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Category Archives: Travel

Travel 24 hours to Moscow

The name Moscow is used synonymously with the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin, yet the city is so much more than a political city and has plenty to offer visitors.
The beating heart of Russia is a global commercial hub, a cosmopolitan metropolis with 1,000 years of history and more than 10 million inhabitants. It boasts some of the finest hotels in the world, iconic buildings, rich cultural sites, and fine restaurants, so whether you are just passing through in transit, or have a day at leisure between business meetings, be sure to make the most of the most impressive capital city between London and Beijing.
Unlike its sister city St Petersburg, the Venice of the north, few foreign visitors think of coming to Moscow. The Cold War memories of a cold, grey city still linger, but in 2017 they couldn’t be further from reality. Now is the time to immerse yourself in everything Moscow has to offer.
Must Stay
In Moscow, location is everything, and you can’t do better than to stay at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow (read our review), a stone’s throw away from Red Square. An historic hotel where the decor is inspired by the decadence of Imperial Russia, you’ll live like a Tsar in this palace. Superior guest rooms start from £225 at the weekends, and whether you’re treating yourself to fine dining in Novikov Restaurant, relaxing in the spa, or soaking up the stunning views of Red Square from the rooftop O2 Lounge, you’re not going to want to leave.
Must Visit
The Kremlin is Moscow’s fortress and it is the city’s cultural centrepiece as much as a political institution. Inside the vast fortified compound you will find three cathedrals, the Patriarch’s Palace, a church and the bell tower of Ivan the Great, and together these buildings are the holiest sites of Russian Orthodoxy — Moscow’s Vatican, if you like. Exquisite religious frescoes decorate the walls, incense drifts in the air, and every now and then it is possible to hear the sound of devotional plainsong. Here too is the Armoury Chamber with its extraordinary collection of state regalia, gold and silver plate, and jewels. Prepare to stand entranced by the craftsmanship and the wealth, the shear number and variety of sublime artefacts.
Must Be Seen At
The old Red October Chocolate Factory, a converted industrial area on an island in the Moskva River, is the coolest place to be seen. Hipsters working at Digital October, one of the city’s most successful start-up incubators, hang out here, and you can join them for a contemporary art exhibition at Red October Gallery or the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography. There’s a bar serving fine wines at the neighbouring Strelka Institute, a creative space hosting open lectures, conferences and film screenings, or you can pop into Urban Kitchen for a drink and a bite to eat.
Must Drink
Forget the stereotypes: Moscow has so much more to offer than vodka, though if that is your tipple of choice, you’ll certainly be in for a treat. The city’s best mixologists are to be found in the O2 Lounge on the rooftop of the Ritz Carlton hotel. Dress to impress so you fit right in, and as you stand on the terrace gazing across the city, you’ll never forget the sight of St Basil’s Cathedral lit up at night.
Must Shop
Catherine II commissioned the Italian architect Giacomo Quarenghi to build her a neoclassical trade centre after the 1812 fire in Moscow. Today the complex is the GUM Department Store, and you should come here as much to appreciate the impressive metal and glass vaulted ceiling as for the designer stores. The delicatessen displays put even Fortnum and Mason’s to shame, and the shoe and handbag selections may well prompt hysteria.
Must Eat
The Radisson Royal has a flotilla of ice breaker yachts, and every evening you can step aboard for a dinner cruise afloat on the Moskva River. The gourmet menu includes fresh seafood platters, and the hot smoked sturgeon is undoubtedly a culinary highlight.
For authentic contemporary Russian cuisine, prepared with seasonal, organic ingredients from local farms, go to LavkaLavka. Think of it as Moscow’s answer to River Cottage. Our absolutely favourite dish on the menu is the beetroot spelt with porcini mushrooms, though the duck breast with stewed plums, honey, and ginger is also a highlight for your tastebuds.
Must See The View
The 540m high Ostankino TV Tower was the tallest free-standing building in the world until the completion of the CN Tower in 1976. Built to mark the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, this iconic structure is a masterpiece of Soviet engineering and unexpectedly beautiful when it is lit up in many colours at night. The observation deck is open daily until 21.00 and on a clear day you can see right across the city in every direction.
Must Watch
No one should come to Moscow without taking in a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre, even if ballet and opera aren’t really your thing. As much as £730 million has been spent on the recent renovation, and yet if you turn up at the box office half an hour before a show, you can still pick up a ticket for as little as £3. Major productions such as Swan Lake and Cosi Fan Tutte are usually staged in the main theatre, but you can also see contemporary works and rehearsals on the New Stage next door.

5 beautiful beaches in Greek Islands

Greece is famous for many things: it’s bright and exuberant culture, a fascinating and complex history, tales of legendary monsters and heros and, of course, its stunning scenery and beaches.

