A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital

Tallinn is one of northern Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities, and an unsung gem of the Baltic region. My city guide to this fairytale capital shows you where to find the best food in Tallinn, which beautiful districts to explore and how to find spectacular skyline views.

Have you ever been somewhere that surprised you by how much it exceeded your expectations?

That’s how I felt when I arrived in Tallinn two weeks ago.

Naturally, I’d heard some good things about the old town, and friends who’d visited in summer had given good reviews.  Otherwise, I suppose we might not have taken the plunge and booked our flights.  But I’m never quite sure how well the reality will match up when you’re in a new country, and you’re travelling out of season.

Tallinn delighted from the moment we arrived, to the moment we said goodbye.

The old town is larger, more beautiful and more animated than I’d expected (especially given that it was late October).  The views over the rooftops are breathtaking, the restaurants and cafes of the old town as cosy and charming as you’d hope, and the surrounding residential districts are a rainbow of wooden houses.  There’s a lively creative scene in the city and a wealth of contemporary restaurants that are serving a modern twist on Baltic food (that would cost three times as much if you were to skip across the water to Sweden or Finland).  It feels like a young city with historic roots, that’s alive and kicking.

In a few short days I fell in love with Estonia.

In this city break guide I’ll share with you the highlights of our trip, and what you absolutely shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting Tallinn.  I hope you enjoy it.

P.S. Wondering what Tallinn would be like in winter? We were lucky enough to catch the first snowfall of the winter on our trip. You can see just how bewitching the city looks dusted with snow in 8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow.

Alexander Nevsky cathedral in the old town of Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Alexander Nevsky cathedral at the top of Toompea Hill, Tallinn old town

The old town

Tallinn’s old town has to be one of the most underrated in Europe (and that’s not a statement I make lightly).  The architecture is beautiful and distinctively Baltic, the cobbled streets are picture-perfect, and there’s an abundance of viewpoints that feel like a gift that just keeps on giving.

It’s colourful, ancient, diverse and alive.

The old town is  centred around the vast town hall square that’s surrounded first by a labyrinth of pretty, winding streets and passages, then by ancient stone walls peppered with towers, and finally by a sprinkling of leafy parks.  There’s a lot to discover in this central part of town.  Exploring the streets will keep you happy for hours, but if the weather turns there’s the excellent Estonian History Museum inside the old Guild Hall, that’s worth a visit just to see the fascinating interior of the building.  In places, you can go inside some the many fortified towers and even walk along the top of the walls – but I’ve another trick for getting great views over the rooftops.

Top tip: If, by chance, you find yourself in Tallinn on the last Thursday of the month the Estonian History Museum is also free.

Gateway to Toompea Hill in Tallinn's old town | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

My favourite part of the old town had to be Toompea Hill, that rises towards the north of the old town and is crowned by the spectacular cathedral – all onion domes and glittering gold details.  It looked especially gorgeous dusted with snow.  There are more colourful buildings to discover up here, but even better there are viewpoints around every corner. Each looks down over the rooftops and spires of different parts of the city, a bright and busy skyline that runs down to the crisp Baltic sea.  Meander around Toompea at any time of day (it’s always a delight) but make sure you head up here at sunset for the real magic, when the sinking sun turns the city all the colours of the rainbow.

Toompea Hill viewpoint in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Where to eat and drink in Tallinn’s old town

Unsurprisingly, there’s an abundance of cafes, restaurants and bars in this part of the city, but experience told me it was worth heading away from the main square if we wanted to find something that was more our cup of tea (i.e. a bit more budget-friendly and a little less enthusiastic on the medieval dress).

Wander just one street away from the square and you’ll find Clayhills on Pikk Street, a beautiful little restaurant that served home-cooked comfort food by candlelight.  Try the soup of day as a starter just to experience the deliciousness of the rustic bread with heavenly honey butter on the side.  It’s got bucket loads of atmosphere and not a medieval peasant smock in sight.

The best coffee in the old town can be found at the (slightly dubiously named, but nonetheless delightful) Epic Coffee tucked away in a little side street near Viru Gate.  It’s like curling up in someone’s slightly shabby front room with a perfectly brewed pick me up.  Adventurous sorts will love the toilet-in-a-cupboard that’s an unintentional joy in this little cafe (friends, some of you would find this most entertaining!).

Medieval main square in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Town hall square at dusk

If you’re after something to nibble on, try Inspiratsioon (another side street find) for a light lunch. Veggie friends, you’ll be happy here as all their food is homemade and vegan-friendly, and even if you’re more omnivorous I challenge you to not find their falafel wrap delicious.

Lastly, I wouldn’t be the girl with a saddle bag if I didn’t suggest somewhere to cosy up with a cold beer on an evening.  Our favourite discovery? Hell Hunt (give it a try even if the name and exterior doesn’t excite you).  It’s a warm, cavernous bar that’s more like a small beerhall, with a huge range of interesting beers, bar snacks and strangely, herbal teas.  They brew some of their own beers too – their Weissbier was particularly splendid.

Rotermanni (or the Roterman district)

Step outside the Viru gate and you’re greeted by a cacophony of trams, buses and neon lights.  This is one of Tallinn’s biggest junctions, but step beyond it and you’ll find one of it’s most upmarket districts.

A five minute walk takes you to the centre of Rotermanni and what was, until relatively recently, an area of dilapidated brick-built warehouses near to the port.  In the last few years, they’ve sensitively redeveloped the area – keeping some of the old charm but mixing it up with contemporary architecture. It’s smart and hip without being pricey and intimidating, and I rather liked it.

There’s not too much to see here but it’s nice to wander along the little passageways of shops, offices and restaurants, and pause for a coffee break.  What it’s really good for though is eating.

The Rotermanni district in Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow | Travel Guide | City Guide| Girl with a saddle bag blog

Where to eat and drink in Rotermanni

Like pastries?  Me too.  In that case, Røst will be your new favourite place in Tallinn.  It’s perfect for breakfast, lunch or coffee and I challenge you to resist sampling their cinnamon buns and other baked treats that stream in from the open kitchen the moment they’re out of the oven.

I also loved Flamm (inexplicably they don’t have a website), almost opposite.  It’s dedicated entirely to the Alsatian dish of Flammenküchen, a cold weather treat that’s similar to pizza.  Delicious toppings (traditionally crème fraîche, bacon and cheese although all sorts were on offer in Flamm) are piled on top of a thin dough base and cooked quickly in a hot oven ready for you to devour it with your hands.  Why Tallinn is the only city I’ve come across with a restaurant dedicated to this yumminess is a mystery to me (I’ve only encountered it on Christmas markets before) but we had great fun eating our fill and then enjoying a drink in Brewdog next door.

Flamm restaurant and wine bar in the Rotermanni district of Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Flamm: home to Flammenkuchen, the best thing on bread since pizza

Kalamaja, Balti Jaam and Telliskivi

Even if you’re only in Tallinn for a day, it’s well worth exploring beyond the old town – and I loved the area of Kalamaja and Balti Jaam that’s just a stone’s throw away.

Kalamaja is a residential district that’s packed with colourful, traditional-style wooden townhouses that give you a real feel for Estonian architecture.  It’s also home to the fabulously named Balti Jaam station, the city’s discrete but central transport hub.  A railway station alone isn’t enough to recommend a place though – it’s Balti Jaam Turg next door that is.  This contemporary covered market is an absolute gem, opened in 2017 to replace a well-loved but dilapidated Soviet era market.  As well as bringing some upmarket deli’s, cafes and streetfood stalls to Balti Jaam, it’s still home to the old stallholders and you’ll find everything and anything for sale here: from high quality meat and fresh Baltic seafood, to homegrown vegetables and your Estonian granny’s knitting.  It’s the perfect blend of old and new and pretty much summed up everything I loved about this city.

Balti Jaam Turg streetfood and produce market in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Balti Jaam Turg market

Just around the corner, past some colourful murals, is Depoo – a slightly more confusing market that’s part-traditional clothing market, part-upmarket vintage store and cafe (but if I’m honest it was a little hard to tell where one started and the other finished).  It’s worth a nose around, but more importantly it’s a stepping stone to nearby Telleskivi.

I suppose you could call Telleskivi a creative centre, but I think it’s better described as an slightly shabby warehouse district that’s slowly being overtaken by some seriously cool bars, restaurants and independent shops. It’s kind of an unpolished Rotermanni, and it’s got attitude. Explore the boutique shops and stop for a coffee by day, definitely come for dinner and drinks by night.  But be warned, this is where Tallinn locals come, so you might have to fight for a table.

Telleskivi creative centre in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Where to eat and drink in Telleskivi

You won’t struggle to find good cafes, bars and restaurants in this part of town.  We were only able to scratch the surface in a few days, but discovered a goldmine of food just waiting to be explored.

For a brew, we enjoyed Renards – a cafe with a difference.  As well as serving up seriously fancy coffee in a lovely lounge area, it’s also (slightly mysteriously) a motorcycle clothing shop, barbers and mechanics garage in one.  It’s worth a stop just to marvel at this seemingly random combination of businesses under one stylish roof.

For lunch (although dinner also looked great), try Frenchy bistro.  We had the most delicious budget-friendly lunch here, where the plat du jour is €4,80 everyday.  When we arrived, that was €4,80 for perfectly-cooked duck with beautiful vegetable sides which seemed unbelievably good value for money.  With a retro, French-inspired interior I couldn’t think of anywhere better to fill up and frankly I could have stayed all day!

On an evening F-Hoone seems to be the place everyone in Tallinn everyone is vying for a table at.  If, like us, you optimistically rock up mid-week without a booking be prepared to wait a while at the bar, this place is seriously popular for good reason.  Three divine courses in their converted dining space came to a grand total of €30 for two hungry people – you’d be mad not to step out of the old town for an experience like this.

After eating our fill, we headed to nearby Pudel for after-dinner drinks.  It’s a smart craft beer bar with a warm atmosphere and extensive beer menu (and some excellent sounding bar snacks that I would have tucked straight into if I’d not been stuffed from our trip to F-Hoone).

Kadriog and Pirata

Step outside of the city centre in the opposite direction and a mile or so down the road (or tramline) is Pirata, the city’s Baltic promenade. As we visited on a snow day, there erm, wasn’t actually anything to see apart from a complete white-out.

But bear with me. I’ve no doubt on a clear day that Pirata is lovely, however it’s not just the promenade locals come here for. It runs along the northern edge of Kadriog Park, an elegant expanse of lawns, avenues of trees, palaces and national monuments. It’s home to the Song Festival grounds – a spiritual home to a huge part of Estonian culture and a literal turning point in the country’s history, which is worth a visit in it’s own right.  You’ll also find the elegant Kadriog palace – a colourful riot of old-fashioned splendure.

Whatever time of year you visit, I’d recommend spending a little time exploring the city’s green spaces.  They’re quite enchanting, and rather magical if there’s been a dusting of snow.

