips to an active long weekend and walking tour map

Back in school I loved history and felt intrigued by the ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman cultures. As long as I remember, I’ve had visiting Rome in my travel goals and finally it was time to make it happen. Traveling to Rome in the beginning of March had its pros and cons – just a couple of days earlier it had snowed for the first time in 5 years and it continued to be cold and rainy. On the positive side in low season the crowds are bearable so it’s possible to take advantage of the free museum access to for example Colosseum (only available the first Sunday of the month).

Pack along your best walking shoes, you’ll need them in Rome! I was amazed with how easy it was to walk from one key sight to another. Here’s an itinerary of a 6 kilometer / 4 mile walking tour of the main sights you don’t want to miss: the Colosseum, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Piazza di Navona and the Spanish steps.

If you only stop for taking some quick photos the tour could be completed in about 2 hours but of course you’ll get much more out of it if you visit Pantheon and Colosseum from the inside. I saved the Colosseum tour for another day as I didn’t start off till the afternoon for my first exploration of the eternal city.

Colosseum, Palatine hill and Roman forum

Colosseum

The Colosseum is massive, similar size as stadiums today – it could fit 50 000 people and had marble seating for the best spots reserved to the most prestigious visitors while slaves, women and children were only allowed to access the top floor with wooden structures. However, after the fall of the Roman empire the monuments were not cared for and during the medieval times people recycled whatever could be removed and burned the marble!

Colosseum from inside

Expect long lines to the Colosseum around the year and especially on the first Sunday of the month when the access is free (otherwise it costs 12 euros for adults) to access the first and second floors. I strongly recommend to buy your ticket in advance to benefit from the shorter line. The ticket includes access to Palatine hill and Roman forum in addition to the Colosseum and it’s valid for two consecutive days. Even on a free Sunday, you need a free ticket that you can most likely get with a shorter wait at the Palatine hill and Roman forum entrances.

Palatine hill

For an extra fee you can purchase a guided tour (~40 minutes) or an audio guide. Luckily a guided tour in English was starting shortly and cost just 5 euros so I decided to sign up for it. Our tour guide Laura, archaeologist, shared interesting historical facts and useful insights that were not all included in guidebooks. It was a nice quick tour and worth the small price for sure. However, next time I would book a longer tour that would go around also the underground and the third floor as well.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi fountain

From the Colosseum the walk continues to Fontana di Trevi where tourists flock to take photos of the gorgeous Trevi Fountain and throw coins there. According to the legend, you should throw a coin over your right shoulder to the fountain to secure your return to Rome one day. I didn’t want to jinx this one!

Spanish steps (and shopping)

From here the walk continues to the Spanish steps which is a popular place for people to gather and sit down – nice break for taking a sip from your water bottle. Some nice shopping streets are located in this area including very high-end stores but also a wide range of brands and I found some good deals at GAP and Desigual stores.

Piazza di Navona

On the way back, you can pass by Piazza di Navona which is one of the most beautiful Baroque squares in Rome.

Piazza di Navona

Pantheon

Next stop is Pantheon which is free to access. The dome is open from the middle and it’s quite amazing how rain falls in and trough small holes on the floor – an example of the brilliant engineering expertise of the ancient Romans!

Pantheon entrance

Pantheon oculus

Altare della Patria and Trajan Forum

From the Pantheon the walk continues to Plaza Venezia where you can admire the Altare della Patria – a palace honoring first king of Italy and WWI soldiers – and the Trajan Forum ruins before you arrive back at the Colosseum.

Altare della Patria

Trajan forum

Renting a bicycle

Renting a bicycle was a great way to explore places a bit further away, although due to the traffic it can be a bit adventurous – especially if it starts raining! I rented a bicycle at a bike shop just outside the Colosseum station (4€ per hour or 10€ for a day). Beware that they ask to leave some form of photo ID for the duration of the rental so it would be a good idea to bring something in addition to a passport. I loved the feeling of freedom on the bike and having some pedaling after all that walking felt so good! If the River Tiber isn’t overflowing like during my visit to Rome you could even bicycle along its banks.

Tiber river

Trastevere and Monteverde

Trastevere is a nice hip neighborhood on the west side of the River Tiber from the historical center of Rome, south from Vatican. It’s nice to stroll along the narrow cobblestone roads, visit the Basilica of Santa Maria and dine at one of the excellent restaurants available in this area.

Trastevere Basilica of Santa Maria

Monteverde is a lovely neighborhood next to Trastevere. It was a bit of hills for bicycling and quite many stairs too that my maps app didn’t recognize. Saw some nice street art though and enjoyed a fantastic lunch.

Monteverde

Food, wine and coffee

Finding a quality but reasonably priced restaurant can be a challenge in the historical center of Rome from the middle of so many overpriced tourist traps. I stumbled upon this little place Prosciutteria Cantina Dei Papi that’s actually more of a shop than a restaurant (they don’t have restaurant license so they can’t serve or set tables but offer plastic cutlery. They can also only sell drinks only by the bottle (luckily also small wine bottles, beer, soft drinks) and tap water is freely available. I recommend the mixed platter that comes in 3 sizes (5/10/15 euros). I was so hungry that I couldn’t help but to choose the big one.

Mixed platter Prosciutteria Cantina Dei Papi

Restaurant Panattoni was highly recommended for paper-thin pizzas. After having already a bit too carbs I was craving for something light and found the smoked salmon salad at Buff excellent and free wifi was nice too.

Buff salmon salad

Close by to Piazza Navona is Circus Café which is ideal for a relaxing break with a nice cup of chai latte with almond milk and freshly made juice or smoothie.

Yoga in Rome

Yoga in Rome

After a long day of walking and aching feet, Yoga class in Rome was the perfect end for the day. Zem Yoga’s hot Vinyasa community class of Friday evening (13€ + 2€ for renting a mat) instructed by Amity was incredible! She created such a warm-hearted atmosphere and asked the participants to introduce each other the closest people in the room which brought a very nice social aspect to a solo traveler’s day. The class was quite physically demanding and indeed hot – I should have brought a bigger water bottle! In the end on the 90-minute class I was feeling superbly relaxed – what a better way to unwind after a long day of sightseeing!

Finding the perfect place to stay

Rome has a huge number of hotels for all budgets. Based on reading some reviews it seems that in many places the rooms can be very small. Airbnb has an extensive offering in Rome and I found a modern 1-bedroom apartment with a roof terrace with an amazing location in the city and just across the bridge from Vatican. There was a small grocery story close by and I was very happy that I had a kitchen to cook healthy breakfasts and suppers to stay energized for the long days exploring the city. If you are new to Airbnb you can use this promo code link for 35€ travel credit.

Beyond the eternal city

Visiting Vatican is something you don’t want to miss when in Rome – read more about the Top 5 highlights of Vatican and how to skip the lines and avoid crowds. If you have a bot more time to spend in Italy why not head south to Naples or the Salento region in Puglia. Or you could head north to the mountains for fresh air and some amazing views – check out this Perfect 4 Day Dolomites itinerary. Another great option would be to hop on a train and visit for example Venice, Florence or Cinque Terre as well – see this Ultimate 2 week itinerary for Italy for inspiration.

Still wondering how Rome in snow looked like? Check it out here.

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