Things to Know About Visiting Tromsø, Norway During Winter

Tromsø, Norway is a fantastic winter destination. It’s one of those festive European cities that are big on Christmas and one of the top destinations for prime northern lights viewing. But it’s a bit tricky visiting Tromsø during Christmas because much of the city shuts down and you aren’t left with a ton of options. With that said, you can still find things to do and places to eat, you just need to manage your expectations. So here are several things to know about visiting Tromsø, Norway during winter.

Snow covered street Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway during Christmas.

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Getting there

You’ll likely have to connect from a Scandinavian city like Oslo to get to Tromsø, Norway. Flights on budget airlines can be pretty cheap. For example, you can book a roundtrip economy from JFK to OSL on Norwegian for as low as $400. And then you can get roundtrip flights from Olso to Tromsø for as little as $180, so your total out of pocket can be under $600.

I booked our flight to Tromsø as part of an award itinerary with Aeroplan where we flew business class on SAS for 55,000 miles one way and only $12 in fees and it was a great flight!

Seat on SAS business class on the A330
SAS business class on the A330.

On our way back we flew British Airways first class on the 747 using award miles and it was also a terrific flight.

British Airways First Class
British Airways First Class.

Note: Google Flights shows no direct flights operating from Tromsø to Oslo on Christmas, so be aware that flights on Christmas Day could be limited.

Tromsø is gorgeous

Trosmø is actually located on an island called “Tromsøya” and surrounded by spectacular mountainous fjords. It’s easily one of the most breathtaking Arctic cities in the world and it’s a real photographer’s paradise.

City view Tromso Norway
The view from Tromsø, Norway
Boats and bridge Tromso Norway

In addition to the stunning natural landscape surrounding the city, the entire town is decorated in the Christmas spirit! Even Ebenezer Scrooge himself would struggle not to get into Christmas when walking down these streets lined with wreaths and Christmas lights. And when it’s snowing, it’s almost like being in a real-life fairy tale.

Store fronts Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway.
Store front Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway.
Winter Christmas decorations Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway.
Winter Christmas decorations Tromso Norway
Tromsø, Norway Christmas decorations.
Tree with lights Tromso Norway
Tromsø Norway during a snowy Christmas.

You’ll have a little bit of daylight

Contrary to what many think, you’ll have some daylight even visiting in the middle of the winter. Your daylight window will be limited to “Civil Twilight,” which is the brightest stage of twilight defined as having “enough natural light to carry out most outdoor activities.” This will typically last from around 9:30 to 2pm around Christmas time, so if you want to do any kind of outdoor activity where you’ll want light, try to schedule it within that window.

The photo below shows the amount of light you might get around 12pm, but keep in mind that cloud coverage can significantly alter this.

Civil twilight Tromso Norway
Civil twilight in Tromsø.

It’s not at cold as you might think

Despite being located above the Arctic Circle, Tromsø doesn’t have a true Arctic climate but instead has a “humid subarctic continental climate.” Temperatures in December will likely be around 32ºF and only dropping below 19°F only one day in ten. Tromsø gets a lot of precipitation so you can expect to be hit with some rain, sleet, and probably a lot of snow during your visit.

In addition to bringing layers for the cold temperatures, waterproof winter wear and boots for getting around in snow really help out, too.

Up your planning game 

If you’re going to visit Tromsø during Christmas then you need to do some serious planning because so many attractions, shops, and restaurants will be closed on certain days or limited during specific hours. Thus, it’s often necessary to plan out each visit to each place by the day in advance so you don’t miss out on doing anything you’d like to experience. This is not a time or a place when you just want to play it by ear. 

The shutdowns begin

The shutdowns begin on December 23rd.

On this day, many shops and restaurants will close their doors early and won’t re-open them for several days. Thus, if you want to experience Christmas shopping and try out the different restaurants that Tromsø has to offer, you need to visit at least a couple of days before the 23rd.

Christmas time Tromsø Norway
Tromsø, Norway.

Where should I stay in Tromsø? 

I highly recommend staying in a hotel in the city center. Tromsø is not a big city by any means, but I think it’s worth being centrally located so you can easily walk to the shops, restaurants, etc., especially if the weather is bad.

We stayed at the Raddison Blu and for Scandinavian standards, it was fine for us and the breakfast each morning was’t bad at all. Other people said good things about the Clarion Collection Hotel Aurora (which has an outdoor hot tub) and if you’re more on a budget check out the Smarthotel Tromsø. 

Radisson Blu Hotel Tromso Norway
Radisson Blu Hotel, Tromso.

What restaurants are open during Christmas in Tromsø?

After the 23rd, there’s not going to be a lot of eating options in Tromsø but don’t worry, you’re not going to have to starve. Take a look at the screen shot below. It shows the opening hours for restaurants in Tromsø during Christmas of 2016. Note: this could be different for 2017 and beyond but it will give you a general idea of what to expect.

List of restaurants open Christmas Tromso Norway

As you can see, the vast majority  of the restaurants are closed for the holidays.

You should still be able to find an open restaurant at any of the big hotels in the city like the Raddison Blu, Clarion, etc. Outside of those hotels, your options will be extremely limited. We ended up eating at Yona’s Pizzeria a couple of times, and I highly recommend them because they were open even on Christmas and it was some good pizza.

Pepperoni Pizza at Yonas Tromso Norway
Pizza at Yona’s.

If your hotel room has a refrigerator you can stop at one of the grocery stores and store away some food. They should be open up until the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Picking up some groceries might be able to help you get by, but ultimately, I’d just count on eating out at the hotels or one of the few places open, since I doubt many hotels would even have mini-fridges with enough room for you to store your groceries.

List of grocery stores open Christmas Tromso Norway

If you’re just looking for snack food the 7-11 should be open most of the time. They’ve got hot food items like hot dogs and even pizzas (which to be honest didn’t look that bad).

Pizza in case
Pizza at the 7/11.

Just be warned to stay away from the candy “Salt Skum” if you find it in the 7/11 or anywhere else in Norway or it will ruin you!

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What shopping is open during Christmas in Tromsø?

As stated, you should try to fit in your shopping before the 24th. While some shops will likely be open on the 23rd and 24th, they’ll be shutting it down early, so I recommend you try to arrive a few days before the 23rd to maximize shopping opportunities.

When I visited, I noticed that some shops, such as the Tromsø Gift and Souvenir Shop closed even earlier than their stated closing time. So it’s a good idea to get your shopping done as early as possible.

Tromsø Norway
Tromsø Gift and Souvenir Shop.

What attractions are open during Christmas in Tromsø?

Many of the attractions will close after the 23rd. Only a couple of the staple attractions stay open on Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day and these include Polaria and the Polar Museum. Note that the popular cable car attraction closes on the 24th and 25th, so if you want to catch those great views of the city (that I unfortunately missed) you need to do that earlier.

List of attractions open Christmas Tromso Norway

We checked out Polaria on Christmas and it’s an interesting museum with an Arctic aquarium, knowledge-based exhibits, and a panoramic theater, which is one of the highlights where you can see stunning visuals of Norway and how the northern lights actually come about.

Pool at Polaria Tromso Norway

Do they offer northern lights and dog-sledding tours on Christmas?

Some of the tour operators still offer activities like northern lights tours, dog-sledding tours, and other activities during Christmas Eve and Christmas, so you can still find things to do on those days. In fact, I recommend planning tours for those activities on those days, since you probably won’t have much else to do.

Northern lights Christmas Tromso Norway
The northern lights on Christmas.

We had three superb nights of watching the northern lights in Tromsø during our visit. If you’re looking for a northern lights tour, I suggest going with Chasing Lights. Also, I suggest reading my tips on viewing the northern lights for some background information that will help you be prepared for your visit.

Northern lights Christmas Norway
The northern lights just outside of Tromsø.

Tromsø church services on Christmas

If you’re in the mood for attending a church service for Christmas, there’s a number of them to choose from in Tromsø, including one at the famous Arctic Cathedral. We didn’t attend any of these, so I’m not sure how they are or what the crowds or like but you can probably do some research and find that out.

Church in Tromso Norway
Church in Tromsø, Norway.

Should I rent a car during the winter?

You do not need to rent a car to explore Tromsø. Even in snow and sleet, we walked around the city and to places like Polaria without an issue.

