THE ULTIMATE TRAVEL GUIDE TO A BEACH HOLIDAY IN ALBANIA

How many of my readers have visited Albania?
I do plan to share many descriptive and personal blogs about destinations in Albania where I have been and I will visit again, but there is one thing that I like to do. I like to “hunt” for other travellers blogs about Albania. In this way I discover new blogs, new and very interesting travellers, because we are used with the ones who go to the most typical places to visit in Europe, not like Albania, which is not yet viewed massively like a first choice touristic destination…Also, I discover their point of view and I have to say I have never been disappointed from what I have found.

My last “discovery” is a very brave and interesting traveller, Heart My Backpack and her post of 2015 about Albanian Riviera.

I contacted her and got the permission to share this post. I hope she doesn’t mind that I will also add some other pictures in this post.

Want a budget beach holiday in Europe? Travel to Albanian Riviera with this guide and you’ll be all set, because Albanian beaches are amazing. I promise.

Totally empty white beaches with crystal clear turquoise water, fresh seafood, baklava and local wine, and prices so low they make Thailand look expensive – isn’t southern Europe just wonderful?

gjipe Gjipe Beach
gjipe2 Gjipe Beach
Wait. Europe?

It doesn’t really seem possible that an undiscovered beach paradise could be found in Europe these days, much less that it would be so affordable. But that’s exactly what the Albanian Riviera is.

Okay, maybe it’s not totally undiscovered, but while there in early June Dan and I had most of the beaches we visited pretty much to ourselves.

After falling for the Albanian Riviera last year, I couldn’t wait to return again – this time with a car! After only spending time on Saranda, Ksamil, Himara and Vlora’s main beaches (and Lazarat, but that’s another story…), this time I was determined to explore every nook and cranny of the Riviera and find the best secret beach spots.

And that’s exactly what we did!

Car Rental in Albania

To properly explore Albania’s best beaches, you’ll definitely need a car. Or at least, you will if you want to see all the best, hidden beaches in Albania! During my first trip to Albania I hitchhiked and took the bus everywhere, but this time I wanted to be able to stop at all the hidden spots I saw from the road, so we rented a car in Tirana for a week.

Car rental in Albania isn’t too expensive, but it’s SO worth it. You can see so much more with a car, plus renting a car in Albania meant that we could get to totally deserted beaches instead of sticking to the more popular (and crowded) beach spots like Ksamil and Vlora.

Driving in Albania

A lot of people have asked me about driving in Albania, and while Dan was actually the one doing the driving, I would say it really isn’t so bad. Most of the roads of little traffic, and for the most part the roads are very wide and nicely paved. And I felt like Albanian drivers were very reasonable – it certainly wasn’t a scary place to be driving.

Well, it was fine aside from the time we drove down Albania’s Death Road – but that’s far away from the Albanian beaches, so you probably won’t be headed there.

I would recommend renting a car through a global chain as their prices are lower and the companies are reliable – I usually use Sixt because it’s the cheapest, but also has good customer service. In fact you can save 10% on car rental in Albania with this link

Travel to Saranda

Saranda (Sarandë) is the main city along the Albanian Riviera, though with around 30,000 inhabitants it’s not exactly huge. While this is probably the main destination for tourists on the Riviera, it’s not actually the best for beaches – but it’s a fine base from which to explore some nearby beaches, as well as Butrint, the ruins of an ancient city nestled in a dense forest.

While there are better beach spots along the coast, Saranda is well worth a stop to get a feel for Albania’s beach towns. You can buy cheap seafood and produce (try the cherries!!) at a local market, check out the shops and restaurants along the main beach promenade, and walk up to Lekursi Castle for some unreal views.

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Don’t forget to wave smugly at the throngs of tourists across the bay in Corfu, paying three times as much to swim in these same waters. I mean, if you’re the sort of person to do something like that, which of course you aren’t. Me neither.

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The Best Saranda Hotels and Hostels

DEMI HOTEL // for those wanting a luxury hotel in Saranda

This four star hotel is right on the beach, and it’s absolutely worth upgrading to a sea view room for a balcony overlooking the water! This is a family-run hotel so it has a lot more character than a big chain, and the staff are super sweet and helpful here.

Click here for current rates and availability at Demi Hotel

BED & BREAKFAST AHMETI // for those looking for a mid-range hotel in Saranda

This B&B is run by a very nice family and I love that it’s within easy walking distance of the city center while still being tucked away from the noise downtown (it’s about a 10 minute walk uphill from the center). They also have parking spaces available here, so you won’t need to stress over finding a spot on the street.