Beautiful traditional wooden homes around Kadriog Park in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Tallinn is a city of joyful contrasts – medieval yet modern, cultured yet charmingly dishevelled in places. But most of all it feels authentic and alive, which makes it stand out from some of southern Europe’s fairytale, fortified towns which are sometimes a little too close to becoming a pastiche of themselves.

The Estonian capital well and truly deserves to be recognised as one of Europe’s most delightful … and I’m already thinking about when to go back.*

Have you been to Tallinn?  Did it cast a spell over you too?  Tell me all about it in the comments below.

*Only partly to quell my cinnamon bun addiction

P.S. Don’t forget to take a look at this beautiful city in the snow in 8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow

The practical bit

We flew to Tallinn with Easyjet from London Gatwick. Once you’re at the terminal (which might just be the nicest I’ve ever travelled through, they’re aspiring to be the world’s cosiest airport and I think they might just be), you’ll find the brand-new tram stop just outside the door. Tram number 4 takes you to the city centre and old town, and tickets are a very reasonable €2. Just knock on the driver’s window to buy on board.

Home for our stay was the Knight House Hostel – a thoroughly recommendable and cosy little place. Located in the old town, it’s only a few minutes walk from the main square of the old town in one direction and Freedom Square (and its tram stop) in the other. Not only is the street quiet (and the hostel set back from the road in a little courtyard), it’s ever so pretty.

Knight House is a budget option, but offers plenty of bang for your buck. There’s ten private rooms: ours was clean, comfortably furnished with all we needed and home to some big, beautiful old windows and some impressively warm heating. The bathrooms, although shared, have all recently been renovated to a very high standard (better than many hotels I’ve stayed in recently) which was a nice surprise. The crowning glory is a cosy common room area where a simple breakfast is served everyday – homemade pancakes cooked fresh for you no less.  I often struggle choosing between hotels, hostels or an apartment for a city break – but we made the right choice here, and I’d happily return.

Knight House, Rüütli 16, 10130 Tallinn, Estonia

A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog


8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow

A medieval gem nestled on the coast of the Baltic sea, Tallinn is one of Europe’s most underrated yet most beautiful capital cities.  Wrap up warm and you’ll see an even more special side to this city in winter, when the pretty rooftops and streets of the old town are scattered with snow.

There’s something a little bit magical about snow.

The way it dusts trees and roofs and leaves and streets with a glistening icing sugar coating.  The way it softens the air, wrapping you in cloud of sparklingly silence, cut with crispy crunching underfoot.  The way it transforms a skyline and rooftops, highlights details and brings lamplight to life.

It’s one thing to visit a new place in spring, summer or autumn, it’s quite another in a northern European winter.

So when Tallinn’s first snowfall of the winter fell when we were in the midst of an autumn city break last week, I couldn’t have been more delighted.  After a few days exploring this beautiful Baltic city decked out in russet colours, a sprinkling of snow was the perfect way to see the town in a whole new light.  Two seasons in one week?  That’s twice the fun.

Let’s be honest, we weren’t expecting winter to arrive so soon (my slightly sad looking city boots are now testament to that).  But Tallinn had surpassed our expectations already, so a snow day – or two  – was an unexpected surprise and a chance to explore all over again. We would never have thought to visit in mid-winter, but now I’ve experienced it in real life I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it – provided you pack your thermals.

I wanted to share the unexpected magic of this Baltic beauty. So here’s an ode to Tallinn in the snow – eight reasons why I think you’ll also fall in love with this city.

P.S. If you want to find out more about the beautiful city of Tallinn, and what to see and do during your stay, check out A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital.  It’s also packed with my recommendations for where to stay, where to eat and how to get around.

1. The old town hall and square look spectacular dusted with snow

The huge cobbled town square in Tallinn is ringed with medieval merchant houses and bustling cafes and restaurants that spill out across the stones, even during the colder months. Above them all towers the delicate spire of the town hall, almost 500 years old and as imposing now as it was then.  Whilst you can’t explore inside during the winter months, there’s plenty of details to be seen from the outside.

The old town square in Tallinn looks magical in the snow at dawn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

2. You can cosy up in restaurants and cafes that look this pretty

Why wouldn’t you want to curl up inside some of these beautiful buildings?  Estonians are great at coffee and comfort food, so indulge yourself and warm up indoors.  Head away from the old town square for the best goodies, and try the local dark rye bread with whipped honey butter – it’s divine.

Peppersack restaurant in Tallinn's old town | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

3. Toompea Hill offers magical views over the old town below

Toompea Hill is the crown on Tallinn’s old town.  This little hilltop is home to two of the city’s cathedrals, pretty pastel-coloured townhouses and jaw-dropping viewpoints.  Here you’ll realise just how lovely the rising spires, little turrets and towers, pitched rooftops and ornate weathervanes of this medieval city are.  I loved this area at sunset when the sky came alive with different colours.

Magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

4. Beautiful Kadriog Park looks like it might be Narnia

Go a little way out from the city centre and you’ll find Kadriog Park.  This huge green space is home to the colourful Kadriog Palace, elegant avenues of trees and wide open spaces as well as some delightfully pretty traditional wooden Estonian townhouses.  If you’re out early after a fresh snowfall like we were, you can enjoy the immense fun of being the first to make footprints in the snow.

Kadriog park in Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
That little dash of colour in the distance? That’s Kadriog Palace
Traditional Estonian wooded houses in Kadriog Park in Tallinn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Colourful wooden townhouses line the streets around Kadriog Park

5. Fresh cinnamon buns are all the better when it’s cold

Røst is a new bakery in the Rotermanni district of Tallinn and was one of my favourite places to cosy up with a cup of coffee in Tallinn.  Housed in a converted warehouse, the bakery has been designed so that the kitchen isn’t shut away – you can watch their skillful bakers plaiting pastries, and count down the seconds between a fresh batch of treats leaving the oven and landing on your plate.  A bottomless cup of (yummy) filter coffee is only €2.50, and their cheese gougères are scrumptious.

Rost bakery and cafe in the Rotermann district of Tallinn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

6. The old town gates look like the entrance to another time

Viru Gate used to be part of the city’s defences but now welcomes visitors to the old city. With its little rounded turrets lit up in the dark, it’s quite the charmer.  You can climb up onto the old city walls near the gate, and survey the rooftops from the covered passageway along it’s top.

Viru gate at the entrance to Tallinn's old town | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Viru Gate, one of the many fairytale gates around the old town of Tallinn

7. The churches of the old town look even prettier with a little sprinkling of glitter

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral sits on top of Toompea Hill in the old town of Tallinn. Surrounded by colourful townhouses, it’s a spectacular structure topped with onion domes and glittering gold crosses. Dust it with snow, and it becomes even more enchanting.

Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Tallinn dusted with snow | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at the top of Toompea Hill

8. A little dash of snow makes the colours sing

The houses of the old town of Tallinn, and the nearby neighbourhoods of Kalamaja and Kadriog are painted almost every shade of the rainbow from dusky pinks to sage greens. Once the snow had settled we realised how much these colours came to life.  Stroll around and enjoy 500 years of architecture in perfect pastel technicolour.

Snowy streets in the old town of Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Pastel coloured buildings at the top of Toompea Hill in the old town of Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Isn’t this the most cheerful looking Post Office you’ve ever seen? This sea-green beauty is at the top of Toompea Hill

Have I managed to convince you that Tallinn is worth exploring in the winter months?  I hope so.

To make the most of a trip here during the colder months, and especially if there’s frost and snowfall around, here’s a few tips;

  • Head out as soon as possible once snow has started to fall.  You’ll find more chances to explore undisturbed snowy streets and be the first to make footprints
  • Wrap up warm, and stay dry.  Let’s face it, northern Europe isn’t warm in winter.  To enjoy it, you’ll want to be properly prepared.  Shoes that’ll keep your feet dry and won’t slip are essential, as are plenty of layers and a waterproof outer or umbrella if snow is falling.
  • Dawn and dusk are pretty special in the snow.  After dark is also a great time to explore as the streets are quieter and the snow glitters in the lamplight.  The city is well-lit both from a practical and a pretty perspective, but I found dawn was most magical when the cloudy sky warmed in colour but the twinkling lights were still on.
  • Dry out and warm up regularly with a hot beverage or a baked goods in the many cosy cafes around the city – you’ll enjoy your time outside all the more for it.

Where’s your favourite place to visit during the colder months?  And do you have any tips for other great cities that look great under a blanket of snow?

Want to find out more? Find my ultimate guide to a stay in Tallinn in A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital

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8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog


Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now

Autumn might just be one of my favourite times of year to get away. And it might just be the best time of year to explore Northern Europe. Trees ablaze with fall colours, cosy cafes, charming cobbled streets in the late afternoon sun – it sounds good, right? So, as the seasons start to turn I’m sharing my secrets for the perfect city break now.

After the crowds have melted away and the leaves have started to turn copper and gold, Northern Europe comes alive.  It’s the perfect time of year to find out what Europe is really like, rather than the version intended for summer travellers.  And I much prefer it.

It’s easy to worry about unreliable weather and shorter days, but the truth is that you won’t even notice if it’s a little inclement when there’s so much to see and do. You’ll find heaps of local events, fabulous seasonal foods and plenty of places to snuggle up indoors with a comforting coffee or craft beer if the weather isn’t quite up to scratch.  With it being cooler, it’s also a better time to head out on foot and really get to know a place – it’s my favourite time to go stomping through drifts of leaves to discover new parks, museums and beautiful streets. It’s definitely worth a shot.

For the ideal autumn destination, there are two must-haves for me;

1. Open spaces to explore and experience the changing colours of the season
2. Great places to cosy up indoors to escape cooler days and nights

There are four cities that I think fit the bill perfectly – Stockholm (Sweden), Vienna (Austria), Munich (Germany) and Bratislava (Slovakia).

I’ve tried-and-tested these four cities over the past four years and had a whale of a time – and I’d also go back in a flash.  Here are my top tips – I hope they’ll inspire your own adventures.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Witty sign outside Meatballs for the people, Stockholm, Sweden | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Ah, the witty folks at Meatballs for the people, Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

Don’t be put off by the northerly location of Stockholm – the dusky evenings and chilly air add to the atmosphere of this beautiful, vibrant city.

The first thing that struck me about Stockholm was how immaculately well-cared for this city is. Locals take great pride in their capital, and the city streets manage to be immaculate without feeling false. Swedes love fika, a coffee break with a pastry or bake to nibble on, and so Stockholm is packed with enticing cafes. In the old town, they can be pricey, although for a one-off treat it felt like an exuberant delight. But wherever you go in the city, a good kaffe won’t be far away – so don’t be put off.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Afternoon light in Stockholm, Sweden | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag
Sodermalm, Stockholm, Sweden. Yes, I know it sounds like a piece of Ikea furniture

Stockholm is a city of many islands, each characterful in their own ways, with watery views around every corner. Spend some time exploring the island of Djurgarden, close to the old town. It’s an enchanting place that’s a patchwork of formal gardens, wild woodland and ornamental buildings – with views across the water to the city centre. Alternatively, head a little further out from the city centre to Hagapark. We arrived here on the most perfect autumnal morning, all blue skies and cascading gold and copper leaves. Choose a woodland walk and kick up leaves underfoot or stroll through the more formal parkland. Look out for some of the more extraordinary buildings in the park, including the Chinese Pavilion and Copper Tents. These slightly magical additions were whims of Swedish royal family in the 18th century, who built Haga Palace at the centre of the park. It’s fun to plan a route around these bewitching additions.

