We had pre-booked our train (#12002 / Bhopal Shatabdi Exp 0600-0805) from Delhi to Agra (click here to read our post about train travel in India) so we were up early and at the station in enough time for our 6am train. It was only a couple of hours long, and so we had booked in the standard seating area. We spent the majority of the journey asleep to make up for the 4:30am wake up!
We had also managed to be sneaky and arranged for our hotel to pickup our luggage from the train station to store it at the hotel so that we didn’t have to travel all the way to the hotel to then go to the bus station for our half day trip to Fatehpur Sikri. The bus to Fatehpur runs from Idgah Bus Stand, which is only a 15 minute walk from Agra Cantt train station, so once our luggage was safely collected, we walked to the bus stand and was directed onto a bus to Fatehpur that was the next to leave. We waited only 10 minutes and it cost us ₹40 (about 40p) per person for the hour trip.
Once the capital of the Mughal empire in the 16th century, this magnificent fortified city is easy to visit on a day trip from Agra. Once we had arrived at around 10am, we made the most of our time and were only really here for a few hours, but mostly because we were excited to get back to Agra to get a glimpse of the Taj! Depending on how long you are visiting though, you may wish to stay to experience the red-sandstone palace during sunset and stay in one of the decent hotels in the village.
We got off the bus just before the last stop, as the entrance to the site began. The beautiful mosque, Jama Masjid, sits at the top of a huge flight of stone steps and the main entrance is a spectacularly high gate which you will see as you start to ascend the hill up from the main road. Once you make it up the steps and through the daunting gate, you will find courtyards and palaces inside, as well as the tomb of the Mughal saint Shaikh Salim Chishti, where women hoping to have children come to tie strings for fertile luck. This entire area is charming, and usually very quiet, so it’s perfect for contemplation and your first experience of ancient India outside of Delhi.
We ate at Ajay Palace for lunch atop the rootop, which served great homemade curries and chapati (note that it’s not ‘Ajay Restaurant By Near Palace’ – it’s 50m further down the road and also a hotel – walk through and up the stairs.
By spending a little too much time enjoying the views at lunch, we had just missed a bus Agra-bound. Our travel guide advised buses ran every half hour, but it seemed to be more like an hour than half hour. The bus station is on the main road and once we saw the bus arrive from our lunch perch, we rushed down to make sure we got on – they don’t see to wait long! Again, ₹40 (about 40p) per person for the hour trip back to Agra.
Rather than heading all the way back to Agra’s bus stand, we got off the bus on the main road towards Agra fort and flagged down a tuktuk to take us to the entrance of Agra Fort. The Amar Singh Gate to the south of the fort is the only entry point and you can buy your entrance ticket here ₹550 (about £6) per person (foreign tourist charge).
Agra Fort is easily forgotten about, considering the countries most famous landmark is just downstream, but travellers that visit here will witness one of the finish forts in India within these walls. Courtyard after courtyard, and the many fairytale palaces and audience halls, it will take some time for the sheer scale of this fort to really sink in. You can also grab your first glimpse of the Taj from here.
The hotel we stayed at in Agra was the Hotel Taj Resort. We have already mentioned the pickup of our luggage which was very helpful, but the main attraction to this hotel was that it was only 500 metres to the entrance of the Taj Mahal. This would really help us out in the morning for our early morning visit to the sight. In fact we were so close, the road the hotel sits on is cycle tuk-tuk only – you aren’t allowed to ride a loud engine through this area!
The hotel also offered free breakfast, and a lovely pool. We ate in the hotel restaurant for dinner that evening, with silhouette views of the palace.
The magnificence of the Taj when you first see it is quite overwhelming. There is something magical about seeing one of the most famous buildings in the world, something that most have only seen in TV shows or films, right in front of you in the hazy morning glow.
I knew to be in with the best chance of seeing the Taj at it’s quietest we would have to leave pretty early. Matt was adamant we would would be fine getting there at 7:30am but as sunrise was around 6:30am, I knew we would have to there by then! We left our hotel at 5:30am, and as we were close it was around a 10 minute walk to the entrance. We entered at the East Gate, and the ticket booths were quite obvious once we reached the gate. You walk through the gate and towards the ‘Great Gate’ and the Taj will be right in front of you.
