Never Ending Voyage By Simon Fairbairn & Erin McNeaney
Erin and Simon have been on the road for quite some time, living the digital nomad life and seeing the world. Check out their site for general travel info, suggestions for gear and some of their travel apps that can help you keep on track.
One of the complicated things about being a digital nomad who earns in multiple currencies is how to get paid. Both PayPal and our UK bank account charge high fees to receive money in a foreign currency and convert it into British pounds.
The situation for getting paid by the Amazon US affiliate program was even worse as they would only pay us by cheque in dollars. As we don’t have a fixed address, this meant we had to get the cheque sent to Simon’s mum who very kindly took it to the bank, dealt with all the paperwork for depositing a foreign cheque, and we paid high fees for this slow and annoying process.
Thankfully Transferwise Borderless came along and solved all our foreign payment problems.
What is Transferwise Borderless?
Transferwise is a company that has been around for years offering low-cost overseas bank transfers. Their fees are way lower than the banks, they always use the mid-market exchange rate, and the process is quick and simple.
Transferwise international transfer fees for converting £1000 to euros compared to other UK banks
The Transferwise Borderless account was launched in 2017 to allow people to hold bank accounts in multiple currencies. With our Borderless account we are given bank details for British, US, European and Australian bank accounts which means we can receive money into them in the local currency (dollars or euros etc.) with no charge.
This saves us a fortune on bank fees and means we no longer have to deal with annoying Amazon cheques as we can get paid straight into our US bank account. We have now switched most of our income from foreign sources to Transferwise and get paid in a mix of US dollars, Euros, and Australian dollars.
You can have bank details in the UK, US, Europe, and Australia (more countries coming soon) and also hold and convert 40+ other currencies and send money to 50+ countries.
Who Can Get a Transferwise Borderless Account?
Most nationalities can open a Borderless account but there are a few exclusions—see the list here.
What Does it Cost?
Transferwise Borderless account costs
It costs nothing to set up an account or receive money into our bank accounts from the same currency. But then how do we get it out? We have a few options:
1) Use the Transferwise Borderless Debit Card to make an online transaction in the same currency (i.e. pay our hosting bill in dollars from our US account) for free.
2) Withdraw cash with the Transferwise Borderless Debit Card in the same currency (i.e. euros when we’re in Europe). This is free for up to £200 a month then 2% after that.
3) Send the money to a bank account in the same currency. For example, we pay our Pinterest manager by bank transfer in dollars from our US account. There are set fees for transferring money to a bank of the same currency. This depends on the currency—for the US dollar it costs $1.30, for British pounds it’s 50p, and for Euros it’s €0.60.
4) Convert money from one currency to your home currency and transfer it to your home bank account. If we don’t have anything we need to use our foreign balances for, we convert it to pounds and withdraw it to our UK bank account.
Transferwise always uses the current mid-market rate for foreign exchanges (unlike our bank and PayPal) and then charges a small fee depending on the currency. For example to transfer USD to GBP costs 0.6% and EUR to GBP cost 0.5%. Once the pounds are in the GBP section of our Borderless account, we can spend it in pounds on our debit card for free or withdraw to our UK bank account for 50p.
The cost of converting US$200 from my US balance to my GBP balance. Transferwise is always transparent about their fees and exchange rate.
If this sounds complicated, it’s really not. Transferwise is very simple to use. It takes seconds to transfer money between currencies and withdraw to bank accounts (once you’ve added the bank details). They are always transparent about the fees and will tell you the charge before you make the transfer.
The Transferwise Borderless Debit Mastercard is new in 2018 and we love it! Transferwise’s international transfer fees are way lower than banks, but the card allows us to avoid even these low fees by spending money in the same currency we received it.
Unfortunately, the Borderless card is currently only available to European customers.
So far we’ve used the card in France and Italy to spend money from our Euros account either by withdrawing cash or as a card transaction in a restaurant or shop. We’ve had no problems with it and love that the Transferwise app sends you a notification about what you just spent (great for security).
We’ve avoided fees by only withdrawing up to £200 in cash a month. After this Transferwise charges 2%. Although this is a lot lower than most bank accounts (Lloyds charge 2.99% plus £1.99 per withdrawal), we can get fee-free cash withdrawals with our Halifax Clarity credit card (as long as we pay it off straight away to avoid interest), so we’d rather do that.
We have also switched all of our monthly USD direct debits to come out of our USD account using the Borderless debit card to further reduce exchange fees.
You can use the debit card to spend money in any currency, even if you don’t have a balance in it. Transferwise will take it out of your balance that has the lowest exchange fee, which can range from 0.35–2%.
Sending Money from PayPal to Transferwise
Our ad network only makes payments in US dollars to PayPal. To then convert the dollars to pounds in order to withdraw them to my bank account is really expensive as PayPal gives a terrible exchange rate.
If you have a UK PayPal account it looks like you can only add a UK bank account to withdraw money to. But I discovered that it is possible to link a US bank account by calling them.
Go to the contact page within your PayPal account, click call us and you’ll get a freephone number to call (which works on Skype too) and a code to give them. It was quite a simple process—I spent a few minutes on hold, answered some security questions, then gave them the ACH routing number and account number of my Transferwise US bank account. It was added instantly and shows up on PayPal as the Community Federal Savings Bank.
It takes up to two working days to transfer money from PayPal to my US account, but it costs nothing and once it’s in my Borderless account I can benefit from Transferwise’s much lower fees.
Note that this might not work if you don’t have a UK PayPal account—people from other countries like Canada have said that PayPal won’t link their US account.
How Do You Set Up A Transferwise Borderless Account?
Setting up a Transferwise Borderless Account is quick and simple. You enter your details (including a phone number to get a security code sent to) and upload a photo of your ID (passport or driving license). It said it could take up to five working days to verify my identity but it worked instantly for me.
I then logged into my account and activated my USD, EUR, GBP, and AUD accounts with one click and could see the local bank details for each of them.
My Transferwise Borderless account showing my balances in pounds, dollars, Euros, and Australian dollars.
You can see the balances of each of these accounts in one page. If you click on USD it will show you your balance and bank details and you can click on the buttons to “Send USD”, “Add USD” or “Convert USD”. These processes take just seconds.
You can request a debit card from the Debit card page of your Borderless account.
To log in to your account securely you can either add a phone number and they will send you a security code by message or voice call when you log in or set up 2-step log-in on the Transferwise app. I recommend the app as it’s easier and you don’t have to worry if you change your phone number.
When we first used Transferwise we did end up changing our phone number (as we moved countries and changed SIMs) and couldn’t log in. I had to call Transferwise but they were very helpful and sorted it out quickly.
Is Transferwise Safe?
Transferwise is regulated by the FCA. It uses trusted low-risk local banks to store your money—for example in the UK it uses Barclays. If Transferwise became insolvent your money would be unaffected and will be refunded within 10 working days.
However, Transferwise isn’t as secure as a normal bank because your money is not guaranteed by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS). If the bank where Transferwise stores your money (i.e. Barclays in the UK) were to become insolvent then you aren’t guaranteed the return of your funds (usually you’d get up to £85,000 back).
Because of this I don’t recommend storing huge amounts of money for a long time in your Transferwise Borderless account. I feel confident keeping small amounts in it for a month or two, as it’s extremely unlikely that the banks they use would become insolvent. It won’t replace your existing bank account but can be used alongside it.
The Transferwise Borderless account has solved a major problem for digital nomads and freelancers like us who earn money in different currencies. It has saved us a huge amount in exchange fees and means we no longer have to deal with antiquated cheques.
If you get paid in multiple currencies I definitely recommend giving it a try—you can sign up here.
Transferwise is also useful for anyone who transfers money from one currency to another—their fees are lower and more transparent than banks and it’s easy to use. You don’t need to sign up for Borderless to make a transfer. If you sign up here, you’ll get a free international transfer of up to £500.
Sometimes a cosy fleece just doesn’t cut it. We’re spending three months in fashion-conscious Italy this spring and summer, so Simon has upgraded his look with the Bluffworks Blazer, a wrinkle-free and machine washable men’s travel blazer.
Bluffworks was founded by Stefan Loble who is committed to making clothing that both looks great and can be worn for multiple days everywhere from the office to the mountains without needing special care. Their clothes are perfect for travel.
Simon is a huge fan of Bluffworks trousers and has been travelling with them for five years. They look way better than most travel trousers yet share the same technical features.
However, he was a little resistant to trying the Bluffworks Gramercy Blazer when they first offered to send him one for review. His style is usually more casual, and he doesn’t have much need for a blazer when we’re in the steamy tropics. But for Europe, he decided it would be good to have a more stylish look.
Well, it didn’t take long to convince him. He was immediately impressed with the blazer and it has been perfect for sipping prosecco in the piazzas of Italy.
So what’s so special about the Bluffworks Blazer?
Bluffworks Blazer Features
Simon wearing the Bluffworks Blazer in Paris
Bluffworks have created their dream blazer that combines impressive technical features with the look and feel of wool.
Wrinkle-free travel blazer
The wrinkle-resistance is what sets the Gramercy Blazer apart from other blazers. It doesn’t need to be kept on a hanger or packed in a special garment bag. You can dump it in a pile on the floor or stuff it inside your backpack and it still looks great.
Suit bags might be OK for business travellers, but for long-term travellers with just a carry-on bag like us, they are not at all practical. The Bluffworks Blazer opens up the possibility of travelling with a blazer to many more travellers as it’s so low maintenance and easy to pack.
Sometimes Simon wears the blazer on travel days (it fits under his packable down jacket for chilly days), but it also packs well inside his Tortuga Setout backpack. He just folds it and lies it flat on top of everything else or uses it to wrap up his Nintendo Switch. (Yes, he travels with a game console. Yes, I hold out hope this is temporary). I’ve read reviews that say they pack their blazer in a compression packing cube and it still emerges without a wrinkle.
The blazer with a black t-shirt and jeans in a cafe in Lecce
It’s unbelievable that the blazer is made from 100% polyester. It’s such a lovely soft fabric that feels luxurious and looks classy. Finally, at 37, Simon can take himself seriously.
The blazer is very comfortable, even on six-hour train rides or seven hour walks around Paris. It has enough stretch that it doesn’t feel confining and is made from a breathable fabric so you don’t overheat.
