Sunday, February 3, 2013

Top 7 Destinations to Explore in Croatia

By Julie Bowman |

Croatia is a travel hotspot right now yet retains its individuality and authenticity, which is often a rarity. With cultural wonders, glorious beaches, glitzy cities and ancient architecture it’s no wonder that Croatia welcomed nearly 10 million international tourists last year. Croatia, aka Hrvatska, is often dubbed the “Mediterranean As It Once Was” has something for all tastes, budgets and interests.



The historic city of Dubrovnik is a great place to explore. Nicknamed the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ it’s a UNESCO listed site (since 1979!) on the southern coast of the Adriatic Sea. There is so much history and culture within this city dating back to when the city rivalled Venice in Italy in terms of maritime trade. You could spend weeks exploring all of the different sights here. In order to get a great view of the entire city, you can walk on the walls that surround it. There are numerous museums that are filled with various types of art, artifacts, and even antique furniture. Notable museums are the Franciscan Monastery Museum, The Rector`s Palace Museum and the Maritime Museum.

Much of Dubrovnik Old Town was bombed during the war of independence (1991-5) but the majority of the damage has been repaired. Explore the well-preserved Gothic Renaissance Sponza Palace, visit the Baroque Church of Saint Blaise and walk on the old city walls which offer views over many historic forts.

Croatia is one of the fastest growing holiday destinations and the small secluded beaches and many inlets and coves add to the allure. You may also enjoy spending some time at one of the two beaches, Lapad Beach and Banje Beach. You can lie out on the beach and relax, build sandcastles, or play in the water.

Hvar Island and Hvar Town

Take a boat trip to Hvar Island and explore Hvar Town which has plenty of history and unique culture set against a backdrop of rolling hills smothered with a purple carpet of flowers. The town boasts lively nightlife, small boutiques and quality restaurants.

Wander the Town Square which is a huge 4,500 sq m and notice how the town spans out from this landmark with buildings dating back to the 13th century. Notable historical and cultural sights around the Town Square include; The Fortress, a historic building that was built in the 16th century. Since that time there have been numerous updates and additions and looking down from the walls, you can see the beautiful sites of Hvar Town. Explore the Cathedral of St. Stephan which was built on the site of a church that had originally been built in the 6th century giving this site many centuries of history behind it. Discover the Franciscan Monastery which was originally built as a place for sailors to seek refuge. It was built in the 15th century and today contains many intriguing artifacts.



The capital city of Zagreb lies in central Croatia and is a thriving lively city full of people and visited by millions each year. The Easter festival period is a popular and colourful time to visit. When visiting this city, you should spend some time at the Maksimir Park and the Zagreb Zoo. It is a great place to hang out and grab a bite to eat at the park’s restaurant or to have a picnic. There are also numerous trails and paths to take a walk or bike ride on and enjoy the surroundings. Within the zoo are a variety of animals, including red pandas. There are also two lakes that are quite popular with both locals and travellers; Jarun and Bundek. Jarun Lake is a great place to hang out and relax and Bundek Lake is a beautiful lake and hosts festivals, workshops, and concerts.

Buy a ‘Zagreb Card’ which gives you unlimited public transport travel and discounts on museums, restaurants and shops. There are various museums that hold different pieces of history including artifacts from mummies, fine arts, and pieces of the culture. The Mimara Museum has over 1,500 exhibits including works by Raffaello, Caravaggio and Canaletto with pieces dating from the prehistoric period right up to the 20th century. The Archaeological Museum (Arheološki Muzej) can display only a fraction of their 400,000 pieces including the Egyptian exhibition with a Zagreb mummy on display. The Klovićevi Dvori museums features heritage artefacts and the Hrvatski Muzej Naivne Umjetnosti (Croatian Museum of Naïve Art) features over 1,000 works of Croatian naive art.

Plitvice National Park

Make sure to include a stop at the beautiful Plitvice National lakes and Park which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are stunning waterfalls surrounded by amazing heavily forested greenery, varied wildlife and magnificent birdlife. You can see a variety of frogs, fish, and birds. There are also two particular waterfalls that you can get a real close-up look at, one that can be seen up close by walking on the surrounding boulders and the other that has a cave you can access. There are numerous hiking and walking trails around the park. You will need to purchase a ticket to enter and be aware that there is no swimming permitted anywhere in the park.

Istria Peninsula

Discover the Istria peninsula of Croatia in the northwest of the country which is home to a variety of sports, adventures and activities. There are great activities to take part in that will both excite and inform you at the same time. You can dive around ship wrecks whilst getting a feel for the types of ships used and the years of history around them. If you are looking for some excitement, cliff climbing is where it’s at. Not only will you get a great work-out, but you will have the chance to see your surroundings from atop cliffs as well. There are also numerous bike and hike trails. Istria was historically part of the old Venetian Empire so offers a great deal in the way of culturally and historically diverse sights too with rich architecture and artefacts from subsequent ruling empires such as the Roman, Byzantine and also the Communist Yugoslavian (Communist) rule.