Autumn glories: Northern European cities perfect for visiting now | Hagapark in Stockholm, Sweden, in autumn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Trees ablaze with colour in Hagapark, Stockholm

Bonus points

Cooler evenings call for comfort food, and I can’t suggest better than the awesome Meatballs for the people in Södermalm. It’s a bit of a hipster Swedish-cool kind of place that serves everyone’s favourite Scandinavian dinner alongside local craft beers. The food is homemade and organic, the atmosphere is dark and cosy and candlelit and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Vienna, Austria

The Austrian capital has a reputation for elegance and sophistication that doesn’t disappoint. It’s also famed for it’s cafe culture – and if you want to experience this at its best, you’ll want to visit in the cooler half of the year.

I’ll be honest and say that I can be a little sceptical of anything that falls into the category of “most famous for” when visiting a new city, as it can also often mean clichéd, crowded and inauthentic. But provided you steer clear of Café Demel and Figlmüller, where queues trail out of the door day-long, there are some true delights to be found. In the old town, seek out Kaffee Alt Wien that’s the epitome of old-fashioned Viennese coffee houses. Dark, smoky and eminently cosy, it’s charmingly real – a juxtaposition of excellent drinks and service with a delightfully dishevelled interior. I could spend all day here.

Explore beyond the old town and you’ll find more fantastic cafes on almost every street corner. They’re packed with locals at any time of day, and the perfect escape from a chilly autumnal afternoon.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Beautiful buildings on the Ringstrasse, Vienna, Austria | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Gorgeous buildings on the Ringstrasse, Vienna

For seasonal colours, stroll along the canal or visit the Prater Park. Head away from the amusement park to reach the more natural woodland at it’s far end, meandering as you go. But if you want to see autumn in all it’s glory, you’ll need to hop on a tram.

Nussdorf is at the end of the line but less than half an hour from the city centre, and well within the city limits. And it’s a gateway to a world of the unexpected. Vienna is a wine-producing region, and Nussdorf is the home of it’s vineyards. From here, there are miles and miles of Wanderwegs (or footpaths to us English-speaking folk) that’ll help you to explore this glorious little region that feels both a million miles from the city centre yet curiously close-by.  We ventured up the Kahlenberg (more of a hill than a mountain) for views over the city – only with our usual luck to discover it was so misty we could barely see a thing.  But the vineyards themselves and winding trails were a joy, ablaze in greens and golds and bounteous with autumn fruits, and more than made up for it.

You can read more about my adventures in Vienna in Oh, Vienna! Coffee, castles and craft beers in Austria’s capital.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Nussdorf vineyards in Vienna, Austria | Travel guide | City guide| Girl with a saddle bag blog
Meandering through Vienna’s vineyards in search of the Kahlenberg

Munich, Germany

“Oktoberfest” I bet you’re thinking. A bit obvious? Exactly. I don’t do obvious. Whilst the world’s biggest beer festival takes over the Bavarian capital in late September and early October, you shouldn’t rule out this city once the festivities are over.

We visited at the end of October, a few weeks after the excitement had died down. It was brilliant. Firstly, you can explore without the crowds. It’s a charming city centre packed with monumental department stores, gothic civic buildings and some fantastic contemporary additions, such as the Viktualianmarkt covered market. But the real showstopper is the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the centre of the city. It’s here that feels really alive as the seasons change, with sweeping woodlands turning every colour of the rainbow and outdoor beer gardens packed as locals make the most of days light and warm enough to still be out.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Visit the legendary Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Germany | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Beer comes in itre steins in the Hofbrauhaus.  It’s not the faint-hearted!

The Englischer Garten can happily occupy hours of any visit, but once the sun starts to go down, what next? Beer halls, that’s what. You don’t need to visit during Oktoberfest to discover Bavaria’s brewing heritage and love of comfort food – there are beer halls open all year round and they’re fantastic. The Hofbrauhaus is the arguably the most famous, and with 400 years of history and a cavernous interior it’s not hard to see why. But don’t just stop here, there are more beer halls peppered throughout the city, each with their own brews to try and different menus (although admittedly heavy on the mashed potato and pork in most). We loved the Augustiner Brauhaus on Neuhauserstrasse for it’s cosy atmosphere and delicious Weissbiers.

Bonus points

Geography fans will tell you that Munich sits just on the northern edge of the Bavarian alps. On a clear day you can see the mountains, but better still take a train out from the city centre. The metro lines will take you as far as Starnberger See, a vast alpine lake where the mountains meet the water and fantastic walking can be found. This is where the wealthy of Munich built extravagant summer homes in days gone by, and it’s glorious. Stroll around the lakeside, kick up leaves and reward yourself with a steaming hot chocolate in town.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Munich city centre, Germany | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
The market square, central Munich

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bit of a left-field choice this one. But Bratislava is an underestimated central European gem that’s perfect for a short weekend away.

The old town centre of Bratislava is charming at any time of the year, but in autumn you’ve got the best of both worlds. There are heaps of delicious cafes and bars to explore and none of the summer crowds to have to share them with. At the end of October, when we visited, it was mostly locals we met and enjoyed these spaces with – and I think it made us warm to the city all the more. Think cosy coffee shops with cafe tables outside and colourful blankets to wrap yourself in whilst you enjoy a hot chocolate or two.

Walk up to the castle for displays of autumn leaves to look down on – complemented by the warm earthy tones and green copper roofs of the old town below. You’ll suddenly realise the whole town looks like it’s decked out to celebrate the changing seasons.

Bratislava is less than an hour away from Vienna, so for bonus points try to combine both capitals into one trip. This is what we did – and I loved the contrasts between the two.

You can find out more about Bratislava in my guide to Bratislava in a day: Cobbled streets and cafes, Slovakian style.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for city breaks now | Bratislava, Slovakia, during the autumn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Looking down over the old town from Bratislava castle

So there’s my highlights for exploring at this time of year – beauties any time, but extra special as the trees turn in colour and the nights draw in. The end of the summer doesn’t mean it’s no longer a great time to explore northern Europe – for me, it’s an even better time.

What are your favourite places you’ve enjoyed in the autumn? (And where should I go next year?!)

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Autumn glories, northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog



Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation

The secret to enjoying the perfect stay on Lake Annecy is making travel and accommodation plans that’ll help you to explore the parts of this region that excite you most. My guide will point you in the right direction whether you’re planning a city break in central Annecy or an Alpine adventure in a lakeside village.

Lake Annecy and the city of Annecy itself are picture-perfect. With breath-taking clear lake waters, craggy alpine peaks papered with lush green woodland and a jewel-coloured old town, there are a million reasons to want to visit this less well-known region of France. Maybe I’ve even managed to persuade you in Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret and 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France – where I admit that return visits over the past 25 years have left me with a huge love for this Alpine wonderland.

If you’re thinking of planning a trip here – great news – I think that’s a fantastic idea! However, these wonderfully diverse surroundings and the enormous range of possibilities can make planning your stay more than a little intimidating. It’s not a small city, and the lakeside towns and villages that twinkle in the distance on an evening pose a myriad of options for accommodation and exploration.

But, knowing where to stay and how to get around will make all the difference – as it’ll put you at the heart of the action you’re most keen on throwing yourself into. It’s the perfect way to upgrade your holiday from good to pretty darn perfect.

So, to give you a helping hand I’ve put together a guide to help you navigate planning a trip to Lake Annecy.

I’ll share my recommendations for getting there, getting about and share some secrets to finding the best places to stay for the type of adventure you want to have. Shall we get started?

This is the third in a series of posts about Lake Annecy, you can check out Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret and 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France for more about this region.

Before you begin

With so much on offer, it’s worth taking the time to decide on your priorities before booking. Think about what you’re planning to spend most of your time doing – are you hoping to hike or cycle to your heart’s content, bask by the lake or indulge at some of the city’s enticing restaurants? Don’t forget to check my guide to 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France for a little light inspiration.

You’ll also want to think about what time of year you’ll be visiting, and what type of accommodation suits you best – whether you’ll be looking for home comforts, outdoor space, room for a crowd or somewhere a little out of the ordinary.

Once you know what you want to do, you can shape your trip around this – so you make the absolute most of it.

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | River Thiou, Annecy, early in the morning | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Early on a summer’s morning, Annecy is quiet, peaceful and beautiful

Getting to Annecy

You’ve got three options travelling to the city of Annecy – road, rail and air. The best fit for your trip will depend on where you’re travelling from and, to some extent, whether you’d like the freedom of having a car to get around.

To Annecy by air

Although Annecy has it’s own airport, it’s largely served by internal flights so for international connections and budget airlines you’re best heading to nearby Geneva or Lyon. Both have great road connections to Annecy, with Geneva a little over 40 minutes away. Hiring a car can be a wise choice – and makes it easy to explore beyond the city and up into the mountains.

From Lyon

If public transport is more your thing, high speed rail services connect Annecy and Lyon Saint-Exupéry TGV (the station is just a few minutes walk from the airport terminal), and Annecy’s modern station is conveniently located on the edge of the old town. Alternatively, Ouibus offers a less frequent, but generally faster bus service from the airport to Annecy.  You can check timetables and ticket prices for both trains and buses on SNCF’s website.

From Geneva

Public transport from Geneva airport is possible but is complicated substantially by the border crossing from Switzerland and the closure of a major station in Geneva. I attempted this option last year (2016), but found it fraught with difficulties so I’m not in a rush to recommend it. In a rare twist of things going completely down the pan, we ended up being rescued by our wonderful airbnb host thanks to a catastrophic (I’m exaggerating, but felt it at the time) combination of delayed airport arrivals, multiple stations with the same name, closed stations and a very approximate bus timetable.

I’d seriously recommend saving yourself the worry and take the (infrequent but direct) bus to the centre of Annecy or hire a car from the airport instead.

To Annecy by rail

The small but perfectly formed railway station in Annecy gives you access to the French mainline, high-speed rail network – an easy way to reach most of France’s major cities.  A direct train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon takes just shy of 4 hours, which sounds impressively quick to me. Check out the SNCF website (France’s national rail network) for timetables and fares.

To Annecy by road

Annecy is well-connected to the French autoroute network via the A40 and A41, making it easy to reach from most of northern and western Europe. From the UK, it’s about an 8 hour drive from the Channel Tunnel (if you want to turn your journey into more of an adventure, check out my guide to Troyes, a pretty city in the Champagne region, that makes a great mid-way stop).

