Seeing orangutans in Borneo is an insatiable need when visiting this region. An endangered species that’s native only to the island and parts of Indonesia.
Aside from national park trekking and mountain climbing, it was one of the main things I wanted to do there and missing out would have been just as crazy as not seeing pandas in China. After all, Borneo really is the place to get up close and personal to some of the world’s most incredible creatures without the restriction of a confined, zoo environment.
Orangutan Rehabilitation Centres in Borneo (or sanctuaries are they are normally referred to) have become the most desirable option for seeing these native animals since a sighting is almost guaranteed in comparison to a trek through the wilderness of a National Park.
However, the notion of these centres has raised the debate regarding the accessibility of the animals and the resulting actions of the visitors, which I witnessed myself at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Sarawak – the western state of Borneo.
Orangutan Rehabilitation and Tourist Actions
This Rehabilitation Centre has been around for 35 years and helps to care predominately for orangutans who have been displaced, rescued from an inhumane environment (such as being kept as pets) or found injured in the forest. Here they are taught to adapt to and live in the wild expanse of a forest reserve that is monitored and controlled. While many are never able to be released to the wild again, there is the possibility for it to happen if it could work.
The Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Sarawak in Orangutans
However, the debate is that this constructed environment had led to the ‘humanisation’ of the animals, which in turn means they rely on humans too much and in turn are affected by the over-contact with them.
From my experience there, we should not be too quick to blame the centres themselves which house these incredible creatures, but the tourists who visit, act disgracefully and ignore rules; the tourists who miss the point that an orangutan is a WILD animal.
Wild:adverb, noun, adjective. Living in a state of nature, not tamed or domesticated
While the sanctuary in Sepilok, in the eastern state of Sabah, is more popular, I choose to visit Semenggoh because I had heard from wildlife enthusiasts and other travellers that it was the better of the two.You can’t touch the orangutans, hold them or get that close as you potentially can in Sepilok (or so it’s said) – you are merely there to observe from a safe distance.
Iran is an Islamic country and one who decides to visit there must keep that in mind when it comes to how to dress. From the hijab headscarf and the full-body chador to the everyday wear in-between, the Iran dress code for women doesn’t have to be complex or confusing. In fact, you’ll soon see that tradition is mixed with modern fashion and it’s not as worrying as it seems.
To prepare you for dressing appropriately in Iranian cities, public spaces and places of worship, I asked my Iranian friends in Tehran who run the Come2Persia travel agency (and who get asked these questions often) for some insider tips on what to pack for Iran and what you can buy when you arrive.
Put simply, what matters most in the answer to the question of what to wear in Iran is not to stand out and be unusual.
Iran Dress Code for Women [What to Wear in Iran]
Wearing Hijab in Iran
The hijab headscarf is the main item you need to pack for Iran since you will need to wear it when you exit the plane and enter the country. You’ll be wearing a hijab every day in all public places, and it soon becomes second nature to follow this rule. However, it should be noted that there is much misconception about the rules of hijab and how it is practised in Iran among locals and tourists.
What may come surprising to tourists is that hijab is more about social etiquette than religious law.
Many women in Iran adhere to hijab based on their personal belief and not out of extrinsic force, even though there are those who do not willingly abide by this norm.
This guide to walking tours in Athens was updated in January 2019, to ensure that up to date information makes your Athens trip more fun and immersive.
The gritty streetscape of Athens may dominate the scattering of golden classical sites, but its history is rich, its neighbourhoods varied, and its soul thriving in both tradition and a unique modern-day cultural regeneration. The things to do in Athens go far beyond its Acropolis fame; a city that is easy to walk around and big on experiences. One of the best ways to understand these complex layers is to engage in the variety of themed Athens walking tours, in the company of locals who can take you through this diverse metropolis and show you a very different side.
The Best Athens Walking Tours With Locals – See the City Differently
Best Walking Tours in Athens: By Theme
For an Introduction to Main Athens Attractions
It is possible to take in the highlights of Athens sightseeing in just a few short hours with an Athenian who will guide you through the ancient and ottoman parts of the city and walk the neo-classical ‘triangle’ from Syntagma to Omonia, to Kerameikos. The Alternative Athens City Walk combines easy-to-digest historical highlights with hidden city quirks, such as hidden streets with character and modern clothing stores showcasing ancient ruins.
Visit Athens and Use the Free Greeter Programme
The ‘This is My Athens’ free ‘greeter’ programme means being able to hang out with a local who matches your interests or organising a walk tailored to what you really want to see. Or, you can be sporadic and let the local show their favourite places in the city, including local hangouts and quirky sites you might not find in a guide book.
Athens Wine Tasting Tour – The Unknown Greek Wine Scene
If you don’t know your Nemea from your Nauossa (two of Greece’s main wine producing regions) or that Santorini’s volcanic soil is known as the best terroir in the country, then it’s time to brush up on your Hellenic vino knowledge.
While Greece isn’t known for its wine, the scene in Athens has grown over the past two years, in an attempt to highlight homegrown varieties to international wine lovers. During the Ottoman rule in Greece, wine production was halted and vineyards became neglected, while France and Italy’s production soared. Over the years, small vineyards emerged, with every village touting a different grape variety – a much wider choice, but less concentration on mass production and export.
The wine tasting tour in Athens, Greece with Athens Insiders
So you shouldn’t leave Greece without trying its best selection on home soil. Sommelier Yiannis from Athens Insiders takes you to three of the most well-established wine bars in central Athens. You’ll not only learn basic tasting techniques, but you’ll also be able to pick out regional attributes and Greece’s very distinct blends as you savour some of the finest by the glass. From the sauvignon-like Nemea, the pinot noir-like Naoussa and fruity moschofileros, to the wild fermented assirtikos and the distinct flavours of Santorini and Crete, the real test is if you can pronounce the names of them all at the very end.
Athens Street Art Tour – Political Expressions of Greece
Street Art has become the modern voice of creative Athens – a city that is said to have the largest collection of street art in the world. While unsightly tagging is common, some of the ultra-creative pieces on show here will catch your eye on every corner. Shop shutter covers and buildings whose entire façade is covered; abandoned spaces and hidden finds – each artwork has its own story, sometimes about the particular building or area itself.
The endless amount of murals in Athens makes the street art walking tours some of the most popular
Join urban artists from the city who will give detailed insight into the street art scene, emerging in the early 1990s as a social-political voice – a sentiment that continues today. You can learn about the designs, techniques and messages found mainly within the central Exarchia, Monastiraki and Psirri neighbourhoods with Manolis aka rtmone and in the lesser-known and grittier Gazi and Metataxourgio neighbourhoods with Achilles from Alternative Athens. Each has their own distinct style and personal highlights to share.
