Kosovo Travel Inspiration

Things to do in Kosovo

After our pleasant surprise at how great Bosnia is as a travel destination we were blown away by Kosovo. The war here was a lot more recent and having met very few people who had travelled here and finding very little online we expected to find a small, struggling nation with not a lot to see but perhaps some interesting local life.

things to see in kosovo

Boy, did we underestimate this amazing little country. The cities are modern, bustling and packed with cute cafes, funky bars and restaurants offering all kinds of delicious cuisine. All the roads are fully sealed, there are major highways and everything is well sign-posted. There are cobbled old towns, national parks with marked hiking trails and plenty of interesting sights to see.

Yes, Kosovo is still developing and changing and there are still many issues to be dealt with. But it is more than ready to welcome tourists and is definitely on par with the rest of Europe in terms of tourist appeal.

Need to know about Kosovo

Prizren Kosovo

Kosovo was once part of Serbia and declared independence in February 2008. The road to independence was not easy and there was a lot of conflict within Kosovo. It is still struggling to gain recognition as a country with 115 nations recognising Kosovo’s independent status.

Within Kosovo most people are ethnic Albanian with the exception of the Northern areas where many people are of Serbian origin. The conflict within Kosovo is ongoing and controversial however Kosovans are happy to have tourists visit and are willing to openly talk about the past, present and future. 

Population: 1.8 million

Currency: Euro

Language: Mostly Albanian, some Serbian. Good English and German spoken throughout the country.

So what do you do in Kosovo? Read on, here are all the major towns and best things to see in each area of Kosovo.

In and around Pristina

Pristina is the capital city and is the major transport hub. Stop here to get a feel for the country, stay in a major city and connect to other areas of the country. There are lots of interesting things to see and do here in a couple of days.

Go to a bear sanctuary

kosovo bear sanctuary pristina

The sanctuary was opened in 2013 and is now home to 19 bears rescued from abusive and inhumane conditions. The area is well laid out and takes about an hour to walk around, depending on how long you want to stop and look at the adorable bears. There is a nice little café and a kids playground. Entry is €1.50 in the high season and €1 in the off season. You can also make donations to the care of the bears.

If you want to make a day of it, the area around here is also great for hiking and there are walking paths that lead through a lovely park. A little further down the road is a nice lake which is great for a dip and there are kayaking tours available. 

See one of the world’s ugliest building

National Library Kosovo

The Kosovo National Library has become a tourist attraction since it was named one of the world’s ugliest buildings. It was designed by an Albanian architect and kind of looks like boxes covered in chains with white domes on top. An interesting spectacle whether it’s worthy of the criticism or not.

Gračanica Monastery

Kosovo Gracanica Monastery

Around 12km outside of Pristina is the spectacular Granica Monastery. It’s on the way to the bear sanctuary and worth stopping at for a look. The monastery dates back to 1321 and has some pretty impressive paintings on the inside.

Visit the Ethnographic Museum

Kosovo Ethnographic Museum Pristina

A major part of this was being renovated when we were there but a guide took us around a traditional house filled with artefacts and carved wood that were hundreds of years old.  It’s small and a bit random but interesting to see as you wander through the old town of Pristina.

 

In Prizren

Prizren is the most popular town in Kosovo and it’s easy to see why. This gorgeous little old town set on a river has picturesque views and plenty of cafes and bars.

Bars

Prizren is the place for sunset beers in a funky bar. Sitting with views of the fortress and river watching the world go by. The streets of the old town are lined with bars where draught beer is €1.50 and it seems like the whole town are out on a summers night walking the streets.

Prizren Fortress

Priren Fortress Kosovo

This is the major attraction of Prizren. A 15 minute steep uphill climb takes you to the old fortress with stunning views down over the town. A great place to watch the sunset or simply sit and enjoy the views. There is also a lovely church to see on the way up but it was not possible to enter when we were there.

DokuFest

DokuFest Kosovo Prizren

If you happen to time your visit right Prizren hosts an awesome little film festival with a great range of documentaries, workshops, performances and discussions. The venues are located all over the town and include outdoor areas such as the grounds of the fortress and the river bank. The whole town comes alive during these 9 days and there is a great atmosphere.  

Wedding dress shopping

Things to do Kosovo

We still haven’t quite got our head around just how many wedding dress shops there are in Kosovo. Walking straight north out of the old town the main shopping street is lined with shops displaying all kinds of dresses from traditional Kosovan to lavishly decorated puffy numbers. It’s an intriguing place for a wander.

 

Around Peja

Peja is a great base for exploring the surrounding area which is beautiful. The town is small and compact but there are plenty of things to see in the area. It is also a connection point to neighbouring Montenegro.

Hiking

Kosovo Rugova Canyon Hiking

The Rugova Valley is a great place for hiking. It is part of the ‘Peaks of the Balkans’ hike which is a 10-13 day hike through mountains in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. We did a great hike to Lake Kucisko, right on the Montenegrin border. It was only 1.5 hours from the restaurant we drove to but could also be extended if you started at the main road instead.

river village

Things to do Kosovo

Just opposite the zipline is an interesting collection of tents, chairs, art and miscellaneous items all put together to create a little oasis in the river. There was no one around when we were there but there were prices written on the tents so perhaps you can stay there? Otherwise it makes a quirky place to stop for a dip and watch the zipliners go overhead.

Ziplining

Kosovo Rugova Canyon Zipline

About 20 minutes drive from Peja is a zipline through the gorge. It costs €10 per person and lasts just over a minute. It looked like a lot of fun but we were both too chicken to try it!

Patriarchate of Peć

Patriarchate of Peć

Just outside of the town is a 14th century monastery which is well worth a look. You need to show your passport to get in, we aren’t entirely sure why! It costs €2 to enter which includes an audio guide. You aren’t allowed to take photos of the inside but it is very impressive.

