London’s Newest Tourist Attraction: The Glass Floor at Tower Bridge

Last weekend Brad and I ventured to one of London’s newest tourist attractions: the glass floor walkway at the Tower Bridge Exhibition. Overall, it was a fun experience and for the relatively cheap price I think it was worth it. Here’s what you need to know to plan your own trip to Tower Bridge.

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I felt admission was reasonably priced, at least for London’s standards. Make sure that you book online to save a few pounds and if you’re a student or hold some other special status, don’t forget to claim your discount. There are no specific time periods to select for your visit but rather you just select a day and you’re ticket is good for a visit on that particular day. Here are the prices:

  • £8 per adult (if booked online)
  • £9 per adult if purchased on site

The entrance to the exhibition is at the northwest tower. To get there, make your way to the west side of the bridge and simply follow the sidewalk until you arrive at the Exhibition Center. The lobby is pretty small and I can only imagine how packed it gets inside there during peak summer hours. Still, the line went by pretty quickly and we were giving them my phone to scan my eTicket within minutes.

Once you arrive at the top floor but before you enter the walkway, there’s a short film presentation on the history of the bridge. It’s fairly entertaining and an interesting way to get some background information on the history of the bridge. Once that’s over, you’re ready to head to the walkway toward the glass floor.

In the walkway there are a lot of different interpretive panels on the history of Tower Bridge and other fascinating bridges across the world. A quick aside: these panels, and many others, claim that Tower Bridge is the most famous bridge in the world. I think that might be up for debate, however. Personally, I think that the Golden Gate Bridge is worthy of the most famous bridge title. Sure, that could be my West Coast bias coming into play, but I’d be willing to bet that Tower Bridge is often confused with London Bridge so much that the Golden Gate Bridge is more readily recognized by the average person. Regardless of who is really #1, however, there’s no denying Tower Bridge is still a spectacular bridge.

Tower Bridge London

But back to the point… the hall housing the glass walkway was a little busy for my liking. Not quite overwhelming but every section of the small glass walk was occupied pretty much at all times making it kind of difficult to really get the kind of photographs I was hoping for. And just when it started to thin out, more tourists poured in. I really think that the walkway would be a much bigger hit if it were much longer but I could understand how that could pose problems to both the structure and architectural integrity of the bridge. Despite dealing with the crowds a little bit, it was still an interesting experience just stepping out onto the glass platform.

Tower Bridge London

Once you step on the glass and are looking way down at the River Thames, the view definitely plays tricks with your mind. I felt a little dizzy and as if my brain was on adrenaline stand-by mode as I took my first steps onto the glass. It’s really cool to look down on all of the pedestrians walking across the bridge and to see all of the classic London taxis and busses making their way across. If you really wanted to make the most out of your experience then I recommend that you plan your visit for a time when the bridge will be opening. That would really make the experience a lot more worthwhile to me, as you’d have a bird’s eye view of Tower Bridge rising up right beneath you.

Tower Bridge glass walkway
Looking down at Tower Bridge from the glass walkway
Tower Bridge London
Glass walkway from under Tower Bridge
A view of the glass walkway from under the bridge.

It was pretty funny to see how different people reacted on the glass walk. On the one hand, there were people laying down carefree on the glass taking selfies and posing precariously. On the other hand, there were quite a few people who were actually too scared to even step foot on the glass. These people tiptoed on the outside of the glass to make it by as if there was nothing there to protect them from falling.

The view from the walkway of the Thames, downtown London, and the Tower of London were okay but not really phenomenal. The crossbeams and thick glass windows made it a little difficult to get great views of the city but there were good enough views to appreciate the city. I’m sure the views are much better up in the Shard or even the London Eye, but for a fraction of the price, these views were good enough.

Tower Bridge London
View of downtown London from the Tower Bridge Exhibition
View of downtown London from the Tower Bridge Exhibition

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After you make your way to the south tower there’s another film on the construction of the bridge you can watch. This film was mid-way through when we stepped into the room so we just continued on. To get out, you go through a number of flights of stairs and on your way down there’s some cool views of the interior of the towers as well as the city of London. Also, take some time to check out some of the min-exhibits set up along the way and don’t forget to look up to see some manican-workers perched up on the beams.

Tower Bridge London
Tower Bridge London
Tower Bridge London
Tower Bridge London

Once you make your way back down you can follow the blue line to get a glimpse of the engine room. Since we were on a bit of a time crunch (as always) we opted not to do the engine room tour and so I can’t give my review on that.

Overall, the glass walkway at Tower Bridge is a worthy tourist destination, if only because of the cheap price. The views may not blow you away but the feeling of stepping on glass over the bridge is moderately thrilling enough to warrant a visit. I’d probably mostly recommend this for those folks looking for a cheaper alternative than the Shard or the London Eye but it’s still a worthy attraction in its own right.

Getting From Heathrow Airport to London

So you’re wondering whether you should take a Taxi, Tube, or other express train to get from Heathrow to central London. Here’s a quick answer to your question: I recommend the Tube far and above any options.

The reason is that using the Tube from London Heathrow is ridiculously cheap and easy.

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First, it’s easy to find your way to the Tube as there are plenty of signs in the airport pointing to the “Underground.” You’ll take the elevator or stairs down a couple of levels and then you’ll arrive where the platforms are and where you can purchase your tickets or Oyster card. From that point, you simply follow the herds onto the train, jump on the Piccadilly Line and you’re off to Central London!

Using the Tube to get from Heathrow to London is also very cheap. An adult fare from Heathrow to Central London (during non-peak hours) only costs £3! Three pounds! And you thought London was expensive, right!? And even if you go during peak hours it’s £4.70. Now this does assume that you do a pay-as-you-go method by using on Oyster Card. Still, by simply buying your single fare ticket is only £5.70!

London Tube

Tube vs. Taxi

Compare that to a taxi where the going taxi rate for a Black Cab from Heathrow to central London is £45-85 (usually closer to the £80 than the £45). You can also look into private transfers from the airport.

So as you can see you’re likely to save on average about £55 by taking the Tube! With that said, the Tube can pose some problems.

The biggest problem is that if you’re lugging around tons of baggage it could be a pain bringing all of that stuff up and down stairs and trying to find room on the Tube. The Tube isn’t usually that packed when you first hop on from the airport (except for Sundays; avoid Sundays!) but it will virtually always get packed as you approach central London.

When I first moved to London I had to travel around with big suitcases and a duffle bag and it was pretty miserable on the Tube. Some trains have designated spaces to put your luggage but a lot of times these areas are taken up by passengers and you’re kind of just on your own in terms of finding room for your bags. When the Tube is packed and there’s hardly any room this can really suck (if you’re packing light, however, this is not a big issue). If you are the type of person that abhors these types of situations then I think the cab will be the better option for you. However, if you’re the very budget-conscious type then you’ll likely struggle to justify spending over 10x the amount of cash to get the same distance.

London Tube

Tube vs. Heathrow Express

Another option is the “Heathrow Express.” Upon arriving at Heathrow you’ll see signs and perhaps even people trying to sell you Heathrow Express tickets. This is an express train that runs every 15 minutes from the airport to Paddington Station. It take about 15 minutes to get to Terminals 1, 2, and 3, and 21 minutes to get to Terminal 5. (Terminal 4 is served by a shuttle from Heathrow Central). The Express Train is quicker than the Tube but also more costly. The cheapest rate is £21, so you give up a savings of at least £15. Also, you have to remember that you have to get around from Paddington to wherever your destination is and will have to incur further charges adding to your total cost. Thus, I choose the Tube over the Heathrow Express each time.

Tube vs. Heathrow Connect

There is yet another train option called the Heathrow Connect, which is a little bit slower than the Heathrow Express (30 minutes versus 15 minutes) but it is also cheaper. The Connect also runs less frequently at only 30 minute intervals. The Connect does not go to Terminal 4 or 5 and you’d have to jump on the Heathrow Express at Heathrow Central (free of charge). A ticket on the Connect costs £9.90 for a one way ticket and thus presents the second cheapest alternative for getting from Heathrow to the London but again you have the added costs of getting around on the Tube if that is necessary.

London Tube

The verdict

Therefore, with all things considered, I recommend the Tube above all other options. If you’re bringing tons of luggage with you then yes you may want to consider a taxi cab but if you’re a budget traveller then the Tube is the best option for you!

Cowboys, Poppies, and the NFL at Wembley Stadium

American football is by far my favorite sport to watch, especially live. I’ve been to over 30 college football games over the past few years but never once had I made it to an NFL game. I’m still not quite sure how that happened but this past weekend I finally got the chance to see my first NFL game and got see the Dallas Cowboys on Remembrance Sunday. Here’s a look at my experience and what you can expect if you make to Wembley for an NFL game.

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The game day experience begins

The game day experience started as soon as we boarded the train toward the stadium as we were confronted by a Redskins fan. As we continued to hit different stops towards the stadium, I spotted more and more NFL fans boarding the train and the game day “feel” started to hit me a little bit. There was a little bit of banter exchanged between everyone on the way there but it was all in good fun and before we knew it we had arrived at Wembley. The stadium, by the way, is located right next to the Wembley Stadium Tube and Railway station so it is extremely convenient and easy to access the stadium.