Entrance into the Taj Mahal is ₹1000 for foreign tourist (note the Taj is closed on Friday’s for prayer, so plan your trip accordingly). Tour groups tend to enter through the east and west gate, and therefore the south gate (where we entered) usually has less queues. This works well for you, as it is closer to the more budget hotels for the budget conscious traveller. Again, the gates have separate entrances for male and female, and then foreign tourists (a perk of your expensive entry price!).
Spend some proper time exploring the site – it really is beautiful. Pace through the ornamental gardens and then make sure you get a picture in front of the reflective pond, and on the Princess Diana bench – everybody that knows the Taj will ask to see this! You can climb up the steps and go inside the Taj (no photos allowed in here), and this is fascinating – look out for the “Pietra Dura” – 35 different precious stones used to create the marble inlay on the building, as well as the calligraphy that surrounds each side of the building (the calligraphy gets larger as it gets higher, giving the impression of uniform size when viewed from the ground!). The Taj Museum opens at 9am, but we were there at 6am so we were unable to go. Free entry so worth a look!
Tips for the Taj
Leave your bag in your hotel – backpacks are not permitted, and the only storage facility is at the West Gate. Use a bumbag to keep money, phone and passport.
Small cameras or phones only – use a small camera or camera phone (instead of bag with multiple lenses that you won’t get in). Video is only allowed in certain places, and you can’t take any pictures inside the mausoleum. Tripods and drones are banned.
No food or drink in the site – but a bottle of water is included in your entry fee.
Closed on Fridays – important in your itinerary planning! You wouldn’t want to get here and not be able to visit the site!
We then went back to our hotel for breakfast (it was too early when we left to see the Taj!) and then spent some more time around the pool as we were getting a lunchtime train, but if you have more time, it is worth visiting the following places:
Mehtab Bagh – relaxing gardens that have the perfect view of the Taj – go for sunset for the most awe-inspiring sunset view of the Taj
Akbar’s Tomb – further out of the city, but worth seeing this huge tomb of the greatest Mughal emporer
Kinari Bazaar – one of India’s most hectic, but mesmerising markets is worth a visit if you are the shopping mood
Our pre-booked train from Agra Fort to Sawai Madhopur (#12948 / Azimabad Express 1225-1625) (click here to read about travelling by train in India) was running late, so it eventually arrived around 2pm. This meant it was going to run late and we eventually arrived into Sawai Madhopur around 7:30pm.
Our two tiered sleeper train is quiet as I start to pen this blog. Of course, I’m using my iPad to type rather than pen and paper, and the irony of the complete contrast between rich and poor, Western & Indian, is not lost on me. Matt is in the upper bunk having a nap – we have had a week of 5am starts, which has made adjusting to the time difference even worse, and again another early start tomorrow. But more about that later… we are on a short train (only 2 hours for us but the entire journey is 36 hours,) to Jaipur, where we have a very busy weekend planned, having already visited Delhi, Agra, and a national park!
We have been waiting for this trip for a very long time. It’s our honeymoon, and we asked for contributions for our wedding gift list. We have a whole itinerary made up from activities gifted for us by our closest family and friends, and day five into our schedule, we have already witnessed so many different experiences.
So for now, a thank you to everybody reading this who contributed in some way towards this trip. I am sure you will see your personal thanks soon as we tick off the India bucket list! Having celebrated Kris’s birthday with our nearest and dearest in London, we flew with British Airways from London Heathrow direct to Delhi, with our trusty rucksacks from our last big trip to Central America, and arrived into Delhi at 7am Monday morning.
When trying to decide where to go for our Easter Break (and a rare weekend we were both free!), I hadn’t really thought we would be flying off to the east to experience Soviet-led Belarus, and the irresistible sights of Lithuania and Poland. From Gothic spires to Stalinist capitals, Eastern Europe really is a warehouse of cultures waiting for exploration. In general, prices are low throughout these countries. A meal in a nice restaurant will not break the bank, and every museum we visited worked out under £5 per person. There is so much to discover, so why wait?!
When to go?
We made our trip in early May, and experienced some bitterly cold weather in Vilnius (it was snowing and lakes were frozen over still) and some boiling hot weather (it was 26C degrees when we landed in Warsaw!). High season is July and August, where you can expect high temperatures and high prices. Hotel rates can rise up to 30%! Big cities will also be crowded. May-June and September to October is often still pleasant weather, and you will beat the crowds travelling in this time.
