Croatia – Off the beaten path

boats on Vis island

Dubrovnik, Rovinj, Hvar, Plitvice, Split, Krk – a few of those rightfully famous places we know Croatia for. No doubt about it, the first trips of any newcomer to this country must lead to the spots above. However, those who return to this Adriatic gem will surely want more than that. There must also be alternatives to these medieval coastal towns, favoured islands and national parks invaded by thousands of tourists. I have good news for you: there are! And they are not just ok places. They are awesome top destinations everyone should get to know.

Varaždin church
The medieval city of Varaždin.

In the north of the country, just half an hour from Zagreb, you will find the medieval town of Varaždin. With its Gothic towers and its City Museum the fortress is the main attraction to discover. This small town also offers numerous examples of baroque architecture – palaces, mansions, churches will take your breath away, especially during the Baroque Evenings classical music festival and during Špancirfest around the end of the summer. The latter attracts thousands of visitors every year to see the city turn upside down with concerts, arts and crafts booths, great local eateries and street performers.

smallest city Hum
The smallest city of the world – Hum

Another great area to further discover is Istria. Besides the well-known cities of Pula, Rovinj and Poreč I recommend you to visit Vodnjan and Hum. The latter is known as the smallest city on Earth.With its crazy small population of only around 30 people it still boasts urban features like a church, a post office, and a town hall, hence it gained the title that attracts visitors all year around. Hum is also worth a visit because of the local mistletoe flavoured brandy, Biska, and the truffles that can be found in the region. Vodnjan is a medieval town originating from the 10th century. With its cobblestone winding streets, Venetian style façades and a nice religious art collection this city makes for a great daytrip if you are near Istria.

In the northern part of Dalmatia there is also so much to discover. Pašman is one of the most beautiful, yet still not so flooded islands of Croatia. The island boasts the cleanest seawaters of the whole country and the largest green area of all the islands. If you want an undiscovered haven, this is your place to be. An alternative smaller city to visit is Šibenik. It is located on the Dalmatian coast between Split and Zadar. With its UNESCO heritage St. James’s Cathedral and a few fortresses that offer a fantastic view over the islands nearby, the city is a must see.

Krka National Park waterfalls
It is possible for tourists to swim by the waterfalls of Krka National Park

Just north of Šibenik, the Krka National Park is a nature lovers’ favorite. Similar to Plitvice, Krka is renowned for its waterfalls, rich flora and fauna. The Kornati National Park offers a spectacular sight as well. Take an organized boat trip to Kornati from Murter. You will be mesmerized by the deep blue lagoons amongst the hundreds of barren islands of the park. Make sure to have some shade over your head and a cocktail in hand, though. The heat can be unbearable. To cool off, I suggest a trip to Modric cave near Zadar. You can take part in a guided tour with a proper overall, helmet and a headlight and discover the depths and rock formations of the caves. If you need to rent a car, you will find some useful advice here.

Stiniva beach on Vis island
Spectacular Stiniva beach in Vis

For those looking for calm island holidays, Mljet and Vis in the southern Dalmatian region are great options. Both are considered to be amongst the top 10 best island destinations of Croatia, yet – being a bit further south and out in the sea – the tourist invasion hasn’t started yet. Mljet is known for its green scenery and two salt lakes (one with an island monastery on it) and is a sailors’ hot spot.  (Here you can find more information about sailing in Croatia.) Vis is a wine enthusiast’s paradise and an attractive spot for those who long to discover the untouched Mediterranean. With its charm of the mid-20th century, isolated beaches and crystalline waters Vis will truly meet these expectations.

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UNESCO World Heritage city - Sibenik

Tallinn – a jewel box undiscovered

St Olav's church and Tallin city walls

I always find it unfair when my backpacker friends tell me how they will travel all over Europe and visit Paris, Madrid, Rome and EVEN Vienna. Of course those destinations are a must when visiting the old continent, but how about the small gems that noone seems to care enough about? This post is dedicated to one of my favorite European cities, Tallinn. With its medieval charm, its touches from the Russian era and in the crossroads of west and east, it is truly an interesting spot to discover.