Waterfall and Radaci caves

Radaci caves Peja Kosovo

The Radaci cave is a new feature on the Kosovo tourist attractions list. They are still exploring further under the mountains but right now you can pay €2 to see the first three galleries. It’s open everyday from April- October and by appointment at other times. You can also arrange to climb down 90m to the underground lakes.

 

Other towns and things to do

Mitrovica

Mitrovica Kosovo

This was our first stop in Kosovo and is an incredibly interesting introduction to the country and its conflict. The small town in divided by a bridge built by the European Union. On the north side of the bridge Serbia and Russian flags hang along the main street, everyone speaks Serbian and pays in dinar (the currency of Serbia). On the southern side of the bridge Albanian flags adorn statues, people speak Albanian and use the Euro.

We found the town completely safe to wander and everyone was very friendly and enthusiastic about talking with us and helping us. There are lots of nice cafes, bakeries and bars so grab a coffee and chat with some locals on either side.

Gjakova

Gjakova Kosovo

We stopped here as a quick coffee break and ended up staying the night. There is not a huge amount to see but the old town is so adorable. The main street is basically bar, café, bar, café and in the evening most are full of locals chatting, joking and enjoying a summers evening. We loved the vibe of this place.

Coffee with cream

things to do kosovo

It too use a couple of tries to get used to the coffee names in Kosovo. A macchiato is what I would call a latte and a cappuccino comes with whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Whatever you decide on it never costs more than €1 and is really good coffee!

Talk to locals

Everywhere in Kosovo the people were very friendly and had a really good level of English. From the man at the parking lot to meeting a fellow blogger (check out her awesome blog), we tried to make the most of our social interactions and get to know a little bit about the country we were travelling in.

We were so surprised by all the interesting, fun and quirky things to do in Kosovo. It's cheap and in Europe so we thoroughly recommend it to anyone looking for a week away (looking at you teacher friends!) 

 

 

8 Reasons to Visit Bosnia and Herzegovina

8 Reasons to Visit Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina was always on our route but not somewhere we had done a lot of research into. We had, of course, heard about the Bosnian war in the 90s and knew of Sarajevo and Mostar but that was about it. The beauty of travelling in our van is that we can stop wherever we like and we found many places to pull over!

Bosnia's cities and towns are full of interesting things to explore and the mix of stunning scenery and crazy roads mean you'll never be bored getting from A to B! We loved our time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so here's 8 reasons it should be (high) on your travel list! 

1.The Nature

Bosnia Horseshoe bend

Driving through Bosnia and Herzegovina was a real treat. We had heard about the cities in Bosnia but didn’t know just how beautiful some other parts of the country are. Huge mountainous regions forming stunning valleys, crystal clear rivers and leafy forest paths. Nature lovers should definitely put Bosnia and Herzegovina on their list!

 

2.The old towns

In contrast to the striking scenery Bosnia has some beautiful towns with cobbled streets, bridges and castles. The most famous of these is Mostar which has become a very popular tourist destination. The old town in Sarajevo is also a great place to wander. Počitelj has some impressive castles and is not far from Mostar.

 

3.The prices

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a budget travellers paradise. Food, drink and accommodation are all affordable, even in the cities. Free or wild camping is very easy or there are many beautiful and cheap campsites. A meal costs around €4 and a beer is €1 or less in a bar/restaurant.

The local currency is Bosnian mark and when we were there it was around 2BAM = €1.

 

4.The history

Arriving in Bosnia we found ourselves lacking in knowledge about even the most recent history. A bit of googling and some visits to museums helped us gain more insight into some of the tragic events that have taken place in the recent past. But the in the old towns we also discovered the more ancient past from the Ottoman Empire and Austro-Hungarian rule. All of this made for a really interesting experience and we loved learning about the history of this young country and the surrounding areas.

 

5.It’s still relatively untouristy

Compared to other areas of Europe and neighbouring Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains pretty calm on the tourist front. Outside of Mostar and Sarajevo there were very few Western tourists to be seen and we often found ourselves in smaller towns without another foreigner in sight.

This will most likely change as countries like Croatia and Montenegro become more expensive and Bosnia and Herzegovina establishes itself on the tourist scene. But for now you can enjoy some beautiful nature and cute towns without the crowds.

 

6.The Food

It’s hard to distinguish which food is specifically Bosnian and which is from the Balkans in general as most of this area used to be one country. But nevertheless you’ll find some great food here at really affordable prices. We lived off lunches of Burek, a food we’ve had cravings for since our trip to Cyprus. Basically a filo pastry tube filled with a choice of meat, cheese, spinach or potato and only about 75c per piece!

Meat platters and delicious homemade breads were also a favourite. Cevapicici is the most common dish in these parts and consists of small mincemeat sausages, bread and onions. Bosnia also has some decent local beers to try.

 

7.The views

There are so many hills and mountains in Bosnia and Herzegovina, trust us, we drove over a lot of them! But the benefit of this is the amazing views you get from the top. Even Sarajevo is surrounded by hills so there are plenty of viewpoints to see the city. Our favourite was The Yellow Bastion - Žuta tabija which had a chilled out little café and great views for sunset.

8.It’s on the way

 

Bosnia is perfectly located for further exploration of the Balkans. With borders to Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia is just a few hours from many other great destinations. It is definitely worth adapting your route to go through this interesting and beautiful country

So what are you waiting for?! Get yourself to Bosnia and Herzegovina while it's still affordable and not packed with tour groups!

Vanlife Essentials: Equipment and Ideas

Essential Items for Living in a Van

So you want to go on a van trip, either for a summer road trip or as a your permanent residence. I would recommend you start by purchasing a van but since we bought the first one we looked at I can't offer much advice on this topic! But the next step is what to fill it with. All those little gadgets, space savers and outdoor equipment that you need for life on the road. 

Here is the equipment we use on a day to day basis. Every vanlifer is different and will want/need different things from luxury campervans to basic conversions like ours. But these are the essentials for cooking, eating, washing and relaxing in a van!