Athens Architecture Walking Tour – History of Occupation and Rebuild
The birthplace of democracy and a city that changed with Roman and Ottoman occupation, to the more modern wave of Neo-Classicism and the practical yet non-descript re-build of the 1960s, Athens has been destroyed, conquered and rebuilt many times over. This is most apparent in the varied architecture of the city.
While the Renaissance was happening elsewhere in Europe, the Ottoman Turks didn’t follow. In the 19th century, countries including Germany, France, and Britain injected classicism into the city as a way of bringing back the ancient Greek identity. With Greece besieged by seven wars over the centuries, Athens in particular always lagged very far behind in its engineered beauty.
Ancient, old and modern architecture intersects all corners of the city.
Your architectural journey, in the company of scholar Vasillis from Context Travel, starts in 1935 at Syntagma Square and jumps back and forth through the ages as you walk through the Omonia, Monastiraki and Plaka areas. You’ll soon notice the triangular pediments and classical column designs of the neo-classical era, learn why Plaka’s buildings are dotted with beautiful balconies, see the oldest standing preserved Ottoman building, find one of the only art-nouveau buildings in the city, and pass through Athens’ secret island-like village.
Athens Food Tour – Traditional Greek Eats Indulgence
To not sample traditional Greek eats is quite possibly one of the biggest sacrilegious acts of travel here. Even the least discerning of food aficionados will learn to love the Greek cuisine, based on the most simple and fresh of ingredients.
With Culinary Backstreets, you go beyond the taverna and explore the tasty secrets of downtown Athens – think northern Greece style Souvlaki, mousakka, Greek salads, generations-old recipes of feta cheese, yoghurt and honey served in old dairy bars, olives fresh from the market, Armenian cold cuts, Cretan cuisine and sweet treats like the loukoumades Greek doughnuts.
Some of the treats from the traditional Greek food walking tour in Athens
This tour is a full day of food tasting in the city, which combines history, sightseeing, and a very full stomach, as you hop between third generation food stores, restaurants offering traditional foods and cooking methods, the famous fishmongers’ market and locally recommended eateries, hangouts and secret spots. Skip breakfast, you will need the space.
Athens Philosophy Walking Tour – On the Trail of Plato
In the eastern reaches of the city, outside of the central confines, is a park known as ‘Plato’s Academy’. If you stumbled across it, it would look like nothing more than a slightly abandoned space with a scattering of ruins. Yet this was an important space from the 4th Century – a time of power, intellectual growth, and literary and philosophical activity.
Exploring Plato’s Academy on the Athens philosophy-themed walking tour
The ‘Socrates, Plato and the Pursuit of happiness’ walk will bring to life the history behind this simple patch of land where Plato lived and worked. Wander the ruins of the gymnasium where it is said Plato met the young men he would later educate, and stand within the school (Academy) he founded (albeit with Byzantine additions). This is a scenic and thoughtful walk through the importance of Plato’s teaching in early Greek civilisation and where his ideas of temperance, wisdom, virtue, and piety were practised.
Connect with a local guide and experience life through their eyes on one of many Athens walking tours. It really is the best way to break through the misconceptions surrounding the identity of the city, dig deeper into its past, understand its present-day persona and indulge in the unique culture that thrives here in this bustling Greek capital.
I was a guest of all the walking tour companies listed, and I took the walks over a period of three months during one summer. All opinions and historically geeky excitement remain my own.
You would never think a circus in Siem Reap exists, but it has become one of the city’s biggest attractions. And one with a positive social impact.
Siem Reap likes to surprise visitors with its growth. Whether that’s new adventure activities, travel initiatives and excursions that show an alternative side to the town aside from the incredible Angkor Wat temple complex and the infamous Pub Street, alongside the growth of amazing charity and community projects which aid this still troubled country.
I had heard about the ‘Phare’ Circus in 2013 during one of my return visits and heard on the grapevine it was a must-see show, as well an initiative benefiting a great cause.
Phare, the Cambodian Circus, is an offshoot project of Phare Ponleu Selpak (Association), which translates into “Brightness of the Arts” in English. PPS Association is a Cambodian non-profit, non-governmental association founded in 1994 by eight young Cambodian ex-refugee artists in the area of Anchanh Village, Ochar Commune, Battambang Province.
It serves as a facility to help vulnerable children, young adults and their families, build the careers of Cambodian Artists, to revive Cambodian art scenes, to make worldwide arts connections with Cambodia and to contribute to the artistic, educational and social programs of PPS Association (watch the video below for further insight).
Phare, The Cambodian Circus Introduction Video - YouTube
Which means when you visit the circus in town, you are doing more than paying to be entertained. Your money is benefiting a growing arts scene in Cambodia.
Your money is benefiting talented people who wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity, income, or training access in which to develop and showcase their skills.
And the skills they possess saw them performing around the world before bringing this unique show to Siem Reap.
The Phare circus is an incredible hour of traditional and modern theatre, music, dance, acrobatics, athleticism, juggling and contortion all beautifully choreographed and performed in stories about Cambodian lives and society. Not to mention the famous smiles and slapstick humour that the Cambodian people are known for.
There are two shows, of a different theme or ‘tale’, alternating approximately every eight days. I saw the tale of “Phsong Preng” (The Adventure) which tells the story of a young boy who flees home, where he is abused by mother, in search of a better life – domestic violence being an ongoing issue in Cambodia.
In his adventures, he meets some unusual friends, who all travel to Phnom Penh together – an exciting endeavour that sadly ends with the boy being beaten and robbed by a gang of thugs. Saved by a chance meeting with a new group of friends, who take him in and help build his confidence, he finally decides to return home – stronger, assertive and more resilient.
I know from my Khmer (Cambodian) friends that tales and sayings are a big part of the culture – it’s how you learn to address issues, accept things and find the strength to carry on. The circus is just an extension and visual representation of this, with the moral of this particular story being about facing your fears in order to overcome them.
Knowing a Khmer friend who wanted nothing more than to flee the violence he sometimes experienced at home as a child – these issues being more ingrained in Cambodian society than they are in my own – it certainly resonated with me. But overall, it was a delightful hour of music, dance and circus tricks.
Combining entertainment and education is another step in the right direction for visitors to Cambodia to understand the complexities here, at the same time as sharing in the laughter, happiness and entertainment of a fabulously coordinated show.
Things to Know About the Siem Reap Circus
Where to Find the Circus:
Look out for the huge red tent on Comaille Road behind the Angkor National Museum – for now it is a permanent fixture and a sign of bigger things to come for these very talented performers, and for a project bringing the arts to life in a country whose arts scene is not normally known outside of it’s ancient and traditional Apsara dancing.
