9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France

Whether you’re planning a city break for a few days, or a mountain adventure for a week or more, there’s an incredible variety of things to do around Lake Annecy. Here are my tried-and-tested recommendations for activities that’ll delight all your senses and help you discover hidden alpine gems.

If you’ve read my guide to Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret you’ll know that this beautiful region of alpine France is one of my favourite places to visit in Europe.

What makes it worth returning to? Aside from the awe-inspiring scenery, it’s the sheer variety of things to do. Whether you fancy a city break day or a mountain day, you’ll never be bored here.

So I’ve assembled my ultimate list of nine of the best things to do around Lake Annecy. Consider it a guide to the unmissable and the downright beautiful.

1. Head to Col de la Forclaz for the best panoramic views

There are stunning and ever changing views all around lake Annecy. But if you really want to get a feel for the area there’s no place better than Col de la Forclaz, perched towards the southern end of the lake above Talloires.

Here, at the top, the vista unfolds to include the whole lake, city of Annecy in the distance and Massif des Bauges to the south.

You’ll find a couple of café restaurants, a working alpine dairy farm and a whole lot of cyclists and paragliders at the Col. It’s a mecca for sporty types who like going up mountains, and for those who like jumping off them. There’s a fabulous spot for watching paragliders set sail, and if you’re a keen cyclist there are serious cycle hire centres around the lake (try Basecamp in Talloires for top quality road bikes) that can kit you out for the 10km climb from the lakeside. I tackled it for the first time this year – and it was breathtaking in every sense of the word! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s an irresistible climb if you’re a two-wheeled enthusiast.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy | View of Lake Annecy from Col de la Forclaz, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
View from Col de la Forclaz, towards Annecy in the distance

2. Take to the water

Locals here live for the water. It might not be the first place you’d think of for a beach break but let me persuade you otherwise. Lake Annecy is Europe’s cleanest lake and is home to some of the most idyllic swimming spots I’ve ever found.

If you’re here between June and September, follow the locals and head to the lake the moment the sun comes out.

You’ve got two options – settle down for the day at a beach, or rock up at the side of the lake (quite literally wherever you fancy) and go for a dip – this what you’ll spot the locals doing.

You’ll find a beach in almost every town and village around the lake, with some well-maintained parks with sandy beaches between the old town of Annecy, Sevrier and Saint-Jorioz on the west side of the lake. On the east side of the lake, make a beeline to Talloires. You’ll have a pay a few Euros for entry, by Le Savoyard restaurant, to la plage but it’s more than worthwhile for the extraordinary settling. Imagine a large, shaded park running down to the water, mountains ahead and behind, and a vast expanse of deep blue water opening out ahead of you. It’s pretty darn wonderful. There’s a nice little bar in the chalet at the back of the park, lifeguarded swimming, a diving board and shaded children’s paddling pool – making it popular with families and all ages.

The area’s also hugely popular with watersports enthusiasts, and you’ll find boat, kayak and paddleboard hire around the lake if you fancy exploring on, rather than in, the water.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Talloires bay, Lake Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

3. Explore Annecy by night

Sometimes it’s all about the timing, and I think the evening is hands down the best time to explore the old town of Annecy.

The soft twilight makes the stone buildings glow with jewel-like colours, and the canal twinkles with lights reflecting in the water from the restaurants and bars along its length. Whilst it can be a little challenging to escape the ubiquitous alpine offering of tartiflette (delicious, but not made for mid-summer) there are some great restaurants to be found, as well as old-fashioned bars that spill onto the street where you can people-watch and sip a cool beer as the sun goes down.

Take a stroll around town, grab an ice cream from the Glacier des Alpes (an institution that’s been in business since the 1960’s, and that I’ve frequenting since the early 90’s – it’s that good), and walk down the waterside to enjoy the lights glittering over the lake.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Annecy old town by the river Thiou at dusk | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

4. Enjoy village life

The city might be at the heart of this region, but to really experience Lake Annecy don’t miss exploring some of the smaller towns and villages that punctuate the lakeside.

People have been living and working by the lake for centuries and these lovely little towns reflect the changing lives of the communities over the past half millennium. You’ll find everything from historic abbeys to contemporary marinas, ancient alpine churches to breathtaking bays. It’s a little bit French, a lot alpine and an awful lot friendly.

On the côte ouest, the town of Saint-Jorioz has a glorious terrace that sweeps down from the rustic creamy-coloured stone church to a fantastic turquoise-blue expanse of water, with the jagged peaks of La Tournette ahead and the elegant little château at Duingt to your right.

On the côte est, Talloires and Menthon-Saint-Bernard have a special place in my heart – they were the places I first explored as a child. In Talloires, ancient stone buildings cluster around a spectacular natural bay, fringed with little boats and a vibrant flowers.  Menthon-Saint-Bernard has a lively village square with an unassuming bakery that’s been run by the same family since the 1940’s and makes the most incredible artisan breads and pastries. However it’s the waterside here that’s best, where turn of the century villas sit in rambling gardens running down to the lake. An Art Nouveau hotel looks down over a little patch of park where families and friends gather daily after work and every weekend over the summer, to picnic and pass the time (it also happens to be my favourite, free swimming spot).