We did choose to rent a car to explore the surrounding area of Tromsø in search of the northern lights. If you want to explore the fjords or do your own search of the northern lights (I can’t recommend enough), then I highly suggest renting a car. The rental cars have nails in the tread that seemed to work wonders when driving on some of the streets that were frozen over. Brad and I have pretty much zero experience in driving in frozen conditions but got around just fine. So I think it’s all about your comfort level with venturing out on your own.

BMW Northern Lights Norway
Our rental car in Tromsø.

Parking is a struggle in Tromsø, however, and many of the hotels will not have valet parking or even parking lots to accommodate your car. Luckily, there is an underground parking garage (that looks like the Bat Cave) in the center of the city that often has plenty of spots. It will cost around $22 USD per day to leave your car there. 

Underground parking cave
Underground parking cave.

One last thing to know, when you leave the airport on your way to the city center, you’ll likely be driving through long tunnels. I didn’t know this and when we entered the tunnels the GPS cut off. This was a problem because there are round-a-bouts and such in the tunnels and you could potentially get turned around. So I recommend trying to plot out or memorize the route to get where you need to go. It will likely only involve one or two turns through the tunnels but it’s something to be aware of.

Do I recommend visiting Tromsø during Christmas?

Even though there are some limitations to visiting Tromsø during Christmas, it’s still a magical place to experience the northern lights, get introduced to the Arctic, and soak in the Christmas spirit.

Tromso Norway

I would recommend arriving on the 22nd at the absolute latest, so you can at least explore the full array of restaurants and shops that the city has to offer for a day and half. It will still be a cozy town to enjoy after that when things shut down and you’ll be able to stay occupied with things like northern lights tours and dog sledding tours, so Trosmø can definitely still work out to be an ideal Christmas destination.

Things to Do in San Pedro/Ambergris Caye, Belize

While I’m not an expert on San Pedro/Ambergris Caye, I had a pretty amazing three days there and found that there’s plenty you can do even if you only have 48 to 72 hours to spend in this tropical paradise. Here’s a rundown on some of the top things to do when visiting Ambergris Caye, even if you only have about three days to do it!

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1. Scuba Dive

Scuba divers with sea turtle

Belize is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, behind only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. For that reason, I highly recommend going for a scuba dive while you’re there in Ambergis Caye. You’ll likely come across sharks, rays, sea turtles, eels, hundreds of brightly colored fish, and maybe even some dolphins if you’re lucky. My pick is to go with the Belize Pro Dive Center, as Brad and I had an unforgettable diving experience with them. They are a great company, especially if you are a rookie with no prior diving experience.

2. Snorkel at the Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Two angelfish and coral at Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Even if you do some scuba diving, I still recommend you coupling that experience with a snorkel in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve. This is a hotspot for marine life and stunning coral like elk and fire coral (that you don’t want to touch). During our snorkel at the Hol Chan Cut we came across sharks, rays, sea turtles, and a multitude of other species. There are plenty of companies that will take out for snorkeling there but we went with Searious Adventures and had a pretty good experience with them.

3. Visit Shark And Ray Alley

Nurse shark and fish at shark and ray alley

Trips to Shark And Ray Alley are typically part of a larger diving package that also dives in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve or another hotspot in the reef like Mexico Rocks. This experience will bring you within feet, and sometimes inches, of southern stingrays and nurse sharks that are driven into a feeding frenzy over chum. While you can admire the frenzy of sharks and rays from the comfort of a boat, I recommend jumping in and getting up close to these beautiful animals.

Sting ray at shark and ray alley

4. Go for a night dive!

Eel at night
Photo by Geir Friestad

This sounds a little scary but the nightlife in Ambergris Caye extends well out into the ocean. Several operators offer guided tours where you can explore the reefs at night when a whole new community of nocturnal wildlife comes out like lobster and octopus. I didn’t get a chance to do a night dive, but I will certainly look into doing it when on our next trip.

5. Explore the Blue Hole

The blue hole in Belize
Photo by The TerraMar Project

The Blue Hole, considered by many to be a natural wonder of the Americas, is an astonishing site that can be viewed or explored from Ambergris Caye. The hole is nearly 500 feet deep and scuba divers, with a bit of experience, can head down to depths of over 100 feet and explore the huge stalactites and come across sharks that appear from the depths. If diving down into this dark abyss isn’t really your style you can look into ariel tours of the Blue Hole via plane, although it’s going to cost you a little bit (about $200USD per person).

6. Play chicken drop

Chicken Drop in san pedro belize
Photo by Scott Ableman

Forget the powerball, in San Pedro, Belize, you can make your money by betting on where you think a chicken is going to drop its next load. It’s a San Pedro tradition called “Chicken Drop” and you can catch the game every Thursday evening starting at 7:00pm at Wahoo’s Lounge. You’ll pay $1BZD per ticket and bet on a number 1 through 100, with the hopes that the chicken gods will be in your favor. After a few rituals, a chicken is released onto a numbered-tiled mat and everyone cheers on the chicken, trying to lure it to their square. After it’s all said and done, the winner walks away with $100BZD but not before they assume the duty of cleaning up the drops!

7. Enjoy the bars and restaurants

Man with blue drink

There are plenty of restaurants and bars all around the island and many of them serve up some pretty tempting seafood and refreshing drinks that you can enjoy as you look out over the surrounding turquoise waters. Apart from all the diving and snorkeling, those relaxing moments of kicking back and having a relaxing drink on the coast were among my favorite memories on the island.

Lobster with shrimp kabobs
Seafood platter from the Knook Restaurant.

We stayed south of downtown at the Grand Colony Villas (in a nice, spacious hotel room), where we enjoyed cinnamon buns at The Baker and eating at breakfast burritos at El Divino Caribbean Steakhouse & Martini Bar.

Cinnamon roll
Cinnamon bun from The Baker

If you’re in the downtown area, be sure to check out the Palapa Bar and Grill for tasty burgers and a unique opportunity to get your drink on while floating the ocean in an inter tube. (Note: we chose the Palapa Bar located close to downtown  not the location north of the bridge.)

Bacon cheese burger
Giant burger from Palapa Bar and Grill.

8. Rent a golf cart

Golf carts on busy road

The most common method of transportation around the Island is definitely golf cart. You can rent golf carts for around $60-75USD per day and many of the carts can hold up to 6 people. The ride is a bit bumpy and there are some pretty aggressive taxi-vans to contend with on the roads, but riding around on a golf cart is definitely the way to go in San Pedro!

These are by no means all you pack into your stay in San Pedro but they should give you an idea of some of the most exciting and interesting things to do during your stay at Ambergris Caye!

Getting from Belize City Airport (BZE) to San Pedro/Ambergris Caye

There are two main ways to get to Ambergris Caye from Belize City: by boat or by plane. What route is best for you depends on your budget, how much you value time and convenience, and your comfort level with riding in a tiny plane. Here’s a look at some things to consider when choosing how to get to San Pedro.

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San Pedro Belize Hotels?

Ambergris Caye can be easily divided into two main parts: south of the bridge and north of the bridge.

Map of San Pedro Belize
It’s about a 10-minute taxi ride to the bridge from the airport.

South of the bridge is where the real “city” is and north of the bridge is quieter and has less traffic. I’ve stayed in both parts before and enjoyed them both, so you can’t really go wrong.

However, if you like things a little quieter and don’t mind renting a golf cart (which I highly recommend), then I’d go with hotels north of the bridge.

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Ferry vs plane to San Pedro

Here are the prices and estimated times you can expect for making your way to San Pedro via ferry or plane.

By Ferry

The ferry ride is about 75 minutes one way from Belize City to San Pedro.

I’ve seen prices at the following rates: 

  • $28 (one-way) 
  • $38 (roundtrip) 

But I’ve also seen prices a little cheaper ($25) when booking with GuateGo so you might want to give them a look. You can book all the main destinations in Belize starting from the airport to the water
taxi station or connect to Caye Caulker, Caye ambergris, Chetumal, etc. 

Chart of booking taxi

You can check out the other prices for the ferry route and others nearby destinations here.  

Keep in mind that if you’re coming from BZE airport you’ll need to pay an additional $25 for taxi fare to the airport to the Marine Terminal.

By Plane

Maya Island Air plane
Maya Island Air plane. Photo by Aero Icarus

If you’re in a crunch for time then going by plane may be the better route for you. It only takes about 20 minutes to get from BZE to Ambergris Caye/San Pedro by plane and the plane ride is stunning as you soar a few thousand feet above the turquoise waters and reef. 