For further details of the Phare Cambodian Circus, visit the website here.
Travelling to South Korea had been on my original Asia itinerary, but I took it off due to budget. However, after being in North Korea, I wanted to visit South Korea in order to understand the differences between them. It was always a country that seemed a little out of reach and unknown; a country only talked about in great detail by expats. It remains a country that people do not extensively ‘travel’ outside the capital of Seoul and the beach town of Busan and that also appealed to me.
The thought of facing periods of isolation and dealing with huge cultural and language barriers due to the lack of tourism infrastructure didn’t bother me at all – I’m a hardened independent traveller and I like the challenges it brings. Plus, with five weeks to pass through the country, I had time for a few hiccups along the way. That’s often the best way to learn.
Except after a few days, I realised I wasn’t feeling much for South Korea – which happens in some places, although rarely. I mainly choose to visit countries based on personal passions or historical interest (I’m not a country ticker with no care of the outcome of my visit) and whilst certain parts of a country might not live up to much, my time there does still bring with it some fond memories and a desire to return to see it differently.
Why I Didn’t Love Travelling to South Korea – A Guide on Giving it a Chance
I wasn’t as excited about South Korea travel as when I first mapped out a rough route that would take me in a clockwise adventure, starting in Seoul. I adored parts of the capital, but overall, it wasn’t a city that really excited me in the same way as Tokyo or Beijing, or which kept me on my toes like Phnom Penh or Yangon. It lacked a certain buzz that I thrive on in Asian cities.
And as I passed through new towns, I realised that locals had told me things prior to my arrival which were filled with an abundance of pride (which in itself is beautiful), but which in reality were nothing more than just another nondescript town with one or two areas of interest.
Korea vs Japan? Don’t Do This
My biggest mistake was in visiting Japan first and the on-going Korea or Japan debate is inevitable, even though it’s wrong. Japan was incredible and after spending one month there, I was on a huge come down. Travel to South Korea was less appealing in comparison – it wasn’t as ‘seemingly’ vibrant and as mannered as its neighbour. I missed Japan and its madness and its juxtaposed politeness. I lamented the loss of the ordered beauty, the eccentricities, the ever-changing landscape and the fantastic infrastructure.
Visiting Japan first is a hindrance to having a fresh perspective on Korea. Especially when given the brutal history between the two countries, you can see how anti-Japanese sentiment is rife in Korea and it pays to have a better understanding of their differences.
Travel to South Korea – Understanding the Reality
This might be an alternative South Korea travel guide in that it is the opposite of listing all that is wonderful and 100% perfect. Yet, we are all guilty of comparing and it’s all too easy to dismiss travel to Korea without looking at its current state in context.
The industrialisation of South Korea after Colonisation and the Korean War
Following the three year Korean War, which began in 1950 when the North invaded the South, the country was to grow into a major economy. That came after decades of invasion and colonisation of Korea by Japan during 1910–1945. The country was destroyed, and after a long period of political instability, General Park Chung-hee’s military takeover in 1961 led to the formation of a new government. To many, he was seen as a ruthless dictator, whose rule saw many waves of abuse of human rights, yet the economy under him developed significantly, known as ‘The Miracle on the Han River’.
This term refers to the post-war industrialisation of Korea and the modern-day success story Korea is known for. A period which saw immense technological advancement, rapid urbanisation (including the Seoul subway system in use today), booming high standards of living and educational reforms, the hosting of huge sporting events including the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup, as well as placing the country on global stage with the formation of international companies including Samsung, Hyundai and LG.
Whilst many remain divided in opinion about his time in power, it is evident the country developed significantly, although rapid growth did come at the expense of culture, tradition and beauty.
Cultural Customs of South Korea
The people, who at times ‘appear’ cold and who can brush you away before you’ve barely finished a sentence, have lived through the rapid change from the aftermath of war.
Not only that, they are a ‘closed’ and private people – community and family focused and not needing to take you, the stranger, into their circle quickly. Therefore, welcoming tourists in South Korea with open arms is not something that will come naturally.
That doesn’t mean you won’t meet those who are an exception to the rule, who are so excited to see someone visit their hometown and want to show you every aspect of it. It’s just not an occurrence that happens in abundance.
South Korea Tourism – Is it a Focus?
Tourism in Korea isn’t a lifeline, like how it is in say Thailand or Cambodia. South Korea rose from the ashes and became a strong and prosperous nation, albeit at great sacrifice. They are a nation of staunch hard workers; their children study all day (and most of the night); they are serious, yet switched on. Korea is Asia’s fourth-largest economy, with a high standard of living. THAT is their pride. Essentially, they don’t need tourism to thrive, and therefore the notion of tourism is misunderstood and rests significantly on those wanting to visit the DMZ border.
With all this in mind, I made it a personal mission to NOT immediately dismiss travel to South Korea and leave too early. It deserved a chance. I cut my four or five weeks down to three and vowed not to leave a day sooner. I knew there were plenty of things to see and do in Korea emitting some level of cultural or adventurous interest and in each destination, I tried to find something positive, picturesque or historically relevant.
What to Love about Travel in South Korea
I didn’t have any particular South Korea itinerary, instead, I just landed in the capital ready for a sporadic adventure. I grew to love the arty side of Seoul, choosing the funky student-filled Hongdae as my base and enjoying the atmosphere of Itaewon and Gangnam that is best seen when the sun goes down. From huge markets, old villages, historical palaces, entertainment districts and shopping plazas, there was always something new to try to seek out daily. For those interested in the coffee scene, Seoul’s array of cafes and coffee roasters will most certainly keep you occupied.
I visited Andong with the purpose of checking out Hahoe Folk Village – one of Korea’s few ‘preserved villages’. While Andong lacked any particular highlight, it’s historical points of interest, reached by various long bus routes, didn’t disappoint.
A local romanticised Daegu as a place full of old historical buildings and hidden picturesque spots – we sat for an hour marking key highlights on a map – but I was left deflated when I realised it was nothing more than a sprawling city, and that all the ‘historical’ structures, bar one cathedral, had no real ‘wow’ factor. However, it was an important insight into the different parts of the country and how the experiences of travelling in South Korea vary greatly.
The UNESCO Ancient Capital of Gyeongju was a highlight, boosting huge grassy tombs, temples and gorgeous parkland, surrounded by mountains. Definitely one of the more interesting cities of former dynasty times, with a lot of ground to cover. Visit Gyeongju on a day-trip from Busan.
Busan, with its lively beaches and mountainous terrain, was a refreshing and chilled break from the brash Seoul. I also got to check out Spa Land – one of Korea’s many ‘walk around completely naked’ spas and a rite of passage for any visitor to Korea!