The ancient port city of Split, which is in the central Dalmatia region of Croatia, is rich in Roman ruins. There are numerous museums and historic buildings to visit. You can get a good look of the past while browsing through these great historic buildings such as the Diocletian’s Palace. Whilst walking around here you can get a great view of the once amazing and well preserved, Roman palace.

Browse the Archaeological Museum where you will find numerous artifacts and monuments from earlier Roman times. Discover St. Duje’s cathedral which is the oldest building of its kind in the world. It was built around the time of 305 AD. You can see the amazing architecture of this building and get a great view of the city from the belltower.

Croatia’s Islands; Watersports and Adventure Activities

Croatia is home is over a thousand islands and the long Dalmatian Coast, Istria and Kvarner mountainous coastal regions all provide the perfect destination for watersports such as sailing, kayaking, scuba diving, canoeing, yachting, kite surfing and swimming. There is also fishing, rambling and mountaineering on offer. Try kayaking to one of the various islands and explore the woods and beaches. If you hanker after a challenging climb you could climb Vidova Gora which is the highest peak. Try snorkelling and swimming within the quiet coves of Korčula.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The 11 best-value cities in Europe for budget travelers

Needless to say, just because a city is cheap doesn’t mean you should go there, and just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean you should avoid it. With that in mind we’ve rated the region by value with this list of 11 cities where the prices of things are most worth it.

1 – Krakow, Poland

While Kraków may not be the easiest city to reach on a standard Europe tour, it offers great rewards for budget travelers who make the trip. With a compact and richly historic city center, this is a destination that offers the best of classic Europe (castles, towers, palaces, town squares, cathedrals) without the massive crowds you get in Prague and elsewhere, all at prices that are still shockingly low.

Kraków also has a great tourist infrastructure with an abundance of affordable quality hostels and budget hotels, along with cheap bars, cafes, and restaurants. Those looking for a place to relax for a while on a hectic tour of the region will find this to be a fun and budget-friendly stop. Beers for under US$ per pint are hard to find elsewhere on the continent.

Daily Backpacker Index: PLN78.60 = US$26.55/day

2 – Budapest, Hungary

While it’s not as cheap as Kraków, Budapest can be pretty close, and it’s a more visually impressive city loaded with worthwhile sights. This is another place where nearly everything seems like a bargain compared to elsewhere in Europe, yet it’s a classic and important city with all the amenities.

The Castle Hill sights are worth a good chunk of time, as are the highlights in downtown Pest, across the river. You’ve also got the many spas based around hot-water springs that tend to be very affordable and unique. Some may not like the paprika-heavy local cuisine, but for those who do it tends to be filling and cheap.

Daily Backpacker Index: HUF6900 – US$33.10/day

3 – Istanbul, Turkey

Absolutely one of the world’s great and historically significant cities, Istanbul has been getting more expensive in recent years, yet it’s still a fantastic bargain by European standards. Overflowing with exotic-feeling temples, markets, cathedrals, and other sights, this is a huge metropolis that is changing rapidly and yet it’s still quite unlike the rest of Europe, partly due to the fact that it famously straddles Asia as well.

You might be going out of your way to get here, but once you make it you’ll find that staying on a very low budget is quite easy, with sandwiches and street food being as tasty as they are cheap, and alcohol is very cheap by European standards as well. Hotels in this city can be expensive if you aren’t careful so we’ve created our Istanbul recommended hotels list with well located bargains.

Daily Backpacker Index: TRY 55.80 – US$35.77/day

4 – Prague, Czech Republic

It’s definitely true that Prague isn’t nearly as cheap as it used to be, and that it’s also amazingly crowded if you follow the main tourist routes between the top sights, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t continue to be a relative bargain. Hotels in particular seem expensive here, though an abundance of affordable hostels helps a lot, including reasonable private rooms for those who aren’t partial to dorm beds. Choose from our recommended hotels in Prague list for great prices at the highest rated hotels in the city.

The beer, as you’ve certainly heard, is excellent, and it’s consumed by the locals in frightening quantities. Usually at under US$2 per pint to this day, the fact that it was US$0.50 per pint 10 years ago doesn’t mean that it’s still not a bargain now. Try to steer away from the tourist restaurants with big English signs out front and you’ll be able to get hearty local meals for very little as well.

Daily Backpacker Index: CZK 754 – US$40.21/day

5 – Bruges, Belgium

Even though it’s firmly in a traditionally expensive corner of the continent, Bruges can actually be quite affordable, and there’s no shortage of old-world charm to go along with that. Thanks to a large number of hostels this compact Medieval city has room for thousands of backpackers and budget travelers, and as long as you avoid the busiest months of summer you’ll actually have little trouble keeping costs down.

This is another town where all the main sights could be taken in on a 2-day stay, but due to its relative affordability, the relaxed atmosphere, and the large tourist infrastructure, this is a good choice for a chill-out stop on a longer European tour.

