Nestled within the city of Rome is a unique piece of land that lays claim to several important titles, not the least of which (ha!) is smallest country in the world. At 100 acres in size, Vatican City is less than a third of the size of London’s Hyde Park and has a lower total population than that of a Central Line train on a Monday morning, but what it may lack in size, it certainly makes up for in content. Not only is Vatican City the home of the pope, it’s also where you’ll find some of history’s most revered works of art as well as the largest church in the world – St Peter’s Basilica.
Besides its massive size, St Peter’s Basilica is famous for being the final resting place of St Peter (one of Jesus’ 12 apostles) and a significant number of past popes. At the time it was built in the 1600’s, it was also considered to be the greatest work of Renaissance architecture ever made. I’m no architecture expert, but I think it’s still quite a knock-out these days, too! If you’re visiting Rome, you’ll likely end up stepping over into Vatican City at some point (gotta collect that extra country!) to check out the Vatican Museums and take a look inside the church, but don’t just stop there – there’s actually a lot more to do and see at St Peter’s Basilica than just wandering around the ground floor of the church. Keep on scrolling to discover 5 cool things you can do here, including how to see the pope!
If you’re really lucky, when you first walk inside St Peter’s Basilica you’ll enter through the Holy Door. Only open on a year the pope has deemed a Holy Year (usually every 25 years), visitors who enter through this door are granted full remission of their sins. If it’s not a Holy Year, the door is bricked up from the inside, but don’t worry, you’ll still be able to enter through one of the church’s other entrances. (Best of luck to you in the afterlife, though!)
Entrance into St Peter’s Basilica is free, but if you want the very best experience, you’ll need to fork over a few euros. Just after entering the church, you’ll see a desk renting audio guides. Grab one. It’ll make everything you see inside St Peter’s make so much more sense. After you’ve armed yourself with an audio guide and your camera, you’re ready to explore.
The audio tour will take about an hour to complete, but there’s no time limit, so you can go at your own pace. Besides the Treasury (additional fee) and the Vatican Grottoes (free, but has a separate queue), photography is allowed everywhere inside St Peter’s Basilica, which is a really good thing because otherwise we’d all be trying to covertly take photos without getting caught and totally miss how awe-inspiring it is to walk through this brilliant architectural marvel!
After you’ve finished your audio tour and returned your guide, it’s time to move onwards and upwards. Literally.
CLIMB THE STAIRS TO THE DOME
Rising up 450 feet from the floor of the basilica to the top of the cross, the dome of St Peter’s Basilica is the tallest in the world. That’s not its only claim to fame, though. It was also designed by none other than Michelangelo, although completely finished after his death.
For just €6, you can climb up a narrow flight of stairs to get an up-close look at the dome of St Peter’s, or if you prefer a look sans exercise, there is a lift that will get you there for €8. At the top, you’ll be able to walk around the inside of the dome via the circular gallery that surrounds it. From here, you’ll have a much better view of the intricate mosaics decorating the ceiling and walls of the dome (they look like frescoes from below, but they’re actually mosaics!) as well as a unique bird’s eye view of the nave below.
After you’ve seen all you want to see inside the dome, it’s time to head outside!
CHECK OUT THE VIEW OF ROME
Included in whichever ticket you bought for the dome is the opportunity to continue on a little higher and stand on the outside of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Besides how cool it is to be standing at the top of such a famous landmark, you’ll also get one amazing view of the city of Rome! However, this time you’ll have to take the stairs no matter which ticket you bought because there is no lift to this portion of the dome.
Once you’ve reached the top (551 steps in total if you took the stairs the whole way and 320 if you took the lift to the first gallery), you’ll be treated to quite an expansive view in every direction since the dome of St Peter’s is one of the highest points in not just Vatican City, but all of Rome. If you’ve been blessed with a fear of heights (I feel you), you’ve got nothing to be afraid of up here. The exterior portion of the dome is completely enclosed by metal bars, and the ground feels nice and sturdy.
Seeing St Peter’s Square and the Vatican Museums from this vantage point is pretty incredible, but so is being able to see all the way to Altare della Patria (the gigantic white monument near the Colosseum) and beyond. You can also walk out onto the roof of St Peter’s Basilica after you exit the outdoor viewing gallery. (This is the perfect time to photograph the dome itself!)
Chances are, your visit to St Peter’s Basilica will be during the day, but there are at least a couple reasons to return at night. For one, there are a lot less people. After dark, St Peter’s Square and pretty much everywhere in Vatican City clears out as people head into Rome for dinner and nightlife. If you haven’t already seen the inside of the church, this is a good time to do it, assuming it hasn’t already closed. (The church stays open until 6pm in the winter and 7pm in the summer.)
Secondly, St Peter’s is beautiful all lit up at night. When you combine the illuminated basilica facade with the glow of the antique-style lamp posts, especially just after sunset during blue hour, you get a pretty spectacular scene that’s hard to beat. If you’re into photography, you’ll definitely want to make sure you hit St Peter’s after dark. Besides the church and the square, the colonnades that surround the square on either side are a great spot for photos.
SAY HELLO TO THE POPE
After we settled on Rome for our February half-term holiday, one of the first things I did was google how to see the pope. Turns out, he’s not that hard to find.
Assuming he’s not away, the easiest way to see the pope in Rome is to attend the short speech and blessing he gives every Sunday to the crowd that gathers in St Peter’s Square. It starts at noon, but you’ll probably want to get there a little earlier to secure a good spot with a view of the Apostolic Palace. Attendance is free and you won’t need a ticket to enter. His speech, with the Angelus and blessing, will last around 20 minutes.
If you aren’t in Rome over a Sunday, another great way to see the pope is to attend the Papal Audience on Wednesdays. Usually held in St Peter’s Square at 10am, the Papal Audience is not a true mass, but it is a service with a message, prayers, a homily, and singing. Lasting between 1-2 hours, you will need a ticket to attend this one which makes this route for seeing the pope a little more difficult, but at least tickets are free. Information for how to obtain tickets to the Papal Audience can be found here. Otherwise, attending a regularly scheduled mass is another option for catching the pope in action, although these are ticketed as well.
Even if you don’t speak Italian, and even if you’re not Catholic, seeing the pope in person is sure to be a highlight of your trip. To find out whether the pope will be in Rome on a certain date, you can check his schedule here or use the Pope Tracker app. (That the pope has his own app sort of makes me fall in love with the internet all over again.)
TIPS FOR VISITING ST PETER’S BASILICA
Dress appropriately. For men, this means wearing long trousers and a shirt that covers your shoulders. For women, shoulders and knees need to be covered and low-cut tops are a no go. This was no big deal for us in February since we were covered up for the weather anyway. For those visiting in summer, it’s probably a little less convenient. A scarf can be used to cover up any exposed skin, so if wearing sleeves in the summer sounds like torture, that’s an option. Just don’t forget to bring it with you!
Bring cash. Entrance is free, but if you’d like an audio guide or a ticket to the dome, you’ll need cash since credit cards are not accepted at either ticket booth.
Don’t get stuck in the queues. Just like for the Vatican Museums, the queues to enter St Peter’s Basilica can be lengthy. To avoid the worst of it, try to arrange your visit early in the morning or at late afternoon/evening. If you’re an early riser, one of the best ways to arrange your itinerary would be to arrive at St Peter’s when it opens at 7. That way you can tour the church without any crowds, head up to the dome when it opens at 8, and still be in the queue for the Vatican Museums before they open at 9. If that’s way too early, another option is to tour the church relatively early, head to the museums shortly after they open, and then return to St Peter’s to go up to the dome sometime later. (Sunset is a popular choice, but be prepared for crowds!)
Take a look at the website before you go. Closing times for areas within the church vary throughout the year, and sometimes a scheduled mass might conflict with your visit, but you can find all that information on the website below. The official website is also where you can arrange private tours to the Scavi where the tomb of St Peter can be found!
Visiting Rome, especially for the first time, without at least touching on the city’s history would be nearly impossible to do. Along with ancient Greece, Rome is considered to be the birthplace of western civilization, and evidence of that achievement looms around virtually every corner in the city…at least the architectural remnants of it, anyway. As you’d expect, the Colosseum sees the highest tourist traffic among Rome’s famous ruins, but you’ll be able to discover even more history, as well as get a glimpse into daily life during the height of the Roman Empire, by visiting the Colosseum’s sister sites – the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill.
If I could offer just one piece of advice, it would be to visit both of these sites with a guide. There are no pamphlets handed out at the entrances or signs throughout the sites describing what you’re looking at. Both the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are entirely just ruins, which definitely keeps them feeling authentic vs museum-like, but doesn’t help you out much if you aren’t even aware of what you’re looking at. If a guided tour isn’t an option, I recommend at least printing off maps and doing a little reading ahead of time. That’s what we did, which helped give us a little more context, but I still think we’d have enjoyed it more if we’d gone through with a guide like we did at the Colosseum. (You can find a map of the Roman Forum here and Palatine Hill here.)
The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill each have their own entrance, but the sites are connected, so you won’t need to exit one and then stand in line again to enter the other. Lines tend to be shortest at the entrance to Palatine Hill, so that’s where we started. (FYI – Entrance into both sites is included with your Colosseum ticket!) You’ll find more information on both sites below, as well as a list of must-see highlights inside the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill you’ll want to mark on your map before you go!
One of the most ancient parts of the city of Rome, Palatine Hill sits at the center of the Seven Hills of Rome. These hills were located in the heart of Rome within the boundaries of the city walls, which is why several Roman emperors chose to build their palaces here, some of the remains of which you can still see today.
Palatine Hill’s history, however, dates even further back than the Holy Roman Emperors. Supposedly, the first people to ever live in Rome lived on Palatine Hill. Several myths and legends surround this area, the most famous of which (the tale of Romulus and Remus) depicts the fabled events that led to the founding of the city of Rome.
Stories aside, there is a lot of real history to be seen here. Most of what remains hardly resembles what it once was, but it’s interesting to see regardless. Palatine Hill is also an excellent spot to take a walk if the weather’s nice. It’s the least crowded of the Colosseum-Roman Forum-Palatine Hill trifecta and, thanks to its height, has lovely views over the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and other areas of the city!
HIGHLIGHTS AT PALATINE HILL
Flavian Palace The enormous palace built for Emperor Domitian dominating Palatine Hill.