I had an incredible few days in the small harbour town of Yeosu staying with my expat friend who teaches there, taking random bus trips to temples and scenic areas I would have otherwise found hard to come by. I also got to meet her high school students, which was an interesting insight into the new generation of Koreans who work so incredibly hard.
Jeju Island was hands down my most favourite part of Korea – a stunning domestic holiday spot scattered with stunning beaches and a whole host of UNESCO sites including lava caves, a mountain and incredible viewing points. The ferry ride to get here is a bit rough on the choppy waters, but it’s all a part of the adventure. And there’s a lot of adventuring to do in Jeju as a core pristine nature hotspot.
How to Visit Korea and Enjoy It
A key part of enjoying Korea is knowing people who live there. I was lucky to be able to visit expats friends in Seoul and Yeosu and it made a HUGE difference. I lost count of the number of times expats and former expats told me that you can only really enjoy Korea when people can tell you or show you where to go. Many said that outside of working in the country, it wouldn’t be a place where they would choose to travel or encourage others to travel with enthusiasm.
Korea doesn’t shout about its beauty, and its ‘must see’ spots can be hard to find. Knowing someone really is key – take advantage of this if you are considering a visit there as they are also the stepping-stone to meeting lots of local people. When I got to spend time with locals, I used every minute as an opportunity to get some deeper insight into the country.
Friends, determination, context and an open mind – I made the most of what I had. Overall, travelling Korea didn’t enthral me. It didn’t touch my heart. It didn’t bestow on me a whole heap of treasured memories of being on the road. But, I’m still glad I went and gathered some great memories from both excursions and interactions.
Would I visit again? Yes, I would travel South Korea again but not for a very long time, and only if it was en route to another destination. There’s still parts of the country that I have yet to see, such as the National Parks, the mountainous areas and smaller towns which will one day be more accessible to travellers, rather than to those living there who take months to uncover it as they call it home.
For now, I am content with letting South Korea go, for now. But I’m certainly open for one day trying again.
Read ‘Korea: The Impossible Country’ for further insight into Korea’s substantial economic and political growth. This book charts the rise of Korea as one of the best success stories of the post-war period and how it rose from the ashes and out of the shadows of Japan and China.
Don’t Want to Travel Korea Solo? Book a Small Group Tour
Not everyone wants to navigate a country solo and the complexities of a South Korea trip are no exception to those who might not know the Asia travel circuit extensively. Despite Korea having a great infrastructure and various stopping points of interest, some like to have smaller details organised and travel in a small group, for a big adventure. Plus, you will be with a local guide and South Korea is best experienced with someone who knows it as home.
Lured by the untouched east and the trek north, travelling to Turkey for three months was harder than I thought. Travel to Turkey but don’t always expect paradise. Here’s why.
Turkey was one of the greatest Empires of all time, a ‘cradle of civilisation’ and, was to be a natural starting point on a new journey that would eventually lead to Iran. Being the biggest landmass in the entire region, nestled right in the middle of Europe and Asia, travel in Turkey would be no easy or rapid feat and I knew that from the onset.
Not one to reside in Turkey resort towns, choosing a relaxing beach break on the West coast wasn’t on my agenda and nor was I simply going to end it at the central stop of Cappadocia. A huge part of what makes up Turkey also lies in the Kurdistan region – which to locals would be referred to as South Turkey, Southern Anatolia or, “why do you want to go there?” – and the mountainous North.
It was the lure of the untouched east and the valleys of the north that kept me in the country for nearly three months, but leaving Turkey was like finally leaving someone you’ve had long-standing emotional issues with.
Travelling in Turkey is like dating a difficult person you can’t help but like. And we all know how hard that scenario is.
Being able to articulate my thoughts after visiting Turkey hasn’t been an easy task. Nothing extreme or life threatening actually happened, instead I was hit by a multitude of cultural setbacks that came in waves.
Catching my breath momentarily, I would then be swept right back into the current that somehow keeps people in the country, before the next onslaught of mixed thoughts began.
Travel to Turkey and How to Solve the Problem of Modernisation
Turkey first lures you with its rich history. From tales of Biblical times, to the arrival of the Romans and the Byzantine Empire, to the dominance and vast growth of the Ottomans, it’s always been a place of takeover, turbulence and great change.
You’ll find it in ruins and churches and opulent mosques. You’ll feel it within the walls of the magnificent structures and wrapped in the bustle of cultural custom. Turkey tourism put these wonders on grand show.
Its more recent power struggle, which saw the formation of a ‘modern republic’ after WW1 under the revolutionary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, marked Turkey out as different from its emerging Arab nation peers. It became a fast modernising and more secular Muslim country.
Turkey became a more conservative and relaxed hub of Islam compared to anywhere else in the Middle East. Because of this Turkey is safe to travel to, and considered the safest in the region.
Yet, my issue as a westerner travelling in Turkey is not about safety (because I never, ever felt that threatened) but about outlook and perception.
The East/West tug of war here is apparent, making the country a mish mash of ideals – where the West coast is coated with a European sheen and where the East shifts to a more conservative society.
Travelling Turkey – The West
I spent a month living in Istanbul – a city that should absolutely be seen. There are beautiful, fun and cultural things to see and do in Istanbul, like the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern underground water system and simple pleasures like crossing the Bosphorus on a ferry to reach the more local and vibrant ‘Asia Side’. A fellow blogger and expat showed me the ropes, the great places to eat breakfast and the cool bars to hang out in at night where obscure bands would play.
Istanbul was a city of discovery and juxtapositions, of Middle Eastern exquisiteness and edgy modernity.
When spending a long time Istanbul you begin to get sucked into its dark and complicated persona.
The political hotbed of unrest chooses this city to rear its ugly head, like the Istanbul May Day riots I got caught up in, the (now annual) Gezi protests or the fight against any form of tragedy, such as the SOMA mining deaths.
Beyond a short spell of travel in Turkey, you’ll soon see the other side to people not getting their way when all you once saw was consistent hospitality the Turks so pride themselves on. Cheeky hassle no longer becomes a joke, the emergence of a political rage becomes a part of your planning and you feel more distant to locals than you did when you first arrived.
“You can’t learn to love Istanbul until you have learnt to hate it,” said my expat friend with honesty. I learnt to hate it, yet I also had to force myself to leave.
Turkey Travel – The South
I headed South to Gallipoli and the ruins of Troy, using Çanakkale as my base. It was a sweet little town, without much to do except wander, shop and eat (as in the case with many Turkish towns). Yet it’s so small that out of the high season of Anzac Day, any foreign woman stands out.
My friend and I were snapped on mobile phones, with stares and giggles and catcalls, and when alone I was followed to my guesthouse in what was a one-hour strategic operation that started when I was eating lunch as a family run café. It was horrifically scary and my guesthouse owner said it was ‘normal’.