Daily Backpacker Index: €41 – US$54.67/day

6 – Lisbon, Portugal

Upon arriving in Lisbon people are often shocked at how different it is from the large cities in Spain, and also that it’s even a bit cheaper than Madrid and Barcelona as well. This historic port city is stunningly situated on 7 hills (like so many other cities) overlooking the port area, so it’s similar to San Francisco in that there’s interesting contrasts no matter which direction you are looking.

Another interesting thing about Lisbon is that it’s loaded with fiercely competitive hostels which somehow all rank very high on the annual Hostelworld Best Hostels list. Lisbon is a bit more formal than Spanish cities as well, and there are excellent restaurants and cuisine at moderate prices, plus very good nightlife that won’t break the bank either.

Daily Backpacker Index: €41.50 – US$55.33/day

7 – Berlin, Germany

It’s more than a little surprising that this many years after German reunification, Berlin continues to be so much more affordable than Munich or Hamburg. The key seems to be the fact that almost half the city used to be East Berlin, and the tens of thousands of communist-era buildings still offer cheaper rents and more flexibility compared to West Berlin. This means that cheap hostels are dotted between weird bars and trendy galleries, with prices that are still influenced by their former incarnations.

Start with the excellent and free walking tour from New Berlin, and you’ll be acquainted with all the main sights in the city center, ready for one of their cheap and interesting pub crawls later that night. Some hotels offer very good rates when there isn’t a trade show in town, so see our recommended Berlin hotels list for great options.

Daily Backpacker Index: €43.80 – US$58.40/day

8 – London, England

Many people consider London to be the most expensive city in Europe, and in some ways it is, but it doesn’t have to be. Also, this list is about value rather than pure cheapness, and a city like this is worth more than most other places. While it’s true that so many things (like fish & chips, for example) can be stunningly expensive, London is also loaded with hostels, where decent rates are possible most of the year if you look around. Check our recommended hotels and hostels for London to find great value and low rates.

Perhaps London’s best budget-traveler feature is that all of the state-run museums are absolutely free for everyone. Visit the British Museum one day and the Tate Modern another and you’ll be in cultural heaven without having spent so much as a ha’penny. And unlike some other cities in Europe, finding affordable meals isn’t terribly difficult as long as you aren’t looking in Leicester Square or near Harrods. The British pound is also at a level that is reasonably favorable for the US dollar and even the Euro, and that situation may not last much longer.

Daily Backpacker Index: £38.00 – US$58.46/day

9 – Athens, Greece

Athens isn’t nearly as cheap as it used to be, but in its favor it has dramatically cleaned up its act since the recent Olympics, and it still surrounds a few of the world’s most impressive tourist attractions on the Acropolis. Some good-value hostels help the situation, many of which have ideal locations in the center of everything.

Also in Athens’ favor is that it’s not difficult to see the main sights in only a few days or even less, and then take the metro down to the port of Piraeus to hop on a ferry to one of its holiday islands. This is a cheap and easy way to inject a bit of culture into a trip that will otherwise be about downing pints on a sunny beach.

Daily Backpacker Index: €45.30 – US$60.40/day

10 – Madrid, Spain

Compared to France or Germany, all of Spain is easier on the budget in general, and though Madrid is relatively expensive for the country, it’s still a bargain all things considered. The city center still has a classic and important feel to it, yet in the wee hours the parties start up and everything changes.

Those who can’t wait for 2am to start imbibing should be pleased that glasses of beer and cheap snacks and meals are very easy to find at any of the tapas places or the jamon restaurants. Barcelona could also be on this list, and many people actually prefer it to Madrid. They are dramatically different places, and both offer good value compared to most of Europe’s large cities.

Daily Backpacker Index: €47.10 – US$62.80/day

11 – Reykjavik, Iceland

It’s not really that Reykjavik is cheap, because it’s not; it’s more that Reykjavik is now a lot cheaper than it was only a couple years ago, and it’s hard to know how long that situation will last. Actually, the capital city is mostly just a jumping-off point for trips to all the dramatic natural sights around the island, but it’ll be necessary to spend a night or two here anyway.

Also, thanks to weirdly cheap fares from IcelandAir and Iceland Express Airlines, even a two-day stopover in Reykjavik can be cheap and very worthwhile. Whether on a proper weeklong stay or on a short layover, this is a destination that many of us have long dreamed about, and it may not be this affordable for long.

Daily Backpacker Index: ISK 7,660 – US$66.34/day


7 Reasons Southeast Asia is much better than Europe for budget travelers

As an American, Canadian, Australian, or even a Brit, the first major trip you dream of is tramping around continental Europe. And for good reason. Cities like Paris, Rome, Barcelona, Berlin, and Amsterdam should all be on everyone’s destination lists.

Many of us take a big trip or two that connects all those famous cities, and then we either keep going back or maybe we get lazy and start going to Mexican beach resorts or Hawaii year after year.

The thing is, if you’ve got at least a normal sense of adventure, and especially if your travel budget is limited, then Southeast Asia is likely a better choice for your next holiday. The common definition of that is Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma, but this is also true of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines, not to mention India, Nepal, and Bangladesh as well.