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Alpine chalet in Menthon-Saint-Bernard on the edge of Lake Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
I dream of living in this fabulous house in Menthon-Saint-Bernard, overlooking the lake

5. Tackle the Tour du lac

One of the best ways to get to know Lake Annecy is on two wheels.

This region is hugely popular with cyclists, but don’t assume they’re all here to tackle huge mountain climbs. The lakeside is home to a fantastic cycle path that’ll let you explore the villages along the lakeside. And, as a bonus, it’s beautifully flat.

Depending on your enthusiasm and legs, you can cycle the full Tour du lac (do-able in a day at a leisurely pace) or just explore sections. The main path or Voie Vert, is a converted railway line that runs from the centre of Annecy to Doussard at the southern end of the lake, and beyond. From Doussard, it’s more of a patchy route back into Annecy along the east side of the lake (parts are still under construction as of August 2017) but it takes you through yet more pretty villages and past some great swimming spots.

Cyclable Annecy is situated right on the edge of the old town, and is a thoroughly recommendable bike hire shop. I hired one of their standard bikes last year (2016) and was impressed with how well it stood up to our 50 mile day out (I earned my beer at the end of that ride).

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Cycling the Voie Vert cycle path around Lake Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

6. Delight all your senses at Annecy’s market

The old town of Annecy plays host to a market three times a week – on a Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

France is home to many great food markets, but Annecy has to be up there as one of the best. It’s a feast for all the senses, fragrant with fresh produce and cured meats, noisy and bustling with shoppers, cool and shady in the shadows of the narrow cobbled streets. The setting is atmospheric and lively, crowded largely amongst the narrow ancient streets of the old town and spilling onto the flower-draped bridges over the canal.

The market is biggest and busiest on a Sunday. If you’re keen to discover and stock up on alpine produce try a weekday market and arrive early – before 11am – to shop with the locals and enjoy a bit of banter with the store holders. Don’t leave without field-fresh vegetables and Tomme de Montagne or Reblochon cheeses produced on the mountains around the lake.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Annecy market in the old town | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Friday morning market in Annecy is full of sights, sounds, fantastic colours and tastes

7. Hike to your heart’s content

You could spend a lifetime walking and exploring the mountains, woodlands and villages around Lake Annecy and never bore of the ever-changing scenery.

So here’s a starting point: some of my favourites that never fail to delight.

For an afternoon stroll – explore the Roc du Chere between Menthon-Saint-Bernard and Talloires. A protected nature reserve, this rocky outcrop is cool and shady on a summer’s afternoon. There’s a secret path that leads to a viewpoint overlooking the bay of Talloires and a scramble down to the lakeside that’s more adventurous than it first looks.

For a mini-adventure – discover the Cascade d’Angon. A perfect circular walk from Talloires, you’ll climb out of the village on the old road to the church of St Germain, paved in places and loose stone underfoot in others. It weaves through a few small hamlets and then woodland before emerging at outside the church, where you’ll find panoramic views of the southern end of lake. From here, return back to the lakeside through the village of Verel and a wooded path that’ll bring you to the Pont du Fer and cascade – a spectacular gulley of rushing water hewn into the rocky hillside that suddenly gives way to a crashing waterfall.

For the adventurous – clamber up Mont Veyrier for a stunning view over Annecy itself. There are several routes to choose from, of differing difficulty and from diverse starting points. But all promise adventurous climbing and a spectacular moment that’ll take your breath away when you reach the viewpoint.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Mont Veyrier, overlooking Annecy, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
At the top of Mont Veyrier, where you can see the city of Annecy spread out on the plain below

8. Hit the pistes

You’re less than 30 minutes from Les Portes des Aravis ski area here – but don’t assume it’s just for winter visitors. The towns of La Clusaz and Grand Bornand are well worth a visit at any time of year. Aside from the more modern snowsports infrastructure, you’ll find charming village squares, ancient alpine churches and chapels and more mountain cheese than you can shake a stick at.

Spend the day walking amongst the wooded slopes above either towns, indulge all your senses at the Monday morning market in La Clusaz (not as big as Annecy, but featuring many of the same local producers) or head to Col des Aravis to be greeted by spectacular rock formations, glorious herds of grazing alpine cattle and a breathtaking view of Mont Blanc.

Tip:  Try the ridiculously enjoyable summer luge in La Clusaz, which includes a trip up the mountain in a modern cable car (kids and big kids will love it).

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Col des Aravis, near La Clusaz | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Rocky outcrops at Col des Aravis above La Clusaz

9. Watch the sunset over the lake

Very much weather-permitting, my last recommendation is one of the simplest of joys in the Alps. Watch the sun sink behind Annecy in a cacophony of colours. Because my goodness, it’s beautiful. Rather than find words to persuade you, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Sunset over Lake Annecy, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Sun setting over Lake Annecy, France, at the Fete du Lac 2017 | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Watching the sun set over the lake before the start of Fete du Lac, a huge firework spectacular in Annecy held every year in August

Tip:  The sun sets over the west side of the lake – so the best views overlook Mt Semnoz  and Annecy itself. You’ll find great spots to watch the sun sink alongside the lake in Menthon-Saint-Bernard and Veyrier.

