Europe

Europe

things to do in iceland

5 Things to do in Iceland

Iceland is a beautiful Scandinavian country that sits between the tip of Europe and edge of North America. The World’s Happiest Report has continuously ranked the country at top, serving as evidence that Iceland is a potent tourist haven.

Despite it being smaller in size than that of the state of New York, Iceland has it all. From waterfalls to the northern lights, below, is a list of the must-dos in this magical country.

1. Immerse in Hot Springs & Geothermal Pools

Iceland is known for its hot springs. Not only is the country full of geothermal activity, but it also houses glaciers from east to west due to its proximity to the Arctic. This contrast in temperature and geothermal activity have resulted in natural spas around the country.

Blue Lagoon

The first thing I did when I set foot in Iceland was book a bus to Blue Lagoon. A geothermal spa set amidst a lava field in Grindavik, Blue Lagoon claims itself to be one of the 25 wonders in the world.

blue lagoon

Blue Lagoon

Image Source

At 9:30, a pre-planned shuttle arrived to pick me up from the airport. When the bus arrived at our stop, Iceland was still dim from early dawn. Snow hovered over the streets, landing obliquely on street lamps that illuminated the passage towards the main site.

The main building was well-appointed—featuring rich browns and warm beige that were particularly pleasing to the eye. It had numerous floor to ceiling windows overlooking the misty lagoon, which surrounded a cafe oozing the sweet aroma of coffee. The change room was simple yet elegant, with mirrors facing chambers filled with lockers.

A blanket of heavy mist overlaid the waters, so thick; shadowy bathers were only seen when meters away from one another. The body of water averaged 38°C in temperature and was surrounded by snow covered hills. While snow was firmly spread across the mount peaks, the bottom layer of lava stones meeting the first spikes of lukewarm water was smooth and warm.

Tickets range from standard to comfort, premium to luxury, with the former being USD $50 and the latter around $480. The differences are the use of towel and slippers, facial masks and other skin care products.

In addition to the lagoon, there is also the option to stay at the Silica Hotel for around USD $430 a night.  Other add-ons include in-water massages, a drink, transportation, and restaurant reservations. Do make sure to pre-book online!

Grjótagjá

Aside from the Blue Lagoon, there are a number of free thermal pool choices in Iceland. However, these generally require your own vehicle or a hired car since they are out of the average-tourist way.

Grjótagjá is a beauty captured in episodes of Games of Thrones. It is some 5 hours away from Reykjavik but is definitely worth the drive.


2. Visit Reykjavik

It’s been two years and I still can’t seem to pronounce or remember the spelling of the capital city of Iceland. Regardless, the city is one of the most charming I’ve set my eyes on. Though small, there is much to do around the area.

In Reykjavik, I stayed at Bus Hostel. At first, I was a bit worried since Google Maps made it seem quite a distance from the city center. But since it was the cheapest option, I decided to bite the bullet. After arriving, I realized that the hostel was only an 8-minute walk from downtown and much nicer than what I expected. I ended up having a 4-people room all to myself and fell in love with the oak bar and antique furniture lounge downstairs.

Hallgrímskirkja Church

Hallgrímskirkja Church

Hallgrímskirkja Church is situated central Reykjavik. It is a massive structure designed by Guðjón Samúelsson to resemble the country’s rocky landscape. It is not only one of the biggest compositions in Iceland, but also serves as Reykjavik’s northern light. Can’t mention how many times I found my way by following the tip of the church, which can be seen from almost every corner of the city.

The church also serves as an observation tower. For USD $8, you can step inside the tower and have a glance of the city’s beautiful landscape.

iceland observation tower

Eat

As a former state of Vikings and huntsmen, Iceland has some interesting platters. Just beside the Hallgrímskirkja Church, a tiny restaurant,  Cafe Loki served fermented shark.  Yes. fermented shark.

Kæstur hákarl is a national dish of Iceland consisting of a Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) or other sleeper shark which has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months. Kæstur hákarl has a strong ammonia-rich smell and fishy taste.

