Monthly Archives: January 2017
Spring is a great time for travel, so whether it’s catching some sun, mountain hiking or delving into some history and culture – or even some last-minute snow action – here are a few ideas to get you digging out your passport. These are the cheapest places to travel in spring.
1. For a spa: Budapest, Hungary
Where better to sweat out the last vestiges of winter than a city with more than a hundred spas? Each has its own particular style, from sixteenth-century Ottoman – the best is Rudas, with a beautiful octagonal pool under a glass dome and a rooftop heated pool with a wonderful view of the Danube – to exquisite art nouveau, such as Gellert.
No visit to Budapest would be complete without stopping at neo-baroque Széchenyi, the largest of the city’s spas, where you’ll see locals combining a hot bath with a game of chess.
A ticket can cost as little as €10, and a 20-minute massage around €15. Cooling down after a steamy soak by sampling one of the many delicious craft beers on offer in the capital will only set you back around €1.50.
Afterwards, go for coffee and calorie-rich Dobos torta (Hungarian sponge cake). Accommodation isn’t as good value as it used to be, but you can still find great deals out of town and public transport for getting into the centre is excellent.
2. For end-of-season skiing: the French Alps
Skiing is never cheap, but if you hold out towards the end of the season in Europe, and choose somewhere high up and relatively snow-sure, you can grab a bargain.
Val d’Isère, Val Thorens, Les Arcs and La Plagne, with their high-altitude positions, are the resorts to watch, and if you book last minute it’s possible to get a week’s chalet deal for around €475. Deals often include flights, transfers, breakfast and dinner (with as much wine as you can quaff before the coffee arrives), plus afternoon tea and cake waiting for you for when you return tired and aching after a day on the slopes.
3. For a tropical escape: Guatemala
Tropical rainforest, brooding volcanoes, mountains and lakes and abundant wildlife – what’s not to like about Guatemala? Plus, there’s ancient Maya sites steeped in mysticism, graceful colonial architecture and colourful markets.
Visit the tremendous Maya city at Tikal deep in the rainforest, or more remote sites tucked away in the jungle, where howler monkeys and toucans will likely form a rowdy soundtrack. Lake Atitlán, flanked by volcanoes, is stunning and a must-see, as is picture-postcard Antigua with its colourful colonial-era buildings.
If you want to learn something on your trip, Spanish classes are the cheapest in Central America, and travel between places on the chicken buses costs little (just don’t expect to get anywhere fast, or on time). Meals, often featuring beans and tortillas can cost as little as $3, and street food is even cheaper.
4. For music: New Orleans, USA
New Orleans is considered to be the birthplace of jazz. Indeed it’s impossible to spend any time there without drumming your fingers to the beat, or shakin’ your stuff. And much of it can be heard for next to nothing, whether it’s from enthusiastic street buskers or impromptu jam sessions in moody bars.
There’s also great brass music – traditional or energetic, raucous mixes of funk, reggae, hip-hop and R&B.
You can hear thumping talent every night of the week in clubs such as the Spotted Cat and gritty BJ’s Lounge, and world greats at Snug Harbor for as little as $15.
Spring is a fantastic time to head to the city – it’s T-shirt weather but also before the often-stifling heat of summer. Just watch out for accommodation price surges during Jazz Fest at the end of April.
5. For a beach break: Morocco’s west coast
If you’re looking for sunshine and culture, Morocco’s Atlantic coast ticks all the boxes. Stay in laidback, breezy Essaouira and amble along the old narrow streets in the medina or potter around the souks, occasionally ducking into the city’s many art galleries.
Spend an afternoon in the bustling port and watch the day’s catch being brought in, before rewarding yourself with a cheap, fresh fish dinner as the sun goes down. If you want to surf, the little fishing village of Taghazout is the place to go, with plenty of shops that rent out, sell and repair boards. Plus there’s tuition available from Surf Maroc.
6. For a city break: Timişoara, Romania
Timişoara was where mass protests kick-started the 1989 revolution that brought down Nicolae Ceauşescu and his totalitarian regime – but if you associate it with the austere, grey concrete of the communist era, think again. The city is a charming and lively mix of Habsburg buildings that pack a real architectural punch and pretty parks and squares, with the tree-lined Bega canal bisecting the old and new towns.
In spring the city sheds its winter coat, and vibrant music, theatre and opera scenes all come alive – with affordable prices, too (seats for at the National Opera can cost as little as €10).
