I don’t understand those people who take time off work to ‘spend time at home’. Being completely honest, I pretend to understand, whilst secretly swiping through the Skyscanner app under the desk, planning my next trip… I’m a wanderer, you see, and as such I believe that my money is best spent on cheap flights, mid-range hotels, and delicious food enjoyed in a European city I know very little about.
So, in a fit of reflection (due no doubt to being only 48 hours away from 30 at time of writing), below is a list of my 5 favourite places from the last couple of years, and my tips to help you enjoy them. There are plenty of others, but these are the places that I’d go back to in a heartbeat – and that I’d really recommend you try, too.
1. Brussels, Belgium (££)
My Brussels love is new but strong! I travelled there at the start of October 2015, thanks to a very last minute decision, and it turned out beautifully.
Highlights are the architecture, the beer and the chocolate (to be honest, it’s mainly the beer and chocolate but I’m trying to sound cultured here). It’s a beautiful city, with all the gorgeous hipster design and shops you could want, but without an annoying hipster in sight. Chocolate is everywhere! But it’s the beer that’s the real gold. It’s the strong, flavoursome, amazing stuff you’d expect of Belgium, but about half the price of the UK.
Top tip: Learn about their brilliant beer. We went to the mega award-winning Cantillon Brewery to learn more about the traditional Lambic style of brewing that I so love, and I’d highly recommend it. Even to our mixed party – the saison-loving lush (me), the hardened professional brewer and the somewhat impatient, beer-loving Northerner – it was agreed to be the best brewery tour you can find.
££: Just to add to the brilliance of this place, Brussels is also really cheap. From the hotel, to the beer, to the flights there (if you can avoid the weekends especially), it’s all brilliant value. Alright, it’s no Vietnam, but a strong beer like Delirium or Leffe might cost you €3-4 in Brussels, when you’d expect to pay twice that in the UK.
2. Hoi An, Vietnam (£)
Vietnam is so unlike anywhere else on earth that I’ve been. If you’re lucky enough to be in that neck of the woods, plan in a couple of days in the small town of Hoi An, on the central coast. Get yourself a Bia hơi (rice beer of the day, about 3p a bottle), find a bar with a view of the road and just sit and watch.
Try to do a street food tour; Vietnamese food is the absolute best and it’s also a great way to quickly get your bearings in this ancient town. Definitely have fresh Bahn Mi, do NOT eat dog, and be sure to visit Minh Hien, a restaurant in the backstreets of the town. Like many places in Vietnam, it’s vegetarian, and is also ridiculously cheap.
Top tips: Oh my god, the roads… Just hold your breath, and walk slowly, steadily and unflinchingly into the road and the hundreds of cars and scooters driving right towards you will swerve around you. Promise.
£: You’ll feel like a king in Vietnam. The dong is incredibly weak against the pound so everything is beyond cheap. The cheapest beer we found was 3p a bottle… Yep, really. Allow £10-20 a night for a decent hotel (and that’s if you feel like being posh), plus a couple of quid for a good meal. Even our most slap-up of meals, complete with cocktails, came to about £4-5 each.
3. Stavanger, Norway (£££££££)
If a chocolate box town is what you’re after, you can’t beat Stavanger. Just try not to eat or drink out of the house. In fact, just plan not to spend any money at all and you’ll be fine. Budget needn’t spoil the fun though! Window shop in the town centre, take a drive up to the amazing fjords just 30 minutes drive away, and try to get yourself an invite to someone’s house because it’ll look like an IKEA catalogue, guaranteed. I spent last Christmas there, staying in a little boathouse owned by my other half’s Norwegian family, and I don’t know when I’ve ever felt more festive… View from our window included above.
Top tip: Don’t be too cool to wear thermals if you’re visiting Norway, and especially Oslo. FYI, -18 degrees C is too cold, especially to wander the capital without your woolies. Marks and Spencer’s do some good ones… #sexy
££££££+: Alright, I’m exaggerating slightly, but it IS ludicrously expensive due to the oily nature of Norway. I’d recommend a short trip and going out of season so you can at least save money on flights. If all else fails, fun can be had wandering round the shops and marvelling at the price of a KitKat.
4. Amsterdam (£££)
I could definitely live in Amsterdam, if it wasn’t for the small fact that I speak no Dutch whatsoever. The city is beautiful, friendly, diverse and always buzzing. If you’ve never been, plan to just stick your nose into the city centre to have a quick gawp at the red light ladies, before heading a little more off the beaten track to avoid the crowds. I found the Rijksmuseum a bit of a chore, but the design-focussed Stedelijk Museum was a much better way to while away a few hours. Check out Leanne’s recent post on exploring an alternative Amsterdam, courtesy of a local tour guide (her bro).
Top tip: Don’t take pictures in the red light district if you value your camera/phone/life. Ask Leanne for details.
£££: In my experience, it’s not as bad as people make out in terms of price. It’s priced like London, for the most part, but you can get some better bargains on accommodation if you go Airbnb.
5. Prague (££)
Last but not least, it’s lovely Prague. I’m cheating as I’ve not been for probably 4-5 years but I still remember how beautiful the city is. The architecture is worth going for on its own; you’ll see the most incredible gothic building right next to a sleek modern building, next to an old bridge… It’s another great place to go in the winter. We went in November for my birthday and the temperature hovered around freezing, but with lovely blue skies. There are loads of galleries to see, and the castle really is worth a trip up the hill, if just for the view of the city beneath. Make sure you try the traditional pastry ’trdelnik’ cooked on sticks over coals on the street.
Top tip: You can still track down cheap beer and goulash if you steer clear of the stag do haunts, like Wenceslas Square. Hit the side streets and the Jewish Quarter and it’s a different town altogether.
££: It’s definitely still cheap, though I’d recommend going mid-week if you can and as soon as possible because prices are creeping up all the time. Staying just out of town will help to save money as the trams are good and taxis are reasonable if you’re coming back once they’ve stopped running.
And that’s my lot. Though I’m currently looking at Poland for January (£35 return!) so I reserve the right to update this at my leisure.
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