Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

Bucharest Parliament Building Romania

Palace of the Parliament, Bucharest, Romania

Have you ever wondered where the world’s heaviest building might be? If so, you probably didn’t imagine you’d find it in Romania… and yet, there it is. The Palace of the Parliament in downtown Bucharest, capital of Romania, claims the crown, weighing in at an incredible 4,098,500,000 kilograms (9.0356×109 lb)! Immense, colossal, intimidating and jaded, this massive relic of Romania’s not-so-distant Soviet past and their affinity for everything concrete, it took a team of 700 architects 13 years (from 1884 – 1997) to bring the Palace of the Parliament into existence. The building is everything you’d expect from the Soviet Era. A gem of Totalitarian architecture, it is a massive undertaking, involving an impressive amount of human labour, complicated architectural skill and huge amounts of building materials, showing off to the rest of the world the Soviet might, skill and technology on the edge of the USSR’s communist reaches. Despite its austere exterior, inside it is ornate and decadent, meant to dazzle the visitor with a different sort of might, in line with many other Communist-era constructions (the Moscow Metro springs to mind! And yes it’s true – if you ever visit Moscow, you have to visit its underground, it is indeed a tourist attraction). Today the Palace of Parliament houses the Parliament of Romania as well as some museums, and is worth visiting inside or out to appreciate its sheer size and the power it still exudes even decades after the clouds of Communism have settled and blown away.


Pro tip: Want to visit inside? Make sure you book over the phone 24h in advance; be sure to have your passport ready for inspection. Looking for some refreshments afterwards? Just a 10 minute walk away, head to Abel’s Wine Bar, a chic, hipster sort of place with delicious local Romanian wines and beers. There are plenty of reds and whites – be sure to try a local wine! Prefer beer? We recommend you taste the local microbrewery Ground Zero. You might not find these beers outside of Bucharest – which is a shame because it’s delicious! 


Other Communist Architecture


 

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St Peter’s Church in Riga, Latvia

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Steeple of St Peter’s Church in Riga, Latvia

Huddled on the banks of River Daugava, Riga is a town recognised for its architectural beauty and rich culture. As the capital of Latvia, and one of the three main cultural centres in the Baltics region of northeast Europe (the others being Tallinn and Vilnius), Riga is a blend of old world charm and cosmopolitan busyness. Architecturally, it is composed of a medieval city Old Town, unique art nouveau facades and gothic and baroque spires,  such as this one here. Perched atop St Peter’s Church at the heart of Riga, the 130-metre-high baroque steeple is the city’s tallest spire. This steeple dates back to WWII when the church was rebuilt after the city was torn apart during the war. This new structure was based on a former tower erected in the 1720s, replacing a previous structure that was struck by lighting in 1721 which in turn replaced one that collapsed in 1666. In fact, at one point in the late 1690s, St Peter’s Church was the highest wood building in the world! The oldest version of this spire dates all the way back to the end of the 15th century, while St Peter’s Church itself was consecrated in 1209 (though little remains of that original construction). The basilica we see today is from the 15th century in all of its baroque and gothic fashion. In 1997, Riga’s Old Town was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites – among the sites called out for their particular beauty, heritage and culture was of course St Peter’s Church.


Pro tips: A stone’s throw away is the famed House of Blackheads, a unique baroque guildhall. Pick up one of the Like A Local maps which shows streets and iconic sights but also less-known sights recommended by local citizens as well as food recommendations. One such recommendation is a lovely teacup-sized family-run restaurant, Varzoba, located very close to both St Peter’s Church and the House of Blackheads. Not sure what to get? Let them choose! You won’t regret it. 

Bratislava Old Town, Slovakia

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bratislava Old Town, Slovakia

Neither Slovakia nor its capital city of Bratislava are places that often make travel wish-lists of grand tours of Europe. At the heart of Eastern Europe, Bratislava and Slovakia in general has always been a place swept under the rug of larger powers. Though Bratislava may not have the charm of some other Central and Eastern European cities (such as Prague, Vienna or Krakow), its cobbled streets, ancient churches, quirky statues and mosaic roofs are well worth the wander. And then of course there is the castle, rebuilt “recently” after a fire gutted the estate. Today, its shimmering white towers float in the fog on a hilltop above the city. Though Slovakia is on the Euro, the country is still good value for money, and the fact that it isn’t as famous as its neighbours means that you won’t be fighting tourism crowds while still enjoying a fairly authentic experience. Start by wandering the old narrow streets in the morning – you’ll probably have them all to yourself at this hour. Visit the castle and the Blue Church, say hello to Cumil then have some lunch – be sure to try some Slovakian crepes (called palacinky) as well as a glass of local beer such as Bazant Radler. If you stay for the evening, you’re in for a treat – Bratislava is meant to have a great nightlife scene and is quite popular with hen and stag parties!