Stadium of Domitian Most likely used as Domitian’s personal gardens, it’s possible small sporting events were also held here.
Domus Severiana These were the last rooms added onto the imperial palace by Emperor Septimius Severus. The Baths are particularly worth a look.
Circus Maximus The largest chariot-racing arena in Rome, capable of holding up to 300,000 spectators.
Houses of Livia and Augustus These require a separate entrance ticket, but are the best-preserved living quarters on Palatine Hill.
The Lookout Terrace Although not a part of the ancient ruins, the terrace near the connection between Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum is one of the best spots to get a good look at the Forum ruins before you enter them at ground level.
The Seven Hills of Rome might have been the geographical heart of Rome, but its true beating heart was the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum, a plaza around which several temples, important public buildings, and statues and memorials were once situated, was at the core of daily life in Rome for over a thousand years. Serving many purposes from a marketplace to an arena for public speeches and trials, the Roman Forum was essentially the commercial and political center of Rome.
Walking through the Roman Forum today feels a lot like walking through Pompeii, just a little greener. Following the area’s excavation in the 19th century, new paths were cut through what was left of the government buildings where the Senate met, the Forum’s many temples and shrines, and several monuments dedicated to Rome’s famous rulers of the times. A few select buildings, arches and columns, and statues remain recognizable in their semi-original forms; the rest of what you’ll see is only fragments of what once was, but it’s enough to be able to imagine just how incredible the Roman Forum would have looked in its prime!
HIGHLIGHTS AT THE ROMAN FORUM
Via Sacra Rome’s Sacred Road stretching from the top of Capitoline Hill, through the Roman Forum, and to the Colosseum.
Milliarium Aureum The Golden Milestone was a monument measuring the distance of all cities in the Roman Empire to Rome. Only what is believed to be the base remains today.
Arch of Titus The oldest of the Roman Forum’s triumphal arches, erected after the death of Emperor Titus by his brother Emperor Domitian.
Temple of Castor and Pollux These three, tall Corinthian columns known as the Three Sisters are one of the most recognizable monuments still standing in the Forum.
The Curia The official meeting place of the Roman Senate, the Curia was torn down and rebuilt many times. The current Curia dates back to 305 AD.
Temple of Vesta Containing the Sacred Fire, an eternal flame guarded by the Vestal Virgins, this temple was one of the most important in ancient Rome.
House of the Vestal Virgins This was the residence for the priestesses who guarded the eternal flame. Several statues depicting the Head Vestals remain, albeit mostly headless.
Temple of Saturn The original was the first temple built in the Roman Forum. The eight columns still standing today belong to one of its successors built in the 4th century.
Arch of Septimius Severus Commemorating Emperor Septimius Severus’s decade in power, this arch was also considered the symbolic center of Rome.
Tickets can be purchased online here or at the entrance to any of the three sites. (Ticket queues will be shortest at Palatine Hill.) Your ticket allows a single entry into the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, and is good for two consecutive days which is super helpful since trying to fit all three sites into one day would make for one very full day!
Besides the Colosseum, the one thing I was looking forward to the most on our trip to Rome was getting to explore inside the Vatican Museums. The Vatican Museums, along with the Louvre in Paris, have been on my to-see list for almost two decades now. Due to an unfortunate stroke of bad luck, we missed getting to go inside the Louvre on our trip to Paris, so I wasn’t about to let the same happen in Rome. The first morning after we arrived in the city, we woke up bright and early and were standing in the queue to enter the museums over half an hour before the doors even opened. And I’m certainly glad we were because I’ve never seen crowds in a museum like those inside the Vatican Museums!
Displaying over 20,000 works of art collected by several popes over the past few centuries, the Vatican Museums are made up of several different museums, galleries, and rooms, each featuring vast collections of world-renowned paintings and sculptures. There’s so much to see, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, but don’t let that deter you from visiting. Even though you won’t be able to see everything on a single visit, if you plan it right and give yourself enough time, you’ll still be able to see quite a bit. The key is to determine ahead of time the things you absolutely must see inside the Vatican Museums, and then make sure to work those particular pieces or places into the path you take through the museums. (Don’t worry, there are free maps at the entrance to help you navigate the maze of galleries!)
So, what are the must-sees at the Vatican Museums? Naturally, the answer to that question will vary depending on who you ask – what I consider to be the top things to see inside the Vatican Museums may be different than yours. I’m more of a sculpture girl, myself, but you might think the only things worth seeing are paintings by the masters of the Renaissance. (In which case, you’ll appreciate the Raphael Rooms far more than I did!) That being said, I believe there are several highlights within the Vatican Museums that no one should miss (ahem, Sistine Chapel) and you’ll find these below, along with a few of my personal favorites!
The Gallery of Maps is one of the most visually stunning rooms within the Vatican Museums. Stretching down a long hallway, it’ll be a contest to see what grabs your attention first – the highly decorative ceiling or the 40 geographical frescoes depicting Italy and its provinces lining the walls. Take your time as you walk through here to check out the detail in these maps painted from drawings by Ignazio Danti, a famous geographer in the 16th century.
The Museo Chiaramonti is named after Pope Pius VII who founded the gallery in the early 19th century. Containing over 1,000 ancient sculptures, the Museo Chiaramonti is important not only because of the striking portrait busts and statues you’ll find here, but also because this gallery represents many of these sculptures’ return home. Having been seized by Napoleon and taken to France in the late 1700’s, it wasn’t until several decades later that these pieces were recovered and brought back to be displayed in this gallery. Be sure to check out the New Wing (Braccio Nuovo) before leaving this area, too.
CORTILE DELLA PIGNA
Also known as the Pinecone Courtyard, the Cortile della Pigna gets its name from the gigantic bronze pinecone that sits at one end of the square. The thing I find most interesting about the Pinecone Courtyard, however, is not the pinecone so much as the unusual gold sphere found opposite it known as Sfera con Sfera, or Sphere within a Sphere. Looking slightly out of place surrounded by its much older counterparts, Sfera con Sfera is actually just one piece of a series by Arnaldo Pomodoro found in many locations around the world. (We were lucky enough to find another at Trinity College in Dublin!) Representing the fragility and complexity of the world, you won’t want to miss this one!
THE OCTAGONAL COURTYARD
Located in the Museo Pio-Clementino, the Octagonal Courtyard is a beautiful open-air space featuring several of the museum’s most famous sculptures. One of my favorites here is Laocoön, a sculpture dating all the way back to 40 BC depicting Laocoön and his sons being killed by sea serpents during the Trojan War, an event which ultimately led to the founding of Rome. Another, the Apollo Belvedere, is famous for representing what the Romans once considered to be the perfect male form. While not quite as notable as the others, the elegant statue of the River God, once part of a fountain dating back to the times of Emperor Hadrian, is also worth a look.
Also located in the Museo Pio-Clementino is the Sala Rotonda, or Round Hall. Designed with the Pantheon in mind, the Sala Rotonda makes quite an impression from top to bottom. While certainly smaller in size, you won’t be able to miss the similarities in the ceiling of the Sala Rotunda and the Pantheon (e.g., the round oculus in the center and the square notches surrounding it), but there are differences, too, like the addition of the small rosettes that give the Sala Rotonda’s ceiling a much more delicate look. The floor in this room is made up of colorful ancient mosaics originally laid in the town of Otricoli back in the 3rd century. (How things like this survive so long amazes me!)
THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE
Another highlight of the Vatican Museums modeled after something else, the museum’s legendary spiral staircase is actually designed after another staircase inside the museum that is no longer open to the public, the Bramante Staircase. You’ll find the newer spiral staircase, designed by Giuseppe Momo, near the main exit. This staircase, like the original, is a double spiral staircase made up of two staircases shaped like a double helix allowing people to ascend without meeting people descending. If you’re visiting the Vatican Museums on your own, you’ll likely exit this way, but if you’re part of a tour, you might have to make a side trip to check it out!
HALL OF THE CHARIOT
The Hall of the Chariot is a gallery that probably interests me more than it will the average museum visitor, but if you’re in the Museo Pio-Clementino anyway, you might as well drop by and check it out. Featuring statues and other sculptures depicting scenes from athletic games and competitions, this room of the museum is a fun departure from the usual busts and statues you’ll find throughout the Vatican Museums. The two-horse chariot in the center of the room is the most noteworthy piece in here, but you’ll also find a copy of the famous Discobolus out on display.
THE PAPAL APARTMENTS
So named because the Popes once used this area as private residences, today the Papal Apartments are where you’ll find a large collection of rooms featuring some of the most famous frescoes in the Vatican Museums. The most well-known of these rooms are the Raphael Rooms, four separate rooms collectively known as Stanze di Raffaello and painted by Raphael and his school in the early 1500’s. The most famous piece here is the School of Athens, found in the Room of Segnatura. While I thought the frescoes in the Raphael Rooms were incredible, my favorite room in the Papal Apartments was actually the Room of the Immaculate Conception (pictured above) painted by Francis Podesti, which probably proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that I know nothing about art.
THE MUSEUM ITSELF
Isn’t it funny how the places we build to hold our works of art, often end up becoming one themselves? Walking through the Vatican Museums is a lot like walking through one gigantic 460,000 square foot masterpiece. As you’re making your way through the many rooms and galleries, don’t forget to look past the pieces displayed and see everything that surrounds them. You never know when you might be walking on a floor that was once a part of an ancient villa in central Italy! And definitely don’t forget to look up. The ceilings throughout the Vatican Museums are magnificent, which leads nicely into the absolute most important thing to see inside the Vatican Museums…
THE SISTINE CHAPEL
The Sistine Chapel hardly needs an introduction, but just in case you’re not aware, the Sistine Chapel is where you’ll find one of the most famous works of art in the entire world – nine scenes from the book of Genesis painted onto the ceiling by none other than Michelangelo himself. The most iconic of these scenes is the Creation of Adam, but they all work together to create a pièce de résistance that you’re probably going to need some time to completely appreciate. The walls also contain some pretty impressive paintings, including The Last Judgement by Michelangelo, so make use of the benches along the chapel walls and take your time. This room stays busy, but there’s no limit on how long you can stay.