Click here for current prices and availability at B&B Ahmeti

DOLPHIN HOSTEL // for those traveling to Saranda on a budget

Dan and I stayed at Dolphin Hostel while in Saranda, which I couldn’t recommend more highly! Even when we arrived exhausted from a harrowing drive from Tirana we somehow ended up staying up late into the night talking with the hostel’s manager.

Breakfast is included (and amazing!) and on our second night he cooked everyone a delicious meal of fish and fresh clams, which mysteriously only cost us each 1 euro. The best!

Click here for current prices and availability at Dolphin Hostel

Ksamil – a favorite Albanian beach town

A 15-minute car or bus ride away from Saranda, Ksamil is where everyone goes to see the nicest Albanian beaches. These are some of the only truly sandy beaches on the Albanian Riviera (most have smooth white stones).

The only downside to Ksamil is that its beaches are fairly small and often privately owned, so you’ll have to pay a couple of dollars for a beach chair or drink/snack to use the beach, and there are more people here. I mean, by Albanian standards, which really just means you’ll see 4 or 5 other people on the beach.

Ksamil is perfect if you want a pretty beach without traveling far from the center of things. You could even stay in a lovely apartment right by the beach there.

The Best Hotels and Apartments in Ksamil

HOTEL CASTLE // mid-range to luxury hotel accommodation in Ksamil

There actually isn’t really any true luxury hotel accommodation in Ksamil, but Hotel Castle is still quite luxurious, especially with its gorgeous views out over the Albanian Riviera. It’s right by the beach and near town and the design is sort of hilarious Albanian kitsch in a building meant to look like a castle!

Check current rates and availability here

VILLA MARKU SOANNA // mid-range apartment accommodation in Ksamil

Villa Marku is run by a really lovely family who speak good English, and the apartments are right by the sea and near the town center. The owners will happily give you tips and advice for exploring the area, though you could also just relax near the hotel as it’s close by everything.

Check current rates and availability here

KSAMIL APARTMENTS // budget apartment accommodation in Ksamil

The Ksamil Apartments are a short walk both to the beach and the town center, but still in a quiet area. The apartments are spacious with balconies and really for the price they are such a good bargain.

Check current rates and availability here

Ksamilksamil2

The Blue Eye (Syri Kalter)

Okay, this is a spring, not an Albanian beach, but you might want to forget the seaside and just spend your entire Albanian holiday gazing into it.

Water in The Blue Eye bubbles up from more than 50 meters deep at a sort of alarming rate. Seriously, where is it all coming from, and how can it be that blue? Is Albania’s tourism board secretly dumping dye into this thing each morning?

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The Blue Eye spring is about a 25 minute drive inland from Saranda (on the way to Girokaster) and I’ve heard that it can get crowded in the summer with people swimming, but in early June it was empty – and freezing!

And before heading back to Saranda drive farther up into the mountains for some pretty stunning views!

Drive the SH8 from Saranda to Himara

The drive along the seaside from Saranda to Himara is stunning, and full of turn-offs into little abandoned beaches. We simply turned down every small road we passed that looked like it was heading towards the water, and not once were we disappointed.

llogara pass
Llogara pass
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Porto Palermo Beach
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Llaman
borsh
Borsh Beach
dhermi
Dhermi Beach

One of my favorite spots was a teeny tiny strip of beach right after Porto Palermo – the view of the little islands from the road wasn’t terrible either!

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One of my favorite spots was a teeny tiny strip of beach right after Porto Palermo – the view of the little islands from the road wasn’t terrible either!

We stayed at Himara Riviera Rooms, where we had a lovely little apartment with a balcony overlooking the sea. The owners were SO lovely and this is really my #1 recommendation for a hotel in Himara. It really is just perfect.

Check current prices and availability at Himara Riviera Rooms

CAMPING KRANEA // budget accommodation in Himara

Our first night we camped at Camping Kranea on a beach in the north of town, and it was so, so lovely to wake up right on the beach. If you’re on a very tight budget this is an excellent option.

Check current rates and availability 

RAPOS RESORT HOTEL // luxury hotel in Himara

This is the only real resort in Himara, and it has amazing sea views from its rooms, a swimming pool, and a beach right in front of the hotel. The wonderful thing about a beach holiday in Albania is that a hotel like this isn’t even expensive – if you want to escape to a beach resort I would highly recommend heading here!

Check current prices and availability at Rapos Resort Hotel

The Best Albanian Beaches near Himara

One of my favorite beaches in the area wasn’t actually in Himara, but 10 kilometers north in Jala. Jali Beach wasn’t as empty as other beaches we went to, but I enjoyed sunning myself with the locals and taking in the relaxing atmosphere of the small beachside village.

Travel to Dhermi

Dhermi (Dhërmi) was my favorite place we stayed in Albania! Dhermi Beach is the longest I saw in Albania and seems to cater to more upscale tourists. The village itself lies up a hill from the water and has beautiful old stone houses built into the side of a mountain. If you want the best Albanian beach experience, I would definitely recommend heading to Dhermi (in fact I have recommended a beach holiday in Dhermi to so many of my friends!).