Pro tip: Bratislava is only about an hour away from Vienna, and the cities make a good combination (Vienna is bigger but Bratislava is far more cost effective). Bratislava Airport is a good alternative access point to the region to Vienna’s airport. 


More Eastern European Cities

 

Cafes in Skopje, Macedonia

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Cafes in Skopje, Macedonia

Macedonia – and Skopje in particular – is at a crossroads between old and new, east and west, Christianity and Islam. It is a place that perfectly blends cultures, traditions and architecture. The historic centre of Skopje is made up of an old Bazaar, as well as some 30 mosques and the ruins of several caravanserais (once popular along trade routes like the Silk Road, these were inns for travellers) – all of which are ever-present reminders of the city’s Ottoman past. But the Macedonians have also made the city their own, erecting churches and cafes and basilicas, infusing the conquering culture with that of the conquered. For it must be said that the Ottoman Empire occupied present day Macedonia for a few hundred years, from the 17th to the early 19th century. The Old Bazaar of Skopje contrasts strikingly with the shiny new sections of Macedonia’ capital city – the soaring skyscrapers and glittering statues and perfect grids. But the very best way to experience Skopje is outdoors. Find yourself a cosy cafe in the old bazaar lined by ancient facades and leafy trees and make yourself comfortable. Order platefuls of shish kababs and grilled veggies and Mediterranean salads and sticky baklava, and wash it down with a rich and heavy cup of Turkish coffee. Sit back in the sun with a good book and a local beer and listen to the clamour of bustling Skopje under a midday sun.


Pro tip:  Head up to the ruins of Skopje Fortress. No entrance fee and you’ll get a great view of the city and all of its minarets and domes. 


Other Beautiful Places in the Balkans

 

Hallgrímskirkja Church, Iceland

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Hallgrímskirkja Church, Reykajavik, Iceland.

Is it a spaceship? A torpedo? Or just a really unusual church? One of Reykjavik’s – and Iceland’s – most iconic landmarks, the ultra modern Hallsgrimkirkja Church in downtown Reykjavik is somehow also reminiscent of the dramatic and bizarre worlds found inside of the Icelandic Sagas. The Hallsgrimkirkja also sports an observation deck for aerial city views and a statue of Leif Eriksson, the man often credited as the first European to arrive in the Americas hundreds of years before Columbus. Only finished in 1986 and standing atop one of Reykjavik’s highest points, the Hallsgrimkirkja is some 74 metres high, making it the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures on the island. Iceland is a strange place. Remote, isolated, cold, inhospitable, Iceland is also home to some of the most enduring tradition, mythology and storytelling in Europe. For such a small, remote place, this Nordic country is one of Europe’s most progressive. Home to about 340,000 people (of which nearly half [122,000] live in the capital), it actually has one of the lowest (if not the lowest) unemployment rates, one of the highest standards of living, and some of the most jaw-dropping landscapes – including some spectacular volcanoes – in the whole world. In the winter, it might still be light out at midnight or later, meaning that in the winter, some days only see a few hours of daylight (though on the up side, that means higher chances of spotting the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights!). It is a country of myth and legend, of fire and snow, of ancient and modern. This small place packs a bundle!


Pro tip: Though only available to those ready to brave the cold (even in summer), it is actually possible to SCUBA dive between two tectonic plates – it doesn’t get cooler than that! For those who prefer to stay a bit warmer (or to warm up afterwards), Reykjavik and Iceland in general is full of hot springs heated naturally by the piping hot water from the volcanoes. Whether you prefer a dramatic outdoor pool or a modern pool in the city, there are plenty of options (though as this is popular with tourists and locals alike, don’t expect it to yourself. Iceland is sadly victim to overtourism from the mass cruise industry). 


Other Fascinating Places in the Nordic Countries


This post originally appeared in 2013 but has since been revised and rewritten.