Speaking of that, besides buying your tickets online and being in the queue to enter before opening time, my only other piece of advice for visiting the Vatican Museums is simply not to rush. A visit to the Vatican Museums will be infinitely more enjoyable if you aren’t racing through to reach the Sistine Chapel so you can head to the next stop on your Rome itinerary. Guided tours are available, and while I personally didn’t feel it was necessary to take one, there are some that start before the museum opens to regular visitors, so it might be worth it simply to avoid the crowds! Entrance tickets can be purchased directly from the museum here. For more information about guided tours, please visit the website below.
Europe’s capital cities are absolutely filled with famous sights, but more often than not there will still be one in particular that stands out among the rest – the one that the moment you catch sight of it for the first time, it fully hits exactly where you are and how lucky you are to be there. For myself, and I’m guessing most other travelers, these are usually historically significant landmarks like Big Ben in London, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, and in the case of today’s post – the Colosseum in Rome.
The Colosseum has been standing in Rome since 80 AD. (That’s just 62 years shy of two millennia ago!) Several earthquakes and a period of time where the Colosseum’s crumbling stone was removed and used to construct other buildings in Rome have, of course, changed its appearance from that of the Roman Empire’s heyday, but what remains is still an incredibly well-preserved piece of Rome’s fascinating history. No first-time holiday in Rome is complete without a visit to the Colosseum, and there is no better way to explore it than via a Colosseum Underground Tour!
WHY IS A COLOSSEUM UNDERGROUND TOUR THE BEST WAY TO SEE THE COLOSSEUM?
Visitors to the Colosseum with a standard entrance ticket are allowed access to two different areas in the Colosseum – the first tier and the second tier. That’s it. If you’re not interested in the history or are rushing to fit multiple sights into a single day, then a standard ticket is the way to go. For everyone else, the best way to visit the Colosseum will be via one of the sight’s several tour options, the most extensive of which is the underground tour.
The Colosseum Underground Tour allows visitors access to quite a few places not open to standard ticket holders. It’s sort of like a backstage pass into the Colosseum’s history. (Keep reading to see all the areas included on the tour!)
Besides access to restricted areas, you’ll also have the benefit of a knowledgeable guide to supply the history and stories necessary to truly bring a visit to the Colosseum to life. If you’re visiting on your own, hardly any information will be provided about what you’re seeing. The Colosseum is still very cool to see regardless of whether you’re on a tour or not, but it’ll be a significantly more meaningful experience with a little context.
HOW TO BOOK A COLOSSEUM UNDERGROUND TOUR
The cheapest way is to book directly with the Colosseum. To secure your spot on a Colosseum Underground Tour, you’ll need to purchase two different tickets – a standard ticket (€12) and a tour ticket (€9). You can do this online here. (Note: There is a €2 online booking fee per ticket, but it’s worth it to get the tour time you prefer and avoid the long ticket lines at the Colosseum.) Since each tour only allows up to 25 people and there are limited tours throughout the day, I recommend booking your tickets as soon as you know what days you’ll be in Rome. Tours fill up quickly during peak season, so don’t wait especially if you’re traveling to Rome over the summer.
Alternatively, you can book an underground tour with a private tour company in Rome. These tours are more expensive, but usually have the benefit of also providing you with a tour guide for the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, the two other sights included with a standard ticket into the Colosseum. I don’t have any personal recommendations to offer as we booked directly with the Colosseum, but a quick Google search should bring up the most popular companies for these tours.
AREAS YOU’LL VISIT ON A COLOSSEUM UNDERGROUND TOUR
THE ARENA FLOOR
Our tour began on the arena floor, also known as the stage. Pictured first above, the stage is obviously a newer addition to the Colosseum as the original arena floor was dismantled centuries ago, but it still offers a unique vantage point of the Colosseum that you don’t get when you’re restricted to the outer rings of the amphitheater.
Entering the arena through the Gate of Death (yep, it’s just like it sounds – this was the door the bodies of gladiators were carried through after their deaths), nothing will make you feel quite so small and insignificant like standing on the edge of the arena floor and looking up at the massive ruins of what was once the largest and most impressive amphitheater in the world. (Fun fact: Up to 80,000 people could fit in the Colosseum at one time!)
While you could never truly capture it without all the people and the noise and the fear and excitement, having access to this unique location and being able to hear a few of the most interesting tales that once occurred on the same spot where we currently stood made it a little easier to imagine what the Colosseum must have looked and felt like for the gladiators who once fought and lost their lives within its oval walls.
THE BASEMENT OF THE COLOSSEUM
Next we headed to the area which gives the tour its name – the Colosseum’s basement. It was here, in an elaborate underground network of tunnels, cages, and holding rooms beneath the arena floor, that gladiators and animals were kept in anticipation of their “performances”. Exploring this area today allows a behind-the-scenes look at the preparation that went into the gladiator fights, animal hunts, and other public spectacles that everyone from the rich to the poor came to see during the Roman Empire’s reign.
With the arena floor now gone, most of the basement is completely exposed and grass grows where tunnels and cages once were. However, much of the underground structure around the outer rim of the arena remains in fairly decent condition (including the original floor in some of the rooms reserved for gladiators) since it’s been relatively well-protected from the elements all these years. It’s in these areas that the tour takes place.
Some parts of the Colosseum’s underground have been reconstructed, like the lifts that once took the animals and gladiators up to the arena level, to make it easier to understand how things once worked down here. And it’s dark, but not nearly as dark (nor presumably as scary) as it once was when the arena floor blocked out nearly all the light. Even with these differences, there’s still enough left behind to be able to see what it might have been like down here 2,000 years ago.
THE THIRD RING
Our final stop on the Colosseum Underground Tour was about as opposite as underground as you can get. After passing through a gated area on the second level of the Colosseum, we headed up to the Third Ring located at the top of the amphitheater. (If you take a look at the third picture in this post, you’ll see a couple of people standing on a terrace above the tiers where the rest of the Colosseum’s visitors can go – that’s the Third Ring.)
This upper level provides a wide view of the Colosseum, as well as the ruins located nearby at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. (Pictured: Arch of Constantine, and the Arch of Titus beside the Temple of Venus and Rome.) This is also one of the few spots where you can still see pieces of the original outer walls of the Colosseum. The rest were taken and sold after the fall of Rome.
Our tour ended here (in total, it was about an hour and a half) and we were left to exit on our own or explore the other areas of the Colosseum open to all visitors. We chose the latter, which I definitely recommend you do if you have the time. I mean, you bought a ticket, might as well make it worth it, right?
THE FIRST AND SECOND RINGS
If you were lucky (or smart) enough to book the earliest Colosseum Underground Tour of the day, the First and Second Rings might not be all that busy yet when you visit them after your tour is over. At least that was the case for us visiting in mid-February anyway.
While we didn’t get to see anything on these levels that we hadn’t already seen from the arena floor on our tour, it was still interesting just to be able to see how the view of the Colosseum changes depending on what level you’re on. From a photography standpoint, I definitely enjoyed the second level the most, but for those visiting on a standard ticket only, the first level will allow a closer look at the network of tunnels beneath the arena.
Btw, that is my husband pretending to decide the fate of a fallen gladiator, not expressing his opinion on the Colosseum itself. (Just in case that wasn’t clear, ha!)
PERIMETER WALK OUTSIDE THE COLOSSEUM
After you exit the Colosseum (there is no getting back in after you leave without buying a whole new ticket, so make sure you’re ready), be sure to walk around the full perimeter of the Colosseum before you go. This especially applies if you’re into photography. Everyone likes to get the same head-on view of the Colosseum (which was, unfortunately, completely covered in scaffolding when I visited), but there are a lot of unique shots you can capture if you’re willing to walk around a little bit looking for unexpected angles. (There are also opportunities for interesting Colosseum shots from the other sights included on your ticket, so don’t skip them!)
THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE COLOSSEUM UNDERGROUND TOUR
Tours meet at a specific meeting point inside the Colosseum. After you make it through security, if you haven’t already been told where you are meeting, just ask someone at the security check point. They’ll point you in the right direction.
You’ll be given a headset so you can always hear your guide. Even though tours are small, it can get both windy and noisy at the Colosseum, making it hard to hear your guide. The headsets totally solve that problem.
Children under 18 are allowed into the Colosseum for free, and are free on the tour up to age 12. But they’ll still need a ticket. You can book them online at the same time as your adult tickets, but they’ll need to be picked up at the special events desk outside the Colosseum. (You’ll have to show proof of age, so bring a passport or ID.)
If you have limited mobility, the underground tour may be difficult for you. Particularly on the steps up to the third ring. They were really narrow and steep, so if you’re unsteady, it could be easy to take a fall.
Should you tip your guide? It’s not necessary, and on our tour we noticed almost no one did, but I personally think if you really enjoyed the tour, an extra euro or two is a nice way of complimenting your guide.
I know there’s no such thing as a perfect holiday, but if there ever was one, it was our first trip to Rome.
From the moment our plane began its descent into Ciampino airport, I could tell this trip was going to be something special. As luck would have it, we’d been seated on the scenic side of the airplane, so while the pilot slowly eased us back onto the ground, we had a bird’s eye view of everything – the Colosseum, Vatican City, the Pantheon, and every other sight Italy’s capital is known for. (And at sunset, no less!) Seeing Rome for the first time, cast in the golden glow of the setting sun, was nothing short of magical. And that was only the beginning, everything that was to follow only continued to exceed our expectations.
The next four days were a blur of pizzas eaten in famous piazzas, daily walks taken through the pages of history books come to life, sunny afternoons and gelato, perpetually drained camera batteries, hours-long meals shared with old friends, and even a glimpse of the Pope. Writing it all out like that makes our entire trip sound like one giant Italian cliche, but if there was ever a place to indulge in cliches, it would be Rome. All of the things that make you roll your eyes and say, ‘Of course you tried eleven different flavors of gelato in one day’ are undeniably, without a doubt essential to the success of your first trip to Rome. You’ll no doubt leave several pounds heavier, but trust me, it’s so worth it.
If this is your first time in Rome, you’re probably wondering what, of the massive list of things to do and see in this beautiful, historic city, is actually worth doing. The short answer is all of it, but unless you’ve got weeks to spare, you’ll probably have to make some choices. For first-timers to the city, and those interested in discovering the centuries of history embedded here, I’d recommend including the following 10 things on your Rome itinerary!
10 THINGS TO DO IN ROME
TAKE A TOUR OF THE COLOSSEUM
It’s not a trip to Rome if you haven’t stood in the center of the Colosseum and shouted ‘Are you not entertained?’, right?