The Gramercy Blazer has an incredible number of hidden pockets. One of the things we love most about Bluffworks is how they always include zipped security pockets where you can keep your phone and wallet. It’s pockets like these that saved Simon losing his phone when he was pickpocketed in Costa Rica.
The blazer has 10 pockets, some of which are so hidden he didn’t discover them for weeks! There are three pockets with flaps on the front, two pockets on each side of the inside (one zipped and one buttoned), a pen pocket on the inside, a hidden velcro pocket inside the left hip inside pocket, and a large zipped pocket in the lining of the back.
Whatever you want to squirrel away in the jacket, you can be sure there’s a pocket for it. A travel jacket with hidden pockets is especially helpful when trying to reduce the weight of your carry-on when flying on airlines with strict weight limits—you can even fit an iPad mini in the inside pocket.
Machine-Washable and Quick Drying
There’s no way we’re going to dry clean anything while we’re traveling, so the best travel blazer doesn’t need special care. Impressively Bluffworks has created a machine washable blazer (they recommend 40ºC) that can either be hung dry or tumble dried on low. As it’s made from polyester it will dry quickly.
We haven’t washed the blazer yet as despite over a month of wear, it just doesn’t need it. It looks as immaculate as when it arrived and doesn’t smell at all. We’ll report back when we do wash it.
The jacket is made from high-quality materials (including never fall off MMS thread-wrapped buttons), and if it’s anything like Bluffworks’ trousers, then we expect it to last for many years.
This men’s travel blazer is very versatile. Simon has the Northwest Grey colour and has worn it in three countries for a funeral, birthday party, Paris sightseeing, Italian dinners, and climbing medieval towers. It’s even comfortable enough for hiking or cycling.
The jacket can be dressed up or down—he has worn it with a t-shirt and black jeans, with his brown Bluffworks original pants and dress shirt (see below), and with a white shirt and black tie (for the funeral). It’s an easy way to make any outfit look good.
Simon in Bologna wearing the Bluffworks blazer with the Bluffworks shirt and black jeans
Simon in Modena wearing the Bluffworks blazer with a t-shirt and Bluffworks original pants
As we travel carry-on only weight is a major concern for us. I thought carrying a blazer might be impractical, but it’s surprisingly lightweight for a jacket at 1lb 6 oz (624g). And if you wear it on travel days (it’s never a bad idea to look well-dressed at immigration), it won’t add any weight.
Range of Colors and Sizes
The navy version of the blazer
The Gramercy Blazer is available in the following specs:
Colours: Blue Hour (navy), Gotham Grey (dark grey), and Northwest Grey (mid-grey).
Fits: Classic and Slim
Chest: 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 46, 48
Lengths: Regular and Long
Simon got the 40R slim and I think it’s the perfect fit but, if he’s being particularly fussy, he thinks the sleeves are a quarter of an inch too long. He could get it tailored if it really bothered him.
US shipping and exchanges are free. You can get a refund on unworn items within 30 days or exchange unworn items within 90 days.
The customer service team are very responsive so do reach out to them if you’re not sure about sizing or anything else.
Bluffworks Blazer Downsides
It’s difficult to find much to fault with this jacket.
It’s expensive – At $295 it’s not cheap, but for the quality and technical performance it’s good value. As always we value quality over quantity and this is the only blazer you’ll need.
No women’s version – I could hardly wear my fleece next to Simon looking all elegant, so I had to pick up my own blazer. But Bluffworks currently only makes a men’s travel blazer, so I have to make do with a vastly inferior one from a charity shop.
If you are looking for a practical yet smart dress shirt to go with your blazer, the Bluffworks Meridian shirt is ideal. Simon always travels with one long sleeved buttoned shirt, but the last one he had was always a mess once he unpacked it, and we rarely have access to an iron (or can be bothered to use it).
His new Meridian shirt is so much more practical. It’s perfect for travel because it has all the usual brilliant Bluffworks features:
Wrinkle-free – No iron needed!
Soft and comfortable and a bit stretchy
Lightweight, breathable fabric
Anti-microbial and odour resistant – Simon has worn it for days without it smelling.
Are there any downsides?
Limited designs – It’s only available in three checked patterns (Simon has the deep blue mini check).
It’s pricey at $125 – But, again, as it’s the only shirt Simon needs, it’s worth it.
Despite not usually being a checked shirt fan, there’s no way Simon is going back to a regular shirt—the Meridian is really that good.
Simon in Paris in the Bluffworks blazer, shirt and pants
Did we mention we’re a big fan of Bluffworks?
Simon has been travelling with Bluffworks original pants for five years (for most of last year they were his only pair of trousers)—see our Bluffworks pants review. They are lightweight, quick-drying, wrinkle-free, and have hidden zipped pockets for security.
The originals pair perfectly with the blazer when he wants a more dressed up look.
For something more casual, you might consider the Bluffworks chinos. If you want to really dress up, you can pair the Gramercy pants with the same colour blazer for the perfect travel suit.
Throw the blazer over a t-shirt and look good for Italian dinners
Yes, absolutely. There’s no need to coddle the Gramercy like with other blazers—wear it on a plane for 20 hours or shove it in your luggage and it will come out wrinkle-free and ready to wear. It looks stylish and feels comfortable, and the pockets are perfect for keeping your valuables safe.
The Bluffworks Gramercy blazer isn’t going to work for every traveller—if you are beach hopping around Thailand it won’t be very useful—but if you travel for business or just want to upgrade your look for stylish cities, I can’t imagine a better travel blazer.
Bologna is one of the most underrated cities in Italy. Despite its beautiful historic centre, rich food culture, and lively yet relaxed atmosphere, it’s often overlooked by tourists on the usual Venice-Florence-Rome route.
This is a shame as there are so many things to do in Bologna from climbing medieval towers to fun food tours, and it makes a great base for exploring other attractions in the region. We spent a week there in April and loved the mix of elegance and grittiness and, of course, all that delicious fresh pasta.
Our detailed Bologna travel guide shares our top tips for what to do and see, where to eat and stay, the best day trips, and how to get there.
Where is Bologna?
Bologna is the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. It’s located between Florence (to the south) and Venice (to the north).
What is Bologna Known For?
Bologna’s terracotta roofs gave it the nickname “The Red”.
Bologna has three nicknames which reflect what it is best known for.
La Dotta (The Learned)
Bologna University, founded in 1088, is the oldest university in the western world and students came from all over the world to study there. There is still a large student population which adds to the city’s vibrant atmosphere, especially at aperitivo time.
La Grassa (The Fat)
For many people coming to Bologna is a culinary pilgrimage. The Emilia-Romagna region is where many of Italy’s top products come from—balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, Parma ham, and mortadella. The food here is rich and decadent and the food markets are superb. I share our favorite foodie experiences and restaurants below.
La Rossa (The Red)
Originally “The Red” nickname referred to the terracotta tiled roofs of the city, which are best seen from the top of Asinelli Tower. In later years it also alluded to the city’s leftist political leanings, especially during and after WW2 when it was a stronghold of the resistance against Nazism.
One of Bologna’s many porticos
The other unusual thing about Bologna is the high number of porticos that extend from almost every building. These attractive arches were originally built from wood in the late Middle Ages to create extra living space and now have the advantage of offering protection from the rain and sun as you walk around the city.
Bologna is home to the longest portico in the world at nearly 4km. It starts just outside the city walls and extends up the hill to Santuario di Madonna di San Luca.
Foodie Things to Do in Bologna
1) Take a Bologna Food Tour
Food is so important in Bologna that it’s worth taking a food tour at the beginning of your trip to learn more about the food culture. It’ll help you make the most of the rest of your stay.
We did the four hour Classic Bologna tour with Sara of Taste Bologna. We started at the city’s best coffee shop sampling unusual flavours like Caffè allo Zabaione which was like a dessert in a mini cup and even I, a non coffee drinker, enjoyed it.
We continued our tour around the markets and food shops, sampling olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar (and discovering what real balsamic tastes like) and learning about the best local products.
Sara showing us around the Quadrilatero market area
A highlight was a stop at a fresh pasta stop where we watched the ladies making tortellini (stuffed pasta parcels) incredibly fast and even tried rolling one ourselves (not as easy as it looks!).
Lunch was a picnic feast of all the products we’d picked up at one of the oldest bars in the world. We enjoyed our food with a glass of the local sparkling Pignoletto on a big wooden table under photos of the famous clientele who’d visited in the previous decades. Of course, our final stop was for some amazing gelato.
Bologna is a very meaty city, but as vegetarians we really enjoyed the tour and had plenty to eat. It was helpful to learn from Sara which products (like tigelle or even some focaccia) are made with lard which is commonly used here.
Half a day spent eating your way around an Italian city is never going to be a bad experience. Not only did we get to try some local products but we also learnt more about the city and its delicious food.
2) Go Food Shopping in the Quadrilatero
The Quadrilatero is one of the most atmospheric areas of the city. This cluster of narrow streets off the main square has been Bologna’s market since the Middle Ages and is still full of delis and stalls selling giant wheels of parmesan, legs of ham, and pristine piles of fruit and vegetables.
Via Pescherie Vecchie is one of the cutest streets with terracotta and yellow buildings, old signs and ornate street lamps, and restaurant tables spilling onto the pavement. The shops used to sell fish from the canals, but now you’re more likely to find chunks of cheese and fresh pasta.
3) Eat Your Way Around the Mercato Delle Erbe
Delicious Basilicata strawberries in April at the Mercato Delle Erbe
While the Quadrilatero is a good place to pick up cheese and cured meats, for fresh produce I preferred the Bologna food market, Mercato Delle Erbe. The fruit and vegetables here are beautiful and most of it comes from Italy. I was excited that strawberries from the Basilicata region were already in season.
There’s also an upmarket food court where you can snack on sandwiches, piadina, slices of pizza, or even have a whole meal.
4) Enjoy an Aperitivo
The tradition of aperitivo—a pre-dinner drink with snacks—is strong in Bologna. Just wander the streets from around 6pm and you’ll find plenty of bars offering everything from peanuts and crisps to buffets that are enough for a meal. Sometimes the food is included in the price and sometimes you’ll pay €8 or €10 for a drink and buffet.
The Mercato delle Erbe and the bars opposite are a good place for aperitivo in Bologna. We also liked Marsalino which from 6–9pm provides pizza toasts and crisps with your drink.
