London is seriously one of my favorite places! I know I say that about almost every place I write, but London is definitely my favorite “big city”. It is the perfect mix of historic and modern, with a splash of all things royal. I mean, who doesn’t love guards in black fur hats? There is so much to do in London – museums, palaces, the West End for musicals, shopping, markets, good food, etc! And as with many big cities, London comes alive at Christmas with twinkling lights, decorations, and the adorable chalet stalls of Christmas Markets. You can walk around admiring the lights while sipping on mulled wine and window shopping. Simply put, it is magical at Christmas.
It’s also a giant freaking nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, I adore London. And I adore Christmas. But my number one tip for enjoying London at Christmas is to stay home. Kidding. Sort of. It’s seriously super crowded and if you’re a Grinch like me, that can be frustrating. Side note: the Grinch didn’t really hate Christmas, he hated people. Which is totally fair. All these “people” decide to come to London at Christmas and bump into you, get in your way, and stand there forever taking pictures and blocking the view. Just like I did. Only I’m not realllllly a tourist since I live 80 miles from London and have been at least 10 times. I know my way around the underground; I’m not like all *those* people I was referring to.
So yes, London is crowded at Christmas, even if you go weeks in advance. It was frustrating, but also beautiful. We didn’t get to see everything we wanted (we only went down for the day since we’ve been to London so many times) but we did enjoy it. Where you go depends on what you are in the mood for. Some places are loud and overrun with people, while others are quieter. You’ll also want to wait until it’s dark to go to some places so you can enjoy the lights in the dark.
Five Great Places to Go in London at Christmas
# 5 Leicester Square
Leicester Square is always a popular area in London, and Christmas is no exception! Located in the West End Theatre District, Leicester Square boasts good shopping and food. It’s right on the edge of Chinatown, which is a spectacle in itself with the beautiful lanterns and decorations (and not to mention delicious restaurants). Leicester Square has a Christmas Market this time of year, complete with chalets and vendors. You can shop for gifts, eat some fudge or chocolate, enjoy a beer, and wander around and enjoy the scenery. They also have free toilets which is a huge plus when walking around a big city. The Leicester Square Christmas Market is right next to the Lego Store. The displays in Lego Stores are always incredible and worthy of a visit. This one is no exception, with the tube station made of legos and Big Ben. I’m glad I visited the Lego Store because I finally got to see Big Ben without all the scaffolding. Ha!
Budapest was not only a great trip, but also my first solo trip, though it wasn’t planned that way. It worked out to be a great, forced, opportunity for me to try something I hadn’t done – travel alone. Originally, when we booked this trip, my husband was planning on coming. He had a plane ticket and everything. Then, life happened. A week before we were to leave, one of our cats unexpectedly starting having seizures, and they were pretty scary and intense. We immediately brought him to the vet and he started a medication. They told us the medicine could take up to 2 weeks to work. He continued to have seizures that week of the trip. At one point he had 6 in one day! We decided it would be best for my husband to stay home with the cat and monitor him. I ended up going alone, and thankfully our cat has stopped having seizures, but needs medicine twice a day for the rest of his life.
Anyhow, enough about Jinxy cat, yes he has the same name as the cat from Meet The Parents, and back to Budapest. Hungary may not be on your travel radar, but it should be! It is gorgeous and relatively inexpensive for a European Capital. Before I go on, it’s important to let you know that George Ezra is singing it ALL WRONG. (Side note: I sang that song on repeat in my head for two whole days before the trip. Is it in your head now too?). It’s actually pronounced Budapesht, not Budapest. Which relates to my next nerdy fact. Budapest is actually comprised of two separate cities, Buda and Pest (pronounced pesht), divided by a river. Buda is on the Western side of the Danube, and Pest is on the Eastern side. Back in history, they existed as two separate cities, but now they are one. Of course amongst the citizens of Budapest there is division over which is the “best side”, but they were both pretty beautiful to me.
I arrived in Budapest on a Saturday, mid morning. The first thing I did was hit the ATM at the airport take out some local currency, the Hungarian forint. I took out 30,000 forint, which was equivalent to around $99. Hungary is one of the countries in the EU that still have their own currency (just like Czech Republic, Croatia, and Poland among others). Many places in Budapest accept the euro, but you aren’t getting a good exchange rate for it. I find it best to use the local currency, whether I’m paying with cash or using my credit card. The conversion rates are never great when you convert it your own currency, so remember that when you are paying with credit card and given the option. I then used a kiosk in front of the airport to buy a ticket for the airport shuttle to city center. It was pretty cheap, and about a 35 minute drive. A cab would not have been any faster, so why spend the money. My stop, Kalvin, was the first of three stops in the city center. I found this public transportation option to be extremely affordable and easy to use. The shuttle comes every 10 minutes during peak hours. I would use this again if I return to Budapest. The shuttle dropped me off about 5 minutes from my hotel, Inn Side Kalvin. The hotel was not glamorous, but my room was spacious and quiet, and the hotel had a free breakfast. The city is so spread out, so it’s hard to find a hotel in close proximity to everything. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be near, so I just searched based on price and rating. This hotel was close to the Danube, and along tram lines, but it was at least a 35 minute walk to the Parliament Building. One plus is that it’s less than 5 minutes from the large market with a food hall!