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | View of Annecy from Talloires | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Looking towards Annecy from the woods above the pretty village of Talloires

Getting around

The best way to get about will depend on how long you’re staying for and how keen you are to get out and explore.

On foot

The city and it’s nearest beaches are all easily explored on foot, with wide promenades along the northern end of the lake. If you’re planning a short city break walking’s the perfect way to get around – perhaps with a little cycling and the odd bus journey thrown in.

By bike

If you’re feeling enthusiastic, the lakeside villages are easy to reach by bike. Follow the Voie Vert – a fantastic cycle path that circles the lake – to find new places and to branch off for more ambitious routes. There are bucketloads of hire shops around the lake, with options from hourly to all day rentals.

  • Cyclable Annecy is situated right on the edge of the old town and a stone’s throw from the Voie Vert. I gave one of their standard bikes a 50 mile thrashing in a day last year, and I’d happily recommend.
  • For serious cyclists, try Basecamp in Talloires for high-end Cannondales that will see you through some major mountain climbing. I’ve not tried out their bikes, but breakfast in their cafe is delicious (clearly this is important on any cycle trip). Despite being the new kids on the block in 2017 they appear to have a very professional set-up.

By bus

If you’re keen to discover the lakeside towns and villages without a car, you’ll find reliable bus services throughout the day and week operated by LIHSA. As well as being great value routes with regular services, in places they connect with free shuttle bus services to help you get higher up into the mountains. Try taking the LIHSA to Talloires and then the free Navette (summer season only) to reach the stunning viewpoint at Col de la Forclaz.

Note:  LIHSA doesn’t have it’s own dedicated website, which can make it a tad tricky to plan journeys in advance if you’re not a confident French speaker. You can try their French site here or contact Annecy’s tourist office for more visitor-friendly help finding the right services.

By car

Lastly, I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t tell you that having a car is one of the best ways to make the most of a trip to this stunning region. Not only does it give you the freedom to travel when and where you’d like, it’s also the best way to cover ground. Ski resort breakfast walk, afternoon on the lake, evening dinner in town? It’s easier by car.

It’s nice to take it slow from time to time, but having four wheels will open up a far wider range of accommodation options, places to explore and new things to discover. As a bonus, it’s also delightfully easy to park around here (although I’m not giving away all my best secret parking spots!), so unless you’re planning a stay in the old town parking will likely be free and plentiful.

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning travel and accommodation | La Tournette | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
La Tournette in the late afternoon sun


There’s no perfect answer to ‘where should I stay’ on Lake Annecy – there are so many fantastic options, but every traveller has different priorities. So help you narrow down what might work well for you, I’ve suggested some options for different types of trip you might be embarking on.

City break

Ideal for urban explorers visiting for a short stay, more likely travelling by public transport.

  • When: Throughout the year.
  • My recommendation:  Opt for a hotel, bed-and-breakfast or airbnb in, or close to, the old town of Annecy.
  • Why? If you’re looking to make to most of a short trip you’ll want to be in right in the heart of things. Make the most of an opportunity to stay in one of the charming historic buildings in this part of town and soak up the atmosphere. Plus you’ll find great public transport connections if you want to get out of town.

I can’t hesitate to recommend this fabulous airbnb we spent three days in during July 2016 – our host Laurane went out of her way to be helpful, it’s just round the corner from one of my favourite cafes and you couldn’t be better located for enjoying the old town.

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | Colourful townhouses along the River Thiou, Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Family fun

Crowd-pleasing ideas for families and groups of friends looking to make the most of the lake and mountains, with own car or bike.

  • When: Late spring through to late summer.
  • My recommendation:  Embrace the great outdoors and enjoy one of the dozens of campsites around the lake. You’ll find some fantastic sites, many with direct access to lakeside beaches. Look along the western side and at the southern end of the lake (in particular around the villages of Saint-Jorioz, Duingt and Doussard) where you’ll find everything from old-school pitches for campers and tents, EuroCamp sites with pre-erected tents, holiday chalets to glamping pods. I’ve also got a soft-spot for the village of Talloires which has a stunningly-located little campsite that traditionalists will love – Camping l’Horizon – as well as a beachfront campsite, that comes highly-recommended, at the Plage d’Angon.
  • Why?  Camping is budget-friendly, fun and sociable, plus you’ve got a wide range of accommodation options to suit your group. These sites are ideally located for those who want to spend the majority of their time at the lake or out exploring, and most are within an easy stroll of one of the pretty lakeside villages (for your everyday essentials and a slice of Alpine life).

Mountain adventurers

Alpine inspiration for couples, friends and families planning a longer stay (a week or more) to explore the mountains and more of the region.

  • When: Throughout the year
  • My recommendation: Rent an apartment, gîte (French holiday home) or airbnb in one of the lakeside towns and villages. This is my favourite way to spent time on Lake Annecy.
  • Why? If you’re keen to get out on foot or two wheels, staying outside of the city of Annecy will make it easier. Most apartments and homes will have parking, and a kindly word with your host will help you to find out whether bikes are also welcome. Staying here will give you a chance to enjoy small town life and indulge at some of the quintessential village cafes, bars and patisseries – plus Annecy is rarely more than an half hour drive away. Generally speaking, you’ll find better value rentals on the western side, côte ouest, of the lake, but for the best sunsets and easy access to the biggest peaks opt for the côte est, or east side.
Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation
Looking down on Doussard and the southern end of Lake Annecy from Col de la Forclaz

So there’s my guide to one of France’s most beautiful cities – and some inspiration for shaping your stay into your perfect holiday.

Is there anything more you’d like to know? Post your Lake Annecy travel questions below and I’ll do my best to answer.

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Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | Travel guide | City guide | Accommodation guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Postcards from Troyes: A brief encounter in Champagne

Pretty half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, fantastic food – Troyes is the perfect place to break a journey or stop for a weekend if you’re travelling in France.

This past month has taken us on a bit of a French adventure.  Living in the UK means that travelling to France by road can be just as easy – if not easier – than flying, and besides which, it had been a while since I’d last been on a proper road trip.

So we packed up the car for a jaunt to the continent.  As we had a long road ahead of us, it made perfect sense (or rather it was the perfect opportunity) to make the most of our journey and weave in some interesting stops along the way.  The curious traveller in me loves pouring over a map and picking out places that sound interesting … which is precisely how we ended up in Troyes.

Troyes happened to be the perfect half-way point between our channel crossing and our final destination in the Alps, but also sounded enticingly interesting.  I’d heard that it was beautiful, but a bit of exploring online left me none the wiser when it came to the city’s charms.  Rather than letting this put me off, there was only one thing to do – go and find out more.

Beautiful buildings n Rue de la Monnaie in Troyes, France

Tell me about Troyes

Troyes is a historic town in the heart of France’s Champagne region.  It’s a region littered with well-groomed vineyards, perfect sandy-coloured hilltop towns and decadent Champagne houses. But Troyes adds a colourful juxtaposition, with an old town centre full of teetering half-timbered medieval buildings that wobble three and four storeys high in winding little streets packed with cafes, restaurants and shops.  The river Seine winds languorously through the town, with colourful flower boxes topping every bridge.  It’s undeniably pretty, and a surprising contrast to it’s surroundings.

Rue Emile Zola in Troyes, France

It’s not a huge city, and you can comfortably explore in just a few hours.  This makes it a great stop if you’re travelling south to the Alps or the Mediterranean from the UK or northern Europe.  It’d also make a great base to discover the surrounding area which includes the Fôret d’Orient national park, home to vast lakes as well as diverse woodland that’s perfect for walking and cycling.

With only a quick overnight stop for us to make the most of, we embarked on a whistle-stop tour (of sorts, invented on the spot) of Troyes’ highlights.

What to do in Troyes

The old centre of Troyes is loosely ringed by the Boulevards Gambetta, Victor Hugo and du 14 Juillet, and by the river Seine as it snakes it’s way through the city.

(At this point I’d like to clarify that I didn’t make these names up or steal them from a school French textbook – Troyes really does have the most quintessentially French sounding street names!)

Place Marechal Foch, Troyes, France

The very centre is largely pedestrianised, and I’d recommended navigating your way to the Place Maréchal Foch to begin your explorations.  From here, enticing winding streets disappear off in all directions, beautiful buildings look down on your from every angle and there’s a vibrant, lively feel with the street-side cafes full – in the early evening – with locals and visitors enjoying a last coffee of the day or a sneaky apertif.

The streets east of Place Maréchal Foch are amongst the prettiest, with ancient buildings and characterful restaurants and cafes woven amongst little squares and upmarket shops.  Alongside Boulevard Gambetta you’ll find the verdant Jardin du Rocher and Jardin de la Vallee Suisse, a pair of pretty parks lush with vegetation in contrast to surrounding buildings.

Head west towards the river and you’ll find the delightful Mairie with colourful formal gardens laid out in front of it.  Keep going in this direction and you’ll stumble across the monumental Cathedral of St. Pierre and St. Paul, a cluster of stunning gothic churches including the Basilica of St. Urbain as well a some of the city’s oldest university buildings.

Wooden tower on medieval building in Troyes, France

There was plenty to keep us occupied for a few hours.  Troyes in a town that’s best explored slowly, and on foot.  There’s great architecture details to be found, an attractive riverside and an abundance of lively cafes in which to soak up the traditional French atmosphere.

Where to eat in Troyes

Much as I could quite happily have spent our short visit munching my way through as many of this city’s establishments as possible so that I could share them with you, sadly common sense prevailed and instead I’m making one outstanding recommendation.

Restaurants on Rue Urbain VI in Troyes, France

You’ll find plenty of smart-looking looking restaurants around Place Maréchal Foch, Rue Urbain VI and Rue Champeaux. They mostly offer typical French dishes, with appetising menus du jour advertised on chalkboards where the resturant tables spilled onto the street.  But we were looking for something a bit more unusual that a bit of online research had hinted at.

Just before 7pm we headed to Les Halles, the old covered market building close to the town centre.  In the square outside was just what we were hoping for – a big, red double-decker bus.

Claire et Hugo, the burger bus of Troyes, France

Claire & Hugo rolls into town most weeknights, and some lunchtimes (check their Facebook page for more details as their schedule seems to vary occasionally). They park up, put up pretty little cafe tables and umbrellas outside and proceed to cook incredible hand-made burgers, desserts, and quite determinedly, no chips.

We couldn’t have wished to find anything better.  Their menu was genuinely interesting, with fantastic burger toppings (Parmesan on a burger just happens to be the greatest thing I’d never tried) and delicious side salads that outshone most burger joints I’ve ever visited.  No chips meant oven-roasted, local Charlotte potatoes with just a touch of salty butter.  Home-made pannacotta with ginger, nectarine, raspberry and mint was an absolute delight.  And all this, for less than €30 for the both of us, including drinks.  I’d go back to Troyes just to try it all again.