7. For outdoor adventures: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, USA
Extending to more than half a million acres, this national park in North Carolina andTennessee is gorgeous, with wildlife aplenty and an abundance of outdoor activities to enjoy – from hiking scenic mountain and lush forest trails to horse riding, fishing and cycling. What’s more, entrance is entirely free.
Spring is a great time to visit. By mid-April, the weather is more stable and wildflowers are on show everywhere, little purple butterflies flitting among them. The warmer weather of late spring also means it’s an ideal time to camp, and overnights stays will only set you back between $14 and $23.
Best for the historic centre: Baixa and Chiado
Lisbon’s Baixa, or ‘downtown’, is an appealing oblong of handsome buildings flanked by the squares of Rossio, Figueira and the grand riverfront Praça do Comércio. Its an impressive example of late eighteenth-century town planning in which many of its traditional shops survive. Most of its banks and offices have now been converted into hotels and guesthouses: a plethora of them have opened up in the last couple of years, so wherever you stay, you’ll be right in the thick of it. Consider adjacent Chiado, too, the chic shopping district that’s home to the famous café A Brasileira.
Feeling flush: Hotel do Chiado
Best for romance: Alfama
The city’s oldest quarter is a fascinating warren of steep, winding streets that thread their way past densely packed houses where life carries on much as it has for centuries. Heading uphill towards the castle, you’ll get some of the best views Lisbon has to offer, across the terracotta roof tiles and the cruise ships that anchor on the broad Tagus estuary. Fado restaurants and souvenir shops are moving in, but this is still an alluring old-world village Lisbon where you can spend all day exploring.
Cash-strapped: The Keep
Feeling flush: Memmo Alfama
Best for designer shopping: Avenida da Liberdade
The wide, palm-lined Avenida da Liberdade is a mile-long strip of Portugal’s most expensive real estate, where embassies and consulates sit above top glitzy designer shops. Gently sloping downhill from the spaces of the centre’s main park, Parque Eduardo VII, to the central Baixa, the Avenida is also a short walk from most of Lisbon’s attractions.
Cash-strapped: Dom Carlos Parque
Feeling flush: Heritage Avenida
Best for nightlife: Bairro Alto
Spread out across a hill above the old town, the ‘high district’ has long been the city’s bohemian quarter. Its grid of densely packed streets are an intriguing medley of boutiques, bars, restaurants and graffittied houses. Relatively quiet by day, the district comes to life after midnight when on warm summer nights, it gives the impression there’s a permanent street party taking place until the small hours. This is not the place to come for a quiet night, but ideal if you want some serious nightlife. Stay on the fringes of the central grid to be clear of the noisiest streets.
Cash-strapped: The Independente
Feeling flush: Hotel Bairro Alto
Best for hip and happening: Cais do Sodré
The once seedy Cais do Sodré has had a makeover, and the bars and clubs that once attracted sailors and street walkers now attract the hip and trendy. There’s an appealing riverfont promenade, tasteful warehouse conversions and the Mercado da Ribeira, the main market, much of it now given over to food stalls serving top cuisine. Cais do Sodré also has plenty of fashionable restaurants and bars, but many of its budget establishments remain; it hasn’t quite thrown off the earthiness that is part of its appeal.
Cash-strapped: Oasis Hostel
Feeling flush: LX Boutique
Best for sophisticates: Lapa and Madragoa
West of the centre, the well-heeled districts of Lapa and Madragoa contain some of the city’s finest mansions and embassies, many with dazzling views over the Tagus. This is a quieter, more residential side to Lisbon, yet you’re only a short tram or bus ride from the city centre one way and the historic sites of Belém the other. This is also where you’ll find the splendid Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, an art gallery featuring the likes of Hieronymus Bosch, Dürer, Rodin and Cranach.
Cash-strapped: Fado Bed and Breakfast
Feeling flush: Olissippo Lapa Palace
Best for culture: Belém
In 1498, Vasco da Gama set sail from Belém to open up trade routes to India, a feat which established Portugal as one of the world’s superpowers. To give thanks, the king built the sumptuous Jerónimos monastery, the centrepiece of a raft of impressive monuments and museums in this historic suburb west of the centre. These include the Torre de Belém tower, the impressive Maritime Museum and the unmissable Berardo Collection, one of Europe’s top modern art galleries.