Just kidding. Seeing as you can’t actually stand in the middle of the Colosseum anymore, you’ll probably have to reenact your favorite Gladiator scenes somewhere else, but definitely don’t miss seeing the Colosseum. Used for entertainment (most often of the gory, one-of-us-is-going-die-today type), the Colosseum is the largest and most well-preserved amphitheater from the Roman Empire. Seeing this epic piece of history with your own eyes is an absolute must-do in Rome.
The cheapest way to visit is to purchase a standard ticket that will gain you entrance into the Colosseum and the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill nearby. If you’ve got the time and are willing to pay a few extra bucks, though, the very best way to visit the Colosseum is on a guided tour. You’ll get to see places standard ticket holders don’t have access to. Plus, nothing quite brings the history made here to life like having someone skilled in the art of story-telling walking you through it. We took the Underground & Third Ring Tour and loved every minute of it. Standard tickets and tour tickets can both be bought online here.
WALK THROUGH THE RUINS AT THE ROMAN FORUM & PALATINE HILL
Your ticket for the Colosseum also gets you into a few additional sights including the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Tickets are valid for two consecutive days, so you don’t have to try to pack all three sights into the same day. (I actually recommend you don’t unless you have to. That would be an exhausting day!)
Tip: If you didn’t purchase your tickets online, queues for tickets are far shorter at the ticket booth at Palatine Hill than at the Colosseum, so buy your tickets there!
Palatine Hill is well-known for being the site of the first settlement in Rome, dating all the way back to the 8th century BC. The Roman Forum is a large plaza beneath the hill which was once the center of daily life in Rome and housed some of the city’s most important buildings and structures. What’s left today are only bits and pieces of what was once a gleaming white, prosperous city, but it’s still a fascinating glimpse into early Roman life. For your visit, I suggest either hiring a guide or at the very least printing a written one from the internet so you’ll have an idea of what you’re looking at. Otherwise, you’ll just be walking through lots of famous ruins, which is still cool, but doesn’t provide a lot of context.
EXPLORE THE MASTERPIECES INSIDE THE VATICAN MUSEUMS
The famous spiral staircase, the papal throne, the Gallery of Maps, the Sistine Chapel. If the opportunity to take in the beauty of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, possibly the most famous work of art ever, doesn’t convince you to visit the Vatican Museums, nothing will.
There are 54 different galleries and several courtyards within the Vatican Museums, each featuring carefully chosen paintings and sculptures collected by centuries of Popes. Like the Louvre in Paris, the Vatican Museums contain more priceless works of art than can be seen in a day, but if you give yourself around three hours, you’ll still be able to see the museums’ most famous bits. Of all the places we visited in Rome, the Vatican Museums were the busiest, so if possible I recommend starting your day here and being in the queue for the museum when it opens at 9am. Current ticket prices can be found here.
TAKE A PEEK INSIDE ST PETER’S BASILICA
Like the Vatican Museums, you’ll find St Peter’s Basilica within the religious city-state of Vatican City. (That there is a small country within the city of Rome itself still sort of blows my mind!)
St Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world, and also the burial site of Saint Peter, one of Jesus’ apostles and whom those of the Catholic faith consider to be the first Pope. Religious faith aside, St Peter’s is one of the most impressive churches I’ve ever been inside, and after traveling through Europe for three years, I can say I’ve been in a fair few. Entrance into St Peter’s Basilica is free, but if you want to climb the stairs to the top of the basilica’s dome, there is a small fee. (This is a great way to see the city of Rome from above, though!)
STAND BENEATH THE PANTHEON’S FAMOUS DOME
Thanks to the more modern buildings that now stand beside it, the Pantheon, one of Rome’s most famous former temples, almost looks a little out of place when you turn the corner and see it sitting there in the square with gelato shops and fast food joints just steps away. Even still, once you step inside and gaze upward at the Pantheon’s grand concrete dome, it’s easy to be transported back in time.
Located in the Piazza della Rotonda, the Pantheon is in surprisingly good condition in comparison to its equally ancient counterparts. No longer a temple, the Pantheon has served as a church since the 7th century. Entrance is free, but the Pantheon is closed to tourists during weekly mass. (However, if you’re interested in attending mass, I believe you will be allowed in, but obviously no pictures are allowed.) I recommend visiting on a sunny day if you want photos with the sunlight streaming in through the circular opening in the dome!
GO FOR A WALK ALONG THE RIVER TIBER
While it is possible to take a leisurely walk through the city, you’ll find far less people and a more peaceful setting along the banks of the Tiber.
If you’re looking to escape the traffic, I recommend walking the Tiber on the wide bike and walking path on the western bank of the river, accessible via steps down to the riverbanks at any of the bridges that cross the river. Besides several bridges, murals, and colorful buildings that line the river, you’ll also be able to spot the dome of St Peter’s from along this route. (This is not the walk to take if you’re landmark spotting, though. If you want a better view of a few of Rome’s landmarks near the Tiber, it’s better to walk the length of the river at street level.) Sunset makes for the most scenic time for a walk, but any time of day would be pleasant, assuming the temperatures haven’t reached scorching levels yet.
SIT ON THE SPANISH STEPS
One of the best places in Rome to rest your legs for a bit and soak up all the Italian atmosphere is the Spanish Steps. Located in the heart of the city, these 135 steps connecting the Piazza di Spagna below with the Piazza Trinità dei Monti above have been attracting artists, filmmakers, and visitors to Rome for almost 300 years now. At least when they aren’t completely blocked off for restoration, anyway, which was the unfortunate case when we visited. The steps have since reopened and are now as gleaming white as the Trinità dei Monti church that rises above them!
TOSS A COIN INTO THE TREVI FOUNTAIN
But make sure you do it the right way!
The Trevi Fountain, the largest fountain in Rome, is probably most well-known for the unique superstition and traditions surrounding it. Supposedly, if you toss a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder, you’ll be destined to return to Rome someday. If you want to take it a step further, you can throw three coins over your shoulder – one ensuring your inevitable return to Rome, another promising you’ll find love, and the third that your love will lead to marriage.
If you’re thinking that sounds like a freaking lot of coins being tossed into a fountain, you’re right. Around €3,000 is collected from the fountain every evening and donated to a non-profit providing food to the homeless in Rome. The area surrounding the Trevi Fountain stays super busy pretty much all day long, but if you visit at early morning or after dark, you’ll be able to toss your coin(s) in the fountain without fear of being flicked in the head by everyone else’s coins.
PEOPLE WATCH IN THE PIAZZAS
The city of Rome is built around its piazzas, aka public squares that aren’t necessarily shaped like squares. These beautiful gathering places found around nearly every corner in the city center often feature famous landmarks and monuments, but they are also perfect spots for doing a little people watching.
Nearly every day we grabbed our lunch to go and found a different piazza to eat it in. Most of the larger piazzas have benches, but edges of fountains work just as well. Since the Spanish Steps were closed off, the piazzas were where we witnessed the sort of things you often only see in a city like Rome – people passionately kissing with little regard for who might be watching, an older man sharing a gelato with his dog (seriously), and tourists taking 35 selfies in the same spot (wait, never mind, that happens pretty much everywhere these days). My favorites were the elegant Piazza Navona (pictured above) and the bustling Piazza del Popolo from above which you can watch a beautiful sunset over the city of Rome. (Keep reading for more on that.)
Unrelated discovery: I find it physically impossible to type piazza correctly the first time. It comes out as pizza every single time.
CATCH A SUNSET FROM PINCIO TERRACE BY VILLA BORGHESE
For the very best (free) view in the city at sunset, head directly to the Pincio Terrace beside Villa Borghese. The terrace sits high above the Piazza del Popolo below and from here you’ll have sweeping views of the historic city center all the way to Vatican City. Watching the sun set behind the dome of St Peter’s while being serenaded with Italian tunes by the buskers that play here every evening will certainly make for a sunset you won’t soon forget.
You can access Pincio Terrace from Villa Borghese or via the steps leading up to it from the piazza below. To secure a spot along the front of the terrace, arrive about an hour before sunset. (This way you can see all the changing sky colors as the sunset gradually deepens before disappearing completely, too!) Since this is a popular spot for tourists, expect to be approached fairly often by people selling different things. Those selling flowers seem to be the most insistent, so for the most relaxing experience, it’s probably easiest just to buy a flower from the first person who asks and then keep it near you so that you get skipped over by the next person who comes around.
ROME TRAVEL TIPS
WHEN TO GO
Rome is one of those places where I feel like the time of year you choose to visit can make or break your trip. Summers can get blistering hot, making walking from place to place and standing outside in full sun (which will be the case at many sights) unbearable. This is also when the city is at its busiest, so besides higher prices you’ll also be battling crowds and queues everywhere you go.
Winter is when Rome is at its least crowded, but at least for me, part of the appeal of an Italian vacation is being able to comfortably sit outside, relax in the sun, and enjoy a meal or treat without shivering through several layers of clothing. While Rome does experience a relatively mild winter, it can still get quite chilly, so unless you’re used to colder temperatures, I recommend visiting in early spring. Crowds are still considerably lighter than they’ll be in the summer, and the weather is pleasant enough to stay out in all day. We visited Rome in February and it seemed to be the perfect sweet spot weather-wise between winter and summer. And except for the Trevi Fountain and Vatican Museums, we didn’t encounter large crowds anywhere during our stay in the city.
HOW LONG TO STAY
For your first trip to Rome, you really ought to stay long enough to see all of the city’s most famous sights, plus have some free time for exploring on your own and relaxing. Rome is not a city to barrel through frantically seeing and doing all the things before moving on to the next destination. I suppose the case could be made that nowhere is meant to be visited in that way, but it’s especially true in Rome (and all of Italy, really) where the pace is slower, the meals are longer, and public transportation can’t always be depended on to show up when it says it will.
For a first-time trip well-balanced between seeing the sights and taking time to savor la dolce vita, you’ll need at least four full days. We were in Rome for five nights, and I wasn’t the least bit ready to leave when our time was up. Maybe it was the sunny days (we didn’t get many of those in February in London), or maybe it was the fact that absolutely everything was going right (which rarely happens when traveling), or maybe it was all the food (I ate so often I forgot what it was like to feel hungry), but I tend to think it was just the simple fact of being in a place where people aren’t rushing around all the time, intent on accomplishing 101 things before they go to bed and do it all over again the next day. (Italians are sort of amazing at life.) For a few days, I got to be one of those people, too, and I’m pretty sure I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time.