Wembley Stadium London
Wembley Stadium

Finally, we arrived at the stadium. I’d seen it numerous times as I travelled past it on the train but this was my first time to get a good look at the entire structure. I had done some research on the stadium beforehand, and I was surprised to find out that Wembley Stadium (rebuilt in 2007) was one of the most expensive stadiums ever built in the world at $1.5 billion USD. That’s more expensive than Cowboys Stadium ($1.3 billion) and just as expensive as the new Yankee Stadium. It’s also a large stadium with a capacity of 90,000. For comparison, the biggest NFL stadiums in the US usually barely hit 80,000 (which I find unusual considering that several college stadiums pack as much if not more fans).

It’s easy to tell that the stadium is new as you approach it. Everything from the concrete steps outside the stadium to the exterior glass walls have a fresh look to them. One of the architectural marvels of the stadium is the gigantic arch that rises 440 feet high and is the largest free-standing arch in the world. It’s an impressive structure that gives the second largest stadium in Europe a unique look and feel as it sometimes changes color throughout the night.

Wembley Stadium
The world’s largest free-standing arch

The facilities in the stadium are quite nice as well. Bathrooms are pretty big and very clean and there are several food options, such as chicken tenders, beef pies, and even fish and chips. Of course, the food was a little on the expensive side but for £5-6 for a chicken basket the prices were not nearly as bad as I’ve seen in certain stadiums.

Camera Worries

One of the big things I didn’t know was whether my camera would be allowed in the stadium. I brought my Canon 6D with 24-105mm L series lens. It’s a pretty bulky camera so I was little worried. I had heard that as long as my camera lens was shorter than 20cm they would allow me to bring it in but when I emailed Wembley they basically told me that it would be up to the discretion of the workers at the front. Anytime “discretion” is involved with something like that I get nervous, but I was pretty confident that I’d be able to talk my way into bringing it in.

When we went through security I was asked if my camera was a “wide-angle lens.” I wasn’t sure if I should answer yes or no to that partly because I don’t really consider my lens to be wide-angle and partially because I wasn’t sure what would be held against me. After equivocating a bit, they let me through but told me that someone might stop me for my camera later on. I wasn’t sure who would stop me but nobody ever said anything to me and I was able to go about the stadium using my camera freely.

Arriving at the Stadium

We didn’t show up super early for some of the NFL festivities but we did get there about 2 1/2 hours before kickoff (the stadium opens its gates 3 hours before game time). Once we showed up we headed right to the Holiday Inn to pick up the tickets we had ordered via Stubhub. It was quick and easy to get our tickets and Stubhub gave us complimentary lanyards, sunglasses and a few other things.

About two hours before kickoff there was a steady stream of fans both inside and outside the stadium. That’s when I first realized just how diverse the fan base was going to be at the game. I saw fans sporting jerseys and beanies from just about every NFL team. And some of these fans weren’t just dressed casually. You would have thought the Packers were playing with the number of Green Bay fans dressed in full cheesehead attire. It almost had an NFL convention feel to it. Very different from any football I’d been to before but very cool.

Wembley Stadium London

Opening Ceremonies

Because the game was being played on Remembrance Sunday the NFL put on special poppie-themed display of remembrances. The ceremonies started with a giant poppie being unveiled at mid-field along with a moment of silence for all those who have fallen. Next, they brought out a giant American flag and British flag for the playing of the national anthems. Everyone had a plastic sheet to hold up at that time and it was meant to transform the stands into a huge display of red poppies all round the stadium. I’m not sure that the poppie display looked as good as they had hoped, but it was a nice touch to the Remembrance Day theme.

Wembley Stadium field London

It was cool to hear the Star Spangled Banner being played in a stadium overseas; that was something I’d never experienced before. When they played God Save the Queen the crowd really got into it and it even gave me goosebumps. After that, a brilliant display of fireworks lit up the stands in different reds and purples and it was finally time to start the game.

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Fireworks at Wembley Stadium field London
Wembley Stadium London
Wembley Stadium London NFL

The game day experience 

The game day experience at Wembley was great. It did seem that the majority of fans there were anti-Dallas Cowboys, though. The Jacksonville Jaguars had a decent showing but it seemed like there were more Cowboy haters there than Jaguar fans. Speaking of fans, I was glad to see that the entire stadium was packed; there didn’t appear to be many empty seats at all. The crowd was lively but not quite as rowdy or loud as I was used to seeing in college. Then again, I regularly attended one of the loudest stadiums around, Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, so that’s setting the bar pretty high to begin with.

Still, the crowd was into the game about as much as you’d expect from a diverse mix of passionate NFL fans. They even brought “the wave” to Wembley which was something I hadn’t seen in a long while. Also, one thing I’ve never seen at a stadium that they did was pull a giant poppy sheet over the crowd on the lower levels and have it pass over the crowd like a giant stingray hovering over the sea floor.

Wembley Stadium London NFL

The game ended in a blow-out win by Dallas. One of the interesting things about the games in London is that they do have a designated “home” team. In this case, Jacksonville was the home team. That amounted to seeing the Jaguar’s logos at midfield and the sidelines, seeing their cheer leaders and drum line, and having their own PA guy. It was still a far cry from any kind of real home field advantage for Jacksonville but it was still interesting how they set try to preserve the home field feel in England.

Wembley Stadium London NFL

My only complaint with Wembley was their false promise that “80,000 poppies would be released from the top of the stadium at the end of the game.” This definitely didn’t happen and was the only reason why we stuck around till the every end of the game. I was disappointed that they didn’t at least tell us that they wouldn’t be doing it because we could have gotten a jump start on the train and gotten home about 2 hours earlier.

Leaving the Stadium

Leaving the stadium is one thing that get’s a little tough. The herd moving towards the Tube entrances was massive and I could only imagine how congested it got on the tube. The Rails going back to London were pretty packed as well. We actually got lucky and had the shortest line heading north from Wembley but even in that queue it still took us about 1 hour for a train to arrive and for us to board.

Outside Wembley Stadium London NFL

Overall, it was one of my best experiences I’ve had since I’ve been in London. It was great to get a taste of America while here and it will be very interesting to see whether or not the NFL ends up setting up a team for London to call their own.

Visiting Lovely Amsterdam: 13 Things to Know

Amsterdam is without a doubt one of my favorite spots I’ve visited to date. While I found the getting around the city and enjoying myself there to be a relatively straightforward experience, there are a few things that you will want to know before you visit. Here are 13 things to know about Amsterdam.

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1. Bicycles, bicycles everywhere…

Undoubtedly, the first uniquely Amsterdam phenomenon you’ll encounter is all of the bikes (and their incessant bell ringing). There are bikes everywhere and not only that but people on them like to travel quickly sometimes. Everyday I witnessed at least three collisions between pedestrians and cyclists and by the time I left I wasn’t even paying attention to it anymore.

Bikes lining the canals Amsterdam at night
Bikes lining the canals in Amsterdam

Now, there are bike lanes so if you stay out of those lanes you will be okay most of the time. However, sometimes it’s not clear which lane is for cars, bikes, etc. and sometimes there’s no where to go except for in the bike lane because the sidewalks are taken up. It can get a little crazy but just pay extra attention when crossing any road or walk area and you should be okay.

2. Tons and tons of great snack food options

I had a ton of great food while in Amsterdam… mostly snacks, but food nonetheless. You have to try some of the local foods like bitterballen, stroopwafels, Koffie verkeerd, and all of their other amazing pastries and foods. I also had some fantastic Chinese noodles and pizza while there. See my post of places to eat in Amsterdam for recommendations.

Bitterballen in Amsterdam

3. The city of Amsterdam is absolutely beautiful!

I’ve never felt the need to just be outside walking around like I did in Amsterdam. The closest city I can think of is Paris but even that doesn’t compare to the walking experience in Amsterdam. I think it also helps that we caught Amsterdam on a flawless fall day. Seeing the yellow leaves hanging over the canals, and passing by beautiful bridge after bridge never got old to me. And just when you’ve think you’ve seen all the canals have to offer, you stroll upon some swans sitting majestically in the water and it blows your mind even more. Add in the Dutch architecture and it’s easy to see why this city blew me away.

So plan some time for just walking around and taking photographs and maybe even consider booking a walking tour of the city.

Buildings in Amsterdam
Canal and church in Amsterdam
Canal in Amsterdam

I found walks around the central canal areas to be great and I also liked the central-western area of the city, known as the Jordaan. Many say that the Jordaan is the most scenic neighborhood in all of Amsterdam but I found just about every area of Amsterdam to be full of noteworthy architecture and sites. Below are some photos of the Damrak, a canal area that you’ll come across as soon as you step out of Central Station.

Buildings line canal in Amsterdam
Buildings line canal in Amsterdam at night
Buildings line canal in Amsterdam at night

4. Consider a canal ride but I’d think twice about bike riding

Many recommend a canal ride or bike ride in Amsterdam. I think a canal boat trip would be great. We saw a lot of different places where you could jump on a cruise or rent paddle boats to take down the canals. There are also websites where you can reserve your canal cruise tickets. The usually last about 1 1/2 hours and start at about €12 but they also have dinner cruises or packages that include museum admission so consider those.