A large number of visitors don’t fly to Tallinn, but rather take a ferry either from Stockholm or Helsinki. I did that myself and I can only recommend this option. In a few days you can cityhop these nordic gems and if you plan well, not only will you find cheap tickets but your accomodation will also be settled travelling on a night ship. Check out the offers of Viking Line or Tallink here and here.

Raekoja Plats or Townhall square
Townhall square in the center of old town

Once you arrive, head directly to the Townhall Square (or Raekoja Plats). You will feel like Marty McFly travelling back in time. The medieval square boasts 500 year old merchant houses, the old town hall and Europe’s oldest pharmacy operating uninterrupted in the same building for over 5 centuries. What I loved about this square is that any time I visited, there was always something going on. Either a Christmas market, a spring festival, or just a wide selection of restaurants serving local specialties like sprat sandwich or a bear quiche – both amazing by the way. Some tips about what to eat and where to eat here.

After taking some rest, fetch a map in the tourist office and discover the old town. Head north, towards St Olav’s Church. Look for an incredibly tall steeple and you won’t miss it. When its construction finished, actually this building is said to have been the tallest of the world. Inside it is rather a puritane church, but you can climb up the tower and enjoy a fantastic view of Tallinn.

Tallinn city walls and St Olav church
The city walls and St Olav Church from outside old town

From here, following the old city walls could be a good option. Outside the walls, from Towers’ Square you will see one of the symbols of Tallinn, the long line of fortified towers that seem like the set of a fairytale movie. If you keep walking along the park, you can re-enter the old town from the south and reach the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a spectacular orthodox church with its five onion domes. A 100 years ago Estonia was part of the Russian empire, and locals wanted to destroy the church, which for them was a symbol of the Russian opression. Luckily they didn’t, and after Estonia gained its independce, the church was beautifully restored. It is one of my favorite sights and a must see in Tallinn.

Where I remember also spending quite some time are the Patkuli and Kohtuotsa look-out points. The best pictures of the city can surely be taken from these two spots. The citywalls, churches, towers can all be photographed from here, and the sea will serve as a great background to your pictures.

Tallinn old town street with colorful buildings
Winding streets and colorful buildings surprise you along the way

If you have more than one day in Tallinn, make sure to pay a visit to the Kadriorg Palace. It was built for Peter the Great as one of his extravagant residences. Now it houses several museums and the Presidential Palace is situated also in its park. Another trip I also loved was to the Estonian Open Air Museum. Near the seaside, in a forested area a traditional village is showcased for the public where you get to see how local people lived centuries before. There are farms, a church, a school and also a windmill on display. It’s a great location for families as the park offers interesting programs, traditional Estonian food and has designated picnic spots. Nightlife is also great in Tallinn. I will never forget the fantastic feeling of barhopping at around 2 or 3 am with the sun already rising over Tallinn.

If you plan to visit Estonia, here you can find a couple of ideas where else it is worth visiting. Anyways, once organizing a trip to the nordic region make sure not to leave this Baltic gem off your list. It will surely not disappoint anyone arriving with open eyes and hearts.

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Tallinn city center from above

 

The essence of Lisbon

I read quite a few travel guides and blog posts about Lisbon and most of them offer a good summary of what to see and where to visit in Lisbon. But almost none of them actually tell you what those places mean for the Portuguese. I feel you can only take in the essence of Lisbon if you let yourself sink into the mixture of the glorious past, the nostalgia and melancholy of the city and the people.

Monument to the discoveries in Belém
The Monument to The Discoveries on the Belém esplanade.

Starting from the 15th century – taking advantage of its geographical location and the sea – Portugal gradually became one of the largest colonial empires of the world. Through the process of naval explorations trading routes with Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the Americas were built out. Lisbon was an imperial centre with all the benefits that came with it – money, development and grandeur. The city’s most impressive landmarks were either built in this era or were created to commemorate the golden Age of Discovery. This age defines a high standard the Portuguese always long for, a pride for the now small nation in the periphery of Europe. Something they can always think back on when facing today’s challenges.

