Urban Pixxels is a travel and photography blog by Jacintha Verdegaal. Dutch travel & lifestyle blogger living in London and traveling the world. Sharing my best London tips (yes: food), travel stories and photos.
Trying to kill some time on my flight from New Zealand to Malaysia, I start thinking about how I want to spend the coming days. And I realise how little I know about this country, and Kuala Lumpur – my first destination – in particular. I’ve seen pictures of those famous towers, the Petronas Twin…
Before we dive into this Bali travel guide I have to warn you. If you’re looking for a super active, packed low-budget itinerary, this is not the post for you. There was just one goal I had in mind when I was planning my trip to Bali and that was to enjoy every second and…
When I return from a trip and think about the tips I want to share with you here on the blog, more often than not the first thing that comes to mind is food. But eating my way around Lisbon was of course not all I did. Even though I still dream about those delicious…
Just because the place looks like paradise, doesn’t mean the weather will always play along. After Sydney and Melbourne I am looking forward to a few days of doing nothing. That is, doing nothing as in walking barefoot on white sand beaches and taking naps under a palm tree. Even if you’ve never been to […]
I’m spending the last three days of my three month trip in Singapore. Three days and three nights before I’m flying back to Amsterdam. It’s a strange thought that once I leave Singapore, I’ll have to start thinking about everyday life things again. Work, cleaning my house, grocery shopping, paying bills, or just grown-up responsibilities in general. So even though it’s only three days, I feel this pressure of getting the most out of it, since this wonderful ‘life on the road’ adventure will be over soon.
The humidity in Singapore doesn’t make it a city / country to explore on foot. You could in theory, but in my case it is either too hot / humid or it’s raining. Even when a neighborhood looks great to walk around, you’ll start searching for something indoors after a few minutes to escape the heat or rain.
If you’re also planning a trip to Singapore and looking for things to do, places to eat or nice hotels, here are all the places that I really like and recommend.
Things to do in Singapore
Gardens by the Bay and Cloud Forest
One of the most spectacular sights in Singapore is Gardens by the Bay and then especially the Cloud Forest and Supertree Grove. The 35 meter indoor waterfall that you see as soon as you walk in the conservatory is apparently the tallest in the world and quite impressive. From there you walk around and up the mountain as you see the plants and flowers change.
National Gallery Singapore
Located in the former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings, the Singapore National Gallery is an interesting combination of old and new. If you’re interested in architecture there’s a tour you can take in which you’ll learn more about the history of the building and the changes they made in the recent renovation to turn it into one museum.
This is the place to be if you want to see modern art from Singapore and South East Asia.
I love discovering local street artists when I travel. And there are some amazing murals all around Singapore. One great place to spot them is Tiong Bahru. The exact locations of the murals are listed on the website of the artist YC.
Singapore Botanic Gardens
As I mentioned before, Singapore is not a place where you’ll go for a long walk during the day. However, if you do feel like being outside, then the Singapore Botanic Gardens are wonderful. Plus they’re free to visit.
The tropical gardens (a UNESCO World Heritage site) are 158 years old and have more than 10.000 types of plants. So lots of shade to stay cool (well, sort of).
Mystery Books Vending Machine
The mystery books vending machine is such a quirky find in Tiong Bahru. All the books have been wrapped, so even which book you’re buying remains a mystery. You’ll find it right outside the BooksActually bookstore, which is also really nice.
This is a great tip from Sarah (The Wanderblogger) and one I hadn’t heard of before. CHIJMES is a former catholic convent which is now used for different purposes, one of them being an art gallery. The white gothic style architecture and the spiral staircases make it a beautiful place to visit.
Where to eat in Singapore
National Kitchen by Violet Oon
My taxi driver is singing softly while we’re trying to beat the Marrakech evening rush hour traffic. As we’re passing the different city walls into the Medina (old city), the city is getting more lively. I hear the call to prayer in the distance, but it can’t compete with the sound of all the cars and motorcycles.
There are people on the street everywhere. Crowded together for different reasons. To eat, to chat, to repair a motorcycle under the soft orange light of the street lanterns. Some dressed traditionally, others surprisingly modern.