Cash-strapped: Casa Amarela
Feeling flush: Altis Belem
Best for early morning flights: Parque das Nações
Close to the airport and a short metro ride from the centre, the Parque das Nações was built for Lisbon’s Expo 98. It’s a futuristic new town of modern apartments and gardens flanking various tourist attractions, including a casino, science museum and its most famous site, the Oceanarium, one of the largest in Europe. You’ll also find a range of international restaurants, bars, concert venues and the giant Vasco da Gama Shopping Centre. All of this faces out onto the Tagus, here crossed by Europe’s longest bridge, the 17km-long Ponte Vasco da Gama.
Cash-strapped: Pousada de Juventude Parque das Nações
Feeling flush: Myriad by Sana
The Old Centre
If you choose to stay in the Old Centre, you’ll be a short walk from the main sights and the principal shopping and nightlife areas. Cheap hotels abound and this is the first place to start looking if money is tight, although some may find the proximity of the red light district off-putting.
On a budget: Flying Pig Downtown
This hostel is clean, large and well run by ex-travellers familiar with the needs of backpackers. It’s justifiably popular, and a very good deal, with mixed dorms, some of which have queen-sized bunks sleeping two.
No-limits luxury: Hotel de l’Europe
This elegant old-timer has plenty of fin-de-siècle charm and a central riverside location. The rooms are large and opulent, and there’s also a two-michelin-star restaurant, Bord’eau, a spa and the glamorous Freddy’s Bar.
The canal-laced streets to the west of the old centre have a number of quiet waterside hotels, though the least expensive places are concentrated along Raadhuisstraat, one of Amsterdam’s busiest streets.
A snug stay: b&nb Herengracht
This oh-so-central bed (and no breakfast) has three double rooms: subterranean bolthole, canal view or garden view.
A hotel with style: The Dylan
Hip without being pretentious, The Dylan has earned itself many repeat guests. This stylish hotel is housed in a seventeenth-century building that centres on a beautiful courtyard and terrace, and there’s a michelin-star restaurant on site.
Ideally positioned for the plethora of clubs, bars and restaurants on and around Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, this area is on the rise: Waldorf Astoria decided to locate their new hotel here in 2014. There are plenty of options for those on a budget too, including a number of very appealing – and occasionally stylish – hotels along the surrounding canals.
The big name: Waldorf Astoria
Housed within a series of conjoined seventeenth-century canal houses in one of the city’s most prestigious neighbourhoods, the Waldorf Astoria has 93 rooms and suites in tasteful, calming neutral shades. It’s hard to fault, except for the eye-watering cost.
A great budget option: Prinsenhof
This small one-star has been offering bed and board since 1813. The 11 rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated, making it one of Amsterdam’s top budget options, but booking ahead is essential.
Staying in the Jordaan puts you among the locals, well away from the prime tourist areas. There’s no shortage of bars and restaurants here either, and some of the city’s prettiest canals thread through the district, but you’ll be at least a 15-minute walk from the bright lights. Be aware when looking for a place to stay that Marnixstraat and Rozengracht are busy main roads.
Inventive design: De Hallen
There’s plenty of buzz surrounding the stunning conversion of this 1902 tram depot. Original features, such as rails in the dining-room floor, and the vaulted glass ceiling, have been kept intact, and the 55 rooms seem to be suspended within the structure.
Beautifully furnished boutique: Maison Rika
Housed in a former art gallery, this boutique option has two beautifully furnished queen-sized bedrooms on the second and third floors and is owned by fashion designer Ulrika Lundgren, who has a shop across the street.
The Old Jewish Quarter and Plantage
Not many tourists stay in this area as it’s largely residential, with very few bars or restaurants. So you’re pretty much guaranteed a quiet night’s sleep here, and you’re only a tram ride away from the leading sights.
A simple and welcoming stay: Adolesce
A popular and welcoming four-storey hotel (no lift) in an old canal house not far from Waterlooplein. There are ten neat, if a little dated, rooms and a communal seating area.
Modern style: Arena
A little way east of the centre, this hip four-star hotel has split-level rooms in tranquil grey or cream. There’s a lovely, relaxed vibe in the bar and the intimate restaurant with garden terrace, and a lively late-night club located within the former chapel.
The Eastern Docklands and Amsterdam Noord
These up-and-coming districts have some excellent, avant-garde accommodation options, and though their industrial architecture and open expanses might feel a world away from the old centre’s medieval lanes, they’re just a short hop away by ferry or tram.
An unusual conversion: Lloyd Hotel
Situated in the Oosterdok (eastern docklands) district, this former prison and refugee workers’ hostel has been renovated to become a “cultural embassy”, with an arts centre as well as an art library. The hotel serves all kinds of travellers, with rooms ranging from one-star affairs with a shared bathroom to five-star suites.