Cooking and Eating

Gas stove

We use a small fold away gas stove for cooking. It's compact and effective for basic meals. We also have a small gas bottle with a fold out stand in case we need a second element. The gas canisters are easy to buy in most countries and really cheap. 

 

Cool Box

We bought an electric cool box but to be honest we don't use this function very often. If anything it makes a good space for storing food out of the sun and is great for things such as vegetables. When we are at a campground we can plug it in to keep the beers cold! 

 

Multi-pot set

This came with the van when we bought it and is incredibly useful and great for saving space. Three different sized pots and a kettle all fit inside each other and have a detachable handle. These and a small pan are all we need for the meals we eat on the road. 

 

Sharp Knife

Max likes to have a good knife for cooking and we use this foldaway one as it is compact and very effective. We use it for chopping, spreading and even the occasional handy work around the van.

 

Table and chairs

Our table was really cheap on Amazon and is perfect for us. It has 2 height settings either for sitting on the ground or on our fold-out chairs.  The legs have adjustable feet for uneven ground and the table is just the right size to cook on or for two people to eat at. It has a handle on the side if we need to carry it anywhere and slides under our mattress while we're driving. We also have a couple of these fold-out chairs for all our sitting needs.

 

Water canister

Especially if you're planning on free camping. It's always important to have enough water with you for washing, cooking and drinking. We carry two 20L plastic canisters but we've never needed the second one as there is an abundance of accessible water around the Balkans. You can also get fold away ones which might be useful as a spare. 

 

 

Washing in a Van

Outdoor shower

This is essentially a black bag that heats up in the sun. It only takes a couple of hours to be a comfortable temperature for washing and then we tie/hang it in a tree and attach the shower head. If we're in the middle of nowhere we can shower naked but even in more public places we can have a wash in our swim wear! 

 
 

Eco-friendly Shower products

We make sure that the products we use are eco-friendly as we are mostly using them outdoors. I love LUSH products as they smell great too so I always feel super clean even after washing in a forest!

 
 

Waterproof bag

We usually go to an airbnb every 2 weeks to do some washing but if we need to wash things on the road we use a waterproof bag. We fill it with water, throw in some soap nuts (natural washing product) and shake it around. The bag is also useful for activities such as kayaking. 

Living Comfortably in a Van

Storage

Good storage is essential in any van. Chances are your bed will take up the majority of space in your van so you need to think about where to fit everything else! Our van came with apple crates which we lined with material. They are perfect for storing clothes, pots and pans and we have a 'general stuff' box. They all fit perfectly under the bed and can easily slide out. We also purchased a whole range of containers from IKEA which fit our shelves perfectly. We laid some non-slip mats onto the shelves to keep everything in place while we're driving.

van storage
 
 

Behind the seat organisers

Another way of storing general stuff. These are made for kids to keep toys etc in for long journeys but they work perfectly for items we use daily such as shopping bags, tissues, chargers and snacks. 

 

Lights

My wonderful colleagues bought us these solar-powered lamps in the shape of little suns. They are perfect for chilling and reading after dark. They even have a dimming feature! We also have some LED lights which are magnetically attached to the ceiling but the light from these is too harsh and we prefer the softer light of our little suns! They also raise money for a great social project you can read more about here.

 

Radio/Bluetooth speaker

Max and I both have terrible singing voices so we like to have another way of listening to music. We use our phones to play music through a bluetooth speaker. We also have a small solar-powered/wind-up radio for when we don't have access to electricity or feel like listening to some local tunes. This also charges our phones but not with any efficiency so it's more of an emergency option. 

 

Picnic Blanket

Necessary for all kinds of outdoor relaxing situations. We have a picnic blanket with a plastic backside which is great. Folds away nice and small as well!

 
 

Cigarette lighter charger

Standard in most vehicles these days but we use our charger daily and for multiple items so make sure you get at least a double one. 

Touches of Home

Books

In my eyes, no home is complete without a bookshelf! So we made sure to dedicate a part of our shelving to holding books for the journey. When we move out of the van I will switch to my Kindle. Checkout my book recommendations.

Photo Frames 

We bought some basic wooden photo frames and attached magnetic strips to the back so they hang on the inside of the van doors (or our 'walls'). They make the inside look homely and it's always nice to have the memories of friends and family while we're on the road. 

Plants

We have two 'pet' plants. Basil and Mint live in hanging pots and often on our dashboard when we aren't driving. 

If you're travelling long term check out our travel accessories for saving space and being eco-friendly

Ready to start packing your van? Head to Amazon for everything you need! Any questions just ask away....

This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links we will make a small commission to put towards more van gadgets (at no extra cost to you!)

Ljubljana City Guide: Everything you need to know

Ljubljana City Guide

This was my second time in Ljubljana and it has firmly established itself as one of my favourite cities in Europe. The mix of beautiful architecture, history, student life, cafes and art really make this city a great place to spend a few days, or weeks! Plus, it's location in the middle of Slovenia means it's the perfect base to explore the rest of this amazing little country. 

During my visits I have collected all the info you need to enjoy your time in Ljubljana to the fullest. Welcome to the Ljubljana city guide! 

Need to know

Population: 280,000

Language: Slovenian but most people spoke good English and many also spoke German.

Currency: Euro

Price of a 0.5l beer: €2.50-€3.50

Where to stay in Ljubljana

There are plenty of hostels and small hotels in Ljubljana but accommodation becomes much more expensive and often gets booked out during the summer months.

Hostel Celica is located in the alternative district of Metelkova and is a converted prison. Each cell room is designed by a different artist. There is also a great cafe/restaurant onsite. 

We stayed with some amazing couchsurfing hosts and learnt a lot about life in Slovenia and got a locals perspective on the city. There is an active couchsurfing community in Ljubljana but they are often inundated with requests during the summer months. 

What to do in Ljubljana

Ljubljana Castle

ljubljana castle

This is the major attraction in Ljubljana and is worth checking out. The walk up the hill takes about 15 minutes from the old town and provides some great views of the city. You can enter the grounds free of charge and walk the walls of the castle. There are some exhibitions which charge an entrance fee. 