Of course there’s much, much more to this vibrant region than this list alone. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and these are great places to begin. Explore, eat, sleep, repeat – it’s a simple recipe to enjoying a stay on the glorious Lake Annecy.

Have you visited Lake Annecy? Let me know your favourite things to do, and any surprise discoveries you’ve made, in the comments below. I might try them out!

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9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

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Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret

There’s a city in the French Alps that crowns an incredible, deep-blue lake. From the lakeside, sweeping mountains rise to rocky peaks grey-green in the sunlight. It’s my favourite place, and I’m going to share it with you.

I didn’t know whether to write this post.  It feels a bit like I’m giving away a family secret, or that at the very least there should be some kind of initiation ceremony before I tell you.  But the whole point of this blog is share my travel secrets with you lovely people, and I’m about to give away my biggest one: My favourite place to escape to in Europe.  And you might just have never heard of it.

I love exploring new places, but there remains a part of me that finds huge pleasure returning to those that have tugged most at my heartstrings.  It’s one thing to enjoy a flying visit, but it’s something else to spend some time really getting to know somewhere.

For me there’s a region that occupies a special place in my heart, that keeps luring me back – Lake Annecy, in the French Alps.

I first arrived in Annecy in 1991, and despite being 5 years old I have incredibly vivid memories of my first trip.  I remember watching the Tour de France whoosh by us on a roadside – a travelling carnival of anticipation followed by a blur of cyclists – I saw soaring mountains for the first time and I paddled tentatively in the lake fresh from my first swimming certificate.  The colour and warmth of the place stayed with me.

Since then, I can’t count how many times I’ve returned, both with my family as I grew up and more recently with my other half.  Each visit adds to a rich patchwork of memories and a greater understanding of, and love for, this region.  I’ve followed new paths, explored new towns and relived my favourite places.  And as I do, the magic grows.

So here’s my ode to one of France’s most beautiful cities and one of Europe’s most breathtaking landscapes.  I think you’re going to like it.

Lake Annecy, France's best-kept secret | River Thiou, Annecy | Travel guide | City guide| Girl with a saddle bag blog

Let me introduce you to Lake Annecy

Annecy is the largest town in the alpine department of Haute-Savoie in eastern France.  It sits at the top of a lake 14 km long, which is the third largest in France and the cleanest in Europe.  Whilst the surrounding peaks are tipped with snow in winter, it remains relatively mild at the lakeside until the summer sun beckons in warm, dry weather more akin to the Mediterranean than mountainsides.

Lake Annecy and it’s mountainous surroundings are the most spectacular outdoor playground for those who love walking, cycling, swimming, sailing, running, paragliding, skiing, paddleboarding… in short, for those of us who love exploring and love dramatic landscapes.  For most people who come to visit, this is what brings them here – but it’s also what keeps a smile on the face of the locals you meet.

Go beyond the lake and you’ll find one of France’s lesser-known but most beautiful cities.  You’ll also find lakeside towns and villages where old and new comfortably rub shoulders, where old farming traditions remain an integral part of village life but outdoor sports enthusiasts and campers are welcomed with open arms. Sit in Café de la Place in Menthon-Saint-Bernard nursing a noisette and ponder whether you could find a more perfectly French spot to pass the morning.  It’s a region that’s moving with the times, but it’s not worried that the ancient charms of alpine life will be lost – they’re very much still alive here.

In Annecy you don’t need to compromise.  You can enjoy the delights and comforts of a city, with ancient streets to explore and cosmopolitan Geneva just around the corner.  You’ve also got the great outdoors on your doorstep, at it’s grandest scale.  But mystifyingly, word hasn’t spread far.  Annecy is popular with French holidaymakers – and reasonably well-known in Northern Europe.  But mention Annecy in the UK and you’ll normally hear “Where?” in return.  Search online and you’ll find little more in the English language than some of France’s most unassuming little towns.  It’s still a region for those in the know – and that’s a part of its charm.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | View of lake Annecy from the old church at St. Germain | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

The city of Annecy

There are two parts to the city of Annecy:  the medieval streets of the old town that lap against the shores of the lake, and the modern, vibrant city that’s alive with culture and people.

The ancient thoroughfares of the old town cluster around the River Thiou – a rushing body of turquoise water that’s bridged by wrought iron beauties heavy with colourful flowers. The pastel facades of buildings hint at the city’s alpine location – wooden balconies peek out from upper floors, stone arcades hint at crisp winter weather and rooftops starts to look a little chalet-like – but they’d look equally at home in the Languedoc or Provence.

There’s also plenty to keep you occupied beyond the charming corners of the cobble-stoned vieille ville. If history is your thing, there’s a majestic little castle perched above the town, the Palais de l’Isle – an ancient prison situated mid-stream of the Thiou, and a smattering of Italianate churches that look especially good lit up an night.  But I’d recommend experiencing Annecy like a local.

Come into town early and pick up a breakfast pastry at Marmillon on Rue Sainte-Claire (or try one of their magnificent homemade praline meringues).  Then get a flavour for the award-winning local produce at the thrice-weekly street market, and watch the hustle and bustle of a quintessentially French spectacle over a coffee.  Pick a restaurant a little way off the main street or alongside one of the little canals for dinner, and savour alpine flavours.  And for a truely magical end to the day, stroll the Jardins de l’Europe to the lakeside and the Pont des Amours, and watch the lights dancing on the water.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Buildings along the river Thiou in Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

The lake

The lake is the living, breathing heart of this region.  And whilst every alpine lake has a spectacular, raw beauty, there’s something extra-special about Lake Annecy.