1 – SE Asia is WAY cheaper than Europe

For some people this is the most important reason on this list, and for others it’s just a bonus on top, but it must be said that there is a stunning difference in costs between Europe and SE Asia once you are on the ground. This whole site is about the economics of travel and where your money goes furthest, so just take a look at the European Backpacker Index and the Asia backpacker Index to see what I mean. Or check out our Europe vs. Asia itinerary price comparison, which reveals that a slightly more expensive flight can save a fortune in a cheaper destination.

The cheapest city in Asia is Hanoi, where a backpacker can have a pretty decent time for a bit over US$10 per day. Compare that to, say, Paris, where the same group of expenses currently goes for US$75 per day, and you’ll recognize the value. Realistically, when you are in a super-cheap area you are more likely to splurge a bit more since everything on the scale is a deal.

Instead of a dorm bed for US$6 you can get a private room for US$10 per night, including in-room wi-fi, TV, a small fridge, and a big comfortable bed. You practically live like a king for US$30 a day in many cities in the region, compared to US$30 not quite even paying for a dorm bed alone in some European cities.

2 – The weather in SE Asia is good all year round
One major weakness with Europe is that most of it has a pretty lousy climate for most of the year. Except for the Mediterranean coast, the entire block from November through March is either frozen or deeply gray and drizzly in most cities. I’ve done quite a bit of European travel during this colder, cheaper, and less crowded period, but honestly it’s far from ideal when you always have to carry gloves, a hat, and a heavy coat with you.

On the other hand, most of SE Asia is tropical and therefore has only 2 seasons. There’s the dry season (mostly from November through May) and the so-called wet season (June through October). However, the wet-season thing is rarely more than a minor inconvenience, and it actually brings temperatures down to more welcoming levels in some places.

During the wet season in SE Asia you’ll usually have a few days a week where it either pours for an hour overnight, or for an hour in the late afternoon. If it’s in the afternoon it’s a perfect excuse to pop into a sheltered restaurant for a US$1 beer or two while you wait. In very rare cases there can be flooding, and while this does create problems for locals, tourists are almost always able to get elsewhere or to higher ground in plenty of time.

3 – Crowds of tourists are very rare in SE Asia 

Sort of the flipside to Europe’s weather situation is that during July and August the weather in the big cities in the south (Madrid, Rome, Athens etc) gets so steamy that it can be pretty miserable outside. And as a result of that, the beach cities and resort areas get unbelievably crowded during these months, driving up prices and taking a lot of the fun out of being there as well.

And it’s not just the beach cities that get jammed. Go to London or Prague or Amsterdam during those two months and you’ll be in a sea of fellow tourists. Add these things up and Europe only has a couple good months on either side of summer where the weather is decent and it’s not insanely crowded.

In SE Asia, you’ll find crowds in many islands and resort areas around Christmas, and in Bali and a few other places in August, but in most SE Asian cities you couldn’t really call it crowded for at least 11 months a year. This means that finding cheap hotels is always easy, usually with no reservations in advance, and intercity tourist buses can usually be booked the night before with few worries.

4 – There’s no pressure to learn the languages in SE Asia
Some people are really good at learning foreign languages, and many others enjoy the process and the deeper cultural understanding you get when you can speak the native tongue. In SE Asia you can do as much of that as you like, and many travelers become quite successful at it, but at least there is zero pressure (or need) to learn the local language if you don’t want to.

The same thing can be said for most of northern Europe (thanks to the English skills of residents there), but in countries like Spain, France, Italy, or Greece, you really are at a disadvantage if you don’t (or aren’t able to) absorb the local language. For some people it can be stressful or even make them much less outgoing, which can detract from the overall experience.

For better or worse, the people of SE Asia have accepted the fact that they have more economic opportunity if they speak at least some English, plus have all important signs and menus and such in English as well. Many of them love practicing their English on tourists, so it can be surprisingly easy to do anything you want and even make a few friends.

5 – SE Asia is way more exotic than Europe

If English is your native language then chances are very good that you are of European heritage, one way or another. Whether you are starting in Cleveland or Melbourne or even London, there is nothing in Europe that will truly feel exotic to you. Sure, you might not be used to seeing a canal city like Amsterdam, but for lunch the locals there usually eat a sandwich or pizza or a hot dog or French fries just like you do at home.

With the exception of parts of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, there is almost nothing in SE Asia that will NOT feel exotic to you. From the temples to the street food to open-air markets to even the kitchy souvenirs, nothing will look familiar, and this should be thrilling.

You can get eggs and toast for breakfast anywhere you go, but you might soon be hooked on spicy chicken noodle soup instead. It’s easy to start from scratch and take nothing for granted when you are exposed to a totally different way of doing things.

6 – Air Asia is cheap, and actually a good airline

While it’s true that Easyjet and Ryanair do offer some incredibly cheap flights around Europe, it’s also true that their customers almost all complain about them in the process. The same is true of all of Europe’s many low-cost carriers. A €10 one-way ticket might end up being €50 after you’ve added in luggage, a reserved seat, and a stale sandwich. But usually the fares even start out much higher unless you book 6 months in advance.