Best Hotels in Dhermi

GUEST HOUSE FOUR SEASONS // budget to mid-range hotel in Dhermi

We stayed in a double room at Guest House Four Seasons, which had a balcony overlooking the sea and was surprisingly cheap. It felt like being on a luxury holiday, but on a backpacker’s budget.

Click here for current prices and availability at the Guest House Four Seasons

SARAJET E PASHAIT // mid-range to luxury hotel in Dhermi

I had dinner here one night and it was SO nice. The food was amazing, the restaurant has a view over the water, and it’s really close to a sandy beach. If you want a luxury Albanian beach escape, I’d definitely come here!

Click here for current rates and availability at Sarajet e Pashait

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Dhermi

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The Best Beaches near Dhermi

Dhermi is also just 8 kilometers from what might be Albania’s most beautiful beach: Gjipe Beach.

You’ll have to walk the last couple of kilometers, but I promise it’s worth it! This was definitely my happy place on the Albanian Riviera, and I plan on returning to Gjipe Beach again and again.

Driving from Dhermi to Vlora and Tirana

And, if you’re heading north from Dhermi you’re in for a serious treat – well, unless you’re prone to carsickness. The hairpin curves on the road climbing the mountain towards Vlora are brutal, but they’ll take you to a heavenly view of the coastline.

Albania Cultural Tour: North to South

Albania may be a little country but there is a lot to see and do in this exciting up-and-coming location. Bordering Macedonia, Greece, Kosovo and Montenegro, Albania’s long coastline is one of the most ruggedly beautiful in the world.

While Albania is slowly becoming more popular with tourists it remains extremely undiscovered, as well as almost completely unspoiled. Albania boasts some of the best examples of Ottoman architecture in the world, along with supremely clear Mediterranean air and stunningly fabulous beaches.

And, perhaps best of all, travelling to Albania remains an extremely affordable trip, even compared to much of the rest of this part of Europe. Let’s start with the city and cultural tour North to South.

1. Gjirokastra

The City of Stone

Old City Gjirokastra

Old City Gjirokastra
The old bazaar

The city of Gjirokastra is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and is one of the most attractive tourist sites of the country. Perched on the eastern side of the Wide Mountain (Mali i Gjërë), the city began as a fourth century castle, which is today the greatest castle in the whole country. Inside the fortress is the Museum of Weapons, where weapons of different periods up until the Second World War are displayed. Gjirokastra is known as “The City of Stone”


The museum city of Gjirokastra was built on the eastern side of “Mali i Gjerë”. Since 2005, it has been in UNESCO World Heritage site. The origin of the city starts with the castle of Gjirokastra, built in IV century AD. The main characteristic of Gjirokastra is the intensive use of stone in building the houses, which look like small fortresses, the streets of cobblestone, which all lead to Bazaar. Due to all these features, Gjirokastra is also known as the “The Stone City”.

Zekati family houseGjirokastra FortressThe most important structure of the city is the castle, which is the biggest castle in Albania. You can also visit the house of Zekati family in Palorto, in a dominating position, which has undergone restoration. It is one of the most magnificent and characteristic buildings of Gjirokastra. Built in 1811-1812, it is a magnificent three-floor building and has two twin towers.

2. Butint
The Microcosmos of Mediterranean

Butrint Ancient theatreButrint mosaicButrintButrint Ancient theatreThe first Albanian site to be included on UNESCO’s World Heritage was Butrint, in the south of the country, in 1992. It has been inhabited since prehistoric times and was a part of the Greek and Roman colonies.
The most ancient objects found at the archeological site in Butrint are a stone hammer and a shaft belonging to the second half of the second millennium B.C.

Hekateus made first mention of the city at the end of the sixth century B.C., affirming that the city was built according to Troy and that the origin of the name refers to the sacrifice of a bull, Buthrotos, provided by the Trojan prince Aeneas on his way to Dodona. During its early period, Butrint was the center of the Kaonic tribes, later to become part of the kingdom of Epirus.

The most extraordinary objects discovered in the theater of Butrint are the statue of Apollo, the goddess of Butrint, the marble heads of Zeus, the portrait of Agrippina, the head of Livia and many Latin and Greek epigraphs. Parts of the city were rebuilt during the fifth century B.C.