Boat in canal Amsterdam
Boat in canal Amsterdam

Bike riding through Central Amsterdam just didn’t look like it would be a ton of fun to me because there were just too many things going on. Sure it would be cool just to say you did it and you can get around the city quickly. However, if you want great photos I just recommend walking because it will be 10x easier to stop and appreciate all of the beautiful sites without having to worry about wrecking your bike and body in the process. Of course, we were there for the weekend so I’m sure that things would slow down a bit in the middle of the week.

Just be sure that you’re realistic with your bike riding abilities before venturing out in central Amsterdam on a bike. If you’re even a little uncertain, perhaps stick to the outskirts at first. Like I said, it looked a little tricky navigating the pathways around other cyclists, pedestrians, vehicles, and trams and I saw a number of tourists who looked like they had no idea what they were doing. I’m sure bike riding could be a lot of fun in this city, I just don’t necessarily think it’s for those visitors imagining a peaceful stroll along a river side.

5. The train system was a bit confusing but just ask questions — the Dutch are nice and speak great English!

I’d read online somewhere that the rail system was ultra-simple getting from AMS airport to Central Station, but I found it to be a little confusing. For example, it’s a straight shot on the the train from Central Station to AMS but we had to transfer going from AMS to Central. There was some construction happening so maybe it was just that the straight line from AMS was out of service. I put the confusion more on us not researching thoroughly but I still think the stations and trains could use a bit more route maps on display.

Luckily, they speak great English in The Netherlands and you’re bound to find at least one person who knows how to explain the train routes to you so if you get confused just ask. While a taxi would definitely be easier, Brad and I got from AMS to Central Station for only €10 total via train and there’s know way you’re coming close to that with a taxi ride.

6. Central Amsterdam is definitely a party mecca

Central Amsterdam reminded me a lot of a mini Las Vegas, with tons of people collected along a couple of main streets with the primary intention of partying into the late hours of the night. One group of partiers right below our hotel repeatedly broke out in song with “Don’t you want me baby” until the wee hours of the night.  And come Saturday morning, the central streets looked like the day after Mardi Gras with trash sweeping through the streets. To be fair, this was all cleaned up by street cleaning trucks pretty quickly in the early morning.

While there is definitely a lot more to Amsterdam than partying, if that’s the atmosphere you are looking forward to then I don’t think you will be disappointed if you visit on a weekend. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a quieter experience (at least at night) then I definitely recommend you staying away from the central streets.

7. You must check out at least one of their museums (but do everything early)

Amsterdam has some amazing museums. The top three for include: the Rijksmusuem, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House. Either one of these three will be well worth your time. See my recent article on the Rijksmuseum if you don’t believe me. My only bit of advice is to book your tickets online, especially if you are planning on seeing the Anne Frank House. And second, do everything you can to arrive when these places open in the morning (usually 9am). That’s pretty much the only guaranteed way to beat the crowds and will cut down time wasted standing in line.

The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
The Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum

8. Dutch steps are crazy!

Dutch steps are basically stairs that are as steep as they possibly can be without being a ladder. Sometimes you’ll ask for the bathroom at a restaurant and the next thing you know you are climbing up four stories of steep spiraling stairs. I found it quite fun, but just be prepared for it, especially if you estimate that you’re not going to be in the “clearest of mindsets” during your stay in Amsterdam.

9. Keep Euros on you

A lot of the shops, cafes, and coffeeshops only take cash, so try to always keep some cash on you.

10. Souvenir shops

I always feel the need to comment on souvenir shops because I know a lot of people want to know about them and Amsterdam is definitely a place where you will find unique souvenirs. A lot of the souvenir shops are like 30% sex-shop (mostly innocent type stuff) and 70% actual souvenirs. They also sell Cannibas candy bars and other items of the marijuana-inspired nature. Overall, I felt like most of them had reasonably priced items and a great selection of tulips, delftware, clogs, and vast selections of little Dutch building magnets along with all of the typical stuff. I did hear some talk about vendors ripping off tourists so be aware that that could be going on, though I didn’t have that experience.

Gift shop Amsterdam
Gift shop Amsterdam

11. Amsterdam is very LGBT friendly

I saw a lot of openly gay couples in Amsterdam and it should come to no surprise that Amsterdam would be a very open and LGBT friendly place. There were a number of gay bars but we weren’t able to make it to any of them so perhaps next time.

12. Coffeeshops

Almost everyone wants to know about the coffeeshops, right? Well, I’ll just have to say that they are exactly what they are advertised to be. Places where visitors can go and buy and smoke Mary Jane along with consuming other food and drink items. And the coffee shops are pretty much everywhere. Some of these places were extremely packed on the weekend, so I suggest trying a lesser-known place or getting further from the central area if you’re interested in checking them out.

Most bars do not allow you to blow the “do-jo” in them but there were some that I saw that did. They were located behind the Damrak on “Warmoesstraat” street. It’s kind of funny because they only allow weed smoking and not cigarettes. And you will know when you’ve come across one of these places because it will be clearly marked that you can “drink and smoke here!”

Cannabis plant in window

One last thing, I would personally recommend keeping the weed-smoking in the coffee shops/bars, open parks (away from children), or in your hotel room (if that’s permitted). It seems that some frown on weed smoking in public and perhaps it annoys many of the locals. I always try to err on the side of not appearing to disrespect locals so that’s why I wouldn’t do so in the streets. But don’t get me wrong, I still saw plenty of people toking up along the streets. So if that’s what you want to do you likely wouldn’t encounter any trouble, especially if it was on a weekend night in the central areas.

13. One last thing: don’t acknowledge the shady people at night

I’ve heard mixed reviews of how safe Amsterdam is. Personally, I felt completely safe at all times near the central area. Of course, if I was a solo female traveler that could have been a little different at times. But even still, I think Amsterdam is a pretty safe city due to the amount of people out on the streets all the time. One tip, though, ignore the sketchy folks who will approach you at night. They’ll try to get your attention to sell you some kind of drugs. Apparently, even if you are interested in getting drugs you don’t want to get them from these people because their stuff is bogus. I have no idea whether that’s true or not but my advice remains the same: just stay away from these people.

8 Good Eats in Amsterdam and Where to Find Them

Brad and I recently had some great food on our weekend trip to Amsterdam. While we didn’t really focus on finding any fine Dutch cuisine we did come across some of the great snack food that Amsterdam is known for. In addition, we found a couple of street food joints you may want to hit up if you’re looking for some great food on the go. Here’s a rundown of some the food we had and recommendations for places to eat.

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1. Bitterballen

There was no way  I could go to Amsterdam and not try bitterballen. This is basically a fried ball filled with beef, broth, and butter usually served with mustard and recommended along with a pint of beer. The bread crumbs on the outside are quite crispy and the filling on the inside is very mushy (and hot so don’t burn yourself).

Bitterballen Amsterdam

The texture took a little while to get used to as soon as I bit into it. I don’t think I’d ever tired something so crispy on the outside and yet so mushy on the inside. With a few dabs of mustard, the bitterballen had a lot of different tastes going off in my mouth. While it wasn’t my favorite food I tried in Amsterdam, it was still pretty good and I can’t wait to try different types of it some time in the future. We tried our bitterballen at Tuin 10, a nice little restaurant/pub near the Jordaan.

2. Stroopwafel and koffie verkeerd

Another snack that I had to have in Amsterdam was stroopwaffel. Stroopowafels are basically mini-waffels made with baked batter. They are then sliced in the middle and filled with syrupy goodness. Some even have a little bit of sugar sprinkled on top. We tried caramel-coffee and a honey flavored stroopwafels.

Stroopwafel Amsterdam

I was once again a bit surprised with the gooey inside of these snacks. Only this time, I enjoyed it a little bit more. It’s got a crunch to it like a normal cookie but the syrup together with the additional sugars on the stroopwafel make for a much sweeter experience than any ordinary cookie would.

Stroopwafel and koffie verkeerd Amsterdam

The koffie verkeerd (which is basically cafe latte) was great, too. It paired amazingly well with the stroopwafel. I don’t know if it’s a Dutch thing or not but one interesting thing was that the coffee was served in a glass with no handle. I tried to drink it despite the heat but eventually just had to wait for the glass to cool down.

The bakery where we experienced these sweet memories was Lanskroon, located in the south west of the Red Light District. It’s a small bakery but they have a great staff and a amazing selection of pastries to choose from.

3. Patat

Patat is basically just the Dutch word for French fries. The only real difference is that they come in larger strips and are usually accompanied with some sort of sauce like mayonnaise or ketchup. You will see Patat places everywhere along the main roads it’s really a grab and go type of food. They usually serve them to you in a little paper cone with a small plastic spear.

Ketchup and mayonnaise patat Amsterdam

We tried two different kinds. The first was with ketchup and mayonnaise. Obviously ketchup is a pretty standard American sauce for fries but the mayo was definitely something different. It wasn’t bad, either. We also tried sweet chili sauce with the patat and it was pretty tasty as well. This is a great option if you are just in the mood for a quick snack and are in the midst of your wanderings throughout the city. I recommend Chipsy King but like I said there are several all around the city.

4. Crepes and breakfast waffles

I wasn’t sure what to expect with regards to breakfast food like crepes and waffles. With Holland being so close to Belgium and France I figured that we couldn’t go wrong with either of these in Amsterdam. We ordered both crepes and waffles at a place called “Crepes and Waffles” on Warmoesstraat street near the Damrak.