Wikipedia speaks the truth. Kæstur hákarl is one of Iceland’s national dish so I mean no offense when I say that it’s not for everyone. It crisscrosses between the smell of a dirty wet sock and a rotten egg. Apparently, the dish serves as a side treat for a shot of whiskey. I couldn’t even survive the first bite.

Aside from rotten fish, Iceland also offers sour ram’s testicles, sheep’s head, and blood pudding. Clearly, the country is only for the brave-hearted.

After my shark experience, I opted for something a bit more appetizing for lunch. TripAdvisor brought me over to Saegreifinn – The Sea Baron, for some renowned chowder.

 

The restaurant was cozy and peaceful, it’s chowder delicious. This would have been the perfect dish if it weren’t for the tiny portions. At least they provide all-you-can-eat bread & butter!

Iceland is also home to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsurto, a stand that apparently serves the most delicious hot dog. It was visited by former President Clinton during a UNICEF Conference in 2004. The lamb based hot dog is quite different from North American’s pork sausages and has a distinct flavor to it. The best in the world? Debatable.

It was delicious. The best in the world? Debatable.

Add-ons

Aside from the church and bizarre food, Reykjavik also offers a number of shops and bars throughout the city. Spend a few days strolling the streets, tour the Esjan volcanic mountain range, go on a whale watching excursion or visit one of the many museums in the city center.


3. Excursions

The Golden Circle

Ice Cave Experiences

  • Note: book these tours prior to your departure! A small country with a booming tourist industry, these expeditions tend to fill up pretty quickly. While looking online days before my trip, I realized that my preferred company was all booked out. Booking tours, depending on the month, can be quite frustrating. Though some may want to forgo the guides and hike these caves and glaciers by themselves, safety should be taken into consideration. Unless you’ve had training with these geological formations, they may be a danger to the average tourist.

Ice Climbing 

  • Again, these tours should be booked beforehand. Ice climbing is a hard sport, so be prepared for a serious workout and lots of fun!

4. Road Trips

If you don’t like being dragged around by tour buses and better yet, have tons of time on your hands, why not rent a car and draw up a route? It is so much more exciting to see Iceland’s natural landscape with flexibility.

While there are many routes, the most elaborate and all encompassing, is the Ring Road.

The Ring Road covers the outer whole of the island. From volcanoes to northern lights, it provides drivers a view into the diversity of the Icelandic scenery. There is nothing like understanding the true landscape of a country than having it under the soles of your feet, or the wheels of your car.

ring road map

If you squint hard enough, the yellow line around Iceland would indicate this 7-day route. It may seem like a big area to cover, but keep in mind that Iceland is only 103,000 km² and the route some 1287 km long. Without stops, this can be done within 12 hours.

Make sure to pack up on groceries, list gas station stops and have a phone card for emergency contact. Otherwise, enjoy the route of waterfalls and glaciers, volcanoes and coastlines!


5. Northern Lights

Really! Who would miss the northern lights while visiting Iceland? (Me, apparently :'( )

The northern lights are one of mother nature’s finest creations. Its contrasting and ever-changing colors are the result of colliding gaseous particles. Best time to view these lights are during cold winter months such as between January-March and September-December.

Capturing the lights is a mixture of luck and patience. Most tours will offer you a night out for free if you fail to catch the lights the first time around. But, can you last another 5 hours of absolute bone shattering cold?

northern lights

The lights are sky-high on my bucket list. But my stay in Iceland did not allow me the fortune of seeing them. Worry not, as I shall return :J

Happy Travels xx

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paris guide

Paris Travel Hacks | France

Paris Guide

I lived in Paris for a good 4 months. Too long? Maybe. But I did manage to navigate the city and come out alive- or barely.