First, it feels almost impossible to escape views of the water.  It seems like wherever you look, vistas open up that capture it’s magic from a slightly different angle.  The colours of the water, the reflections on its surface, its setting in this spellbinding landscape – it all changes as you move and look upon the water from different places.

Secondly, embrace the lake like a local (it won’t take long to resist).  If there is one thing the locals love to do, it’s be in, on or next to the water.  The lakeside beaches are glorious emerald green expanses of grass gently sloping down to the water, packed with picnickers and paddlers, serious swimmers and sunbathers every single day from early June to late September.  In every village you’ll find moorings and slipways for boats and on a breezy day the lake swarms with yachts and dinghys.  Paddle boards and kayaks are an everyday entertainment.  The beautifully clean and clear water is an irresistible temptation the moment the sun is out.  Here it’s not just about looking at the lake – it’s all about enjoying it.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Lake in summer | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

The mountains

The mountains around Lake Annecy are alpine, but not high alpine.  Approaching from the north (as most visitors do), you’ll meander through a landscape of rolling hills and valleys.  But nothing aside from the altitude change hints at your alpine approach.  It’s not until you’ve navigated your way through the city streets and appear, all of a sudden, at the lakeside that you’ll see any big peaks.  But when you do, it takes your breath away for a moment. Every time.

These beautiful creatures rise into the distance from the town of Annecy: to the north is largely alluvial plain, but each side of the lake is capped with majestic peaks – not as high as some of their southern and eastern cousins – but no less awe-inspiring.  The western side, côte ouest, is generally less explored, but miss it and you’ll miss the imposing Mt. Semnoz.  It’s a hiker’s and cyclist’s dream with unmissable views from the alpine meadows at its peak on a clear day.

It’s the eastern side of the lake, côte est, that’s home to the biggest peaks and the most challenging walking and climbing.  The rocky outcrops of La Tournette and the jagged teeth of the Dents de Lanfon dominate the skyline and attract some serious climbers as well as alpine wildlife.  There’s walking aplenty in the luscious evergreen woodland of the foothills of these peaks, whilst the high alpine meadows above blossom with a rainbow of wildflowers in the late spring and early summer.

Lake Annecy, France's best-kept secret | Lake Annecy at dusk | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Annecy is all about contrasts and complements, city streets and rugged mountain peaks.  And whichever you prefer, there’s no escaping the mesmerising waters of the lake.  For someone like me who finds it hard to make a call between the wild beauty of rural France and energy of a city break, this region is the perfect compromise – and one that has kept me coming back for nearly 25 years.  I’m ready to go back again already… do you want join me?

If I’ve piqued your curiosity about Lake Annecy, you can find out more about my favourite things to do in this region in 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France.

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Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Welsh wanderings: Incidental adventures in mid and west Wales

The dramatic landscapes of Wales never fail to disappoint. My photo journal from a recent weekend adventure in the Elan valley and the north-west Welsh coast showcase some of the contrasts and colours of this wonderful little country.

I hadn’t originally intended to post about this trip, as I found myself in Wales a few weeks back for a trail race – and I figured most of you would aren’t here for quirky race reviews (although let me know if not, and I will try to oblige!).

But I ended up taking a handful of photos I loved and I wanted to share them with you. Maybe they’ll inspire your own Welsh adventure.

View of the Garreg-du dam in the Elan valley, Wales
Garreg-du reservoir in the Elan valley

We were ultimately heading for the north-west Welsh coast but stopped on the way in the Elan valley. This stunningly beautiful series of reservoirs set amongst the rolling, heather-covered hills of mid-Wales feeds much of the Midlands with water. A lovely friend of mine introduced to this area a few years ago, and it’s stayed with me ever since. We spent an afternoon dodging showers and tramping round the Garreg-du reservoir, reminding ourselves why we love this little country so much.

Downstream of the Pen-y-Garreg dam in the Elan Valley, Wales
Downstream of Pen-y-Garreg dam

Our base for the weekend was Hendre Hall camping and glamping in Llwyngwril – more specifically one of their little glamping pods. Seriously, I couldn’t recommend this place enough – the pod was great (the perfect compromise between creature comfort and life in the great outdoors), and we looked out over the railway line and beach beyond. And boy, were we glad we’d gone for the pod over our slightly-ratty old tent – in typical Welsh fashion it rained pretty much all the weekend … in August.

Llwrynwril beach in west Wales
Looking towards Barmouth from Llwyngwril beach

Our weekend was mostly all about completing Race the Train – a epic 14 mile trail race that follows the route of the Tallylyn steam railway, starting in the little seaside town of Tywyn. It was all about mud, mud, more mud and glorious Welsh landscape. With a bit of running thrown in for good measure. Trail running friends, you’ll love this race.