Once I checked in and washed my face (am I the only one who feels gross after being on a plane and needs to wash and re-moisturize?) I headed straight to the market for lunch! I love a good market; if you’ve been following my blog or instagram, you’re probably sick of hearing it. BUT, markets are the best! You get to experience the culture and food at affordable prices. The Great Market Hall in Budapest is two stories, and rather large. The building is unique as well. It’s very clean, unlike some markets where you actually feel like your outdoors instead of indoors. The market is all inside, and has food and souvenir stalls. If you head upstairs you can grab lunch from one of the vendors. They have Hungarian food, as well as other specialties. I opted for stuffed cabbage with a side of dumplings and it was delicious. I also grabbed a sweet treat from one of the bakeries in the market, but due to not knowing the Hungarian language, I couldn’t ask about the sweets and ended up with something I didn’t love. There were so many choices and I couldn’t decide, so I just pointed. I bet if I went back I would’ve had something amazing. The market is a great place to experience Hungarian culture and have an inexpensive meal.
After lunch and shopping at the market, I headed to St. Stephen’s Basilica, to wander the area around the square. I had a tour leaving from there. On the way, I made a detour when I noticed a Christmas Market. This was an unexpected treat as I was in Budapest in early November; some markets opened rather early this year, allowing me to indulge in mulled wine and other market favorites. After browsing the stalls and drinking hot wine (such a tasty treat, and much prefer mulled wine to the traditional German Gluhwein), I headed to St. Stephens. From this spot I was joining a free walking tour of Budapest. If you like to travel, and you’re not familiar with the app freetour, you need to download it! It’s so great – you just type in the city where you are going, and it has several free tours available, with their dates and times. You reserve your spot on the app, and then tip in cash after the tour. The guides have always been informative and I’ve always enjoyed the tours. While the tour is free, you tip afterwards in cash. I highly recommend this tour of Budapest; our guide Regi was fantastic.
Unfortunately my tour of Budapest was in the rain, which meant photos weren’t amazing. It also meant I re-walked most of the tour two days later when it stopped raining! The tour started with a history of Budapest, where I learned how the name is actually pronounced Budapesht. Our guide also told us about the city really being comprised of the cities of Buda and Pest. We left the square and stopped at statue for more discussion. There was a lot about Hungary’s history and the ways the country changed due to the various occupations. We through a park near the Christmas Markets called Elizabeth Square. There is a large ferris wheel called the Budapest Eye, likely an attempt to recreate the London Eye, though not as high and probably not as expensive either. The square is named for the wife of an Emperor. From here we headed to another main square that also held a Christmas Market. We learned that the Hungarians had the first undergrad tram system in mainland Europe (the first being in London, thus the phrase “mainland Europe”. We headed to the iconic Szechenyi Chain Bridge next, where the guide told us about the universities in the city. After a brief stop by the bridge, we crossed and headed over to the Buda side of the city where we climbed the steps to the Castle District. From the Castle District you get the best views of both Buda and Pest. The views were definitely worth the climb when we reached the top to see Matthias Church, and Fisherman’s Bastion. The neighborhoods in the Castle District are so quaint and charming. I had to go back on Monday morning to snap pictures when it was less crowded (and not raining).
The tour ended in the Castle District on the Buda side. I stayed for a bit to enjoy the views of the Parliament Building and Chain Bridge lit up at night. The views from Fisherman’s Bastion are the best in Budapest! It was an easy walk down the streets to the Chain Bridge to head back over to the Pest side. I decided to walk along the Danube to check out the moving memorial Shoes on the Danube. Shoes on the Danube is a beautiful sculpture featuring several pairs of bronze shoes on the riverbank; a memorial to the Jews in Budapest who were murdered by the Arrow Cross, a fascist Hungarian group in the winter of 1944-45. Jews were taken and lined up along the Danube where they were shot at a close range, so their bodies would fall into the Danube, and be carried away by the river. Prior to being murdered, they were told to take off their shoes. Shoes were a precious item during World War II. As many as 20,000 Jews were shot along the banks of the Danube. The 60 pairs of 1940s era bronze shoes, is a memorial to them and quite moving. There is so much sad history in Budapest. It was hard to take pictures at night, and I truly wish I had come back during the day.
That evening I intended to go to a restaurant alone and enjoy dinner at a Hungarian restaurant and try some goulash or chicken paprika. But, I was drawn in by the lights of the Christmas Markets and wandered the stalls with warm mulled wine in my hand. I tried some amazing marzipan bonbons and had a Hungarian sausage similar to bratwurst for dinner as I shopped and enjoyed the festive atmosphere. And of course I had more warm mulled wine. There’s something about it that just gets you into the Christmas spirit! Budapest was my first solo trip and I felt completely safe navigating the streets alone, even at night.