Is Turkey safe to travel to? As a solo female? An expat said that being watched and followed was a ‘rite of passage’ most foreign women go through in Turkey. I was left outraged and vulnerable, snapping at any local who chose to follow me around when in my next stops of Selcuk and Ephesus.
In Antalya, a female friend joined me, since when you are in a pair it makes things easier. Hassle becomes more light-hearted, although it still exists, yet we were still faced with local men becoming seemingly angry if we didn’t want to go with them to a club or engage in lengthy conversation.
In the hippy chill-out of Olympus, where we met two young and westernised Turks, it soon turned sour when one realized he wasn’t going to get any sex that night. Aside from that we enjoyed the ruins of Termessos and met plenty of locals who wanted nothing more than to engage in smiles and conversation.
The presence of western women complicates things. The influence of European trends complicates things.
In ‘westernised’ areas of Turkey, local men can avoid parts of age-old custom and tradition that hold them back and formality is easily washed over in the hope that something more will come of it. If it doesn’t, it results in something I call the “Turkish Tantrum”, where the smiles soon turn into a childish fallout.
On the other end of the scale, some western women come here and act inappropriately, even in those small moments like when the ice cream vendor tells you he will drop the price if you give him a kiss.
Progressive secular Turkey is growing, yet it still grates with underlining Islamic traditions.
It’s a vicious cycle that perpetuates a cycle of harassment and accepts bad behaviour, and while not on any level of sexual assault (itself a very serious crime here), it is extremely frustrating and off-putting.
Many of my female friends have since told me they would never return to Turkey without a male companion. For the very first time in all of my travels as an independent, strong-willed and confident female, I felt the same.
But I wasn’t going to give up. Turkey has its good parts.
Travelling in Turkish Kurdistan – The East
Cappadocia was the cure to all previous evils, a hiking haven in a sea of marshmallow hills and fairy chimney valleys. I dubbed it ‘Non-Turkey’ since it was so unlike the Western region. The vibe was relaxed, the people more relaxed in their interaction and the landscape more varied.
I then hopped over to Gaziantep to begin a 10-day stint through the Kurdistan region (with two expats in tow) watching an incredible sunrise from Mount Nemrut, experiencing a homestay in Sanlirufa (Urfa), strolling the narrow streets of Mardin overlooking the plains of Syria, and giving support to the small yet historic town Hasenkayf soon to be flooded for the purpose of a dam before visiting the contested ground of Ani, the former ancient capital of Armenia.
Maybe I felt an affinity to this entire area – it too ousted by a progressive yet skewed Turkey. This region is known for its political clashes with the current government in the call for independence.
Maybe the local people felt an affinity with me (being different and an outsider) and thus more welcoming. In the more conservative arena, I felt more at ease, and I was not expecting that.
Will I Return to Turkey?
Choosing to end the main part of my trip by hiding myself away in a wooden hut in the village of Ayder off the Black Sea coast was a soothing but symbolic end. There’s a quote that states: “Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.”
I guess that’s how I feel about my travels in Turkey. It was a destination I tried to conquer with all my might, reaching its highest points in both elevation and beauty, yet I still found it completely out of reach.
With fond memories, it is not somewhere I would completely give up from, nor shy people away from visiting. Just know that the reality when you visit Turkey might not live up to the sand-coated dreams of a part of the Middle East whose arms are more wide open.
Keep your guard, while you keep an open mind.
Things To Know About Travel to Turkey:
Despite my frustrations with other aspects of life, travelling around Turkey is not difficult given its great transport infrastructure. My main go-to sites were Go Euro and Rome to Rio which would map out the cheapest and quickest flight routes (I planned and booked my entry to Turkey from Germany via this tool). However, I ended up busing around the entire country using local bus operators (apart from an internal flight after a brief trip to Greece)
Every town has a bus ticket office (Metro being the main company) with the majority of tickets being around the 50 Lire ($25) mark. Most tickets offices will organise a transfer to the main bus stations, which takes the hassle out of getting there
My trek in the Kackar mountains was organised through Natura Lodge guesthouse in the Ayder valley region of Northern Turkey. Prices are negotiable depending on numbers of people and the exact route of trekking preferred
My best source of information in more obscure and remote towns was Wikitravel which gave honest accounts and highlighted the best places for solo female travellers
Going to Rome and not making a trip to the Vatican Museum would probably raise just as many eyebrows as telling someone that you didn’t go and check out the Colosseum. But out of all the things on the ‘must do’ list in Rome, I honestly felt a little disappointed and cheated by my Vatican experience.
Except, is visiting the Vatican really worth it?
You can’t help but force yourself to go because it’s famous and it’s set up is intriguing.
It’s all kinds of beautiful in an architectural sense but despite being a seat of religion, I was just expecting to see a lot more than a giant museum. Having said that, if you are fully immersed in artistic accomplishment, then you will, without a doubt, love it here.
Is it Worth Visiting the Vatican Museum in Rome? – Walled City Truths
Preconceptions Before Visiting Vatican City
It probably is a little naïve to think I was going to see a glimpse (however small) of the dark history of the walled city of the Vatican established in 1929 – now classed as the smallest independent state in the world. It’s shrouded in such mystery and intrigue (and that in itself sells) but I still went there wanting to witness something of the grittiness that we hear of about this ambiguous walled enclave. I’m too inquisitive for my own good sometimes.
But when you make your way over to the other side of Rome’s Tiber River you don’t get to view a ‘city’.
Sure, it has a population of over 800 people, employs nearly 2000, has its own postal system, currency, police and the infamous Swiss Guards, but you don’t really get to witness any of that in operation, so it doesn’t really count. It just sounds good.
I made it worse for myself as I walked towards the Vatican City entrance, taking in the tall, imposing, looming walls. The dark and mysterious feeling they generated felt like you were about to walk into something secretive, where you were to be given the privilege to be a little nosy. I loved taking pictures of the wall, it added to a sense of excitement that we were about to start a grand investigative adventure. Sadly not, since your Vatican Museum tickets are not Vatican city tickets. You’ll be ushered into a formulated hallway trail before you know it.
Even without a Vatican Museum tour which could feed you the tiny details for hours of how and when particular artworks were acquired, there is still plenty to see inside. The interior décor of the Vatican is beyond stunning in spectrums of glistening gold, regal reds and the delicate bold paintwork of all the murals. That in itself is a highlight. Neck cranking though it is, you can’t get past the beauty of the floor to ceiling designs and their colourful stories.