Torre Belém by river Tejo
The Torre de Belém by the Tejo river

In this light I recommend to start your sightseeing tour in Belém, a district by the river Tejo. This area with its UNESCO World Heritage sites is truly petrified history. Probably the most renowned landmark of the capital is the Tower of Belém which served as a fortress back in the golden ages. The tower is ornated with maritime elements and from its spacious terrace there is a nice view of the waterfront. Real close to the Tower you will find another memory of the Age of Discovery. One of the most beautiful cathedrals I have ever visited is the Jerónimos Monastery. It was also built to commemorate the age of explorers. One of the greatest ones, Vasco da Gama is laid to rest inside the monastery.

Jerónimos monastery inside
Inside the Jerónimos Monastery.

My two favorite locations within the building were the gallery of the church with its fantastic view of the whole building and the cloister next to it. Both boast with fantastic sculptures and figures carved in stone. A third landmark in Belém, the Monument to the Discoveries also stands as a reminder of the golden age of Lisbon. An astonishing site by the river, it depicts a caravel (a Portuguese ship) sailing towards the new world.

Once you understood the glorious days of the Portuguese, you can head to Baixa (the centre). I loved lunch hours by the main square, the Praça do Comércio. It’s fun to mingle with the Portuguese and have a lunch menu by the square. You have a small chance (like 99%) to run into either cabbage soup or some nice bacalao (cod). Hope you like them as they are pretty common in Lisbon. This area is great for souvenir shopping also, and if you have some change, ask for a bica (espresso like coffee) after lunch.

Santa Luzia viewpoint

 

Lisbon is famous for the tiny tramway lines running on even tinier streets. Near Praça do Comércio you can hop on the most convenient one, tram no. 28, which will take you towards the Alfama district (direction to Martim Moniz).

São Jorge Castle walls
The fortified walls of São Jorge Castle.

You will pass by the old cathedral or Sé of Lisbon. I recommend jumping off at the Santa Luzia viewpoint. You will be rewarded with one of the most spectacular sights of the city below your feet. A few minutes walk and you are at Castelo de São Jorge, which besides being a Moorish fortification from almost a 1000 years ago, is also a great vista point.

An evening stroll and a dinner in Bairro Alto will lead you even closer to understanding Lisbon’s vibes. Get ready, it might hurt after a while… If you make a reservation in a fado restaurant, you can listen to melancholic songs that mourn long gone love and past times. Let the feeling and a glass of port take you over. Don’t stay too long, though. The music can be overwhelming after a while. If you want to learn more about fado, click here.

 

Cristo Rei statue from below
The statue of Cristo Rey on the other side of the river.

Let the next day show you a different side of Lisbon. If the day is sunny, hop on a ferry at Cais do Sodré and cross the river to Cacilhas. Take bus 101 and you are up at the Cristo Rei (Statue of Christ). The statue was built in the 1950s to express gratitude over Portugal avoiding the second world war. Although the idea of a Christ statue was not quite original (the Cristo Redentor in Rio served as an example for its construction), once the elevator takes you up the top of the statue, I guarantee you will have the best panoramic view of the city and the 25th of April bridge crossing over the Tejo.

25th of April bridge
The 25th of April bridge as seen from Cristo Rei.

In a city living a bit in the shadows of the past it was a breath of fresh air to visit Parque das Nações. This area hosted the World Expo in 1998 and gave a boost to modern architecture and sort of a revival of Lisbon. By the waterfront you have the chance to take a stroll or get on the cable car that will take you along river Tejo. I also loved the Lisbon Oceanarium, which is one of the biggest aquariums of Europe and is a great pastime for families also.

For some great local tips, I recommend to also visit this blog.

All in all, I had the impression that the best way to not only see but feel Lisbon is through understanding its past and its people. I hope to immerse in Lisbon like that again.

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Azulejo tiles in Lisbon