Sunday was my only full day in Budapest, and I wanted to make the most of it. But it was pouring down rain, literally all day long… so I slept in a little. The first thing I did was head to the Parliament building, which was a good 45 minutes from my hotel. It was easy to buy single tickets on the tram, and I opted for that. I got there around 10 and waited in line to get tickets for a tour. The English tours in the morning were sold out, so I decided to buy a ticket for the 4:00 tour and spent the rest of the day hitting museums. Of course, I snapped a million pics of the Parliament Building in the rain before doing so. I really wish I could’ve captured it in the sunlight, but it is pretty far out of the way from some other places I was going on Monday.
My first stop for the day was the Holocaust Memorial Center. Entry is 1,400 HUF, which is approximately $4.60. I’ve always been a history nerd, and someone who enjoys museums and historical sites. Having traveled all over Europe, and to sites such as Auschwitz, I think it’s important we never stop learning about the past, so that we can prevent it from happening again. There is so much sadness and despair associated with these sites, but there is also hope for a better tomorrow. I also believe it’s important to pay respects to those who have suffered. The Hungarian Jews were no different from others in Europe; they only difference was the deportations started much later. The Holocaust Memorial Center focused on the Hungarian Jews, the laws passed to restrict their rights, and the eventual deportations to concentration and death camps. The building itself encompasses the Pava Street Synagogue, which was once the second largest synagogue in Budapest. It fell to ruin as most of the congregation was killed at Auschwitz. It was been restored, and is gorgeous inside. Outside the building there are names of the Hungarian Jews deported, as well as a list of over 1,000 Jewish towns and villages that cease to exist because of the Holocaust. One in three killed in Auschwitz was either Hungarian, or deported from Hungary. By the time the deportations came to Hungary, the Nazis had perfected their efforts of mass extermination. Around 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary in 6 weeks. The Memorial Center is a moving tribute to the lives lost, and the visit is informative. It is worth visiting to pay your respects and learn about the horrific fate of the Hungarian Jews.
After visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center, I headed towards the Hungarian National Museum. I couldn’t seem to find any direct public transportation, so it was easiest just to walk. Walking turned out to be a good idea because I stopped at a small bakery and had a delicious treat with sweet cheese baked inside it. I have no idea what it was called, but I saw them all over Budapest, so they must be a local specialty. I also stopped for lunch at a place that is not worth visiting so I won’t mention it (though they did have curly fries and it was cheap). The Hungarian National Museum was interesting, and I spent almost two hours there as they have a long and fascinating history. Unfortunately, I had to leave before I finished in order to trek across town to the Parliament tour. While the museum held my interest and had lots of great exhibits that helped me learn about the country’s history, I probably wouldn’t have gone if it weren’t raining all day. I did not want a second day of walking around in the rain, so that’s why Sunday was spent at museums and the Parliament Building. Plus, all the museums in Budapest are closed on Mondays, so it was my only opportunity. If you have extra time, or a rainy day, I’d recommend this museum. It wasn’t too expensive and there is a lot there to hold your attention, particularly if you like history. I could’ve spent more time there, but had to make it to the Parliament Building for my tour. In hindsight, I would’ve bought my Parliament tour online ahead of time for first thing in the morning and started there since it opens an hour before the museums. It would’ve got me moving earlier, and then given me more time at the museums.
I used public transportation to get to the Parliament building because it was about 30 minutes from the museum. It’s pretty easy to figure out using your google maps, and there is more than one tram/bus option that takes you to the Parliament building. I had purchased a 48 hour pass, which was pretty inexpensive, but unfortunately I lost it while taking gloves out of my jacket pocket. Fortunately a single ticket is pretty cheap and it was worth to save some time and get out of the rain. I used Tram Line 2 and got off at Kossuth Lajos Square Station; it is right in front of the Parliament Building. At the Parliament, you go through metal detectors and security prior to starting the tour. You also have to show proof of citizenship while purchasing tickets, so bring your passport. European Union citizens receive a large discount. The tour I took was in English, but there was also a Spanish tour at the same time, and they also offer tours in French and Italian as well. The guide spoke excellent English, and we wore devices around our necks that helped us hear her throughout the tour. The building is extremely opulent with gold decor and red carpet throughout. It is the third largest Parliament building in the world, and 2nd largest in Europe (after London). The building lies along the Danube on the Pest side of the city, and boasts 691 rooms! Construction began in 1885 and finished in 1902 but sadly the architect never saw his finished product. The building has seen a lot of history, from the independent Hungarian state to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to part of the Soviet Union, and now back to being an independent country. The building is beyond impressive, and I couldn’t stop staring at the ceilings and lavish decorations. It is the epitome of opulence! You can take photos inside during the tour, except for the Dome Room (which was of course the most beautiful room). The Dome Room holds the Crown Jewels of Hungary, which are stunning, but I couldn’t take a photo to show you. Our guide shared an interesting story about Hungary’s Crown Jewels. During World War II, the Allies bombed Hungary which was occupied by the Germans. The Hungarians knew the Soviets were advancing. They worried about the safekeeping of the jewels, so they gave them to American soldiers who agreed to protect the Crown Jewels. They were kept at Fort Knox until President Jimmy Carter returned them years later. Turns out the Hungarians were right to be concerned; the Soviets arrived to “liberate” Hungary in 1945 and stayed until 1991. Which brings me to my last stop of the day, The House of Terror.