Belfast Murals, Northern Ireland

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One of the many murals of Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast is known for a lot of things. It’s known for struggles, religious and political unrest, even for terror. But a lot has changed in recent years. Belfast has become a cosmopolitan hub, with an up-and-coming foodie scene that surpasses Dublin and rivals other European capitals. It’s a quirky place where art meets urban life in the best possible ways. For one, there are the Peace Walls. Massive walls that divides the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, Peace Walls were constructed to protect each side from the other but at the end of the day, it is a barrier through the middle of the city dividing the two sides (not unlike the Berlin Wall once did). Today the wall is still there and the sides are still divided but the wall is now a Peace Wall, full of thousands of messages of hope and courage written by residents and visitors alike, and the two sides have come together much more. But that’s not the only wall in Belfast. The city of Belfast is full of murals. Some are well known, others aren’t. Some are religious or political, some are artistic. Some are massive, others small. The above mural is one of the many one finds in the city centre, ‘neutral’ territory where both Protestants (aka unionists) and Catholics (aka republicans) rub shoulders. Belfast is still a divided city, and though on the island of Ireland, it resembles England far more than Ireland (in regards to architecture, way of life, fashions, shop brands…). Yet despite this – or perhaps because of this – it is a fascinating place to visit. Particularly the murals!


Pro tip: To truly appreciate Belfast, its history and its murals, take one of the famous Black Cab tours – Paddy Campbell’s is the original and the best! 


Other Fascinating Sites to Visit in Ireland (North & South)


 

Vilnius Old Town & St. Nicholas Church

Main plaza & St Nicolaus Church, old town Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius Old Town & St. Nicholas Church, Lithuania

The year 2018 marks the 100th anniversary of independence from Russia for the Baltic States (think Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) – even if in the middle of that century of independence they lost it and were forced to regain it again, thanks to WWII. And yet, the Old Town of Vilnius is one of the largest medieval towns still in existence today (and therefore is protected by UNESCO). By day, it is a popular place with locals and tourists alike, relaxing in the cafes, strolling the narrow alleys and broad avenues, chilling in the parks and squares, mingling with the locals in restaurants and hole-in-the-wall bars. For great views, you might climb the ancient Gediminas Hill to the remains of the crumbled castle – or to the top of the opposite Hill of the Three Crosses, a more modern viewpoint. It is a place full of great (and budget-friendly) restaurants and bars frequented by lively locals and tourists alike, making it an ideal place for a friends weekend, a fun solo getaway, or a hen/stag party!


Pro tip: For countryside and castle lovers, get out to the nearby Trakai Island Castle!


More European Baltic Fun Here
  1. Riga, Latvia
  2. Turaida Castle, Latvia
  3. Gutmanis Cave, Latvia
  4. Tallinn, Estonia
  5. Estonia’s Baltic Coast

 

House of Friendship, Moscow, Russia

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House of Friendship in Moscow, Russia

Moscow is filled with wonders: golden domes, brick-red towers, huge parks, Stalinistic skyscrapers, broad avenues, elegant theatres, brightly-coloured Orthodox churches. It is a city of considerable fortune (reflected in its extremely high rent prices) that draws people in from all walks of life, either to live there or simply visit this place. Perhaps this vast array of cultures accounts for the vast array of noteworthy architecture. One such example is the so-called House of Friendship, as known as the Arseny Morozov House, located on the far side of the Kremlin. Built at the turn of the century, this fin de siecle folly (fake castle) was modelled after the exotic and eclectic Monserrate Palace in Sintra, Portugal. The design of the House of Friendship includes twisted columns, encrusted shells, and lace-like stonework. Built for party-loving Arseny Morozov, it later became the Proletcult Theatre in the 1920s. This was the branch of Soviet theatre branch tasked with ideology and propaganda, evoking industrial, factory, farming, and other such motifs without much regard towards plot. Sadly, the only way to visit the luxurious and bizarre interior is to attend a concert or lecture held at the house. Instead, gouge yourself on the eclectic exterior while roaming the streets of Moscow in search of the city’s most extraordinary architectural designs – of which it has no shortage!


Other Eccentric Houses in Europe
  1. Hundretwasser House, Vienna, Austria
  2. House of Chimeras, Kiev, Ukraine
  3. Casa Mila, Barcelona, Spain
  4. Casa Batllo, Barcelona, Spain
  5. Mirrored Building of the Department of Health, Bilbao

 

