Dubrovnik, Croatia

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Dubrovnik is a world heritage site that sits on the Adriatic coastline, and although breathtakingly beautiful, there are reminders that remain throughout the city that tell of its tragic past.

Although it is a small city, there is plenty to do and explore within and surrounding its old city walls. Perhaps the most popular tourist attraction is to take a walk along these city walls that so clearly enclose the old town. In the past the drawbridges to the city would have been raised at night to deter any unwanted visitors from entering. The walk around the walls is something that should be on your list of things to do when visiting Dubrovnik as the birds eye viewed gained from doing so is a great way to understand the layout of the city beneath as well as marvel at the surrounding coastline views.

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One of the many views from the Old City wall

Other Old City  attractions worth visiting are the Franciscan Monastery and Rector’s Palace. The monastery entrance is besides the entrance to the Old City Walls entrance. The monastery is perfect for respite from the summer heat of Dubrovnik, and inside you will find a hidden courtyard garden, only visible to others from the city walls above. The monastery is filled with artefacts, as well as information about the bombings that took place on the Old City, with a hole in the wall showing the damage inflicted.

The Palace is situated at the far end of the Stradun. It was built in the late 15th century and was for the elected rector who governed Dubrovnik. Inside is the rectors office, private chambers, public halls, administrative halls and even a dungeon which you are able to go inside. During the one month term they served, the rector was unable to leave the palace unless permission was granted from the senate.

Today the palace has been restored, with many of the rooms decorated in period style. As well as this, it serves as a museum that catalogues Dubrovnik’s past.

If you have a little more time on your hands, and particularly if you are a Game of Thrones fan, a visit to Fort Lovrjenac is an absolute must. A large proportion of the series was filmed at this fort, and even if you are not a fan, like myself, you can certainly appreciate why it was chosen as a set. To get to the fort you need to head out of the city gates, over the drawbridge, and up the hill past the taxi ranks. Keep waking until you see the signs. The views from the fort are spectacular, and take in the city of Dubrovnik as well as the coastline.

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From the right of the fort we spotted a gorgeous cove with unbelievably clear waters, and decided this would be the perfect place for a cool off swim! To reach this, you need to take the left steps down when leaving the fort, and at the bottom turn left again. Follow this street for a minute or so until you find the secluded cove.

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Views from Fort Lovrjenac

If you are planning to visit even only three attractions in Dubrovnik, it is worthwhile purchasing the Dubrovnik Card. We purchased a 3 Day Dubrovnik Card which cost 250 Kuna. which covered the cost of entry to all the sights and attractions, as well as a very handy information book. The cards can be purchased from the information centre below the clock tower.

A highlight of my short visit, had to be the trip to Lokrum. This is a small island located just off the shores of Dubrovnik. A return ticket by ferry costs 240 Kuna. It is a stunning island, left to nature, in that there are no cars on the island or inhabitants. It is home to olive groves, ruins, gardens, and a large number of peacocks! I recommend a tranquil lunch at Rajski Vrt, which is just a short walk from the pier, and is located in front of the ruins. To walk off lunch you can have a look around the ruins as well as explore the botanical garden. Make sure you bring your swimming gear as when the post lunch slump hits, there are ample trees to take a siesta under, or alternatively, head back to the rocks near the pier, where you can take a dip in the gloriously clear and warm waters, all the while watching the hustle of boats and peacocks.

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For dinners, it is easy to get caught in a tourist trap so be cautious. I can recommend dinner at Villa Ruza, which you will need to book in advance in the busier summer months. Here we had a very fresh and delicious salt baked sea bass. I recommend!

If price is not an issue, it is worth booking dinner at Proto. This is a fish restaurant just off the Stradun and is a family run restaurant that has been around since 1886 and serves the finest seafood. A tip is to ask for a table on the hidden roof terrace.

If you are visiting in the summer months, there is simply no place better to be than enjoying a post dinner drink or two at one of the many bars along the Stradan. The yellow lighting reflects off the marble street and often music is being played whilst swallows race each other up and down the Stradun and over the clock tower. Quite simply, pure bliss.

 

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Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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Amsterdam has to be one of my favourite cities to visit, just because there is so much to do and see. It is a city that I would find extremely hard to get bored in, and I know I will carry on returning to for many more city break trips.