Trying to imagine what Lithuania was like pre-1900 is quite difficult; much of its capital, Vilnius, boasts bleak Soviet-era remnants which are still sprawled throughout the city. Still, the charming 13th-century historic centre, the largest still remaining in central and eastern Europe, seems to flow seamlessly into the newer Soviet-inspired boulevards. It’s a changing city; adopting the euro in January 2017, it will soon be a top pick for weekend travellers looking for history, architectural heritage, and a bustling cafe culture that won’t break the bank.
We had planned 48 hours in Vilnius, and felt like we had enough time to explore the city. There were a couple of places we didn’t go to due to opening times, which we should have foreseen.
We flew with Wizz Air from London Luton to Vilnius. Beware that if you want to sit with somebody, you will have to pay for select seats; we didn’t do this and then were separated even though we checked in together and at the same time!
Arriving at Vilnius airport was easy. The airport building itself looks more like a grand train station, and it is small. There are a few options to get into town from the airport. The Bus 1 runs from the airport to Vilnius train station, a shuttle train service runs connecting the two (this should cost less than €1), or you can get a taxi. We opted for an Uber, which we tend to try and use when we’re away – it’s easy to track where you are and where you’re going, especially if you don’t speak the language! Our Über journey cost us only €5 (£4.30) and took only around 15 minutes.
On arriving at our apartment, we decided to walk around to get our bearings of the city and planned to take the free walking tour (more about that later!) tomorrow. We were staying right in the heart of the old town, and opposite our front door was St. Anne’s Church, so started there! This late-15th-century Gothic church built with red brick, ornate stained glass, and huge arches may seem impressive, but not much of it is original; most features are reconstructed. Even so, it’s worth a visit to admire the architecture, and whilst you’re there, take a look at the Bernadine Church behind it that dominates the local skyline.
Top foods to try in Lithuania
Bulviniai blynai (potato pancakes)
Cepelinai (potato-dough ‘zeppelin’ stuffed with meat, mushrooms, or cheese)
Bear or game sausages
Smoked pigs’ ears (we did not try these!)
Kepta duona (deep-fried garlicky bread sticks)
Be aware you will start to smell like garlic if you spend too long in Lithuania! Everything seems to have it in, and this along with the smell of fried potatoes will be your lasting smell of the country! Make sure you have some mints on you!
We ate at Lokys (Stiklių gatvė) that evening as we wanted traditional Lithuanian food on our first night in the country. This restaurant has become something of a Vilnius institution, and many a local and tourist can be found in the vaulted 16th-century cellars. Being a hunter’s restaurant (with animal busts hanging through the former merchants house), it’s best servings are its game; roast venison, boar, game sausages, quail and even beaver stew. Matt had the roast boar, and I decided to go for the “Lokys House Royale,” a selection of different meats with roasted courgettes and potato wedges.
On our first morning waking up in Vilnius, we did the 10am free walking tour with FreeTour. We try to take part in a free tour as soon as we arrive in a city, as they are often run by locals, and you get to find your bearings of the city without getting lost! Our guide, Rita, gave us a combination of both history, fun facts and stories from nowadays life that only the locals know about! We covered most of the highlights of the old town, as well as Uzupis, a district over the river which is now known for its swarm of artists that have settled there. Uzupis even has its own constitution, and considers itself an independent country (not UN recognised though!). The free tour sets off at 10am and 12pm from the town hall. Check out the website for different tours they run, including a Pub Crawl, Jewish Vilnius, and an ‘Alternative’ Vilnius.
Recommended by our walking tour guide Rita, we headed to Forto Davras for a traditional Lithuanian lunch. This restaurant feels like a bit of a tourist trap, especially as it is on the main road, but it serves good food at a reasonable price, so there’s no shame in eating here (in fact we ate here twice!). Good traditional food and cheap beer, set in the downstairs cellar (something that seems to be quite common in restaurants in Lithuania!)
We had read about a picturesque red-brick castle which seemed fairly close to Vilnius. Deciding it would be nice to leave the city for a little while and explore parts of Lithuania slightly more rural, we headed to the bus station and bought an open return for around €2 each. This is obviously a popular route, as the ticket officer had pre-printed lists of the return buses and their times. We would make the 2pm bus out, and they return up until around 8pm (ask for a list when you book at the ticket office!). The journey takes around 30 minutes.
Get the bus to Trakai from Vilnius – the bus station in Trakai is around a 20 minute walk through the town to the castle, whereas the train station is a longer walk and is more complicated to find. The bus journey is also a nicer journey, and there is more to see along the way, instead of staring out into forest. Trakai-visit has information on how to travel there.