With thousands of islands and a diverse mainland, Greece’s coastline is the 11th largest in the world. Couple that with its hot, but comfortable climate and the glorious Mediterranean sea, and you have ample opportunity for some truly stunning beaches.

While it is impossible to tell you about every beach worth visiting in Greece, there are a few that are simply unmissable.

Navagio, Zante
Probably one of the most famous beaches in Greece, this tucked away gem can be found on the island of Zante – known locally as Zakynthos. Surrounded by steep cliff edges and only reachable via boat, Navagio owes its reputation to a wrecked smugglers’ ship that ran aground in the early 20th century and now sits on its pristine sandy shore. A beautiful place to spend the day, many tour companies also offer boat and beach parties that stop on Navagio; adding a bit of excitement for those after more than just a relaxing afternoon of sunbathing.

Red Beach, Santorini

Found on the volcanic island of Santorini, the Red Beach proves that white sand isn’t a necessary ingredient when it comes to producing a top quality beach. Covered in red and pebbles and backed by tall red clifftops, you can probably guess how this beach got its name. A beautiful and quiet place to unwind, it is the uniquely charming setting of this beach that makes it a place you simply have to experience when visiting Greece.
Elafonissi, Crete
Forget the golden coast of Australia, or the shores of Thailand, if you want a truly tropical beach, head to Elafonissi on the island of Crete. The most southern of the all the major Greek islands, Crete boasts a lot of incredible beauty spots, but none are quite like this one. A long and soft white sandy beach, its coastal waters are very shallow and have the same silky sand resting below the surface; perfect for dipping you feet into. When the sun shines, the water is a gentle and enticing baby blue and at low tide sandbars appear, allowing visitors to walk to the island just off the beaches shore. Here, you’ll find businesses offering straw roofed cabanas, sunbeds and umbrellas right on the water’s edge. Out in a place like this, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d ended up in the Bahamas.
Egremni, Lefkada

You’ll find a number of beaches around Greece with the name paradise sprinkled somewhere in their title, but for a true taste of heaven you’ll want to head for Egremni on Lefkada. A long winding shoreline, backed by towering white cliff tops, Egremni a great example of the perfect traditional Greek beach recipe. Take some pristine sand, bright white and soft on the feet, add turquoise mediterranean waters, clear and warm. Mix together with beautiful rock formations and overhanging trees, then finish with great sunset views. The result? One stunning Egremni Beach.

Sarakiniko, Milos

Located on the gorgeous isle of Milos, Sarakiniko is probably the least beachy beach you’ll ever visit. No sand in sight, instead this coastal area consists of smooth rock formations that glide down towards the glimmering Med. Here, in protected bays, visitors can swim and enjoy the crystal clear waters; sheltered from the winds and currents by the rocks, with great visibility thanks to the lack of sand grains floating around near the surface. An unusual place, the utter uniqueness of this place makes it something rather special. You’ll struggle to find a place like Sarakiniko anywhere else in Europe.

Top Big Museums in Berlin

Berlin is big on museums, with hundreds dotted around the city. The city’s turbulent history is the focus of some of them, while others cover topics from around the world. There’s enough for weeks museum exploration, but when you are short of time go be sure to choose one (or more) of these.

1. Pergamon Museum

The Pergamon is one of the five museums that make up Museum Island, and is the most visited museum in Germany. It has relics and artefacts from around the ancient world, including parts of ancient cities, dug up and brought over to Berlin. The Pergamon Altar, which gives the museum its name, is probably the most famous artefact on show – an enormous 2,200-year old stone altar, with a detailed frieze depicting a battle between giants and gods. The Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon is also fascinating to see, as are the Mshatta Facade from today’s Jordan. The Pergamon also houses the Islamic Art Museum, as well as many smaller collections of ancient artefacts.

Entry: 12 euro (18 euro gets you in to all the museums on Museum Island). 
Free for children under 18. 
10am – 6pm, closed on Mondays. 
Included with Berlin Pass.

2. Topography of Terror

Germany is fairly open about confronting its difficult past, and the Topography of Terror Museum, housed in a former Gestapo HQ, tries to put that past into words and exhibitions. The museum covers the period from the rise of the Nazi party in 1933, to the end of World War II and the division of Berlin. The exhibitions combine personal stories with Nazi propaganda and descriptions of their crimes. The museum also holds the longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall, and describes life in the city during that time. The museum isn’t pleasant, and isn’t meant to be: it shows the darkest parts of Berlin’s history, so that they won’t be forgotten.

Entry: The museum is free, and open from 10am to 10pm.

3. Jewish Museum

Berlin’s Jewish Museum tells the story of 2,000 years of Jewish life in Germany. It focuses on the complex relationship between Jews and Germans over the centuries. The extensive exhibitions describe the pogroms, discrimination and expulsions, as well as Jewish involvement in the wider community and the German-Jewish Enlightenment movement, which started in Berlin and left its mark on Judaism ever since. The museum’s jagged modernist design gives a sense of discord and disorientation, with three underground tunnels, or ‘axes’, guiding visitors through different exhibitions, and an inaccessible void in between them. Menashe Kaddishman’s installation, ‘Falling Leaves’, is dedicated to all victims of war and violence.