3. Apollonia
Where Roman emperor Augustus study philosophy

APOLLONIAAPOLLONIAAPOLLONIAApollonia was an ancient Greek colony city and former bishopric in Illyria , located on the right bank of the Aous river (modern-day Vjosa). Its ruins are situated in the Fier region, near the village of Pojani (Polina), in modern-day Albania.
The ancient city of Apollonia is situated in southwestern Albania, about 13 miles from the city of Fier. The fascinating landscape of the archeological park, which has been preserved in an exceptionally intact condition, comprises a successful combination between the beauty of monuments and nature, attractive through its long history, in an atmosphere of relaxation and meditation. Its foundation took place immediately after the foundation of Epidamnus – Dyrrachium and quickly became one of the most eminent cities of the Adriatic basin, which was mentioned more frequently from the other 30 (thirty) cities bearing the same name during Antiquity. The city lay in the territory of the political communion of the Taulantii and was broadly known as Apollonia of Illyria. According to the tradition it was founded during the first half of the 6th century BC by Greek colonist from Corfu and Corinth, led by Gylax, which named the city after his name (Gylakeia). After its quick establishment the city changed its name to Apollonia, according to the powerful divinity Apollo. It stands on a hilly plateau from where expands the fertile plain of Musacchia with the Adriatic Sea and the hills of Mallakastra. The ruins of Apollonia are discovered in the beginning of the 19th century.

This archaeologic park or site contain also a Museum of Archaeology that is situated at the old Monastery of Saint Mary .

4. Berat
2400 year old museum city

BERAT1Berat Old CityBERAT CASTLEThis 2,413 years-old city, the pride of Albanian architecture which is under the protection of UNESCO, is located 120 km from Tirana. The city forms a wonderful combination of eastern and western cultures, costumes, traditions and outlook. Berat is a treasure-trove of Albanian history, culture and a testament to the country’s tradition of religious harmony
The city’s life began in the 6th-5th century B.C. as an Illyrian settlement. Later, in the 3rd century B.C., it was turned into a castle city known as Antipatrea. The castle expanded afterwards, particularly during the feudal dominion of the Muzakaj family. Inside the castle, they built churches with valuable frescoes and icons, and also a calligraphy school. Uniquely today, residents still live inside of the castle walls. The three major neighborhoods of the old city are Mangalemi, Gorica, and Kala, where the castle itself is located.

5. Kruja
The City of Scanderbeg

Kruja MuseumKruja CastleKRUJA The Old BazaarKruja is just 32km away from Tirana and very close to Tirana International Airport. This historic city is 608m above sea level and offers an open vista to an amazing panoramic view.
The name and the importance of the city are closely related to the 25 years of activity of our national hero, Skanderbeg, who in the fifteenth century made Kruja a bastion of uncompromising resistance against the Ottoman. The Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg Museum is situated inside the castle walls, which date back to the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.

The museum itself was inaugurated in 1981. Within the walls of the castle are also the Ethnographic Museum and the Dollma Tekke. Near the castle’s entrance is a traditional market, which dates back to the period of Skanderbeg. Here, tourists can find Albanian craft products such as embroidered items, carpeting, silver objects, copper, alabaster, filigree, traditional clothing, antiques at the traditional Old Baazar of Kruja .

6. Shkodra
Gateway to the Albanian Alps

Shkodra, it is one of the oldest cities in the country, founded in the 4th century B.C. as the center of the Labeat tribe of Illyrians known with the name Scodra .
Shkodra has been occupied several times throughout history: First by the Romans (168 B.C.), then the Serbians (1040), the Venetians (1396), and finally by the Ottomans (1479).
The city returned to Albanian control as the feudal principality of the Balshaj during the 14th century and served as the municipal center of the Bushatllinj Pashallëk from 1757 to 1831. Shkodra is very rich in cultural heritage , the city itself as well as the people bear pride in the large number of artists, musicians, painters, photographers, poets, and writers born here. Shkodra’s main tourist attraction is Rozafa Castle. Rising majestically upon a rocky hill west of the city, the outcroppings and battlements paint a blazing picture against the setting sun.

Shkodra is one of the most important cities of Albania and is also known to be the center of Albanian Catholicism , Culture and Harmony between different religions .

The lake of Shkodra is also suggested to visit , to bath , or to eat some of the best dishes of Albanian cuisine like Krap ne tave typical for this region .

3 lakes, view from castleCastle of ShkodraShkodra Pedonale

7. Tirana

The lively capital

We all can say convinced that the capital of Albania has transformed into a lively, affordable destination. And I might add, that every foreigner I have met there has falled in love with the city.

Interest in Balkan countries has soared significantly in recent years, with curious travelers now regularly seeking out the serenity of the Adriatic Sea and medieval, stone-walled cities like Dubrovnik in Croatia and Kotor in Montenegro. Tirana does not embody such traditional allure. Instead, it impresses as a soulful, urban hub with a strong personality shaped by a turbulent history.