The House of Terror, or Terror Haza, is a Museum that portrays life in the communist and fascist regime in Hungary. It closes at 6pm, and it was 5:30 when I arrived. In hindsight, I would’ve skipped this or tried to go earlier. I didn’t get much out of it trying to race through in 30 minutes, when most people spend a few hours there. It is a memorial to those killed and tortured during the regime. The museum itself was almost creepy in the way it was staged, dimly lit and a maze of exhibits. They have information written in Hungarian and English, in each room to help you understand what happened during the Soviet Occupation. They have a strict no pictures policy, so I’m unable to share what the inside looks like. In the basement, they have the prison cells set up. To get there, you take this dark, glass elevator which takes 4 minutes; as it slowly moves they a video. If I return to Budapest, I’d go back to this museum since I didn’t really get to explore it fully. Outside the museum, they have more information as well as a sculpture that represents the “Iron Curtain”.
After a day full of museums, it was time to indulge! I hit up the Christmas markets for wine and the most delicious (overpriced) marzipans bon-bons, again. I love the magic of Christmas markets with the lights and chalets and everyone enjoying the season. The mulled wine is a huge attraction as well. After wandering the markets, I headed to Drum Cafe, which was recommended by my tour guide from the day before. It was extremely cheap, and delicious. I ate outside and the heat lamps kept me nice and toasty as I enjoyed my Chicken Parprika with dumplings. The food was authentic and the menu had a variety of dishes, with pictures to accompany. I highly recommend this place. After dinner, I headed back to the hotel to relax as I had an early morning planned for Monday.
My last day in Budapest was a half day, as I had to leave for the airport around 3pm. It was also my only “not gray and raining” day in Budapest, so I had to take advantage of the sunshine. Basically,I left the hotel around 7:30 am to hit all the places I’d already been, to get pictures in the sunshine. I headed up to the Castle District and Fisherman’s Bastion first, and was able to get some pictures before the crowds arrived. It was amazing to have the streets almost to myself, and not have to worry about crowds. I’ve started to do this when I travel, and I definitely need to make it a habit. I was really excited to get some pictures in the sunshine!
I headed back to St. Stephen’s Basilica around 10 for a look inside. They have the right hand of the first King of Hungary inside the Cathedral, but you have to pay to light up the case to see it. The Cathedral itself is absolutely stunning on the inside and worth a visit. It is a beautiful example of neoclassical architecture. I’m always amazed at the beauty Cathedrals hold, and this one was no exception. There is no entry fee, but there is a donation box. It’s worth a quick peek inside!
Outside the basilica, I met my group for another free walking tour at 10:30. This tour was a Jewish District tour. The guide was informative, and talked about the history of the Jewish people in Hungary. Hungary was a little later than other countries in Europe to restrict the rights of Jewish citizens, but eventually they did pass laws that severely limited the rights of Jews. The tour took us to a synagogue that is being restored, as well through areas where Jews used to live. During the tour, the guide pointed out some “stumbling stones” which are memorials you will see all over Europe. They are small brass markers that indicate where someone was taken and deported. It lists their name, date of birth, and in most cases, date of death. I’ve seen these before in Prague, Amsterdam, and Brussels as well. We stopped at the Carl Lutz Memorial which depicts an angel descending to help a fallen victim. Carl Lutz was a Swiss Diplomat who saved more than 60,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust by issuing them Swiss documents and setting up 70 safe houses. We also stopped at the Emmanuel Tree. We did not go inside, but for 4,500 HUF you can visit inside the Dohany Street Synagogue and see the sculpture in the back. The weeping willow memorial has the names of 30,000 victims on the leaves. The tour ends at the Dohany Street Synagogue, which is the largest synagogue in Europe. This was once the border of the Jewish Ghetto during WWII but the walls are no longer remaining. I enjoyed this tour, and recommend it if you have time or an interest in history.
This tour wrapped up my visit in Hungary, as afterwards I ate a quick lunch, did some last minute shopping and headed to the airport. While I loved my first solo trip, there is a lot I didn’t have time to do in Budapest, so I’d like to go back with my husband! If I go again, I’d hit some spas and baths.
One perk about traveling alone- I can eat when I want without having to consider if someone else is hungry. Also, I didn’t have to share my food. What about you, do you prefer solo traveling, or going with someone?
If you’ve been following my instagram, you already know how much I love exploring coastlines. The truth is, the United Kingdom coastline is so beautiful, and filled with amazing cliffs and animal life. Every time I explore a new area of England, I’m simply amazed. This country is so beautiful and has so much to offer. Most people just think of London when they think of England, but it is so much more than that! To truly experience England, you need to explore the countryside and the coast. The rocky, jagged coastline is simply stunning, with beautiful waters of the North Atlantic, and also home to a variety of wildlife. When I found out you could see puffins in ENGLAND, I was so excited! I had no clue they came this far south in the summer and just assumed they stayed closer to the Arctic! We missed seeing the puffins in Iceland because we went in winter, so I was pumped to learn I could drive about 3 hours and see them. Once I realized that Bempton Cliffs is located near York, a weekend trip was planned! This was the perfect June getaway weekend for us, and on the plus side, we were able to drive there.