There are several low cost carriers operating in SE Asia, and many aren’t much better than the European ones, but Air Asia is the biggest and best, and with a bit of advanced planning they can make your trip much cheaper and more efficient.

Like the others, Air Asia starts with extremely low prices and then the price keeps moving higher as the plane fills up. So booking a month or two in advance (or flying early in the morning or late in the evening) will get you a very low base fare for your flight, maybe US$30 between their major Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok hubs.

Their service is good and professional, and the planes aren’t as cramped as you might fear, but probably the best part is that the add-on prices are very low as well. Reserve a seat with extra legroom for maybe US$6 extra (instead of $50 on a US airline). Order a lunch for US$4 extra, and bring a big heavy suitcase with you for maybe US$10 extra. It makes you feel like a big shot when those upgrades are each so cheap that you can afford all of them.

7 – Your money is helping people who need it more
This is much more important to some people than it is to others, but there’s no getting around the fact that your tourist money in SE Asia is usually going directly to family businesses that would struggle or go under without Western tourists. If you stay in an Ibis Hotel in France, or even a St. Christopher’s hostel anywhere in Europe, most of your money is going to huge companies that have little loyalty to their individual locations.

Seriously, most tourist restaurants in a country like Vietnam are owned and operated by a single family. Often it’s the mom running the operation with the children as the staff, while the father has another full-time job. It’s a nice feeling knowing your (meager) travel funds are going directly to pay the rent and buy food for an appreciative family that is cooking for you and serving you.

Source: 7 Reasons Southeast Asia is much better than Europe for budget travelers -

Top 7 Things to do in Riga Latvia

Riga in Latvia, the largest city in the Baltic region, is undergoing something of a Renaissance of late with many major restoration programmes underway. The magnificent old buildings and ancient architecture is once again coming alive and Riga will surely emerge as one of the most attractive cities within Europe. Probably most famous for its nightlife, there is also plenty to do in Riga by day too from a city that was founded in 1201, ruled by many and now a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lap up the German Art Nouveau and also the 19th century wooden architecture and monuments. Riga will proudly host the prestigious 2014 European Capital of Culture.

Soak up the architecture of Riga Old Town and Town Hall Square

All of the Historic Centre of Riga is UNESCO protected, with the city gaining World Heritage Status in 1997. The Old Town area of Riga, Vecriga, maintains its charm and most of the architecture dates back to 1860 – effectively highlighting just why Riga has been selected as the next capital of culture. The city is proudly bursting with galleries, museums and churches dotted around the central Town Square region. Visit Riga’s oldest church St. Peter’s Church which was constructed in 1209 and offers stunning panoramic views from atop the tower. Walk the ancient Town Hall Square and take in the magnificent architecture of the Town Hall itself and the House of Blackheads which is part museum, part guildhall and part tourist information. The House of Blackheads was originally built in 1334, was destroyed in 1941 and then fully restored in the 1990s. In this area is also the St Roland statue – Riga’s patron saint.

Take an eye opening trip to Museum of the Occupation of Latvia which details the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Latvia during the wars. Another standout sight in the cathedral Square is Riga Cathedral which was constructed in 1207 and is today a key symbol of the city.

Be inspired by the Riga Freedom Monument

The Freedom Monument – Brivibas Piemineklis – is located near to Riga Old Town and was built in honour of the first independence. It is one of Latvia’s prime national symbols and rather surprisingly the monument was never removed during the Soviet conflict. Atop the monument is a woman who holds three stars to represent the freedom of Latvia’s regions. Also around the Freedom Monument area is the Laima Clock, the Bastejkalns Park and the 1720 merchant’s residence at Mentzendorff House.

Enjoy a performance at the Latvian National Opera House

Get a reservation at the Latvian National Opera whose building dates back to the 19th century and which offers both ballet and opera regularly. There are also guided tours on Fridays where you can learn more about the past of the opera house.

Learn a little at Riga’s Museums

Just as you’d expect from a city that will host the European Capital of Culture, there are more museums in Riga than the average traveller could handle in a month so prior to your visit make a shortlist. Decide which museums interest you the most and which you can combine to fill a day. These are just five of the standout museums;

The Riga Motormuseum contains the vehicles that once belonged to Joseph Stalin, Nikita Kruschev, and Leonid Brezhnev which is a fascinating insight. The Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum is set beside Jugla Lake and has traditional exhibits on display complete with staff in local Latvian costume. The Musee Art Nouveau is set in the heart of the Art Nouveau district and contains pieces of the period. Visit the sombre and thought provoking Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum for eye-opening museum. And the Sun Museum is pretty quirky as it focusses on sun mythology.