Waffles Amsterdam
Waffles with powdered sugar Amsterdam

We ordered one waffle with powdered sugar and two crepes: one with white chocolate and strawberries and the other with my favorite, Nutella and chocolate sauce with even more powdered sugar. (We obviously put the diet on hold for this weekend.) The waffle was amazing. Very thick and a bit dry, but still very tasty. The crepes were good but got a little rubbery for our liking. The only comparison for crepes for me were the ones I had in Paris so it was perhaps a little unfair to compare the two. Still, they weren’t bad and the service and food presentation was top-notch at this place as well.

Crepe with chocolate drizzle

Interestingly, I later found out that the Dutch actually have their own version of the pancake called “pannenkoeken” and it’s in-between a crepe and pancake in thickness. Also, they aren’t breakfast foods and are instead eaten at other times of the day and usually with generous potions of toppings. Perhaps next time I’ll give pannenkoeken a try.

5. Oliebollen

This was another tasty Dutch treat I had the privilege to try. I had struck out at a few other places asking for this because it’s usually only made around New Years. It’s basically a large fried donut hole with powdered sugar. The one I had happened to also come with raisins. Despite me not really liking raisins I thought that it was good.

Oliebollen Amsterdam

6. Chocolate covered waffles, donuts, and everything else

One thing that surprised me about Amsterdam was all of the amazing pastries you can find everywhere. There are tons of them and many are covered in thick layers of sweet chocolate or icing. I had an amazing chocolate waffle and a few other great tasting pastries. Just be prepared because the chocolate they use is very rich. Our bakery of choice was Rene’s Croissanterie and I highly recommend them… definitely stop by at least once during your visit!

Donuts and waffles Amsterdam

7. Pizza

One tradition Brad and I have is trying out pizza joints everywhere we venture to. We had originally planned on getting pizza from a place on the outskirts of town but due to being short on time we just grabbed a bit nearby our hotel at New York Pizza. The pizza was great and though we weren’t able to make it to our initial pizza joint of choice, this was a solid substitute for the late night cravings you’ll probably be having in Amsterdam.

8. Wok

There are a number of Wok places around Amsterdam. We grabbed some amazing Chinese noodles from Wok Inn near the Damrak (not the restaurant listed far away from Amsterdam on Google Maps) and it really hit the spot with our late night cravings. They cook up your food right in front of you and are pretty fast and cheap as well. While the below photo looks a bit messy I promise you that these noodles were amazing!

Chinese noodles Amsterdam

Obviously, there are real restaurants that you can choose to eat from in Amsterdam. However, there’s nothing wrong with doing a little (or lot) of snacking while you are there because there’s just so many good things to try. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return to Amsterdam soon and try out more traditionally Dutch foods but for now know that these are some great options!

My Time in the Manly Shark Tank

The thought of being submerged in a confining water tank with sharks seemed like the ultimate adrenaline rush. So when I found at that I could enter a shark tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary near Sydney, Australia and do such a thing I knew I had to do it. Despite having what I’d call a “reasonable fear” of sharks, I felt like this would be something that I would remember for forever. So a few friends and I booked our day with the sharks and this is how it went.

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Day of the shark dive… annnnd I’m sick

The morning of the shark dive I woke up in sweats and with severe coughing and sneezing. This was the last thing I needed because the instructors actually stated that they would kick you out of the tank if you’re coughing and sneezing. (Those two things don’t mix well with SCUBA breathing devices). So to keep me from coughing during this half-hour “dive” I drugged myself with cough syrup (non-prescription I think) right before I entered the tank. And just in case you’re wondering, there’s no rain-check for the shark dive. I paid in advance and the only option other than me losing my money was to find someone else who would pay to dive in a tank with the sharks and that’s not generally something that happens everyday.

Man taking Cough Syrup

They instructed us to show up at the aquarium about an hour beforehand for training and instructional videos. The videos provided us with basic safety advice and also showed us how the instructors would be communicating to us via hand signs. These hand signs were usually just gestures asking you things like if you are okay but some literally meant “hey, there’s a shark behind you.” They are all pretty simple and self-explanatory so we didn’t have to learn anything extensive. Once the video was all done we were ready to head to the changing rooms and put on all of the gear.

Outside Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

That water temperature, though…

Because we did this during the Australian winter the water was freezing (at least 60ºF/15ºC) and they gave us additional wet suit gear like hoodies, gloves, and thick booties to keep us warm. In order to allow our bodies to warm up faster and reduce the shock of the cold water the wet suits they gave us were already wet (and cold). Each layer of SCUBA equipment just seemed to add to the coldness and I couldn’t wait to just get into the cold water to warm myself up. After strapping on extra layers of vests, weights, and the tank, we were finally ready to enter the “training pool.”

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary
Going through safety procedures before entering the tank.

The training pool is basically a small swimming pool that happens to be connected to a tank with sharks in it. As we entered the water it was cold but not nearly as bad as it would have been without the wetsuits. The instructors had us go through a series of tests to ensure that we knew what we were doing and knew how to work the breathing apparatus. If you’ve ever done an introductory SCUBA course, you know what drills I’m talking about (blowing water out of your goggles, locating your respirator, etc.). Finally, once you’ve proven yourself to the instructors they go over all the hand signs one last time, take a lovely group photo of everyone, and then you are ready to enter the tank!

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

There’s an opening on the side of the pool where you swim through and then set yourself up on an underwater platform. Once everyone is out you then drop off the platform and you’re officially in the tank and ready to see some sharks, except there’s even more build-up. The area of the tank with the sharks is actually on the opposite side of this big tank so you have to hop like an astronaut over to that area. It’s a little difficult to walk with all the equipment but manageable. At one point,  we actually had to hurdle over the viewing tunnel beneath us to get to the other side. The staff assisted us through the whole process and it was actually pretty fun and will make you feel as if you’re undergoing NASA training.

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Those couple of minutes heading to where the sharks reside are like the calm before the storm. All you can hear are the respirators and there’s tons of little fish darting around and even a few sea turtles passing by. One thing you won’t miss is the giant stingray lying on the floor. This thing looked as big as a Volkswagon and had multiple barbs sticking out with the largest looking to be at least a foot long. Still, it’s a rather peaceful experience as you make your way through the tank, waving at your friends along the way through the viewing tunnel.

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Once you’ve hopped around the aquarium for a few minutes, you’re finally in the sharks’ lair. The instructors then line you up along the side of the viewing  tunnel. You’re basically standing on a small ledge with your hands on the glass in front of you. With all of the weighted equipment you must be careful and not lose your balance. The staff told us some pretty hilarious stories of people falling onto their backs only to be helplessly stuck. I wasn’t about to let that happen to me so I made sure to keep solid footing.

Scuba divers in water tank at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

The first sights of the sharks

I had the privilege of being the one on the outside of the line, furthest into the shark area. For some reason the instructor assumed I was the mastermind behind our visit to the shark tank and decided that I’d enjoy the position closest to the sharks. After only about five seconds of standing up on the ledge I saw the first shadowy figure begin to drift towards us. It was one of the biggest, (perhaps the alpha?), Grey Nurse Shark in the tank and I could almost hear the Jaws theme song playing in my head. I’m not gong to lie to you, as soon as I saw it drawing near, s*** got real and I got a little anxious. My adrenaline was rushing and the whole thing just felt surreal. I couldn’t believe that an actual shark was slowly approaching me and there wasn’t a cage, wire, or anything between us — just water.

Scuba diver with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

For some reason I felt the need to hold my breath as the shark coasted nearer and nearer. As many of you know, holding your breath during a SCUBA dive is a big no-no. I’m pretty sure it was just my natural reaction to the thought of the shark going rogue and biting my face off. After the shark was right in front of me I finally got the courage to look the shark in the eye. When I made eye contact with the shark, almost instantaneously the shark’s jaw popped open a few inches. “Nope,” I thought and looked away. But as I looked away the situation became more dynamic. As soon as that shark started to pass by me, I spotted another shark coasting in. And then another. And then another. Within minutes, sharks were roaming above, below, and everywhere in between me.

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Scuba diver with nurse sharks at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Some of the sharks were much smaller, with pointier snouts and a bit less menacing, but all of them had the infamous Nurse Shark jagged teeth that just scream “I can eat you if I wanted” (they really can’t but still). After seeing the third or fourth shark, it was clear that the swarm was officially on and these curious beasts were out to investigate us foreigners.

I kept reminding myself that these weren’t “man-eaters” to keep myself calm but there were a couple of problems with that: 1. it’s easier said than done when you’re surrounded by circling sharks of any type and 2. the googles cut off your peripheral vision so that the sharks constantly sneak up on you from the side. This is especially true if you are the one furtherest into the shark territory as I was. In the photos below you can see me looking right at the camera one second and then startled by a shark suddenly appearing in my line of vision. (This is one reason you definitely want to pay attention to the signals coming from the instructors.)

Scuba diver with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary
Scuba diver with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Brushing shoulders with a shark

One of the weirdest things about the entire experience was the few times that I think the shark fins scathed my head/shoulder. I’m still not 100% sure if it was a shark, fish, instructor playing some kind of sick joke, or perhaps me just being a bit paranoid but once or twice I felt a gentle brush on my shoulder/head area. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was a shark each time because of how close they got to me each time they cruised on by.