Metelkova district

This is an area of the city that used to be army barracks and has been turned into an autonomous, creative street art space by squatters. The walls buildings are all painted and decorated and there are many art installations in place. There are cafes, bars and art galleries open at various times and often hosting events. 

NUK - Ljubljana University Library

This beautiful library is only open to visitors during certain hours and mainly in summer. Usually 14.30-18.00 Mon-Sat and 11.00-18.00 on Sunday but check these times on the website or the sign outside. It costs €2 to see the main reading room which is stunning but the exhibition room is free and open daily so only make the commitment if you're a library lover like me!

Tivoli park and Roznic Church

The park takes up a fair chunk of the city and is like being out in the wilderness again. There are many lovely, peaceful places to stroll and relax including the Library Under the Tree Tops - a free place to chill and read. It's also a good place to cycle to/around if you rent bikes. There are city bike stops on either side of the park.

ljubljana tivoli park

Take the walking tracks up to the top of the hill to the church. The views on the way up are nice and at the top there is a cute little local restaurant to grab a beer and something to eat before heading back down to the city. Use googlemaps to find the right path, it takes about 30 minutes to reach the church. 

markets

The market square is the heart and soul of the city. Every day there is a large farmers' market selling fruit, vegetables, cheese, honey and snacks. There are also a number of souvenir stalls that take advantage of the constant stream of tourists and set up each day. On Saturdays there is a larger market and on Sundays a flea market stretches along the river. 

Wander the old town

DSC03979.jpg

The pedestrianised old town is a gorgeous place for a wander. The streets are lined with little cafes, restaurants and gift shops. Buildings with shuttered windows and cute little balconies are the norm in the old town and make for some great photos along the riverside. 

Find the cultural street 'Krizevniska ulica' which is particularly beautiful. Also make a stop by the famous dragon bridge. There are free walking tours of the old town which are a great way to learn about the history of Ljubljana. 

Where to eat and drink in Ljubljana

Breakfast

Coffee is a big thing in Ljubljana. Most cafés will offer decent coffee but head to Črno Zrno where the Colombian owner imports beans from Colombia and makes excellent cold brew. 

For breakfast we also tried out Robba which did amazing eggs plus had really funky (award-winning) interior design. We took advantage of the breakfast deal at Slovenska Hisa (Slovenian House). Buy any coffee or drink and you can help yourself to homemade bread, jams and honey. A great way to stick to the budget and still squeeze in a good coffee! These guys also offer a great range of affordable Slovenian food and cocktails. 

robba cafe ljubljana

Lunch/Dinner

For Slovenian food try Julija  or Taverna Tatjana. Both have a really cosy atmosphere and do excellent food. Check out their specials menu for a bargain. 

For international food you can't go past the Friday Street Food Market. Every Friday from 10am-10pm the market square is home to food stalls from all over the world showcasing the best of the Ljubljana food scene. It's worth going to for lunch and dinner! 

We enjoyed amazing burgers from Slovenian beef at Hood Burger. Cantina Mexicana does amazing and affordable food - try their BBQ table option! 

Drinking

The beer of Ljubljana is Union which is around €2.50 for 0.5ml at most bars and restaurants. We enjoyed an evening at Dakarti trying some local craft beer. There are also lots of good craft beers and cocktails on offer at the food market. 

Public transport

Almost everywhere in Ljubljana is walking distance but if you're not just wandering the best way to get around is by bike. There are lots of cycle lanes throughout the city and many locals cycle. You can hire bikes from a variety of outlets in the city for around €5 per day. But if you sign up online you can use the public cycle hire system for just €1 per week! Bikes are free for the first hour and can be picked up and dropped off from any of the many bike points throughout the city. You can sign up here

There is also a decent public bus system, you can check routes and times here

Day Trips from Ljubljana 

Technically everywhere in Slovenia is a day trip away from Ljubljana but here are a few spots that are easily done in a day.

Lake Bled and Lake Bohinj

DSC03906.jpg

If you’re travelling to Slovenia you’ve no doubt made plans to go to Lake Bled. And you should, it is absolutely stunning. Hire a bike and ride around the outside, take a dip anywhere you can enter the water or take a 15 minute hike the hill to the castle which has amazing views and interesting exhibitions. Bled is reachable by public bus, tour or by hitchhiking in the busier months.

lake bohinj slovenia

But if you have your own transport take some time to visit Bled’s less touristy cousin Lake Bohinj. Just half an hour away along some beautiful winding roads you’ll come across this even larger lake. It’s not as easy to walk around the outside but there are some great spots for swimming and admiring the views.

Triglav National Park

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

This is the area around lake Bohnij and is perfect for cycling, hiking and camping.

Rakov Škocjan Valley and Postojna Caves

The Rakov valley is an old cave that collapsed forming a valley of smaller caves, rivers and natural bridges. The area is just 30 minutes drive from Ljubljana and makes a great place for hiking and relaxing. The nearby Postojna caves are very crowded in the summer but the Skocjan ones are just as impressive and less full.

The beach

Yes, Slovenia even has it’s own little patch of coast. For us it didn’t nearly compare to the beauty in the rest of the country but there are some cute little harbour towns and areas to relax in the sun and go for a dip. It’s about and hour and a half from Ljubljana so if you’re really craving a salt water fix then you can make a day of it.

So there you have it. A guide to Ljubljana to help you make the most of your time in the brilliant little capital. I'd call it the best little capital in the world if I didn't come from Wellington

Caves in Slovenia and Other Travel Challenges

Caves in Slovenia and Other Travel Challenges

Books about travel always interest me and recently I found a great book to spice up our travels. 203 Travel Challenges is an awesome book (and website) aimed at inspiring new and seasoned travellers to experience a different side of travel. From challenges in your own backyard to once in a lifetime experiences, just flip open a page and start planning!