Chill out at one of the beautiful and serene Parks


For a breath of fresh air head to the Bastejkalns Park which is small but a perfect chillout green space complete with the Bridge of Love which runs over the Pilsetas Canal. This is a great place to propose to your other half as many newlyweds have placed locks on the railings to denote the strength of their love. Other interesting parks in the city include the Vermanes Park which hosts events and concerts and is close to Bastion Hill.

Explore the Art Nouveau district
The city of Riga has the most German Art Nouveau architecture in the world. Known as Jugendstil (youth style), Alberta Street and Elizabetes Street form the heart of the Art Nouveau district and feature many works from the architect Eisenstein, who specialised in the fancy art nouveau style. There are many buildings in the city from the same period such as the embassies on the Raina Bulvaris and also on Strelnieku. Plaques label the buildings and there are also walking and cycling tours of the area.

Enjoy the free activities in Riga
Free entrances around the Town Hall Square region can be obtained at the historical fortification of Triangula Bastion, the small St. John’s Church which features a Renaissance-period altar of Jesus and an impressive Gothic ceiling. The St. Saviour’s Anglican Church offers free concerts each Wednesday and the Museum of the Barricades of 1991 is also free and details the Soviet occupation and fall of the USSR.

If you’ve never seen a Soviet-era monument up close, then check out the Victory Monument which is prime example and certainly the biggest monument from the occupation in the country.

Italy’s Aeolian Islands Travel Guide

The Aeolian islands (Isole Eolie) are a group of attractive islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea about 25-50km north of Sicily in Italy. Formerly off the beaten track, this diverse group of volcanic islands is becoming more popular and can be very busy during July and August. 

If you’re not familiar with Italy’s Aeolian Islands, don’t worry, you’re not alone.

This volcanic archipelago north of Sicily is a popular summer getaway for island-hopping Europeans, but its less-then-accessible location means it’s mostly off the radar for American travelers.

Ann Cochran uncovers the multiple personalities found on these scenic islands.

“Fermate tutti. La pasta e pronto!”

At an evening reception on the island of Salina, with lights twinkling and fishing boats bobbing in the background, the mayor’s wife stopped all song, dance, and conversation with her declaration that the pasta was ready. No one seemed to mind.

All over Italy, it’s all about the food. In the Aeolian Islands (Isole Eolie in Italian) they are passionate about their local specialties: fish and capers. And pasta. For dessert, the essences of granita (a semi-frozen treat that originated in Sicily) come locally grown: fig, mint, almond, lemon and blood orange.

The food is so fresh that at noon you might be told there is no menu “because we don’t know what we’re getting in tonight.”

For people who have visited all the major Italian destinations, this spray of volcanic outcroppings can be the next great trip. In the Tyrrhenian Sea about 15-30 miles above Sicily’s northeastern corner, the islands are a protected UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to their value in vulcanology, the study of volcanoes. (The name Aeolian comes from Greek mythology: Aeolus ruled the four winds.)

“Let beauty be seen and cost forgotten,” is a classic line in The Leopard.

With the Aeolian Islands, one might say, “Let beauty be seen and logistics forgotten.”

Although it’s not the easiest place to get to, and there are no commercial airports, it’s well worth any trouble. In fact, the journey may add to their charm. Fly to Sicily or to Naples and take a three to five-hour ferry or hydrofoil to the islands. Once settled in your home base, it’s easy to explore the scenic archipelago.

The Water’s the Thing

Island-hopping is to the Aeolians as town-hopping is to Lake Como, so get thee to a boat. You will glide past volcanic arches, hand-dug caves, and mysterious ‘crazy water’ that seems to be boiling. Two well-regarded tour companies are Salina Relax Boats and Aliante. Bathing suits are mandatory: more swimming is done from boats than beaches in the Aeolians.

 Islands with Distinct Personalities

All all have wild landscapes, sun and sea, fresh fish, and a cornucopia of local fruit and vegetables, but each of the seven inhabited islands has a distinct personality. Populations range from 102 (Alicudi) to 8,538 (Lipari). The largest and most developed are Salina and Lipari, while Filicudi and Alicudi are practically primitive. Stromboli has an active volcano, Vulcano bubbling thermal mud baths, and Panarea is a jet-set (more aptly yacht-set) paradise where one might run into Stromboli’s fashion designer homeowners Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, or their colleague Giorgio Armani fresh off his yacht.


Featured in director Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 film of the same name, this island has Europe’s only dependably active volcano. The landscape has a split personality: one side is rich in wildflowers, caper bushes, and bougainvillea. The “back slope,” where the lava flows, is basic black.

For another Italian islands getaway, try the Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Amalfi Coast and Capri, Italy.

Seeing this natural wonder is a must, so all manner of floating vessels cut their engines after dark. Everyone marvels at the natural golden-red fireworks that burst skyward, launching chunks of lava. Adventurous climbers set out at dusk for three-hour guided hikes up the 3,000-foot peak. Don’t skip the guide or it can be a cold, long climb down.