WHERE TO STAY
One of the very few downsides to Rome, at least for travelers, is how expensive accommodations are. Even the Airbnb market in Rome is more expensive than other cities we’ve visited.
After deliberating for a long time between staying in a hotel or booking an Airbnb, we finally settled on this super tiny, but so adorable Airbnb here, located on exactly the sort of alleyway in Rome where you’d expect people to throw their shutters open every morning, shouting Buongiorno! into the street below. (For the record, I was the only one who did that.) We absolutely loved getting to experience a small taste of what it’s like to actually live in Rome, which I suppose is one of the main advantages to staying at an Airbnb.
Keep in mind that if you book an Airbnb, if it isn’t already included in your room rate, you’ll have to pay a nightly per person Rome city tax directly to your Airbnb host when you arrive in Rome. If you’re not sure if it’s included in your rate, just ask. (We had no idea about this and thought our host was trying to pull one over on us at first!)
Regardless of what type of accommodations you prefer, location is key. Rome is relatively compact, but you’ll still be doing a fair amount of walking. Most of the sights in Rome are on the eastern side of the river, so if convenience is a priority (and chances are it will be if this is your first trip and/or you’ve got limited time), it makes sense to base yourself there. We stayed a few streets west of the Piazza Navona and couldn’t have been happier with our location. We were about equal distance between the Colosseum and Vatican City (the two major sights in Rome furthest apart), as well as the sights in the city center.
WHERE TO EAT
Since you can find delicious food everywhere in Rome, even in tiny pizza to-go shops, I probably don’t even need to bother with recommendations. But for those of you who are like me and prefer to arrive in a new destination with at least a few personal recommendations (even if I never use them), these were our favorites.
Pizza To-Go: Alice Pizza by Vatican City and Il Capriccio by the Pantheon (Alice Pizza is a large chain of pizza takeaway shops in Rome. Il Capriccio has only 1-2 locations. Both offer very cheap prices and delicious pizza, best eaten in your favorite piazza on a sunny day.)
Gelato: Ciuccula by the Pantheon (This was our favorite gelato shop in Rome. Ciuccula is more expensive than some of the others, but the ice cream is so good. My favorite flavors were the pistachio and panna cotta.)
Cheap Italian: O’Pazzariello on Via Banco di Santo Spirito (Located just across the bridge from Castel Sant’Angelo, O’Pazzariello has excellent pasta for good prices. I loved the fettuccine and..
Red and gold lanterns are being hung above doorways and intricately designed red paper cutouts pasted on windows. Tubs of love letters (crispy rolled crepes) and kueh bangkit (melt-in-your-mouth coconut cookies) have replaced last month’s Christmas cookies and Yule logs on grocery store shelves. Soon we’ll all be exchanging oranges, gifting friends and family with red packets filled with money, and trying not to have a heart attack every time a lion dance spontaneously breaks out nearby. (Nothing will remind you you’re living in a foreign country like seeing a giant yellow lion dance its way through a Nike store while several other people in costume make crashing sounds with drums and symbols to ward off evil spirits!)
That’s right, it’s almost time for another festive Chinese New Year here in Singapore! Also known as the Spring Festival and the Lunar New Year, Chinese New Year is traditionally celebrated over a 15-day period in several countries in Asia. Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore typically take the cake for the largest and most impressive Chinese New Year festivities, but even cities outside of Asia often play host to some pretty epic celebrations, which was the case for us in London.
There are many ways to celebrate the holiday in London, not the least of which is the main event in Trafalgar Square which draws around 500,000 people every year, but my personal favorite is the Magical Lantern Festival held just outside the city center in Chiswick.
The Magical Lantern Festival is held on the elegant grounds of Chiswick House and Gardens, which also happens to be my favorite of all the public parks in London. Home to the revered Camellia Show which takes place every February, the Magical Lantern Festival is a fairly new tradition at Chiswick House and Gardens. Beginning in 2016 and held annually since, we were lucky enough to visit the festival’s inaugural Chinese New Year event which coincided with the Year of the Monkey.
Spread out over Chiswick House’s 60 acres of landscaped gardens, wooded paths, and picturesque lakes, the Magical Lantern Festival features hundreds of colorful, hand-sculpted lanterns in all shapes and sizes, some so magnificent they look as if they might reach the same height as some of the park’s trees! I could go on and on about how much fun it is to wander along the park’s brightly lit trails, delighting in the various lantern scenes that seem to only get better the further along the trail you go, but it’s so much easier to just show you instead…
The Magical Lantern Festival is absolutely filled to the brim with cute (smiling pandas, you guys!), confusing (ants on a seesaw?), and beautiful (those peacocks, though!) lanterns. Intermixed among all the wildlife and Alice in Wonderland-inspired floral arrangements are carefully crafted, traditional Chinese lantern scenes celebrating the coming of the Lunar New Year. It’s really quite something to see, especially if you’ve never had the opportunity to attend festivals of a similar nature in Asia.
The lanterns themselves change every year, so it’s always a new experience at the Magical Lantern Festival. This past year, the festival was moved from Chinese New Year to Christmas. Whether that will be a lasting change remains to be seen, but regardless of when the lanterns go up, they’re always worth a visit!
MAGICAL LANTERN FESTIVAL: THINGS TO KNOW
Tickets issued for the festival are timed entry. To allow everyone a pleasant, uncrowded visit, tickets are issued in particular time slots, and it’s suggested that you purchase your tickets online in advance to ensure you’re able to get the time you prefer.
It’ll take about two hours to walk the full path. Even though entry is timed, you can stay inside the Magical Lantern Festival as long as you like. For most people, you’ll be able to make it through the full route in around two hours, including stops for pictures which you’ll probably be doing every 25 feet. If you want to stay and eat, plan for more time.
There’s food! Along the path, there are several fun food stations to stop at with hot drinks and marshmallows for roasting. In addition to these, at the end of the path you’ll also find a small international food fair.
You need to dress warmly. Whether the festival is held at Christmas or Chinese New Year, after the sun goes down it gets bitterly cold outside, so warm coats, scarves, and gloves are a must! (We made the mistake of not realizing just how long we’d want to spend at the event and poor Lex was freezing in the outfit she’d picked out to wear later that evening to her school dance!)
You’ll want to bring your best camera. The Magical Lantern Festival is one of London’s most beautiful events and you’ll definitely want your camera out the whole time. Since the event takes place at night, you’ll probably want to bring something with better picture quality than your iPhone!
Keep an eye out for future festival dates at the website below. I wasn’t able to find any information about whether this year’s switch to Christmas was a one-off event or permanent, so if you’re interested in visiting, I’d bookmark the festival website below and check it close to Chinese New Year and Christmas!
Like most routine-weary travelers, I love a good beach break. Nothing beats laying on sun-warmed sand, listening to the waves crash against the shore, and forgetting, at least for a little while, that anything exists outside of relaxed moments like these.
But I’m also your stereotypical Type A traveler, which means my enjoyment of doing nothing at all has an expiration date. I can switch from relaxed to restless in mere seconds, and then it’s time to find something to do.
Lucky for me and the rest of you sporting an overabundance of energy, in addition to being a prime beach destination, Railay also offers all sorts of ways to stay active. My favorite of these was hiking to Railay Viewpoint and the hidden lagoon. This hike, with its demanding trail bordering on treacherous, was exactly the sort of pick-me-up I needed after a day where the most physical activity I got was moving from the beach to the pool!
FINDING THE TRAIL TO RAILAY VIEWPOINT & LAGOON
While not exactly hidden, the beginning of the trail up to Railay Viewpoint is easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. The trailhead is directly across from a small pavilion located on the path to Phra Nang Beach. If you haven’t walked this path before, just follow the signs from East Railay pointing to Phra Nang. The trailhead is on the left.
Along the path to Phra Nang Beach, you’ll come across lots of cool cave-like karsts and hanging vines. And also monkeys. So beware.
HIKING TO RAILAY VIEWPOINT
You’ll know you’ve reached the Railay Viewpoint trailhead when you see the signs shouting Danger! and Caution! in all caps next to what looks like a straight up wall of rocks and mud. That, my friends, is the trail. For a second, I questioned our sanity attempting something semi-dangerous in a location far removed from any medical care facilities, and then I pushed those thoughts aside.
Challenge accepted. And I’ll raise you going barefoot.
Having not brought any other shoes than the same flip-flops I’d worn on the beach the day before, I figured going barefoot would likely be easier than trying to keep my shoes from falling off as I ascended a muddy cliff face at a near 90-degree angle. I wasn’t wrong.
Using nothing but natural vines, thick pieces of questionably fraying rope, and our own strength to hoist ourselves up the cliff, I was sweating through my clothes before we were even 20 feet off the ground. (Whether that was from physical effort or fear is up for debate.) If you have even the remotest fear of heights, I recommend not looking down. As we ascended the cliff, I tried to reserve looking down only for the few occasions when my feet couldn’t find their bearings on their own. Even that felt like too often.
Luckily, after the initial vertical climb, the trail levels out into a much more manageable hike, although you do still have to watch your step, especially if it’s slippery. You are now in the jungle and need only to follow the signs to reach your first destination – Railay Viewpoint.
See, now isn’t all that hard work worth it?
Railay Viewpoint is little more than a small opening in the trees above some rocks, but at this height, the view is nothing short of impressive. You can see boats coming and going from East Railay Beach on the right side of the peninsula and the shimmering blue waters of West Railay Beach on the other side. Even the beach at Tonsai can be seen from here. In fact, almost the entire peninsula is visible, but I wouldn’t suggest leaning out too far to take it all in. It’s a pretty steep drop down!
After you’ve taken in the view, it’s decision time. To make your way back down? Or continue on to Railay’s hidden lagoon? Both are going to require some serious effort, but continuing on to the lagoon will likely push you well out of your comfort zone unless you happen to be a seasoned hiker/scrambler with incredibly sure feet.
The trail actually gets quite a bit harder from here as you descend down into the belly of the cliff to reach the lagoon, so if you struggled more than you were comfortable with on the way up, I don’t recommend continuing on. If you found the hike up difficult, but exhilarating, then continue on because it’s about to get even better!