Madness aside (I’m never going to pretend this is a normal way to spend a Saturday afternoon), Tywyn’s a town with old world charm and some stonkingly good places to eat. We ended up the Salt Marsh Cafe twice – once for carb-loading on their homemade pizza and burgers, and later for a quiet drink. It’s a fun, cosy space with lovely staff and a mouth-wateringly good food and drink menu. As a post-race splurge we indulged in three courses of delicious at Proper Gander, where they somehow manage to turn out incredibly refined local dishes from a kitchen the size of a cupboard. Importantly, in a state where I was woofing down cereal bars post-race like no tomorrow, their portions were reassuringly satisfying and we left very full and very happy.

View from Tywyn town, Wales
Tywyn

Our last stop on our whistle-stop weekend was just outside Builth Wells. It’s landscape of lush green valleys, peppered with little stone farmhouses and shy sheep. High up, the hills sing with purple heather and damp pools reflect the vibrant vegetation. Yes, it was damp and grey, but no, it didn’t disappoint. It’s always a good day for a walk in Wales.

Welsh hillsides outside Builth Wells
Moorland above Builth Wells

If you’d like a little more inspiration for a Welsh adventure of your own, try my guide to three unmissable stops on a road trip around Wales – complete with pictures to prove the sun does actually shine in Wales from time to time (just not always when I’m there).

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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: 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 beginners 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

4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

There are few more beautiful, and dramatic, landscapes to walk in than the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. My guide to four breathtaking walks in this incredible region take in some of the absolute highlights, all in the shadow of the Jungfrau and Eiger mountains.

Last summer we spent a week in the spectacular Bernese Oberland in Switzerland.  There’s a lot to love about this mountainous region, but it’s also a funny one.  The towns are neat and pretty and very Swiss, but they’re not all packed with character.  It’s an area that’s been welcoming tourists for well over a century, but in places feels a little like its heyday has been and gone.  There seems to be few people visiting to walk, camp and discover it’s wild wonders, yet many arriving to tick off photo opportunities and railway stations.

You could look at this and wonder, is this really somewhere to come and explore the mountains?  The answer is an emphatic yes. It doesn’t matter if the majority don’t fancy treading the mountain trails – you can adventure without crowds and enjoy the peacefulness of the alpine pastures.  It doesn’t matter if camping isn’t the most popular choice here – you can enjoy great campsites, in stunning locations, without steep prices and often without having to book ahead.  There’s an awful lot of reasons to give this region a chance.

Exploring Staubbach falls, a spectacular waterfall in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

For me, exploring the walking trails of this alpine region were the highlight of our trip.  And to be fair, one of the main reasons for coming here in the first place.  Nothing makes this spectacular landscape feel more alive than the crunch of stone underfoot, the heady scent of pollen from pasture flowers, the gentle lolling sound of bells around grazing cow’s necks and the feel of sun on your back.  Travelling slowly on foot gives you a chance to take it all in, spot the details and soak up the grandeur of it all – from the granite coloured peaks to the tiny alpine flowers peppering the meadows.

You can read my itinerary for a perfect 7 days in the Bernese Oberland here, but today I’d like to share my four favourite walks from our trip – and share the much-underrated side to this popular part of Switzerland.

A note on walking

This post tells the story of some our hikes – but isn’t intended as a guide or map to help you reach these locations.  If you’re planning on walking in this area, seek advice from the helpful folk at Interlaken Tourism who can point you in the direction of recognised routes.  You’ll also find many well-signposted paths with distances estimated in hours rather than kilometres that will help you plan your own adventures.  We’re experienced road and trail runners who were tackling challenging paths in good weather, it might not be possible to replicate these routes on your visit.

Hiking trails in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

1: Schynige Platte from Interlaken

There are dozens of routes that can be tackled from Interlaken, but this one is special thanks to the panoramic views over some of the iconic peaks and villages of the Bernese Oberland. At 2,076m, the climb to the top is not to be underestimated but is well worth it for the views over the Eiger, Monch and Jungfraujoch, and the valleys below.

From Interlaken we took a relatively gentle walk to Wilderswil, a small village 2km out from the town at the foot of the mountain. It’s a surprisingly pretty little village with considerably more charm than Interlaken itself, and an old centre dotted with ornamental chalets and a fantastic covered bridge. Wilderswil is worth a visit in it’s own right, but if you’re planning to tackle the mountain, it’s best to get started in plenty of time.

Wilderswil near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

A small path leads up into woodland from behind the church, and very quickly begins to steepen. At first, it weaves in and out of lush woodland and lowland pasture grazed by goats, ponies and the odd llama. Soon enough, you leave the meadows behind and the real climb begins under the cool dark trees. The woodland is ancient and impressive, but nothing compared to what you’ll find further up beyond the treeline. Occasionally, the mountain railway will cross your path as you head steadily up.

When we tackled this route the day began wet and overcast, but after an hour or two of climbing, as the trail headed upwards at a considerable rate, the sun began to break through the trees and cast dappled light across our path. We could tell that the forest was thinning, and before long the path ahead rose out of the tree line and into high alpine meadow.

While not an accurate half-way mark, the journey up is broken by the delightful discovery of the small railway station at Breitlauenen. The station is nestled between a dairy farm and a smattering of chalets, high in a meadow. It’s the most wonderfully idyllic spot, with breathtaking views down over both lakes Brienz and Thun, and the gentle low-pitched ring of cow bells from cattle grazing all around. The station master spends much of her time chasing chickens and sleepy cats from the line whenever a bell rings and a distant rumble warns of an impending train.