The statues, carvings and paintings were monumental, intricate and dazzling, although they came thick and fast in overwhelming quantities. It didn’t help that we had recently come from Florence having strolled through the beauty of the Uffizi and staring admirably at the Adonis that is the Statue of David in the Accademia. But isn’t that all a part of Italy sightseeing?
Always look up when visiting the Vatican Museum. The ceilings tell many stories.
The Bold Truth of a Vatican Museum Visit
In a short amount of time, I began to get annoyed by the entire Vatican set-up.
Corridor after corridor, like a never-ending journey of an extreme cover-up by painting, we were like a herd of cattle wandering from one room to the next and being shoved past groups of crazy tourists on Vatican tours with leaders waving those annoying flags and umbrellas.
The garden, which features the giant golden globe structure is a nice reprieve, as is the less crowded famous spiral staircase in the Vatican.
The famous Vatican Museum Spiral Staircase is an architectural highlight
The only salvation was finally arriving at the Sistine Chapel and later out into St. Peter’s Square to St. Peter’s Basilica, which essentially acts as the endpoint to the crowds where I found Michelangelo’s biblical frescoes quite magnificent. It made the colossal herding feel worth it as it is a spectacular sight.
St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican
While I don’t feel it was time completely wasted, (it is, after all, a UNESCO World Heritage Site), I do feel as though so much of it is off limits that it takes away the edge of being within an independent sovereign state.
That was what I wanted to see just a small part of. Museum buildings and being let outside into a couple of gardens didn’t really feel like a very thorough experience.
To me, the museum is not only a big show off of wealth but it feels like artistic brainwashing for all the underground things that take place there so that when you leave it takes you a couple of hours to think: ‘Oh, what about the religion thing?’
That’s no doubt the point on a visit to the Vatican.
Vatican Museum Tickets and Guided Tours
There are various Vatican Tickets and it is advised to pre-book online and purchase the ‘skip the line’ ticket to avoid the horrendous queues that amass here quickly. I would recommend the escorted option below where you will be amongst the first people through the door and in the Vatican exhibitions.
Vatican City Tickets: General Admission
Skip the Line Tickets to the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel costs €28.
Escorted Skip The Line Tickets to Vatican Museum & Sistine Chapel Ticket costs €35. This ticket gives you access for morning slots (8:00 AM and 8:30 AM) that are not available to those with regular tickets. This also eliminates the intense crowds.
Vatican Tour Tickets
Guided Tour of the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica ticket costs €56.
Guided Tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel ticket costs €39.90.
Vatican Museum Hours
Opening hours of the site both for Vatican guided tours and general entrance are from 9 am until 4 pm.
The Vatican is closed every Sundays.
Vatican Necropolis Tours
The Vatican Scavi Tour visits the Vatican Necropolis below Saint Peter’s Basilica where you can see the Tomb of Saint Peter. The guided tour costs €13 Euros and lasts for 90 minutes. There are a limited number of tickets issued daily to ensure this archaeological site remains protected.
To ski in Austria means being faced with a multitude of options, but skiing in the Gerlitzen Alpe in Carinthia is one to consider for a taster of the trails in the sun-drenched Southern Alps. It’s otherwise dubbed the “sunny side of winter” with around 100 hours more sunshine per year than in areas north of the Alps. It was time to swap alpine sides and give it a try.
In the alpine of the Villach region, the power of the mountains soars over 1900m high where 25 perfectly groomed slopes await. While not as densely snow-drenched as the resorts in the northern Alps, the snow machines add extra coatings to accompany the warm rays.
The mountains in Carinthia are also where they say three cultures meet since you can ski right in the peak pocket where Austria, Italy and Slovenia border one another. A border marked only by nature’s profound ledges that make for some spectacular scenery while skiing.
With 44 kilometres of ski runs that have an audited seal of approval as being suitable for all abilities, it was at the Gerlitzen Alpe where I was able to step up my game. There’s 13 km of blue runs, 28 km of red and 3 km of black to play on.
Skiing in the Gerlitzen Alpe, Austria – The Sunny Side of the Slopes in Carinthia
Gerlitzen Ski – Perfect Practice for All Abilities
Skiing in the Gerlitzen is ideal for beginners who need to be challenged. There was plenty of blue runs to mix both relaxing routes with those slightly more challenging to carve, since as I was crossing the line after a couple of years towards intermediate.
For those who want to really explore the Gerlitzen mountain’s winter offering, one tip that’s put out there is to follow sign for the Stella Ronda which forms a great combination of long downhill runs and ski lifts that enable you to cover most of the entire ski area. Daredevils and off-piste enthusiasts have 15 kilometres of untouched ski runs to take on.
Gerlitzen ski season in Carinthia, Austria
Before long, I was able to criss-cross from blue to red in combination as well as test out some of the mighty long red runs that needed some stamina – those which combined long wide, slopes along with some tucked away corners for panoramic views and a few minutes of rest bite and more gentle red run cruising.
A red run on the Gerlitzen Alpe
How High is the Gerlitzen Mountain?
The Gerlitzen Peak and top cable car station are at 1911m and from here you can ski down to the areas of Kanzelhöle at 1500m and Klösterlebahnen at 1000m – both areas with rest areas, eateries and other amenities with Kanzelhöle being home to a small cluster of accommodations as the ‘middle station’.
Rarely was it over-crowded, which is great for managing your technique and a good sign in the management of tourism here. Early morning runs were not packed with people, and the four and six-seater chair lifts ease the queues so you never feel as if you are hanging around for very long.
Tacking a red run at Carinthia’s Gerlitzen ski area
However, if you are like me and obsessed with the mountains and always feeling that the ski run times end too soon, there is a perfect solution. It is easy to feel as if you have the mountain (almost) all to yourself until the new day of carving powder dawns by staying overnight on top of it.
You not only watch the sun go down from elevated heights after an afternoon spent in the spa and an evening indulging in a multi-course meal, but you get to wake up to a panorama peak view, layered in hues of blue that melt into the sky.
Here, you can keep your head in the alpine clouds after a day spent on the slopes, and then be the very first back out on them after the early morning snow machines have perfected the cover, with more time to enjoy.
Carinthia Ski Time Combined With Urban Exploration
Carinthia is a state surrounded by mountains and full of lakes, so you can expect such nature views from the 360-degree mountaintop vistas – the jagged layers of peaks above and the swaths of water and poking green below in the valley bed.
It’s a different kind of scenery to the more marshmallow pit with a completely white coat you would expect in the northern alpine, yet beautiful none the less.
Such mix of nature and warmer weather also means being able to combine ski time with urban exploration down in historical Villach, Carinthia’s second largest city, with many staying in the village and around the lake and making their daily commute up the snowy mountain.