Despite having been here before, I’m getting the same feeling as the first time I arrived in Marrakech five years ago. How amazing to be in a city that’s so completely different and yet still so close to home. The Medina with its narrow alleys that form one big labyrinth feels like a time capsule.
I’m spending three days in Marrakech with Jess. As always we want to get the most out of this trip, but have also accepted that we’re not going to do and see everything. And looking through my photos I think we did a pretty good job.
So if you’re also planning a visit, these are my favourite things to do in Marrakech (including some tips for where to eat). And I’ll end with some general travel tips.
Getting lost in the souks
The souks should be your first stop to really get a feel of Marrakech. It feels a bit touristy with the many souvenir shops, but locals shop here as well.
It’s almost impossible not to get lost in the souks. The narrow streets with roofs that filter the sunlight all look alike. And after turning left and right a couple of times, I’d be impressed if you’d still know which direction you’re going. Not to worry, you’ll find your way out eventually. Or follow the signs that point in the direction of Place Djemaa el Fna (the main square).
Learn more from a local with a GPS audio tour
I’m a huge fan of Detour, the app that offers GPS audio walks with locals. The local is not actually with you, but thanks to the GPS on your phone they know exactly where you are and what to say when. A great way to explore a destination and learn things you normally won’t read in a guide book. I’ve done a couple of their walks in San Francisco, and was happy to find out there’s also a tour in Marrakech.
I did this tour by myself after Jess had left to catch her flight back to London, but there’s also a way to sync the tour with the people you’re traveling with so you’re listening to the exact same story. The tours are not free, but worth paying for.
Visit a beautiful 14th century Islamic college
The Medersa Ben Youssef is a place I know I’ll go to every time I’m in Marrakech. It’s just so interesting and impressive. For more than four centuries students lived here to study law and theology. Some of them were lucky to have beautiful rooms, others not so much, but the building itself is gorgeous.
Discover images of the old Morocco at the Museum of Photography
The Museum of Moroccan photography (La Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech) is one of my favourite spots in the city. It’s quite small so you don’t need a lot of time, but it feels like a calm oasis with beautiful photography. And after you’ve seen the collection, don’t forget to go up to their rooftop terrace for a drink with a view.
See how leather is being made at the tanneries
I visited the tanneries for the second time and I have to say that both times were completely different. Five years ago our guide showed and explained to us the different steps of the leather making process. There was time to take photos, ask questions etc. Yes, it’s dirty and the place smells horrible, but based on that experience I would say it’s worth a visit.
This time however, our ‘guide’ rushed us through it, pointed to things but didn’t explain what we were looking at, and when he said a few words it was in a language that was neither English, French or Arabic (probably a mix that was impossible to understand). Plus at the end of this very short visit he wanted €20. Even though guide books suggest to pay something between €1-€2 per person. Of course we didn’t pay him what he was asking for, but he acted very insulted and the whole thing felt very wrong.
So my advice would be to look into finding an official guide before you go instead of just going to the tanneries by yourself. Also, if you’re hoping to see the dying process with bright colors, this only happens at a specific time of year.
I’ve seen a lot of hotel rooms this year. When you travel non-stop for three months, the question ‘where will I sleep tonight’ is pretty much top of mind all the time.
Smart, budget-savvy people who travel long-term would probably choose to stay at hostels to save money for all those fun things you’d like to experience while traveling.
Not me. I’m always trying to find the nicest, prettiest, coolest, preferably still affordable (some more than others) boutique hotels everywhere I go.
The bad news is that being very picky about where you sleep will ruin the travel budget you’ve set for yourself basically from day one. However the good news is that I now know exactly what makes the perfect bedroom.
Which is extremely helpful now that I’ve left London and moved back to my old apartment in The Netherlands. And the place needs a make-over! My bedroom is my first ‘project’ and I decide to apply everything I’ve learned from my favourite design hotels around the world.
Now, I’m not an interior blogger or expert, but I’m really happy with how it turned out. And I honestly have never slept so well in this bedroom.
So to make sure you don’t need to sleep in hotels for three months to do the same, I thought I would share my tips for how to create your favorite hotel room at home.
Invest in a great mattress: my experience with Emma
Let’s start with the most important factor to get a good night’s rest: your bed. And more importantly, your mattress.