I thought I would compile a list of things to do in Amsterdam that differ from the ordinary touristy attractions such as the Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum, Hermitage, etc. Although they are must sees, there are so many other things that you can do to pad out a week in Amsterdam, so here are a few ideas for you.

One of my favourite things to do in Amsterdam, that I make a mission to do everytime I visit, is to stroll through the ‘Negen Stratjees’. These are nine shopping streets in Amsterdam, side by side, that contain individual and unique shops and cafes. You won’t find any chain stores along here, which in my option is fantastic. You can easily while away an afternoon flitting between the shops, and if you need a break from all the browsing (and of course purchasing!), I can highly recommend a cafe called ‘Pluk’ which serves up delicious juices, salads, and cakes. The best thing of all? They have lots of little interior items that you can peruse whilst you wait. Perfect.

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Pluk

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If you have an hour to spare and fancy something a bit different, you could head to the Museum of Bags and Purses on the Herengracht. It is only one of three museums in the worlds specialising in this field and its collection is the largest, with over 4,000 items, with handbags, purses and suitcases dating back to the 16th century. It also has exhibition changes, and at the time of writing, the current one is exploring the use of beads in the craftsmanship of the pieces.

If the weather is good, the best thing has to be to hire a bicycle and head to the Vondelpark. My suggestion is to pick up a few lunch items from Marqt (the BEST grocery store) so that you can spend the day picnicking in the park and taking in all the sights. If you are there during the summer months, check out the Vondelpark website, as there is often entertainment on that you can go and watch for free.

 

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‘Ticket to the Tropics’ in Vondelpark

Another lovely thing to do if the weather is good is to hire a canal bike (pedalo). If it is a first visit to Amsterdam, I would say that a boat ride is the best option as you will travel most of the canals and hear lot of information about them and the canal houses. However if you’ve done the canal boat tour, then the canal bike is a must. It’s likely you won’t get very far, but its just great fun to be out on the water, trying to avoid crashing into all the boats, with the added bonus of getting a workout!

If you have a week in Amsterdam, I would say it is also worthwhile taking a day trip out of the city. Trains run regularly from Amsterdam Centraal, and there are many places to see within an hours travel. Den Haag is 50 minutes away, and although nice, I would not return here as it just didn’t have the same buzz as Amsterdam. However if you do find yourself here, a trip to Hop&Stork is a must a they have the most amazing slabs of chocolate that you can break off and mix and match.

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Hop & Stork

The day trip I would recommend is to Delft, with a train time of 55 minutes. Delft is the perfect size for a day trip, in that it is small enough to walk around and there is enough to visit. Delft is renowned for its blue and white pottery, and there are three factories still producing this in the Delft area. On Thursdays there is also a market held in the main square of Delft and craft stalls set up on the banks of the canal. A visit to a Delft factory is a must, and of the three, I would visit the Royal Delft factory (Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles). This is located just outside of Delft, so you can purchase a shuttle bus ticket from the information office for €2. At the factory you can visit the museum which shows the history of Delft pottery, as well as see how it is made and painted. A the end you will face the conundrum over which pieces of pottery to buy!

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Delt Painter

If eating and drinking in Amsterdam, you will probably face a similar dilemma of where to choose, as there are hundreds of places to pick from. However it is very easy to fall into the tourist traps, so here are a few places I would go.

I’ll start with breakfast, and for a good price, you can eat at Toon. This is a small cafe which has juices, pancakes, eggs Benedict and a scrumptious granola. For a fresh juice and main breakfast dish, the bill will come to under €15. The service here is also very good, with friendly staff.

For ‘elevenses’ nothing quite hits the spot like a little tart from ‘Petit Gateâu’. They have two stores in Amsterdam, one on Haarlemmerstraat, and one on Bellamyplein. There is a great selection and you can see them being made as the kitchen is in store.

Lunch is an easy choice for me. Any place serving frites and bitterballen is after my heart, however one restaurant which really impressed me was ‘George Loves Martini’. This restaurant/bistro is packed full of locals, and is a good alternative to a picnic in Vondelpark, as it sits just outside the gates. Expect simple dishes, done well.