Bempton Cliffs is located in Bridlington. The Nature Reserve is an amazing place to take a walk and enjoy all the wildlife and stunning views the area has to offer. Every year between March and October, over half a million seabirds make their homes on the chalky cliffs to raise their young. The result is a spectacular scene including puffins, gannets, guillemots, and other birds. The cliffs themselves are also an attraction, along the beautiful coast. There are walking paths, as well as viewing platforms with information about the wildlife. The RSPB (Royal Society for Preservation of Birds) puts on events throughout the year and has a cafe and gift shop on site as well. Definitely check out the website to help plan your trip! Also, be sure to bring your camera and binoculars for up close views!
My main reason for going was to see the puffins. While I’m a huge animal lover, I don’t usually have any interest in birds. However, there is something about puffins that is so freaking cute! I don’t know what it is, but I find them adorable. Go ahead and google them and tell me they aren’t the cutest! My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I’m obsessed with them and I can’t explain it. Anyhow, puffins are seabirds that live on rocky cliffs and dive into the water to get their food. Their beaks are brightly colored during mating season. Atlantic Puffins are found on the coasts of Northern Europe in the British Isle, Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, and Canada. In the winters they travel as far south as Morocco. The come ashore in the United Kingdom during spring and summer, their mating season. I was fortunate enough to see several of them on Bempton Cliffs!
After exploring the cliffs and walking along to see views of the coast, we headed to Bridlington Harbour, where we had a three hour seabird cruise booked. Despite the cold, and spots of rain, the cruise was phenomenal! It left from Bridlington, and cruised along the coast up to Bempton Cliffs. We marveled at the gannets, puffins, and other seabirds, and enjoyed spectacular views of the cliffs from the water. Puffins are better swimmers than they are flyers, and they flap their wings extremely fast to stay in the air. They aren’t quite as graceful as others birds when they land, and this makes them easier to spot in the air. We also pulled in close to some rocky cliffs and little caves, allowing us to view the birds up close in their nests. If you are interested in seabirds or fascinated with the brightly colored puffins like I am, this trip is for you!
This was definitely an unforgettable experience, and I highly recommend it. Bridlington Harbor is less than an hour from the charming, Medieval city of York, so put this on your list of things to do in summer in England! You will not be disappointed.
Living in England, I’m trying to visit as many European countries as possible. Surprisingly, after almost two years, I realized I hadn’t yet made it to Ireland OR Northern Ireland! There are so many places to visit, and so little time. Ireland and Belfast was somewhere my mom was interested in visiting as well, so we went during her visit. I’ll start by saying I didn’t love Dublin. But that’s okay because this post isn’t about Dublin, it’s about Belfast and Northern Ireland. My reason for bringing up Dublin is because we visited Dublin and Belfast on the same trip, and we all loved Belfast and the Giant’s Causeway much more than Dublin! I will say, the weather could have been partially to blame – cold, rainy, and windy isn’t the best way to see a city.
Since we wanted to hit to Ireland and Northern Ireland in the same trip, we flew Ryanair from London Stansted to Dublin, and then rented a car to drive to Belfast. We actually drove to Belfast as soon as we landed, and visited Dublin second (which I will talk about in a separate post). It was an easy and beautiful two hour drive to Belfast. The Irish countryside is so stunning, and truly made of every shade of green! The drive was enjoyable because of the views, and of course the sheep. I absolutely love all the sheep in the United Kingdom. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Belfast City Centre. Since we had a rental car, we required a hotel with adequate parking nearby. The Holiday Inn was nice and perfect for our needs; it was in walking distance to sites in the city and also had a good breakfast. It’s pretty much your typical Holiday Inn. I would stay here again if I went back to Belfast.
We arrived in Belfast in the early afternoon. After checking in, the first thing we did was head straight to the market. We knew we wouldn’t have another opportunity to do so, and wanted to make sure we got there before it closed. The market is only open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. St. George’s Market is an award winning market that has been around since the 1890s! There are a plethora of vendors, and many amazing places to eat. It’s a great place to go for lunch, as there are so many choices – everything from pasta, falafels, burgers, paella, sweet treats, and much more! We ate a late lunch there, and browsed the stalls. It’s definitely a must do when in Belfast; you won’t be disappointed. And you won’t leave hungry. I opted for a falafel wrap, as I often do in the markets, and it was so fresh and delicious! My mom and husband had a pasta dish that involved rolling the fresh pasta in a wheel of cheese; it was also incredible.
We spent the afternoon walking around Belfast and browsing shops. Belfast is a smaller European city, but there are a lot of shops, particularly if you are looking for souvenirs. It was quite common to see whiskey themed gifts, as well as jewellery with Celtic knots, and other “Green” and Irish gifts. We knew that Monday would be a full day with our drive along the coast to the Giant’s Causeway, so we tried to visit a few places even though we were tired from traveling. We stopped by Belfast Cathedral, also known as St. Anne’s Cathedral. It is beautiful both outside and inside, and much more modern than most cathedrals I’ve seen. After the Cathedral, we spent some time wandering around shops and enjoying the city. One thing we learned – be sure to book for dinner. We had found some great places online that we wanted to try, but they were fully booked and we wished we had planned ahead to make a reservation.