Arriving at Trakai castle was quite overwhelming. We realised that the entire lake it is situated on was completely frozen over and people were walking on it to cross over to the castle. The castle was €7/£6 or €3.50/£3 for students, and any updates listed on the castle website along with opening times. As we were dealing with fairly poor weather conditions (it was snowing and sleeting by this time), we were happy to find lots of indoor exhibits (with quick dashes across the courtyard). The museum has an interesting collection of antiques and reconstructions from its 14th-century beginnings, as well as a few more modern works of art. Lots of reconstruction work has gone on over the last few centuries, taking the castle from almost rubble and disrepair, to the major tourist attraction it is today.
On the next morning, we walked from our apartment in the Old Town north-east towards the Museum of Genocide Victims. This haunting former headquarters of the Gastapo and then KGB houses a museum dedicated to the thousands of Lithuanians who were deported, imprisoned, or murdered by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Union from WWII until the 1960s; exploring the basement prison is a chilling, but poignant and important experience. The museum is closed Monday and Tuesday, and cost €4 (£3.50) for adult admission, and €1 (85p) for students – this museum will ask for your student card!
I was a bit apprehensive about visiting Belarus. It is the closest country politically to Russia, and doesn’t see itself as European at all. Due to high tensions in Russia at the moment, particularly with LGBT rights, I was sceptical about enjoying our visit, but what we found the complete opposite – a friendly, welcoming country with a lot to take in!
Travelling to Belarus got a whole lot easier in January 2017 when President Alexander Lukashenko signed a document allowing nationals from 80 states visa-free entry into the country. You have to have proof of medical insurance for your stay in Belarus; if you don’t have travel insurance, firstly why not? But secondly, and more important for your stay, you can purchase travel insurance at the airport before security, and it will cost you €6 (£5.25) for the 5 days.
If you are travelling visa-free, there is a slight snag. You can only stay for 5 days (including the day you arrive and the day you leave), and you have to fly in and out of Minsk International Airport. Because of the times of inbound and outbound flights, it doesn’t really give you enough time to explore the country. If you are wanting to exploring further afield than Minsk, perhaps to Brest, you might be better off applying for a visa and spending more than 4 nights in the country. This would also make travel easier, as there are international trains that run to Moscow (requiring a separate Russian visa) or Warsaw (which was our next stop).
After exiting the airport, we again decided to take an Über from the airport to our apartment located just off of pr Nezalezhnastsi (Independence Avenue), one of the main streets in Minsk. It cost around 30 BYN (€12/£10.40) and took around 35 minutes.
Another tip would be to make sure you have any offline translations already (difficult for Cyrillic languages) downloaded, and you know exactly where you are going. We couldn’t find our AirBnb apartment and our greeter only spoke Belarusian or German. Luckily, we managed to broken translate from German, and then asked some locals nearby to help translate.
On arriving in Minsk city centre, we had planned to take part in a pub crawl organised by FreeWalkingTourMinsk (the company running the free walking tour on tomorrow’s agenda). This runs every Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 9pm and costs 35 BYN (€13/£12). Unfortunately, we had just missed it as it took us a while to get through security (a missing medical insurance certificate), so we headed into the first pub, Gambrinus. Self-proclaimed “spiritual gastro-pub” serves more than 100 varieties of bottled beer and 18 types of draft beer. They also offer a European food menu, and it is a great way to try national cuisine. We had local beers, and ordered the “assorted beer fries” for 30 BYN (€12/£10.40), which came out as a huge plate of onion rings, chicken nuggets, ribs and deep-fried bread!
The next morning, we met our tour guide, Roma, for our FreeWalkingTourMinsk. These run in English, and depart every day at 11am from the front of City Hall in Svabody Square, near the statue of Voigt, the bronze figure holding the key and paper. Unfortunately, it was wet and windy on the morning of our tour, but come rain or shine, our guide was ready to whisk us through the sights, with a stop at a coffee shop to warm us up on the way. The Old Town tour covers the Upper part of town (Old Town), the former residence of Lee Harvey Oswald (the elleged assassin of former US President John F Kennedy), a park, the Opera House, and finishing up at the Victory Monument.
Recommended to us by our walking guide Roma, the Hrai restaurant set in the … part of town served great traditional Belarusian food at a great price. The draniki here was top notch, and we also had the buckwheat pancakes with pork and mushrooms.