It makes sense that no cars are allowed on the second smallest of the islands, Panarea, which has about 300 year-round residents. Stucco buildings with blue accents remind many visitors of the Greek islands. There are no city lights; instead, hotels provide flashlights. The population explodes in July and August when beautiful young things arrive by yacht (or helicopter), dance til dawn, sleep a bit, then sunbathe and shop. Shopping on Panarea is exquisite and expensive.

In addition to lovely coves to swim in, this island has thermal springs, scuba diving and a shipwreck not far off its shoreline. Amphibia offers instruction and organizes recreational and professional diving. They say one of most interesting dives is to that shipwreck, which lies between the rocky islets of Lisca Bianca and Bottaro.


Salina’s main street is lined with shops selling ceramics, gourmet food, jewelry, clothing and shoes. Almost every house comes with a view of the sea. There is a small salt lake, seven dormant volcanoes, and plenty of hiking trails. One of the nicest is a four-hour hike on relatively flat land covered in a kind of evergreen Italian version of English heath, from above Pollara around the island to Leni. From Pollara you can also hike down to the pebble cove featured in the 1994 movie Il Postino.

The second-largest and the greenest island is known for its sweet Malvasia dessert wine and native capers that grow on low, flowering bushes all over the island. If you love crowds and local celebrations, the Caper Festival is the first weekend of June. Go to the town of Rinella for speargun fishing. One of the best spas in the islands is at the Signum Hotel. Enjoy delicious granita, the true Italian ice, at Al Fredo’s in the village of Lingua.


The main island and the main town, closest to Sicily, is a good base. The Regional Aeolian Archaeological Museum has a well-respected collection of prehistoric to ancient Greek artifacts; some painted pottery treasures are found nowhere else on earth. There is also an excellent vulcanology section. There are lots of shops, hotels, restaurants, and thermal waters. The clear water makes for great diving. There are three diving centers on Lipari, all of which welcome visitors: La Gorgonia, Manta Sub, and Sud Est.

Cards anyone? The Carasco Hotel has weekly bridge tournaments with official umpires and prizes.


Dominated by the Gran Cratere volcano that puffs out clouds of sulphuric gas, this island is known for mud baths born of thermal springs (both a public option and the private Therasia spa), its black beach (Spiaggia di Sabbia Nera), and volcano hikes.

If you are spending a lot of time (more than four days) in the Aeolian Islands, take a ride out to Filicudi. They are raw and rocky, devoid of celebrity attention. In Filicudi, fisherman and construction workers gather under awning of Da Nino sul Mare, the island’s only cafe. There are remains of a prehistoric village here; you can see the rock bases of about 30 huts where people lived in 3000 BC.

Where to Stay

There are 89 hotels (only four are five-star) and 137 bed and breakfasts in the Aeolians, which are especially popular and therefore most costly in July and August. Here is a sampling of special lodgings at a variety of price points:






Thursday, January 24, 2013

Travel Guide: Kunming Stone Forest -Yunnan, China

Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, enjoys great fame among tourists not only because the region features a consistently warm climate, but also thanks to its wonderful vistas and landscapes. Among the most dramatic of these attractions is the Stone Forest (Shilin), known since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) as the 'First Wonder of the World.'

It  is in Lunan Yi Nationality Autonomous County, which is about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Kunming and requires only a three-hour drive. It covers an area of 400 square kilometers (96,000 acres) and includes both large and small stone forests, as well as many other scenic spots. An old local saying says that 'If you have visited Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest, you have wasted your time.' Truly, the site is one of the most important attractions of Yunnan.

Walking through the site, visitors marvel at the natural stone masterpieces and are bewitched by the intricate formations. The magnificent, strange and steep landscape creates countless labyrinthine vistas, including:

Major Stone Forest, Minor Stone Forest and Naigu Stone Forest, all of which feature stones in various formations. Animals, plants, and even human figures can be found here. Some are elegant, some are rugged, and each is lifelike with its own distinguishing characteristics.

Subterranean Stone Forest in Zhiyun Cave, distributed underground among several caves and occupying a total area of about three square kilometers (720 acres).

Strange Wind Cave, composed of Penfeng Cave, Hongxi Spring and an underground river. From August to November, gales lasting two to three minutes sweep out of the cave every 30 minutes.

Long Lake is a karsts lake that is three kilometers (two miles) long but only 300 meters (zero point two miles) wide. The lake features underwater stalagmites and stalactites and a small island in the center of the water.

The source of the Dadie Waterfall, Ba River, is a branch of Nanpan River. In the rainy season, up to 150 cubic meters (196 cubic yards) of water per square inch plummet down the 88 meter (288 feet) drop.

Geologists say the Stone Forest is a typical example of karsts topography. Approximately 270 million years ago - during the carboniferous period of the Paleozoic era - the region was a vast expanse of sea. Over time, the movements of the lithosphere gradually caused a retreat of the waters and the rise of the limestone landscape. Due to constant erosion by the elements, the area finally developed into the present-day appearance. 