Our next day was a full day spent traveling along the Northern Irish Coastline. The beauty of the coastline was one of the top reasons we decided to go to Belfast. Since we rented a car, we were on our own timeline, and able to stop whenever we wanted. There are several tour buses that do day trips from Belfast. Those are worth looking into if you are traveling solo or afraid of driving on the left side of the road. Since we live in England, that’s not a problem for us. Our first stop of the day was a village called Carrickfergus to visit Carrickfergus Castle. The castle is smaller than some we’ve seen in Europe, but it’s inexpensive and it was fun to visit and walk around. In hindsight, I would’ve saved it for the trip back to town, and would’ve headed straight to the Giant’s Causeway to get there before the crowds.
From Carrickfergus Castle we drove along the coast, stopping several times to see sheep. One of my favorite things about the United Kingdom is all the sheep! They are so freaking cute, and it was lambing season so there were so many precious baby lambs. I swear there is nothing better than see them and hearing their cute noises. Ireland is literally so green, and then you see these adorable dots of white fluff amongst the green grass. It’s perfect. If you love sheep, Ireland is the best place for you. And so is England. Aside from the endless farms of sheep, the drive offered spectacular views of the coast. There were several places to stop and we took our time exploring. Again, in hindsight, I would’ve headed STRAIGHT to the Giant’s Causeway, and done all the stopping on the way back. Usually when we drive, it’s a game to see if we can beat the GPS, but with all the winding roads, turns, and coastline views, it was hard to speed up the journey. Definitely allow yourself plenty of time, and consider the amount of daylight available if you’re not going in spring or summer.
We decided to stop at Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge before heading to the Giant’s Causeway. The bridge connects the mainland to a tiny island, and was first built by salmon fishermen in 1775. They used to cast their nets off the bridge. The bridge is currently operated by the National Trust, so if you’re members, it is free! Of course our National Trust membership expired a few months prior, but it’s still definitely worth it to pay for admission. If you aren’t a member it’s 9 pound for adults and 4.50 for children. Definitely worth it; the property is spectacular with gorgeous views of the cliffs, and of course crossing the bridge is great fun (and totally safe!). They make sure only one person crosses at a time, and the bridge is steady when you cross. Just don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights. It seems silly to pay money so you can stand in line just to cross a bridge that basically leads to nothing, but it is fun and on the way to the Giant’s Causeway. If you’re really pressed for time, you can skip this, but I’d recommend going if you are able.
After the rope bridge experience, we headed to the main event! The Giant’s Causeway was one of the primary reasons I wanted to visit Northern Ireland. To be honest, as spectacular as it was, I wish I had gone a little later in the season so it would have been warmer and perhaps sunnier – but alas, this is the United Kingdom, and it’s not known for sunshine. Despite the cold winds, and on and off misting rain, it was still a great day for hiking along the coast. Definitely wear layers and bring warm clothes, because the weather in Northern Ireland literally changes as you round the corner. I was glad I had my winter hat and gloves (though the gloves made taking pictures more difficult). The Giant’s Causeway is also run by the National Trust (again, if we only had our membership still!). There is a large car park, and then a building where you get tickets. If you aren’t a member it is 12.50 for adults and 6.25 for kids. The admission price includes an audio guide, which was actually interesting. I hung with the audio guide for most of the tour until my ears got cold and the wind made it hard to hear. Besides, there is only so much you can learn about volcanoes and rocks. I reached my limit and just wanted to take pictures. Supposedly, you can walk to the rocks for free, but you can’t park in their car park unless you pay. I’m not really sure how that works, but it’s worth looking into if you’re on a budget. We walked down, stopping at certain points for the audio guide, but then took the bus back up because it was cold, and we were DONE.
Here’s a little that I learned about the Giant’s Causeway. I’m in no way a geologist or any kind of scientist, so fact check this yourself if you truly came here to learn. The Giant’s Causeway is a result of ancient volcanic fissure, and consists of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. It’s pretty cool how they fit together and are different heights. The Irish have a legend that the causeway was created by a giant named Finn MacCool (thus the name), but I’m fairly certain it was science that created it. You can google it if you’re undecided. Regardless, the columns are impressive, and a must do if you’re traveling to Belfast. You can also hike on the cliffs above; if we had more time, we would’ve done it but it was a long day and the weather just wasn’t cooperating.