Entry: 7 Euro. 10am - 8pm (until 10pm on Monday). 
Included with Berlin Pass.

4. DDR Museum

We often picture the Berlin Wall from the west, with the iconic images of Western leaders and artists speaking out against it, and its eventual fall in 1989. The DDR Museum is an interactive museum dedicated to recreating life in communist East Germany. For local children and visitors from the West, it’s a fascinating insight into the day-to-day life in East Berlin: queuing for food, spying on neighbors, prisoner interrogations and communist propaganda. A visit to the museum is a nice peek into the past, and raises as many questions as it answers.

Entry: 6 Euro. Daily, 10am – 8pm.

Seven of the most beautiful gardens in world

If you missed the Chelsea Flower Show and are still looking for inspiration for your garden help is at hand. We pick out seven fabulous gardens that you can weave into your next holiday.

1. Monet’s Garden, Giverny, France

It’s unlikely that any other garden will have been painted as often as Monet’s in the small French town of Giverny. Some of his most famous works were of this garden. The landscape includes archways of climbing plants and coloured shrubs, the water garden, a Japanese bridge and the water lily pond as well as beautiful patches of wisteria and azaleas.

2. Villa Lante, Rome, Italy

These gardens are the work of Cardinal Gambara whose love of outdoor living and eating al fresco was the inspiration for creating these gorgeous gardens. It is a Mannerist garden designed to surprise and comprises a harmonious choreography of cascades, fountains and dripping grottoes achieved by Tommaso Ghinucci, a hydraulics engineer.

3. Château de Versailles, near Paris, France

The grand home of Louis XIV and its exquisite Versailles gardens are nothing short of decadent. The gardens sprawl over 800 hectares of land landscaped by Andre Le Notre in the classic French garden style.

4. Sanssouci Palace Gardens, Berlin, Germany

Surrounding the former summer palace of the King of Prussia, Frederik the Great in Potsdam, these grounds are splayed out in an intimate baroque style. The king was inspired by Versailles and wanted to compete. The terraces have low grapevines and niches planted with fig trees. The lower levels have the fountains, statues, ornamental gardens and panterres and the borders are planted with a mix of colours and textures of perennials giving a lively, informal look.

5. The Majorell Garden, Marrakech, Morocco

This two-and-a-half acre botanical garden was created by French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924. Much loved by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, they bought it in 1980. The garden has 300 plant and flower species including cacti and exotic plants, ponds, streams and fountains.

6. Kew Gardens, London, England

Kew may well be the world’s most famous botanic garden. The breathtaking landscapes and the and iconic glasshouses full of rare and beautiful plants are part of the appeal. But on the grounds there are also historic buildings, botanical art galleries and the soaring treetop walkway.

7. Bahai Gardens, Haifa, Israel

From Mount Carmel you can marvel at the botanic vision stretching downward. There are six hundred cream-hued steps through nineteen monumental water-featured gardens that cascade over the north side of the mountain, each perfectly symmetrical, with clean flower bed lines, brightly coloured shrubs and green, green lawns to die for. The tenth garden frames a colonnade and a golden domed shrine and beyond the shrine a further nine stunning gardens tumble neatly to street level.