Traveling within the City

Metro

Paris’ extensive metro system has approximately 300 stops. As such, metro stations are found easily throughout the city, especially Paris city center, where tourist attractions are generally located. Trains run frequently in popular areas, usually every 2-5 mins between 05:30 and 00:40 (5:30 am – 12:40 am) Sunday thru Thursday and 05:30 – 01:40 on Fridays and Saturdays. Note!! Night buses take over after trains stop running. These buses generally stop at every station in accordance to metro line stops, so no worries when having a late night out! Check out the app RATP here.

The most confusing part about the Paris metro system is pricing. Now, a few days’ stay isn’t all too bad. Individual tickets and multi-day passes are available at every metro counter. Check out the various prices here. The problem is, Paris is divided into 5 different zones.

metro

Every zone is subjected to a different price.

Zone 1-2 is central Paris (Light yellow area on the map). The majority of metro stations are within this zone. After these two zones, the RER Regional Express Network will provide access to other zones, such as Zone 5, where the Charles de Gaulle airport is located. For a more thorough read on zones and transportation, here is a great article.

If you are under 26 and planning on living in Paris for an extended period, there’s good news for ya! The French government loves to help us kids and will subsidize a bulk of the cost for an annual pass. While the benefits are great, the bureaucratic process can be a headache. To get the application forms,  visit one of the offices in a metro station and ask for the forms for Carte Imagine’R (with valid photo id, a photo, school enrollment info and a French bank account reference). These cards may take a few months to be delivered to your address, which is rather annoying since finding a place in Paris isn’t always easy. However, the card ends up being half the price of Navigo, which is the normal metro pass. It also provides a lot of benefits. For more information, click here.

Bikes

Paris has an extensive bike sharing system called Velib. It’s around €2  for the half an hour with a valid credit card. If you return a bike within half an hour and rent a new one, it will only charge you that €2. basically, don’t go over the time limit and you won’t have to pay extra! Read more about the biking system here.

Taxi/Uber

I took the taxi once, it starts at €4 and is €1.25/km. While I feel for the taxi industry, Uber, a rideshare network, is just a lot more budget friendly for my student wallet. As North America, Uber is really convenient in Paris. If you are a first time user, click here and sign up to get a free ride! All the drivers I’ve been with are hella friendly.


Traveling between Cities

Buses

There are tons of buses in Europe, including Euroline, IDBUS, National Express, etc

Megabus is probably the cheapest, which deals as low as ***€1.50*** if you book around a month or so ahead of time. (I was able to book a ticket to Brussels from Paris for €2! Now, they don’t have the most comfortable seats or the most extensive travel destinations, but I thought it was definitely worth the few hours’ pain if you can find your desired destination.

Planes and Trains

If you aren’t familiar with Skyscanner, you should!!! It will provide the prices on all the days of the select month and show the cheapest fare. The site also provides an option for spontaneous travelers. By selecting “flexible” in the destination tab, It will show a list of destinations organized by price from the point of departure.

Trains are quite expensive (yes I do think that eurorail is extremely pricey) BUT, if you manage to secure a ticket with Ouigo, do so!! It ranges between €10- 35 from Paris to 16 other cities. The catch is, you do need a French or European bank card.


Clubs and Bars

Paris has two completely different club scenes.

Top 40

Generally expensive to get in, unless you meet a promoter (which is quite easy for girls, but be ready for comments on how to dress and whether you are pretty enough). When you do have a promoter, there is free cover, free alcohol, free booth, you name it!

Some of my favorite are Nüba, an open rooftop bar/club, and club 79, a fancy club in the 16th arrondissement.

Deep House

Geared towards a younger crowd, most are dressed casually while the cover is not as expensive, though this differs based on the club.


Safety

Overall, I felt safe during my 4-month stay in Paris. However, I was fortunate enough to live in a nice neighborhood. But there were several incidents that noted otherwise. My phone was stolen on the metro and my friend was robbed in the suburbs. Read the full story here.

There are certain truths to stereotypes. People in Paris weren’t overly excited to help out tourists (to be fair, there are a lot of us). But start your sentence with a few French words, they are a lot nicer after!