Scuba diver with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Needless to say, the first few minutes took quite the adjustment in order to settle my nerves and get comfortable. But after a few minutes, I began to relax and finally began to breathe a little easier. I realized that these sharks weren’t beasts out to collect their dinner, they were just curious creatures like just about every other aware and living thing on earth. And not only that, but the sharks were beautiful. Sure their teeth are pretty atrocious and their eyes are nothing short of terrifying but their fins and bodies are a brilliant silver color underwater it’s quite the sight to see.

Scuba divers with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

Also, you don’t realize how graceful sharks are until you’re underwater right next to them. They just coast on by effortlessly with their giant bodies. By about the 15-minute marker, the sharks and I might as well have been best buds going for a dip. I didn’t seem to be bothering them at all and they weren’t bothering me at all. Now sure you could argue that these sharks have been conditioned to be peaceful when presented with humans and that’s perhaps a valid point but there’s still something to be said about having such a harmonizing experience with sharks, albeit in captivity.

Anyway, once we got acclimated to the sharks, my friends and I were waving happily at the spectators (and our friends) in the underwater viewing tunnel. The staff (which are awesome by the way) were also doing a great job of panning around with their underwater camera getting some awesome shots and video of us with the sharks. At that point, it was getting better by the second but before I broke out into my victory dance I started to shiver due to the cold.

Scuba divers with nurse shark at Manly Sea Life Sanctuary

And the cold returns…

Remember, I was battling a severe cold that day and about 20 minutes into the dive the temperature was starting to get to me. The shivering started with just my hands and then worked its up to all of my arms and legs. It was even a little difficult to breathe (though the gallon of cough syrup I had may have had something to do with that). I knew that getting into the cold water of the shark tank when I was so sick wasn’t exactly smart, but I wasn’t about to cut my time short with the sharks.

Finally the time was up. As we were ushered back to the other side of the aquarium and back into the changing area I was on what some would call a “natural high.” While high on life, I was pretty low on temperature. Luckily, they offer you a nice hot shower upon exiting. And let me tell you that hot water feels like heaven. That was probably the most enjoyable shower I’ve ever taken and trust me if you do this during the winter time you will love every second. After the shower we gave back our wetsuit gear, collected our CDs with video and tons of photos from our dive, received our shark dive certificates, and then were off on our way back to Sydney.

On the way back, I had some sort of hypothermic reaction and my temperature shot up extremely high. Incessant shaking was followed by a bad dose of the sweats and a temperature rising well over 100ºF. I didn’t get any sleep that night and certainly felt like crap the next day. However, there isn’t any part of me that feels that this experience wasn’t worth every penny and bit of healthiness it took from me. Being able to come into contact with the sharks and coming away with a new sense of appreciation for these animals was priceless. Sure, I’d prefer to have been out in the ocean with these creatures in their natural habitat, but at that time, it felt good enough just to say that I survived the “shark tank.”

Iceland: Quick Tips for a Great Experience

Brad and I recently took a week-long trip to Iceland in late August 2014. The trip didn’t go as expected to the say the least. We both came down with severe flu-like sicknesses and it pretty much kept us from being able to see everything we had listed on out itineraries. After looking forward to visiting Iceland for so long, it was a huge bummer to say the least. However, we were still able to see some of the attractions and  even though we weren’t able to make it out to every site we wanted to, we got a good feel of the layout of Iceland. So here are a few pointers for planning an amazing trip to Iceland.

Like snow? Want to see the northern lights and still have some daylight? Visit in March.

Maybe you’ve already decided on the time of year you will be heading to Iceland but if you haven’t then there are a few things to keep in mind. My personal recommendation is to go in the spring. Here’s why: if you go in March you can see the northern lights above beautiful glistening snow, still have enough daylight to explore some of the terrain during the day, and you’ll be able to see some of the ice caves (not available in the fall).

Other seasons do have their advantages, though. Summer has endless daylight and so there is plenty of time for you to explore and the weather is very mild, though it is also peak tourist season. Winter will likely give you the clear dark skies that are perfect for northern lights viewing but that comes at the the price of having almost no daylight and blistering cold winter temperatures. As you can see, there will obviously be pros and cons for each time of year, but if you’re interested in the northern lights and like the idea of being around snow then late February or March is probably best time of year for you to visit Iceland. (For the record, a March visit just didn’t fit into our schedule and that’s why we chose to visit in Aug/Sept.)

Northern lights from plane

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Golden Circle is an easy day trip

The Golden Circle can be easily seen in one day. If you’ve begun researching things to do in Iceland you’ve inevitably come across the “Golden Circle.” If you haven’t heard of it, the Golden Circle is an area just outside of Reykjavik that consists of Gulfoss, the Geysir hotsprings, and Þingvellir National Park.  There are a few other locations that sometimes make the list as well. These “big three” locations can easily be seen within a half day and if you get an early start out to the area, you should definitely have enough time to see them all, relax for lunch and still get back to Reykjavik or another nearby city in time for your evening meal or check-in.


My favorite attraction out of the three would have to the geysirs. Although this area is home to the “original Geysir,” the geysir that you’ll actually see erupt is “Strokkur.” It seems to go off about every five minutes. It was my first geysir to ever see in person and it was pretty impressive. Unlike many other geysir areas, you are allowed to get right up next to it and even get sprayed a bit so be careful if you don’t want to get wet. One of the coolest things to try is to get a photo of the bulge just as the geysir is erupting as seen below. You can really make your Geysir experience into your own as well, as there are some trails that will you take you up on a hillside for some great views of the surrounding area.

Strokkur Geysir erupting

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park was an interesting place. Personally, it didn’t really blow me away but it did offer some fantastic photo opportunities and also offers you the opportunity to say that you’ve stood between the two continents. On that latter point I was somewhat disappointed to hear that you can’t actually stand in between the ridge and touch the Eurasian plates and the North American plates. From what I researched, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is so deep and vast that you can’t actually pinpoint any specific points where you could actually touch each side. Still, even if that’ true, the experience of knowing that you’re standing (somewhere) between these two vast tectonic plates is something I won’t forget and makes Þingvellir National Park worth the visit.



Finally, there’s also Gulfoss. It’s one of the most famous waterfalls in the world and is worth a visit. Because the weather was so bad we pretty much just ran out from the car, took a look at it, and then scurried back in to the car. Hopefully, you’ll run into great weather there and will be able to linger there for some time.

The Jökulsárlón (The Glacier Lagoon) is a must-see attraction

Glacier Lagoon

I find Jökulsárlón a little difficult to pronounce and even read so I’ll just refer to it as “The Glacier Lagoon.” The Glacier Lagoon is one of the most awe-inspiring sights I’ve seen and is probably the main reason why I wanted to visit Iceland in the first place. It’s the deepest lake in Iceland and giant icebergs slowly bob around the lake as they break off from a giant glacier. Between guided boat rides and walking along the black sand beaches, one could easily spend an entire day admiring the lagoon. One of the cool things about the lagoon is that your experience of the icebergs can be completely different depending on whether or not the sun is shining on them or not.

Glacier Lagoon

At the Glacier Lagoon, there’s a couple of parking lots that you can pull into just after you pass the bridge. When we arrived in early September around noon, there were hardly any cars in sight. However, I’ve heard that during peak season the traffic can pick up here. If weather permits, many people enjoy walking along the black sand banks that lead to the parking lot. And one thing you absolutely cannot forget to do is to visit the black sand beach on the ocean-side of the bridge. All you have to do it park on the opposite side of the bridge from where you are parked to see the lagoon and you’ll walk up on the beach. Sometimes the tidal conditions aren’t quite right but if you catch it at the right time you’ll see tons of ice chunks (some the size of automobiles) washed up on the beach.

If you’re making the drive from Reykjavik to Jökulsárlón the ETA on driving is 4.5 hours. But keep in mind that there are several amazing things to stop by and see along the way. These include the cliffs overlooking the black sands at Dyrholaey and the waterfalls of Selijalandfoss and Skógafoss, among many other interesting viewpoints. With that in mind, you may want to plan on that trip to the glacier lagoon taking closer to 6 or 7 hours. I recommend starting that drive early in the morning to maximize your daylight.

In addition to planning enough to time to get there and see other sites, I suggest booking at least one night in a nearby hotel, such as those in Höfn (see my hotel reviews below). If you spend at least one night in that area, then you’ll have the opportunity to catch at least one sunrise and/or sunset at the glacier lagoon, which will make for remarkable photographs. If you can’t spend a full night there then don’t worry; you can still fully appreciate the Glacier Lagoon just by stopping by and checking it out.

The Blue Lagoon is the ultimate experience in relaxation

See my tips for visiting the Blue Lagoon for more information about the Blue Lagoon. Right now, I’ll just say that the Blue Lagoon was the most relaxing experience I ever had in my entire life! You don’t have to indulge in the premium package that comes with a robe and meal to the Lava Cafe either; just taking a dip in it is an almost hypnotic experience. The water is the perfect temperature and you can easily stay in there for hours.

Man in Blue Lagoon

As far as what to consider when planning, I think that visiting this at the end of your trip, after you’re exhausted, is perfect. Also, if you wait toward the end of your trip you’ll have a better sense of where you stand financially and you can decide if you want to splurge at the Blue Lagoon with some of the premium packages, massages, etc.

So those are a few quick notes on these destinations. Here are a few general words of advice that will hopefully make your trip a lot smoother.