Climbing Gunung Merapi, most active volcano

Every now and then life pulls the rug from under your feet and leaves you lying on your back – this sibling-esque prank is often referred to as a ‘reality check’. Dangling off the side of Merapi with one hand on a fern root and the other on the arm of Khalid was my mine. I had taken too lightly to climbing the most active volcano in Southeast Asia, and when the path I was walking on suddenly gave way, it turned out to be a mentally draining, yet emotionally rewarding challenge.
Known to locals as Fire Mountain, Gunung Merapi sits on the border between Central Java and Yogyakarta in Indonesia. There have been regular eruptions since 1548, with the most recent in 2010 where 30 people died.
Our walk was to start at 4:30am, under night at Desa Deles, the ranger’s hut at 1,300 metres. By 10am that day I’d be up 2,930 metres high on the summit of Merapi.
The smell of sulfur was in the air, and our torches pierced through a feint haze that slid up the cliffside, our visibility was low and we had to mind shrub, after fern when making our way up the gentle incline.
Our three Javanese guides were trekking without torchlight, one was even in sandals, they used the moon and the stars to guide them.
When the sun rose the air felt cold and we had our first rest break. Looking back down our path we could see the vast settlement that bowed down by the foot of Merapi. It’s hard to believe that so many people still choose to live there, but locals have their reasons; ideal farming soil and religious beliefs. Many believe that the previous eruptions are a result of spirits being angered by not receiving gifts, which they offer them at the summit annually.
The sun rise rays was flowing through the trees and the hike was about to get harder, as the gentle slalom route suddenly inclined along the cliff face.
We had to wrestle with branches, and grab what we could to pull ourselves higher. We’d sometimes encounter clearings in the jungle where we could peer out, always seeing Merapi to our left.
The group of 15 people was now dwindling, as experienced hikers thought they had met their match. Even the hike leader, German Carl had suspiciously caught a chesty cough when the path started to get steeper around 2,000 metres up. In the end five of us remained, with the guide in sandals who had now fashioned a ragged towel into a head scarf that made him look like Little Bo Peep.
Those that remained were determined to conquer Merapi whether our blisters bled, our water ran out or Bo Peep lost his sandals. The steep incline under thick forest meant that we would gain altitude at a faster pace, and gradually the hills, and rice paddys below shrunk and cold streams of air came and went as we entered different air pockets. We found ourselves alone on the side of the mountain, no sign of Indonesian settlements in the distance, or anybody on the mountain top.
The ash was becoming difficult to grip with my shoes, and I found myself bouldering, up vines and branches just to follow the path. It was then that I misplaced my foot and the side of the path that I was on collapsed. Dangling off a cliff face isn’t like they show it in the Mission Impossible films; I wasn’t coolly gripping the edge of the cliff with my fingers, nor was I suspended up in mid-air like a character from Looney Toons, instead I was holding onto a fern root for dear life as Khalid grabbed my arm and yanked me back up.
Shortly after our stop at around 2,500 metres (10:30 am), we reached the dusty, dead plain of Devil’s Bazaar. This is where the locals gather every year to place their offerings to calm the spirits of Merapi. The volcano has erupted every 5 – 10 years without fail, yet the locals still make the treacherous climb to hopefully bring peace between themselves and the mountain.
With every step a rock would tumble down and ash would be kicked up into our shoes and mouth. We passed weather stations that looked like they hadn’t been touched since the Seventies, and yellowing shrubs trying to survive as we continued our walk through what felt like the world’s most depressing desert getaway. We were now face-to-face with the clouds that wrapped around our ankles and passed along the cliff tops.
The head of Merapi stood above us and the surrounding wasteland with the white haze of sulfur circling it like a halo, we had reached the final stretch.
With smoke rising from the peak we began our ascent. The remaining point was like an old pub fireplace covered in ash and dust which covered our faces as we tried to scramble up the cliffside on all fours.
It was slippery. Every step we took we fell two steps down. Even Bo Peep in sandals seemed to tire, as more dust kicked up into our faces and the wind blew the clouds and ash into our sides. But I had to see the top, and so I pushed up the cliff face, hopping from rock to rock.
Standing on the shoulder of a giant, when I broke through the clouds I was surrounded by a deep blue and the air felt clearer. Finally I had reached the summit. I clambered up to the peak, which was an uneven rock around the width of a boardwalk and surrounded by a 200 metre crater drop which was covered by eery sulfurous fumes that seemed to escape from every rock crack. I was an ant on a pen nib, anxiously looking around, watching my step. The others joined me, and we waited a while in silence as the clouds sifted through our hair, and the monster of Merapi quietly slept.
We had to get down before nightfall, and luckily our guide knew a few tricks to get us down safely and quickly, no helicopter or ski lift. With our feet we skied down the side of the mountain, kicking up dust and dislodging rocks.
It was a huge challenge, but the summit will reward you in its own special way.

Tips on travelling with children

The thought of travelling with children in tow may bring you out in a cold sweat but provided you plan ahead it can hopefully be plain sailing.
From my experience, the less travelling time the better, particularly if you are holidaying with under-fives who have limited tolerance when it comes to sitting still!
There may be no avoiding travelling further afield if you have a family occasion or are planning to visit relatives but after several disastrous attempts with two little ones I have put long-haul flights on hold. Toddler tantrums are not a pretty sight at the best of times but in the confines of a small space, it can be super stressful!

TIP: Under-2’s do fly for free on most airlines (on budget airlines you may be charged), so you may be tempted to travel before you have to pay for a seat!