Much like Sarajevo remarkably moved past the atrocities of the 1990s to evolve into a thriving Eastern European capital, Albania is looking past its own decades of horror and isolation to the future.

This is only the main cultural scene of Albania. Many more to come on beaches and entertainment on future blogs. Stay posted.

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5 Tips Not to Look Like a Tourist In Paris

If you want to blend in with the locals in Paris, these are the tips you need: how to dress, how to greet people, and why you need to know at least a few words of French.

caffeHow to greet someone

Start off on the right foot by greeting people with “bonjour” (hello). It’s not only polite to do when you’re introduced directly to someone, but also when you go into a shop, when you’re first approached by a waiter at a restaurant, even when entering an elevator. While this may seem a little much, it’s an important way to ingratiate yourself with the locals—and, in return, you’ll receive much better service or attention.

Do let the French person take the lead with cheek kissing, in order to avoid awkwardly misplaced lips or a shuffle of heads. You should also follow suit with the number of kisses exchanged. The general norm in Paris calls for just one kiss on each cheek, but some groups of friends have their own customs. Additionally, some regions around France follow different rules.

Do shake hands when being introduced to a formal business contact, shop owner, or concierge, unless otherwise approached by them to give you la bise.

In the evening, you should technically say “bonsoir” (good evening), though the start time of saying this is somewhat fuzzy. It’s typically said as evening starts to fall, but in summer that ends up being rather late. Still, some others start saying bonsoir as soon as they leave work; a safe bet is to begin using that salutation around 7pm. If you say bonjour during the evening, it’s better than nothing, but you might be quickly tagged as a foreigner.

Do’s and Don’t’s:

Do exchange _la bise _(a light kiss on each cheek) in social situations between women; it’s also okay between men and women.

Do not greet another man with a kiss if you’re a man; shake hands instead. Men normally don’t give each other la bise unless they are very, very good friends or family; even then it’s rare.

What to wear:

Catherine Baba.jpgTo fit in with locals, it’s best to leave behind any sweatpants, baseball caps, flip-flops and white sneakers. Parisians are generally quite stylish, but that doesn’t necessarily mean extravagant haute couture outfits—instead, think casual chic. You’ll likely see Parisian women wearing some combinations of skinny jeans, an up-and-coming designer top, Converse, or ballerina flats. Parisians also love their trenchcoats (which they call le trench) and blazers, and wearing a long scarf will also help you blend in.

Fanny-packs or large colorful backpacks are a dead giveaway for tourists; if the latter is necessary, keep it more on the discreet side. Another option is to pick up a very Parisian Longchamp bag, a nice leather purse, or a chic bag designed for men. Lastly, while you might be tempted to purchase a beret while you’re here, unless you’re planning on playing petanque with elderly gentleman, you should save it for back home.

How to walk and talk:

Parisians walk with a purpose, but that doesn’t equate to a race through the streets; rather, they walk at a steady but determined pace. It’s good form to walk on the right side of the sidewalk (this also applies to escalators), but on busy streets it can be a bit of a free-for-all. If you need to look at your map, “pull over” and consult it to the side of the road instead of in the middle of the sidewalk: this will save you from the evil stares, huffs or nudges of your fellow pedestrians.

Contrary to some stereotypes of Mediterraneans, Parisians are very soft speakers. Speaking loudly in public is frowned upon, but it can also make you stand out as a tourist and thus lead to unwanted attention, particularly from pickpockets.

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Learning the local language:

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It’s polite to learn a few key phrases in French; this will earn you the respect of locals, and help you in the end. As mentioned above, the friendly bonjour is essential. Other key expressions include au revoir (good bye), _merci (thank you), s’il vous plait _(please) and l’addition (the bill). One thing not to do: Hail your waiter by saying garcon! If anything, it will likely encourage a waiter to take his sweet time in actually bringing you the bill.

10 best cities for a winter holiday

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Cold rains and gray skies make winter a trial. But hot drinks, snowy slopes, frozen lakes and a bright yellow sun? That’s the kind of winter we can all wrap our mittens around.
And winter actually seems to bring out the best in some cities. Here are 10 around the world that make for a great cold-weather holiday:

1. Prague, Czech Republic

Prague

With its snow-capped spires and cobbled, winding streets, Prague is a fairytale city that remains relatively tourist-free in winter.
The stunning architecture looks even prettier under a sheet of snow, with one of the most beautiful areas being the old town, with its turrets and Romanesque vaults. Gas street lamps were recently reinstalled throughout the city center, adding a romantic hue to evenings. Cafes here are ideal for escaping the bitter cold.
What to do:Choco Cafe is a great place to take a breather from intense winter sightseeing in the Old Town,” says travel blogger Girl in Czechland. “It’s full of comfy chairs and sofas and they have more than a dozen kinds of hot chocolate, which is so thick you can practically stand a spoon up it in it.”