Over the past few years I’ve read so many stories about the importance of investing in a good mattress. Now that it is time to buy a new one, I decide to do some research to find one that will be as comfortable as my favorite hotel beds, but also fits my budget.
Both in the UK and the Netherlands, the Emma mattress was tested and named as a best buy by independent consumer bodies.
Emma is an online shop so you can’t test it before buying. But at Emma they know there’s only so much you can tell from lying on a mattress for a couple of seconds, fully dressed in the middle of a store, surrounded by strangers. So instead they let you test the mattress at home for 100 days. By then the mattress has adapted to your body and you really know whether it’s the right mattress for you. If it’s not, then you can return it for free and get your money back.
I was intrigued. The mattress is more expensive than let’s say one from Ikea, but a lot cheaper than some of the famous mattress brands. And as I said before, this one was tested as the best one to buy.
And then Emma approached me, whether I wanted to test their mattress. Talking about great timing! Yes please!
A few days later a big box with my mattress arrived. And after sleeping on it for more than those 100 days I can say this is the best mattress I’ve ever had. Not too soft, not too firm. I know this comes down to personal preferences, but this is just perfect for me.
I now sound like an old lady, but whenever I sleep on a mattress that’s either too soft or too firm my back hurts the next day. Because of all the different layers within the mattress, including memory foam that helps to relieve pressure and support your body while sleeping, my back has felt great since I started sleeping on my Emma mattress.
If you want to give Emma a try, they have a special Boxing Day Sale in the UK with a £100 discount if you order one between 26th and 31st December 2017. You can also get an Emma Mattress in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Poland, Austria and Switzerland.
Give your Ikea furniture a design look
For my new wardrobe I really loved the one in my room at the Coppersmith Hotel in Melbourne. White with black leather handles. And of course lights that automatically switch on when you open the doors.
To achieve a similar look at home I bought a new white Ikea Pax wardrobe with doors that look very similar to the ones in Melbourne. But for that design look I’m adding the leather ‘Trunk handle’ from Superfront. This clever Swedish company designs fronts, handles and legs that fit most Ikea cabinets to give it a unique look.
Paint your walls and window frames in new colors
The best – although maybe not the quickest – way to change your bedroom is by adding some fresh paint in new colors. I’ve been going back and forth between super dark and super bright, both I really like. But thinking about my favorite hotel rooms, I eventually decided to go with soft (but not white) colors.
And one very good trick that I learned from staying at – again – the Coppersmith Hotel is that dark window frames give your room an extra luxury feel. Especially in contrast with those soft toned walls.
Add beautiful lighting
If your mattress is the most important part of your bedroom, then to me lighting is the most difficult part. Of course you can approach it very practically and just get a reading light. But a beautiful lamp in your bedroom will do so much more. At the Warehouse Hotel in Singapore I fell in love with the Flos IC floor lamp, so I decided to get one for my room at home.
Smart Tech to control your room
This may be something that only I get very excited about, but I love it when a hotel room has some cool tech features. For example one of the things that made me fall in love with citizenM is that I can control my entire room (the lights, temperature, tv, blinds) with an iPad.
The rest of my apartment is slowly turning into a smart home with me having interesting conversations with my Google Home. But for my bedroom I don’t want to clutter it with too much tech.
To still make my room a bit ‘smarter’ I have a Logitech Pop Smart button on my nightstand. In the morning I press the button once and the lights in my bedroom and living room switch on, and my Sonos speakers start playing my favorite playlist in every room. In the evening I switch everything off with that same button. Yes, I know switching your lights on and off manually is not the most time consuming job, but it does make life easier.
Add some plants (that are not easy to kill)
This is one tip I need to do better myself next year, but I still think it’s an important one. For one it’s actually healthy to have plants in your room, but it also brightens up..
My three weeks in New Zealand are one of the highlights of this year. Which is why it’s strange that I still haven’t shared anything here on the blog. At the same time: where to begin? But now that I’m writing this back home, while the snow outside is preventing me to go anywhere, I’m thinking that some place cold and icy would be a good place to start. Like my visit to the Franz Josef Glacier on the South Island.