If flying further afield, prepare yourself for the disruption of travelling across time-zones. Kids like routine and the onset of jet lag can be extremely difficult to deal with. Some families like to remain on UK time but this can prove extremely difficult as there is no way your child will agree to go to bed when it is bright outdoors.
A few tips though if you do travel abroad, especially if it’s somewhere exotic, be sure to know when the rainy season is or if the country gets a period when extreme weather conditions, such as hurricanes, are possible. Places such as Florida and parts of the Caribbean, for example, can get torrential rain storms that last for weeks in the early autumn.
On the other hand, remember that while some countries – such as those in the Far East and Indian Ocean – have quite a long rainy season that doesn’t mean you’ll get rain all day, every day. During this low season you can get much better deals and you may only get a short, sharp tropical downpour each day while the rest of the time the sun will be out.
Also, keep in mind if travelling within Europe, August is peak holiday season time so the beaches of Italy, Spain and Portugal can be heaving. If you can travel either side of August it is worth doing so, especially as most hotel prices dip towards the end of the month.
As for the best form of accommodation, if you have younger kids I always found self-catering was the way forward. The last thing my kids wanted to do was sit in a restaurant for more than five minutes and on the rare times we have dined out abroad the frustration of spending a huge amount on a kids meal only for half the food to be wasted proved too much to bear.
Many families select their resort on the basis of its ability to offer a kids club to keep the children happy and entertained and I am certainly one of them! When researching my holiday, I always check the accommodation I choose has facilities for kids as provided they are happy, everyone’s a winner!
Some of the best hotel kids clubs I have discovered are very close to home. They include The Grove Hotel in Watford which boasts an incredible kids club, complete with its own swimming pool, endless list of activities and playground. In a bid to make it more family-friendly, Scotland’s Gleneagles Hotel has so much to offer kids there’s little chance you will see them.
On a past visit my kids took part in a baking workshop and even drove mini cars around the hotel’s grounds. And then there is the Four Seasons in Hampshire that again has everything available for kids, from its baby area to the teenage zone. The hotel even greeted my kids on their first night with their name written in biscuits!

Mob Museum in Las Vegas

Las Vegas Mob Museum celebrated its first birthday on February 14, 2013 and shares the day with St Valentine. It tells two stories, the Mob story and the story of the law.
Throughout the museum, there are some of the most infamous Mob artefacts, such as the wall from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the barber chair where Albert Anastasia was murdered.
Ellen Knowlton, who retired in 2006 as FBI agent in charge in Las Vegas and was at the helm of the not-for-profit museum’s organization during conception, said FBI officials have shared photographs, transcripts of wiretaps and histories of efforts to kneecap organized crime in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. She comments:

“Despite the sort of edgy theme, this museum is historically accurate and it tells the true story of organized crime.”

It opened on February 14, 2012 in a brick federal building that was the centerpiece of this dusty town of 5,100 residents when it began in 1933. In 1950, the three-story building hosted a hearing by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver’s special investigating committee on the rackets.
The stories of mob’s biggest players including Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, Bugsy Siegel, John Gotti are revealed.
It was Bugsy Siegel who pioneered the transformation of this one-time desert stopover into a glittering tourist mecca, opening the $6 million Flamingo hotel on the fledgling Las Vegas Strip in 1946 with financial backing from Lansky.
The movie-star handsome Siegel was rubbed out six months later in Beverly Hills, perhaps because he angered the mob with cost overruns on the hotel.
Spilotro and Rosenthal were associates in the 1970s, when Rosenthal ran several casinos, including the Stardust. Spilotro was killed in 1986 and buried in an Indiana cornfield.
Organized crime was eventually driven out of Las Vegas in the 1970s and ’80s by the FBI, local police and prosecutors, state crackdowns and casino purchases by corporate interests.
The Mob was brought to justice, including Joe Petrosino, Eliot Ness and Estes Kefauver. The museum has the actual courtroom where one of the 14 federal Kefauver Hearings was held in the early 1950s.
Many of these stories have been dramatized by Hollywood in such movies as Bugsy, The Godfather and Casino. But documenting Mob history was not easy.
Dennis Barrie, who directed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the popular International Spy Museum in Washington designed the museum to show how organized crime and the fight against it shaped modern life. He says.
Entrance to the Museum costs $19.95 for adults and $13.95 for children and students.

Top 5 places in Havana, Cuba

Cuba can be a lazy beach holiday if that’s what you’re after, but it’s also a multi-faceted gem of an island, boasting astonishing natural habitats and grand colonial buildings. The largest in the Caribbean, it’s also an island which owns both a complicated past and an exuberant modern-day culture and nowhere is this most potent than in the capital, Havana.

Once home to pirates, poets and gamblers, the city is now known for rum, cigars and a stomping good time. Here are some of the top highlights.


1. Old Havana (Havana Vieja)

At one time this Unesco Heritage Site was a Spanish naval port. This north-eastern section of the city dates back to the 16th century and evidence of its rich history is everywhere you look. Defensive walls still line the narrow streets, left over from pirate raids and its five European-style plazas are overlooked by Cuban Baroque facades – the most striking is the Plaza de la Catedral – and soaring spires, whilst street-level attractions like the book market and numerous cafés continue to bring in the visitors.

2. The Malecón

Five miles of seawall and esplanade divides Old Havana’s harbour and the Vedado district and is prime walking territory if you want to get a feel for the city through the ages. Pass by the famous pastel facades of the Old Havana sea front and revolutionary monuments of Máximo Gomez and Calixto García to the high-rise skyline of Vedado, traditionally a Russian area. Sunsets out on Havana bay are not to be missed.