This option is more costly, however.

There are two airlines that fly from BZE to San Pedro’s airport (SPR): Maya Island Air and Tropic Air.

My first time to San Pedro, we flew Maya Island Air and for the two of us roundtrip it cost us $315.02 including all taxes and fees. I put in the same information for Tropic Air and the total came out to $315 as well. Each person is allowed a checked bag up to 50 pounds but after that fees may be incurred.

My second time to San Pedro, I flew Tropic Air.

Tropic Air has many more flights and nicer stations for departure from the island and we had more room inside their planes, although the planes can still be very cramped depending on where you sit.

Tip: Try to be one of the last to board the plane and the staff should force others to scoot up a row leaving you a seat in one of the back rows which will give you more room. 

Overall, Tropic Air felt a bit more “legit” to me so in the future I will probably look to fly with them.

Save money flying to and from Belize Municipal Airport

If you book the flight from the Belize Municipal Airport (TZA) to San Pedro it’s about $192 for two people round-trip.

It costs about $18 to take a taxi from the international airport to the TZA so the total cost for two would be about $100 cheaper.

For us, we were only going to be in Belize for 2 nights/3 days, so the more daylight we could get, the better and we opted to just have our flight departing and arriving from the domestic terminal at BZE.

However, if you’re flying with a larger group or say a family of four then your savings will be greater and it might just be worth it to fly from Belize Municipal Airport.

For example, for four adults the cost would be $631 from BZE but $384 from TZA, a savings of about $230 when you factor in the connecting taxi.

Ocean view from Cessna
Clouds reflecting off the shallow waters.

Booking online or at the airport?

I’d come across some people online talking about it being cheaper to book the tickets at the airport versus online but I inquired with the folks at Maya Airlines and they told me that that is not the case — the prices will be the same whether you book in person or online.

Reservations are a good thing but are loosely followed

I really wish I had known this before our trip as it would’ve made planning our connecting flights to much easier!

While it’s a good thing to make reservations for your flight from Belize City to San Pedro, you don’t actually have to get on that specific flight time.

Basically, they operate the flights on a first come-first serve basis and so whether you are early or late you can likely just catch the next flight to or from San Pedro, which means you don’t have to stress out when planning your connecting flights.

Tip: the flights usually go out every hour but they sometimes will have a couple of planes going out every hour so just check with them and see because you may not have to wait the full hour.

The planes are really small

Three guys in Cessna
All smiles after take off.

This probably won’t be a major issue for most but I think it’s worth mentioning that these planes (called “puddle jumpers”) are tiny and can feel extremely confining.

I definitely battle claustrophobia a bit and it took a bit of extra effort to not get worked up when I first stepped into our plane.

Once the plane took off and I was overwhelmed with the amazing scenery it was easy to calm down and relax, but just consider your comfort-level with small spaces before you definitely choose which route you want to go.

Ocean and beach view from Cessna
View on the way to Ambergris Caye

A word on Philip S.W. Goldson International Airport (BZE)

If you’re like me and enjoy arriving early to airports to relax in a nice lounge for an hour or two before your departure you’re going to be very disappointed in BZE.

There are no lounges and no *real* restaurants, just a few snack/souvenir shops and rows of wooden benches. The airport isn’t much nicer than your average bus stop and so this is one of those airports where you probably want to spend as little time as possible inside.

On the other hand, I will say that the staff at the airport was very helpful and friendly. If you arrive at BZE and aren’t sure where to go for your connecting flight to San Pedro just ask one of the staff members.

They all seemed to speak greta English and went the extra mile to make sure we were relaxed about finding our connecting flight.

Update: the airport now has wifi so that will help you pass the time a little better!

Tip: If you’re coming from San Pedro, I recommend finding a bar or restaurant near the Maya Island or Tropic Air side of the airport and then heading to the airport to catch a flight about a 1.5 hours before your scheduled boarding time.

Getting to your hotel from the San Pedro Airport

Many hotels offer complimentary taxi service from the airport to your hotel. Check with your hotel and make sure they do so you can save a few bucks. Also, there are golf cart rentals available right next to the airport for you as well.

I highly recommend renting a golf cart! They are an excellent way to explore the island and make your life a lot easier.

If you want to learn more about San Pedro, Belize check out my list of top things to do.

Tips for Photographing Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls has to be hands down one of the most accessible, yet breathtaking natural wonders to photograph. It’s basically impossible to not come away with some great shots after your visit, but it’s even easier when you know how to go about your trip to the falls. Here are a few simple tips on photographing Niagara Falls.

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Find the best view of Niagara Falls

The best view of the falls is going to depend on what you prefer as a photographer. If you love ariel shots and wide panoramics then one of the best places to head to is the Skylon Tower. From the viewing deck, which is over 500 feet tall, you’ll be able to shoot both falls at once with a very wide-angle lens and/or be able to set yourself up for some great panoramic shots. The viewing platform is caged so you’ll have to work around the cage-wire to get your shots, which can be a little difficult when working with a tripod but it is still doable. Below is a two-frame, HDR panoramic I stitched together.

Niagara Falls Panoramic

My favorite view of the falls is on the plaza/walkway on the ground level by the falls. Standing right over the water gushing over the ledge is a bit dizzying but it’s a great way to wrap your head around the immensity of Niagara Falls. The best time to photograph this viewpoint is at sunrise. Just google image “Niagara Falls sunrise” for some inspirational shots.

Niagara Falls
Slow-shutter effect close-up
Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

TIP: the hotels such as the Marriott Fallsview offer close proximity to this point so that you can reach it within 10-15 minutes, which is great if you’re not exactly a morning person and want to catch as much sleep as possible before waking up to catch the sunrise. The “Niagara Funicular” (elevator thingy) doesn’t open up until around 9 or 10 am so you’ll need to walk around to Murray St. to get access to the falls in the wee hours of the morning. Another great thing about staying in a hotel like the Marriott Fallsview if that you can check out the conditions before sunrise to know if it will be worth it to head down to the falls. From the 16th floor, it was obvious both mornings that the sunrise just wasn’t going to happen so I never had to waste my time going all the way down there.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls

As you continue to head north from the falls, you get better vantage points to capture the entire horseshoe of Horseshoe Falls. Take a look down at the misty river below and you’ll notice flocks of birds cutting through misty clouds like a scene out of Jurassic Park. It’s really mesmerizing. I imagined the walkway along the river to be shrouded in mist and moisture but it really wasn’t. Depending on the wind conditions, you may not even get hit with any of the mist and if you do it might be marginal. However, I could definitely see how on a windy day it could be an entirely different story. The area just a little upstream for the falls is a great place to attempt a panoramic to capture both falls from the ground level. Below is the one I captured, along with a double rainbow, which usually appears in the afternoon with a little help from the sun.

Niagara Falls Panoramic with rainbow
Man standing next Niagara Falls with rainbow

There’s a bit of foreground to experiment with when shooting the falls and utilizing it helps to distinguish your shots from the thousands of photos out there of Niagara Falls. It was a little tempting to climb over the railing bordering the walkway to get some shots but I had no idea how tightly security was enforced and the last thing I wanted to do was to get banned from the area… or you know, die. You may have to do some editing later to get some of the trash debris out of your photo because the areas below the railing were pretty littered.

Niagara falls
Niagara falls

Finding an open area along the river walkway to set up for photographs with my tripod was easy. However, I know that visiting in the summer would be a completely different story and would likely be somewhat miserable. So if you’re visiting during the peak season, I’d definitely do my best to get there early before the crowds begin swarming. Finally, once you walk a good 10-15 minutes upstream you’ll be around the Rainbow Bridge area, where you’ll have a view of the American Falls. The American Falls are not as impressive as the Horseshoe Falls, mostly because they just aren’t as wide and don’t appear as tall due to the massive assemblage of rocks built up at its base. However, they’re still worth checking out and photographing.

American Falls
American Falls
American Falls

Which brings me to my one regret about my recent Niagara Falls visit. I really wish we would’ve gone over to the American side to check out Goat Island and get up close with the falls. It’s true that the better side to visit is the Canadian side but I think that viewing the falls from the viewing decks on Goat Island would’ve been a cool experience. Of course, you’ll have to deal with customs and all the time it takes to get through that but looking back I think it would’ve been worth it. Once you arrive near Rainbow Bridge you can just walk uphill a little bit and you’ll be in the middle of Clifton Hill with tons of tourist things to do like Ripley’s Museum, a haunted house, restaurants like Planet Hollywood, etc.