Getting around Iceland: I recommend choosing a rental car

Iceland is the perfect place for jumping in a rental car and making your way around the island. There are plenty of rental car companies to choose from and some of them are pretty reasonably priced, though you will have to book them well in advance if you want to catch those rates for the cheaper vehicles. We went with RED Rentals and they had great service and provided us with a great running car. They even will pick you up from the airport (though we missed that memo and took a shuttle to their office downtown).

There’s always an option to get around the country by bus as well. However, this option can still get a little pricey and some of the busses don’t run very frequently so you will have to plenty of research to make sure that you don’t leave yourself stranded for a few days in a less-frequented part of Iceland.

One option for the traveller willing to deal with the risks is hitch-hiking. Iceland has some of the safest hitch-hiking around and there are a lot of travelers doing it in the south area of the country. Of course, this always comes with a risk, but if you are on a shoestring budget then perhaps you could look into this.

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Phone Service

Upon arriving, we bought a Vodafone SIM card for our unlocked iPhones. Overall, the service was okay when we were near urban areas. However, it gave me a lot of trouble when I tried to pull up my internet browser outside of the major cities. In fact, the lack of service rendered my iPhone GPS maps useless. If it weren’t for my GPS in the rental car we would have struggled to find our way around. My suggestion: get a Vodafone if you feel you will need to use data around cities but don’t rely on your cell phone service to get you around the country.

Lodging: When to book

I suggest for those people looking to pursue the northern lights to await making their bookings until they arrive. I’ll post more on the northern lights at a later point, but the reason is I state for making last-minute bookings is that the weather can be so fickle and one side of the island may be cloudless while the other side is completely overcast. Waiting until the day-of to book hotels can be nerve-racking, however and so if that is the sort of thing that you’re not comfortable then perhaps just go ahead and play the odds and book ahead. But if you’re visiting in late August as we did, you’ll find there is no difficulty in finding available hotels on the day of or day before your planned booking (this would be less doable in the summer but the northern lights won’t be out so that’s not an issue).

Where to stay in Iceland?

If you’re not like us and you don’t mind sharing bathroom facilities then you will have a much easier time finding more affordable lodging across the country. However, if you are like us and you prefer to have private bathroom facilities in a hotel with decent reviews you should expect to pay around €125-150 per night and expect the options to be somewhat limited. We stayed at four different hotels and I am going to recommend two of them. Here are the two that I recommend:

  • Thoristun Apartments (Selfoss) (€126 per night) — The town of Selfoss is a good place if you are wanting to stay somewhere outside of Reykjavik after seeing the Golden Circle and perhaps want to get a jump start on your next day trip to the Glacier Lagoon or any other destination on the eastern side of the country. There are plenty of restaurants and I really loved that their traffic lights had smiley faces on the green lights. : ) As for our hotel, we really enjoyed our night at Thoristun Apartments. The customer service was exceptional and they will even let you check in early if you contact them ahead of time.
  • Seljavellir Guesthouse (Glacier Lagoon) (€168 per night) – Finding an affordable place near the Glacier Lagoon with private bathrooms is difficult. There are limited number of places to choose from but this place was pretty great. It’s a small hotel with probably only eight or ten rooms but it is very new and very clean. Because tidiness is a big thing for me I give this hotel an A+. The hotel is also close enough to Hofn that you’ll have no trouble heading into town for lunch and/or dinner. (Though breakfast is available at the hotel we didn’t try it so I can’t comment on that.)
Outside of Seljavellir Guesthouse
A view from outside of Seljavellir Guesthouse

The food is pricey and not exactly overwhelmingly delicious

I’ve got to be honest, overall, I wasn’t too impressed with the food in Iceland. A lot of that probably has to do with the fact that I was so sick but I think some of it is just the way it is. I’ll say this, there are plenty of restaurants where you can find some quality lamb dishes and seafood like lobster. You can’t really go wrong with those dishes. I also tried some other American foods that I heard good things about in Iceland like hotdogs and pizza. I wasn’t too impressed with either of those but I did have a couple of great burgers during my stay in Iceland. Finally, there are some of the local dishes like cured shark and Puffin… I was a little too sick during my stay to even contemplate trying to stomach those so my take on those foods will have to wait until next time.

One last thing about the food, if you plan on eating out at a decent restaurant you should plan on paying $40 to $50 USD for a meal for two. The one drawback to Iceland is that eating out is so expensive and you don’t always feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. For that reason, try to load up on sandwiches or some other cheaper food during the day or save them for dinner to keep the costs from getting too high. One thing that you can do is rent an apartment that comes equipped with a kitchen and cook your own meals. That will cut down on your costs a lot.

This is only the tip of the iceberg

Remember that I’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg when it comes to things to do in Iceland. I almost didn’t want to make this post because I felt like my Iceland experience was so cheated from being so sick. Just remember that there are a million more things to see and do in Iceland and that it is a unique landscape that you will never forget upon your visit.

The British Museum: Experiencing the “Museum Effect”

The British Museum is often considered one of the top things to do in London. That should come to no surprise as the museum is free to enter and holds a vast collection of at least 8 million objects. One of the most fascinating facts about the museum is that only 1% of those objects can be on display at once, mostly due to light sensitivity. Even with only a small fraction of the objects on display, however, there is plenty to keep you occupied for hours.

Entrance of the British Museum
Outside the entrance of the British Museum

This article is by no means a comprehensive look at the exhibits of the British Museum but rather a highlight of some of the key exhibits and attractions that we looked at, such as the Greek Parthenon Exhibit and a few other key sites like the Rosetta Stone and the Easter Island Statue.

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Cameras and Backpacks welcomed!

I always have my DSLR camera on me and really enjoy bringing it to museums so I was happy to find out that the British Museum allows cameras (just no tripods without a permit). Another good thing about the museum is that they allow backpacks in as well. In fact, I was a little astonished as to the ease of access into the museum. No ticket line. No security line. You just walk through the entryway and then you’re looking up at the beautiful, bright interior of the British Museum and on your way to explore.

British Museum Lobby
The entrance to the British Museum

The Rosetta Stone

The first thing to see for us was the Rosetta Stone. I’ve been wanting to see that for a long time and was really excited to finally be able to see it in person. Predictably, on a Friday afternoon, the museum was pretty packed and the Rosetta Stone exhibit was no exception. It was difficult to get any decent photographs due to some tourists who allowed their LED screens from their audio guides to reflect off the glass right in the middle of the stone. I was tempted to ask some to simply flip it around but there appeared to be language barriers and I figured I’d just wait it out. After a couple of minutes I was able to get close enough to try and get some shots. Luckily, the stone is huge so it’s not hard to get a view of it, just be ready for crowds.

Rosetta Stone British Museum
The Rosetta Stone

What is the Rosetta Stone?

For those who don’t know the Rosetta Stone is a stone with engravings in two scripts of Greek and one script of Egyptian (that is, two languages, three scripts). It was carved around 196 BCE and went undiscovered until 1799 when it was discovered by French soldiers. After a couple of decades of intense study, scholars were able to decipher the meaning of the hieroglyphics contained on the stone and thus the Rosetta Stone paved the way for our modern understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Considering how vital this giant stone was to our understanding of the Egyptian culture, I had to see it in person.

Rosetta Stone British Museum

After viewing the Rosetta Stone, we wandered throughout the Egyptian collection on the first floor. There were plenty of other beautiful sculptures and relics to see. Some of the pieces that stood out to me were the remains of different tombs and temples. And of course, there were several pharaoh sculptures to admire as well.

Colossal bust of Ramesses II the Younger Memnon
Colossal bust of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’ about 1250 BC
Red granite sarcophagus British Museum
Red granite sarcophagus

The rest of the Egyptian collection is on the third floor. The emphasis on that gallery is on life and death and it’s where you will find all of the coffins, mummies, and masks associated with Egyptian burials as well as a lot of the ancient scrolls and other items like jewelry. That’s also where you will find a lot of the crowds. The Egyptian exhibits upstairs were by far the most crowded of all that we visited so perhaps you’d like to put that first on your agenda.

Easter Island Statue

The next big thing we wanted to see was the Easter Island statue. Easter Island, known as “Rapa Nui” to local inhabitants, is an island far off the west coast of South America. It’s famous for its stones like this one that are known as “moai.” The British Museum claims that these figures were probably carved from 1000 AD until the second half of the seventeenth century.

Easter Island Statue British Museum
Easter Island Statue

The statue pictured here is known as “Hoa Hakananai’a,” which means “stolen or hidden friend” and dates back to around 1000 AD. The statue is made up of basalt, a hard volcanic rock that is very difficult to carve into. Though eyeballs are missing now they were once present and likely made of stone. It’s a very imposing statue and I enjoyed seeing it as it’s very possible that I may not ever be fortunate enough to make my way to Easter Island. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much a stand-alone piece so there’s no Easter Island exhibit to and you’ll be on to other galleries pretty quickly.

The Greek Parthenon Sculptures

After the Egyptian and a few other galleries, we made our way over to the Greek exhibits, which as a whole, were my favorite. Specifically, I think that the Parthenon marbles had the biggest “museum effect” on me.