We recently completed our first travel challenge of this trip #20 - Go inside an extraordinary cave. We found some amazing caves in the middle of Slovenia that we'd never heard of and decided to check them out!

Rak Škocjan Park is a valley created when some giant caves collapsed. Now the valley is marked by the natural bridges at either end. In between are plenty of beautiful walking tracks, sink holes, caves and rivers to explore. 

The area is accessible by road and is just a short drive from the town of Postonja and the capital city, Ljubljana. It is free to enter. Nearby there are also more extensive underground caves which can be viewed as a guided tour. Postonja caves and the less touristy Skocjanske caves are both incredible. 

Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/toddography/

Photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/toddography/

We're totally inspired to keep searching for new and different experiences in the places we visit. My biggest dream is challenge #187 - Go to the airport and buy a ticket for the cheapest flight of the day. But that may need to wait until after van travel!

For now, here are ten other challenges we have already completed on previous travels. 

Travel Challenge #38 - Discover an abandoned place and take a walk in the past

On our last trip to Berlin we visited the Teufelsberg abandoned radar tower which has been turned into a street art haven. Well worth a visit if you're in Berlin! 

Travel Challenge #24 - Feel like an ant among rock phenomena

I had never experienced a proper canyon before our trip to Kazakhstan and was totally awed by the Charyn Canyon just outside Almaty. You can read more about it in our Almaty City Guide

Travel Challenge #52 - Feel like an ancient king or pharaoh

I finally fulfilled on of my childhood dreams with a trip to Egypt in 2015. It was everything I expected and more! I spent 10 days staying with friends before Max joined me for a further 10 days. One of my favourite trips to date! Here were out top five experiences

Travel Challenge #113 - The slow return challenge

We did this one by accident! Most of you know the story of how we missed our flight home from Edinburgh and ended up hitchhiking the whole way home. If you haven't read it yet you can have a laugh at us here

Travel Challenge # 117 (seasoned travellers) A one month trip with a backpack weighing no more than 7kg

Well my amazing backpack has been on several long trips and is only handluggage sized. The longest I've done so far is six weeks but we are prepapared to take it all out as we take only our 40L backpacks for indefinite travel. Yes, we have matching ones! Why do we love these bags so much? Read all about them here. 

Travel Challenge #108 - Spend Christmas at 30°C

Ok I cheated with this one a little being from New Zealand. But Christmas in the sun is an awesome idea! Here's what you can expect in a classic Kiwi Christmas.

Travel Challenge #76 - Drive along picturesque winding roads

Not buying a vignette in Switzerland forced us onto some smaller roads and we ended up winding our way through the Alps. Read our information about the vignette and how you can avoid the toll-roads here

Travel Challenge #62 - Get lost in a magic garden

As the book suggests, when in Holland we took a trip to the Keukenhoff Gardens. Not our usual travel activity but they were really beautiful!

Travel Challenge #194 Find the world's largest...whatever

In Astana, Kazakhstan we found the world's largest tent and boy was it impressive! It contained a shopping mall, mini theme park and swimming pool!

Travel Challenge #16 Sweet camper life

To quote the book 'You've read all those travel blogs of people who left their jobs and embarked on a journey around the world by van. We'll say no more. You know what to do'

Well we knew what to do and are currently living this challenge! Read more about our van

For these and other great travel challenges get the book 203 Travel Challenges. It's also available as an ebook for those travellers with no more space in their backpack! 

This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of the links I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks! 

 

Driving in Switzerland without buying a vignette

Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in Europe so for budget travellers it’s a difficult place to be. Petrol is far more expensive than in neighbouring countries and to drive on motorways you need a vignette.

This is a small sticker that is placed on your windscreen and costs €40 for one year. If you’re spending a bit of time in Switzerland this might be worth it but if, like us, you’re just passing through you can save yourself some money and see a lot more of the country by taking the smaller roads.

 

How to find toll-free roads in Switzerland

There are maps like this one here which show you where the toll roads are. But all you really need is google maps. If you type in your route and then use the options menu to select ‘avoid toll roads’ google will give you a route avoiding any major highways which require a vignette.

Ok without a vignette

Ok without a vignette

Vignette required!

Vignette required!

Pay attention to the signs. A green sign with a car on it is a minor highway and is fine. A green sign with two roads on it means major motorway and you need a vignette. Any other colour road is fine. But as I said, google knows!

What to expect on the toll-free roads

The roads we drove in were a mix of 2-3 lane motorways with very little traffic and speed limits of 100km/h and small country roads. Many of the smaller roads were windy and steep.

It takes considerably longer using these alternative routes so if you are in a hurry it may be worth investing in a vignette. Our routes showed that it was around twice the time using the smaller roads but since we have nowhere to be we didn’t mind!

It can be very steep! Of course, being in Switzerland, there are a lot of mountains around. Our van- Morrison- did a stellar job getting over the hills but some parts were a struggle. This is also added a lot of time to our journey.

It’s beautiful! Driving through little Swiss villages, through valleys surrounded by huge mountains and past herds of cows with bells clinking on their necks. We stopped hundreds of times for photos and to admire the views. May be that contributed to our extended time as well!

Avoiding toll roads in Switzerland is definitely a great way to see the country if you have the time. We've decided to adopt the same policy in Italy and Slovenia and love seeing all the small villages, local life and great scenery. 

 

Best Bookshops In Edinburgh

Living in a non-English speaking country I find myself deprived of opportunities to browse books. And when I say browse, I mean hold, stroke, smell and compile lists of everything I want to read. A list almost as long as 'places I want to visit'. But on a recent trip to UK my inner book-worm was left thoroughly satisfied as I dragged my friends through every book shop we walked past. Given we'll be living in a van for the next five months I showed incredible restraint and only purchased three books. Along with another two as I passed the bookshop in the airport and had a minor panic about it being my last chance to buy books! From hip bookshops of London  to the treasure troves of charity shops in Manchester's suburbs, I visited more bookshops than eating establishments in my week-long trip. But by far the best was a day exploring the beautiful bookshops in Edinburgh. So if you find yourself in this gorgeous city (and it should be on your list) here are the best places to browse, buy and love books of all kinds.