Viru Gate, Tallinn, Estonia

Medival Viru Gate, Tallinn Estonia

Viru Gate, Tallinn, Estonia

Cobblestones underfoot reverberate with the echoes of footsteps, the clink of silverware at a local cafe and the laughter of children playing in the narrow alleyways. The perfectly preserved medieval streets and facades of ancient Tallinn directly contrast with the advanced techosphere hidden just beneath the surface of the city nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ It has one of the highest ratio of start-ups per population throughout Europe – Skype being the most famous of them all. The capital of Estonia has slowly become recognised as one of the main IT centre of Europe – Tallinn currently provides NATO’s cybersecurity (home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence), it is set to house the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency, and has been ranked as the most competitive financial hub of Northern Europe. Quite the achievement for this beautifully small and oft forgotten capital tucked into a remote corner of Europe! Tallinn is perhaps the perfect blend of old and new: the medieval streets and architecture of Tallinn, including the Viru Gates in the photo, have merited the city a spot on UNESCO‘s list – and yet, it also catches the eye of many the enterprising digital start-up. The Viru Gate, a barbican within the ancient city walls, was part of Tallinn’s medieval defensive walls that still encircle much of the city. Though partially destroyed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and trams, the Viru Gate still dispenses Tallinn’s unique flavour in the brisk Baltic air.


More About Travel in the Baltics
  1. Riga, Lativa
  2. Turaida Castle, Latvia
  3. Krimulda Castle, Latvia
  4. Vilnius, Lithuania 
  5. Trakai Castle, Lithuania

 

Mermaid of Warsaw, Poland

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The Warsaw Mermaid Statue in Warsaw’s Old Town, Poland

There are multiple mermaid statues flopping their way through Europe. Completely unrelated to the mythical selkies of western Ireland and only loosely related to Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid, the Syrenka, or Mermaid of Warsaw, is the official symbol of Poland‘s capital. Popular legend has it that while swimming by Warsaw, the Mermaid decided she liked it so much that she would stay. Local fishermen were frustrated with competing with her for fish, so they attempted to catch her, but like most mermaid stories, the men fell in love with the mermaid’s song and let her free. She was then captured by a wealthy merchant, but upon hearing her cries, the fishermen rushed to her rescue, and ever since, she’s been a warrior mermaid armed with sword and shield ready to protect Warsaw. A lesser-known version claims that the mermaid came to the rescue of a lost prince and he founded Warsaw in her honour. A final version and tie-in with Copenhagen is that the Danish Little Mermaid and the Warsaw Mermaid are sisters from the Baltic Sea, separated by their respective capitals. No matter which legend you favour, the Mermaid remains Warsaw’s symbol and protector, and there is a small but lovely statue in her honour in the centre of the Stary Miasto (Old Town square) for visitors to pay homage to the city’s protector.


More Fascinating Statues in Europe
  1. Adorable Gnome Statues in Wrocław, Poland
  2. The beloved Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen, Denmark
  3. Quirky Oscar Wilde Statue in Dublin, Ireland
  4. Beautiful Dragon Statues in London, England
  5. Wroclaw’s haunting Passage Statues, Poland

 

Kremlin Bell Tower, Moscow, Russia

Kremlin cathedral in Moscow, Russia

 Ivan the Great Bell Tower in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia

The Kremlin: probably one of the most infamous places across the Globe, it seems that few people choose to venture inside this massive and widely important complex. In essence, the Moscow Kremlin is a fortified complex snuggled between Red Square and St Basil’s Cathedral, and encompasses five palaces, four cathedrals, and the Kremlin Wall interspersed with the famed red towers of the Kremlin. It is the Russian version of the White House, serving as personal residence of Russia’s president (today meaning the controversial Vladimir Putin). In the past, versions of the site have served as the seat of the Grand Dukes of Russia, the famous Russian Tsars, Catherine the Great and her extravagant Neoclassical palace and Soviet rulers. The above building is the Ivan the Great Bell Tower, which contains 22 bells and is now the tallest Kremlin structure. It is not the first bell tower to appear here; indeed, Moscow’s first bell tower was erected here in 1329, called St Ivan of the Ladder Under the Bell. One of Russia’s Grand Dukes, Ivan Kalita, built this massive whitewashed brick version in 1508 – the name is supposedly a nod towards the original tower, but one can imagine that Grand Duke Ivan wasn’t too opposed to name his construction the ‘Ivan the Great Bell Tower’ either! To visit this tower and the rest of the ever-impressive and awe-inspiring complex, one must buy tickets at the entrance, taking care stay with the carefully-allotted paths and buildings unless you’d like to see what the inside of a Russian prison looks like! Visit the exterior of the complex by exploring Red Square and alternatively, take a boat tour of the Moskva River at sunset to see Moscow in a new light!