Sheraton at Clifton hill

If you spend a couple of hours exploring Clifton Hill, you can ten proceed to head back the same way you came and then photograph all the areas again but with slightly different lighting. My optimal route for spending a day on the Canadian side in the month of December (when sunlight is limited) would be to follow the above route starting in the morning.

I’d probably venture out during sunrise if it looked like the lighting would be good and then go back to the hotel, relax, eat breakfast, etc. and then come back out around 9 am or so and start the route. Once you get your late morning shots head to Clifton Hill and spend a couple of hours there eating lunch and checking out some of the attractions if those interest you. Then you head up to a place like the Skylon Tower for dinner or to photograph the falls from above as the sun begins to set. The lighting really softens up the falls and can look really interesting with light streaks hitting the escarpment cliffs. In the summer, you’d of course have much more time to explore the area in one day and could probably get over to the US side from Canada with enough time to come back and still catch sunset from the Canadian side.

Niagara Falls

Photographing Niagara falls is a blast and as I mentioned, it’s virtually impossible to not come away with some great shots. But definitely try to get some sunrise photos and if you can learn it, try to shoot some slow-shutter photographs to get some of those breathtaking silky-smooth water shots.

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Coit Tower in San Francisco, California

Also known as the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, Coit Tower, rises 210-feet and sits atop Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, California. The tower was built back in 1933 after Lillie Hitchcock Coit donated 1/3 of her estate to beautification efforts of San Francisco. The eccentric Lillie Coit was a bit of a rebel in her time. Back in the late 1800s, she smoked, gambled, and wore trousers before such things were ever socially acceptable for a woman. Her cavalier ways eventually wound up leading her to join in with local firefighter efforts, Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 to be precise. She’d ride along on calls, accompany them in parades, and actually became an honorary firefighter and a mascot of sorts.

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Portrait of Lillie Hitchcock Coit
Lillie Hitchcock Coit

Coit’s bequest of 1/3 of her estate amounted to $118,000 and two memorials were built in her name. One was a sculpture of three firemen (found in Washington Square) and another was Coit Tower. The architect behind the tower was Arthur Brown, Jr. and it took a total of five years to complete the construction of the tower. Some people believe that Coit Tower was designed to resemble a nozzle of a fire hose, but it’s been said that the resemblance is nothing more than a coincidence.

Coit Tower
Cit Tower seen from its base.

Inside of the tower there are several murals to check out, most of which were commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project back in the 1930s as part of the New Deal employment program for artists. The murals depict racial equality as well as issues related to capitalism, labor, and finance. There were over 25 artists who worked to produce these art pieces. Many of these frescoes were considered radical back in the 1930s and a great deal of violence actually broke out due to protests over the artworks. The tower had to be locked up for some time until the violence died down and though it reopened months later, some of the controversial paintings were painted over.

Coit Tower Mural
Photo by Ed Bierman
Coit Tower Mural
Photo by Ed Bierman

As you approach the entrance of the tower you’ll notice several trails winding around Pioneer Park, the park that surrounds Coit Tower. Try to take a little time to wander through these trails and see if you can catch a glimpse or at least some sounds of the local inhabitants — a flock of wild parrots. (There’s actually a film about these parrots called The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.) The parrots got to this area back in the early 1900s when it was legal to import wild parrots into the US and the birds were brought over from South and Central America by the millions. Most of them are cherry-headed conures, though there are some other types that show up from time to time.

Parrot swarm
A flock of wild parrots. Photo by Andrew Fitzhugh

The view from the observation deck inside the tower is one of the best views of the San Francisco Bay Area. The observation deck affords a 360 degree view of the entire city and surrounding bay. The only issue with getting photographs is that the windows are a bit narrow and since there is such thick concrete barriers between each window, it’s a bit difficult to capture wide-angle shots or panoramic photos. Still, there are some great views to be seen from this tower. You’ll be able to see a close up of the iconic San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, and the East Bay.

San Francisco from Coit Tower
The Bay Bridge seen from Coit Tower
The Bay Bridge seen from Coit Tower.

One thing that surprised me when we visited was that the top of the tower is open and exposed. This could obviously be a problem if it was raining so you want to keep an eye out on the forecast and try to get out there on a clear day.

Coit Tower
Photo by Brandi Korte
San Francisco from Coit Tower

An elevator ride will get you to the top so you don’t have to worry about taking tons of stairs, although you will have to take some stairs. Sometimes during busy weekends this line can get a little long and move along quite slowly so be prepared for that. There’s also a small gift shop at the bottom of the tower (where you purchase your elevator tickets) so you can check that out — it’s also where the murals are located.

Gift Shop at Coit tower
Photo by Justin Yap

Tickets for adults are $6 for California residents and $8 for non-residents. If you read through the reviews online you’ll see that an appreciable amount of people don’t think the $6-8 is worth it. I happen to think that it was worth the money for the simple fact that the view is great and it’s an iconic tower of the city and I just enjoy trekking to the top of these type of structures. I think a $5 charge might be a little bit more in line with expectations but I didn’t mind shelling out just a couple of extra bucks for the experience.

The tower is open from 10am to 6 pm May through October and 10-am to 5pm from November to April. Parking on the tower is limited so if you’re planning on visiting during a busy weekend you will probably struggle to find a place to park and be forced to wait in an outrageous line. For that reason, my advice is to get there early or simply try to visit during a week. Or you can also look into taking Muni’s #39 Coit bus that runs between Fisherman’s Wharf and Coit Tower.  Finally, if you’re traveling by foot and in the mood for a little bit of exercise then try to access the tower via the Filbert Street stairs on the eastern slope of the hill.

Top 17 Tourist Attractions in London

If you’re coming to London it’s really hard not to be a tourist for at least a day or two. Even after spending months and months living there, I still enjoyed putting on my tourist hat and venturing to different tourists shops and attractions from time to time. However, London is absolutely full of tourist attractions. I had the luxury of time on my side when it came to trying out these attractions but if you only have one or two weeks then it can be a littler harder to narrow down your choices. Hopefully this list of MY top 17 tourist attractions in London can help you plan a little better, especially if you’re into the broad range of interests like myself.

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17. Hyde Park (Free-£)

Hyde Park, one of the largest parks in London, is a great place to go for a nice walk and get a little relaxation from the city life for a bit. Together with Kensington Gardens it encompasses 253 hectares (625 acres) and while a bit smaller than Central Park in New York, it’s still pretty easy to find some solitude in this park, at least momentarily. If you’re in the mood to expend a little bit of energy then consider renting pedal boats for about £10 on the Serpentine for an hour or so and enjoy the scenery from the lake. Check the events calendar to see if anything interesting is coming up and consider stopping by Speakers’ Corner, a traditional site of public speeches and protests since the mid 1800s.

Hyde Park
Hyde Park

16. The National Gallery (Free)

The National Gallery in London is one of the best places in Europe to see tons of renowned art work. Come here to see Van Gogh’s famous Sunflowers (the most famous of the bunch he painted) and some other works of his as well. There’s also tons of Rembrandt and works from countless other famous artists like Johannes Vermeer and Titian. Apart from the art, the building’s architecture, both inside and out, is also a site worthy of a visit on its own.

Van Goghs famous Sunflowers

15. Big Ben and Westminster Palace (Free)

If there’s one thing you’ve got to see while you’re vacationing in London its Big Ben, right? Make your way to the Westminster Tube Station and step on out and bam! Big Ben is right in your face! Take a stroll across the River Thames on Westminster Bridge as you listen to the bell’s echo from inside the clock tower and feel like you’ve officially made it to London. This area is usually filled to the brim with tourists about 99% of the time so be prepared for swarms of people. However, I’ve found it to be relatively calm to visit it at night when far fewer people are around so consider an evening visit for a less stressful experience.

Big Ben London at night

14. The British Library (Free)

The British Library might not be at the top of your list but it should definitely be a strong contender for a place to see in London, especially if you’re even remotely interested in history. It’s free to get in and the place is full of fascinating documents like the Magna Carta, original Shakespeare print books, original music sheets from greats like Mozart and Bach, works from the Beatles, and even Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook. That’s just a small fraction of what there is to see there and if you catch an exhibit at the right time, you can see a lot of other cool stuff (we saw Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Declaration of Independence alongside an original copy of the Bill of Rights).