5) Try Local Specialities
Spaghetti Bolognese is not actually an Italian dish. Instead locals eat tagliatelle al ragù, thick strips of fresh egg pasta with a meat sauce. Another classic local dish is tortellini, meat-stuffed pasta dumplings typically served in broth.
Vegetarians should look for tortelloni (with an o rather than an i) which are larger pasta parcels stuffed with ricotta and herbs. Make sure you get them with a sage and butter sauce as they can also be served with ragù.
Tortelloni stuffed with ricotta and herbs in a sage and butter sauce at Oltre
For a cheap quick meal, try a piadina, a flat bread sandwich with an array of fillings to choose from. The dough is usually made from lard but a few places offer a version with olive oil instead—see my recommendations below.
The wine is also excellent. Try Pignoletto, a sparkling white like a fruitier Prosecco, or a red Sangiovese. We also enjoyed the sparkling red Lambrusco from nearby Modena.
And don’t miss the gelato—it’s so good here!
See the Restaurant section below for tips on the best places to eat in Bologna.
Historic Things to Do in Bologna
6) Climb Asinelli Tower
The view from Asinelli Tower
I love climbing Italian towers! Bologna’s beautiful terracotta tiled roofs are best admired from above, so make your way up the 498 steps of the medieval Asinelli Tower. From the top you can enjoy stunning 360º views of the smaller Garisenda tower, which leans precariously next to it, Piazza Maggiore, and the hills surrounding the city.
You must book your ticket in advance (€5, we booked on the Due Torri website about three hours beforehand) and I recommend going early as it gets very crowded.
7) Stroll through Piazza Maggiore
Piazza Maggiore is the main square and one of the top Bologna attractions. Here you’ll find the Basilica di San Petronio, which was started in 1390 and is oddly unfinished—the bottom section ornate marble and the top stark brick.
Depending on the story this is either because the church ran out of money or the pope stopped construction as he didn’t like the idea of the plans for a cathedral bigger than Rome’s St Peter’s.
On the other sides of the square are grand palaces including Palazzo d’Accursio which was once the Town Hall.
8) See the Neptune Fountain
The Neptune Fountain with Basilica di San Petronio in the background
Next to Piazza Maggiore is the 16th-century Neptune Fountain built by Flemish sculptor Giambologna. It is so beautiful that many cities across Europe copied it.
Despite representing a pagan god, the pope approved of the statue because Neptune is the god of water. There used to be a port and canals in Bologna and water meant power and riches—it was an extremely rich city (and is still one of the wealthiest in Italy).
9) Visit the Seven Churches of Santo Stefano
My favorite piazza in Bologna is Piazza Santo Stefano where beautiful porticos on both sides lead to a few outdoor bars and a complex of seven churches (well, only four remain). Entry is by donation and it’s worth a wander around the maze of interconnecting buildings and peaceful courtyards.
10) Visit the Archiginnasio and Teatro Anatomico
The Teatro Anatomico
The Archiginnasio was once the main building of the University of Bologna and dates back to the 16th century. Here you can visit the Teatro Anatomico (€3), an ornate anatomical theatre built in 1636 entirely from wood and decorated with statues.
Lectures were once given here with a cadaver laid out on the marble slab for dissection in the centre of the room. There’s a spy hole in the wall where the church kept tabs on classes making sure that nothing too progressive was being taught.
My favourite part of the Archiginnasio building is the gorgeous portico in the entrance courtyard with frescoes on the ceiling.
The gorgeous courtyard of the Archiginasio
11) Discover the Hidden Canals
Head north of the Two Towers and you’ll find the small remaining section of Bologna’s once extensive canals. Look out for the Finestrella di Via Piella where you can get a framed view of the canals from a window in the wall.
Places to Run or Walk in Bologna
If you are wondering what to do in Bologna to burn off all that pasta and gelato, there are some beautiful parks to the south of the city, perfect for walking or running as long as you don’t mind hills.
Paris lives up to the hype. The elegant boulevards, iconic architecture, beautiful parks, and delicious food really do make this a magical city and one we never tire of exploring.
Even if you only have one day in Paris (perhaps on a London to Paris day trip), you can still see (and eat) a lot. On our latest visit we had one full day in the city on our way from London to Italy by train. We focused on the major sights and put together an itinerary that would be ideal for first-time visitors to Paris wanting to make the most of a short stay.
We visited Paris in April, but you could follow this route at any time of year—just dress appropriately. In spring, wear layers as the weather is very changeable—we had a mix of sun and clouds with variable temperatures. Our packable down jackets were ideal as when Simon got too hot he could stuff it inside his daypack. In winter I recommend getting an early start to make the most of the daylight.
One Day in Paris Itinerary
Our itinerary for one day in Paris is a loop that takes you to the city’s classic sights and beautiful neighborhoods with some tasty treats along the way. We started in Jardin de Plantes as it was just across the river from our hotel, but you could start at any point. There are no ugly sections on this route—it is all gloriously Parisian.
This itinerary does involve a lot of walking—we walked about 14 miles/22.5 km (30,000 steps) in seven hours (10.30am – 5.30pm) and were exhausted by the end. I have included suggestions of where you could reduce the route or take the metro. I do think walking is the best way to see this beautiful city, though, and there are plenty of cafes and parks along the way for breaks.
Breakfast – Blé Sucré
There’s no need for a hotel breakfast in Paris—affordable bakeries selling delicious croissants and pastries are everywhere. Luckily our favourite bakery was only a 10-minute walk from our hotel (the Timhotel Paris Gare de Lyon). The croissants and pain au chocolat at Blé Sucré (7 Rue Antoine Vollon) were as good as we remembered—huge and perfectly flaky. As it’s always busy we took our pastries to eat in the park opposite.
See these suggestions for the best croissants in Paris if you want somewhere closer to your hotel. Another fancier breakfast option would be Angelina tea house near the Louvre. I have included it later in the itinerary, but there’s no reason you couldn’t start there.
Jardin des Plantes
After breakfast we headed across the Seine enjoying views of Notre-Dame as we walked over the Pont d’Austerlitz.
Jardin des Plantes is the main botanical garden in France and dates back to 1626. Entry is free and it’s a lovely place for a stroll. In early April, flowers had just been planted in the formal beds that line the broad walkways and the pink and white cherry blossom trees were blooming.
You can also visit the Natural History Museum in the gardens, but it is closed on Tuesdays when we visited.
The area of Paris on the Left Bank between the Seine and Luxembourg Gardens is known as the Latin Quarter. It’s home to the Sorbonne University, one of the oldest colleges in Europe, and got its name from the theology students who spoke in Latin until the French Revolution.
This iconic neighbourhood can be touristy, but it’s still charming, and the narrow winding streets are a good place to wander and discover little bistros, independent boutiques, and cosy bookshops. The market street Rue Mouffetard is one of the most typical and historic streets to explore.
One of the major sights of the Latin Quarter is the grandiose Pantheon, which was originally a church until the French Revolution and now contains the tombs of many famous French figures including Victor Hugo, Marie Curie, and Alexandre Dumas.
It’s worth admiring the Pantheon from outside (like we did) even if you don’t go inside (entrance is €9). The mammoth building is very imposing and is surrounded by more grand buildings including the curved facade of the Law Faculty of the Pantheon-Sorbonne University, the Sainte-Geneviève Library, and the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont church. The area was buzzing with students enjoying their lunch break in the sun.
Law Faculty of the Pantheon-Sorbonne University
From the top of Rue Soufflot we got our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and followed it down to Luxembourg Gardens.
Jardin du Luxembourg
Luxembourg Gardens dates back to 1612 and is one of the most popular parks in Paris. There’s plenty to explore, but it’s also a good place to take a break as there are lots of chairs, so pull one up and admire the fountains and magnificent Luxembourg Palace. The tulips were blooming and we realised why everyone raves about spring in Paris (we’ll forget about the pouring rain we arrived to the night before!).
Continue through Sant Germain, the quintessential Parisian neighbourhood of elegant buildings, charming streets, and picturesque squares. This chic area is full of interesting-looking (but pricey) shops selling antiques, clothes, paper, chocolate, macarons (Pierre Hermé is our favourite) and more.
You can take a break at one of the classic cafes like Les Deux Magots which was frequented by writers and artists including Hemingway, Sartre, and Picasso. The outdoor tables were packed on a sunny spring lunchtime.
Hot Chocolate at Café de Flore
By this point, after nearly three hours of walking, we were in definite need of a break. We’d eaten breakfast too late to want lunch, so we went to Café de Flore (172 Boulevard Saint-Germain), known to make some of the best hot chocolate in Paris (the food is reportedly average), and another hangout of the early 20th century intellectuals.
We knew what we were getting into—it is touristy—so we weren’t too shocked by the €7.50 price tag for a Special Flore hot chocolate, and it was excellent—rich, thick and intensely chocolatey.
Café de Flore has a classic bistro vibe with red booth seating, mahogany tables, gold-rimmed Art Deco mirrors, and waiters in long white aprons and black waistcoats. It all feels very Parisian.
Although we enjoyed our drink, I prefer the chocolate and extravagant decor of Angelina (see below), so you could stop there for your hot chocolate break instead.
Option 1: Eiffel Tower
Our plan for the day was rather ambitious, and at this point we were due to visit the Rodin Sculpture Museum and continue to the Eiffel Tower. We realised we didn’t have the energy for both, so we left the museum for another visit and walked 40 minutes from the cafe to the Eiffel Tower.
Along the way we strolled down the stylish Boulevard Saint Germain and stumbled upon random grand buildings and stunning squares.
We ended up at the east pillar of the Eiffel Tower, walking down a narrow street with it looming above us. We didn’t climb the tower as the queues are horrendous, but it was impressive to see it up close. If you want to go up, book your tickets in advance to avoid the queues.
You could also save your legs by taking the metro from Saint-Germain des Pres station to Champ de Mars Tour Eiffel—take line 4 two stops to Saint-Michel then switch to the RER C train.
Option 2: Cross the Seine River
Although we were glad we did the walk to the Eiffel Tower, it is a long detour from the rest of this itinerary and adds about 3.7 miles / 6 km.
A shorter route after Café de Flore would be to walk down to the Seine, walk along the Left Bank until the magnificent Alexandre III bridge, cross over, and continue down the opposite side to the Louvre area. You could combine this with Option 3.