The Best Bookshops in Edinburgh (in no particular order):

Tills Bookshop

best bookshops in Edinburgh
best bookshops in Edinburgh

This cute, little second-hand bookshop is next to the Meadows on the Newington side. It has a great selection of fiction, especially science fiction. The shop is quite small but worth a browse, books were around 3 pounds. There was also a selection of comics, non-fiction and collectors books.

Golden Hare Books

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I always think you can judge a bookstore by its children's section. And this shop has a lovely one. Nestled in the back the shop with a beautiful selection of children's books and comfy cushions to sit and enjoy. They also do reading sessions for kids on weekends. There is a good selection of adult books too and they offer you free tea and coffee while you browse!

McNaughtan's

best bookshops in Edinburgh
best bookshops in Edinburgh

This shop is was more for just soaking up some beautiful book vibes. They specialise in collectors items, antique and rare books as well as art. It's actually the oldest second-hand bookshop in Scotland and is really magical to wander around. It's located of the street, down some steps so is easily missed when wandering past.

Edinburgh Books

best bookshops in Edinburgh
best bookshops in Edinburgh

This may have been by favourite shop of the day in terms of aesthetics. It was definitely one of the biggest with all kinds of small rooms and nooks lined from floor to ceiling with books. There is a staircase hidden in the corner which leads to a cave-like underground section of non-fiction books. At this shop you'll find everything from popular fiction to rare books.

Main Point Books

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A couple of doors down from Edinburgh Books, this place is smaller but has a great range. You need to spend some time searching but there is plenty to be found. The staff are friendly and helpful too.

Armchair Books

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Just along the same street is this cosy, little bookshop. Sprawling shelves of books in every variety line the walls. There is something for everyone here and the prices are really reasonable. Lots of great fiction and some beautiful, antique books too. We went here at the end of our day but I could easily have spent a lot longer perusing the great selection!

Charity Shops

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This is the ultimate way to top up your bookshelf. The charity shops in the UK have such a brilliant selection of books and they are usually no more than two pounds. And all the money you spend goes straight to charity! There are some organisations which have shops dedicated solely to books (Oxfam and Barnado's). The best places for charity shops in Edinburgh are Newington and Stockbridge where you can find 5-10 shops on the same street.

Old Town Bookshop

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A specialist shop of rare books, maps and art. Very small so not really for browsing but if you're looking for something rare or antique this is a good place to try.

Know any other great bookshops in Edinburgh? Please share in the comments!

Day Trips From Frankfurt

Now we all love little old Frankfurt but that doesn't mean we don't want to get away once in a while, or every weekend! Luckily, Frankfurt is perfectly located for exploring other areas of Germany and Europe. Paris, Amsterdam, Munich and Brussels are all within a four-hour train journey and there are plenty of other smaller places for a weekend away. Think Maastricht, The Alsace Wine Region, Stuttgart or Weimar. But you don't even need a whole weekend to get out and explore. In just a day (maximum 1.5 hours drive) you can get to lots of beautiful and interesting towns. Here are our favourite day trips from Frankfurt.

Day Trips From Frankfurt

Heidelberg

Day Trips From Frankfurt
Day Trips From Frankfurt

This is a student town located on the Neckar river and, let's face it, rivers are essential in picturesque towns. There is an impressive castle with relaxing gardens and views over the old town. The cobbled streets of the old town make a great place for a wander and there are plenty of bars, cafes and shops. The town is a bit of tourist destinations so it may be very crowded on summer weekends. Try a nice weekend in Spring or go on a weekday if you can. Heidelberg is about a one hour drive directly South of Frankfurt or you can take the train.

Limburg

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Located on a river - check(the Lahn)! Pedestrianised old town - check! Cute, timber-framed houses -check! Beautiful, old cathedral - check! Hundred of Italian restaurants- ahh check! Yes, Limburg is everything you could possibly want in a little, old German town. It also has a comical amount of Italian restaurants, we couldn't figure out the connection but pizza is always good! It is free to go inside the cathedral and the maze of streets in the old town are filled with cafes and restaurants. The train to Limburg takes 30 minutes from Frankfurt Hbf.

Taunus

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This is a larger area covering the mountains to the North of Frankfurt. It is a great area for cycling and hiking. Some highlights include the Great Feldberg which is the highest peak (881m) and the lookout tower located a short walk from the small village, Treisberg. Another great stop is Hessenpark, one of the largest open-air museums in Germany. It contains many historic buildings and displays as well as temporary exhibits. All the towns in the area contain authentic German restaurants.

Miltenberg

day trips from frankfurt
day trips from frankfurt

Another cute, traditional German town by a river. There is a castle with views out over the Main and lots of lovely architecture to see. We happened to be there during the annual fair and there were great parades through the old town.

Marburg

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Is a university town which stands on two levels. An elevator transports people to the upper town where there is a large market square. Further up the hill is a magnificent castle which now houses a museum. The city itself has a very laid-back, liberal vibe with lots of cafes and student bars. There are regular trains from Frankfurt Hbf which take around an hour.

Rüdesheim

day trips from frankfurt
day trips from frankfurt

If you're into wine this is the place for you. Located in the vineyards by the Rhine are plenty of lovely walks to do in this area. There is a cable car up to the view-point and lots of great wineries to visit. We had a lovely stay at Magdalenenhof Hotel and enjoyed great food and wine.

Rheinsteig

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Continuing on from Rüdesheim the whole area along the Rhine makes for some wonderful hiking and wine. The Lorelei is a large rock supposedly named after the spirit of a maiden who would sit on the rock and sing to sailors, causing them to sink their ships. It is a stunning viewpoint and the surrounding area is home to many interesting castles. There are also boat tours along the Rhine.