This area is also known for its natural hot springs, with the KärtenTherme Water Park and spa in Warmbad-Villach attracting those wanting to revive aching muscles in nature’s thermal spring pools. It’s what locals have been doing for hundreds of years.
Skiing in Carinthia is certainly one to tick off the list, flipping the usual northern alpine for an alternative vista on the sunny side.
The question now is: where to ski in Austria next?
Things to Know About Skiing the Gerlitzen Alpe, AustriaGerlitzen Ski Pass, Season Times and Costs
The ski season runs from end of November/beginning of December to the end of March.
Private ski lesson costs start from €50 for one person for one hour. Full ski equipment rental costs start from €30 per day. A five-day group course costs €149. The Gerlitzen ski and snowboard school has further information and price guides online.
There are 13 chalet restaurants and ski bars at the Gerlitzen resort area, each with its own atmosphere and menu ranging from traditional Austrian dishes and international specialities. When staying at the Alpinhotel Pacheiner you can enjoy a six-course meal every evening.
If you have a Gerlitzen lift pass you can use it get a 20% discount at KärtenTherme water park after 5 pm.
More winter activities in Villach region, Carinthia
The second ski area nearby, Dreiländereck is a smaller area in the southernmost Karawanken Range that is perfect for families and recreational skiers with 17 kilometres of runs, a three-seater chair lift and seven T-bars. The ski runs sit between 680-1,600m.
A ski-jumping centre can be found in Villach’s Alpen Arena with a 15, 30, 60 and 90-metre jump for those wanting to train as flying heroes. This area also has a Nordic ski centre complete with a 5km cross-country ski trail.
Those wanting a break from ski yet who still want to enjoy the peak pleasures can go snowshoeing with guides and rangers in Gerlitzen Alpe, Dreiländereck and Dobratsch nature park, Carinthia’s oldest nature park. Those wanting to up the ante can also go ski touring in the same areas.
For those wanting to indulge more in après-ski spa time, check out nearby Bad Bleiberg – a former mining town turned spa resort built upon a valley of thermal springs.
Get the Winter Kärnten Card – Extra Adventure
New to the Carinthia tourism offering, the Winter Kärnten Card was released for the first time during the 2018/2019 season. Whether you want to relax in a spa, going on a guided winter hike, take a scenic round-trip on a cable car, enjoy the water park or climb the observation tower, the Kärnten Card provides free activities or discounts for all manner of adventures aside from skiing.
It costs €59 for adults, €32 for children and €55 for seniors for unlimited use during the season, and you can purchase online and numerous tourism and sales office throughout Carinthia.
There are also combo ski and thermal spa ticket passes available from four days or more if this is more of your dual activity focus.
This trip was sponsored by the Austrian Tourism Office and Kärnten Tourism. In my two years of lessons, I finally managed this time to get on the red runs – reaching my personal goal I set on my Year in Austria project. It’s also a pride thing living in Austria too. All opinions remain my own.
Girona, Spain not only turns the resort reputation of Costa Brava on its head but shows how there’s more to Catalonia’s independent streak and unique customs than its brimming capital of Barcelona. Only 90 minutes away, the old city of Girona has a deep-rooted historical charm and culture dating back more than 2,000 years. And it’s just as deserving of attention.
This guide will show you the cultural things to do in Girona to dig deeper into how the city is a preserved pocket of history that is also a gateway to the surrounding region of Gironés, which unearths the beautiful patchwork of the countryside and villages of northeastern Spain.
What to Do in Girona, Spain: The Historical Time Capsule of Costa Brava
Things to Do in Girona – The Walkable, Historical City
Even if you are day tripping or just squeezing in an over-night stay, Girona is compact enough to navigate and get your fix of ‘preserved city’ feels. I spent two days in the city taking in its scenic and culinary highlights, before exploring the green that surrounds it.
Girona is easily explored by foot and the Barri Vell (Old Quarter) – also known as the Golden Triangle – is the best place to start your journey through time.
Take a walking tour in Girona and the Golden Triangle area
Catalonia flags in Girona city, Spain
Girona is well-known for its medieval history, being one of the many medieval towns and cities in Costa Brava. However, it also has a rich Roman past. The Força Vella Fortress was built by the Romans in the first century BC, which was very well protected by a defensive rampart. It remained unchanged until the year 1,000, and today you can still see parts of the walled fortress.
The Força Vella Fortress in Girona, built by the Romans
The other fortified enclosure is the Medieval Quarter, which was an extension of the existing Roman walls in the 14th and 15th centuries. With newer ramparts constructed, you can also see sections of these as you get the opportunity to wander the along the city’s walled walkways.
Explore the Medieval Quarter in Girona, Spain
At the heart of the Força Vella is the Cathedral. Built between the 11th and 18th centuries, this place of worship is a unique place to view a variety of different artistic styles.
The impressive facade of the Força Vella Cathedral in Girona
From the Romanesque tower and cloister to the baroque façade and steps, the cathedral is a worthy visit to journey through the ages. Take note of the gothic nave built between the 15th and 16th centuries, the widest of its kind in the world at 23 metres.
While you are in the Força Vella, a labyrinth of narrow streets will highlight your arrival in the Jewish Quarter. These lanes and alleys were home to Jews from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Still maintaining much of its medieval atmosphere, it is one of the best-preserved Jewish Quarters in the world and signifies the importance of the culture in Girona.
Get lost in the narrow streets of Girona’s Jewish Quarter
As you wander these beautifully preserved streets, take the Cúndaro or Sant Llorenç streets to enjoy views from above. Staircases will lead you to the highest part of the city to enjoy the old city panoramas.
Planning what to do in Girona will mainly revolve around wandering within the lanes and layers of its history. Another picturesque spot is to stand within the curved architecture of Arab Baths, built by Christians in 1194. Modelled on the stylish Islamic baths at the time, a siege almost 90 years later significantly damaged the baths, which were eventually restored to their former glory in 1294.
The delicate architecture of the Arab baths in Girona
During the 15th century, the baths were sold off privately and in 1617, nuns transformed it into a pantry, kitchen and laundry. It was only in 1929 when the baths were purchased under public management and renovated, that the public was once again able to enjoy its historical surroundings.
The most stunning elements include the entrance, once used as a changing room and relaxation area and the cupola over the central pool which is supported by ornately decorated columns. It’s good to visit in the afternoon for some welcome shade from the Catalonian sun.
Over time the city extended towards the river and a stroll across the water will transport you to the contemporary side of the capital. Girona’s well-photographed brightly painted houses hug the River Onyar, both sides of which are accessible by its 11 bridges.
The popular photographic spot in Girona, of the colourful buildings on the River Onyar
However, the Peixateries Velles Bridge steals the limelight. The Eiffel Company built the red iron bridge in 1827, and it will be easy to see the resemblance when you stop to admire those picture postcard views.