Greek Sculptures British Museum

If you didn’t’ know, the Parthenon is considered one of the world’s most marvelous monuments and considered to be one of, if not the one, best example of Greek architecture. Dedicated to the goddess Athena, it was finished at about 433 BCE and served as one of the grandest Greek temples ever known. Although damaged by war, it remained at least partially intact through centuries up until today.  Not only does the Parthenon serve as the perhaps the most enduring symbol of Greek culture and democracy, but the sculptures of the Parthenon are considered to be some of the pinnacles of Classical Greek art. Many of these sculptures depict battles while others reflect mythological scenes.

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Parthenon British Museum

For me personally, this was an opportunity to see up close and in person, the timeless art of one of the most influential civilizations that ever walked the planet (I know there are heated disputes over whether these sculptures should be returned to Greece but I’ll just put that debate on the side for now). After spending time admiring these sculptures, I realized that these must have been created by some of the most well-respected artists alive at the time. Artists whom I knew nothing about.

British Museum

As I looked closely at the details of these fine sculptures, it was apparent to me that there were stories behind them all. Stories, again, that I really only possessed a superficial understanding about. It was just that realization — that I lacked a real understanding of these cultural expressions — that provided me with a sense of inspiration to gain understanding. I’m not sure what it was about the Greek sculptures that did it but after only a few minutes in the Greek exhibit, I found myself feeling what I call the “museum effect,” where I find myself inspired to further my understanding of a subject after experiencing it at a museum.

Greek Parthenon British Museum
Figure of Iris from the west pediment of the Parthenon

This is one of the major reasons why I visit museums even when I don’t necessarily always enjoy them. The problem with museums for me is that I mostly enjoy being active (e.g., climbing things) and museums don’t exactly offer me much in terms of that. However, every once in a while I enjoy the slow pace of a museum experience and walk away from it a bit inspired to take on an understanding of something else. It’s usually nothing obsessive like I’m going to dedicate my life to learning about that particular thing. It’s just that I usually feel some sort of obligation to further my understanding of the subject. In this case, it’s Greek culture and it starts with the art.

It’s funny how quickly you begin uncovering facts about things that otherwise would seem insignificant if it wasn’t for the “museum effect.” For example, just yesterday, I found out that the sculptures at the Parthenon were actually painted with color originally and were not the pure white we see today. Apparently, when these sculptures were discovered during the Renaissance excavations they were without their color and from that point artists thought they were “continuing” the tradition of sculpting marble in its natural white state.

Central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon British Museum
Central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon

And sure, the fact that these sculptures likely used to beam with color doesn’t necessarily fundamentally change my understanding of Greek civilization (though for some art historians it probably could). At best, this might be a random fact I mention to someone else IRL once or twice when the opportunity arises. The point is that I’m on my way to adding another layer of understanding to yet another culture. And that’s really one of my biggest goals for travel in general: to just keep laying those bricks down and building upon my knowledge while discovering (and of course experiencing) more and more about different civilizations and the places where they exist.

I should also mention that we made our way through some of the other exhibitions, such as the Americas and Asian exhibitions and thoroughly enjoyed those. By that time we were running a little short on time and I’d made the decision to do less photo-taking and to just try to enjoy the museum. We happily left some galleries untouched as we planned on leaving some exhibitions unseen and wait for the next time that we could venture to the museum.

Sculpture South Asian gallery British Museum
Sculpture from the South Asian gallery

Overall, I think the exhibitions in the museum are extremely well presented. My only real complaint with the museum was the “shopping-mall” feel that it had to it at some places. That’s mostly the product of it being free and inundated with so many tourists but there seems to be somewhat of an issue of enforcements as well.

I understand there’s probably nothing the museum can do about the noise factor in such a busy museum but certainly personnel could be in place to keep others from putting their hands all over the exhibits and blasting objects with their flash photography. We were only there for about an hour and a half to two hours and yet I couldn’t believe how many people I saw touching some of the objects and paying no mind to their camera flashes. Because of those reasons and mostly the crowd factor, it can be difficult to have a true intimate museum experience here.

Still, not every exhibit was full of the type people described above and the enjoyment I experienced far outweighed the annoyances during my visit. Like I said, I walked away from the British Museum inspired by the beautiful Greek art on display and eager to investigate further; I saw one of he most renowned pieces of history, the Rosetta Stone; and I had a look at hundreds of other pieces of history that span centuries of different civilizations and still left plenty more to see for next time. In short, it was a fantastic museum experience.

So well done, British Museum. Well done.

Visiting The Tower of London: A Rich Historical and Cultural Experience

If you’re coming to London for a short period of time and you’re looking for a must-see London attraction, then I recommend the Tower of London. I had the privilege of visiting the Tower of London with over 800,000 poppies on display for the 100 year commemoration of lost British soldiers in WWI. The poppies will be on display until November 11, 2014 and if there’s any way you can get there before that date I highly recommend it. While some of my photos will showcase that amazing display, the focus of this article is on visiting the Tower of London at any time of the year.

Panoramic of the Tower of London during the 100 year commemoration of WWI
Panoramic shot of the Tower of London during the 100 year commemoration of WWI.

People first hearing of the Tower of London usually have two questions: what is the tower and what was/is it used for? The name Tower of London is a little misleading because today the entire castle is referred to as the Tower of London. The “Castle of London” would perhaps be a more apt name. It’s also a little bit confusing because within the Tower of London, is the White Tower, which is the heart of the castle and the original building constructed on the premises. Just know that when people talk about the Tower of London they’re referring to the entire castle as pictured above.

As for the purpose of the Tower of London…. The Tower was ordered to be built by William the Conqueror sometime in the 11th century to serve as a fortress. Since then, it’s served as a power base in times of peace, a refuge in times of war, a prison for the most dangerous criminals, an armoury, treasury, and general conserver of records for king’s court of justice among many other purposes. On the outside, it’s underwent several additions over the centuries as walls and moats have been installed by different monarchies. Through all this time and through all these changes, the Tower of London has stood as a testament to the perseverance of the monarchy and today still captivates the imagination of visitors from all around the world.

Here are some things to know about the Tower of London before visiting.

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Prices and booking

  • £20.90 per adult with online booking
  • £22 per adult at the gate
  • Student and other discounts available

I recommend booking online so that you can save a little bit. One thing that is a little confusing is that if you buy online, you still have to go to the “Group ticket booth” and get them to issue you your admission tickets. The ticket booth is located next to the visitor center on the east side of the tower. Be sure to get those tickets because you can’t just bring an electronic version of your ticket confirmation and expect to get in.

The Yeoman Warders, or “Beef Eaters,” are highly entertaining and worth your time

A Yeoman Warder

One thing you must do is participate in a tour given by the Yeoman Warders. The tours go on for about an hour and they start about every 30 minutes from the entrance of the tower. They provide you with more information than you’ll likely be able to digest but they all have a great sense of humor and superb presentation skills so it makes for a really enjoyable experience. They’ll tell you all about the famous prisoners, murders, and tons of other random facts about special people who have spent time in the Tower of London. During the tour, you’ll basically be walking around to different locations, such as Traiter’s Gate, and then stopping for about 10-15 minutes to listen to all of the stories and see some of the exact locations of certain events, such as where prisoners were executed. You can hang around the tour for the entire time or wander off from the crowd at some point if the tour just isn’t for you or you are in a time-crunch.

Traitors Gate Tower of London
Traitor’s Gate

Don’t let the nickname “Beef Eater” fool you, either. One thing I was a bit surprised to find out is how accomplished these individuals must be in order to be granted such a prestigious position. The Yeoman Warders have to have at least 22 years of military service and have been awarded a number of accolades from the military to even be eligible for such a position. Not only that, but they also have to undergo a strenuous application process, including doing their own independent research to come up with presentations that are good enough to impress their superiors and allow them to become official Yeoman Warders. For those reasons, I have a lot of respect for them and think that they do a brilliant job of showcasing the highlights of the Tower of London. Definitely do one of these tours when visiting.

You’ll have great up-close views of the British guards

Maybe you’re not able to view the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace but you are still interested in seeing some of these famous stoic British guards up close. The Tower of London is the perfect place to do so. Every two hours there is a changing of the guards and while it doesn’t involve the same level of presentation as Buckingham, it’s still pretty cool to be able to see that up close, which can be a very difficult thing to do when you are attending the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace with hundreds of other tourists. Also, there are always a couple of the guards outside of the Jewel’s House and the Queen’s House and you can get up close to one of them and get some great photos.

Guard at Tower of London
Guard at the Tower of London
Changing of the guards at Tower of London
Changing of the guards at the Tower of London

The Crown Jewels will blow you away with some serious bling

The crown jewels exhibit contains tons of royal regalia from modern and historical times. You will be dazzled by the brilliant display of shiny silver and gold ornaments. You’ll find everything from sceptres, orbs, swords, robes, spoons, and of course, plenty of crowns. Most of the items are objects that have been used in coronations of English Kings and Queens throughout the centuries, with at least one piece dating back to the 12th century. It’s a pretty brilliant presentation and is by far the most impressive collection of jewels and regalia I’ve ever seen in person.

The Tower doesn’t allow any photography in the room so I didn’t take any photos but it’s an absolute must-see if you are to visit the Tower. Also, you can move through the exhibition at your own pace and get through it as slow or as fast as you would like. As a side note, the Crown Jewels exhibit is where I discovered that “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” was written to the same melody as “God Save the Queen.” If you weren’t aware of this fact then just listen for it when you get to a certain area of the exhibit and it will be pretty clear that the melodies are the same. I was a little disappointed to find out that one of my favorite American tunes (second to “God Bless America,” of course) wasn’t as original as I once thought. However, as I’ve spent more time in England, I’ve found it fascinating to discover links to America’s British heritage that I never knew existed. 