Classic burger at Claire et Hugo, Troyes, France

We only had a few hours in Troyes before heading off to our Airbnb a few kilometers out of town, and then on towards the Alps.  But this delightful little city really charmed me, and felt surprisingly alive and very French even during the peak of the European-summer-holiday-season.  There’s a great feeling when leaving a place you’d be happy to return to again, and would even go out of your way to revisit – and that’s how I felt about Troyes.  I’ll be back one day, and I hope to enjoy it just as much.

Have you discovered any hidden gems en route to other destinations? I’d love to hear your stories (and borrow some inspiration) below.

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The practical bit

If you’re travelling by road, as we were, Troyes can be reached from junction 23 of the A26 autoroute.  It’s about a ten minute drive to the city centre.  Parking can be found on Boulevard du 14 Juillet at a rate of about €1 per hour.  If you’re heading back to the autoroute, you’ll pass through a commercial centre on the outskirts of town – fill up on supermarket petrol here to save a generous amount compared to motorway service stations.

Troyes is also served by high speed rail services from Paris, with direct trains from Gare de l’Est taking as little as an hour and a half.  Check out the SNCF website for more details.

Postcards from Troyes, France: A brief encounter in the Champagne | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Postcards from Troyes: A brief encounter in Champagne and a city guide

A beginners guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi

With it’s fairytale turrets, ancient stone walls and commanding views over the vineyards of southern France, the fortified medieval town of Carcassonne is steeped in history and an unsung Mediterranean hero. But there’s more than meets the eye – fantastic food, an enchanting city centre and the Canal du Midi add to the rich patchwork of this spectacular French town. My travel guide shares the highlights and lesser-known gems of this region that I’ve tried and tested.

There’s something timeless about the south-west of France, where it feels like the narrow, winding streets of sleepy market towns have changed little in centuries, and the Canal du Midi snakes languorously through vineyards and fields sheltered from the heat by ancient plane trees.

At it’s heart you’ll find Carcassonne, a medieval fortified town that crowns a green hill perched above the river Aude.  With it’s soaring towers, imposing gateways and panoramic views there’s plenty to take your breath away.  But its fairytale appearance is just the start, as a labyrinth of ancient streets and warm stone houses lure you in and invite you to explore.

I first discovered Carcassonne as a eight-year old … a highlight of summer holiday adventures in the Languedoc.  A couple of summer’s ago I decided to head back, not quite sure what to expect, but curious to see if it had changed.

Returning to somewhere you loved as a child requires a bit of optimism and crossed fingers, and I’d had my doubts when we booked our trip. Would two twenty-somethings really love a city that had captured my imagination all those years ago?

Thankfully, the crossed fingers worked.  The delights of the castle – known as la cité – hadn’t diminished at all since I was half the height I am now.  Carcassonne today is just as awe-inspiring as it was twenty years ago – and the surrounding city and region is blooming.  Architecturally, it’s fascinating, but it’s also great fun. Whether you’re into vineyards, history or pretending you’re a medieval knight for the day, there’s something for everyone in this magical French town.

A potted history of Carcassonne

The area around Carcassonne has been inhabited since neolithic times.  But the first major construction in the region began under Roman rule, when a hilltop castle was built on the site of the current fortified town. A small settlement grew up around the castle, but things didn’t really get interesting until the Visigoths came along in the 5th century.

Building on the footings of the now decaying Roman stronghold, the Visigoths constructed a substantial and strategically-located fortress and thus, the medieval city of Carcassonne was born.  Despite the rise and fall of the Visigoths and many attempts to take the fortified cité, Carcassonne not only managed to survive but also sustain a community both inside and outside of it’s walls for almost a thousand years.

The fortified walls of the medieval city of Carcassonne, France
The walls of Carcassonne are built on Roman foundations but the crenellations and turrets are more than a little creative licence

It wasn’t until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 that the state of Rousillion, of which Carcassonne and it’s surrounding lands were a part, was ceeded to France and much of the city’s military importance diminished. From this point onward, without a substantial military presence, the town fell into disrepair and was largely abandoned.

All wasn’t lost though. The Ville Basse, which had grown up around the foothills of the castle, began to flourish as a market town and a burgeoning industrial centre as the nineteenth century arrived. Two other arrivals were to prosperity to the city: the Canal du Midi in the late eighteenth century, and architect Viollet-le-Duc.

A nostaglic interest in medieval France and it’s architecture started to bloom in the early nineteenth century, and Viollet-le-Duc was hired to undertake restorations of some of the country’s most iconic buildings.  Alongside Notre-Dame de Paris, Mont St. Michel and Fougere, he tackled the crumbling remains of Carcassonne, bringing la cité back to life (and embellishing slightly as he went, die-hards will tell you the pointed turrets are not original – but I rather like them).

In the last hundred years or so the Ville Basse has continued to grow into a lively, vibrant city, and the castle on the hill has flourished.

La Cité

There’s more than enough to keep even an intrepid visitor occupied for a day in the fortified cité.

Medieval towers in the fortified city of Carcassonne, France

My best advice is to follow your feet and happily explore.  If you have the chance, come back at different times of day to experience atmospheric evenings and enjoy cool, quiet mornings.  To get you started, here a few of my favourite things to do;

  • Get lost in the labyrinthine streets.  Explore beyond the main street and find hidden alleyways, cosy squares, beautiful houses as well as monumental gates and doorways.
  • Walk the walls.  In parts, you can walk between the two outer walls of la cité (between the Porte Narbonnais and the smaller gate near Place Saint-Nazaire) looking up at the imposing towers and fortifications.  Or, to escape to a part of the medieval city without any crowds, head out the Porte de l’Aude to the west and wander the rugged little footpaths that hug the outer walls, clinging on between the castle and vegetable gardens below.
  • Discover the Château Comtal.  Or rather the outside of the château.  Confession: I’ve never actually been inside (it’s worth noting you’ll need to buy tickets if you want to look around the interior).  But the building is one of the most impressive you’ll see within the fortifications, and if you take a little side street to the right of the entrance, you can stroll around the little ornamental garden at the foot of the castle walls.
  • Find stunning stained glass in the Basilique Saint-Nazaire.  The extraordinarily colourful windows in this medieval church are believed to be the oldest in southern France.
  • Soak up a panorama or two.  Head out towards the walls and you’ll find spectacular views opening up.  To the south, look out over a vista of vineyards as far as the eye can see, and to the north take in the town centre with it’s own city walls.
  • Eat.  Yes, I’m predictable.  But you might think that somewhere this popular isn’t the best place to find delicious local food.  However, I’m happy to report that with a little judicious decision making there are some great restaurants to be found in la cité.  Plus, the atmosphere on a summer’s evening can’t be beaten – grab yourself a table on a terrace and a glass of delicious local wine.

The fortified walls of Carcassonne, France

Whilst during the summer months you might have to negotiate the winding streets with crowds during the day, don’t be fooled into thinking Carcassonne is just for show.  24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 356 days a year the town is alive.  Beyond the château, shops and restaurants, real people live here too and one of the charms of the place is spotting to the signs of everyday life that pepper the streets.  And for more local flavour, head towards the Ville Basse beyond.

The Ville Basse

Whilst most visitors stay within the walls of the castle, you’re missing a trick if you don’t explore the rest of the city.

Step away from the entrance of the Porte Narbonnais and you’ll find a few winding streets weaving their way down to the river Aude.  Here you’ll find the old bridge, now pedestrianised, that invites you to explore the other side to this remarkable city.

The Ville Basse (also known as the Bastide Saint-Louis) is the living, breathing heart of the modern city of Carcassonne – but it’s all relative. The town grew up in the middle ages and the majority of buildings now occupying this space date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thanks to flourishing industry over the past few centuries and a location at the centre of a prosperous winemaking region, the town has thrived.

City gate in Carcassonne, France
Gateway leading to the Ville Basse in Carcassonne. This lovely street is packed with elegant shops and bakeries

The old centre is loosely ringed by old city walls – not in the same league as the castle on the hill, but reminiscent of the bastide towns you find in this part of the world. Enter through one of the old city gates and you’ll find yourself in a warren of cool, shady streets that criss-cross and intersect with one another. Whilst you’ll find a few local cars here, it’s best explored on foot.

At the geographic and metaphorical centre you’ll find the main square – Place Carnot, home to the Saturday morning market that explodes weekly in a riot of colour, scent and sound. Any other day, you’ll find it a quieter spot to enjoy coffee under the shade of the plane trees or an early evening aperitif. There’s a nice selection of shops to explore and a fantastic old-fashioned covered market building just off the main square is home to the traditional butchers, cheesemongers and fishmongers of the city.

Old shop signage in the bastide town of Carcassonne, France

I love the streets of the Ville Basse best early in the morning, on my way to pick up fresh bread and pastries for breakfast from the boulangerie on Place Carnot.

Beyond the centre

Carcassonne might be a city, but that doesn’t mean green spaces don’t abound. Aside from the rolling countryside and farmland of the regions, two of my favourite places to walk are alongside the river Aude and the Canal du Midi which weave their ways through the city centre.

The river crashes it’s way down through Carcassonne from its source in the Pyrenees en route to the Mediterranean coast. In summer, it’s quite gentile, and it’s river banks are a cool and shady spot to stroll and escape the heat of the day. You’ll also find some great campsites along its banks as you head out of town.

Canal du Midi in Carcassonne, France

The canal may be more sedate but it’s no less beautiful. Join the towpath near the railway station and walk in either direction. We hired mountain bikes and headed out discover the countryside, and followed the canal as far as Trebes – about 10km out of town – before heading off into the vineyards and sun-soaked farmland beyond. Cycling alongside the canal is glorious, and the shade of the plane trees offers a little relief from the sun on a hot day.

Although the Mediterranean coast is only an hour or so away by car or train (and that’s a story for another day), there’s a refreshing alternative nearer to town. Lac de la Cavayere is where the locals go to cool down.  A short bus ride or drive from town brings you to this pretty little lake – set in a midst of a Mediterranean pine forest.

Lac de la Cavayere started life as a reservoir before becoming a beach and the spot where Carcassonne locals come to escape the heat and crowds and make the most of the summer (it’s surprisingly common in south-west France even if it feels a little alien to us Brits).  It’s somewhere you can swim, sunbathe and stroll to your hearts content.  Family-friendly, it’s also great for active folks with trails all around the lake and nearby woodland, watersports and picnic-spots galore.

The city of Carcassonne in the south of France
Looking out over the modern town of Carcasonne from the walls of La Cite

Have you visited Carcassonne, and found any hidden treasures I’m yet to uncover?

The practical bit

We flew direct to Carcassonne from Bournemouth with Ryanair. From the airport, it’s a short bus ride (services run regularly) or taxi to the city centre.

We booked a fantastic apartment (Apartment Massena to be precise) right in the centre of things from the incredibly nice people at Carcassonne Apartments. Beautifully restored and comfortably furnished, it was the perfect base for a week’s stay and only a few minutes walk from the highlights of this small city. It’s located on Rue du Pont Vieux, halfway between la cité and the Ville Basse, and only a minute or two from the river Aude.