2. Salzburg, Austria

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With its backdrop of Christmas carols and traditional markets, this is a perfect city for a winter break. “Silent Night” was performed for the first time in the Oberndorf on the outskirts of Salzburg on Christmas Eve in 1818.
The city’s main market is held in the shadow of Salzburg’s Hohensalzburg fortress, but the one held in Mirabell Square is especially popular with foodies who come to sample local delicacies such as halusky — pieces of dumpling mixed with fried bacon.
 What to do: For a different perspective on Christmas, there’s the Christmas manger exhibition at the Panorama Museum on Residenzplatz between November 29 and January 12.
Panorama Museum, Residenzplatz 9, Salzburg; +43 662 620808-730; everyday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

3. Tromso, Norway

Tromso: One of the world's best spots for northern lights.
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Tromso: One of the world’s best spots for northern lights.
Courtesy Gaute Bruvik/Visitnorway.com
There are several reasons Tromso, known as the capital of the Arctic, is great in winter. It’s widely regarded as Norway’s most beautiful city and is a base for spotting the northern lights.
There are also several fascinating museums, including the Polar Museum, which offers an insight into the history of Arctic expeditions, and the Tromso Museum, which is famous for its Sami exhibitions.
 What to do: The Perspektivet Museum on Storgata offers fascinating insight into Norwegian art.
Perspektivet Museum, Storgata 95, Tromsø; +47 77 60 19 10; Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

4. Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam

In winter, Amsterdam’s museums are empty, making it the time to visit attractions such as Rijksmuseum or the Anne Frank House. Built originally to house a circus, the Royal Carré Theatre celebrated its 125th anniversary last year. Children will love the spectacular performances, which feature athletes from Russia, North Korea and China.
 What to do: For Christmas shopping, smaller shopping areas like Haarlemmerstraat in the Jordaan, the Spiegelkwartier and the Negen Straatjes are better than the big department stores.

5. Nagano, Japan

Nagano, Japan.jpg

As a former Winter Olympics host city, Nagano is a great base for exploring nearby ski resorts. The natural hot springs on the outskirts are perfect after a day on the slopes. Beautiful, snow-covered Buddhist temples are worth checking out, as is the Togakushi Minzoku-kan folklore museum, which has a fascinating display about the ninjas who once trained there.
A top tip? “The Neapolitan pizza oven place Qui E La that’s tucked away in a private home in the woods is an even more welcome refuge in winter,” says travel blogger Una, founder of lets-get-lost.com.
 What to do: The Zenkō-ji temple, built in the 7th century, ranks as the third largest wooden temple in Japan. Zenkō-ji (Japanese only), 491-i Nagano-Motoyoshicho, Nagano-shi; +81 26 234 3591

6. Reykjavík, Iceland

Hiding within -- great geothermal pools.
Although Iceland’s capital city is one of Europe’s coldest spots, it has plenty of natural hot springs to warm up in (some of the best can be found in the Nauthólsvík area of the city). The annual Winter Lights Festival, which takes place in February, is a spectacular celebration of winter.
Visitors can try their hand at a wide range of winter sports or skate on the city’s Tjörnin pond. Many cozy coffee houses sell rúgbrauð — locally made, dark, sweet bread.
“An unmissable experience during winter is a dip in one of the city’s many outdoor geothermal swimming pools,” says Eliza Reid, who co-founded icelandwritersretreat.com with Erica Green. “There is no experience quite like soaking in these naturally warm waters with snowflakes tickling your nose. Each swimming pool has its own character, and everyone has their favorite.”
Where to eat: Dill restaurant in the Nordic House cultural center. Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason is passionate about local produce and the food here is some of the freshest in Iceland.
What to do: Harpa, the city’s concert hall, was designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson to reflect Iceland’s geology. It’s constructed from more than a thousand glass blocks.
Harpa, Austurbakki 2, Reykjavík, +354 428 5000; daily, 8 a.m.-midnight

7. Munich, Germany

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Christmas markets are the ideal destination for pre-Christmas retail therapy.Munich’s famous Christmas market, the Christkindl Markt, dates back to 1642. It is celebrated on the city’s central square, Marienplatz, in the heart of the Old Town. A 100-feet high Christmas tree towers over traditionally decorated booths which offer everything from mulled wineand Lebkuchen (gingerbread), to Bavarian woodcarvings, handmade toys, and glass crystals. Markets open on November 25th and are held daily til December 24th, 2016. Don’t miss the traditional Christmas concerts that are held every day at 17:30 on the balcony of Munich’s Town Hall for free. What to do: The Tollwood Winter Festival is held on the same fairgrounds as Oktoberfestand features an international Christmas market, where you can hunt for treasures from around the world and sample organic ethnic food. Locals love this festival for its colorful cultural program, which is famous for its world music, art workshops, and theatre and circus performances. The market will be held from November 23rd til December 31st, 2016. Entrance is free, but some performances require tickets. If you arrive after Christmas, take part in the legendary Silvester (New Year’s Eve) party.