Visit More Orthodox Cathedrals in Europe
  1. St Basils Cathedral – Moscow, Russia
  2. Trinity Cathedral – St Petersburg, Russia
  3. Saviour on Spilled Blood – St Petersburg, Russia
  4. St Panteleimon Cathedral – Kiev, Ukraine
  5. St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery – Kiev, Ukraine,
  6. Nevsky Cathedral – Tallinn, Estonia
  7. Saint Clement of Ohrid – Skopje, Macedonia
  8. Nativity of Christ Cathedral – Riga, Latvia

 

Bars in the Old Town Square, Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw terraces in old town (stary miasto) Zywiec

Rynek Starego Miasta (Old Town Square), Warsaw, Poland

Caught up in Cold War era stereotypes of a cold, grey Poland, most people don’t realise that Warsaw has surprisingly hot and sunny summers. To get out of the heat but still enjoy the sunshine, Warsaw’s city centre becomes alive with outdoor cafes, markets, beer gardens, and terraces during summer months, such as these ones in the Rynek Starego Miasta, or Old Town Square, in the centre of Warsaw’s old town. (The same is true for the party boats on the Wisla River). Banners on the terraces promote a Polish beer called Zywiec, distilled in a town of the same name in southern Poland near the Polish Tatra Mountains. Nationalised after the war and today part of the Heineken group (one of the Big Five breweries), the Zywiec Brewery was once owned by the famous Hapsburgs, who sued for copyright infringement after the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism. Zywiec is still a point of national pride for the Polish, and is one of Poland’s most delicious beers. A pint is best enjoyed outdoors in Warsaw’s city centre, as Warsaw slowly becomes known across Europe for its restaurants, cafes, festivals and nightlife. For outdoor terraces, grab a drink in any of the bars or terraces in the old town. For cheap drinks hit up the so-called 4 zloty (1€) bars on Nowy Swiat Street. For fancy elegance, try the Hotel Bristol on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, and for gritty student nightlife head over to Pawilony Street hidden behind Nowy Swiat. The hipster bar/club Plan B in Plac Zbiawciela or nearby Czech bar U Szwejka for enormous and cheap beers are also two favourites. There are also plenty of good bars in the up-and-coming Saska Kepa district or the still-seedy Praga district. So many choices, eh? Warsaw is not a city to lack for watering holes, that’s for sure!


Other Great Places to Drink a Beer Outdoors in Europe
  1. Zakopane & Tatra Mountains, Poland
  2. Lyon’s Vieux Lyon district, France
  3. The top of Fisherman’s Bastion, Hungary
  4. Valencia’s main square, Spain
  5. Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Spain
  6. Bari’s labyrinthine city centre, Italy 
  7. Summit of Col Vert, French Alps

 

Novoslobodskaya Station, Moscow Metro, Russia

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Novoslobodskaya Station, Moscow Metro, Russia

Moscow has one of the most beautiful and historic metro systems of the world – certainly Europe in any case – and the looped, Soviet-era Koltsevaya Line right in the centre is the jewel. Novoslobodskaya Station is one of 12 stations, each known for their elaborate decor (the best generally considered to be Komsomolskya Station). These luxurious underground art exhibits, built as “palaces for the people” were designed to awe and inspire Stalin’s subjects, constantly keeping them looking upwards in admiration of the Soviet Union. Interestingly enough, the Novoslobodskaya Station, composed of 32 glass panels supposedly symbolising peace, were created by a group of artists from Latvia, not Russia at all. At the height of Stalinist Architecture, top architects were designing an intricate network of criss-crossing metro lines – with no circle Koltsevaya Line intended. Urban legend has it that the Koltsevaya Line was built when Stalin set down his coffee cup on the plans leaving a circular stain, and the builders were too nervous to ask if he meant to put the ring there, so they built the line. That same legend claims this is the reason the line’s colour is brown. Story or no, the Koltsevaya Line circulates central Moscow and hides some of the most beautiful architecture in Moscow below the millions of feet that walk above these underground museums every day.


Other Beautiful Places in Russia – St Petersburg & Moscow
  1. Komsomolskya Station in Moscow
  2. Smolny Cathedral, St Petersburg
  3. St Basil’s On Red Square, Moscow
  4. Chesme Church, St Petersburg
  5. Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St Petersburg

 

The Canals of Amsterdam, Netherlands

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The Canals of Amsterdam, Netherlands

More than 100 kilometres (60+ miles!) snake their way in, around, and through the historic city of Amsterdam. Known throughout the world for hookers and weed, there is far more to this city than just that. Amsterdam is one of Europe’s great capitals and it isn’t afraid to show it. It is made up of 100+ kilometres of canals, 90+ islands, 1,500+ bridges and countless of the famed Hanseatic facades. Its geography means that it is a compact city – growing up rather than out. When people move into the upper floors of apartments, it’s usually easier to carry large furniture up through the window via a crane rather than up the winding, narrow staircases. Yes, many people come here for the Red Lights and the weed cafes, but if you can pull yourself away, go for an evening stroll through the backstreets and back canals – there, you will see the ‘real’ Amsterdam, the behind-the-curtain Amsterdam. Catch a glimpse of what the city really is – a work of art created and constructed around miles of glittering and glimmering canals.