Option 3: Art Museum
Rather than trek all the way to the Eiffel Tower, you might decide to spend part of the day at an art museum, one of the most popular things to do in Paris.
If it’s your first trip to Paris you might feel like you have to visit the Louvre, but don’t feel any pressure to do so—honestly, the Mona Lisa is rather disappointing. If you’re not that into art, you’ll probably have a much better day in Paris wandering the streets and chocolate shopping. It’s worth seeing from outside, though, which is why it’s a stop later on this route.
If you really want to visit the Louvre, buy your tickets online in advance or at least use the quieter Carrousel entrance in the mall below the museum. Note that it’s closed on Tuesdays. These Louvre tips will help you make the most of your visit.
I think the Musée d’Orsay is a better choice if you only have time for one art museum in Paris. It’s not as crowded, the old train station setting is beautiful, and there’s a stunning collection of Impressionist art by Monet, Degas, Cézanne and more. If you came on the Eurostar train you can get 2 for 1 entrance. It’s closed on Mondays.
Other options are the Musée de l’Orangerie for Monet’s Water Lillies (closed Tuesdays) and the Rodin Museum for sculpture (closed Mondays).
Walk Along the Seine
Whichever option you choose, you’ll next cross the Seine. From the Eiffel Tower cross the Pont d’Iena and you’ll get fantastic views of the tower from the other side. From here we took a long walk along the river. There are many sights to enjoy along the way including the incongruous gold domes of the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral, the ornate Alexandre III bridge, and the Grand Palais.
Alexandre III bridge
If you are very energetic, you could take a detour to see the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées, both major Paris attractions, but honestly not our favourite part of the city.
If you are feeling tired, take the metro to Concorde and continue with the itinerary.
Place de la Concorde and Jardin des Tuileries
Place de la Concorde
Once you reach Place de la Concorde walk through this grand square, which is the largest in Paris and features an Egyptian Obelisk and two fountains.
It leads into the Jardin des Tuileries where you can ride the Ferris wheel, relax on chairs by the pond, and stroll the wide boulevards past fountains and statues. We took a break on some of the chairs here.
Japan is somewhere I think everyone should visit. From futuristic skyscrapers to tranquil bamboo forests and neon arcades to serene temples, it’s like nowhere else on the planet.
The food is incredible, the people are ultra polite, and it has one of the most efficient public transport systems in the world. We love the combination of ease of travel and glorious bewilderment.
Japan has so much to offer but where should you start? These are our picks for the absolute best places to visit in Japan, perfect for your first or second trip to the country.
Top tip: We recommend buying a Japan Rail Pass in advance as it will save you money and it’s so easy being able to hop on and off trains all over the country. Read our Japan Rail Pass guide for full details.
Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto
If you only have time for one Japan destination, make it Kyoto. This is traditional Japan as you imagined it—geisha in brightly coloured kimonos emerging from wooden teahouses, forests of bamboo, temples and shrines in gold and silver and scarlet, raked gravel Zen gardens, intricate feasts served on lacquered plates, graceful tea ceremonies, and markets full of intriguing but unidentifiable ingredients.
The concrete high-rises of downtown Kyoto can be disappointing, so head out towards the mountains to the surrounding neighbourhoods where you’ll find narrow stone streets, old wooden houses, monks in flowing robes, and the sounds of chanting and gongs from the many temples and shrines.
Gion is the place to spot geisha, Higashiyama has many beautiful temples to explore, and Arashiyama, up in the western hills, is one of the most traditional neighbourhoods and home to bamboo groves, quirky temples, and monkeys.
We spent over three weeks in Kyoto and still didn’t see everything it has to offer, so make sure you allow as much time as possible for sightseeing and wandering. Kyoto is one of the top Japan tourist spots, so try to visit the popular temples early in the morning as they do get crowded.
In Kyoto don’t miss:
Wandering through the red torii gates of Fushimi Inari shrine
The modern and traditional juxtaposed at Sensoji temple in Tokyo
If Kyoto is the heart of traditional Japan, Tokyo is its ultramodern counterpart. It’s here you’ll find the skyscrapers, noisy arcades, busy pedestrian crossings, crazy youth fashions, and many many incredibly delicious restaurants. If all you do in Tokyo is eat, you’ll have an amazing time—even as vegetarians we ate so well.
Tokyo is also home to some of the weirdest activities we’ve ever done. From themed cafes (cats, owls, maids, robots, goats—you name it, Tokyo has it) to sensory-overload shows and arcades to cos-play go-karting.
On my first trip to Tokyo I was overwhelmed by the sprawling city and couldn’t help comparing it unfavourably to Kyoto. On my second visit I grew to love the city (the food certainly helped) and while it isn’t as attractive as Kyoto, there is so much to do that you won’t want to skip it.
Takayama is an utterly gorgeous small town on the edge of the Japan Alps and one of the best less-visited places to go in Japan. I loved wandering the historic centre full of traditional wooden houses, colourful shrines, neatly shaped trees, and bright red bridges over the river.
There’s lots to do in the surrounding countryside and we could easily have spent longer than the two nights we had here.
In Takayama don’t miss:
Wandering the old town in the early morning before the crowds arrive
Buying delicious fruit from the morning markets
Snacking on mitarashi-dango (rice balls grilled in soy) from a street stall
Seeing the extravagant floats at the Festival Floats Exhibition Hall
Visiting the Hida Folk Village to see traditional thatched houses
Top tip: See our Japan 2 week itinerary for more details on combining these top places in Japan for an amazing trip.
Mount Fuji from Lake Ashi in Hakone
Mount Fuji is on most people’s lists of places to visit in Japan, but this must-see Japan landmark can be rather elusive and is often hidden by clouds. There are a number of places you can see the mountain from, but we decided on Hakone because it’s easy to reach from Tokyo and there are lots of other things to do in the area in case we were out of luck with our sighting.
Despite visiting on a cloudy, drizzly day we were lucky that Mount Fuji emerged from the clouds above Lake Ashi and it was magical!
Hakone is also fun to visit because you can do a loop of the sights on different modes of transport—train, bus, pirate boat (yes, really!), and cable car.
In Hakone don’t miss:
Buying a Hakone Free Pass so you can hop on and off all the transport options on the Hakone Loop.
Seeing Mount Fuji from the lake or cable car
Eating a black egg cooked in the hot sulphur springs at volcanic Owakudani (not really, these look gross, but the Japanese go crazy for them)
Soaking in an onsen
Staying in a tatami room in a ryokan (traditional inn) and enjoying an elaborate dinner
Where to stay in Hakone:Hotel Musashiya was the best place we stayed in Japan. It’s a modern ryokan on the shores of Lake Ashi in Moto Hakone. We loved our comfortable tatami room with lake views, the indoor and outdoor onsen baths (also with lake views), and the delicious vegetarian feast we were served in our room. It was wonderfully relaxing. Find more hotels in Hakone here.
Kazuemachi geisha area in Kanazawa
Kanazawa is one of the best cities to visit in Japan, but few foreign tourists make it here. As Kyoto grows in popularity consider turning to Kanazawa instead for a quieter place to experience geisha districts with preserved wooden buildings. There is also one of the most beautiful gardens in the country, a stunning castle, and many art museums to explore.
Nikko is a temple town and UNESCO world heritage site in the mountains a few hours north of Tokyo and makes a cool retreat from the city.
The temples and shrines with their vermillion gates and moss-covered stone lanterns are scattered on the wooded hillside. The main attraction is Toshogu Shrine, a stunning complex with more than a dozen lavishly decorated red and gold buildings amongst huge, ancient cedar trees. The crowds can be overwhelming, so afterwards head to one of the quieter shrines.
You could visit Nikko as a day trip from Tokyo, but it’s worth spending a night or two to explore one of the most beautiful places in Japan including hiking trails, lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs. The area is famous for its vibrant autumn colours.
In Nikko don’t miss:
Visiting Toshogu Shrine early to avoid the crowds
Playing games at atmospheric Futarasan-jinja
Hiking up the mountain to the peaceful Takino shrine
Photographing the bright red Shinkyo bridge
Munching on dango (grilled rice balls on a stick) from a street stall
Koya-san (Mount Koya) is one of the most interesting places in Japan to experience the traditional side of the country. This secluded and sacred temple town is located in the forest-covered mountains of Kansai and is one of the best places to get a taste of life as a monk by staying in a shukubo or temple lodging.
After wandering around the otherworldly Okunoin forest cemetery, we checked into our simple tatami room at the temple, soaked in the communal onsen bath, and enjoyed a delicious shojin ryori vegetarian Buddhist meal. In the morning we were up early for the chanting and meditation ceremony with the monks.
A temple stay at Koya-san is a fascinating experience and well worth the detour from Osaka or Kyoto.
Where to stay in Koya-san: We stayed in Haryo-in, the cheapest temple accommodation, but it’s quite basic and I’d recommend paying more to stay at one of the more traditional temples like 1000-year-old Eko-in. Find more temple lodgings here.
Tsumago is a picture-perfect traditional mountain village in the Kiso Valley. It is one of the best-preserved post towns in Japan and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time on the traffic-less streets of beautifully restored wooden inns.
During the Edo period 300 years ago, Tsumago was a stop on the Nakasendo Way between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). You can hike..
This month we celebrated eight years of full-time travel! It was an unusual nomadiversary—we’re back in the UK for four months, our longest stay here since we left and our first full winter.
Last year we celebrated with a sunny hike up Lion’s Head and a delicious meal in Cape Town. This year we drove the length of England in the snow after spending the week in the hospital with a dying relative. Obviously we weren’t in the mood to celebrate.
Despite its sad ending it has been another amazing year on the road with travels to new countries (South Africa, Namibia, Oman) and old favourites (Japan, Bali, Thailand). It was also the year of the road trip as we got off the beaten track by renting a car or motorbike.
We still relish the freedom of nomadic life even as we were ready for something different over the winter—the novelty of cold days and being closer to family for a while. The beauty of our lifestyle is that we have that choice.
Here’s a look back at the highs of year eight which took us to eight countries, mostly in Africa and Asia.
I covered many of our South Africa highlights in last year’s nomadiversary post including the incredible safaris we did and living in Cape Town, one of our new favourite cities. We totally fell for this stunning country and here are some more top experiences from the beginning of year 8.