Cuisine through Eastern Europe is very similar, with lots of countries boasting that their traditional way is better than their neighbours. Belarusian cuisine, similar to Lithuania and Poland, consists of lots of meals based around food from the earth. The most famous dish is draniki, which is a potato pancake (think hash brown) often served with pork, onions and mushrooms. Krupnik is a traditional Belarusian vegetable soup served in a loaf of rye bread, and pork ears feature widely throughout menus in the region. Similarly, buckwheat pancakes are heralded throughout history, known since the middle 18th century for being served at the court of King Augustus III, Stanislaw Poniatowski.
The quaint State Museum of the History of the Theatrical and Musical Culture is set in a former monastery, but includes lots of traditional Belarusian theatre and music exhibits. We were probably their only visitors for the day, and we had a personal tour by a museum steward. There are no English signs or captions, but it was a nice half hour looking at the exhibits.
On our second full day in Minsk, we decided to visit the castles of Mir and Nesvizh (Njasvich). We hired a car from the branch of Europcar based at Hotel Minsk (we had prebooked this online for £35), which was just around the corner from our apartment. An easy hour drive brought us to the small town of Mir, dominated by its impressive red brick castle. There’s not much else to see in Mir, so don’t feel like you have to make many pitstops, apart from maybe the pub-restaurant opposite for coffee or tea before you go in (this was well needed as it was cold and snowy as we arrived).
Entry fee for Mir Castle (as of June 2018) is 12 BYN(US$6/£4.50) or 14 BYN (US$7/£5.25) at the weekends, with students going at half rate. Because of the inclement weather, we were happy to be inside exploring the history and original castle artefacts. The castle has towers and turrets to climb, and lovely views of the English gardens (which would have been nice to walk around had it not been snowing and sleeting!)
A lot of the museums and sights to see in Minsk are closed on a Monday. Because we were visiting the city over catholic Easter Sunday (Orthodox Palm Sunday due to calendars), a lot of these were also closed on the Sunday. To make the most of our time, we decided to leave the city for the day and visit the castles further south that were open on Mondays.
Another half an hour drive took us to the town of Nesvizh (Niasvizh or Njasvizh), where we stopped for lunch before heading onto the castle. This town has a few more sights, including a town gate, town hall and cathedral, but once you’ve driven past these, there is no need to stop. We ate lunch at Skarbnitsa, which sits opposite the town hall, and serves great draniki (I had the frying pan) and other traditional Belarusian food.
The walk from the castle car park to the castle itself is a nice walk along the lake, and the castle is impressive on first sight. Entrance is 14 BYN (US$7/£5.25) and half rate for students. The exhibitions there are well laid out across different floors, and wind around the different areas of the castle (it is all inside apart from the run across the courtyard to different exhibitions!). Nesvizh Castle feels more traditional than Mir, and closer to what it would have looked like, and the interiors and decorations are fascinating.
We had devoted the next day to the great Museum of the Great Patriotic War. This museum hosts an excellent display detailing Belarus’ suffering and heroism during the Nazi occupation. It is an interesting look to see the national pride of the country and it’s close ties to the Soviet, and the role they played in helping the country; of course the Soviet’s “saved” Belarus from the Nazi’s, and the country has leant this way ever since. There is also a range of tanks, airplanes and artillery from WWII, and some great dioramas throughout, making it one of Minsk’s few must-see attractions. Entrance is 9 BYN (US$4.50/£3.30) or 7 BYN (US$3.50/£2.60) for students.
Another highlight of the museum is the stunning Victory Hall, which on a clear day, is one of the best architectural designs you will see on your trip!
After visiting the museum, we stopped by the haunting Zaslavsky Jewish Monument and the still snow-logged Memorial Gardens.
For dinner that evening, we ate at Kamyanitsa, located slightly further east on the north part of the river. This restaurant is a great grill restaurant serving loads of traditional Belarusian food, and is thoroughly recommended. We had the ribs from the grill, which were great!
This filled us up for our visit to the Opera House that evening, where we saw a Belarusian production of La Traviata. We had been told about the Opera House on our walking tour, and our guide, Roma, explained ticket prices are inexpensive due to state funding and low expenses. We paid a total of 18 BYN (US$9/£6.75) for two dress circle tickets! Bargain! If you have a free evening, and there is something on, I’d definitely recommend it!
The next morning, before heading back to the airport, we ate breakfast at My English Granny, and had a sorely missed fry up! The restaurant serves the closet thing to traditional food we found on the trip, and was a nice change to pastries on the move!