There are a couple other attractions in the area. You can go hiking or walking along the cliffs for more spectacular views. There is also an area called Portcoon Jetty that is supposed to be beautiful. If you like castles, Dunluce Castle is nearby. And if you like whiskey, the Bush Mills Distillery is also close by. All these options sounded wonderful, but we lost track of time and it was too late to do anything else. We opted for an early dinner nearby at the Smuggler’s Inn and it was quite tasty! I’d definitely recommend this place if you’re hungry after exploring. It was an uneventful drive back to Belfast, and an early evening for us before exploring more of Belfast the next day.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll probably have come to the conclusion that I’m a nerd. A well traveled nerd, but a nerd none the less. I’d say you’re correct in your assumptions, and I can prove it. The author C.S. Lewis is from Belfast. He is most known for the Chronicles of Narnia series. So first thing in the morning, I took my husband and mother on a wild goose chase through Belfast, looking for C.S. Lewis Square. There were a couple wrong turns and some confusion as to where to park, but we did eventually find it. Of course I took pictures of all the statues! If you’re a fan of the books, don’t miss this in Belfast.
After stalking the various statues from C.S. Lewis’s books, I took my dorkiness to a more socially acceptable level and visited the Titanic Museum. I feel like most of you are fascinated by the Titanic disaster, and who didn’t love seeing Leo and Kate on the big screen? You know you’ve seen that movie; in fact you hear Celine Dion singing right now, and you’re reminded of the fact that there was totally room for two people on that door, Rose! Anyhow, back to the museum. Shipbuilding was (and remains) a major industry in Belfast. The city had some hard times, as did most of Ireland. The museum tells the story of the city of Belfast, it’s shipbuilding roots, and how the Titanic was built. It also shares what happened on that fateful night, minus the Hollywood drama. The museum is a bit pricier – 19 pounds a person, but it was very interesting and held our attention for a couple hours. They have a discounted price if you arrive an hour before close. I’d say it’s worth doing when you go to Belfast.
Belfast is a wonderful city to visit, and a popular alternative to Dublin. Northern Ireland has so much to offer, especially if you love nature and the outdoors. It is definitely a country that needs to be on your bucket list! I hope to get the chance to head back someday to do some hiking, visit the Gobbins, and see the Peace Wall. We were limited on time, but did check off most of the major attractions.
Before I moved to England, I thought the United Kingdom was entirely synonymous with England. I guess I just thought Wales (and Scotland) were their own separate countries. Wales is definitely in driving distance (around 5 hours) from where we live, and the thought of driving to another country is just so cool! Especially when you don’t have to go through customs. I honestly didn’t know much about Wales, but was intrigued about the other side of the island. Before booking our weekend adventure, I just knew I wanted to see the coast, ride my bike, do some hiking, and see castles. The last bit is super easy; Wales is known for castles! Wales is a rather small country, but there are 600 castles (though some are ruins). Lucky for me, I was able to check everything off of my list during our short trip to Wales!
Pembrokeshire, Wales is a gorgeous area! There is a lot to do an see there, and traveling by car is almost essential. It’s the type of place where you stop and enjoy the view and see a few sites as you drive along the coast, or drive to your destination. We tried to plan it out as best we could, but we were still in the car a lot, and heading in every direction trying to see everything. Pembrokeshire boasts 186 miles of coastline and 50 beaches, so we were in for quite a treat. The beaches and coastal formations in the United Kingdom are incredible; you don’t really think of blue-green water and beaches when you think of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but they truly are fabulous! The Pembrokeshire region definitely has some great ones.
We headed out on a Saturday morning, and our drive was pretty uneventful. We hit the usual traffic around London, but nothing major. As we were getting closer to Wales, we saw signs for heavy traffic; it looked like the traffic was heading towards Cornwall and thankfully not where we were going. That said, maybe Bank Holidays aren’t the best travel days in England? Next time we will get up a little earlier to avoid the rush and give us more time at our destination. Our first stop of the day was Pembroke Castle, in the town of Pembroke. Wales is known for it’s castles and this one was definitely a treat! Pembroke Castle is the largest privately owned castle in Wales. So often we will visit castles and they are more like ruins, and not very elaborate. Pembroke Castle was rather incredible and looks like a real castle. The first castle on the site was built in 1093 during the Norman Invasion of Wales. The castle we see today was built in the 12th century. In 1457, Harri Tudor was born in one of the castle towers. He later became Henry VII of the Tudor line of Monarchs.
Our next stop was the coastline for some walking and spectacular views. The main attraction was the Green Bridge of Wales and Stack Rocks. I will say, our GPS led us astray in getting here. While the postcode is helpful, make sure you follow the signs. The post code we used for the Green Bridge of Wales and Stack Rocks is It does look like your driving through an Army Base, and you are, but it’s part of the route. The Green Bridge of Wales (and Stack Rocks) is located beyond the Castlemartin military training area. The road in is narrow and bumpy (welcome to Wales!) so be prepared for that. Once parked, you can walk along the coast as there are some trails. You do need to stay off the military property though.
I first discovered the Green Bridge of Wales when searching for hikes and things to do in Pembrokeshire. I was immediately captivated by the photos I saw, and knew we were making the right choice in exploring this area of the coast. While similar to my recent post about Durdle Door, the Green Bridge of Wales is also a limestone arch. The geology of the area contains carboniferious limestone, and over time the arch has eroded from rock and wind, along with chemical erosion. The Green Bridge is aptly named, as vegetation grows near and on the rock formation. It is found on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, and if we had more time, we would’ve walked much further along the path. Prior to our visit, in 2017, the formation lost a lot of rocks due to Storm Ophelia, which I remember creating havoc in the United Kingdom, particularly Wales. The Pembrokeshire Coastline is absolutely stunning, and a must do if you like to hike!