Sculpture outside The British Library
Magna Carta The British Library

13. Take a double-decker bus (£)

When you think of London these big red busses are probably one of the first things that spring to your mind. While you’re in the city you might as well take advantage of a great (and cheap) way to take in the scenery. (Go straight up to the second deck and try to sit in the front row for the best views.) Sure, you can always go for the hop-on-hop-off busses but taking one of the official red busses will allow you to get up close with some real Londoners and it’s a great way to people watch as you navigate through the busy streets of London. The bus fare is only £1.50 and they accept Oyster Cards, contactless payments, and even Apple Pay making it very convenient for tourists.

Red double-decker bus London

12. Watch a West End Show (££-£££)

London’s great theatre scene is one of the best in the world. There are numerous theaters available for you to choose from and countless plays to see like Wicked, Stomp, The Phantom of the Opera, and my favorite, The Lion King. I’ve actually seen the Lion King in both New York and London and I think that both are equally spectacular. West End shows are going to cost you a pretty penny usually but in some cases you can find reasonable rates for the tickets, all depending on where you want to sit of course.

The Lion King - Lyceum Theatre
The Lion King – Lyceum Theatre. Photo by Andy Roberts

11. Tower Bridge (Free-£)

To many, Tower Bridge is the most famous bridge in the world. It’s one of the many iconic sites around the city and is always a great place to take a few memorable photos. Built in the late 1800s, it was originally considered an eye sore to many locals but as time went on, the love for the bridge began to grow. Today, you can go inside the bridge and walk across the glass floor walkway for only about £8 — it’s an interesting experience and offers you a slightly dizzying view of the River Thames below and panoramic views of the London skyline. If you’re not interested in going inside the bridge, then try to plan your visit for a time when the bridge will be opening for ships to pass through, it only happens a few times a week so witnessing it is a pretty cool feat.

Tower bridge London
Tower Bridge London

10. Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio (££)

So if you’re not a Harry Potter fan then this option may not excite you much and there’s nothing I can really do for you. However, if you are a Harry Potter fan then you really can’t turn down the option of going to see the Harry Potter Warner Brothers Studio Tour because it will blow your mind. This “studio” is more of a Harry Potter museum to me and it’s chock-full of thousands of props, amazing sets like Diagon Alley, and full of a bunch of inside info on the Harry Potter movies. Make sure to get you some butterbeer and maybe a chocolate frog or two before you leave but be weary of overpriced gift shop at the end! Tickets start at £25-33 for children/adults.

Diagon Alley Harry Potter London
Weasleys Dining room Harry Potter tour London

9. The London Eye (£)

London Eye

There are a number of options for you to get a great view of the city of London. You’ve got the Shard, Tower Bridge, The London Eye, and a great deal of other options around the city. While the “Coca-Cola” London Eye is about as touristy as it gets, I still give it the nod because of the great shots you’re afforded of Big Ben and Westminster Palace — I’m not aware of any other easily accessible views as good as this one, though they may be out there. A full rotation on the Eye takes about 30 minutes so you have more than plenty of time to take in and photograph your views, and if you’re feeling the need to splurge on champagne or chocolate, there are plenty of options for you to do so here. But if you just want to keep it simple, tickets start at about £20.

The Shard London

8. The Natural History Museum (Free)

The Natural History Museum is a perfect destination to bring the family to. But even if you don’t have kids, it’s still a great place to entertain yourself for a few hours as you discover fully assembled dinosaur remains, massive whales skeletons suspended from the ceiling, intricate displays of birds and creepy-crawlies, and get a taste of what a real-life earthquake feels like while standing in a quivering mini-market. And the best part is: the museum is free. The museum is home to over 80 million items so you don’t need me to tell you that there’s a lot to see here. Try to allocate between 2-3 hours if you really want to see a lot of it, though if you’re a science lover you might still need more time than that.

Outside Natural History Museum London
Dinosaur Bones Natural History Museum London

7. Westminster Abbey (Free-£)

This iconic building is one of the most beautiful structures in the entire city of London. The history of the site dates all the way back to the 11th century when Edward the Confessor founded it in 1065. Everything about the place has an almost scared feel to it. It’s been home to every Coronation since 1066, 16 royal weddings, and it’s where thousands of prominent British figures have been buried, including 17 monarchs. There’s a lot to see inside including St. George’s Chapel, the portrait of Richard II (the oldest surviving portrait of a British Monarch, the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, plenty of other memorial sites, along with the stunning Gothic architecture. Tickets for tours will run you £20 for adults and you can book online.

Outside Westminster Abbey London

6. Day trip to Stonehenge (£)

If you’re coming to London for a week or so and you’re interested in doing a day trip there are more than plenty of options. There’s Oxford, Bath, and any number of small towns and villages you can check out only about an hour or two away. If you’re into “wonders of the world” type attractions then consider giving Stonehenge a visit. I’ve got some tips for visiting Stonehenge but the best word of advice I have is to do your best to read up on the history of the site and try to get yourself excited about seeing such a mysterious and legendary structure. Otherwise, you may fall victim to the “it’s just a bunch of rocks” mindset. Also, try to book an inner-circle private tour if you can spare the extra £ because your experience will be much more intimate with the “Henge.” Standard tickets start at about £15.


5. Fish-n-chips/Pubs (£)

This one is a given but you’ve got to try to make sure that you give yourself the opportunity to try some good ole fashion British fish and chips while you’re here. I tried at least a handful of places over the year’s time that I was in England and just about any pub I tried them at in London left me pretty satisfied  (the meat pies are always a solid option as well).

British fish and chips with peas

In addition to feasting on fish and chips do your best to try to experience one of the over 7,000 pubs in the London area. The pub culture is really something that sets London/Britain apart from many other places in the world and is a major part of London’s charm. You may notice that people are always at the pub, especially from about 4-7 when many of the pubs have lads lining the exterior of the pub because there isn’t any room inside. That’s how dedicated Britons are to their pubs.  Try your luck by just hopping into the nearest pub or check out some of the top pubs in London.

4. Catch a game at Wembley Stadium (££-£££)

Wembley Stadium is a brilliant stadium and one of the coolest venues I’ve ever watched a sporting event at. I didn’t manage to catch a soccer (football) game there but I did catch an NFL game and it was a really cool experience. Fans from all the different teams showed up and it created a unique sporting atmosphere. We were there to see the Dallas Cowboys take on the Jacksonville Jaguars but a lot of people were there just to rep their team (in full game-day attire). If you’re visiting in the fall and you’re an NFL fan, then I highly recommend you attending one of these games! (Just try to get your seats a little early because the prices can get a little high.)

Wembley Stadium

3. Buckingham Palace (Free-££)

Checking out Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard may be one of the most quintessential London things there is to do (for tourists, that is). When you visit the Palace, take a look to see if the flag is flying on top of the palace — if it is that means the Queen is home. If the Queen happens to be out and about then you can actually arrange a tour of the state rooms and the Queen’s Gallery for about £35. Not looking to drop the extra quid on a tour? Then take the free option and check out which days you can witness the changing of the guard ceremony, always starting at 11:30 am.

Royal Gibraltar Regiment Soldiers Take Part in Changing the Guard Ceremony at Buckingham Palace
Photo by UK Ministry of Defence

2. The British Museum (Free)

The British Museum is one of the finest museums in the world and one of my all time favorites. And once again, it’s yet another free attraction in London! The highlights of my trip to the British Museum were seeing the Greek Parthenon marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and the Easter Island statue. Of course, there were hundreds of other remarkable exhibits including Egyptian, Roman, and Asian artifacts so whatever your appetite is for history it will likely be appeased here. This place is very busy during the day and on weekends, though, so try to plan your visit for early in the morning if you want to a little bit of time to enjoy the exhibits in peace.