HIKING TO RAILAY LAGOON
The trail to Railay Lagoon splits off from the Railay Viewpoint trail close to the viewpoint. There should be a sign, but when we were there, the sign looked like the sort that often gets knocked down/goes missing. In that case, good luck.
The trail starts off relatively easy, but quickly goes downhill, literally. The climb down to the lagoon is nearly as steep as the climb up, except this time it’s muddier, darker, and there are less ropes and vines to cling to. The “hike” at this point is really more of drop. That is, dropping from one boulder to the next as you try not to slip and tumble further down the cliff than you’d intended. There are bamboo ladders in particularly tricky spots, but for the most part you’re on your own. Just take it slow, make careful movements, and you’ll still be in one piece (albeit an incredibly muddy piece) when you reach the lagoon at the bottom.
Pardon the mini photo shoot of me. These were the only photos of the lagoon that turned out since my arms were shaking so badly by the time we reached the bottom that I couldn’t even properly hold my camera!
Railay Lagoon is a small, circular lagoon whose waters are dictated by the tide. It was low when we visited, but at high tide, going for a swim would be a great way to wash off all the red clay you’re certain to be covered in! Enclosed on all sides by the cliff, the only light in the lagoon streams in from a circular opening overhead, and there is no in or out other than the way you came. At low tide, it’s possible to walk around almost the entire perimeter of the lagoon, but at high tide you’ll have to wade in or go for a swim to check out the lagoon’s cool nooks and crannies.
It’s quiet and uncrowded at Railay Lagoon since most people don’t continue on after the viewpoint, so it’s a peaceful spot to relax and reward yourself for reaching somewhere most visitors to Railay never get to see. After wading in and taking a few pictures, we sat beside the lagoon for awhile with the people we’d met along the trail just basking in the sunshine from overhead, dipping our feet in the water, and trying not to think about the inevitable task ahead – getting back to the trailhead.
The hike back was actually quite a bit easier since the hardest part of the trail was now a climb instead of a drop, and we knew what to expect. I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud of myself as I was when we landed back on the path at the trailhead. I was covered in so much red clay that it looked like I’d been buried alive (my shorts were an unsalvageable casualty) and I couldn’t raise my arms higher than my elbows for several days afterwards, but this experience was still the highlight of our trip to Railay!
TIPS FOR HIKING TO RAILAY VIEWPOINT & LAGOON
Wear shoes. Climbing shoes or non-bulky trainers would be best. You’ll still slip all over the place if it’s muddy, but at least you won’t have to be watching the ground for sticks and other sharp objects that might hurt your feet.
Take a rain check if it’s raining. Or if it’s rained heavily in the past 24-48 hours. It can take quite some time for the trail to dry out, particularly in the jungle on the way down to the lagoon where there isn’t as much light, so save this hike for a dry day!
Leave enough time to make it back before sunset. This feels self-explanatory, but seriously, do not attempt this in the dark.
Plan for two hours to complete both hikes. That’s how long it took us from start to finish, including our rest stops at the viewpoint and lagoon. As for actual hiking time, it took us around 20 minutes to reach the viewpoint, and another 25 or so to reach the lagoon. It goes a little quicker on the way back.
If you’re the slow and steady type, go early. Since everyone goes up and comes back down the same climbing route, in the afternoon when the trail gets busier, traffic jams are more frequent. If you plan to take it slow, you’ll probably feel more comfortable going in the early morning when there’s less pressure from other hikers to keep moving.
Be in good shape. You don’t need to be a rock climber, but you will need to be in decently good shape. The trail is strenuous and you’ll need upper and lower body strength as well as stability to complete it. That being said, it is relatively easy to turn around and head back if it gets too tough, so give it a go if you’re feeling up for it!
Wear clothes you don’t care about. Because they’re going to get filthy. And chances are, even several runs through the wash won’t get those red clay stains out!
Don’t bring the kids. Even if they’re fit kids. It’s just too dangerous.
Check the tides. If you’re wanting to swim at the lagoon, you’ll want to time your hike with high tide. Approximate tide times for Railay can be found here.
When I was growing up, only two things mattered to me when we traveled – could I shop there and how close was the beach? (You’re impressed with my teenage self’s deep and varied interests, I can tell.) I’m pleased to tell you my passions in life have expanded a great deal since those early years of travel, and I can’t even remember the last time I went shopping, but I’m not going to lie, I still love a good beach. And so, at least once a year, we go in search of the very best ones.
Living here in Southeast Asia, we are spoiled with hundreds (possibly even thousands) of beautiful beaches right at our fingertips. It makes choosing between them all a near-impossible task. (I know, what a predicament.) When, after much research and deliberation, we finally settled on Railay Beach for our Chinese New Year holiday last year, I was fairly certain we were picking one of the very best beach destinations in Thailand…and I wasn’t wrong. Railay blew us away with its beauty and completely chill vibe!
While there is more to Railay than just its beaches, they truly are the main attraction and for good reason. Despite its small size, there are actually four separate beaches to visit in Railay, and all are worthy of your well-earned vacation days. Epic sunsets, a sparkling turquoise sea, and remarkable landscapes – the beaches in Railay are practically the definition of tropical paradise perfection. Keep reading to discover more about these four amazing beaches to visit in Railay, Thailand!
BEACHES TO VISIT IN RAILAY – PHRA NANG BEACH
Is it bad form to start with the best? I don’t care, I’m going to do it anyway.
Of the four beaches to visit in Railay, Phra Nang Beach was my favorite. Located near the southern tip of the peninsula, Phra Nang is just around the corner from Railay’s main beach, but is still very much its own piece of paradise.
Phra Nang Beach is narrow, but long leaving plenty of space for sunbathing with a wide open view of the sea and the unusual limestone karsts rising out of it. Since Phra Nang Beach is bordered on both ends by tall cliffs, the only way to reach the beach at high tide is via a well-marked path from East Railay. This secluded feeling was one of the things that made me love Phra Nang so much. Don’t get me wrong – this beach still gets a lot of visitors, especially in the dry season, but thanks to the cliffs and all the trees it feels more protected and private.
THINGS TO DO AT PHRA NANG BEACH
Go rock climbing. The cliffs along the southern end of Phra Nang Beach are a popular rock climbing spot. (When taking the path from East Railay to Phra Nang, look to your left after the path spits you out on the beach. That’s where you’ll find the rock climbers.) Even if you don’t plan to do any rock climbing, it’s still fun to watch!
Visit Princess Cave. Located directly beside where all the rock climbing action happens, Princess Cave is quite the unusual tourist attraction. That is, if you consider a cave full of wooden penises unusual, anyway.
Swim into the cliff caves. Besides being useful for rock climbing, the cliffs on the southern end of Phra Nang also provide some interesting caves to explore if you’re willing to take a dip into the water to reach them. (The waves aren’t particularly strong, so it’s easy swimming!)
Grab lunch from a long-tail boat. Like little Thai food trucks, the region’s signature long-tail boats start lining up about mid-way down Phra Nang Beach every morning. Offering up all sorts of things from hot noodle dishes to grilled corn-on-the-cob, wading into the water to buy lunch is like a Railay rite of passage.
Watch the sunset. Do yourself a favor and never miss a sunset while you’re staying in Railay. The colors are spectacular, of course, but what I found unexpectedly cool was how the setting sun made the limestone islands off the coast look like shadowy sea creatures rising out of the water. Those islands made photographing sunsets in Railay so much fun!
BEACHES TO VISIT IN RAILAY – WEST RAILAY BEACH
West Railay Beach is the peninsula’s main beach and the most popular of the beaches to visit in Railay, but don’t let that deter you from visiting. There’s room here for everyone!
The beach in West Railay is both long and wide, offering a similar view out to sea of that at Phra Nang Beach. Besides a small range of restaurants bordering the beach along the back, this is also where most of the nice beach resorts in Railay are located. If you like your beaches a little more developed (i.e., more food choices, shops, and cocktails on the beach), then West Railay Beach will probably be your favorite.
Go kayaking. Renting a kayak and paddling around the peninsula and out to the rock islands off the coast was one of my favorite things we did in Railay. And it’s super inexpensive! There are several places on West Railay Beach to rent kayaks from and they all offer similar deals. (We rented a two-person kayak for two hours and it cost us the equivalent of $8 USD.)
Take a stroll down Walking Street. Walking Street is the main strip in Railay packed full of funky shops and great places to grab a bite to eat. As you’d expect, the further you get from the beach, the more affordable the restaurants become.
Eat dinner at sunset. Thanks to its west-facing view and a variety of beach front restaurants to choose from, West Railay Beach is the perfect beach for dining while watching the sun go down. Flame Tree Restaurant is a popular choice, but there are others, too. Get seated early for the best view!
Or just watch the sunset from the beach. While the view is similar to that of Phra Nang, sunsets still look quite a bit different on West Railay Beach than they do on Phra Nang. I loved catching the light rays as they disappeared behind the cliffs on the southern end of the beach!
BEACHES TO VISIT IN RAILAY – EAST RAILAY BEACH
While not technically the sort of beach you’d want to go to for swimming or sunbathing, East Railay Beach is still worth a visit.
Depending on where your hotel is located, if you’re arriving to Railay via long-tail boat from Ao Nang, East Railay Beach will probably be the first thing you see on the peninsula. Used mainly as a pier for boats arriving to and leaving Railay, East Railay Beach also features some beautiful mangroves as well as a water-side walking trail you’re almost certain to meander down at least once or twice unless you never leave West Railay.
THINGS TO DO AT EAST RAILAY BEACH
Watch the sunrise. Since the other three beaches to visit in Railay are located on the western side of the peninsula, East Railay Beach is the only beach where you’ll be able to catch the sunrise.
Take a walk down the East Railay Beach path. The path is prettiest when the tide has only halfway come in and you can see more of the mangroves, but it’s also worth a walk at high tide. (At low tide, the waters completely recede and it’s mostly swamps.)
Enjoy more affordable accommodations. Railay is not like most of Thailand where you can stay in four and five star hotels for a song. If you want to stay at a beach-side resort in Railay, you’ll pay a pretty penny for it on West Railay Beach. However, equally beautiful resorts exist on the east side of Railay for almost half the price!
Watch sunset from Tew Lay Bar. As it happens, even though East Railay Beach faces east, you can still catch a phenomenal sunset from here. One of the best spots to watch is from the quirky, hippie-themed Tew Lay Bar. The tide was always out at sunset while we were in Railay, but at other times of year you can sit on the cool patios at Tew Lay Bar and dip your toes in the water while watching the sun go down. (Hard to beat in my opinion!)