View over Interlaken and Lake Thun on a hike to Schynige Platte in the Bernese Oberland

From here, the climbing is less steep but you pass in turn through woodland, meadow and along rocky paths that increasingly test your courage as you encounter a few vertiginous drops to the side of the path. You move more slowly, but the views more than make up for it. All of a sudden you round a corner and find yourself at the station and the summit. You’re now looking down on the Grindelwald valley and the mighty Eiger at it’s head.  It’s a nice spot to stop at and simply take it all in. There are alpine gardens to meander around near the station and a cafe if you’re in need of something cold and refreshing.

It is possible to complete the climb and make it back down within a day, but for us an impending storm was closing in. The scurrying clouds and dark skies looked incredibly dramatic from this mountaintop viewpoint, but we needed to take the safe option this high up, so descended quickly to Breitlauenen just as rain started to fall, and sheltered in the wonderful quaint waiting room of the station until a train came along to take us back down to valley floor.

2: Lauterbrunnen, Stechelberg, Gimmelwald and Mürren – a circular walk

This walk is a good way to get a feel for the magical valley of Lauterbrunnen.

Starting just outside Lauterbrunnen, we steadily meandered our way along the flat valley floor and through lush green fields in the direction of Stechelberg, at the head of valley. A quieter access road runs parallel to the main road (that mostly serves the Trummelbach Falls and gondola lift at Stechelberg), and you’ll find it largely empty aside from a few other walkers and the odd farmer. This alone is a beautiful walk, with some of the highest and most spectacular waterfalls in the whole valley as you approach to the small hamlet at Stechelberg. Between the crescendo of falling water and the roar of the river there’s quite a dramatic atmosphere.

Hiking in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

Once in Stechelberg you have the choice of taking the gondola (cable car) up the mountain (services run throughout the year) or taking the old path up through the forest. We opted for the latter and began to scramble up the winding rocky path alongside a crashing waterfall. The path widens out after a short but steep climb and heads steadily uphill. After a couple of kilometres, the path emerges from the trees and chalet roofs start to pop up through the pasture. You’ve reached the edge of Gimmelwald (where you can also jump out at the mid-station of the gondola).

Waterfalls in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

Gimmelwald is one of the most unspoilt alpine villages in the Bernese Oberland, in part because it’s one of the least accessible – it’s car-free, and mostly little farms and a cheery hostel. The village is perched on the edge of a hanging valley facing the imposing Breithorn mountain – which can be seen the length and breadth of the Lauterbrunnen valley. It’s a peaceful spot, with just other hikers and few goats for company.

Many of the farmhouses here sell produce from their front doors, so we indulged in fresh milk and the local Alpkäse cheese – thick and creamy and delicious beyond belief after our climb.

From Gimmelwald a paved road leads gently uphill without much of a view to hint at what’s beyond. What lies ahead is the picturesque and affluent ski resort of Mürren – a paradise of immaculately-presented Swiss chalets with balconies laden with cherry-red geraniums in August, cosy restaurants peddling hearty cuisine and jaw-dropping views across to Wengen (on the opposite side of the valley). We stopped and spent a little time exploring, and enjoying the welcoming atmosphere and an Alpkäse sandwich or two.

The pretty village of Gimmelwald, high up in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

You can return back down to the valley by mountain train or on foot from Mürren. The little train brings visitors and their luggage up the mountain from the main station in Lauterbrunnen and takes a scenic route winding through woodland. We took the forest road down on foot – a considerably longer walk than our route up but the road was much gentler as it wove between pastures and dense forest. As you head back down into the village below, views open up towards Wengen, high on the opposite side of the valley and also towards the far end of lake Thun, glistening in the distance.

The last part of the descent back down into Lauterbrunnen is steeper, but the sound of cow bells and the spire of the village church in the distance guides you into town. Put your feet up and enjoy a well-earned coffee and slice of cake at Airtime, a vibrant little cafe at the heart of this pretty but quiet village.

3: Kleine Scheidegg and Männlichen via Wengen

Truth be told, we weren’t blessed with good weather on our trip to the Bernese Oberland, in spite of it being summer. But the day that we tackled this route the sun finally came out, blazing all day long and leading, inevitably, to moderate sunburn and excessive photographing of alpine pasture.

I just can’t help myself sometimes.

This route was probably the one I enjoyed most during our week here, as it climbs out of the Lauterbrunnen valley and into the Grindelwald valley, tucked away behind high peaks. It brings you unbelievably close to the Jungfraujoch and Monch – craggy rock faces topped with snow fill the horizon whilst you stroll short-sleeved through warm, flower-filled meadows.

Looking down the Lauterbrunnen valley near Interlaken in Switzerland as the morning sun comes up

As with the previous routes, there’s the option to take the mountain railway almost all the way to the top here, with stations at Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg, so you can adapt the route to suit your fitness and enthusiasm.