Happy Travels xx

rome to venice

15 Days Across Italy

Rome to Venice, Venice to Rome. Let’s go! 

Italy in 3 months is ambitious. Italy in 15 days is ruthless. However, if you’ve only got two weeks to spare, I have just the agenda for you.

In a span of 8 days, I visited some of the most prominent scenery–Venice on the lake, historical center of Florence, the colorful islands of Cinque Terre, the leaning tower of Pisa, the holy Vatican and of course, Rome. Following the visits of notable monuments, we still found time to relax in between and wander the cities endlessly.


Venice

venice1

2 half days and a night in Venice.

I arrived in Venice mid-noon April. The temperature was a bit low and the breeze a bit chilly. A stunningly romantic city, the Venetian Lagoon did not fail to amaze. Crowded by tourists in some parts, there still remains a vast portion of streets and alleys untouched by tourist presence.

I discovered this while trying to find my Airbnb. Make sure to confirm your location before arriving! Despite having the address on Google Maps, the location was wayy off. I asked a cafe staff several times before confirming that the cafe had nothing to do with my residence.

I ended up wondering the streets of Venice with my luggage. Not a fun experience after a flight :'(

The streets were confusing as hell. On map, the layout seems straightforward enough. It’s a tiny island with small streets here and there, resembling any other European city. The story is completely different when you are physically there. There were no less than a few thousand intersections and crisscrossing alleyways. Many streets were impossible to locate due to the weird numbering system (instead of having different street names, the houses are numbered in accordance to the districts). Since I had no phone, I had to walk around and hope for the best. But thank god for those welcoming Italians (Some of the most helpful people I’ve met)!! I was offered help by a local, who was kind enough to walk some hour or two to help me find my bed.

Venice was extremely small and pricey. As such, a day in the city was enough. But to experience the romantic strolls at night, we decided to leave during the following afternoon.


Florence

florence1

5 days in Florence, use it as the base for Cinque Terre and Pisa.
1 or 2 days for Cinque Terre
1 day for Pisa

Florence was around 2 hours from Venice. We took a Blabla Car for around €15  per person, which was much cheaper and more convenient than Itali Rail. To be fair, Italy has a great rail system. But nothing beats people picking us up and dropping us off right at the door.

While Florence was crowded with people and traffic, it remains one of my favorite destinations in Europe. Situated 10 minutes away from the spectacular Dome, our Airbnb was only €19 for two beds!

The Cathedral was breathtaking; the city magnificent, the open air museum was extra charming with a saxophone soloist by its doors. There is so much to see here. From its beautiful architecture to its art and history, definitely, spend a few nights in this magical city


Cinque Terre

cinqueterre3

We went to Cinque Terre the next morning. Waking up at 6am, we caught the earliest train at the Florence central station. Cinque Terre is famous for its 5 different villages and their colorful dwellings by the sea. Again, all the trains and associated timetables are available on Itali Rail . (Note! The ticket for these villages as mentioned below, are only sold at the station in La Spezia and the front desk of some hotels.)

After arriving at Genoa train station (La Spezia), there is a separate train for these villages. The station provides a rather great explanation for what’s to come. They hand out little cards that detail the various trains times between each village, as well as the hiking trails between these little towns. Unfortunately, only one of the hiking trails connecting the villages was open, but it was enough for us for the day. The hike was exhausting, lasting nearly 2 hours.

We thought one day was enough for Cinque Terre, but definitely stay longer if you don’t want to rush things!


Pisa

pisa1

Instead of catching a train, we took a blablacar to Pisa. It was €8 per person and on the way, the driver pointed out the Tuscany vineyards, which was extremely beautiful.

Definitely, bring food out onto the lawn for a nice little picnic. (Though you will likely get hooted off by security)

<-Obligatory Pisa pic.


Rome

4 days in Rome

We spent 4 days in Rome. Although the train from Florence was around €50, we were able to find a Blabla Car for €15/ person.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t as fond of Rome as the cities mentioned above. 3 days was definitely enough for main tourist attractions!