Many beautiful legends originate in this magical place, passed along by the native people known as Sani, a branch of the Yi ethnic group. One particular story about the faithful love of Ashima, a beautiful, clever and warm-hearted Sani girl, is the most popular and has been told for thousands of years. The Sani people celebrate their national festival - the Torch Festival - every lunar year on June 24. They take part in traditional performances such as wrestling, bull fighting, pole-climbing, dragon-playing, lion-dancing and the A-xi Moon Dance. During this time, the place is alive with a particularly joyful, festive atmosphere, making the area even more attractive than usual. However, the Stone Forest - with its sculptures engraved by nature, herself - is always a true miracle for visitors to behold.

  • Admission Fee:     CNY 175 (including Major/ Minor/ Naigu Stone Forest, Wannianlingzhi Scenic Area, Bushao Mountain and Liziyuanqing Scenic Area)
  • Recommended Time for a Visit:     Two hours
  • Opening Hours:     08:30 to 18:00
  • Transportation:     Kunming East Coach Station (at the East 3rd Ring Road area) has regular buses to the site. The frequency is 20-30 minutes in peak season and about 40 minutes in low season.
    Beside the entrance of Stone Forest, there are regular buses to Naigu Stone Forest Scenic Area every 40 minutes. Kunming Bus Search

Travel Information: Blue Grotto - Capri, Italy

Long feared by locals as a mystical dwelling of spirits and monsters, the Blue Grotto has become one of the main attractions in Capri, Italy. Capitalizing on the site's popularity, boat operators have assembled quite the racket of charges, fees and tips, but the guides clear out in the afternoon when visitors can swim in and around the grotto at their leisure.

The blue grotto is  a must see for any visitor to Capri. However, keep in mind that everyone knows this and that they, most likely, will already be there.  This has two important ramifications. First, a visit to the Blue Grotto will set you back a bit - be prepared to pay. Second, there may be a wait outside. The best bet is not to visit during the peak hours during the peak season.

The Blue Grotto is one of the biggest draws on the island of Capri. It is a surreal experience. The peculiar iridescence of the water bathes the interior of the grotto with a serene light that is similar in color to a sapphire blue topaz.

TIP: The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Since the Blue Grotto is situated on the north-western corner of the island, the best time to visit is in the afternoon when sunlight shines directly on the water outside the cave. We were told that the best coloration occurs when the seas are slightly rough.

The good thing is that the island of Capri is full of wonderful ocean views that, more often than not, include that splendid crystal clear turquoise blue water for which the island is famous.  They do discourage photography inside the Blue Grotto, but I managed to sneak a few pictures (Below). It is difficult to capture anyway. I would recommend that you purchase one of the brilliant coffee table books that you will find in the souvenir shops around the island. The quality is good and, as you will want to remember your visit to Capri and the Blue Grotto for years to come, they are well worth the price.  


Since the days of the ancient Romans, the Blue Grotto has inspired mystified reverence among visitors. The Roman emperor Tiberius, whose castle-like villa is another of the island's main attractions, adorned the grotto with statues paying tribute to the Roman sea gods and used it as his personal swimming hole. The grotto's fluorescent glow comes in part from a large underwater cave opening beneath the entrance used by visiting boats. The glow illuminates the grotto's water from below, similar to night lights in a pool.

Getting There

Ferries and hydrofoils travel to Capri from the mainland during tourist season from ports around one hour from Naples, and around half an hour from Amalfi, Positano and Sorrento further down the coast. Naples is accessible from other major Italian cities by high-speed train. Lining the pier in Marina Grande, Capri's main harbor, tour boat operators offer a variety of options to reach the grotto, from private boats with custom itineraries to pre-programmed trips around the island or expressly to the grotto. By land, take a taxi or the main bus from Capri town to Anicapri, then switch to the Grotto Azzurra bus to reach the grotto.
Tours and Guides

No matter what type of motorized boat you take to reach it, you will have to switch to a rowboat to enter the grotto. When you transfer to the wooden boat, you'll need to pay a fixed fee to enter the grotto -- typically around $15 as of spring 2011. Outside the grotto, a veritable queue of rowboats patiently waits for the preceding group to finish. The total wait time can be rather substantial during peak season and hours, so bring sunscreen and a hat. The oarsmen at the grotto entrance navigate their rowboats through the cave's low, narrow entrance while tourists duck down flat against the boat. Inside, the visit lasts a mere two to five minutes, depending on the line of boats outside and how well you tip the guide.



Unlike the two- to five-minute jaunt around the grotto the local rowboat operators offer, an afternoon swim lets you enjoy the cave at your own pace. The rowboat tours clear out around 4 p.m., when day-tripping tourists from the mainland have caught the afternoon ferry back. If you rent a private boat for the day or afternoon, the driver can drop you at the cave entrance and wait while you swim in, otherwise you can take a bus or taxi to the shore. While Capri's clear, turquoise-glinted waters resemble inviting tropical seas, the Mediterranean can be chilly, even in the summer, so bring a shirt to wear over your swimsuit in the water. Before venturing out, check with the local boatmen at Marina Grande or ask the front desk staff at your hotel about water conditions, because the water at the entrance to the grotto can become dangerous.

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