British Museum
Rosetta Stone

1. The Tower of London (£)

The Tower of London is a must-see destination for anyone coming to London, even if you’re not into touristy destinations. That’s because there’s so much history in these walls that it’s hard to imagine not stopping by it for at least some time. If you pay to go in (about £20) you’ll have the chance to follow along on an official Beefeater tour as they take you by Traitor’s Gate and old execution sites. You’ll also get a chance to see the astonishing display of the Crown Jewels, which is a brilliant collection of crowns, sceptres, and spoons (Coronation spoons — they’re kind of a big deal). In addition to that, it’s a great feeling to just  walk along the castle walls like people have done for hundreds of years and ponder all the rich history of this site that dates back to the 11th century. If you’re planning way ahead, then look into booking a slot at the Ceremony of the Keys, a nightly ceremony that’s been going on every night for over 700 years! Not many tourists find out about the ceremony until it’s too late for them to book, so be sure to get on it if you’re interested.

Tower of London

Should You Drive in Lisbon, Portugal? Probably Not.

Every once in a while, we find ourselves in a sticky situation. A situation where we’re not sure how we got there and would really like to get out. Driving in Lisbon, Portugal on a busy sunny weekend was one of those situations. If you are thinking about renting a car and driving through the streets of Lisbon then please consider the advice in this post.

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Driving in Lisbon

First, let me just say that I didn’t do any of the driving — our car was manual and I’ve yet to teach myself how to work such a thing so my SO Brad handled the wheel while I was busy recording footage out the window with our GoPro. Brad’s a very efficient and experienced driver. In fact, he’s one of the best drivers I know. With that said, driving through Lisbon was still an overall “nightmarish” experience for both of us.

Road to Lisbon Portugal

Arriving in Lisbon

We first arrived in Lisbon from the south, over the 25 de Abril Bridge bridge — you know the beautiful bridge that looks exactly like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It’s a hell of a way to make your entrance into Lisbon, with great views of the surrounding bay/river. Everything was pretty good up to that point. And really, things were still okay once we made it across the bridge.

Bridge at Lisbon Portugal

Our first destination was to find Pasteis de Belem, so we turned west right off from the bridge. This area in Lisbon was totally tolerable from a traffic standpoint. While I found that they did drive quite aggressively in Lisbon, there wasn’t a very high concentration of crazy drivers or pedestrians in the west area of the city.

Busy street at Lisbon Portugal

We even easily found open parking very near to Pasteis de Belem and were able to park our car and then walk about the area and admire some of the colorful architecture. It was still relatively early, about 10-11am, so the streets weren’t congested too bad, though the line at Pasteis de Belem was already waayyy out of the building.

Buildings in Lisbon Portugal
Buildings in Lisbon Portugal

After we had a little breakfast, we decided to check out the really interesting part of Lisbon: Old Town Lisbon. This is where all of the amazing castles, viewpoints, and awesome hills are. Little did we know, things were about to get really hectic.

The madness begins

Trolly in Lisbon Portugal

As we began to approach the hilly side of Lisbon, the lanes became narrower and we soon found ourselves navigating a labyrinth of tight corners, alleyways, busy pedestrian crossings, clamoring cable cars, and tuk-tuks. The drivers became much more aggressive in this part of town. We got cut off, yelled at, honked at, and received a bunch of crazy stares as we fought for survival. It was every man or woman for themselves.

The thing was, this seemed like just another Saturday in Lisbon, not too much out of the ordinary. It was stressfull and pretty annoying but we still maintained our composure, at least for a while.

Things became a bit unravelled at one point when we got stuck behind a pile of cable cars that weren’t moving at all. The worst part: we were in the middle of a really busy intersection! Herds of pedestrians were weaving through the intersection, in front of us and in back so we couldn’t move. Cars were laying on their horns. Bells were ringing. People were shouting.

At this point, the honking and defensive gesturing had gone on long enough, so I jumped out of the car and actually started to direct traffic.  Looking like Chris Pratt out of Jurassic World, I stood out in the middle of the street and forced pedestrians to hold and signaled for a line (yes, an entire of line of bumper-to-bumper vehicles that were behind us) of cars  to back the f*** up and  let us get out!

(It’s really too bad I didn’t have the GoPro running for all this.)

The crazy thing is that the people actually listened to me. One by one, the cars slowly moved back. The pedestrians waited patiently. And once there was as little as an inch for us to break free, we darted down some tight roads not even trying to get the GPS to work and just hoped to find somewhere where we would decompress (and maybe chug a pitcher or two of sangria). The only problem was that we needed to stop to do so and so our quest to find parking in Lisbon began.

We drove, and drove, and drove, looking for parking and found nothing! The parking lots were all full. And not just full, but jam-packed to the point that if you entered into a lot it was pretty much the land-of-no-return and you weren’t going to be able to get out. The streets were lined with vehicles for what seemed like miles. And what made it worse is the whole time you’re looking for non-existent parking, you’re also trying to avoid collisions with cable cars and a bunch of drivers who are zipping through the streets like they’re trying avoiding the policia.

A parallel parking spot, on a steep incline, with only enough room to fit a slim stack of Euros between the cars.

Calm area of Lisbon Portugal
A calm section of Old Town

However, we finally did find parking about a mile and a half further from where we were originally planning to park. Even this spot was a challenge. A parallel parking spot, on a steep incline, with only enough room to fit a slim stack of Euros between the cars. Luckily, we squeezed right in, half of our vehicle hanging up on the curb. The entire process had only lasted about an hour but it was the most stressful hour we’d experienced in Portugal by far.

Once we finally got out of our car we made sure to make the most of our time and resorted to walking everywhere so we didn’t have to go through that experience any longer. And while we weren’t able to catch a ride on a cable car, we did very much enjoy walking around the city — it’s definitely a great place to stroll around and with the hills and cable cars clamoring around, it reminded me of San Francisco.

Lisbon Portugal

So that was our driving experience in Lisbon…. I do want to say that we only spent one day driving in Lisbon so it could’ve been just a crazy day or we could’ve just gotten really unlucky and it may not always be so crazy. However, from other research that I’ve done, Lisbon just seems like a tough place to get around in a vehicle. With all that said here are a few pointers if you’re considering driving in Lisbon:

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Try to avoid driving in Old Town

Driving in the Algarve was fine and even driving outside of Old Town Lisbon was okay. Therefore, I recommend that if you must drive in Lisbon, try to park away from Old Town and then make your way into Old Town via cab, bus, tram, or just resort to walking.

Try to avoid weekend driving

It’s very possible that given the beautiful conditions and the fact that it was a Saturday, we were just asking for crazy conditions in Lisbon for driving. I know plenty of other cities that also become nightmares for parking and such on weekends, so maybe if you can swing driving in the middle of the week, it won’t be so bad?

Only try this if you know you can handle it

Only attempt driving in Old Town if you’re comfortable. For some, it may not be as bad of an experience. There are some areas that aren’t heavily congested and are a lot of fun to ride through. And even amidst all the pandemonium, looking back it was still kind of fun so if you like really adventurous stuff you might actually enjoy it a bit. However, if you’re the type who really doesn’t deal well with stressful driving conditions, then Old Town Lisbon is not the place for you to drive because those brief moments of calmness are outweighed by the craziness.

Be aggressive

Be aggressive. This is the only way you’re going to find parking and not have to waste a lot of time getting stuck because of inconsiderate drivers. If you’re from a part of the world where drivers regularly offer to give you room to pull out or to make your life a little easier, that’s likely not going to happen here.

Don’t rely too much on your navigation system

Don’t rely too much on your navigation system. Our navigation system, while rock-solid in the Algarve, was going mad due to the maze of streets we were trying to work through. It proved to pretty much be useless when we got to the really densely populated parts of Old Town. You’re better off relying on manual GPS tracking or even a paper map.

Remember where you’re parked

Take extra time to remember where you parked if you ended up finding a parking spot in some random side-alley among the maze of streets. It’s really easy to lose track of where you parked in those areas. And if you just really want to park in the one of the lots close to the famous lookout points located around the city then my suggestion is to make it to Old Town at like 8am and stake out your parking spot so that you can have it for the the day (assuming you can park there that long).

I hope I’m not making it sound like the Portuguese are A-holes because they were absolutely great people with an amazing culture. I think their driving, which was crazy to us, is simply “just the way they do things.” They’re not trying to be rude to you, so try not to take offense when you get cut off by car after car who feel no need to use their turn signal and just enjoy your time in Lisbon. After all, it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world, even if driving there is a bit absurd.