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A beginner's guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

A beginners guide to Carcassonne: Medieval magic in the Midi, France

Eating your way around Madrid: One tapas at a time

There are a hundred and one reasons to visit Spain’s elegant, exciting capital city. My favourite? Eating and drinking. From street-food markets to traditional cafeterias, incredible Spanish produce to the sweetest treats there’s something for everyone – and much, much more. Authentic tapas, cafe con leche, market life. Madrid’s a delight for the senses.

Madrid might just be my favourite city to eat in.

There are plenty of other reasons to visit the Spanish capital, and there are plenty of other cities reknown for great food, but there’s something about this place I just love.

It’s informal, it’s fun and it’s delicious.

Eating in Madrid is all about enjoying food with friends, embracing Spanish classics and sampling some of the best quality produce you’ll find anywhere in in Spain. When we spend a few days in this beautiful city last spring, we couldn’t help but stumble across fabulous food wherever we went.

Here’s my guide to off-piste eating in Madrid, one tapas at a time.

But first, coffee.

Madrid’s old fashioned cafeterias

There are are many wonderful breakfast treats to be enjoyed in Spain, from sharp freshness of pan con tomate to pillow-like tortilla. But the most indulgent of all is a plate of steaming hot churros straight from the the fryer, accompanied by a cup of thick, dark chocolate and a sweet cafe con leche. These crisp little fingers of dough, liberally sprinkled with sugar, taste divine and – for me – will forever taste of Spain.

You can enjoy churros from stands all round the city but nothing beats the authentic way, sat at the bar of a cafeteria on a chromed stool watching the ebb and flow of regulars popping by for their morning coffee. These little cafes can be found all across the city, and whilst they might not always be glamorous they’re about as real as it gets.

Coffee at La Bicicleta cafe, Madrid, Spain

La Bicicleta

Don’t be put off if you’re not on two wheels, and the names on the wall don’t mean anything to you. This charming cafe may just be the answer to every cycling fan’s dreams, but it’s also home to the best coffee I tasted in Madrid. Pitching itself as a cafe/workspace/bar it’s actually a cosy bar and lounge with a menu that leaves the mind boggling (Lance Armstrong sandwich anyone?).

We popped in for morning coffee a few times – it’s a wonderful place to idly sit in the front window and watch the world go by in the little square outside – and on an evening for beers. Whether you happen to be a pro-cycling enthusiast (less likely) or just a lover of coffee (more likely), I’d rate La Bicicletta as one of my favourite stops in Madrid.

La Bicicleta, Plaza de San Ildefonso, 9, 28004, Madrid

Best for authentic Spanish groceries

Mercado San Anton

If you want to sample Spanish delicacies and pick up some of the highest-quality produce you can find in Madrid, you’ll love the San Anton market. Spread across several floors with a central atrium, the building alone is a good reason to visit. You’ll find delicatessens on the first floor, regional tapas from around Spain on the second and a rooftop restaurant on the third. We stopped here for tapas and a drink, and wished we had a kitchen to enjoy more of the mouthwatering cured meats, cheeses and rainbow-coloured vegetables on display.

Mercado San Anton, Calle de Augusto Figueroa, 24B, 28004 Madrid

Mercado San Anton in Madrid, Spain

Mercado de la Paz

Situated in the upmarket district of Salamanca, la Paz is a taste of authentic Spanish market life. It’s packed with stalls selling every imaginable grocery as well as great value cafes and bars. It’s not instagram-worthy and it’s not tourist-friendly (we had to practice our best Spanish here) but it is a wonderful slice of real-life, real food. Towards the back you’ll find a little cafe specialising in empañadas. Now I’m not entirely sure what was in mine, but they tasted heavenly – so if you find yourself nearby and hungry, it’s well worth stopping by.

Mercado de la Paz, Calle de Ayala, 28, 28001 Madrid

Best for tapas

Mercado de San Miguel

Just a few moments walk from Plaza Mayor, you’ll find this beautiful building. Recently restored, the brick archways are packed with high-end food stalls, stylish tapas bars and seductive cafes and patisseries. Yes, it attracts much of the tourist crowd, but don’t let this put you off as it’s still a delight for the senses. Head here early in the morning or later in the day to miss the crowds and sample some of the diverse tapas on offer.

Mercado de San Miguel, near Plaza Mayor, 28005, Madrid

Mercado de San Miguel Madrid Spain

Mercado de San Ildefonso

Our absolute favourite. Less traditional, more street food market slash entertainment space. Once you’re up the stairs, the market opens out into large entertainment space, with little tapas stalls forming a perimeter around the central area packed with tables.

It’s best on an evening when you can enjoy a beer or two, take your time to try different tapas cooked fresh in front of you and take in the atmosphere and entertainment. When we visited, we were delighted/amused/confused (in equal measure) by a stand-up comedy night taking place in the central space whilst we devoured endless plates of jamon, brochettes and more.

Mercado de San IldefonsoCalle de Fuencarral, 57, 28004, Madrid

Mercado San Ildefonso street food market in Madrid, Spain

Calle Baja, La Latina district

When we weren’t eating our way through the delights of Madrid’s markets, you could find us on Cala Baja in La Latina district. This area has a reputation for being the one of the best spots for tapas in Madrid and we couldn’t begin to find a reason to disagree.

The busy street is packed full of bars, ranging from the slightly touristy to the very local. We found some great little places – the sort with nowhere to sit down and packed with locals – and we’d happily go back to time and time again. Pick the right place and the beers are cold, your tapas is free (and delicious), and the atmosphere lively.

Calle Baja, 28005, Madrid

Tapas in Calle Baja, Madrid, Spain

We didn’t head to Madrid with the intention of making our trip an edible adventure – but it’s hard not to when there are incredible places to eat and mouthwatering displays of produce around every corner. The real joy of the Spanish capital is breaking free from restaurants where we might otherwise have eaten and seeking busy little bars, old-fashioned cafes and cavernous markets. It’s a little bit exciting, a lot of fun and whole lot of delicious.

Where are your favourite places to eat off the beaten path?

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Eating your way around Madrid, Spain: One tapas at a time | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Eating your way around Madrid: One tapas at a time

With special thanks for my ever-patient travelling partner and other half @benrunsuk for sharing some of the photos above.

8 ways to make the most of your travel budget

Whatever your budget, I’ve got 8 tips to help you make the most of your trip – and make travelling and experiencing a new location easier and more enjoyable.

Travelling can be expensive, there’s no bones about it.

The good news is that this doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of ways to make sure you’re getting the best value for money.

Being able to travel often is a balance of finding ways to get away that don’t cost the earth and being willing to explore off the beaten track.  A budget trip doesn’t mean going without, rather it’s all about trying new things, getting out of your comfort zone and learning what the locals love.  Some of my best travel memories come from discoveries we’ve made over the years that we might have missed if we’d opted for the easy (and more expensive) option.

As it’s always better to share, I thought I’d put pen to paper and offer my favourite ways to make the most of travelling on a budget.  Here’s my top eight;

1. Be flexible with travel times

Think outside the box when it comes to when you want to travel. My other half is a teacher, so we’re often limited to school holidays – which can be pricier, especially when it comes to getting away to the sun. Our solution? Make the most of less popular times of year to travel. We love visiting northern Europe in the autumn half term, which usually falls at the end of October. Flights are cheap, cities are less crowded and you can enjoy the stunning displays of copper-coloured foliage that this time of year brings.

Make the most of off-season prices in June and September and delight in exploring without the crowds if you want to head to southern Europe. April and May are fantastic for city breaks as you can spend all day on your feet without sweltering or needing to pack your thermals. And try to book well in advance to make sure you get the best prices.

Want more suggestions for off-season travel? Try my city guides to Vienna and Bratislava for some autumnal inspiration.

Bratislava, Slovakia, city skyline

2. Bag a bottle

Something that stacks up pretty quick when you’re away? Bottled water. A few Euro here and there on every trip soon adds up. If you’re happy with tap water, grab yourself a travel bottle and top up for free in hotels and airports to save a pretty penny (that I like to consider a contribution to my beer and pastry fund). I’m obsessed with my Platypus bottle that has traipsed around Europe with me for the past couple of years. It folds completely flat and rolls up to squeeze in a handbag or pocket when empty, but can hold enough to keep me hydrated on a day’s hiking.

Platypus collapsible water bottle

3. Ah, the Easyjet cheap flight finder

Not limited exclusively to Easyjet – most budget airlines have online tools to help you find their best value flights. If you know when you want to travel, use a cheap flight finder to pick your travel dates and set your departure airport – then let it suggest the best value for money flights available at that time.

It’s a novel way to solve the age old problem of “where should we go next?” and can throw up some suggestions you might never have otherwise thought of.

Find the Easyjet cheap flight finder here, Ryanair route map here and Norwegian’s low fare calendar here.

Wing of Ryanair aircraft

4. Don’t pay for baggage!! (unless you can help it)

Max out your hand luggage, and carry everything with you if you can. It might not work for everyone, or for longer trips, but you might surprise yourself with how much can be carried in your hand luggage allowance (check with your airline first, as this can vary).

If you need to take more, consider buddying up with your travel companions (easier, admittedly, with a partner than with mates) to share the allowance for checked in bags. Share a suitcase half and half – and remember that for most airlines you can carry up to 20kg, which coupled with your hand baggage allowance might be more than enough.

5. Plan your whole journey

I love an irresistibly cheap flight. But before you get overexcited and grab your wallet, take a few minutes to plan your whole journey, including the cost of travel to the airport and parking if necessary.

It might cost more to fly from your local airport, but if you can get there by public transport, or get a lift (and offer lifts in return to your kindly lift-giver) you might find your travel costs far less overall.

Don’t forget to consider alternative travel options too – Eurostar, long-distance coaches, and road trips by boat or Eurotunnel can be amazingly good value. And slow travel can be a fantastic way to soak up the atmosphere and see more of the world as you travel along at ground level.

6. The best things in life are free

I know, it sounds cliché. But it’s so true. Exploring the streets of Paris? Free. Watching the sun set over the Mediterranean in Korcula? Free. Meandering around the canals of Bruges? Free. I could go on.

I love to walk and get a feel for a place more than checking into museums and attractions. But if that’s more your cup of tea than mine, it pays to do your research. Many museums and galleries in London are free, the Prado in Madrid is free provided you arrive after 6pm, or 5pm Sunday (it’s a great way to spend an hour or two before seeking out drinks and tapas) and if you’re under 26 or a student (it’s always worth carrying your student card with you) you’ll find you’re entitled to a discount in most continental galleries and museums. Check prices and opening hours in advance and work out how to squeeze in a visit at the right time.

Gamla Stan - the old town of Stockholm, Sweden

7. Don’t dismiss hostels

The budget traveller’s friend, hostels often can’t be beaten if you’re looking for a bed for a bargain price.

But don’t underestimate them if you don’t fancy spending your trips in a packed dorm full of snoring Australian’s on a gap year.