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If you’re in the Dam area, then lunch at the Bijenkorf is always a winner. They have a selection of different cuisines, all cooked fresh in front of you. The added bonus is that if it’s a good day, there is a roof terrace to enjoy your lunch on.

Pre dinner there is always time for a cocktail or two, and the bar at the Hoxton hotel certainly gets my vote. They have an interesting list to choose from and the atmosphere is great. Although dinner here at Lotti’s is good, it was fairly basic and in future I think I would just come here for a cocktail and then go elsewhere for dinner.

For dinner there are so many places to talk about but here are are my favourites.

The first is Cuarenta y Tres on Rembrandtplein. Although this area is full of touristy restaurants, this one really serves up something quite different. The few times I have eaten here, I have left fully satisfied. The risotto I had this time was simply delicious. They also do some great cocktails. (I can recommend the Moscow Mule)

For something a bit different you could try Ali, located just at the end of Utrechtsestraat. This is a turkish restaurant who offer the most amazing hummuses and dips, as well as their hot pillow-like flat breads, that you’ll be thinking about long after you leave.

My best dinner though has to have been at Guts and Glory. This modern restaurant has no menu. When you arrive all your are given is the theme, which changes every three months, and the option to order 5, 6, or 7 courses. You are asked if you have any allergens, but apart from that, the rest of the evening is a complete surprise! When we visited the ‘chapter’ theme was Italian, however expect no pasta. Instead we were delighted with dishes such as osso-buco with saffron risotto, melon granita with parma ham, and plenty more to tickle your tastebuds. Be prepared to book this restaurant in advance though during busy seasons.

After dinner, Door 74 is a great place to venture to. You do need to book in advance as it is speakeasy style where the outside looks like a rundown building, but inside you are greeted to a small cosy cocktail bar. However if you are after a bit more atmosphere, you cannot go wrong with having a couple of post dinner drinks on Rembrandtplein, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night when it really gets busy and there is a great buzz.

All in all Amsterdam is a city where there is always something going on and there are always new and exciting places to visit. I hope this has given you a couple of ideas of things to do, if, for some unknown reason, you find yourself with nothing to do. Highly unlikely I know..

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(Oh and if you’re really looking to push the boat out on your city break, why not book a room at the Waldorf Astoria as it mean you can relax in their pool after a hard day out exploring the city.)

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Amalfi Coast, Italy

The Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy is a truly breathtaking place to visit, a destination from which you will never want to return. With spectacular coastal scenery and gorgeous food it is of no surprise that this is a popular tourist destination.

Coastline
Coastline

The town of Amalfi itself, famed for its lemons and limoncello, is a fantastic place to visit due to its medieval architecture, quaint shops and of course the Amalfi Cathedral, dating back to the 11th century. The steps leading up to its entrance overlook the ‘Piazza Duomo’, the heart of Amalfi, and a great place to buy a gelato and enjoy the buzz of this town.

Buffalo mozzarella from Ristorante Torre del Saracino
Buffalo mozzarella from Ristorante Torre del Saracino

Another place to visit is the town of Ravello, situated just above the Amalfi coast. If I had to recommend one attraction here, it would be the Villa Rufolo with its stunning gardens overlooking the coast below. If you plan to visit here in summer months, my tip would be to try and get tickets to one of the many concerts that take place in the gardens, a perfect way to while away a balmy evening.

Positano
Positano

The town of Positano is again, a beautiful place to visit. Although it does attract tourists, it certainly has a more traditional Italian feel than the bigger towns like Amalfi. It is the perfect place for a stroll and to browse through the shops, winding their way down to the water front. A delightful place to stop for lunch is in the gardens of the Hotel Palazzo Murat. This hotel was previously a monastery and although in the centre of Positano, upon entering the gardens, the noise of the surrounding streets disappears. This is a perfect place on a hot day with the trees providing a shady, cool place to sit. If you are looking for somewhere lavish to stay, book a room at the nearby ‘Il san Pietro di Positano’. This Relais & Chateaux hotel is not only beautiful, but can also boast of some of the best food in the area.