Getting high: Faralda Crane
Ever slept 50m in the air? The world’s first hotel in a crane offers three ultra-contemporary suites with knee-buckling city views. As you’d expect, there’s a long waiting list, so book well in advance.
The Museum Quarter
The city’s smartest quarter centres on the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum – although the nightlife around Leidseplein is also within easy striking distance. There are no canals, and two of the main drags constantly rumble with traffic, but several good hotels are to be found here, plus the leafy Vondelpark.
Back to school: College
Converted from a nineteenth-century schoolhouse, the college is an elegant boutique hotel run by hotel-school students. It has tasteful modern rooms, a first-rate restaurant, a swanky bar and a chic terrace.
To impress: Conservatorium
The capital’s most jaw-dropping hotel, this heritage building has been transformed into a contemporary design wonderland. Standard guestrooms come with Nespresso machine and free newspapers, plus access to Akasha – the city’s largest and most opulent spa.
Where do I start?
You’ll find it impossible not to start at La Seu, the city’s enormous, attention-grabbing sandstone cathedral, perpetually bathed in golden sunshine and dominating the centre of town.
All flying buttresses and spiky columns, it is a Gothic masterpiece – and best seen from the outside. Its exterior, rising up from the water and announcing this as a Christian-conquered city, is its most striking feature and the stone seats along the old city wall at its base are the perfect place to soak up the sun and plan your assault on the city.
You’re in the heart of the Old Town here, its narrow pedestrianized streets tangling back from the water and begging you to get out there and explore.
Next head to the Royal Palace of La Almudaina, just next door – a great example of Gothic meets Moorish architecture. See the Arab baths and the state apartments, still used by the king on occasion, before retreating to the Italianate courtyard of the Palau March, home to modern sculptures and cracking views over Palma.
Then it’s time to dive in to the city’s street life, following whichever diminutive artery takes your fancy northwards towards the pavement cafés of Plaça Major.
East of here is Sa Gerrería, save this laidback neighbourhood for some bar-hopping later on.
The architecture here hasn’t changed in centuries, but the way you can see it certainly has. La Seu started offering visitors the chance to walk on the roof in late 2016 and if you’re visiting in summer there’s no better way to see the city.
This is not one for the faint-hearted or weary though – there are more than 200 steps involved in the ascent and you’ll be on your feet for almost an hour as you’re guided past the rose window and around the bell tower.
Foodies should sign up for the new food tour from Mercat de l’Olivar, a walking food safari through the Old Town which focuses on the markets. You’ll finish – where else – back at Mercat de l’Olivar, which dates from 1951 and is home to over a hundred stalls, for tastings of everything from fresh bread to sobrassada (cured sausage).
If walking isn’t your style, new bike store Urban Drivestyle Mallorca has vintage bikes and nippy scooters for hire, as well as daily city tours which promise to take you to the coolest spots.
What else is there to see?
Palma is a city that is more about enjoying the good life than ticking off the sights, so make time to relax. Platja de Palma is the best of the beaches, its 4km strand stretching around the Badia de Palma. Stroll along the palm-lined walkway behind the sands and pick your spot for some sunbathing.
If you’d rather soak up some culture, head to the Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró, the home and workplace of artist Joan Miró from 1956 to his death in 1983.
It’s a vast site, with several studios including an engraving workshop and print workshop that are still in use and a sculpture garden where you can admire Miró’s work amid Mediterranean plant life.
Where should I eat?
The top pick for dinner is Fosh Lab, which opened in 2016, where British expat chef Marc Fosh experiments with a daily changing menu. Expect an interactive experience here, with plenty of food-focused chat – and to be a guinea pig for test dishes that may or may not make it onto the menu at Fosh Kitchen or Michelin-starred Marc Fosh.
Also worth a dinner booking is Hotel Cort, where simple dishes such as jamón ibérico, grilled octopus and lamb terrine are washed down with Mallorcan wine in the tree-shaded square.
If you’d rather hit the tapas trail make a start at Plaça Rei Joan Carlos I, calling in at Bar Bosch and La Bodeguilla. On a Tuesday or Wednesday, head to Sa Gerrería for the Ruta Martiana: what was once a way of encouraging people out on a quiet Tuesday night has become an event in itself, with dozens of tapas places offering a drink and a tapa for around €2–3.