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Don’t forget to visit the heart of the castle: The White Tower

The White Tower is really the heart of the castle. At the time it was completed near the beginning of the 12th century, it was an imposing tower that was meant to serve as a reminder of the king’s authority and vast ruling power. It was the first of its kind in England and still today is one of the best preserved 11th century structures of Europe. Inside the tower you’ll discover many  noteworthy attractions. When you first walk in there’s an amazing display of medieval armour, including Henry VIII’s famous armour dating back to 1515. Other major attractions in the White Tower include St. John’s Chapel and the “block and axe.” The Tower of London notes that St. John’s Chapel is one of the most “complete examples of early Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical architecture.” The “block” is believed to have been used in the last public beheading in 1747 on Tower Hill (where most executions took place).

The White Tower looming over castle walls
The White Tower looming over the castle walls.

The “torture room” is a little underwhelming, though that’s probably a good thing…

A lot of torture occurred in the Tower’s walls and some of the mechanisms used for that torture were pretty gruesome. There’s one room designated as the torture exhibit in the tower. It’s a small exhibit with only a few displays and it was a little underwhelming. There were limited things to see and the small room got very crowded. Still, after taking a look at some of the model torture devices I got a little sick to my stomach thinking about the poor souls who were forced to endure that horrendous treatment. For those reasons, you’ll probably only spend a few minutes stopping by this room and be ready to step out and get some fresh air.

Be sure to take the “wall walk” around the castle walls

The “wall walk” is a neat experience that allows you to walk along with inner curtain walls and admire the different views of the Tower of London and also pass through many different exhibitions in the different towers. These walls were the place where archers and other soldiers stood willing to defend the castle at all cost. Several steel sculptures are placed along the walkways posing in different war-ready positions taking you back through the centuries. Along the way, you’ll also have some nice sights of Tower Bridge and other prominent buildings of the London skyline.

Tower Bridge view from the wall walk
Tower Bridge view from the wall walk.
A view of the Tower walls

As you walk along the wall be sure to take your time and enjoy the different exhibitions in the different towers. Some of them, such as the Salt Tower and Broad Arrow Tower, give you a close look at the graffiti left by prisoners who were kept in isolation in those rooms. Be sure to be mindful of some of the signs as you make your way through the towers because some of the exhibits prohibit photography while others allow it.

Prisoners graffiti inside Tower of London
A prisoner’s graffiti inside one of the towers.

Gift Shops and Cafes

There are multiple gift shops and cafes throughout the Tower. If you’re looking for royal souvenirs there are several crowns on sale in the gift shop that I thought would make for a great souvenir.

Visiting the Tower is a fulfilling English and historical experience

I recommend the Tower of London for visitors because once you leave you feel as if you’ve experienced a thin slice of centuries of English history. You’ve roamed where kings and queens have roamed, seen where some of the most famous prisoners and greatest minds have spent years of their lives (and last moments), and you’ve wandered over the walls where peasants revolted and archers stood to defend the crown. Simply put, this is a must-see attraction for London.

The only drawback to this experience is that it is usually going to be overrun with tourists. However, we visited on a Wednesday in September and it wasn’t too bad, especially when we wandered out to the wall walk and other spots further away from the main attractions. My advice would be to try to avoid the weekend crowd if you can.

Finally, as a last recommendation you should try to be around for the key ceremony, which is the ceremonial locking of the castle. It’s gone on for about 700 years without missing a night! You arrive at about 9:30 pm but if you’d like to witness this spectacle you’ll have to book your (free) tickets in advance. You can book those tickets here.

That’s it for the Tower of London. I hope you make it out to see this amazing site and enjoy your time in London!

Love Lock Bridges in Paris: The Tradition that Never Was?

There are actually many “love lock” bridges in Paris, though two of them stand out amongst the rest. The “Pont de l’Archeveche,” is located just next door to the Notre Dame Cathedral while the “Pont des Arts” is located just outside the Louvre. Tourists often engrave or write their names on locks and then attach these locks to the bridges in an effort to symbolize their love for eachother. Some even go so far as to throwing their key into the Seine River to put a stamp on their eternal desire to be together. Lately, there’s been talk about banning this practice, as the weight from the locks has actually collapsed portions of the bridge and the cumulative effect of the discarded keys has been detrimental to the river’s environment.

For now, placing locks along these bridges is still an on-going tourist attraction. Here’s a look at some things to consider if you are planning on taking part in this “tradition” upon your visit to Paris.

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There’s nothing historical or “Parisian” about this practice

There’s nothing enduring about this “tradition.” Local reports state this practice began around the mid-2000s. That’s right, not 2,000 years ago, but something closer to about eight years ago. Also, the majority of Parisians seem to attribute this new practice to tourists and not anything distinctly rooted in any tradition or ritual of Paris. Thus, placing these locks on these bridges is pretty much a modern tourist invention (with roots dating back to a WWI Serbian tale). So while the idea is cool in theory, just know that you’re not engaging in some sort of renowned Parisian act of romance as many visitors think they are.

Love Lock Bridge Paris

The locks are getting out of control and damaging the bridges

These locks are now starting to exceed the holding capacity of the bridge due to their weight. When you see the bridge, you’ll see locks locked onto locks locked onto locks. Some of these locks are completely obnoxious and about as big as laptops. One look at the insane amount of locks on the bridges now and it’s easy to see how these locks are starting to get out of control. In fact, in June of 2014 a portion of the bridge’s fencing (where the locks are attached) actually collapsed. Just before we arrived in October 2014, some officials from the city actually placed boards over some areas to protect the bridge. To be honest, the boards look like crap and all of the writing on the boards don’t help the eyesore that they have become.

Love Lock Bridge Paris
Love Lock Bridge Paris

It’s too bad that this kind of thing doesn’t work out because unlike some who oppose this practice, I actually think that the locks on the bridge look pretty cool and some are pretty creative. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that there’s an option where you can allow tourists to attach padlocks onto a bridge without it getting out of control pretty quickly. It’s just not sustainable. Perhaps this kind of thing could work somewhere where it would be difficult to access the location where the locks are to be attached… like the top of a mountain peak. But with millions of visitors pouring in each year over these bridges, it simply will never workout in the long-term without damaging the local landscape.

Love Lock Bridge Paris

To alleviate this issue, Paris recently initiated an effort, dubbed #lovewithoutlocks, to encourage visitors to take selfies in front of the locks now. I don’t see that doing much considering that websites still encourage tourists to bring their custom-engraved locks to the bridge. Moreover, there are even local vendors on the bridges selling locks to tourists. Obviously, there is still a ways to go if city officials want tourists to receive a consistent message that this is no longer welcomed. And because of the mixed-messages out there, I can’t really blame a lot of visitors for not realizing that so many others seriously object to the practice and find the locks a nuisance.

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Our personal decision not to place a lock on the bridge

After researching more into the issues facing the bridge, Brad and I decided not to place a lock on the bridge. While there was still quite a bit of open room on some of the outer areas of the bridge, I didn’t feel like the bridge needed another lock from us. My reasons were both idealogical and environmental. I just don’t see romantic love properly manifested in a padlock attached to a bridge with the key thrown away. To me, what makes love so great is the risk involved. The risk that you’re partaking in something in which you ultimately have no control over the final outcome. It’s just that risk that brings in such a great reward. I understand that not everyone feels that way about romantic love and that’s fine, of course. But for me, the idea of something akin to a shackle symbolizing romance just didn’t jive with me. Add in the fact that it’s harming the environment and landmarks and you can see why I didn’t partake.

I understand that many are probably more interested in doing this for the nostalgia than for an actual symbolic statement of their never-ending love and I totally get it. You come to Paris, the city of romance, and you and your partner leave a small piece of yourselves there and five or ten years you come back and see that same enduring marker of your visit and feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. However, my suggestion is to just stick with photographs. Take some selfies of you and your lover at the bridge and be satisfied with that memory. Remember, it’s pretty selfish to add to the destruction of a landmark for your own want of nostalgia.

Love Lock Bridge Paris

However, if you are absolutely determined to put a lock on the bridge then please just don’t throw your key into the river. They estimate that over 700,000 locks are on these bridges and you can just imagine the environmental impact of so many thousands of keys rusting away in the riverbed. And it’s not like this is the River Thames. No offense, London, I really love you, and the Thames is pretty in it’s own way. But rivers like the Thames already look like they’ve dealt with their fare share of rust issues over the decades (though the Thames is said to be one of the cleanest rivers running through a major city). On the other hand, a beautiful green river like the Seine should be preserved as much as possible and it’s not hard to see how after a few years its beauty could be compromised from hundreds of thousands of deteriorating keys.=I hope this post doesn’t rain too much on your parade if you were looking forward to placing your own lock on the bridge. I try to focus on more positive aspects of travel and I know that this post is more on the negative side. I just wanted to help get the word out there that this practice is doing some harm to these areas and that we should think about the cumulative, long-term effects of doing even the most simple things like attaching a small lock to a bridge and tossing a key into a river.

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