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

 

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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!

Tallinn, Estonia

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City walls of Tallinn, Estonia

Here, one of Tallinn’s many terracotta-topped towers pokes through the mysterious mist. Unlike many other towns and cities across Europe, Tallinn has been able to keep true to its roots. In fact, Tallinn prides itself on the fact that many of the city’s buildings, churches, houses, warehouses, walls, and towers maintain their original forms. Some even date all the way back to the 11th century–impressive! Especially for such a small country under the constant shadow of nearby giants vying for control over its’ strategic position (namely, Russia, Germany, and Sweden). In fact, Estonia wasn’t even a country for much of its recent history, only gaining its independence in 1991 (and briefly just after WWI). Perhaps because of this loss, the Estonians want to make up for lost time and preserve as much of their history as possible. Tallinn has not been “improved” or “modernised” like so many other European capitals; (think anything from London to Berlin to Warsaw to Madrid). Not that there is anything wrong with this, but sometimes, we need that misty, magical, timeless place with tiny, winding cobblestone roads, local taverns and ancient churches that make us feel as if we’ve travelled back to the middle ages.