Harvest time in Franschhoek
We took a side trip from Cape Town to Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands and it was glorious! This charming town is one of the oldest and most scenic settlements in South Africa and is surrounded by vineyards and craggy mountains.
Another highlight was visiting Babylonstoren, a historic Cape Dutch farm. We toured the magnificent organic gardens, sampled their wines, and ate a gorgeous meal at Babel. We will definitely stay at this special place on our next visit.
A Decadent Birthday Trip
The view from Sea Star Cliff Lodge in De Kelders
As if our Franschhoek trip wasn’t decadent enough, just a few weeks later we celebrated my birthday in serious style. First up was an incredible 12 course meal with wine pairing at La Colombe, just outside Cape Town and one of the top 100 restaurants in the world. It was possibly the best meal of our lives and we couldn’t believe we were there for four hours!
Simon then arranged a surprise weekend away to the tiny seaside town of De Kelders. We stayed at Sea Star Cliff Lodge, a gorgeous boutique hotel with insane sea views. We spent most of the weekend on the terrace sunbathing, drinking bubbly, watching the sunset, and stargazing.
On our way back to Cape Town we stopped at Betty’s Bay to see penguins and later in the week took a spectacular helicopter ride over the city. What a week!
Road Trip Across Namibia
One of the best places we stayed in Namibia – Moon Mountain Lodge at sunset.
We were sad to leave South Africa after three months but excited for our next adventure—road tripping across Namibia for two weeks! It’s a wild, beautiful, empty country and we visited some of the most remote places we’ve ever been. We loved the diverse landscapes, plentiful wildlife, spectacular sunsets, and the pure tranquility.
Seeing Cheetahs and Leopards
A cheetah at Okonjima Nature Reserve
One of our road trip stops was Okonjima Nature Reserve, home to the Africat Foundation which researches, rescues, and rehabilitates big cats. We did two safari drives and managed to see both cheetahs and leopards. The cheetah safari was especially exciting as it’s done on foot! It was incredible to walk so close to these rare, beautiful creatures.
Kayaking with Baby Seals
Simon kayaking with seals!
Oh my, kayaking with baby seals is one of the best things we have ever done! Near Walvis Bay there’s a colony of tens of thousands of Cape Fur seals. We only had to paddle a short distance before we were surrounded by hundreds of adorable seal pups. They were playful and curious, nibbling on our paddles, diving and jumping in and out of the water, and swimming alongside us. It was such a special experience.
Climbing Big Daddy Sand Dune
Running down the Big Daddy Sand Dune at Deadvlei is a highlight of Namibia!
Another Namibia highlight was climbing Big Daddy, one of the world’s tallest sand dunes at Sossusvlei. It certainly wasn’t easy as we sunk into the sand and the furious wind whipped sand into our faces, but we felt like we’d entered another, dreamlike world with orange dunes stretching for miles and the stark white salt pan below. Plus we got to run down the side afterwards!
Living in Ubud, Bali
The view from our Ubud villa
Ubud is our favourite place to set up a temporary home. We love the gorgeous rice fields, fascinating Hindu culture (so many temple ceremonies!), delicious vegetarian food, and the ease of renting a villa with a private pool.
We spent five months here over the summer focusing on work, researching new vegetarian restaurants, doing lots of yoga, and enjoying the views from our villa. For our anniversary we splurged on a tasting menu at the fancy Ritz Carlton hotel.
Bali Road Trip
Tamblingan Lake on our Bali motorbike road trip
Honestly, we’ve never been big fans of Bali outside of our Ubud bubble, but our five-day motorbike trip to the north and west of the island changed that. We discovered just how stunning the island is and how it’s possible to escape the crowds, even in high season.
We hiked to waterfalls in the mountains of Munduk, snorkelled at Menjangan Island, and relaxed in the tiny surf town Balian Beach. Along the way we enjoyed views of gorgeous rice terraces, lakes, and jungle ravines from the back of our trusty scooter.
Us dressing up as Mario characters in Tokyo and driving a Maricar go-kart!
Oh, Japan! It felt so good to be back and our second trip only confirmed that this is one of our favourite countries.
In 2011 Tokyo didn’t compare to our favourite city Kyoto, but this time we really enjoyed exploring the giant metropolis. We loved seeking out its quieter spots, even in the midst of seemingly chaotic neighbourhoods like Shinjuku (our pick for the best area to stay in Tokyo).
We did crazy things like drive go-karts on the roads dressed as Mario characters and experienced sensory overload at the insane Robot Restaurant and the epic arcades. We also enjoyed traditional Japan at temples and with an exquisite 12-course lunch in a serene private tatami room at Bon.
Japan Train Trip
Us at a tea ceremony in Kanazawa
From Tokyo we took off with a 7-day Japan Rail Pass (the best way to explore the country) for a whirlwind trip to some of the spots we missed last time. We strolled the forest temples of Nikko, gazed in awe at Mount Fuji at Lake Hakone, soaked in an onsen bath, explored the traditional wooden houses of Takayama, and participated in a tea ceremony in Kanazawa. We loved every minute.
One of the 12 courses of our vegan feast at Bon in Tokyo
Japanese food is so good! Yes, even for vegetarians (with some advance planning). We enjoyed sushi and ramen for the first time (including ordering ramen from a vending machine!), experienced a 12 course Zen Buddhist vegetarian meal, and ate tempura, soba noodles, okonomiyaki, Japanese curry, divine tofu, and so much more.
Living in Koh Phangan
Zen Beach on Koh Phangan
Thailand is somewhere we used to visit often as it’s a great, affordable digital nomad destination for getting some work done, but it had been over three years since our last visit. Rather than go to our usual haunts of Chiang Mai and Koh Lanta, we tried somewhere different.
Koh Phangan is known for its backpacker parties, but we found it easy to avoid all that by staying near the quiet village of Sri Thanu which has more yoga studios and vegetarian restaurants than bars. We rented a cute wooden house by the sea and used the surprisingly good wifi to get some work done. It was a very quiet life but it was just what we needed.
Road Trip Around Oman
Nizwa Fort, Oman
Another road trip to end 2017! Oman was a new country for us and we spent 10 days exploring this little-visited destination, one of the safest in the Middle East.
We visited stunning mosques and sandcastle-like forts, hiked up sand dunes and along the rim of Oman’s Grand Canyon, swam in the crystal green waters of wadis, and took long walks on empty beaches.
Wadi Bani Khalid was one of our favourite places in Oman. We had a blissfully relaxing afternoon at this stunning desert oasis swimming in the emerald pools surrounded by a rugged ravine and vibrant date palms.
We visited Wadi Bani Khalid after a night in a Bedouin tent in the Wahiba Sands desert. After we turned off the main road we drove through a series of tiny villages then up and over stunning rocky mountains.
From the car park it’s only a five-minute walk to the pools, making it one of the most accessible wadis in Oman—the other popular wadi, Wadi Shab, is a 45-minute hike from the car park.
Wadi Bani Khalid Main Pools
After driving through the oranges and browns of the desert the wadi feels like a real oasis, the green of the water and palms shocking after the bleakness.
Wadi Bani Khalid has been developed with a few bridges, seating areas, and a restaurant, but it doesn’t detract from its beauty. It also makes it one of the most convenient wadis to visit as you can buy food and drinks and use the toilets.
The first pool is the largest. The wadi does get busy, especially on weekends (Fridays and Saturdays in Oman), but on a Sunday afternoon it was easy to find a quiet spot on the rocks to ourselves.
In December the weather was perfect for sunbathing—about 25ºC, wonderfully warm but not too hot with bright blue skies.
The pools are full of fish that will give you a foot massage if you dangle your feet it. The nibbling feels odd, but people pay to have this done in Thailand!
Swimming in the pools was wonderfully refreshing—it felt cold at first, but I soon warmed up and loved swimming around the massive pools, apparently followed by a school of fish!
Upper Pools and Cave
From the main pool you can swim (or walk) under a bridge (where many kids like to jump off) and into a narrow canyon with pale rocks looming above.
To get to the second set of pools you have to walk—follow the sign and walk for about 10 minutes on slightly slippy rocks (decent shoes are recommended). These pools are quieter but much smaller.
You can continue for another 10 minutes to visit the Muqal cave—bringing a torch is a good idea.
Eating at Wadi Bani Khalid
The restaurant is on the left overlooking the pools
At the restaurant overlooking the pools you can buy coffee (1 OMR), soft drinks (400 baisas), popcorn, and ice cream. You can also eat at the lunch buffet for 4 OMR, which is what we did. Vegetarian options included dahl, vegetable curry, rice, french fries, and a basic salad. It was quite bland but edible. They only accept cash.
You would be better off bringing a picnic. Omani supermarkets like Lulu have a great choice of salads, hummus, bread etc., but as we were coming from the desert, there weren’t any supermarkets around.
What to Wear at Wadi Bani Khalid
You need to dress modestly at Wadi Bani Khalid as Oman is a Muslim country. Women should avoid bikinis and wear a t-shirt and shorts at least. I wore capri leggings and a baggy t-shirt of Simon’s.
It seems OK for men to wear swimming shorts without a top, but some local men do wear t-shirts as well (just avoid skimpy briefs).
Wadi Bani Khalid Facilities
The toilets behind the restaurant are free and include western and squat styles. They are in decent condition for changing but bring your own toilet paper.
You can rent towels from the restaurant for 1 OMR.
Wadi Bani Khalid Location
Some people visit Wadi Bani Khalid as a day trip from Muscat—you can take a tour (like this private full day tour), hire a driver, or rent a car. It’s a three-hour drive, though, so it would be better to spend the night in the area if you have time.
We had a rental car for our Oman road trip and visited the wadi on our way from Wahiba Sands (the most typical desert area of Oman with large dunes) to Sur on the coast (popular for the nearby turtle reserve). It was a one hour drive from Al Wasil, the village that’s the access point for many of the desert camps.
From Al Wasil drive down Road 23 until you see the sign “Welcome to Wadi Bani Khalid” on the left after about 20 minutes. Turn off here and continue through villages and along the winding mountain road until you reach the car park (approximately 40 minutes after the turn off). This is marked on Google Maps as “Wadi Bani Khalid Parking Area”.
The road is paved all the way and a 4WD is not necessary. From the car park it’s a five-minute walk to the pools.