Driving to Franz Josef in New Zealand
The previous day I had picked up a new car in Greymouth after crossing the South Island from east to west with the TranzAlpine Train. And once again, the landscape is completely different. My surprise about how this country keeps changing is becoming a recurring theme on this trip.
My first stop on the western side of the South Island is Franz Josef where I’m staying at the Scenic Hotel Franz Josef Glacier. It’s a small town with only about 400 residents and a lot more tourists who are planning to see that famous glacier.
Franz Josef Glacier Helicopter Hike: Icy Adventure in New Zealand - YouTube
Franz Josef Glacier Heli Hike
Unfortunately the best way to see the glacier is not the cheapest one: a glacier hiking tour with a short helicopter ride. It’s NZ$449 (around €250). A bit more than I am hoping to spend. But now that I’m here I don’t want to miss this opportunity. Plus I’ve always wanted to ride a helicopter, so this is my chance.
I do a bit of research online and sign up for a tour with Franz Josef Glacier Guides the next day. There’s always a chance that due to bad weather they need to cancel the tour. Looking at the dark clouds, I’m just hoping that won’t be the case tomorrow.
Preparing for a Glacier Helicopter Hike
The next morning the clouds are still looking a bit funny, but fortunately we can still go ahead with the tour. I check in at the Franz Josef Glacier Guides office. Fill in all the paperwork, stand on a scale so they can measure my weight for the helicopter (how much have I been eating on this trip?!) and change into my hiking gear that they provide.
You can’t bring your own bag, but you can put some small things in a red bum bag that you get with the rest of your equipment. They also tell you to not bring your phone – which I don’t – but I notice that most of the people in the group have it with them anyway.
Walking on Ice
As soon as we take off and approach the glacier I immediately forget about how much this is costing me. It’s simply worth it!
Getting off the helicopter you need to be careful that you don’t slip on the ice. Which would be a really bad start of this three hour hike. Strapping on the crampons makes a huge difference, although it still takes some time to feel confident walking on ice.
Franz Josef Glacier Guides
Our guide is amazing. He doesn’t rush and gives us all the time we need to take photos. Plus every time the hike gets a bit difficult he talks everyone through every single step. I’m glad he does, because even though it’s never scary there are definitely some challenging parts where I would have probably broken something without his instructions.
Also, you don’t need to be super fit to do this tour, but if you have weak ankles I wouldn’t recommend it.
It’s hard to imagine when you first see the glacier from the helicopter, but each part of the glacier looks different. The difference in shape, structure or the colour of the ice (blue ice!), it’s amazing. And every time you turn around, you want to take a photo of that breathtaking view.
The timing is perfect. While everybody around me is turning up the heating in their house, storing their summer clothes to replace them with warm, comfy winter clothes, I am getting reading for a bit of extra sunshine. As much as I like autumn, when you’re being invited to spend a couple of days in a sunny Spanish destination you simply don’t say no.
And so at the end of my last visit to London I’m not flying back to Amsterdam. Instead, I get on a flight to Malaga together with Giulia, Milly and Elena to stay at the beautiful Puente Romano in sunny Marbella.
Puente Romano Beach Resort
I don’t have that much experience staying at resorts, which may explain why I keep getting lost. Puente Romano is huge! The idea is that you don’t need to leave the resort during your stay if you don’t want to. They have everything you need. The beach, swimming pools, a spa, gym, shops, many excellent restaurants etc.
Personally I can’t imagine traveling somewhere and then not exploring the destination, but it’s a nice idea that you don’t need to if you don’t want to. Plus I must admit that with the size and comfort of the luxury 5 star suites – larger than most London flats – including a living room and terrace – I can see why you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
Eating all the food at Puente Romano
But the main reason we’re here is the food. This is not your average on-site restaurant where you’d only go as a last resort. Quite the opposite. These restaurants are so good and so popular that locals and visitors find their way to Puente Romano to dine here. Whether they’re a guest of the resort or not.
And that last sentence is import. Staying at Puente Romano is a wonderful experience, but not cheap. However, the restaurants are so good – and in different price categories – that it’s great that you don’t necessarily need to be a guest to enjoy them.