When leaving the country from the airport, be aware that most airlines require you to tag luggage, regardless of if it’s being checked in or carried on as hand luggage. We queued for 45 minutes to get through security to be told we didn’t have tags on our luggage and had to go back to check in (even though we had checked in online!).
What you will learn about Warsaw from your stay is that it is different to much of Poland, and other European countries. It has suffered the worst history imaginable, including virtual destruction, but it has survived, rebuilt itself, and flourished into a diverse, friendly capital. Our third and final city treated us to glorious weather throughout our stay. We arrived at the airport to 25 degree sunshine, and again took an Über to our apartment. This took about 30 minutes and cost around 30 BYN (US$15/£11).
I wouldn’t usually offer recommendations for AirBnB’s as I think they are so personal to what travellers require, but our apartment was beautiful. Jan was a great host, and has renovated the apartment perfectly; everything we needed was available, and we were just a five minute walk from the town centre. We were just sad we didn’t stay for longer!
Free Walking Tour Warsaw operate a huge amount of tours, and we met Agatha for the 4pm free tour of old town Warsaw. This fascinating walk took us around the city, and gave us lots of interesting local knowledge.
The legend of the Warsaw Mermaid
The City’s literature says that two mermaids from Denmark were swimming in the Baltic Sea. One, Den lille Havfrue (The Little Mermaid), bored of swimming returned home to Copenhagen (where she now sits on the waterside), but her sister, Melusine (or Melusina), decided to carry on swimming and made her way to Warsaw, stopping on a riverbank near the Old Town. Fishermen noticed something was creating waves, tangling nets, and releasing their fish. They planned to trap the animal, then heard her singing and fell in love. A rich merchant trapped and imprisoned the mermaid, thinking he could make money from her. Hearing her cries, the fishermen rescued her. Ever since the mermaid, armed with a sword and a shield, has been ready to help protect the city and its residents.
For dinner we ate at Pub Pod Zegarem, which was recommended to us by Agatha from the tour. If you take a free walking tour, get a map and show it to the restaurant at dinner and you even get a free shot of Polish vodka! Here is the best place to try every type of food you’re supposed to try in Poland – we had the pork knuckle and the ribs (and shared both of them!)
The next morning, we had breakfast at Warszawski Sznyt to set us up for the day, and then made our way to the Palace of Culture and Science. This huge building is like marmite; half of the city hate it, and half love it. Given by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, this ‘gift of friendship’ is the tallest building in Poland, at 231m. The building basically houses some shopping malls and conference spaces, but take the high-speed lift to the 30th floor and there is an observation deck where you can see the span of the city. This costs 20zl (US$5.50/£4) or 15zl (US$4/£3) for students (in the summer they open the terrace in the evening as well, so you can see the city with the sun setting).
After viewing the city from above, we made our way towards the Chopin Museum. Being a pianist, Kris was very excited to visit this museum. Completely high-tech with interactive multimedia including images, videos and score extracts for you to listen to, this museum is a must-see for any music fan. They even have the last piano that Chopin owned on display! Entrance price is 22zl (US$6/£4.50) or 13zl (US$3.50/£2.60) for a reduced ticket, and it is recommended to book in advance as they limit the entrance of people to the museum.
To fully complete your Chopin story whilst in Warsaw, visit the Church of the Holy Cross (ul Krakowskie Przedieście), and find the second pillar on the left side of the nave. This pillar, adorned with an epitach of Chopin, contains what remains of the composers heart. It was illegally smuggled here from Paris after his death by his sister, who did it to honour the composers last will and testament; although he had body from Poland to France, his heart remained in Warsaw.
The museum is closeby to Łaziesnki Park, where we then walked to and explored. We stopped for a refreshing Aperol spritz at a cafe, and then spent some time spotting red squirrels in the trees.
Our last full day was spent visiting two great museums. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is a huge exhibition with lots of multimedia and interactive features, illustrating 1000 years of Jewish history. Regular admission is 25zl (US$6.75/£5) or 15zl (US$4/£3) for a reduced ticket.
We also visited the Warsaw Rising Museum, which is well recommended. This museum traces the history of the city’s heroic but doomed uprising against the German occupation in 1944. Filled with displays, photographs, film archives and personal items, there is even a bomber plane which fills much of the 1st floor. Regular admission is 25zl (US$6.75/£5) or 20zl (US$5.40/£4) for reduced rate (admission on Sundays is free!).