It’s about a two-hour drive to Sur from Wadi Bani Khalid.
Wadi Bani Khalid Map
Here’s the Wadi Bani Khalid location on Google Maps and directions from the Desert Retreat Camp office in Al Wasil, Wahiba Sands.
Where to Stay Near Wadi Bani Khalid
We visited Wadi Bani Khalid after a night in Wahiba Sands at the Desert Retreat Camp (1 hour 20 minutes drive away), which we highly recommend. The Bedouin tents are simple but have a bed and private bathroom next door. We loved the peaceful location at the foot of a large sand dune, perfect for sunset and sunrise. Read more about the camp in our Oman itinerary.
Tortuga has done it again—they’ve released a new carry-on travel backpack that’s even better than the last one. Simon has been travelling with a Tortuga backpack full-time for over three years now and with each new release he thinks he’s found his perfect backpack—until the next one comes out.
The Tortuga Setout isn’t a new version of the Tortuga Outbreaker (Simon’s previous backpack)—it stands along side it as a lighter, more affordable, but less full-featured bag.
In this detailed Tortuga Setout review we share the pros and cons of the new backpack and compare it to the Outbreaker so you can decide which is right for you.
Simon has been travelling with the Setout for two months (in February 2018) and we’ll keep this review updated with how he gets on with it as time goes on.
Tortuga Setout Review
One of the reasons we love Tortuga so much is that the founders Fred and Jeremy really understand the needs of travellers. They created the original Tortuga backpack after a backpacking trip to Europe when they discovered that traditional hiking backpacks are inconvenient for travel—they stand out too much, it’s hard to access your stuff, and there’s no storage for electronics.
Since then they’ve been striving to create the perfect travel backpack for urban travellers and each backpack gets better and better. The Tortuga Setout Travel Backpack is our favourite so far.
Tortuga Setout Backpack Details
Dimensions (cm): 56 x 36 x 23 cm Dimensions (inches): 22 x 14 x 9 inches Volume: 45 litres Weight: 1.50 kg (3.3 lbs) Colour: Grey Price: US $199 (and free US shipping) Buy from: Tortuga website
Setout Backpack Pros
As with all Tortuga backpacks, the Setout is carry-on-sized so you can take it on the plane and save time and money. It’s the maximum carry-on size allowed on most airlines and it holds a surprising amount of stuff.
Simon isn’t exactly an ultralight traveller these days—his current electronics collection includes a 15-inch laptop, 13-inch tablet, and Nintendo Switch games console (I know!)—but he has plenty of space for all his stuff.
Our biggest issue with the Tortuga Outbreaker was how heavy it was. The Setout is the lightest maximum carry-on-size Tortuga yet at just 1.50 kg (3.3 lbs) and is almost as light as my smaller Osprey Farpoint 40.
The Setout is the best looking Tortuga backpack yet. The soft, matte grey fabric and rounded corners are more stylish than the previous blocky Tortugas. It’s a simple, understated design that looks fantastic and won’t stand out in cities.
Padded hip belt
Most carry-on-sized travel backpacks don’t include a padded hip belt, but we think it’s essential to transfer the bag’s weight from your shoulders to your hips and avoid back pain. This is especially important if you travel with heavy electronics as we do.
The Setout has a robust padded hip belt that takes the load off and makes it comfortable to carry, even when Simon’s backpack weighs 11 kg (24 lbs).
If you don’t want to use the hip belt you can unclip it.
Padded shoulder straps and hip belt on the Setout
Front-loading like a suitcase
Like all Tortuga backpacks, the Setout is front-loading which means it opens along the entire front (along three sides) like a suitcase. This is much better than hiking backpacks which open from the top as it’s easier to access your stuff and keep things organised.
The main compartment of the Setout opens like a suitcase
Simon has only been travelling with his Setout for a few months, but given the quality of materials and our experience with previous Tortugas, we expect it to last a long time. We’ll keep this review updated with how it stands up over time.
The backpack is water-resistant but not fully waterproof. All Tortuga travel backpacks are made with Duraflex buckles and YKK zippers—widely regarded as the best in the business. Tortuga does not skimp on materials.
Simon’s iPad Pro in the tablet sleeve. As it’s 12.9 inches it does pop out so he stores it in an additional neoprene sleeve.
The Setout is ideal for digital nomads as there are dedicated sleeves for a laptop (up to 15-inch), tablet (supposedly up to 9.7-inch but larger ones work), and e-reader.
The padded laptop sleeve is in a separate compartment at the back of the bag, close to your body for the best weight distribution. Simon packs his 15-inch MacBook Pro in a neoprene case first for extra protection, but there’s enough padding to skip the case.
In front of the laptop sleeve is space for a tablet. This area isn’t padded so a case is a good idea. It’s only supposed to hold tablets up to 9.7-inch, but Simon’s 12.9-inch iPad Pro (one of the biggest on the market) fits in just fine, although the top pops out (not a problem if it’s in a case).
The e-reader compartment is a lightly padded sleeve at the front of the bag for easy access.
There are enough pockets to organise your stuff, but not too many.
There are three sections in the Setout, each accessed by a different zip at the top of the bag.
Lots of storage pockets in the easily accessible front compartment
The front section unzips about a third of the way down and is designed for easy access to small items in transit. There’s a zippered pocket and an organiser panel for items like pens, phone and notebook. Behind that there’s a lightly padded sleeve for an e-reader and above there’s a clip for keys.
Larger items can fit in the bottom and take up the whole compartment if needed—perhaps snacks or an extra layer for travel days.
Simon’s packing cubes in the main compartment
The middle main section is the largest and unzips on three sides, so it’s really easy to pack.
There are two zippered mesh compartments on the opposite side which are useful for small items or dirty laundry.
Simon’s 15-inch laptop does fit completely inside the sleeve.
The electronics compartment is at the back and unzips about a third of the way down. It’s easy to reach in and grab your laptop or tablet, which have separate sleeves (described above).
Simon doesn’t use this section for anything else, but you could fit flattish things in front of the laptop sleeve.
The Setout has a lie-flat water bottle holder on one side.
The external storage consists of:
One small zippered pocket on the front of the backpack.
A lie-flat water bottle holder on one side.
Two small zippered pockets in the hip belt that are designed to stash coins, phone and keys when going through airport security.
Injection-moulded shoulder straps
The Setout’s shoulder straps are injection-moulded which means they conform to your body and get more comfortable over time. Simon hasn’t used his enough for this to happen but we’ll keep you posted.
We lock our backpacks with a small combination lock to prevent opportunistic theft. All three compartments of the Setout are lockable.
You do need two locks to secure the backpack fully. The two front compartments are close enough together to share a lock (or Simon keeps the front compartment unlocked for easy access) and you’ll need a second lock for the electronics compartment at the back. Or you could choose just to lock your electronics compartment.
You can unclip the shoulder straps and tuck them away into the back panel. Simon never uses this feature, but it could be useful if you want it to carry it like a suitcase with the side handle or check your bag.
The Setout has a side carry handle unlike the Outbreaker
At $199 the Tortuga Setout isn’t cheap, but it’s good value for the quality and will last you many years. It’s $100 cheaper than the Tortuga Outbreaker and other similar backpacks like the Minaal Carry-On 2.0.
Tortuga offers free US shipping and if the backpack doesn’t work out for you after a test pack, return it unused within 30 days for a full refund. They also pay for the return shipping on US orders.
Setout Backpack Cons
Too big for some people
I’d love to travel with a Setout but it feels a bit too big for me and for now I’m sticking with my smaller 38-litre Osprey Farpoint 40. I hope Tortuga releases a 35-litre version of the Setout (like they have for the Outbreaker) as that could end up being my perfect backpack.
No height adjustable suspension system or load lifters
Unlike the Outbreaker, the Setout doesn’t have a height adjustable suspension system (rare for travel backpacks anyway). This isn’t a problem for Simon, but if you have a short or long torso, the Outbreaker might fit better.
It also doesn’t have load lifters on the top of the shoulder straps which allow you to keep the bag as close to the body as possible for ideal weight distribution. So far the shoulder straps have worked well enough for Simon.
Larger than some airlines allow
The Setout is within most airlines’ allowed carry-on size, but it’s a few centimetres over the size allowed by some strict carriers such as Ryanair, which has a 55cm x 40cm x 20cm limit (and only if you pay for priority).
We have travelled on Ryanair multiple times with the Outbreaker, though, which is the same size as the Setout and had no problems taking it on the plane. We don’t find airlines to be that strict about size and weight if you are travelling with a backpack as it’s less visible than a rolling suitcase.
Shipping is expensive outside the US
It’s only available from the Tortuga website. If you live in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand or Asia shipping costs $30–55 and you’ll also probably have to pay customs—we paid £35.95 for the Tortuga V2 sending it to the UK.
Less full-featured than the Outbreaker
The Setout has fewer features and less organisation than the Outbreaker. See our comparison below.
Tortuga Setout Summary
The Tortuga Setout is one of the best carry-on backpacks on the market. It’s spacious, stylish, durable but light, and very well-designed with just enough support and organisation. It’s ideal for anyone looking to maximise the amount they can travel with carry-on only. It’s Simon’s new favourite backpack.
Tortuga Setout vs Outbreaker: A Detailed Comparison
35 or 45 litre
1.5 kg (3.3 lbs)
2.3 kg (5.1 lbs)
Not height adjustable
No hideaway straps
Fits 17-19″ torsos
Fits 16-20″ torsos
Laptop up to 15-inch
Laptop up to 17-inch
Simon travelled happily with the Tortuga Outbreaker for over a year to eight countries. He wasn’t in the market for a new backpack, but when the Setout was released he thought it was worth trying because the only real issue with the Outbreaker is how heavy it is (5.1 lbs/2.3 kg).
We recently ran a live question and answer session on the #TravelAMA section of AMAFeed. AMA means Ask Me Anything and we were happy to answer dozens of your questions about travel and digital nomad life.
Here’s a selection of some of the best questions and our answers:
Our Travel Favourites
“How many countries have you travelled together for 8 years? Which country is the best to visit?”
We’ve travelled to 60-something countries together including 40 countries in the last 8 years since we were nomadic (we return to a lot of the same countries too). We usually visit about 8-10 countries a year.
Our absolute favourite countries are Japan and Italy.