3. Capitolio Nacional

Clearly influenced by Washington’s US Capitol building, the Capitolio is nonetheless imposing with its huge stone steps, classical wings and rising dome. This building was once the seat of Cuban Congress prior to the 1959 revolution but venture inside and you’ll now find a planetarium, the National Library and the Academy of Sciences, along with vast halls and ceilings filled with beautiful Neo-Classical decoration.

4. Parque Almendares and Parque Central

Along the river of the same name, Parque Almendares is a welcome burst of green and fresh air, a world away from the heady pace of the city. Beneath the Calle 23 bridge, you’ll find abundant plants, a miniature golf course, riverside eateries and an outdoor theatre space if you’re lucky enough to catch a performance. Old Havana’s Parque Central is a local meeting point as well as an attraction and offers some superb people-watching opportunities amongst the exotic landscaped gardens.

5. Ernest Hemingway Museum

The world-renowned traveller and writer Ernest Hemingway spent 20 years of his life in Cuba and although his connection to the place went far beyond mere residence, it’s fitting that the home where he once wrote some of his most famous works is now open as a museum. Just outside Havana at Finca Vigia (meaning “lookout house”), you can view the typewriter that produced The Old Man and the Sea, as well as the 8,000 books in his library. Plaques marking the writer’s favourite haunts are everywhere to be found in the main city and harbour areas.

The Weekend in Philadelphia

The great thing about Philadelphia is that downtown is less than 30 minutes from the airport. Add that it’s only around seven hours from the UK on a direct flight with Delta Air Lines, then the city definitely becomes viable for a long weekend.
It has all the buzz of New York, but is obviously smaller and that means you can walk everywhere. There’s lots to see including the birthplace of US independence, some great art museums and a unique submarine experience.
Independence National Historical Park
Start with the Constitutional Walking Tour. It has nothing to do with your health, but takes you around the Independence National Park area, the heart of historic Philadelphia. Independence Hall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in 1753, where the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were debated and adopted in the late 18th century is the star attraction.
Across the street is the Liberty Bell, originally in the steeple of Independence Hall, and paraded around the US for 25 years as a symbol of American independence. The park also contains the first US bank buildings and the 1775 Carpenters’ Hall, the venue for the First Continental Congress of the United Colonies of North America. At the opposite end is the modern interactive museum, the National Constitution Centre.
National Museum of American Jewish History
Just off Independence Mall is the only US museum dedicated exclusively to exploring and interpreting the American Jewish experience.
Four floors tell the story, starting with the first Jews who came from Brazil, escaping persecution by the Portuguese in 1654, through the migration of millions of immigrants from Europe in the late 19th century, to post WW2 stories of refugees from war-torn Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Soviet Union.
The ground floor has stories of real people and their artefacts – including Steven Spielberg’s first camera, Irving Berlin’s piano and Even Einstein’s pipe.
Independence Seaport Museum
A short walk from here is the waterfront area along the Delaware River, Penn’s Landing, home to the Independence Seaport Museum. It tells the history of seafaring in Philadelphia, but moored outside are two vessels well worth a visit.
The 1892 Cruiser Olympia is the world’s oldest floating steel warship and the sole surviving naval ship of the Spanish-American War. It was decommissioned in 1921 and is a must-see.
Below it is the 1944 Submarine Becuna which prowled the Pacific for Japanese ships, sinking three of them. A narrow ladder leads you down into the cramped bowels of the crew quarters, engine room and the torpedo tubes. It can’t have been much fun spending time underwater.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia is noted for the quality of its art collections and city’s Museum of Art is the third largest in the country. You may remember seeing it in the 1976 movie Rocky when Sylvester Stallone ran up the front steps, and there’s a statue to commemorate the occasion.
Inside there are Renaissance masterpieces, an excellent French Impressionist collection and works by Picasso, Duchamp and Matisse. The American art gallery has fine examples of paintings by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.
Nearby is the Rodin Museum which houses the largest collection of the sculptor’s works outside Paris.
The Barnes Foundation
If you are still craving art, head for the Barnes Foundation. Between 1912 and 1951 wealthy chemical engineer, Albert Barnes, built up this collection of impressionist, post-impressionist and early modern paintings.
Among its 3,000 masterpieces, are 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, 16 Modiglianis, and seven Van Goghs. Although it only moved to its present site in 2012, the rooms are laid out exactly as Barnes intended. He mixes time periods, geographic areas, and styles to create his “wall ensembles” which lead to a certain amount of artistic indigestion by the end of your visit.
Murals
It’s good to get out into the fresh air, yet there’s no escaping the art. This is the mural capital of the world and the city has more than 4,000 examples, painted over thirty years and still being added to. You can get a map from the tourist office but it’s more to to take a two hour Mural Mile Walking Tour and learn the stories of the people, places, and themes of each mural.
Reading Terminal Market
Established in 1892, this is the nation’s oldest continuously operating farmers’ market and is home to over 80 merchants. You can buy fresh produce, meat and seafood here but the main attraction is the wide variety of local and international cuisine. As well as a range of Pennsylvania Dutch specialties, there’s Mexican, Thai, German, Cajun, and Chinese on offer. If you just want breakfast, then there are five bakeries to keep you happy.
Frank Lloyd Wright Synagogue
Beth Sholom is located in the Philadelphia suburb of Elkins Park and is the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Completed in 1959, the glazed glass pyramidal tower reflects two dominant metaphors, the tent and the mountain to convey a sense of collective sacredness. The pyramidal glass tower fills the interior with natural light and the sanctuary’s chandelier, made of panels of coloured Plexiglas resembles a three dimensional kite – Wright called it a “Light Basket”.