BEACHES TO VISIT IN RAILAY – TONSAI BEACH
If you’re looking for the most uncrowded, undeveloped beach in Railay, you’ll find it at Tonsai Beach!
Reachable from West Railay Beach via long-tail boat (or a quick wade through the water at low tide) or from East Railay if you’re up for a hike through the jungle, Tonsai Beach is technically not in Railay, but it’s so close that most people tend to include it anyway. A favorite among rock climbers and backpackers (thanks to its much cheaper prices), Tonsai has a distinct bohemian vibe that you’re sure to pick up on as you walk through the small village dotted with open-air bungalows and bamboo cafes.
THINGS TO DO AT TONSAI BEACH
Take the long way to get there. The half-hour hike to Tonsai from East Railay is part of its appeal, I think. The trailhead is a little difficult to find (it’s easiest just to ask someone), but once you’ve found it, the path through the jungle to Tonsai is clear and scenic the whole way!
Go rock climbing. Like Phra Nang, Tonsai is popular with the rock climbing crowd and you’ll find several schools in Railay offering lessons over this way. Climbing routes in Tonsai are suitable for a wide range of climbers from beginners to experts.
Catch a sunset. Are you sensing a theme here? Every single beach in Railay is excellent for sunset viewing, including Tonsai. Although, if you’re not staying in Tonsai, you’ll have a tough go getting back to Railay in the dark unless you take a long-tail boat. (If it’s low tide and not too dark yet, it is possible to wade back over for free.)
Enjoy the quiet. While the other beaches in Railay have long-tail boats coming and going at all times and occasionally get a little overcrowded, you won’t experience either of those things at Tonsai Beach. It’s a much more peaceful beach than the others, but because of that, don’t expect to find all of the conveniences here that you’ll find at the others like beach-side dining and, well, anything other than a beach actually.
My last piece of advice really only applies if you’re visiting Railay during peak season. Because of its small size and ever-growing popularity, Railay can get rather crowded, particularly during the dry season months of December to April, and the place you’ll notice it the most is on the beaches. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit during peak season, though. The weather is at its best this time of year and you’re likely to experience little to no rain on your holiday, but I do recommend visiting the beaches earlier in the day if you can. They really start to fill up around 11am, so if you can get your beach bumming out of the way in the morning and then spend the rest of the day staying busy with other activities or lounging at your hotel pool, you’ll likely enjoy your time in this little slice of Thai paradise a whole lot more!
Is there anything more time-consuming during travel planning than searching for the perfect accommodations? Don’t get me wrong, I truly love this part of planning a vacation, but it does take a lot of time to sort through each and every property in our budget before finally making a decision. It might seem a little silly to spend hours searching for something we’re hardly going to do more than sleep in, but for me, a good night’s sleep and waking up in a place that puts me in a good mood every morning is well worth the time and effort put in to find it. That being said, sometimes it is a relief to have limited places to choose from which was the case in Railay, Thailand.
Railay is a small peninsula in the Krabi province of Thailand sporting mostly wild jungle (which separates it from the mainland), but also several world-class beaches. Because of its small size, Railay only has a couple dozen different resorts and hotels which made my job of finding the right one a whole lot easier! With a maximum budget of $100/night and our preference towards a villa or cottage, we were able to settle fairly quickly on what looked like the perfect place for us in Railay – Railay Phutawan Resort.
RAILAY PHUTAWAN RESORT
Sweet-smelling frangipani blooms. Koi fish swimming lazily in ponds. Luscious jungle. Emerald green mountains. Rugged cliffs. And a view of the sea. Welcome to paradise!
Tucked away in the cliffs in East Railay, Railay Phutawan Resort feels like a private tropical hideaway. With its location somewhat secluded from the rest of Railay, the resort offers guests a quieter, more peaceful atmosphere with far less people. But don’t worry, it’s not that secluded. The beaches are only a 10-minute walk away and the popular restaurants and shops on Walking Street are even closer.
There are three main common areas within Railay Phutawan Resort – the three-story restaurant and bar area which is also where breakfast is served every morning, a smaller rooftop terrace situated above and behind the resort’s reception area with stunning views over the cliffs and sparkling waters of the Andaman Sea below, and the adjacent infinity pool which is almost worth booking a room here for alone. Railay Phutawan Resort might not be beach-side, but it still offers one heck of a view from sunrise to sunset!
COTTAGES AT RAILAY PHUTAWAN RESORT
The main draw for us at Railay Phutawan Resort (besides the pool) was that they offered private cottages. Being a terribly light sleeper, I tend to prefer staying in places where I don’t have to share walls with other guests so that it’s quieter. Cottages and bungalows generally offer a bit more space, too – a bonus for us since we almost always travel as a family and stay in the same room!
We booked a Superior Cottage at Railay Phutawan Resort and superior it was! At least in size, anyway. Even with all of our luggage spread out and an extra bed brought in for Lexie, we still had plenty of room. Besides the main bedroom, we also had a separate dressing room and a large open-air bathroom. While the room itself was a little sparsely decorated, it was still very comfortable and provided everything we needed – free WiFi, a cozy bed, a mini-fridge stocked with plenty of water (same prices as what you’ll find in the shops), and a TV. (Although, the TV only had one English channel, so if you’re planning on spending extra time in your room, I suggest bringing a laptop with movies or Netflix.)
Some of the cottages at the resort have better views than others, so if a good view is important to you, I recommend requesting that at booking. We hadn’t and found ourselves situated right next to the reception area and pool which was no big deal in the end, but a pretty view would have been awfully nice. Especially since every cottage comes with something I’ve always wanted on my own house…
A front porch! Even though our porch just overlooked the resort’s offices, I still sat out there every morning and drank a cup of tea. A couple mornings I even had visitors of the feathered, egg-laying variety, which were actually the only noises we ever heard while staying at the resort. It’s practically unheard of for me to get a good night’s sleep every night of a vacation, but I got plenty of zzz’s here thanks to how quiet it was.
DOUBLE & FAMILY ROOMS AT RAILAY PHUTAWAN RESORT
If a standard hotel room is more your style, Railay Phutawan Resort offers those, too. They come with the same amenities as the cottages and are situated in a small, two-story block overlooking the pool. The greatest benefit to choosing one of these rooms is the view. Can you imagine waking up every morning and drawing back the curtains to a view of Railay’s rugged mountains with the turquoise waters of the sea lapping at their base?
Yeah, I can’t either because I didn’t stay in them. Ha! But it’s the same view all guests can enjoy from the pool, and I do know for a fact how gorgeous that is. (Still glad I chose the privacy of the cottages, though.) If you’re traveling as a family and need more space and beds than the cottages provide, the resort also offers an enormous 60 square meter room that should do the trick.
BREAKFAST AT RAILAY PHUTAWAN RESORT
I go back and forth on whether I prefer staying in hotels and resorts when traveling or booking Airbnbs, but the one thing that keeps me returning to hotels is the buffet breakfast. I am all about a good buffet, and breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, so when you put those two things together, it’s pretty hard for me to resist.
Breakfast at Railay Phutawan Resort is served every morning on the top floor of the resort’s restaurant. Breakfast was included in our room rate, but can also be paid for separately if you prefer. If you go early enough, the sunlight streaming in over the tables as it rises from behind the giant cliff the restaurant butts up against is a beautiful sight to have breakfast to. This is also a great time to watch the rock climbers as they scale the steep cliff from the school below.
As for the food, breakfast was an all-you-can-eat mixture of western and Asian dishes with plenty of fresh fruit, fruit juices, and coffee and tea. We stayed for five nights and every morning there were different dishes to choose from. While I do love noodles and fried rice, my tastebuds haven’t quite adapted to eating those things in the morning yet, so I generally stuck with the western choices every morning. All of the food was delicious, but we did learn the earlier you can grab breakfast the better. For one, it gets a little too hot once the sun is fully up, but also the flies get much worse the later in the morning you go!
SUNRISE AT RAILAY PHUTAWAN RESORT
Getting to breakfast early won’t be a problem though if you got up for sunrise, which I totally recommend you do if you’re staying at Railay Phutawan Resort. Since the resort is located in East Railay and faces the sea towards the east, it’s in a prime position for catching those delicate early morning sunrise colors. If you don’t have a room that faces the sea, you’ll find a perfect view from the pool. A dip in the infinity pool and a gorgeous sunrise seems like a pretty good way to start the day to me! We managed to catch the sunrise in Railay two out of three mornings, which is pretty good for people on vacation, I think.
OTHER THINGS TO KNOW
Railay Phutawan Resort offers airport transfers to and from Krabi airport. I highly recommend you use this service especially on your way to the resort. It cost us around $38 USD one-way for our family of three which is more than you’ll pay if you take the bus and hire a long-tail boat yourself, but it cut out the stress of trying to do all of that ourselves.
The closest beach to the resort is East Railay Beach, but when the tide is in, there really isn’t much beach to speak of, so you’ll probably enjoy visiting West Railay Beach, a 10-minute walk away, quite a bit more.
Besides the beaches, the resort is also quite close to Diamond Cave. There is a fee to get in, but it’s worth a visit to see what Railay’s limestone cliffs look like from the inside.
Like the rest of Railay, Railay Phutawan Resort is subject to the occasional monkey invasion. They seem to especially like the path that leads to the resort from Walking Street, so just be aware and don’t carry small objects (especially food) in your hands. They won’t hesitate to grab it from you!
It’s been quite some time since I’ve written about any of our Asia explorations. To remedy this oversight, we are going to kick off a new year of travel tales with a guide to one of my favorite destinations in Southeast Asia – Railay Beach in Krabi, Thailand!
We arrived in Railay about this time last year for a short break over the Chinese New Year holiday. I’ll get to why you shouldn’t book over CNY in a minute, but first I want to tell you about this place – this magically wonderful place that has the power to transform even the most uptight of us (I’m talking about me here) into completely relaxed, pad-thai-eating beach bums without a care in the world in under 24 hours. Guaranteed.*
*Not really, but you get what I mean.