Save a day for the Vatican. You will need it!

TIP!!: If you are planning a trip, try to spend a Wednesday at the Vatican and meet the Pope!!!! You need to reserve online here.


The Remaining 5 Days

The destinations mentioned above are the crown jewels and must visit in Italy. However, Italy is so much more than these few cities. There is Milan, one of the fashion capitals of the world. (Visit before or after Venice since it is located in North Italy).

Bologna is yet another great stop located between Florence and Rome.

Down south, you have the beautiful waters of the Mediterranean. Visit Naples or the old mafia capital of Sicily.

This is definitely a very fast moving and tiring agenda for those who are physically able. However, if you are on a tight schedule yet don’t want to miss any of the spectacular sights, this is a flexible agenda to take and adapt!


Total Cost

For 8 days in Italy, We spent around $500 CAD for the two of us. I know, this was a pretty expensive trip. But since we opt for nicer Airbnb instead of Couchsurfing, the bill really added up.

We spend around $300 on Airbnb. Aside from the cheap one in Florence, Venice and Rome were pretty darn expensive.

The rest were on transportation throughout the country. Trains in Italy were pricey. I didn’t really notice it until going to Cinque Terre due to the lack of Blabla cars in that region. I believe we ended up spending $100 just for the various trains throughout the day 🙁

Nevertheless, this was such a great experience and definitely worth the trip! I do need to start budgeting my trips accordingly though! As always, feel free to email me if you’ve any questions!

Happy Travels xx

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Things to do in berlin

Abandoned Hospitals Hippie Hideouts | Germany

Berlin gave me a handful of memories. My first solo trip in Europe at the age of 15, was to visit a friend in this city. I lived with her for a month, attending high school mid the gloomy month of December, celebrating Christmas with her fabulous family and welcoming New Years with arrhythmic dance moves atop a metro station. I loved everything about the city.

So it was not a surprise that I decided to visit Berlin again. But this time, my stay was absent of the charm of Christmas markets, bright lights, and teenagehood of West Berlin. Instead, I decided to explore the city on the other side, East Berlin’s hipster-like neighborhoods and abandoned buildings.

Throughout my three day visit to Berlin, I fashioned a ridiculous outfit, no short of a sweater tied to my side and a ski mask turned beanie.

My friend and I decided to couchsurf with a community set along the Spree, a beautiful river that flowed through the city center.

No surprise here, “Teepee Land” was occupied by a number of travelers, hippies, and artists of all backgrounds. All the teepees were made of recyclables from the city.


Teepee Land, Berlin

Abandoned Hospitals Hippie Hideouts

Teepee Land

If you are confused with what’s happening, trust me when I say I was too. The place was awesome, don’t get me wrong. With couches and tents and newspaper for rooftops in a huge unattended space, it was hella homey for someone like me. Surfers and others appeared in and out of the tents to greet us.

We were introduced to some minor rules, no hard drugs, don’t steal, and whatnot in-between. It was pretty great to see people leaving their luggage and bags chilling around the camp knowing that they were taken care of.

teepee land

That night, we met a French Shaman who was about to head back to the Riviera to attend a Shaman festival.

We nodded knowingly along his tales of tree spirits and drum playing and wild forests then later googled Shaman up:

SHämən,ˈSHāmən/
noun
  • a person regarded as having access to, and influence in, the world of good and evil spirits, especially among some peoples of northern Asia and North America. Typically such people enter a trance state during a ritual and practice divination and healing.

Hmmm interesting

hippie in Berlin


Zombie Hospital

But how could our trip just end with Shamans and teepee land and night runs (our failed attempt at crashing Berghain-one of the hardest clubs to get into?)?? No, Berlin is so much more than that.

We had to end it with sneaking into an abandoned children’s hospital.