Trip to Seoul, South Korea

Since the end of the Korean War, the country of South Korea has been continually progressing towards its current status as a global economic force and major player in the worlds of technology and culture. Currently there are around 10 million inhabitants in Seoul, making it one of the world’s most densely populated cities.
The Han river provides calm, placid views in an otherwise cluttered city. It flows through the city with twenty-nine bridges that span its waters enabling people to shuttle from north to south of the city via trains, buses or cars.
One of the Seoul’s accolades is that it is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Changdeokgung, Hwaseong Fortress, Jongmyo Shrine and the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty.
Here’s a round-robin of what to do when you get there:
The Palaces
Glimpse Seoul’s 600-year-old history and culture at one of the five royal palaces built by King Taejo at the end of the fourteenth century.
Gyeongbokgung Palace, or the Palace of Shining Happiness, is considered one of the grandest. It is located on the city’s main boulevard, Sejongro, close to the Blue House, the President’s residence. It was built in 1395 and is a stunning complex. A walk through the grounds of this Joseon Dynasty palace is a walk back in time. It is connected to the Jongmyo, a Cofucian shrine to kings and queens of the Korean Josean Dynasty. English tours can be booked in advance, or simply look out for one of the ‘greeters’.
Located inside the palace is the National Folk Museum. It comprises three tall interconnecting buildings and they house artefacts, relics and paintings from the different periods of Korean history ranging from pre-history right through to occupation by the Japanese. Entry is free. Metro line 3, Anguk Station, exit 1
Digital Media City
Seoul is considered to be the most wired city in the world but most people don’t know that South Koreans were enjoying touch screen cell phones and video calling long before Apple launched the iPhone. One of the greatest examples of South Korea’s dedication technology is Digital Media City. A former massive city dump was paved over in 1993 when the height of the landfill rivaled Seoul’s neighboring mountains. In 2002 it was transformed into a sprawling network of buildings housing everything from major technology and communications firms, like LG, to museums and apartments.
The Markets
Noryangjin Fish Market
This market was established in 1927 and today remains Seoul’s oldest and largest indoor seafood market. Over 800 vendors sell the day’s catch, which ranges from delicious to downright curious. Noryangjin is a great place to sample some of Korea’s most famous seafood dishes. Purchase any item from a vendor and have it prepared for you at one of the numerous restaurants located in the basement and on the second floor. If you’re really looking for an authentic experience, order Korea’s famous sannakji (live octopus) and pair it with a bottle of Soju. The market is worthy of a visit, if even just to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the massive facility. Seoul Metro Line 1.
Gwangjang Market
Gwangjang Market was Seoul’s first market. Today, its second floor serves as a massive textile market, but the real draw is the food vendors packed throughout the main floor. Gwangjang Market is one of the best places to sample Seoul’s eclectic street and snack food options. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the famous saxophonist who is often filling this lively market with his music. Seoul Metro Line 1 or 2.
Namdaemun Market
Namdaemun Market is Seoul’s largest traditional market. Open daily around the clock, it is massive and hosts over 10,000 vendors spread through a maze of intertwining streets. Many of the shops sell handmade items. From leather belts, jewellery to ginseng, the market has a little bit of everything including camping gear. Though it is very crowded, and you will get bumped around, it’s a great place to wander, people watch and perhaps pick up a souvenir at a bartered price. Seoul Metro Line 4 to Hoehyeon Station. Tourist information line: 02-752-1913.
Yongsan Market
The Electronics Market, great for gadget nuts, has over three thousand stores housed in over twenty buildings (as well as bootleggers in tents) open from 10 til 7.30, with discounts of up to 50% over other retail outlets. You could build a computer from scratch and buy all the games you could ever want to play on it. Don’t forget to haggle if you want a great deal; some vendors will drop prices drastically, while others won’t budge.
Seoul Folk Flea Market
You’ll find everything from Korean antiques and taxidermy to military paraphernalia and all kinds of randomness. While amongst these treasures, take a minute to try some fresh honey tea that’s made with honey fresh from the comb. If that’s too sweet try a refreshing concoction of milk, Korean red ginger, honey and a plant mountain ma.  Places like these have a lot of historical significance in Korea and this particular market has been moved around more than once in its 100+ years of existence. Who knows how long it will stay in its current form, so enjoy it while you can and don’t be surprised if you are the only foreigner in the place.
Itaewon District
If you are in Seoul long enough you will likely end up here at least once. Situated near the main US army base in Korea, Itaewon attracts both foreigners and locals alike. Trendy restaurants, imported food stores, nightlife and shopping are just a few of the many reasons so many people flock to this part of Seoul. It might not be the most traditional of places but it’s a prime example of the way foreigners have weaved their way into the fabric of Korean society and what makes expat life in Korea different from anywhere else.
Must shop department store
Between Namdaemun market and the Myeongdong shopping areas is Shinsegae’s flagship downtown store. It is the place to go for top notch, if expensive, shopping. Join Korean women in the basement, in buying prepared dishes and fresh fish at the end of the day. Be sure to sample Korea’s beloved kimchi, a spicy cabbage normally fermented in huge jars dug into the earth. Upstairs, you can buy the latest designer shoes and clothes. For time out, visit the store’s roof garden. Metro line 4 to Hoehyun Station.
Explore Insadong Street