Some of the larger hostel chains, such as Generator, now offer high-quality accommodation in locations that can’t be beaten. There’s dorms if that’s your thing, larger private rooms that are ideal if you’re travelling with a group of friends or private, ensuite double rooms that are great for couples or families. I like the laid back atmosphere, the friendly staff and no-fuss approach of hostels which feels perfect for shorter trips.

My favourites? Generator in Paris can’t be beaten for quality, no-frills accommodation in a city where the hotel market is decidedly dicey. And for tapas lovers, the Oasis Hostal Toledo, Spain, has a secret roof terrace with stunning views, lovely cafe next door and beautiful double rooms with French windows opening onto the cobbled street outside.

Find out more about where you can find these views in my guide to 24 hours in Toledo.

View from Oasis Hostal Toledo in Spain

8. Branch out for breakfast

If you’re booking hotels through a comparison site, such as booking.com, chances are you’ll be able to choose whether or not to include breakfast in your booking.

Now, if you’re staying in a more expensive location, and can manage three plates of food before 9am, book the breakfast! Fill yourself up and save on snacks later. My personal record: four full plates in the Comfort Hotel Malmö, a stunning hotel in Sweden’s glorious third city, that included hot options and hot waffles.

But, if you’re in southern Europe, think twice before you click ‘add’. For the 5 or 6 Euro it’ll cost for a hotel buffet, you could enjoy a coffee sitting on a sun-drenched cafe terrace watching the local market set up, and follow it with an irresistible buttery pastry from the bakery down the road. It’ll probably cost you less too.

Emmerys bakery for breakfast in Copenhagen, Denmark

If you’re visiting central and eastern Europe, supermarkets tend to be considerably cheaper than at home and we’ve enjoyed going to town on juices, granola and fruit for little more than a euro or two a day. It’s a great choice if you’re staying in an airbnb, and even better if you’ve got a terrace you can eat it on.

Rookie error: Don’t carry a bag of granola around Croatia for a week. You’ll be finding bits of granola in your clothes for weeks to come. I learned the hard way…

So there’s my eight top tips for making the most of travelling on a budget.  What are your suggestions?  Have you found any fantastic things to do for free, or recommend any great budget options?

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8 ways to make the most of your travel budget

Twenty four hours in Toledo: A city guide

Less than an hour from the Spanish capital, Madrid, there’s fortified town crying out to be explored.  With winding cobbled streets, majestic churches, rugged countryside and authentic tapas, it’s a perfect for an overnight stay.  My travel guide shows you what to do, and most importantly, where to eat.

Spring has well and truely sprung this week in southern England.

I love this time of year.  Warmer days, brisk April showers, longer evenings, trees bursting forth into leaf and blossom dusting the pavements of my hometown.  It’s a beauty to watch the transformation a little sunlight and warmth can bring.

Last year, Easter fell this week and we headed south to Spain for a few days.  The magnolias were in bloom, the trees lush with fresh new foliage and skies blue.  It was the perfect antidote to the grey winter months we were only just leaving behind.

We spent a couple of nights in Madrid (you can read our visit in Eating your way around Madrid: One tapas at a time) before jumping on the train to medieval Toledo for our last two days.  Baking in the spring sunshine beside the river, and within the old stone walls, Toledo seemed glorious.  Although we only spent twenty four hours in this little slice of Spanish history, I couldn’t have been happier that I picked this location for our last night.

So, if you’re looking for some spring delight, you’ve found it here.  It’s my guide to exploring the fortified town of Toledo, one tapas at a time.

Tell me about Toledo

Toledo is a ancient yet lively walled town situated in the region of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain.  It’s only half an hour from central Madrid by train, making it the perfect addition to a trip to the Spanish capital.

The station alone makes quite the architectural statement, with nods to the some the Moorish style buildings you’ll find within the town.  But, situated a little way from both the newer town and historic walled centre, it feels quite an innocuous arrival.  Follow the signs from the station and you’ll be wondering what the fuss is all about for a moment.  There’s a main road and some modern buildings in the distance, but nothing to write home about.  Suddenly the road bears round to the left and the old town, in all it’s glory, arrives in front of you perched above the river on a rocky outcrop.

Getting into the old town means crossing an ancient fortified bridge, then trekking up a couple of narrow, stone walled alleys.  There are easier ways to do it (look out for the extraordinary sight of escalators criss-crossing the outer walls in places), but they’re not quite as fun.  Eventually you’ll arrive in the centre of town, in the Plaza de Zocodover.

Old streets of Toledo, Spain

At this point in your journey, you’ll have to accept that Toledo – even out of season – is a very popular tourist destination, especially for coach trippers staying in, or visiting, nearby Madrid.  We arrived at midday and were slightly dismayed to find that the square was packed full of school kids and chain restaurants that contradicted the fabulous entrance we’d experienced.  But don’t let this put you off.  And let me share our secret for making the most of a visit to this little town.  Stay for the night!  As the sun goes down, the crowds melt away and a new-old city emerges – atmospheric, alive with locals and full of quiet corners to enjoy a few drinks and tapas.

Where to explore in Toledo during the day

Head outside the city walls when the streets are packed.  Our favourites? Exploring the riverside footpaths encircling the city, and Toledo’s Roman past.

Take a walk along the river

From the Puente de Alcantara you can get down onto a waterside path that tracks around the old town.  It gives you a different perspective on the town – you’ll see views you just won’t find by road, and stumble across unexpected picnic spots and pretty houses aplenty.

The Rio Tajo in Toledo, Spain

Follow the path to the Puente de San Martin (a bridge that’s worth a visit in it’s own right, for it’s panoramic views) and cross over, away from the old town.  Take a left turn and head up the hill for a couple hundred metres.  On your left you’ll see a signpost and path leading to the chapel of La Cabeza.  From here, you can look down on old Toledo from a completely different angle – it’s a great way to get a feel for where the largest, monumental buildings sit within the walls.

View of Toledo from La Cabeza chapel

Take a walk back in time

Toledo began life as an Roman trading town, with strategic importance at the centre of the Iberian peninsula.  It was a focal point for the many farming communities that surrounded it, and sported as it’s pièce-de-resistance a phenomenal arena or ‘circus’ that hosted sporting events and markets with crowds tens of thousands strong.  Incredibly, substantial parts of this vast structure still remain, peppering a little park that’s sandwiched between the new and old town.  They give clues to the vastness of the arena – as well as it’s impregnable construction.

Roman amphitheatre in Toledo Spain

Where to explore in Toledo on a evening

The early evening is the perfect time to stroll the cities meandering streets.  Pop your head inside cavernous churches, soak up the sun with a beer or two in a streetside cafe, and seek out hidden squares and courtyards tucked away within the old city walls.

Sunset over city rooftops in Toledo, Spain

Take in the monumental buildings of Toledo – the Alcazar, the Cathedral, the many churches – like the locals do, on an evening stroll.  And with gift shops and tourist cafes shuttered up for the day, look out for signs of life that have remained unchanged for decades, even centuries.  Hand-painted signs on the rendered exterior of town houses hint at the traditional industries and trades that have contributed to Toledo’s wealth and success over the years.   Pretty little trees in blossom bore signs of the summer that was to come.

Hand-painted signs in Toledo, Spain

Where to explore in Toledo on an early morning

This little Spanish city is especially magical first thing in the morning when the streets are quiet, but the sun gives Toledo and the surrounding hillsides and plains a glow you won’t see once it’s fully risen.  Get up early and circumnavigate the city walls at first light, and enjoy the fresh air by the river.  It’s a wonderful place to run, if that’s your thing.  Or enjoy breakfast whilst watching the world go by from an old-fashioned cafe – tasty suggestions coming up.

Rio Tajo in Toledo Spain

Where to eat and drink in Toledo

Toledo is a curious place.  As it metamorphoses from day to night, the somewhat generic restaurants and eateries packing the main square largely disappear as the evening approaches.  It makes finding food more of a challenge, but I like a challenge.  Fortunately, Toledo doesn’t fall short and there’s plenty to find if you’re willing to explore.

If cooking is your thing, head straight to Calle Coliseo (better earlier in the day than later) to scout out the traditional market that’s home to butchers, grocers, pescaterias and a handy supermarket.  You won’t find better for authentic ingredients in town, and it makes a good stop if you want to grab a few indulgent essentials for a picnic lunch or breakfast.

If you’re hoping for someone else to do the hard work in the kitchen, make like a local and head to the Mercado de San Augustin just off Calle Silleria.  More of a streetfood market, this recently renovated building is home to a handful of bars and restaurants across three floors offering up tapas, drinks and more on an evening.  We found it packed with students (Toledo has a university campus nearby, and students are usually a good sign of fun and inexpensive food) forming a great long queue at Show Burguer.  Not wanting to miss out, we joined the queue and tucked into gourmet burgers topped with local specialities.

As the night was still young, we meandered our way through the warm streets looking for somewhere to quench our thirst.  We happily stumbled across La Maquerida de la Trinidad on the corner of Calle Trinidad.  Charmed by the looks of it’s cosy interior, we retreated inside to enjoy a few beers and some of the most delicious complementary tapas I’ve ever enjoyed.  Just don’t tell the owner we’d already eaten – we were enjoying woofing down delicious mouthfuls of homemade tortilla and little pinxos.

Lastly, if there is one meal I love most in Spain, it’s breakfast.  We popped to the charming La Papa next door to our hostel to fill our boots.  The very reasonably priced €3.50 ‘energetica’ breakfast left me comfortably full of pan con tomate, tostada and tortilla, and their cafe con leches tasted as good as any I’d savoured in Madrid’s more upmarket coffee shops.

Where to stay in Toledo

I can’t recommend the hostel where we stayed in Toledo enough.  Even if you think you’re not into hosteling, think twice before you decide this gem isn’t for you! (and I don’t use exclamation marks lightly).  The Oasis Hostel Toledo was simple but perfect.  The central location is fabulous, and our room was comfortable, beautifully presented and had two rather-romantic french doors looking out onto the sleepy street below.

Oh, and the best bit?  This view from the roof terrace;

View from Oasis Hostal Toledo in Spain

A private room with en-suite came in at just under €50 per night (for two guests) in April.  The stunning views? Priceless.

The verdict

Toledo is worth a day of any traveller’s time, with it’s wealth of history, charming streets, sleepy cafes and panoramic views. But to see the real Toledo, time your trip right. Soak up the morning sun as the city slowly comes to life. Sip a cold beer and nibble tapas outside a cafe as the sun sinks golden below the spires and rooftops of this ancient town.  And step beyond the streets well-trodden to see signs of centuries of life in this atmospheric little place you’ll be glad you discovered.

Have you visited Toledo? What hidden gems did you stumble across?

The practical bit

We flew to Madrid in April 2016 with Easyjet and travelled to Toledo by train with Renfe, the Spanish rail network, from Madrid’s Atocha Station.  A return ticket cost €20.60.

Our bed for the night was at the beautiful Oasis Hostal Toledo, one of the most recommendable hostels I’ve ever had the pleasure of staying in.