Mainz

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Mainz is small city. It has a nice old town and is located on the Rhine river. In June there is a huge street art festival and many walls around the town are painted. They remain on display for the year and are then painted over during the festival the following year. Well worth a trip out there to check it out and spend some time exploring the city. More info about the festival is available here.

For more information about public transport to and from these areas check out the Deutsche Bahn website or RMV.

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Eco-Friendly Travel Accessories: Travel Green

In the lead up to our long-term trip I've been searching for some eco-friendly travel accessories to help reduce our impact on the planet as we head off to explore it! As probably-a-wise-person-but-I-only-remember-it-from-an-old-t-shirt-my-mum-had once said 'take only photos, leave only footprints.' As we get older and more independent we've started to think more carefully about the products we use and food we buy. Back when I was a poor student organic food was always in the 'too expensive' basket and I didn't think twice about cleaning products and toiletries as long as they left me with enough money for beer.  Don't get me wrong, I've always been a big fan of recycling and second-hand clothes make up a large percentage of my wardrobe. But it's really in the last couple of years that I've become more concerned about the environment and have started consciously making more eco-friendly decisions.

So here is a list of some pretty great and actually useful eco-friendly travel accessories that we'll be packing!

Soap Nuts

Ok this is a hard sell because I was so sceptical of these before we tried them. They simply sounded too good to be true. You buy a bag of these 'nuts' (a natural product grown in Asia), pop 4-5 in a small bag and throw them in with your washing. No powder required. Each nut lasts around 30 washes and a kg (around 300 washes) only costs €10.

The best part is, they really work! We washed two identical sports shirts, one with powder one with the nuts, and couldn't work out which was which. They don't smell like flowers or anything but the smell is completely neutral. And because they are a natural product there are zero harmful chemicals in the water!

WASH BAG

We are planning on hand washing most of the time to save water and also because we will be living in a van. As an effective way to do this we've bought a waterproof washing bag. There are expensive ones on the market with scrubbers inside and a drainage system. But the ever-budget-minded traveller in me opted for the €8 bag which can hold around 20L. Throw in the clothes and some soap nuts and voila!

 

 

STERIPEN

Another item that the sceptic in me is weary of but we were recommended it by a friend who is a scientist and they're always right! We used our steripen for two weeks in Kazakhstan and seem to be still alive. Basically when the 'pen' comes in contact with water it shines a U.V light for around 1 minute which kills all the bacteria in the water. It can be recharged using a phone charger and lasts for 5000L of purifying. That's a lot of plastic bottles!

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Aluminium Drink Bottle

This goes with our steripen and saves us having to buy plastic bottles anywhere we go. It's light and durable and has a wide neck which so we can fit the steripen in. I'm sceptical about all the health risks of drinking out of plastic bottles but this eliminates those issues too.

REUSEABLE SHOPPING BAGS

We've always used linen bags at home but I recently bought a small fold-up one to keep in my backpack. I've already used at least 50 times and would never travel without it now! Always useful for extra purchases, an emergency rain cover or something to sit on. And it saves the world from a few more of those dreaded plastic bags!

 

 

FRUIT AND VEGETABLE BAGS

Along the same line are reusable fruit and vegetable bags for shopping at supermarkets and markets. We plan to do this a lot on our adventure so the less of those little plastic bags we can use the better!

 

ECO-FRIENDLY TOILETRIES

Having minimised my shower products down to just shampoo and soap I make sure to choose eco-friendly varieties. This is especially important while we are living in the van and will be showering outdoors or maybe even washing in rivers! I've also switched to bar soap instead of shower gel to reduce plastic bottles and it lasts longer.

There is a great range of organic soaps available here in Germany (and I'm sure in the rest of the world). I'm also addicted to LUSH cosmetics shampoo. Their products tick all the boxes as they are natural, handmade with minimal and recyclable packaging and not tested on animals.

 

BIODEGRADABLE TOOTHBRUSH

I'd never really thought about toothbrushes but of course, they are more plastic waste. I now own an eco-friendly travel toothbrush which has replaceable heads rather than throwing the whole handle away every time. Another great option is a bamboo toothbrush toothbrush but the price of these is still a factor for me. At around €5 a pop I wouldn't want to replace my toothbrush all that often!

 

REUSEABLE UTENSILS

We bought a knife, fork and spoon all in one. It's relatively flat and easy to slip into the front pocket of the backpack. Again, more useful for van and budget travel. We plan to use them for supermarket food picnics and turning down plastic utensils at street food stalls.

Menstrual Cup

Ok males and family members you can tune out for this part! I've started using a menstrual cup in order to reduce the amount of tampons both in landfills and in my backpack. I don't want to go into too much detail but it's definitely a good cost-effective and eco-friendly option. There are lots of different varieties so do your research and give yourself some time to get used to it!

 

solar charger

This will be useful when we park the van somewhere for a few days and have no electricity. Also good for on the go when your phones dead and you forgot to save the address at your next destination. We've all been there!

 

 

Other ideas for eco-friendly travel

  • Shop local- go to markets and local restaurants.
  • Pack less- lighter planes mean less fuel. Here are some ways to save space in your backpack.
  • Look out for recycling bins - lots of cities are introducing separate rubbish bins for recyclable items.
  •  Invest in good quality clothing and shoes that will last your whole trip.
  • Travel overland - hitchhiking is a great way to reduce carbon emissions but just about any overland transport is better than a plane!
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Ultimate Almaty City Guide: Adventures In Kazakhstan

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During our recent trip to Kazakhstan we spent 10 days in the Almaty region and were thoroughly impressed with both the city and the incredible nature surrounding it. We set ourselves up at a friendly and comfortable hostel and used this as our base for exploring. The city isn't very big so we got to know our way around pretty quickly. So here is our ultimate city guide to Almaty. Everything you need to know for your trip.

Need to know

Population: 1.7 million

Currency: Kazakh tenge (330KZT≈ €1)

Language: Kazakh and Russian. Some English spoke in restaurants and by younger people. Some menus in English.