It started getting pretty windy and rainy, so after exploring a little more of the coast, we headed to our hotel to check in. If you’ve never driven in Wales, particularly the countryside, there’s no way for me to fully explain the narrow, curving, backroads we took to get there. Roads that can barely fit one car, are actually two lane roads with a 60mph speed limit! We had a brush with death every time we took a turn, and many times we just honked and hoped for the best. We didn’t crash, or get a flat tire, so we called it a success! After an hour or so of being a panicked passenger trying not to toss my cookies, we arrived in St. David’s, the small city we stayed in.
We stayed at the City Inn in St. David’s. I’ll be honest and say we didn’t love our hotel. It was loud, smokey (it seemed to seep in through the windows even though it was supposedly non-smoking), and there was only a tub with no shower attachment. On the plus side, it had a delicious breakfast, pub downstairs, and was convenient to town. The parking lot was also a plus since we drove to Wales.
When we arrived, we headed out for a short evening hike. Once heading out of town, we found a path along the campsites. The Pembrokeshire Coast has a plethora of campsites for those who like to camp, either in a camper or a tent. This appeared to be a very popular location for camping. We tossed around the idea of going back and camping, but who knows if we will; after all, I like a comfy bed and pillows! We arrived at the coast during “golden hour” and it was beautiful. We headed down a trail that took us to the beach and dipped our toes in. Despite the cold water, several people were swimming. As former triathletes, we would describe the water as “wetsuit legal”. We decided to head back up the steps to walk around on top of the cliffs. We ambled along for an hour or so, and the views were incredible. We knew in that moment we made the right decision to come hiking and biking in Wales instead of heading to a city.
The next morning, after a delicious full English breakfast, we headed out on our bicycles. We are former triathletes in our past lives, so we brought our tri bikes with us. In the past, we would train for Ironman races, and would ride on the road for 80-100 miles. While our bodies aren’t capable of that any more, we are still able to go for 20-30 mile rides! We thought we’d seen it all during those days, but nothing prepares you for biking on the narrow, hilly, windy roads in Wales, as cars go by! All in all, it was a great ride through little villages, complete with views of the sea. We are flatlanders, so the rolling hills were a nice change of pace. Despite the on and off rain, we enjoyed ourselves and even got close up and personal with some sweet lambs!
After our bike ride, we headed back to the hotel to change for our hike! We wanted to make the most of the short weekend in Wales, and the coastline is just so stunning that we had to explore. There are so many places to hike along the Pembrokeshire Coastline, you really can’t go wrong. We parked near a campsite again, and just went on our merry way! We hiked from St. Justinians along the coast to Whitesands Bay. One of the best parts of the hike, aside from the ocean views, was seeing all the wild horses on the trail.
That evening, after being exhausted from hiking and biking, we decided to venture to a small harbor town called Porthgain. We had read about supposedly “the best fish and chips shop in Wales”. The line was out the door and wrapped around the corner, so we decided to wander around. We stumbled into a pub called The Sloop Inn, and had a delicious seafood dinner. The atmosphere and service was good, and I would recommend it.
We headed back to the hotel early, and intended to get some sleep. However, it was so loud from the pub downstairs, that we decided to just go have another beer. The next morning, we did some wandering around St. David’s, and visited St. David’s Cathedral. Here’s an interesting story — St. David’s in the smallest city in all of the United Kingdom. In fact, it’s smaller than some towns and villages, but it’s still considered a city because it has a Cathedral. In order to be granted “city status” in the United Kingdom, you must have a Cathedral, not just a Church. St. David’s Cathedral is absolutely beautiful, and it’s worth checking out. Construction began on the current cathedral in 1180, but there has been a church on that site since the year 600. It has been a pilgrimmage site for 4,000 years, as St. David is said to have born nearby. There are ruins of St. David’s Palace on the property as well, which are fun to explore.
After exploring St. David’s and the Cathedral, we headed towards the coastline again. We had a boat trip around Ramsey Island booked. We arrived early, and of course did an easy hike in the area surrounding the harbor. Our boat trip was around the island, on a RHIB boat. The island is home to lots of wildlife, particularly birds. Later in the season it is common to see puffins. We did see one fly by very quickly, but didn’t get a good glimpse. The tour was incredible, with our guide who was full of knowledge about the area. One word of caution – the temperature dropped from about 70F and sunny, to about 45F and foggy once we left the shore, so dress accordingly! We were able to marvel at the beautiful cliffs and formations around the island. I did my best to take pictures but it was hard on a small, moving boat, and the last thing I wanted was for my camera to end up in the water! We really enjoyed this tour, and highly recommend it as it gives you an opportunity to learn about and see some of the birds on Ramsey Island.
We were so glad we made the drive to Wales for the weekend! We’ve talked about going back, perhaps to Northern Wales and Snowdonia. Any recommendations??