8. Ottawa, Canada

Ottawa, Canada

Ottawa’s Winterlude festival is one of the world’s largest winter festivals and is famous for its ice sculptures, outdoor concerts and toboggan courses.
The Christmas Lights Across Canada scheme sees some of the city’s largest monuments and buildings bedecked with Christmas lights.
From January, the city has the world’s coolest commute — the 7.8-kilometer (4.8-mile) Rideau Canal Skateway, which is used by commuters, schoolchildren and students to get through the heart of downtown.
What to do: From January to February visitors can take a spin on the world’s largest natural ice rink — the Rideau Canal.
Rideau Canal Skateway; +1 613 239 5234; January-February

9. Washington D.C., United States

Lightning up a white Christmas every year.
Lightning up a white Christmas every year.
Courtesy washington dc
If you’re arriving in Washington by rail, you shouldn’t miss the enormous, 30-foot Christmas tree that was given to Union Station by the Embassy of Norway. In November and December, the ZooLights show at the National Zoo opens late and stages spectacular light shows.
The White House and Lincoln Memorial look especially beautiful in the snow. During winter, the Washington Ballet stages performances the Nutcracker.
What to do: Zoolights at Washington Zoo kicks off on November 29 and lasts until January 1. Half a million individual LEDS turn the popular attraction into a veritable winter wonderland.
Zoolights at the Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.; +1 202 633 4888; November 29-January 1, daily, 5-9 p.m.

10. Edinburgh, Scotland

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Cobbled streets, a beautiful castle and lovely public gardens make Edinburgh a beautiful city any time of year, but in winter it’s breathtaking. Since the launch of Virgin Atlantic’s Little Red service, it’s even easier to get to, with regular flights between other UK cities including Manchester and London.
Princes Street Gardens are transformed into a wonderland, complete with ice skating rink, enormous Christmas tree and a Ferris wheel, all in the shadow of the castle. On the edge of the city, Arthur’s Seat is the perfect location for a winter walk and the views from the top are second to none.
Where to eat: Edinburgh isn’t about haggis and tatties. For fine dining, One Square restaurant and bar at the Sheraton Grand on Festival Square is the place to go. The drinks menu is impressive — there are 52 types of gin to choose from.
One Square, 1 Festival Square, Edinburgh, +44 131 221 6422; daily, 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
What to do: A tour around Edinburgh’s underground vaults is a great way to learn about the city’s fascinating history.
Princes Street Gardens, Princes Street; +44 131 529 7921

19 Surprising Facts About Malta

I want to start by saying how lucky I feel to have witness the Azure Window in Gozo Island, Malta, only a few months before the earthquake crashed it. Also, as a fan of Game of Thrones, I feel almost proud I witnessed such a spectacular place that demonstrates the force of Nature.

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Witnessing Azure Window

Let’s start with the fun facts: There are over 200 islands in the Mediterranean, but a whopping 90% of tourists stay on just 10% of them.

1. Calypso Cave is said to be the cave that Homer wrote about in The Odyssey. The cave itself isn’t all that great, but the views of the nearby beach are.

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2. There are three islands of Malta: Gozo, Comino and Malta, the country that sits about 50 miles south of Sicily.

3. The official languages are English and Maltese, which sounds Arabic.

4. Victoria, the capital of Gozo, is also known as Rabat. It’s famous for its beautiful Cittadella, which goes way back to the Middle Ages.

5. Mdina, the nation’s old, walled capital, only allows cars of residents on its roads.

6. Peak beach season can last until through mid-fall.

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Malta, Paola, Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, Interior

7. Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground necropolis, UNESCO World Heritage and was excavated around 2,500 B.C.

8. They drive on the left.

9. Comino, the smallest of the islands, is virtually uninhabited—save one hotel—and is carless. Blue Lagoon is its biggest attraction and it’s not hard to see why.

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The Blue Lagoon, Comino Island, Malta

10. The Brits ruled Malta until 1964, when it became independent.

11. There are more than a few sunken WWII ships along the coastline.

12. Valletta, its current capital, is one of the most concentrated historical areas in the world, according to UNESCO.

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Valletta Skyline

13. One of the “three cities,” Vittoriosa (aka Birgu) was damaged in WWII but Fort St. Angelo, which was built in 870, remains.

14. It’s a walkers paradise, with numerous tours to take visitors along the coastline of Malta and Gozo.

15. The 16th century Verdala Palace, is now the official summer residence of the President. It’s closed to the public except during the Ball of the August Moon party, which is on August 3. Get your tickets online…for real.