Starting in Lauterbrunnen, we tackled the first path of the day, steeply, up through the trees to Wengen. It’s not a long walk but it was one of the most strenuous. Eventually you’ll be rewarded by the arrival of Wengen on the horizon, with it’s panoramic views and cheerful atmosphere. Like Mürren, Wengen is a ski resort with a long heritage. It hosts one of the most prestigious events in the World Cup series, and has a younger and more vibrant feel than it’s neighbour on the other side of the valley. You’ll find more chocolate-box chalets and grazing cattle here, but also a lively main street with cafes, bars and shops.

After you’ve explored Wengen, it’s time to head higher for the serious views. A forest road takes you up and away from the resort centre, heading towards Kleine Scheidegg at the col which sits between the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys. The climbing isn’t too hard here, and before you realise it you’ve risen out of the trees and are facing towards the snow-capped Jungfraujoch in all it’s glory. Kleine Scheidegg is a couple of kilometres from Wengen, sitting atop a little lake with a railway station and cluster of hotels and restaurants. It’s a real little community and meeting point for hikers coming up from both Wengen and Grindelwald, and well as tourists exploring on their return from the Jungfraujoch.

Alpine cattle at Mannlichen, above the resort of Wengen in Switzerland

But if you stop here and head home, you’ll have missed the chance to experience one more stunning views over the valleys – from Männlichen. A winding but largely flat path heads from the station in the direction of this peak that sits directly above Wengen. From here you can see not only see where you’ve come up from in Wengen and the valley, but also look down over lake Thun. The Männlichen gondola makes for an exciting descent back into town after a long day on your feet.

4: Grindelwald to First and Bachalpsee

The last hike of our trip to the Bernese Oberland was from the luscious Grindelwald valley up to First. It gives you a chance to view the magnificent Eiger and it’s glaciers as you climb higher, and there are hidden treats in the form of high alpine lakes and glaciated landscapes to capture your imagination.

Walking from Grindelwald to First allows you to discover fantastic views of the majestic Eiger

A trail rises up from centre of town at first on quiet road, and then on path and forest road, roughly following the route the gondola takes to First. The gondola crosses over the path high above your heads in places, whilst you weave between pasture and deep green woodland. About midway, you reach the little hamlet of Bort, where the path suddenly widens and emerges into a bowl with a deep blue lake crowned by a couple of mountain restaurants. You’re edging closer to the Eiger here, and the trail breaks out of the trees for the remainder of the route.

The last part of the climb is hard work with tired legs, as ours were after a week of hiking. But the views were breathtaking, and stone water troughs spouting little cascades of cold, fresh spring water meant that we could refill our bottles in an attempt to keep cool. As you approach the summit the mountainside gently rolls away to your right, with curious shapes and hummocks in the landscape a legacy of glaciers working their magic over thousands of years. This is the most peaceful part of the walk, as most visitors choose to take the gondola all the way to the top from Grindelwald.

Mountain goats at Grindelwald-First in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

Reaching the peak at First in itself is impressive – views open up across the whole of the Grindelwald valley with the Eiger to your left, Kleine Scheidegg with the pass over to Wengen and the Lauterbrunnen valley ahead, and Schynige Platte to your right. Into the bargain, you’ll find a skywalk to explore, letting you circle the cliff faces below the lift station with nothing but glass under your feet. But the real reason for coming is to see Bachalpsee, a gentle walk of a couple of kilometres from the summit.

I could describe how beautiful Bachalpsee is, the peaks all around are reflected in deep turquoise waters, but I think the pictures go someway to doing it justice.

Bachalpsee, high up in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland at Grindelwald-First

Whilst most walkers choose to head back to the lift station at First from here, or onwards to Schynige Platte, we chose to take a combination of footpath and forest road back down into Grindelwald. The path down from Bachalpsee to meet the forest road was one of the most glorious areas of pasture I’ve ever explored. Little streams trickle down from the lake, babbling amongst the stone and meadow flowers, whilst cattle and goats graze quietly, obvious to the majesty of their home. Once you hit the forest road it’s a steady, easy to follow route that soon plunges back down into woodland and dense forest in places. It eventually brings you out just above the centre of Grindelwald, where you can meander back into town.

We were exhausted.  After a week of walking almost all day, every day, we felt we’d packed in as much as we absolutely could.  But there’s still room for more – a week felt more like an appetiser for the region.  It might not be any time soon but I’ve no doubt we’ll be back, ready to spread our wings a little wider and discover some more peaks.

P.S. Don’t forget that you can find out more about what we got up to on our alpine adventure in The perfect 7 days in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland.

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With huge thanks to my ever-patient other half for his photographs featuring yours truely.

4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

3 unmissable stops on a road trip in Wales

Wales might a small country, but it punches above it’s weight when it comes to dramatic landscapes, fantastic walking and charming towns. It’s the perfect location for a road trip – with wonderfully diverse regions only a short drive apart. My travel guide shares my secrets for visiting the wild Gower, coastal Pembrokeshire and and marvellously mountainous Snowdonia.

I love a road trip.  There, I’ve said it.

You can take the glamour of air travel and the speed of train travel, but for me there will always be something magical about travelling on four wheels.  It cries out for spontaneity, for exploration and for taking that next turn “just because it looked interesting…”.