No matter where you visit in these three beautiful countries, you will always find friendly faces welcoming you to their home, and wanting to share as much culture with you as possible.
Enveloping visitors with the unmistakable sense of stepping into tropical Spain, arriving in the beautifully humid city of Granada in Nicaragua was truly a breathtaking experience. After being fairly secluded on Ometepe (and before that spending time in the cloud forest in Costa Rica), it was welcome change to see beautiful colonial architecture and to finally have some scorching sun. It’s clear to see why so many travellers use the city as a base, with such beautiful cobblestone roads full to the brim of magnificent photogenic elegance, to stunning attractions a short journey into the countryside, this city has it all. Here’s our top pick of things to see!
Top things to do in Granada
1. Climb the staircase at the Iglesia La Merced at sunset
Make sure you visit half an hour before sunset (sunset was at 5:30pm so we arrived at 4:45pm in January as the tower officially closes at 5pm). The view from the top is incredible and you can stay until they kick you out! It only costs 30NIO (about 70p/US$1) to climb the stairs up to the top of the clock tower, so you have no excuse not to go!
2. See the Masaya Volcano at night
It’s an hour drive from Granada, but visiting the active Volcano has to be high on your to-do list. Make sure you do the night tour – during the day you won’t get the full experience of the bright lava or feel the heat of it! I have never before seen an active volcano, and it did not disappoint! We paid US$35 each for our night tour with Erik’s tours. Once you arrive at the park entrance, you will sit in traffic for a long time. We arrived at about 5pm, but didn’t get into the viewing point until 7:15pm! They let a certain amount of vehicles in for 15 minute slots, and so if it’s busy you could be waiting a while! It will help if your driver gets fed up easily – ours did and so was overtaking people on the way up! Once your 15 minutes at the top are up, there is a small, informative museum to walk through (and bathrooms to visit) before you are whisked back into the van and driven back to Granada
As part of our volcano trip, we decided to visit the Masaya hand craft market. If you are set on visiting, a quick twenty minutes here would suffice – every item for sale is available in every other shop, and it almost seems as though everything has just been bought in bulk and imported in. I’d possibly say don’t bother; not quite the hand craft market we had hoped!
The pickup from the market to the volcano was also very late – we were worried that they had forgotten us, but we had learnt that Nicaraguan time is something of fluidity – times are rarely stuck to, but nobody seems bothered by this at all. Something will happen, just not when locals tell you it will!
When we arrived at Erik’s office to pay, the saleswoman tried to charge us far more than we were quoted. Luckily we had our email conversations handy and we paid US$35 per person for the Masaya Market and Volcano trip (instead of the US$55 she wanted from us originally!). We had heard similar stories about the same woman from other people on the trip, and the prices seemed to vary between people we spoke to on the trip!
3. Visit the Laguna de Apoya for a day of relaxing by the lake.
There are a few ‘resorts’ in the area that you pay for a day entry to use their area. We paid US$14 each for entry into the Laguna Beach Club (which was lovely and relaxing, and has free kayaks/body boards to use) and a return shuttle from the main office in Granada with Eric’s tours (for some reason, this isn’t listed on their website). We even managed to work out a trip to the Laguna, travel to the market, and then the evening volcano tour as one package. You can also get a taxi, or find similar shuttles from other tour operators.
4. Book a boat trip touring the Isletas
We paid US$27 per person for a morning boat trip, again with Erik’s Tours, around the 365 small islands found off of Granada in Lake Nicaragua. We had a beautiful couple of hours with just one other passenger exploring the different islands, and seeing the famous monkey islands.
5. Get a free cocoa tour at the Museo de Chocolate
The free tour at the Chocolate Museum (they also have museums in Guatemala, Peru, Columbia, Mexico) is worth a visit. The staff will explain to you how cocoa is grown and harvested, and transformed into the chocolate we know and love, with a bit of history along with it. There is no expectation that you have to buy something after, but why wouldn’t you?! The chocolate tastes great, and you can buy other treats like chocolate tea, chocolate liquors, fudge, brownies, and even chocolate beer!
6. Lounge by the exclusive pool hidden behind the Chocolate Museum
Tucked away at the rear of the Museum (you have to walk through the courtyard) you will find the most beautiful spot for sunbathing and swimming. There is a bar and changing rooms, so you don’t need anything else! We spent a couple of hours in the scorching afternoon sun.