16. Malta was the 48th happiest country on earth, according to a 2013 UN report. For those keeping score, the U.S. was 17th.

17. San Blas Bay is a red sand beach on the northeast coast of Gozo.

18. Azure Window is Gozo’s naturally flat-topped rock, which you can’t walk on, but you can bathe nearby (now collapsed).

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Game of Thrones Season I

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19. Hagar Qim, which dates back some 5,000 years, is the best preserved ancient limestone temple on Malta.

Don’t miss this amazing country in summer and winter (almost 20°C in February)

AMAZING!

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https://www.visitmalta.com/en/home

 

Luxembourg Gardens – Photo Essay

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A warm-weather oasis that offers the simplest of pleasures, the Luxembourg Gardens provide ample green space for relaxing, sun-soaking in Paris and people-watching. When the city bustle becomes too overwhelming, meander around the paths and formal gardens, or just relax with a picnic. Kids can float sailboats at the Grand Basin, ride ponies or take a spin on the merry-go-round. Adults might delight in the on-site Musee du Luxembourg, the first French museum that was opened to the public.

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People watching (chilling)
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People watching (next time I pose like him)
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Young photographer here

 

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The Gardens also have sports courts, including basketball and baseball, but travelers say the best way to unwind here is to just kick back and admire the surrounding scenery. You’ll find Luxembourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement (neighborhood), just a short walk from both the Odéon (line 4 and 10) and Notre-Dame des Champs (line 12) metro stops. You can tour the garden for free but there is a fee to enter the Musee du Luxembourg.

 

Best way to see Mont Saint-Michel from Paris

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Rising out of the sea in the Baie de Saint-Michel on the coast of Normandy, the island of Mont Saint-Michel and its magnificent abbey are among France’s most striking sights. The Abbey of Saint-Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, perches on the highest point of the rocky islet. Looking like a fortified castle surrounded by ancient walls and bastions, it is one of the most awe-inspiring Gothic churches ever built.

Mont Saint-Michel

Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel

Known as “La Merveille” (“The Marvel”), the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is truly a marvel of medieval architecture. Since the Middle Ages, this ultimate pilgrimage site has also been called “The Heavenly Jerusalem” and “Pyramid of the Seas.” Soaring to a height of 155 meters above the sea, the abbey is an amazing feat of construction. It is even more miraculous considering the difficulties of bringing building materials across the Bay of Saint-Michel; many perished while attempting to cross the bay’s sandy shores during unforeseen riptides. In spite of great technical challenges, the abbey was built between the 11th and 13th centuries in exquisite Gothic style.

Although getting to this remote setting from Paris may not present the dangers it did to medieval pilgrims, it can still be a challenge. It takes about 3.5 hours to drive there and about an hour longer by train to Rennes and then by bus. With so many things to do here, you’ll want to spend at least four hours to tour the abbey’s cloister, refectory, and ramparts; have lunch; and see the extreme tides shift the landscape between water and sand. This makes a long day for a driver. A more convenient way is to join a full-day tour to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris that includes direct transportation by bus or van. Or you can stay overnight either in the village below the abbey or in nearby hotels on the mainland.

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Inside the Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel Pilgrimages

At the end of July, there is a pilgrimage across the Bay of Saint-Michel. However the pilgrimage depends on the tides. Those interested in taking this pilgrimage should check with the tourist office before planning a trip. There is also an important pilgrimage, known as the Autumn Pilgrimage, at the end of September on Saint Michael’s Day. The pilgrimage celebrates the Archangel Michael and several religious events. On the nearest Sunday to Saint Michael’s Day, a solemn mass is held in the Abbey Church. Later that day, there are vespers and an evening mass at the Parish Church. On September 29th (Saint Michael’s Day), the Abbey Church and Parish Church hold morning prayers and mass.

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Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Mont Saint Michel

Tours to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris: Enjoy the lovely Normandy landscapes while someone else drives you from central Paris on a 14.5-hour Mont Saint-Michel Day Trip that includes transportation, lunch, and a guided historic walking tour through the abbey and ramparts, as well as time to explore on your own.

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You can even relax reading a book

Getting to Mont Saint-Michel

If arriving by car, park in the parking lot which is located on the mainland two-and-a-half kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel. From the parking lot, a shuttle bus drops visitors off 400 meters from the entrance gates to Mont Saint-Michel.

If planning to arrive by foot, first inquire about the tides. It is important to pay close attention to the schedule of the tides as it is extremely dangerous to venture into the bay when the water is rising. During spring tide days, visitors must cross two hours before the tides. Also note that walking across the bay is best done in bare feet.

Official site: http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/en/accueil.htm