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24 hours in Toledo, Spain: A city guide | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

24 hours in Toledo,, Spain: A city guide

Dublin in a weekend: A city break at the heart of the Emerald Isle

Dublin is a crowd pleaser when it comes to weekend breaks – it’s great value, architecturally beautiful and astonishingly good fun.  Whether you’re looking to soak up the local culture, explore the fantastic selection of eateries and restaurants or want to catch a breath of fresh air by the sea, the Irish capital has it all.

Choosing the perfect location for a weekend break can be hard.

As you start juggling travel time, convenience and cost amongst other things, you can pretty quickly realise you’ve killed the magic by picking a location just because it was practical.

Fortunately, I think we’ve found the answer to the question “Where’s fun and easy to visit in a weekend?”.  It’s Dublin: a compact city packed full of culture, good craic and glorious architecture that’s also less than an hours flight from London.  There’s a plethora of airlines flying daily to the Irish capital from airports large and small across the UK and Europe – and you’re right in the thick of things as soon as you arrive.  With no long transfers or complicated transport networks to negotiate you can crack straight on with the job of enjoying yourself.

We headed across the Irish Sea for a long weekend at the end of February and surprised ourselves with how much fun (and good food) you can squeeze into three days.  So, jump on board with my city guide as I show you how to spend 48 hours on the Emerald Isle – where to go, what to do and what to eat in Dublin.

Day 1:  Barbecues, Temple Bar and the river Liffey

We spent our first day getting to know central Dublin, and the banks of the river Liffey.

After checking into our hotel we crossed the Ha’Penny bridge (a pretty wrought iron number that is one of several pedestrian bridges spanning the river) and headed to Temple Bar.  It’s a good place to start exploring, with inviting cobbled streets and bustling venues whatever time of day you arrive.  Ignore it’s reputation as party central (unless you’re here just for the craic, in which case dive straight in) if that’s not your thing, as the Georgian buildings, cafes and restaurants makes it worth a wander.

From here, it’s an easy stroll to some of Dublin’s central landmarks that are worth a look – St. Patrick’s cathedral with it’s formal gardens, St. Stephen’s Green (a centrepoint in Ireland’s political history) and the graceful quadrangle of Trinity College, Ireland’s oldest university.  Grafton Street leads you back towards Temple Bar along the city’s main thoroughfare, a busy shopping street with plenty of places to grab a coffee (or a doughnut at the Rolling Donut – you won’t be able to resist) if you need a bit of sustenance.

View of the docklands along the river Liffey, Dublin

If you’ve not had enough of pounding the pavements, head out of the centre and along the river a little way.  The docklands have seen substantial redevelopment over the last fifteen years, and striking modern offices and apartments jostle for space between renovated warehouses along the waterfront.  Follow the northern bank of the river and pause for a moment to take in the famine memorial, a poignant reminder of a heart-breaking period in Ireland’s history.  Cross over the eyecatching Sean O’Casey bridge and explore the Grand Canal basin, keeping your eyes peeled for some great murals along the way.

Running wolf mural along the river Liffey in Dublin, Ireland

Now, if you’re like us, you’re probably pretty hungry by this time.  It might seem tempting to head to Temple Bar or retreat to somewhere close to your hotel if you’re after something to eat.  Instead, go a little further south of the river to the area around St. Georges Street and George Street Arcade to find a cornucopia of cafes and restaurants.  You’ll be spoilt for choice, because if there’s one thing Dublin knows how to do it’s amazing food.

We made a beeline for the highly recommended – and highly recommendable – Pitt Bros BBQ.  It’s one of those magic places that you know must be good, because you can’t make reservations and service ends “when the meat runs out”.  It’s a cracker of a restaurant, serving up barbecue favourites with succulent sides and an imaginative drinks menu.  We opted to try the  Pitt Bros. original ribs and the St. Louis ribs with a bucketload of sides, and tucked in for a feast.  We loved it.  And, as if it couldn’t get any better, once we finally finished our plates we got to go and help ourselves to a big old Mr Whippy from the in-house ice cream machine.  What more could a girl want?

Pitt Bros. BBQ in Dublin, Ireland
Pitt Bros. BBQ in Dublin

After dinner, stroll the streets awhile to get feel for Dublin alive at night.  Dublin castle is particularly picturesque lit up, but lets be honest. You’re going to want to head to a pub.  We nipped into the Brazen Head, allegedly the city’s oldest pub, to nurse a pint by the fire.  I hate to admit it but it felt a little packed full of tourists and lacking in atmosphere.  So we embraced a little of Temple Bar spirit for the rest of night, ending up more through luck than judgement in the quirky Buskers on the ball.  Walk through the doors and into the basement to discover it’s definitely not your average watering hole.  Instead it’s quite wonderfully home to a vast number of table tennis, fussball and air hockey tables in place of your average bar furniture.  Grab a drink, challenge your travelling companions to a game and enjoy – we thought it was great.

Day 2:  Brunch, botanicals and stand-up comedy

We got going on day two with brunch at the Art Cafe, nestled under railway arches to the north of the river.  A little way out from the centre it meant fantastic value for money, with hearty food and plentiful tea and coffee for less than €7 per head.

Art Cafe in Dublin, Ireland
Art Cafe, Dublin

Art Cafe features an ever-changing collection of works from local artists.  But it doesn’t stop here.  If you’re here on a Sunday morning like us, head over to Merrion Square for art by the armful.  The railings around the outside of this pretty garden become an impromptu gallery once a week where local artists display prints and original pieces for sale.  It’s a great way to see to see Dublin and the Irish landscape through the eyes of some wonderfully creative sorts.

If the weather has got the better of you, don’t despair, explore the delightful Dublin City Gallery instead.  Behind the picturesque Georgian townhouse facade you’ll find an impressive collection that includes stunning local works, Impressionist masterpieces and the Francis Bacon studio, dedicated to one of the city’s most famous sons.  It’s also free of charge, so it’s a worthwhile trip even if you’re tight for time.

With a full day to play with, take the opportunity to explore a little farther out from the city centre.  Looking for a little splash of spring on a cloudy winters afternoon, we optimistically headed to the National Botanic Gardens, about 3 miles north of the river.

Bird of paradise in the National Botanic Gardens, Dublin

Even when the weather’s not on your side you can potter to your hearts content around the graceful glasshouses, the sweeping lawns or explore the native woodland.  Look out for the collections of tropical plants and orchids on a grey day, or warm up with a brew in the cafe just inside the gates.  The palm houses were a joy (and a good place to warm up!).

Having trekked a fair few miles over the course of the day (we walked to the Botanic Gardens, which I wouldn’t recommend unless you’re feeling pretty intrepid.  There’s helpfully a bus that will do the hard work for you), we decided that we’d earned ourselves some afternoon tea.  Brother Hubbard was a chance to get to know Capel Street, with it’s brightly coloured buildings and eclectic mix of shops, as well as what might be the best scones known to man.  Pop in for a ganache hot chocolate (yup, that tastes as good as it sounds) and stay for a cheeky slice of cake, brunch or dinner.  It may be a little on the upmarket side, but the cosy atmosphere and fabulous aromas make it worth the while.

Umbrellas on display in Temple Bar, Dublin

We meandered back into the thick of things as darkness started to fall.  Close to George Street Arcade you’ll find Jo’Burger – the sort of place dreams are made of after a long day on your feet.  We retreated into the warmth to fill ourselves with juicy burgers topped with magical combinations: mushroom, cheese and bacon for Mr, sweet beetroot and horseradish for me.  Oh, and trust me when I say try the lemonade.  Their home-made citrus-y combinations are ridiculously good, and the lime and ginger was winner for us.  All in all, another thoroughly recommendable spot to eat that promised and delivered delicious food.

To finish off our day, we had one of life’s lucky moments.  There are plenty of things we plan when we travel, and plenty that we don’t.  Sometimes we just go for a wander and see what we find.  Fancying an after-dinner drink we found ourselves in the Stags Head in Temple Bar, a stunning building with an old fashioned bar and stained glass windows.  This in itself made it a good find.  What we hadn’t banked on was discovering that they host free stand-up comedy gigs every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday night in their basement.

One thing led to another (or one drink led to another, something like that) and we ended up spending our evening with a front row seat for some of Ireland’s best comedians.  I couldn’t recommend it enough.  We laughed, drank, laughed even more, and somehow managed to get a free ice cream, again.  If you’re in Dublin don’t miss The Comedy Crunch – it’s wonderful!

Day 3: Cafes, coast paths and chippies

We wanted to venture a little way out of the city on our last day.  As with any good plan, it started with a good breakfast – this time at The Woollen Mills, close to Ha’Penny Bridge.  This cafe is a Dublin institution, even if it’s hipster interior belies it.  We tucked into huge plates of delicious food over a morning cuppa and watched the world go by outside.

Breakfast at The Woolen Mills, Dublin
Breakfast at the Woollen Mills, Dublin

Suitably filled, we headed to Tara Street station and hopped on a train to Howth.  Less than half an hour away from the city centre, Howth is a pretty fishing village perched on a windswept peninsula, looking out across the Irish Sea.  Dubliners love this place and it’s not hard to see why.  The colourful terraced houses, restored waterfront warehouses now home to fish restaurants and oyster bars, the views across to water to the pretty little offshore island of Ireland’s Eye: it’s everything you’d hope to find by the sea.

Happily, there are miles and miles of coastal path leading to, from and around Howth.  We occupied a pleasant, if a little windy, couple of hours exploring the coastline and taking in the views across the water.

Sea views from Howth near Dublin, Ireland

Contented after a few hours of walking, we warmed ourselves up with chips on the seafront before returning to the quaint little station.

If you can squeeze in time, make sure that you’ve explored the area around St. Georges Street by day before you leave.  Georges Street Arcade is a fabulous brick and iron structure packed with quirky shops and market stalls and some fantastic places to grab a bite to eat if you’re about to make a dash to the airport.  We stopped at Lolly And Cooks for homemade takeaway hotpot (divine) and to gaze longingly at their sweet treats – a happy end to a happy trip.

St. Georges Arcade, Dublin
Pretty cafes and florists dotted outside the entrance to Georges Street Arcade

Have you visited Dublin?  Let me know your recommendations – and what you’d include in a travel guide for this happy city.

The practical bit

We flew to Dublin with Ryanair in February for less than £30 per person – proof that great value flights are out there!  From Dublin airport it’s an easy bus ride on the Airlink Express into the heart of things.  A return ticket cost €10 and appears to be open-ended.

Normally, I’d let you know where we stayed – but we didn’t love the place and therefore it wouldn’t feel right.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a comfortable enough roof over our heads on Lower Gardiner Street, but I’d love to hear your suggestions if you’ve visited Dublin and found somewhere great to stay.  Hotel?  Hostel?  What would you recommend?

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Dublin, Ireland in a weekend: a city guide | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Dublin in a weekend: A city break at the heart of the Emerald Isle