Abandoned Hospitals Hippie Hideouts

Zombie Hospital

It’s safe to say that Berlin is a beautiful city. There are loads of green space and wide roads,  a huge contrast to say, Paris’ narrow streets and busy city space.

Nevertheless, my favorite part of the trip was the visit to Berlin’s Zombie Hospital. It is an abandoned hospital situated in Weißensee.

Weissensee's “Zombie” Children's Hospital

But trust me when I say this was not usually my thing. I’m the kind of person that can’t even complete a horror movie trailer on Youtube. If it weren’t for my friends being the brave souls they were, I’d never have set foot in a place like this.

Then again, it is not all dark and gloomy ;J

The Banana Room

Abandoned Hospital

The Heart Room

Zombie Hospital

two idiots

What happens when you leave two idiots in the same room? ^

The hospital itself was not hard to find. It is located at Hansastraße 178-180, 13088 Berlin (Weißensee). We got there by taxi, it was around €15-20 from East Berlin. As long as you are not afraid to get down and dirty, the place is practically inviting you in!

While the gates were locked, there was a convenient hole somewhere along the fence. There are a total of 4-5 buildings to explore. From the children’s different colored’ rooms to walls of graffiti and chalk, it was a good 2 hours spent wandering around the (possible) living situation for them brave hearted.

Beware of the manholes around the buildings! There were several hidden enough to cause some damage. Either way, I would not come here at night. It was a bit scary despite the well-lit setting.


Total Cost

We stayed in Berlin for 3 days. Since we couchsurfed, living expenses were eliminated. We spent the nights walking around the city and visiting most tourist attractions by foot.

  • The hop on hop off bus that we took was around €20
  • Interactive theater experience was €15
  • Public transportation was a few Euros each way but since we lived near the wall, it was decently easy to get around by foot.

Overall, the 3-day stay was less than $65 (Including the Blablacar from Hamburg).

If you have other questions, feel free to shoot me a message!

Thanks to my beautiful friend Camila for these beautiful photos. Check her out here.

Happy Travels xx

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travel stories

Bad Luck comes in Threes | France

I lived in Paris for 4 months while doing an exchange at Sciences Po.

Honestly, where I was, didn’t even count as Paris. My apartment was in the suburban Bologne-Billcourt, some hour away from the Parisian core, shared with a Brazilian roommate, two Asian grandparents and occasionally, a dog.

My phone was stolen in early February. Since funds were limited, I decided to pursue the nomadic route of phone-less survival. Saving that $100 second-hand phone cost me loads of confusion getting around town.

But c’est la vie.

Just days before a Eurotrip; I fell and blacked out in a Parisian club. What I assumed was a day’s work at the emergency room ended up being 4 days of scans and medication. The medical team told me that this was no little bump. Apparently, I fractured my skull and suffered from internal bleeding. If the blood colt grew, I’d have to undergo surgery.

Nowww I wasn’t about to die a tragic death mid a Euro tour,  so I opt for IVs and the emergency room. 🙁

Since I was phone-less, my friend from Canada had no idea I couldn’t go to Amsterdam with her. This girl didn’t even know my address in Paris

Bad luck comes in Threes

In the hospital

(On a side note, my travel insurance did end up paying my $7000 hospital fee)

Thankfully I survived made it through with only periodic headaches and dizziness. 

Our trip ended with Paris as its final destination.

Both exhausted, we spent 3 days lying in bed rejuvenating. The one night we decided to go out, Camila went missing in the wilderness, aka, midnight in Paris.

The gem she is, she decided to hitchhike.

Two young men picked her up in a gray Volvo. While having a lively chat in the car, one of them decided to leave the passenger’s seat and join her in the back.

She blacked out instantly, waking up to see them pulling over at a metro station. The clock in the car read 7 am, three hours since they picked her up.

When she finally found the way back to my place, we checked her for bruises and called her bank. These two lovely Samurais tried withdrawing some 5000$ from her card.

Bad luck comes in Threes

Filling out the Police Report

As the French would say, shit happens

But I say shits happen. In threes.

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