The Top Five Best Beaches to Visit in the Algarve, Portugal

Whether you have one week or only a weekend to explore the Algarve, you’ll find that you’ll have plenty of time to see some of the top beaches. On our recent trip to the Algarve we really only had about one full day to get out and explore but I felt like we were able to see many of the top sights there. We’d just spent months living in the cold and cloudy UK and the sun in southern Portugal felt like a warm slice of heaven every day we were there, especially at the beaches.  So here’s a breakdown of the top 5 best beaches to visit in the Algarve (the first two destinations aren’t exactly beaches but they are coastal destinations worth your time!).

National flag of Portugal

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1. Farol do Cabo de São Vicente (Cape St. Vincent)

Cape St. Vincent is a stunning sea cliff area where instead of jumping into the water, you’ll just be amazed by the sheer beauty of the landscape. The Greeks and Romans actually believed this place to be sacred for hundreds of years; in fact, the Greeks actually built a temple there that they dedicated to Heracles. It was here that they believed the sun sunk from the sky and marked the edge of their world. It’s a fascinating feeling to look out from these cliffs and imagine that millions of people before you once thought that this marked the outer bounds of their existence….

Dramatic cliffs at Farol do Cabo de São Vicente
Dramatic cliffs at Farol do Cabo de São Vicente

This cape was also a place of war, where pirates plundered from Holland and France. More buildings would likely still be standing here but the famous earthquake of 1755 is said to have flattened the area. Still, there’s an interesting lighthouse to check out that was built in 1846.

Red lighthouse at Farol do Cabo de São Vicente
The Red lighthouse at Farol do Cabo de São Vicente

This was the first place that we stopped at on the edge of the European continent and it was our first glimpse of the beautiful Atlantic Ocean. A heavy layer of grey clouds hovered overhead as we made out way from sunny Albufeira and with the coastal winds picking up, it was pretty cold at this spot so be prepared for winds and bring an outer layer. Also, be careful navigating around the cliff sides, they can be pretty treacherous at times, not to mention high at about 75 meters!

2. Fortaleza de Sagres (Sagres Fortress)

This place is just a few kilometers south from Cape St. Vincent so it’s a must-see if you make it to the area. This is the only destination not 100% free but entrance into the fortress was only €3. This is the place where Prince Henry the Navigator built his famous school of navigation. Some of the most famous and well-respected mariners, astronomers, cartographers, and ship builders convened at this place to construct and learn how to navigate ships during the period known as the Age of Discoveries.

Cliffs outside Fortaleza de Sagres
The cliffs just outside of Fortaleza de Sagres

The fortress was originally built back in the 15th century but had to be rebuilt in 1793 after it was destroyed — not by earthquake — but by Sir Francis Drake back in 1587. It’s a cool structure to roam around and ponder the history of some of the greatest explorers of all time. One of the cool sights is the 39 meter wide wind compass that has been partially restored known as the “Wind Rose.”

The Wind Rose at Fortaleza de Sagres
The Wind Rose at Fortaleza de Sagres

I recommend walking around the trail that follows along the outside of the peninsula where you can stand among the most southwestern point of Europe and look out from the cliffsides. You’ll likely comes across several local fisherman perched out on the edge of these cliffs trying to catch some tasty sea bass.

Paved trail at Fortaleza de Sagres
Paved trail at Fortaleza de Sagres

There’s also really intriguing geology around the area with rocks scattered about that kind of give off an otherworldly feel.

Rocky terrain Portugal
Interesting rocks

Once you make your way back to the entrance of the fortress you can ascend to the top of a mound that sits over the entrance gates and catch a better view of the wind compass and other surroundings.

Outside fortress at Fortaleza de Sagres Portugal
The outside of the fortress at Fortaleza de Sagres

3. Praia De Dona Ana

After you get your history fix and battle the likely cold windy conditions found on edge of the continent it’s time for you to head back east toward some more laid back beaches. One of the best views in the entire Algarve has to be Praia De Dona Ana!

Portugal Algarve Praia De Dona Ana
Praia De Dona Ana

There’s a small parking lot right by the beach that surely is taken up during peak season but at other times of the year will likely still have spots open. From the lookout point, you’ve got great photo opportunities of the clear, blueish-green waters and golden sea stacks.

Algarve Portugal Praia De Dona Ana
Praia De Dona Ana

The beach also look irresistible but because temperatures were still a bit cold, we held off from swimming. If you happen to be visiting the Algarve in the summer, especially on the weekend, then you better get here early because this is one of the most busy beaches in the Lagos area.

4. Praia De São Rafael

Portugal Algarve Praia De São Rafael
Praia De São Rafael

We caught this beach right at sunset and it was one of the most relaxing scenes I can recall from my entire stay in Europe. What was also great is that there was nobody around whatsoever. We were able to hop around the lush sea bluffs for over an hour, exploring little crevices in the sides of the cliffs and opting for photos without seeing a soul (other than a few fisherman perched in the distance).

Portugal Algarve Praia De São Rafael
Praia De São Rafael
Portugal Algarve Praia De São Rafael
Praia De São Rafael
Portugal Algarve Praia De São Rafael
Praia De São Rafael

There is a restaurant/bar located right on the beach that looked like fun  but we opted to stay perched on the edge of the cliffs in solitude. Climbing around these cliff areas is exciting but again just make sure that you exercise plenty of caution when you attempt this because it’s a pretty long drop all the way down.

5. Benagil Beach, Faro, Portugal

Bengail Beach is a must stop. The beach area is nice and all but the reason that you want to come to this beach is for the awesome sea cave tour that you can embark on! You’ll be darting through grottos and catching glimpses of color-changing seas as you zip through the sea stacks along the shore.

Algarve Sea Cave Tour
Benagil Beach Sea Cave Tour

The highlight of the boat tour is catching the famous Benagil Sea Cave. Try to allocate about an hour total if you’re planning on doing a tour and check out the link above if you’re interested in finding out more for information on the grotto tour.

Benagil Sea Cave
Benagil Sea Cave

The “secret beach”

There is a secret beach called Praia do Carvalho (ssshhh…) in the Algarve that is accessible via a cave and it is just west of Benagil Beach. We saw this beach from our boat tour and were not able to actually go down on the beach but it looked like a really cool secluded beach that you could check out!

Remember, we saw all of these top five beaches in one day and still had time to settle down for a bit and enjoy a couple of great meals, so even if you only have one or two days in the Algarve you can still see plenty (just get an early start)!

Looking for more information about Portugal? Check out where to eat in the Algarve and find out how to work the toll roads!

Foods and Drinks You Must Try in Portugal!

Portugal is a great country to visit for foodies, especially if you are into a variety of different seafood dishes. Here are 8 foods and drinks that you must try if you visit Portugal. (These were found in both the Lisbon area and the Algarve and you shouldn’t have a hard time finding them in either region.)

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1. Grilled Sea Bass

Grilled sea bass Portugal

The first thing to know about ordering fish of just about any type in Portugal is that you will have to pick out the bones. On top of that, you will sometimes have the skin on the fish as well (this is uncommon in most American restaurants – we usually don’t do bones or skin). We ordered grilled sea bass twice (once in the Algarve and another time in Lisbon) and the latter time, the fish came out with the skin. We’d never tried skin on fish before but it wasn’t bad at all! In fact, the grilled sea bass boasted an amazing, juicy texture that was full of flavor — I definitely recommend you trying it if you’re making you’re way to Portugal.

2. Salted Cod (Bacalhau)

Salted cod Portugal

This is the national dish of Portugal and so it’s also a must-try while you are there. I had some very tasty cod at a cafe in Lisbon, near one of the famous overlooks. While I enjoyed the fish, they definitely don’t hold back on the salt at all. I know I ordered salted cod but I just didn’t expect it to so salty that I couldn’t even finish it. So if you’re a salt person, you can’t go wrong with the fish but if salty foods aren’t your thing, maybe stick to some other dishes. Just know that the Portuguese claim that there’s over 365 to 1,000 different ways to cook their cod so you might be getting something a little different each time you try it.

3. Tapas

Tapas Portugal

Most people think of Spain when they hear someone mutter something about tapas but don’t forget that Portugal has some amazing tapas that you can find as well! We had one of the best tapas plates in the Algarve while we were in Portugal. It had a little bit of everything: octopus, crab, shrimp, squid, etc. but it was one of the best meals we had during our European trips!