Japan is like nowhere else in the world and we love how unfamiliar and exotic it feels, yet how easy and efficient it is to travel around. The people are also exceedingly polite and the food is amazing (even for vegetarians if you know where to look).
Us dressing up as Mario characters in Tokyo and driving a Maricar go-kart!
Italy is all about the food, wine, and stunning medieval towns, countryside, and coastline. We love the relaxed lifestyle there.
For short trips, we also highly recommend Slovenia, Jordan, the Maldives, South Africa, and Cuba.
“What was your absolute favourite island beach? One with good food and, for us, good wine too?”
Reethi Beach Resort in the Maldives! It is heavenly! We loved the overwater bungalow, great snorkelling off our deck, sunset cocktails on the beach, a dolphin watching trip, and the most perfect white sandy beach.
The food isn’t gourmet but we really enjoyed the buffets (and I am not usually a buffet fan at all). I’m not sure we had any wine. It’s Asia so I wouldn’t expect too much.
Unfortunately, the best beaches and the best wine don’t really match up. If you are not set on an island or warm water you could consider South Africa. The beaches around Cape Town and the Garden Route are stunning (but too cold to swim) and the food and wine are superb and so affordable. Some seriously spectacular places to stay too.
“We are 7 months into our trip and heading to Malaysia / SE Asia for a few months. Are there any places you would especially recommend and are there places in that area that are on your list to visit? We have read your stuff about Langkawi – wondered if you had any other recommendations?”
In Malaysia, we also like Penang, Perhentian Besar island (we did our advanced scuba diving course there), and of course, Kuala Lumpur is worth a visit (great cheap Indian food). We haven’t travelled the country extensively, though.
In the rest of SE Asia, we love (with links to our blog posts about them):
Ubud in Bali (we’ve spent five months there twice!)
Myanmar for adventure, especially Inle Lake. There was no internet or ATMs when we went, but I believe that has changed now.
One of the many spectacular sunsets we’ve enjoyed on Koh Lanta in Thailand
The Philippines are still on our list and would be a great place for island hopping.
If you don’t mind going a bit further afield, Air Asia has relatively cheap flights from KL to the Maldives, which are absolutely stunning – the best beaches we’ve ever seen. It’s possible to travel there independently so it’s not so expensive—you can see our Maldives budget here.
And Japan is well worth a visit if you can afford it. It’s one of our favourite countries and is unlike anywhere else in the world. We’ve written loads of posts about it but our two week Japan itinerary is a good place to start.
Digital Nomad Life
“It seems that you both are the embodiment of real nomads. Why the lifestyle?”
Freedom! We absolutely love being able to go where we want, when we want. We can fly to Italy because we crave pizza or Thailand because we need some beach time. We can spend months in a place we fall in love with or leave after a day if we discover it’s not our thing. We can follow the sun and only experience winter if we chose to.
We love being able to work on projects we love and not having to commute to an office or answer to anyone except ourselves. We love spending 24/7 with each other and having time to do the things we love—yoga, running, drawing, reading, writing, cooking, video games.
Ultimately, there’s so much of the world to explore—places we want to return to and new places on our ever expanding wish list. We’ve had so many magical experiences in the last eight years and we just don’t want it to stop.
“How do you earn from working online? Are the blog, the books, and the apps your only sources of your online income?”
These are our sources of income from largest to smallest:
Affiliate commission – If someone purchases an item or books a hotel that we recommend on our travel blog we receive a commission.
Trail Wallet app– Our app helps travellers track their travel expenses and stay on budget. We sell it on the Apple app store only. You can try it for free (and input 25 items) but to continue using it costs $4.99. We do have other apps, but they don’t make much money.
The Carry-On Traveller book – We’ve been travelling with just a carry on bag each for eight years so I wrote this book to share our tips on how to pack light. We sell it through Amazon for Kindle and as an on-demand paperback.
Blog sponsorships – Very rarely we will be paid to write a review of a company’s product or service. I am very picky about who we work with, so this doesn’t earn a huge amount.
Freelance writing – I haven’t done any freelance writing in the last year, but previously it’s something I occasionally did if a good offer came my way.
By far the majority of our income comes from 1 and 2. Luckily it’s passive income, so we are able to take a month or two off work to travel and continue to earn.
“Who, between the two of you, creates the iPhone app? How many apps in total have you completed?”
Simon creates the iPhone apps. He has made five apps but Trail Wallet is by far the most popular. These are the apps:
“What are your considerations when looking for a place to settle for some time, aside from price and accessibility?”
One of the houses we rented in Ubud, Bali
When choosing somewhere to spend a few months we look for:
Availability of affordable, medium-term apartment/house rentals. Some solo travellers are happy to stay in hostels/hotels but we really like to have our own space to work, relax and cook. It’s the only home we have after all.
Decent WiFi. We’re not super strict about this as we do manage (if somewhat frustratingly) in places like Lake Atitlan, Guatemala where the connection is slow, but we do need some kind of workable WiFi.
Good vegetarian-friendly restaurants. Or at least access to a good local produce market.
Interesting things to do or beautiful scenery (beaches, rice fields, lakes, mountains etc). We don’t need a lot to do if we can work and go for pretty walks.
Weather – We usually follow the sun although we are currently experiencing our first full winter in 8 years!
Running routes – Not a deal breaker as I can find places to run anywhere but good routes away from roads makes it so much easier.
As for your apartment rentals, especially the longer term ones, are/is noise, odors, cleanliness, general safety and the actual host(s) much of an issue for the locations you typically select?
Finding an affordable, comfortable place to rent where we can feel at home is one of the biggest challenges of being a digital nomad. Especially as we’re homebodies (I know that sounds like a contradiction for a nomad!) and prefer to work at home rather than in co-working spaces or cafes.
We’ve never had any major problems, though. It’s usually just annoying things like a badly equipped kitchen (we have bought knives, chopping boards, frying pans, and rice cookers so often!). Or in Bali we struggled with the lack of privacy in the culture—our landlord would walk into our open-air kitchen without warning. Mexico was pretty bad for noise as it’s not exactly a tranquil culture. Kids, music and a crazy guy next door are some of the things I remember!
We’ve never felt unsafe though or had a really bad landlord. And most things we get used to over time. Travel has taught us how adaptable humans are.
One way to find a good place is to choose an Airbnb apartment with lots of great reviews and carefully read the listing, look at the photos, and ask lots of questions (about wifi, natural light, transport etc).
It is more expensive than renting a place once you arrive but it’s also so much easier. We don’t usually like to book in advance for stays of more than a month, but we did for two months in Cape Town (as Airbnb is the only real option) and it worked out well.
Airbnb is our go-to in Europe and the US, but in cheaper countries like Mexico or in SE Asia we usually look around when we arrive (local Facebook groups are helpful) so we can see the place and maybe negotiate a better rate. It can be a lot of work though.
Us with our carry on backpacks
“Is it because there’s the two of you traveling that each of you can just bring one carry one backpack since one can put more things in the other’s bag?”
Not at all. It does help to be able to share some things, but we could easily travel solo with just a carry on bag—we know tons of people who do so.
Honestly, we travel with so many things that regular travellers wouldn’t need as we work online so have tons of electronics like our laptops and camera.
Also, after 8 years of travel without a home base, we want more luxury items than we used to. Simon is currently travelling with a Nintendo Switch and an AeroPress coffee maker for example! And it still all fits in his carry on bag!
“How can you be confident with only the backpack on with you while traveling? What should be essentials you can do without that this bag should have?”
We feel confident that we have everything we need in our carry-on-size backpack. Most people pack way too much stuff and take things “just in case” that they never end up using. If we really do need something we don’t have we can always buy it locally—most things can be found anywhere.
There are no right things to pack as everyone has different needs, but some things that are useful for packing light include:
Packing cubes – These make a huge difference by making it possible to pack lots of clothes in a small space. They also keep things organised and easy to find. I have one for my main clothes, one for workout clothes, and one for underwear. I really like Eagle Creek’s ultralight compression cubes. You can read more about how to use packing cubes here.
Solid toiletries – If you are flying you can’t take liquids over 100ml and they must fit into a single ziplock bag. Products like Lush solid shampoo bars help you avoid liquids.
Kindle or other ebook reader – A must for bookworms as books are too heavy.
Odour-resistant clothes – You can wear these for longer without them smelling, so you can pack less. We like Ably t-shirts, Athleta Unstinkable workout clothes, ExOfficio underwear, Smartwool socks, and Icebreaker long sleeve tops.
I also recommend only packing enough clothes for a week and then doing laundry. And 2 or 3 pairs of shoes is enough for any situation—I have running shoes, hiking sandals, and Tieks ballet flats.
Our Oman itinerary took us on a 10-day road trip around the north of the country. We visited stunning mosques and sandcastle-like forts, hiked up sand dunes and along the rim of the Grand Canyon, swam in the crystal green waters of wadis, and took long walks on empty beaches.
Oman is one of the safest countries to visit in the Middle East, it’s easy to self-drive, and you’ll have many places to yourself as tourism is only just beginning to grow here. It’s also the perfect place for some winter sun.
If you have less time, you could easily do this Oman road trip in a week.
Oman Self-Drive Tips and Resources
Most nationalities can get a 30-day Omani visa on arrival from the currency exchange desk just before immigration at Muscat International Airport. This costs 20 OMR and must be paid for in cash only. There’s no ATM but you can pay with any currency, although the rates aren’t very good. It cost us US $60 each paying in dollars when 20 OMR should be $52.
Do you need a 4WD in Oman?
Most people recommend a 4WD for an Oman road trip, but they are at least double the price of a regular 2WD car and whether you need one depends on your itinerary.
We decided to rent a small 2WD SUV as it has higher clearance than a regular sedan. For this route we didn’t need a 4WD except for going up Jebel Akhdar mountain where we hired a driver at the base to take us up. The road up Jebel Shams was steep and unpaved in parts but we managed in a 2WD. Most roads in Oman are paved, quiet, and in good condition.
If you can afford it, a 4WD will give you peace of mind and will allow you to explore some of Oman’s exciting off-road tracks, but you can manage without one.
Driving up Jebel Shams in our 2WD SUV
Oman car hire
We rented a Nissan Kicks small SUV through RentalCars.com for £261 for 10 days from the Thrifty office at Muscat airport. We had a limit of 200km a day which is common in Oman and was plenty for us. Technically you need an international driving permit in Oman but we were never asked for one.