Most restaurants and bars are located around La Plaza, a square at the centre of the resort. This is where I had my first Nobu experience. Japanese cooking with Peruvian flavors: wow! Of course Nobu is very well-known in London, but I never had the chance to dine here. It’s seriously incredible. Pictured here is the Black Cod with Miso (one of the signature dishes) that due to the lighting was a bit hard to photograph, but I don’t remember ever tasting cod this delicious.
And did I mention Puente Romano is a beach resort? On our first day we had lunch at El Chiringuito. If there’s one place that makes you forget about the cold and rainy weather back home, this is it. Sipping a coco chili mojito while overlooking the water and eating super fresh seafood will definitely give you that summer feeling.
Another favorite is Sea Grill. I would recommend this restaurant if you’re looking for fine dining with a view of the Mediterranean Sea. I had the surf & turf with beef tenderloin and lobster (when you can’t choose between meat or fish) which was wonderful, but also don’t forget to share the King crab leg.
Old Town Marbella
As it is my first time in Marbella I can’t wait to see what’s outside of the resort. Of course Puente Romano has thought of everything and lets you rent bicycles to cycle to the old town. There’s a nice bike path along the beach so getting there couldn’t be more simple.
The old town isn’t big, but very charming so worth a visit.
When you go back to working full time after a long period of – well – not working at all, it’s a rule that you go on a trip to enjoy those final moments of total freedom. At least it’s one of my rules.
Talking about #firstworldproblems, I can’t make up my mind where to go. Somewhere warm, but preferably in the same timezone (no jetlag). Somewhere I haven’t been to before, but also a place that doesn’t require a lot of research to find things to do. And somewhere that isn’t crazy expensive since I am booking my flight and hotel only three days in advance. A couple of days later I’m on a plane to Lisbon.
Since I’ll be going back to work soon I want to make sure I’m not coming back completely exhausted. Wouldn’t be the first time after a citytrip. So how do you make sure you’re taking enough breaks from all the sightseeing? You eat. And drink coffee. And then eat some more.
Fortunately, Lisbon is all about incredible food. Here are my favorite places that I discovered while I was there.
Where to get the best pastel de nata in Lisbon
Let’s start with the best part about eating in Portugal: pastel de nata. You can get these sweet Portuguese custard pastries everywhere in Lisbon, but once you’ve tasted one from these two shops, you’ll never want anything else.
My absolute favorite. The crust is flaky and the custard often still warm. Plus you can watch how they’re being made. When they walk outside to ring a bell, that means a new batch is coming freshly out of the oven. Yum!
If you’re as big of a fan of pastéis de nata as I am, then visiting Pastéis de Belém is a must. This is where it all began, and where you can taste the original ‘pastel de Belém’. Of course it’s super touristy and there’s a queue outside, but they’re very efficient so you won’t have to wait long.
Not necessarily a breakfast place, but a great spot for whenever you’re in the mood for something healthy and (again) a pretty interior. To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed with my smoothie bowl (looked very pretty, didn’t taste so great). But since it’s such a popular restaurant, I’m sure the other items on the menu must be better.
Where to have lunch and dinner in Lisbon
The interior with the blue and white floor tiles and the giant octopus hanging over the bar makes this one of Lisbon’s coolest places to go for lunch or dinner. They don’t take reservations and when I arrived 5 minutes after they’d opened for lunch (on a weekday) I managed to get the very last seat at the bar. So either get there in time or stop by to put your name on the list about an hour before you’d like to eat.
José Avillez is one of Portugal’s most famous chefs with several restaurants in Lisbon, some with Michelin stars. Bairro do Avillez is not just one restaurant. There’s the traditional ‘Taberna’ in the front and then the spacious (more expensive) Páteo in the courtyard, focussing on seafood and fish. I had the grilled squid with the most delicious black rice at the Páteo. It was great, but I kind of wished I had opted for the Taberna since I would have been able to try several of the smaller (and cheaper) dishes instead of one main meal. Unfortunately I went here on my last day in Lisbon, so I’ll definitely come back for the Taberna next time.
I had dinner at The Decadente on my first evening in Lisbon simply because it was close to my hotel. With the other restaurants I was already expecting great food because I’d heard so much about them. But with The Decadente, I had no idea what to expect. And it was amazing! Great atmosphere, nice people, delicious modern Portuguese food and not expensive. I could have eaten here every night.