More Beautiful European Canals Worth a Visit
  1. Bruges, Belgium
  2. Ghent, Belgium
  3. Annecy, France
  4. Strasbourg, France
  5. Copenhagen, Denmark

 

Danish Sugar Factory, Copenhagen, Denmark

Danish Sugar Factory, Copenhagen, Denmark

Danske Sukkerfabrikker Factory, Copenhagen, Denmark

Red clay brick walls line the Port of Copenhagen and the Inner Harbour in Denmark’s infamous Christianshavn district. Now abandoned, this industrial revolution-aged building was once part of De Danske Sukkerfabrikker, later Danisco Sugar and now Nordic Sugar, founded in 1989. Originally nothing more than an extension of Copenhagen’s fortifications, it quickly gained a nautical and working class reputation. Christiania, a neighbourhood within the greater borough of Christianshavn, is perhaps the most well-known part of Christianshavn. Known since the 1970’s the place to get cannabis, Christiania garnered a fantastic Bohemian reputation that it still holds today. It is considered probably the liveliest, most fashionable and interesting part of town to live in, and the residents often identify themselves first as from Christiania, then from Copenhagen, instead of the other way around. As Christianshavn was once part of the port, the neighbourhood is still heavily influenced by this purpose, and buildings such as this sugar factory are not uncommon, though as Copenhagen’s housing demands increase, and the Danish capital slowly gains more international interest and economic significance, the city has reached into its folds for additional housing, and places like Christianshavn are being developed. Christiania, occupying the site of former military barracks and a self-proclaimed ‘autonomous neighbourhood,’ has always been a site of unrest, even skirmishes. Yet, this only seems to make it one of Copenhagen’s most intriguing and exciting places to be!


More About Travelling in Copenhagen
  1. Rosenborg Palace
  2. Nyhavn Harbour
  3. The Swedish Church
  4. The Little Mermaid Statue

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

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Vilnius, Lithuania

The crisp, cool air flows through the ancient alleyways of Vilnius on this winter’s day in this little Baltic nation. Little streets criss-cross Lithuania’s capital city, creating a maze of quiet streets largely ignored by the jet-setting tourists partying in the centre. This elderly gentleman walks his dog along the outside of the ancient stone wall that once surrounded and protected Vilnius from the outside world, the narrow track between the wall and the row of houses serving as a quiet pedestrian route. Despite being Lithuania’s largest city – and the Baltic State’s second-largest city – once you leave the bustling centre to weave the winding network of streets, alleys, and rivers (the broad Neris and the easy-going Vilnia both flow through the capital), Vilnius adopts a surprisingly small-town feel. Charming facades, orthodox churches painted in pastels, quiet riverside promenades and echoing cobblestone alleys are frequented largely by locals, creating a calm but cheerful atmosphere that mixes small-town ease with the vivacity of a European capital – a mix that is hard to find in most of Europe’s capitals and major cities.


More About Travelling in the Baltic Countries

  1. Trakai Castle, Lithuania
  2. Riga, Latvia
  3. Gauja River Valley & Turaida Castle, Latvia
  4. Tallinn, Estonia
  5. Northern Baltic Coast

 

UFO Taste Restaurant, Bratislava, Slovakia

UFO Taste Restaurant over Danuage River in old town of Bratislava, Slovakia

UFO Taste Restaurant, Bratislava, Slovakia 

Is that…a UFO? Little green men? Is the alien invasion hinted at in the X-Files coming true? No…no…and still no. Though bearing an interesting semblance to a flying saucer, this strange structure is the man-made UFO Taste Restaurant, hovering 85m above Bratislava and the beautiful Danube River, where you can gouge on unique Mediterrasian food and sip colorful cocktails while appreciating how tiny the snow-covered buildings, cars and people look far below your table. The restaurant’s immense windows let you appreciate how beautiful the city looks bathed in fog on the chilly winter’s day. Little-known and little-visited Slovakia  with its capital Bratislava may have their setbacks (it’s a small city and a small country, and not always as elegantly magical as nearby Budapest, Prague or Vienna), but there is no doubt that this a proud nation working to recover after so many challenges facing this part of Europe in the last few decades. Unique quirks such as this UFO restaurant, city centre statues like Cumil, arresting graffiti and restaurants that mix tradition with newness are slowly turning this hidden European capital into a shining gem.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