Waters surrounding Capri
Waters surrounding Capri

If luxury is what you are after, the place to head is the island of Capri where lavish boutiques are in abundance. This is a fantastic place for a day trip and the waters off this island are the colour of turquoise, a place to take a dip amongst the super yachts surrounding Capri. If you are looking to treat yourself, a trip to the newly opened restaurant ‘Mamá’ is certainly in order. This is the second restaurant of the two star Michelin chef, Genarro Esposito, and is a restaurant that you will dream about long after you have left, due to its delectably fresh food that captures Italy in a mouthful.

Lake Como, Italy

Lake Como, or Lago di Como as it is known in Italian, is located in the Lombardy region of Italy. It is just over an hour from Milan, and is therefore a popular destination for tourists and Italians alike. Lake Como The main town of Como is the biggest on the lake. When looking for a bit more buzz than the quieter villages around the lake can offer, this is the place to come. Here you will find museums, plenty of shops, parks etc. A great thing to do when in Como, is to take the funicular railway to the top of the surrounding mountain upon which sits the village of Brunate. From here you get a spectacular view of the lake and on a clear day, you can even see as far as the alps. Further up the lake are a popular group of villages; Lenno, Tremezzo, Bellagio, Mennagio, and Varenna. Lenno does not have much to offer in terms of shopping, so a good day to visit would be on Tuesday when the local market sets up here. However the reason why Lenno is popular is because of the ‘Villa Balbianello’.

Villa Balbianello
Villa Balbianello

This is a spectacular villa and gardens situated on the cliff of Lenno, reached by a brisk 20 minute walk from Lenno, or by a 3 minute water taxi ride. I would highly recommend this as a place to visit, and if you conquer the 20 minute walk, there is a scrumptious  gelato shop waiting for you upon your return in Lenno! Tremezzo again is a quiet village, with its point of interest being ‘Villa Carlotta’. Inside the villa is a museum, but the gardens are the true highlight. Situated on a slope, the views are breathtaking from the top, with beautifully landscaped gardens to match. Although the gardens are wonderful throughout the year, I visited in October when most plants had already flowered, so if visiting Lake Como in the summer, a trip here is a must. Also in Tremezzo is the iconic ‘Grand Hotel Tremezzo’.

Grand Hotel Tremezzo
Grand Hotel Tremezzo

This hotel oozes style with its sumptuous interior which combine both classic and modern designs perfectly.
The spa here is also of utmost quality, with drop glass windows overlooking the lake from its state of the art hydrotherapy pool.

Menaggio
Menaggio

Menaggio is a larger village than Lenno and Tremezzo with both more shops and more hotels. Half a day here is enough, but a tip would be too leave time for lunch at Hotel Corona Ristorante. This restaurant is positioned in the main piazza under the ‘Hotel Garni Corona’. The restaurant overlooks the lake and serves traditional Italian cuisine. Of all the food I ate in the week I was here, this was some of the best due to its simplicity. Varenna is another village to visit to while away half a day, so my advice would be to spend the morning and lunch in Mennagio, and then make the short ferry trip over to Varenna for the afternoon. Varenna is probably one of the prettiest villages on the lake, and has a charming little walkway around the edge of the lake which connects the two halves of the village together. There are plenty of restaurants, cafés and ice cream shops along the waters edge to stop and enjoy the sunshine and watch the ferries coming in and out.
Varenna

In my opinion, what sets Varenna out from the other villages is its independent artisan shops. Whether this be pottery or watercolour, you are sure to come away with a souvenir from here. Finally, the village of Bellagio, otherwise know as ‘The pearl of Lake Como’. This is a popular tourist destination, so don’t expect the same calmness as the other villages on the lake.

Sunset from Bellagio
Sunset from Bellagio

Famed for its silk production, there is an abundance of shops selling silk scarves and any other item that can possibly be made out of silk! There is plenty to do here from a visit to the ‘Villa Melzi’ gardens to wandering through the romantic cobbled alleyways. A day is certainly needed to experience Bellagio to its full extent, particularly if you intend to include a good bout of shopping. If you are really looking to treat yourself, a visit to the michelin starred restaurant ‘Mistral’ at the ‘Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni’ should most certainly be on the list. The food here is exceptional, and starts from the moment they bring you the bread basket (which is a meal in itself!), the flavours are outstanding.