This is arguably one of Seoul’s most famous and historic thoroughfares. The main street and the alleyways intersecting it are a great place to window shop Korea’s culture. Storefronts are flanked with hanging calligraphy paintbrushes and have Korean traditional paper (hanji)
and the Korean traditional dress (hanbok) for observation or purchase. Be sure to visit one of Seoul’s famous tea houses or sample Buddhist temple food. Seoul Metro Line 3.

Go to the theatre
Chongdong Theatre, in the heart of downtown just around the corner from Deoksugung palace, offers a spectacular, dynamic show of traditional dance and music every day at 4pm and 8pm except Mondays, as well as the opportunity to try out royal costumes for yourself.
In the last few years, energy-filled and highly accessible ‘non-verbal’ shows have been entertaining international audiences. Nanta combines cooking with drumming in a comedy that sold out for a month at the Edinburgh Fringe, while Jump turns acrobatics and Korean martial arts into fast slapstick humour for all ages.
Relax in a spa
Chill out in a bath house or jjimjilbang. Dragon Hill Spa is a popular one but most neighbourhoods have a spa and many are open 24 hours with a very modest entrance fee. You can even sleep in some of them – popular after a long night of drinking. Just ask at your hotel for one nearby.
Take a hike
The city is ringed by mountains and one of the best things in South Korea is the hiking in national parks where you can also visit working, traditional Buddhist temples.
Bugaksan Mountain
Bugaksan, is the highest and most well known of Korea’s mountains. While there you can also visit the nearby Cheongwadae or “Blue House” where current President Lee Myung-Bak lives.
Bukhansan National Park
Bukhansan National Park is accessible by a metro ride and then a bus or taxi to the entrance. You can choose a short trail and get to see how many city dwellers spend their leisure time.
Seoul Seonggwak
Seoul Seonggwak is a 18.7 km fortress encompassing inner-Seoul. The fortress connects the four cardinal mountains of the city, Inwangsan, Bugaksan (the peak behind the Blue House – home of the president), Naksan, and Namsan. The hike will take a day and requires some endurance. Walking Seoul’s fortress will take you through quiet neighbourhoods and provide aerial views of Gyeongbokgung Palace. The hike is free but on site registration is required with a passport. Seoul Metro Line 3 or 4.
Best view in town
Back when Madonna’s Like a Virgin first debuted and Mikhail Gorbachev had just become the new Soviet leader; a pink glass tower known as the 63 building had just become tallest building in the world outside of North America. Today it is still the tallest building in Korea and the headquarters for some of Korea’s biggest companies.
It is also the place where you will find the world’s highest art gallery, an aquarium, wax museum, convention center, restaurants overlooking the city and a state of the art IMAX theater. The 63 Building also known as 63 City is a great spot for those traveling with younger children or those young at heart.
Must-visit museum
The state-of-the-art National Museum of Korea, the largest in Korea, houses masterpieces including a massive marble ten-story pagoda, a gold crown from the 5th century and stone dagger from the prehistoric period andlarge Buddha statues. It is arranged over three floors and has several restaurants and coffee shops. The surrounding grounds are a park with a large Reflecting Pool. Get there via subway and exit at Ichon subway exit and walk over about 400 meters to the museum. Entry is free and an audio guide costs 1000 won.
Fun by the river
The Cheonggyecheon was once a natural stream running through the heartof Seoul. In the 1950’s it was paved and made into a highway. Today it has been restored beyond its original state. The Cheonggyecheon is 8km long and its banks serve as a gallery for an array sculptures, architecture, fountainsand art. Through the year it plays host to a myriad of festivals and exhibitions, as well.