4. Pastéis de Belém

Pasteis de Belem Portugal
Pasteis de Belem Portugal

This dish at this specific place is sort of a rite of passage when you visit Portugal. The custard dishes are very good and if there’s one place to try them it’s here. Don’t be too intimidated if you show up on a weekend and there’s a huge crowd – it actually moves pretty quickly because this place is used to dealing with the crowds. I was slightly disappointed to hear that they only had one flavor variety for the dish but in a way it kind made it appeal a bit more to me in a classical sense (I think you can top them with powdered sugar and/or cinnamon). They stuff the pastries in a cylinder for you to take on the go so you can always order more than you think you can handle, though the eggy centers of these pastries are very rich!

5. Green Wine (Vinho Verde)

Vinho Verde Portugal

For me, green wine or Vinho Verde was more of something that we just had to try. Before you get too excited just know that “green wine” isn’t actually green. Green refers to the type of grapes used in the winemaking process so your “green wine” could actually be red or white. These grapes used are younger than the ones typically used producing wine and that’s what gives off the light and slightly sparkling taste. I’m not much of a fan of white wine and that’s the type of vinho verde we ordered so I can’t really rave too much about it. However, if you like drier wines with a bit of a tartness then you’ll probably fall in love with this stuff.

6. Chicken Piri Piri

Piri Piri Chicken Portugal

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about Portuguese cuisine is chicken Piri Piri. The chicken we had with Piri Piri sauce was great. Full of spice and flavor. Although the Piri Piri peppers used to marinate and bast the chicken originated in South Africa, you can find Piri Piri sauce bottles and menu options just about anywhere in Portugal. We wanted to really expand our horizons so we didn’t eat it more than once but I don’t think you can go wrong with this dish while in Portugal.

7. White Sangria

White sangria Portugal

We tried some great white sangria (or sangria blanca) in the Algarve. Every place that we tried the more traditional red sangria was also pretty good as well. I also enjoyed seeing sangria on tap as I thought that was pretty cool but the best stuff was always the pitchers full of chopped berries and fruits that you knew were fresh and required a little bit of work to put together.

Fun Fact: As of January 2014,  the European Union only allows sangria made in Portugal or Spain to bear the name “sangria.”

8. Steak and Eggs

I’m not sure exactly how traditional this meal is to the Portuguese but I saw it on menus at a few different restaurants. Since breakfast isn’t really a big deal in Portugal it can be a little difficult to find hearty breakfast options at restaurants. We came upon a place outside of Lisbon where we ordered steak and eggs for a nice brunch that filled us up. You might not be able to find it at many cafes around breakfast time but it’s a good option if you’re in the mood for something a bit more familiar while staying in Portugal.

Need more info on visiting Portugal?

Find out how to work the toll system from Lisbon to the Algarve or find some great places to eat in the Algarve!

A Guide to the Tolls in Portugal: Lisbon to the Algarve

The toll system in Portugal is still a little confusing to me even after going through it this past spring in 2015. I heard from numerous sources that there were different rates and ways to pay while planning our trip yet when we arrived to rent our car it seemed that a lot of that information was wrong.

So here’s what you can expect when renting a car while trying to get from Lisbon to the Algarve.

Renting a car at Lisbon Airport

First thing is renting the car. We found the rental procedure at Lisbon Airport to be pretty straight forward. We went with Avis and the staff for them was very helpful and spoke pretty good English so there weren’t really any hiccups in the process.

Also, for Avis, we didn’t have to take a shuttle or anything to get our car because the garage is right there by the airport so that was nice and that appears to be the same for other car rental companies.

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Get the transponder

When renting your car with Avis be sure to tell them that you want the transponder in your car.

I recall there being a small fee for having the transponder put into the car and a small daily fee as well but from my understanding the alternative routes for paying would’ve been to find some random post offices or pay shops to pay the tolls or some other means that we weren’t fully clear on.

The only thing we were clear on was that the transponder would allow us to be charged as we travelled and then we would pay one final fee at the end (though the bill takes about a month to hit your credit card). Thus, going with the transponder seemed like the most convenient way for dealing with the tolls.

Toll transponder Portugal
The transponder.

Note: There may be easier ways for you depending on your routes and destinations, but I’m simply stating what worked for us to get us from Lisbon to the Algarve in a relatively simple way. Quite frankly, every other way of paying sounded like a headache compared to this way.

How exactly do all the tolls work?

While we understood how we would pay for what we would be charged, I still wasn’t clear on how all of the tolls worked. When I asked Avis how much we should expect to pay, the staff member just told me that it ranged from like €1-€20 — a pretty drastic range.

When I pressed with more questions, she attempted to explain how it all worked but it wasn’t really getting across. It ended up being one of those slightly awkward scenarios where you just kind of act like you understand what the person is telling you for the sake of moving on to your next destination.

Freeway in Portugal

Once you get your car you want to think about your route and how the tolls are going to add up for you. I’m pretty sure that each toll works in a different way depending on your location.

Unlike in most areas in the United States, where you pay the total toll once you pass through each toll gate, on the highway to the Algarve you first drive through an entry gate that begins the “toll” for your charge and then once you pass through an exit gate — depending on how many miles you’ve traveled — your total will then be calculated based on the distance.

(I think this is how it works based on how we were charged, so you might want to make sure for yourself.)

Here’s a helpful link with a breakdown of charges you can expect on major routes.

You should be able to see the toll fee light up on the screen as you pass through but not every toll showed the total. Also, if you go the transponder route you’ll pass through the lanes on the left, under the green “V” signs each time. I’m not sure how the other lanes work at all.

Toll road Portugal

Getting from Lisbon to the Algarve via Highway A2

If you travel straight from Lisbon to the Algarve via A2 you should expect to be charged right around €20!

To get to the Algarve from Lisbon we took the A2/E1 highway, which is one of the most popular toll highways. We knew we would be getting charged but we didn’t realize it would be about €20!

The alternative to taking the A2 highway is to jump on the IC1 (on the west) but when we input that route into our GPS it added almost 2 hours to our route.

Whether that was accurate or not we were a bit short on time and sunlight so we opted to take the quickest route to get to the Algarve.

Car navigation

While the tolls can be a bit confusing and stressful the good news is that the drive down to the Algarve is a very scenic drive even on the A2.

I suspect that the smaller highways may have been a bit more scenic but I can’t verify that. If you’ve never driven in Portugal be prepared for a lot of people speeding down the interstate in their little cars.

We didn’t have any major issues with them but you’re bound to come across several of these people who fly by at reckless speeds and never use their blinkers (turn signals).

A2 highway Portugal
Scenic hills along the A2

Tolls on the A22 Road in the Algarve

So once we arrived to the Algarve we jumped from town to town for the weekend.

We decided to use the A22 road (the toll road of the Algarve) instead of the free highway that runs roughly parallel to that road for the same reason as before: we were trying to see a lot of different spots in a short amount of time and the alternative route would’ve cost us a couple of hours overall of driving time.

Also, I was told that the free highway was poorly maintained and even worse, poorly marked, making it much more difficult to navigate so consider that.

I believe that the tolls on the A22 work differently than on the E1. These tolls charge you flat fees as you pass through their gates that are much cheaper and range from €0,50 to €2,00.

Here’s a breakdown of the fees charged on the A22 road.

As you can see, the fee charged to you depends on the class of vehicle you are driving and can vary by up to €1,50 depending on the location of that gate you are driving through.

How much do the tolls cost to travel from Lisbon to the Algarve roundtrip?

The final amount we were charged was: €55.

Keep in mind that this included the round trip from Lisbon to the Algarve and also several trips hopping around the different beaches and towns in the Algarve for a couple of days.

The one drawback to the transponder is that you are putting trust in the rental company to get your charges correct. Apparently, there are stories of people getting screwed over by the car companies but I don’t think that happened in our case.

I think it was safe to assume that we were charged correctly and I only would’ve questioned the charge if it had been a pretty outrageous number. Still, it’d be a good idea to calculate a rough estimate before you get charged so you can get a sense of what you will be paying.

Again, I can’t say for sure how all of the different tolls work in Portugal. It is a bit confusing and a bit stressful for outsiders to deal with. However, if you are planning on traveling from Lisbon to  the Algarve then I highly suggest that you go with the transponder and expect to pay around what we payed for a couple of days worth of exploring.

Now that you know how the tolls work in Portugal be sure to check out the best sea cave tour in the Algarve and also where to eat in the Algarve!

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