Food in Girona – World-class Cuisine
While there are plenty of things to do in Girona that involve wandering the historical sights, there are plenty of places to stop to refuel. Girona is known for its world-class cuisine.
To truly unearth the culture behind Spanish cuisine, we spent an afternoon at the Girona Culinary School, or Escola d’Hostaliera de Girona. Held within Girona’s indoor market ‘el Lleó’, chefs cooked up a range of signature tapas dishes using fresh local produce.
Our tapas lunch included grilled vegetables (escalivada), a delicious salted cod salad (esqueixada), sweet sausage with apple, as well as a variety of seafood, which we paired with local wines. A proper foodie’s delight, the culinary experience finishes up with dessert, including traditional curd with strawberries.
Of course, we made room for some ice cream – the very famous Girona ice cream which you will find at Rocambolesc. This sweet-toothed outlet is owned by the Roca brothers who produce the finest iced flavours you will ever experience, and that’s coming from a huge ultimate ice-cream enthusiast.
A rainbow of colours and flavours, with toppings to match, and you might find yourself having a second round.
The brothers are well-known Michelin chefs as part of their restaurant El Celler de Can Roca, which was voted the best in the world in 2015. Needless to say, a divine experience awaits at both.
Girona Tradition – The ‘Catalan Towers’ or ‘Human Towers’
Another notable visit and a true Catalan icon are the Human Towers. A long-standing tradition from the 1700s, the towers are often performed as part of Spanish celebrations, festivities and competitions. Requiring lots of training with many generations taking part in the custom.
In Girona there are more than three formations that are performed, so try to time your visit for this fascinating sight in the city. I was lucky enough to learn how it’s done at the Marrecs De Sel, taking part in a training session to see how everyone works together and plans out these spectacular formations. It’s a skill you cannot master in a few hours alone, but one that gives you a high as you join the ranks on the ground in helping to balance the tower.
Explore Gironas Country – The Wider Landscape From the City
There may be plenty of things to see in Girona city, but its surrounding coat of nature is just as much a historical treasure hunt, combined with adventure.
To break out of the city and explore what the countryside has to offer, Gironés country has lots of offer in its 5000 years of settlement. It’s where the inland countryside plains and villages meet the sea and the mountains. The most popular areas include the Costa Brava and its secluded beaches (30 minutes away) or the Albera mountain range and the Girona Pyrenees at the foot of the mountains.
Rent a bike to discover the green fields between the Pyrenees and Costa Brava, following the route of a disused railway line. If you plan on a walking trail, the Santiago route reveals the unique characters of the outlying villages of Aiguaviva, Bordilis, Madremanya, Sant Marti Vell and Llagostera.
I took to a Segway instead, for a speedy thrill in Sant Julià de Ramis. We booked with Livetour Segway, and toured along the River Ter before trekking up Sant Julià Mountain. In addition to the spectacular panoramas, the area conceals the remains of the Iberian Castle – ‘Castellum Fractum’ – also known as Broken Castle and the mountain’s natural caves are believed to be the mythical home of fairies. Both are great vantage points to the wide views of the country and out towards the Costa Brava coastline.
While exploring the countryside, we stopped for a picnic, provided by the culinary experts at Local Market in Girona old town, whose ethos is to experience gastronomy, landscape and culture all at once. Our sumptuous lunch of local foods included fresh breads, cheeses, seasonal vegetables and artisan sausages, which we washed down with a locally crafted beer from Sarrià de Ter and Wine from D.O. Empordà.
To truly get to the heart of Gironés nature, a water trek in the village of Canet d’Adr with Aventura Girona gets you there. Trekking along the river, before exploring the forest paths of Canet Creek and its volcanic landscapes, we splashed, swam and took giant leaps along the water pathways, mostly in a fit of giggles as we..
The concept of staying in a capsule hotel is one of the many eccentric things synonymous with Japan – and therefore I had to try it. Breaking up my stay at the traditional Ryokan in Tokyo, I spent my second night in the city curled up in my ‘box’ at the Hotel Asakusa & Capsule and using it for one of the reasons it is normally used for – after a big night out on the town.
What is a Capsule Hotel?
A capsule hotel in Japan has many floors of long rooms, which stack together a multitude of these small, boxed, rectangular spaces side by side and two units high. Most contain a simple mattress, TV, and a lockable storage box. Their intended purpose is to provide a quick, cheap and basic accommodation option; the majority of users being those who have missed the last train or who are either too drunk to make it home or too embarrassed to admit it to their other half!
I checked into my capsule hotel in the early evening and a German expat, who later admitted to me that she had been living in the hotel long-term, explained to me how to use it. I spent more time wondering why she would do such a thing – whilst it’s a fun experience, it isn’t exactly ‘homely’. It just serves a purpose.
Capsule Hotel Etiquette
First, I had to take off my shoes, choose a locker and exchange my footwear for some Japanese style slippers.
Then I was handed my key, my door password and off I went to find my ‘room’ for the night out of the hundreds of capsules there. It was a simple enough procedure to find my capsule though since there was only one floor designated for female guests – the majority of visitors to these hotels mostly being men.
Overall Impressions of a Capsule?
At first glance the room looked rather intimidating and bland; on the other hand it appeared rather inviting, in a mysterious ‘futuristic’ kind of way. Except mine didn’t have a plastic door like a space cabin, just a material sliding shutter. Whilst my prior assumptions of a capsule summoned up thoughts of a space-age style cabin complete with mod cons and a button that would transport you to the future, it didn’t materialise. Interior design and entertainment is not the priority in these types of hotels.
A yukata (robe) was provided, except I didn’t need that when I rocked in at 3am, and passed out in my clothes.
The night started with watching the fireworks on the rooftop of the hotel – an annual event in Tokyo to mark the start of summer – and then it rained so we moved the small gathering inside the hotel communal area, which is basically a room full of tables, chairs and vending machines. The evening with my new local friends turned from a late night noodle supper into a full-on clubbing session in the well-known Shibuya based club, Womb.
The result was an expensive taxi ride home, a slightly heavy head and me using a capsule hotel just how some of the locals do – for a few short hours.
Still, it was comfortable and spacious, clean and cosy and not at all as claustrophobic as I thought it would be. Besides, as a quick fix accommodation option, you can’t expect luxury.
Whether you check in for a restful night or just a few hours, a stay in a capsule hotel is a true Japanese experience – quirky, different and something you don’t get to try at home. It’s amazing how much you can look at four small walls and still find them fascinating.
Many thanks to Hotel Asakusa & Capsule for allowing me to be their guest for the evening. All opinions, as always, remain my own.