Our Nissan Kicks SUV (not 4WD) on the way up Jebel Shams
We have a separate annual car hire insurance policy which covered the excess.
In Oman you drive on the right. The speed limit is usually 120km/h or 60km/h in urban areas.
Fuel stations are attended—you can leave a small tip but it didn’t seem to be expected. Most stations have a shop and some have toilets and a restaurant. Petrol is cheap—less than 40p a litre.
We booked most of our accommodation on Booking.com, which often worked out cheaper than booking direct. Prices in Oman are quite high for what you get. Everywhere we stayed was well equipped (ensuite, air conditioning, WiFi, free parking) and functional rather than stylish. Hotels add 17% tax.
If you are on a tight budget, the cheapest option is to buy a tent and wild camp for free almost anywhere in the country.
We bought an Omantel SIM card from the desk at the airport. The Hayyak “New Welcome Pack” cost 2 OMR (£3.75) including 1.5 GB data (valid for 10 days) and 1 OMR credit. Other packages are available and the staff speaks English.
The data package was very useful as we used Google Maps for directions (although turn by turn is not supported). The mobile signal was often faster than the hotel WiFi.
Oman Travel Costs and Money
The current exchange rate is 1 OMR (Omani rial) = £1.87, €2.12 and $2.60. The rial is divided into 1000 baisa.
There are a few ATMs at the airport and there was no charge to use them with a foreign card. It’s best to stock up on cash as some hotels and petrol stations are cash only.
We used our Trail Wallet app to track our Oman expenses. We spent £134 ($173/€145) a day for two people with the most expensive items being accommodation (£68 a day) and transport (£38 a day).
We found food inexpensive in local restaurants (rather than hotels) and it cost us less than £14 a day (not including the meals that were included in two of our hotels). We didn’t spend a lot on entertainment as there aren’t many expensive attractions and our favourite activities—hikes and wadis—were free.
Our Oman travel expenses shown in our Trail Wallet app.
Our costs don’t include flights to Oman. We flew Bangkok-Muscat-London with Oman Air. It wasn’t the cheapest option but we preferred to fly direct. You can search Kiwi and Skyscanner for the best flight deals.
When to Visit Oman
Winter is the best time to visit Oman as the summers are extremely hot. Our trip was in early December and the weather was perfect—around 25ºC and sunny during the day with pleasantly cooler nights. The nights at Jebel Shams mountain and Wahiba Sands desert were very cold and we needed warm clothing.
Travel insurance is essential in case anything goes wrong on your trip. We used True Traveller as always—they are the best deal we’ve found for UK and EU residents. World Nomads is another well-respected company we’ve used in the past.
We heard mixed reports about whether the water in Oman was drinkable. As I have a sensitive stomach we decided not to risk it and drank bottled water instead.
Our Oman Itinerary
Muscat – 2 nights
Nizwa – 2 nights
Jebel Shams – 2 nights
Wahiba Sands – 1 night
Ras Al Hadd – 1 night
Sur – 1 night
Muscat – 1 night
Our Oman road trip was for 10 nights and we drove 1378km around the north of the country. Distances aren’t long on this route and we had quite a lot of down time, so you could easily do this itinerary in seven days. If time is short, reduce the first stay in Muscat to one night, the Nizwa/Jebel Shams area to three nights, and skip the night in Sur (you can visit on the way from Ras Al Hadd to Muscat).
When you are planning your Oman itinerary, remember that as Oman is a Muslim country the weekend is on a Friday and Saturday and many places close on Fridays.
Our Oman Road Trip Map
Note: The distances of each leg of our journey are taken from Google Maps (which we used for navigation) and the times are the actual time it took us. I’ve noted if we stopped for a break.
Days 1–2 Muscat (2 nights)
Our flight arrived at Muscat International Airport at 7 pm and we picked up our rental car and drove 30 minutes to the Mutrah area.
The next day we got an early start (arriving at 8.30 am) for Muscat’s best attraction—the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. This stunning, huge, modern mosque is open to visitors from 8 am to 11 am every day except Friday and is free. There is a strict dress code—women must cover up completely with long sleeves, long trousers or floor-length skirt, and a headscarf (I used my sarong). Abayas are available to rent if you don’t have anything suitable to wear. Men should wear long trousers and cover their shoulders.
Don’t miss the mosque—it is absolutely gorgeous, both the serene grounds and the extravagantly decorated main prayer hall. I recommend arriving early to enjoy it before the tour groups arrive.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
In the afternoon we rested back at our hotel before heading out at 3 pm for the 30-minute walk to Mutrah Corniche. This was my favourite part of Muscat (and one of the few walkable areas) with a lovely promenade with white buildings backed by rugged mountains overlooking the sea. It’s especially pleasant at sunset.
The nearby Mutrah Souq reopens after the afternoon break at 5 pm. The crowded alleyways are touristy but a good place for souvenir shopping.
Where to Stay in Muscat
The view from our room at Mutrah Hotel
We stayed at Mutrah Hotel between the Little India area of Ruwi and the Mutrah Corniche. The decor was dated but our room was huge with a seating area, ensuite, fridge, air con, OK WiFi, and room service. We had a view of the mountains behind the hotel and there is a SPAR supermarket across the road as well as a few cheap Indian restaurants nearby. It was one of the cheapest hotels we found in Muscat and we were happy with our choice.
Where to Eat in Muscat
We had lunch at Welcome Restaurant, a small, simple, vegetarian Indian restaurant near our hotel. At lunch they only had thalis but it was very good with an array of curries, puffy puri bread, and a sweet for only 2.5 OMR (£4.70) for both of us including water.
We had dinner near the Mutrah Souq at Bait Al Luban, an upmarket restaurant serving traditional Omani cuisine. It’s named after frankincense (which is grown in Oman) and the pungent scent smokes through the restaurant. They even add it to the water.
We sat on cushions and ordered from the decent vegetarian section—our Omani vegetable curry and fava beans in tomato sauce with date flatbread were good. Afterwards they brought us a big bowl of delicious Omani dates. Bait Al Luban is more expensive than most restaurants in Oman, but it’s not unreasonable and it’s worth it for a special meal as there aren’t many destination restaurants in Oman.
Day 3 Muscat – Nizwa (2 nights)
Distance: 176km Time: 2 hours
The drive to Nizwa was easy on good quality highways through the desert surrounded by barren mountains, passing the occasional oasis town. We continued past Nizwa to the 17th-century Jabrin Fort (also known as Jabreen or Jibreen Castle), one of the best forts to visit in Oman. Entrance was only 500 baisa (£0.95) and it wasn’t very busy. There’s a labyrinth of rooms to explore and you can enjoy views of the date palms and mountains from the battlements.
You could also visit nearby Bahla Fort but we were exhausted so headed back to Nizwa to check in to our hotel.
Nizwa isn’t a particularly attractive town. It’s very spread out and the outskirts (where the hotels are) are full of strip malls and fast food chains. The fort and souq area are worth a visit though and we went in the late afternoon. The Nizwa Fort is now open from 8 am to 6 pm (except on Fridays when it’s 8–11.30am and 1.30–8pm) and the souq opens in the mornings and from 5 pm to 8 pm.
We have mixed feelings about Nizwa Fort. It is beautiful, especially the massive circular tower which you can climb for views of the city and mountains beyond, but it now costs 10 times what it used to—5 OMR (£9.40). For that price you would expect it to be better maintained, but the lights in the exhibition area flashed annoyingly. It probably didn’t help that we’re not super into forts, so if you aren’t on a tight budget or are a history buff then you should visit.
On our second morning in Nizwa we visited Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain). The base of the mountain is in Birkat al Mawz, a 15-minute drive from our hotel. When you reach the town follow signs to turn left to Al Jabal Al Akhdar. You drive up the mountain until you arrive at a car park and police checkpoint—it’s 4WD only beyond this point. As we were in a 2WD we parked and a young guy called Mohammed immediately approached us in his shiny 4WD and offered to drive us up for a tour for 35 OMR (£66).
On the way up we stopped at various viewpoints for spectacular views of the rugged mountains and villages that cling to its sides. At the Saiq Plateau you realise why it got its name as the green refers to the terraces of fruit trees and roses that are grown in the villages. Spring is a better time to visit to see everything in bloom.
We spent about two and a half hours enjoying the views and taking short walks in the cool air (take layers!). An interesting addition would be the two-hour hike between the villages of Al Aqr and Al Ayn.
We were back at our hotel by lunchtime, so you could skip the extra night in Nizwa and continue to Jebel Shams.
Where to Stay in Nizwa
Most of the hotels in Nizwa are quite far from the centre. Al Karam Hotel Apartment was one of the cheapest places we found but was surprisingly good, despite its random location off a highway surrounded by desert. Our one-bedroom apartment was spacious, clean and comfortable, if rather characterless. We liked having a separate living room with couch and used the small kitchen to self-cater. WiFi was pretty good (4 Mbps up and down). A breakfast buffet is included in the price.
Where to Eat in Nizwa
There didn’t seem to be anywhere particularly good to eat in Nizwa, so we self-catered at the amazing, huge Lulu Hypermarket. It really has everything you could possibly need including an excellent prepared food section where we stocked up on samosas, dahl, curries, rice, salads, hummus, and bread. They even had all of our favourite British chocolates and it’s a good place to buy inexpensive dates.
The Nizwa Fort Coffee Shop between the fort and the souq looked like a pretty good option for a coffee, juice, and snack.
Day 5 Nizwa – Jebel Shams (2 nights)
Distance: 108km Time: 2 hours 20 minutes via Misfat
You could visit Jebel Shams as a day trip from Nizwa but we decided to spend a few nights up there to enjoy the views and tranquility. On the way we stopped at Misfat al Abryeen, one of Oman’s oldest and most picturesque villages. From the modern side of the village there are fantastic views of the old village clinging to the mountainside and surrounded by lush date palms—walking through the oasis is a highlight.
Misfat Al Abriyeen
Misfat is an interesting place but we felt a little intrusive exploring the village itself. It’s a tiny, traditional place of crumbling mud houses and has become popular with visitors. There are signs everywhere reminding guests to cover their shoulders and knees and warning people away from walking down private alleyways. It might be more rewarding to stay overnight at Misfah Old House guesthouse, although it’s expensive for what you get.
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