A road trip is an exhilarating way to explore a long way from home, but it’s also a brilliant way to see what’s just outside your door.  Being based in the south of England, for me this means that wonderful Wales is only a few hours away by car.  This pretty little country, home to breathtaking mountains, rugged coastline and colourful towns, is virtually on my doorstep.

Aberaeron, a fishing village on the Welsh coast

So I thought I’d share my three favourite locations perfect for a Welsh weekend getaway. Or, if you can manage a longer stay they’re only an hour or two away from one another (so you can sandwich them together for a week or more of adventures).  Wales may be close to home, but it still feels like an adventure.

The Gower

From the vintage charms of the seaside resort of Mumbles to the glorious expanses of golden sand at Rhossili, there’s plenty to keep you occupied on the Gower peninsula.  Just a short skip and a jump from the bustling city of Swansea (where Saturday night on the town is quite an experience), you’ll find this peaceful corner of the Welsh countryside.  Within a short drive of city centre you’ll find hidden coves, lush heathland, ancient castles and windswept clifftops that’ll take your breath away.

It’s a surfers paradise, and a walkers one too.  You can spend days exploring the many miles of coastal path, or bask in the glory of a British summer with a day at the beach. Oxwich bay is a gem that’s tucked far from the madding crowds between heather-carpeted headlands.

Coastline of the Gower, Wales

For something a bit different, make your way to the small village of Rhossili. Don’t be put off by the rather extortionate parking charges – I promise it’s worthwhile. Head off along the seemingly unexciting grassy headland until all of a sudden the landscape opens up in front of you.  To your right, a breathtaking stretch of sandy beach extends into the distance – it’s been rated one of Europe’s best beaches, and it’s not hard to see why.  To your left, at the far end of the headland sits the Worm’s Head, an oddly-named but ruggedly beautiful tidal island that adventurers can reach by scrambling across the rocks at low tides.

Rhossili beach on the Gower, Wales

Where to stay in the Gower

Base yourself in Swansea – there’s heaps of good value accommodation and the Gower is only a twenty minute drive away.  It’s a great stop en route to Pembrokeshire if you’re taking a longer trip.

Pembrokeshire

Head west as far as you can go in Wales and you’ll reach Pembrokeshire. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of South Wales it’s home to stunning sandy surf beaches that rival anywhere in Europe, and charming fishing villages where the way of life has changed little in the past one hundred years.

It’s perfect country for hiking and cycling, so to make to the most of your visit you’ll want to explore on two feet or two wheels. The coastal path, close to the picturesque village of Trefin and ports of Abercastle and Porthgain, is spectacular and makes a great day’s walk.  Sandwich with a pub lunch and a little meandering inland to make it a circular route.

Abercastle on the Pembrokeshire coast, Wales

If sand and surf is more your thing, Whitesands bay is only a few miles away and one of Wales’ best-kept secrets.  There’s fantastic camping on the headland with views over the expanse of silver sand below.

At the end of the day, head to Solva harbour for sundowners and to watch fishing boats and yachts make their sedate way up the estuary for shelter overnight.  Alternatively St. Davids, Britain’s smallest city, is only a few miles away.  It’s a cosy little market town packed with picture-perfect cottages and pleasant pubs for whiling away an evening – just what you need after a long day on your feet.

Where to stay in Pembrokeshire

For a truly magical getaway, try Lottie the Lorry tucked away in rural Pembrokeshire. Having travelling the world, she’s come to rest on an idyllic farm near St. Davids.  This bohemian, converted lorry is a comfortable, cosy holiday home for two with breathtaking views over the Welsh countryside.

Watching the sun rise over the misty fields beyond, and the stars overhead as we barbecued on our own terrace was beyond wonderful.  We stayed in the lovely Lottie for two nights in August 2015 and booked through Quality Unearthed.

Lottie the lorry in Pembrokeshire, Wales

Snowdonia

Snowdonia is the holy grail of hiking in Wales.

Aside from it’s namesake Mount Snowdon, there are countless peaks and valleys that you could spend a lifetime exploring and never tire of.  Whether you’re visiting for the first time, or returning for new adventures, I’d recommend seeking out some of the less well-known mountains and walking trails.

My favourite is Cader Idris to the south of region. A steep path winds through the wooded hillside above the valley floor and eventually opens out onto pasture high above the treeline.  Here you’re greeted by babbling streams running through the vibrant coloured heather underfoot, steep rock faces and tumbling stone paths than climb higher and higher.  The crowning glory is the stunning tarn that sits surrounded by jagged peaks.  It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to the Alps at home.

Cadre Idris, Snowdonia, Wales

Where to stay in Snowdonia

We chose the remarkable St. Curigs Church, a few miles from Betws-Y-Coed, for a stay with a difference.  A converted stone church, St. Curigs Chapel offers bed and breakfast as well as a bunkroom in one of the most spectacular buildings I’ve ever been lucky enough to stay in. The four-poster bed and hearty Welsh breakfast aren’t bad either.

St. Curigs Church, Capel Curig, Gwynedd, LL24 0EL

Of course, there’s much much more to Wales that just these three regions.  But they’re a great starting point for any adventure, and places I’d happily return to again and again.

And as for other days on the road, where do you recommend?  What are your favourite Welsh wonderlands?

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3 unmissable stops on a road trip in Wales

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: 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.

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

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