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Nyhavn, Copenhagen, Denmark

No tourism information about Denmark would be complete without at least one mention of the infamous Nyhavn, one of Denmark’s most iconic sights. Translated to mean ‘New Harbour,’ the canal was dug by Swedish prisoners of war in the late 1600s, and most of the elegant, coloured houses lining the canal date to the 17th and early 18th century. With canals that remind one of Venice or Bruges, colourful squares that bring to mind the vibrant ryneks (or main squares) of Poland, a mentality similar to that of the Norwegians and the Swedes, and an architectural style that has a northern, Baltic feel (styles ranging from the Netherlands all the way to Riga), Copenhagen has an inspiring mix of it all. On one side, a bustling capital, and on the other, a calm, clean city, Copenhagen is also a young, hip  and fun town. Nyhavn is a splendid example of how Copenhagen can mix beauty and charm with vivacity and liveliness. Tourists and locals intermingle along the famed quays of Nyhavn; the cafes and restaurants bubble with activity, the air vibrates with multiple languages. The cool, brisk air under sunny skies is a welcome respite. The water laps against the anchored boats, and forks chink from the nearby diners. An afternoon in Nyhavn is an afternoon well-spent.

Liberty Bridge, Budapest, Hungary

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Liberty Bridge, Budapest, Hungary

Thick iron beams and sturdy iron bars may seem like an unusual site to behold in a city so well known for its elegance, old world charm, and beautiful architecture. In order to cross the famed Danube, you have a couple of options if you’re looking for famed landmarks: the magnificent Chain Bridge, or, as pictured here, the industrial-age Liberty Bridge. Connecting the beautiful Gellert Hill (location of Gellert Spa and Hotel), and the bustling Fővám Tér, or Great Market Hall, Liberty Bridge is as important as it is famous. As a cantilever truss bridge with a suspended middle span, it is quite different in structure than anything already spanning Budapest’s waters, but was constructed in a (successful) effort to augment the economy by better connecting Buda and Pest. And yes, Budapest is actually a combination of several communes, including Buda and Pest, whose names and boundaries were combined to create a compound city in 1873. We’ll wrap this up with a fun fact: the final piece of the puzzle (or in this case, the bridge) was symbolically added by Emperor Franz Joseph himself.

 

Riga, Latvia

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Art Nouveau in Riga, Latvia

Art Nouveau (‘new art’) was a style of architecture, art, sculpture, and design popular from roughly 1890 – 1920. Though it swept across Europe, it was particularly popular in Riga, Latvia, with some 40% of the buildings built with Art Nouveau in mind. Inspired by flowers, trees, leaves, water, and other natural elements, Art Nouveau buildings twist and turn; they flow, they spiral, they cascade – they are alive. Riga’s Art Nouveau was less extravagant than that of France’s or Spain’s. But nonetheless, Riga overflows its borders with the simplistic, Romantic version of Art Nouveau. Much of it has survived to this day despite the turbulence of the 20th century, and the city centre is now a designated UNESCO site. By simply meandering and keeping one’s eyes turned upwards, the observant traveller will come across this forgotten cache of treasures hidden away in the Baltic gem that is Riga.

 

Warsaw, Poland

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Warsaw, Poland

When people talk about the ‘Great European Capitals,’ they tend to think of the Big Four: London, Paris, Rome, Vienna. Sometimes Madrid, Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Brussels occasionally get tossed in. In Eastern Europe, Budapest and Prague come to mind. But what about the rest? What about the other capitals that apparently don’t make the cut? The EU currently has 28 members – meaning 28 capitals – and the European continent has 51 countries (if the Caucuses are counted, which it seems now they are) – meaning 51 total capitals. So, what about the other 39 capitals that get ignored, that aren’t considered a Great European Capital? Warsaw is one of those capitals, forgotten on too many itineraries, forgotten to be considered ‘great.’ I suppose this comes from the bad reputation spurred by the war, not to mention the communism that followed. But all that is past now, and Warsaw is – and deserves to be considered as – a Great European Capital. For one, it is beautiful. The Old City has been reconstructed the way it used to look, with as much historical accuracy as possible, now recognised by UNESCO. It is cosmopolitan, and home to Poland’s best universities. The people are absolutely great, welcoming towards foreigners and with a spectacular command of English. Beer is cheap, and the parties are all-nighters. Food is cheap too, not to mention hearty and filling. Warsaw also has a surprising art, music and hipster scene. And the Poles are very proud of their heritage. So, let’s not forget Warsaw, because it’s pretty great too.  PS – did I mention there’s a mermaid in the bottom left-hand corner of that photo?!