How to get to Almaty

Almaty is extremely close to the border of Kyrgyzstan and there are buses and shared taxis to and from Bishkek (capital of Kyrgyzstan) which take around 6-7 hours.

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We arrived by train from Astana. There are a range over overnight and long distance trains. There is also a small international airport with regular flights from Europe and Asia.

Where to stay

We had a great stay at Amigo Hostel Almaty. The room was big and comfortable and the staff spoke some of the best English we experienced in Kazakhstan so they were great for helping organise things. There are lots of restaurants, a supermarket and the metro all within easy walking distance.

There is a good couchsurfing community and a variety of other hostels and hotels on bookings.com. Most accommodation is very affordable and within a reasonable distance of the city centre.

What to do in Almaty

Panfilov Park and Zenkov Cathedral

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This park is a memorial to Almaty soldiers who died in WWII. The centre piece of the park is the stunning Zenkov Cathdral which is made entirely of wood, including the nails! Entrance to the church is free. On a sunny day it is busy with local life and makes a great place for a wander.

The Medeu

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This is the highest ice skating rink in the world and is a busy place to be year round. It can be easily reached by taxi or bus #12 which leaves from opposite the Kazakhstan Hotel. In summer the rink is closed but the surrounding area is great for hiking and getting out the city for the day. Gondolas also go from just below the rink to the ski fields. We didn't do this but the views would have been stunning and people were enjoying a day of skiing in t-shirts in April!

In winter you can hire skates or watch one of the many events which take place in this arena. Info and pricing can be found on their website.

Green Market

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This is a maze of shops selling everything from clothing and pots to jewellery and fruit. This was one of the few places in the city that we found souvenirs but even if you aren't looking to buy anything this is an interesting place to get lost and people watch. There are some excellent little canteens located around the market which sell cheap, local food.

Kok Tobe

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This is the highest point in the city and you can get there by gondola, taxi or bus followed by a shuttle. We took the gondola up which was 1000 KZT per person, one way. At the top is a small park which features amusement rides, cafes and small zoo. The views are brilliant, with the snow-capped mountains to one side and the city out to the other. Apparently sunset is a good time to go but we were hungry so we left earlier!

Central Park

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We were there at the start of spring, just at the flowers were popping up. Given another couple of weeks this park would have been really beautiful. Popular with locals and visitors, it's a lovely place to relax and enjoy the sun.

Museums

We were lucky enough to have great weather most of the time in Almaty. But had we not we might have tried one of the museums in the city. The three most popular are The Central State Museum of Kazakhstan, The Museum of Kazakh Musical Instruments and The A. Kasteyev State Museum of Arts.

Eating

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As budget travellers we are always looking out for affordable, authentic, delicious food. We really enjoyed the mix of Asian and Russian cuisine in Almaty from dumplings and noodles to blini and borsch. We frequented Kafahat, a canteen style restaurant where you grab a tray, point at anything and everything you want to try and pay before you sit down. These are located everywhere in the city (we saw at least six) and are very cheap, we averaged around €4 for two meals and drinks.

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There are an abundance of small bakeries selling various pastries filled with meat, cheese, spinach etc. Each costs around 80c and makes a great, cheap lunch on the go!

Our favourite Kazakh foods were Manty (Kazakh dumplings) and a noodle dish made from thick, round noodles with a variety of vegetables and beef. Horse meat is popular too.

Public Transport

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Almaty has very cheap public transport. The metro system is clean and easy to use with signs in English. It costs 80 KZT (around 25c) per journey and trains come every 10 minutes. There is only one line but it takes you all through the city.

There is also a complex but extensive bus system in Almaty. We only used this once or twice as the metro took us most places we needed and was a little more user-friendly. But at 25c you can give it a go and reach almost anywhere in the city. For detailed information about routes and stops check out this helpful website.

Almost every car in Almaty will become a taxi if it's heading in your direction, just stick your hand on the side of the road and negotiate a price. This can be quite complicated if, like us, you speak no Kazakh or Russian. We used Uber and found it very cheap and easy.

Cafes

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Wow, who would have thought that coffee would be such a key feature of a trip to Kazakhstan?! Every cafe we walked into in Almaty was gorgeously decorated and served amazing barista coffee. It wasn't cheap (around €3-4 for a cappuccino) but it was well worth it and soon became a much-anticipated part of our days. We enjoyed great selections of snacks and cakes too.

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Make sure you go to the toilet at these places too as the bathrooms are just as gorgeous and the exteriors.

Our favourites were Honest Coffee, Aroma, United Coffee and Sova (owl) Coffee.

Day Trips from Almaty

Almaty is located in a crazily beautiful part of the country. Within a few hours you can be skiing, hiking in a canyon or enjoying stunning lakeside views. We spent a couple of days outside of the city enjoying these sites.

Charyn Canyon

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Having never visited a canyon before, I really enjoyed this trip. The views are stunning and the walk through the canyon is an easy-going hours walk. You end up at a river and a yurt camp where you can stay for the night and enjoy amazing views of the stars.

We went here with a tour from our hostel but you can also arrange your own transport or try hitchhiking. We paid 3,500 KZT per person including park entrance fees, just to give you a ball park figure. The entrance to the canyon is about a 3-4 hour drive from the city.  It's on the way to the Kolsai lakes so in hindsight we would have combined these two trips.

Kolsai Lakes

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This is a really stunning national park with some amazing hikes. In summer it's a popular destination with homestays and a yurt camp by the first lake. You can reach the park by tour or shared taxis and hitchhiking from Almaty. A little more difficult in the off-season but still doable, read the details of our adventure here.

Big Almaty Lake

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We didn't end up going here because we went to the Kolsai Lakes instead. But this lake is also meant to be spectacular and a little easier to get to. Just an hours drive from Almaty, it can easily be enjoyed as a day trip.

Almaty and the surrounding region are well worth exploring for at least a week or two. In April the weather was warm and comfortable. It would be great to go back in summer when everything is a little greener! If you are heading to Almaty and have any questions feel free to get in touch!

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