 

Zagreb, Croatia

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Zagreb, Croatia

In many ways, Zagreb is a strange little inland city. When one thinks of Croatia, turquoise  waves, orange clay roofs, pristine beaches, soft grey stone, and giant pizzas come to mind – which is a very good description of coastal cities such as Split and Dubrovnik. Both Split and Dubrovnik are amazing destinations in their own right, but have very little to do with Zagreb. One of Europe’s smaller capitals – and one of its least well-known – Zagreb is a hipster inland city resisting mass tourism as hard as it can. The city glitters with its regal governmental and public buildings, shines with its colorfully painted facades, softens with its broad urban squares and parks. Unlike international Split where the air rings with a dozen languages, Zagrab is decidedly Croatian. It is too far from the shiny surface of the Adriatic Sea to attract the same numbers as its coastal cousins, too small to pull in the crowds that other ‘continental’ Central European places like Prague, Budapest, Vienna or Krakow have managed to draw. Instead, Zagreb is quietly humming along to its own markedly Croatian beat – and is all the better for it.

Winchester, England

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Winchester Cathedral, England

Before London was London, England (well, technically Wessex, an ancient kingdom in southern England) was ruled from Winchester. It’s hard to imagine that this cheery, quaint town in southern England was once a major seat of power – but then again, history loves to throw us curve balls (like the fact that Brits were once ruled by Vikings, Russia was still a feudal state until well in the 18th century, Italy wasn’t Italy until the 19th century, and there are still parts of Spain where Spanish is not the most widely spoken language, etc). Originally the Roman city of Venta Belgarum, it became known in 648 as Wintan-ceastre (‘Fort Venta’ in Old English). And by the way – about the Vikings, we owe them the present layout of Winchester; good ol’ Alfred the Great rebuilt Winchester during the 9th century in order to create a better defense against the Viking invaders. Today, Winchester is a quaint city full of lively pubs and historic streets, and makes a great point of entry to visit the even older and more mysterious New Forest

Warsaw, Poland

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Plac Zamkowy, Warsaw, Poland

Ignore everything you know about Poland. Grey, miserable, poor, cold. Throw these ideas out the window because they aren’t true. Some of the most colorful city centres in Europe are found in Warsaw. Some of the most vibrant nightlife is found in Poland. The Polish capital is a lively place, day or night, hot or cold. Whether there is sun or snow, the Polish are always out and about in their city. Do you like beer? How about vodka? Ever tried pierogis? What about kasza or pickles or borscht? Food in Poland, while maybe lacking in the spice department, is hearty, filling, and best of all, cheap. Both Polish beer and vodka are awesome. There’s many beers, but the main ones are Tyskie, Lech, Okocim or my favourite, Zywiec. Warsaw’s bars are largely concentrated in the old town (above), Krakowskie Przedmieście or Nowy Swiat (the streets leading off the old town). The ‘grungy’ place to go out for a beer is Pawlowy, a ‘beer street’ hidden just behind the main avenue.  But no matter where you go in Warsaw, you’ll always find good Polish drinks! The advantage of going out in the old town is that the architecture and the scenery are pretty nice too!

Prague, Czech Republic

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Prague, Czech Republic

Bathed in early-morning light is the only way to visit Prague’s Staré Město, or Old Town. If you only see one Eastern European city, it will probably be Prague. Why? Prague is without doubt one of the most beautiful cities you will ever behold–possibly the most beautiful European city (in my opinion anyway, alongside St Petersburg, Tallinn, Dubrovnik and Ronda). It is also one of the most international–in the space of minutes, no matter the season, one will hear not only English and Czech, but also Polish, Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Danish, Slovakian (should I continue? You’ll hear them all!), as well as plenty of non-European languages. It seems that everyone has discovered the Czech capital–but don’t let that stop you! Prague’s magnificent old town, its massive castle, its picturesque views from Castle Hill, its delicious beer, its unbelievably low prices, and its generally quaint yet elegant appearance is to die for! Its central location makes it easy to visit, as a 5-hour drive in any direction will get you to : Berlin, Bratislava, Budapest, Częstochowa, Dresden, Graz, Krakow, Munich, Nuremburg, Vienna, or Wroclaw !  While in town, be sure to go shopping–they have some of the cheapest prices you’ll ever see–but most importantly, be sure to rise and shine early at least once, because Prague during the sunrise is, well, utterly beautiful!