Located along the southern coast of Thailand, Railay is actually a peninsula, but feels more like an island thanks to the dense jungle that cuts it off from the rest of Krabi. A mix of dramatic limestone cliffs, postcard-worthy beaches, and thick jungle, Railay truly has it all, scenery and activity-wise. But what really makes this spot unique (and what makes it so good for those of us that have a hard time relaxing) is the vibe you’ll find here. In many ways, Railay feels more like an island in the Caribbean than a tourist hot-spot in Thailand.
Reggae beats drifting out of bars, the unmistakable scent of cannabis in the air, more dreadlocks than a Bob Marley tribute concert – this is definitely a No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problem kind of destination. I mean, technically you don’t even have to wear pants.** (Thanks to a super ungraceful fall slight mishap while hiking, I know this from experience. No one even batted an eyelash when I had to walk through the town wearing only my tank top and swimsuit bottoms!)
That being said, Railay is not a party destination. You’ll find way more couples and families here looking for a beautiful place to relax and unwind than young backpackers looking to party all night. While Railay has certainly increased in popularity over the past decade, it’s still one of Thailand’s best unspoiled beach destinations, of which there seem to be fewer and fewer of these days. What does that mean? If Railay is on your travel wishlist, move it to the top.
**You should probably wear pants.
WHEN TO GO
Not Chinese New Year, or any other major holiday when the whole region is off if you can avoid it!
Railay isn’t particularly large, so it can quickly get overcrowded in peak season, and especially on a public holiday in peak season as we witnessed on our trip. Like many other places in Southeast Asia, peak season in Railay coincides with the dry season and runs from December to April. Tourists flock to the area during these months because the weather is darn near perfect (seriously), the seas are calm, and humidity is low.
Rainy season runs from May to November with the most rainfall occurring in September. During these months, you’ll find cheaper accommodation rates across the peninsula, better deals on activities, and far less people, but you’ll most likely have to contend with choppier seas and almost certainly more than a few rainy days.
So what do I recommend you do? If you’re coming specifically to enjoy Railay’s pristine beaches, better to face crowds than risk spending the holiday indoors due to rain. Visiting at the very beginning or very end of peak season is probably best, but even if you find yourself visiting smack dab in the middle of peak season, just do what we did and avoid the worst of the crowds by spending the morning on the beach and then head into town, to your hotel pool, or find other activities to do around 11am when the beaches get overcrowded.
If your Railay getaway’s success doesn’t hinge on whether the skies stay blue and sunny and the seas calm, then by all means, head to Railay during shoulder season (November to early December and late April to May) and cross your fingers you get lucky!
HOW TO GET TO RAILAY
Due to Railay’s isolated location from the rest of Krabi, the only way to reach the peninsula is by boat. But you’ll get to ride on one of the region’s signature long-tail boats which is an experience in itself!
THE EASIEST WAY
After flying into Krabi International Airport, you’ll need to secure transportation to either Ao Nang or Krabi where you’ll hop on a long-tail boat to Railay. The easiest way to coordinate all of this is to book airport transfer with your hotel. We paid 1,350 Thai baht for a one-way transfer for three people. That came to about $38 USD and included a private van from the airport to the pier at Ao Nang, the long-tail boat journey, and a tractor ride up to our hotel on arrival in Railay. (Cars aren’t allowed on the roads here, but they aren’t really necessary since everything is within walking distance.) The entire process was seamless and our rides were waiting on us each step of the way.
THE CHEAPEST WAY
If you’re on a time crunch, I don’t recommend getting to Railay this way as it can take some time, but if sticking to a budget is your main priority, this will be the cheapest option. After arriving into Krabi airport, you’ll need to take a shuttle bus departing from the airport to either Krabi for 100 baht ($3) or to Ao Nang for 150 baht ($5). The bus ride to Krabi is relatively quick, but it’ll take around 45 minutes to reach Ao Nang.
Once you’ve reached the pier in Krabi or Ao Nang, you’ll need to purchase tickets on a long-tail boat. A ticket to Railay from Ao Nang will cost around 100 baht ($3) and the journey takes 15 minutes. In Krabi, tickets are a little more expensive at 150 baht ($5) since the boat ride is longer. In both places you’ll pay more for a ticket after dark. And the biggest downside – most boats will only leave once full which means you may be sitting around awhile waiting for more passengers to arrive.
If you don’t want to wait for one of the shuttle buses to Ao Nang or Krabi, fixed price taxis are available, but are pretty pricey at 600 baht ($18) to Ao Nang and 350 baht ($11) to Krabi.
WHERE TO STAY
For such a small destination, there are actually quite a few choices on the peninsula for accommodations, but don’t expect prices like you’ll find elsewhere in Thailand. Railay doesn’t come quite as cheap!
THE BUDGET CHOICE
You’ll find there are very few budget choices available in Railay, especially on a backpacker budget. In fact, hardly any if you want to stay on Railay Beach itself. All I could find was Rapala Rock Wood Resort in East Railay. Instead of staying in Railay, many backpackers choose instead to stay in Tonsai, a half-hour walk through the jungle or a 10-minute wade at low tide from Railay. Accommodations are much cheaper there at just $10/night at Chill Out Bar & Bungalow.
THE MIDDLE-OF-THE-ROAD OPTION
The majority of visitors to Railay will be looking in this category, so if you find something you love, don’t wait to book especially if you’re traveling during peak season! As per usual, we chose our accommodations from the middle-of-the-road options and stayed in a bungalow at Railay Phutawan Resort in East Railay. I cannot sing this resort’s praises loud enough. (But I’ll try to in a separate post later this week!) Railay Phutawan Resort is tucked away in the cliffs about a 10-minute walk from the beach, so if you prefer to be beach-side, Railay Bay Resort & Spa is a good choice!
THE LUXURY DIGS
The obvious pick here if money is no object is to book at the luxurious, 5-star Rayavadee Resort. Honestly, one look at the pictures and you’ll probably wonder if a place that insanely perfect could even be real. I assure you it is. We walked by it and I temporarily suffered from a major case of hotel-envy.
Ah, Thai food. Is there anything better? (Okay, maybe Vietnamese, but that’s a debate I don’t feel like getting into right now.)
Breakfast came included in our hotel package, so I, unfortunately, don’t have many recommendations to offer for where to get your morning meal or coffee. Only once did we eat breakfast outside of our hotel and we had Thai pancakes from a small shop on Walking Street. I wasn’t a huge fan, to tell you the truth. If you know of a good place for breakfast in Railay, please leave it in the comments!
Like Thailand’s version of a food truck, my favorite place to order lunch in Railay was from the long-tail boats lined up along Phra Nang Beach. Serving up all sorts of dishes from noodles to grilled corn-on-the-cob, you place your order by wading into the water and pointing to pictures on the menu, and then you carry your meal back to the beach and eat it while watching the waves lap against the shore. Thai food with a scenic view – that’s kind of perfection if you ask me.
For a more traditional lunch, Local Thai Restaurant on Walking Street is an excellent choice. We ate there twice. Definitely the best Pad Thai I had in Railay…and I had a lot.
If you google where to eat in Railay, you’ll find Flame Tree Restaurant on West Railay Beach recommended over and over again. While we weren’t big fans of the food (or the higher prices), it’s still going on the recommendation list because you really should have dinner while watching one of Railay’s sunsets at least once on your holiday. Arrive early to ensure you get a table with a good view.
For traditional Thai, Mangrove Restaurant on Walking Street is hard to beat. The extremely friendly service was a bonus, too!
I know it’s not Thai food, but if you get a hankering for Indian while you’re in Railay, look no further than Kohi Noor. Some of the dishes we ordered were even better than ones we had in India, no joke.
THINGS TO DO IN RAILAY
ENJOY THE BEACHES
There’s a lot more to Railay than beaches, but for the sake of starting with the obvious, let’s check out the four beaches the peninsula has to offer.
West Railay Beach This is Railay’s main beach and its most popular. Bordered by limestone cliffs on both sides and with the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea stretching endlessly into the horizon, West Railay Beach certainly makes quite the first impression.
Phra Nang Beach Almost as popular as West Railay Beach, Phra Nang Beach is located near the tip of the peninsula. The rugged limestone karsts in this area are popular with rock climbers, and Princess Cave gets quite a few curious visitors. (More info below!)
Tonsai Beach Pictured above, Tonsai Beach is technically not in Railay, but it’s so close I’m including it anyway. Reachable from West Railay Beach via long-tail boat (or a quick wade through the water at low tide) or from East Railay if you’re up for a hike through the jungle, Tonsai Beach benefits from the same gorgeous views as West Railay Beach with a fraction of the people.
East Railay Beach You won’t find any actual beach here at high tide, just mangroves, but the path along East Railay Beach still makes for a lovely walk at any time of day.
GO ROCK CLIMBING
Besides beaches, Railay’s single best selling point is its cliffs for rock climbing. Both Railay and Tonsai have climbing routes suitable for a wide range of climbers from beginners to experts. If you’re new to rock climbing, you won’t have to look hard to find schools offering half-day courses including all equipment plus a guide all the way up to multi-day packages for those a little more serious about improving their rock climbing skills. For more experienced climbers comfortable with climbing without a guide, equipment for two can be rented in most rock climbing shops for around 800 baht ($25).
HIKE TO RAILAY VIEW POINT
For the best view in Railay, a hike up to Railay View Point is a must! Assuming you’re in relatively good shape, that is. The hike itself isn’t particularly long in distance, but it is difficult. The initial part of the hike requires scaling an incredibly steep cliff using nothing but your own strength and a thick piece of rope that you can never be entirely certain isn’t going to snap the next time you grasp ahold of it. It’s exhausting, and absolutely terrifying if you look down, but the view from the top makes the effort more than worth it. You’ll be treated to a bird’s eye view of East Railay, West Railay, and Tonsai Beach from up here.
CONTINUE HIKING TO THE LAGOON
If you made it to the view point without too much of a struggle and are up for a little adventure, it’ll be worth your while to continue on the hike to Railay’s hidden lagoon. Enclosed on all sides except for a wide opening at the top, the lagoon is best seen at high tide when the ocean fills the lagoon deep enough for swimming. But even if you show up at low tide, it’s still quite a sight to see with the sunshine streaming in from above. If you thought the hike up to the view point was strenuous, prepare yourself as the hike down into the lagoon can really test your limits and get quite dangerous. Be very careful, especially if it’s rained recently as the trail gets extremely muddy. (FYI, this is why I ended up pants-less in Railay for a few hours.)
GO INSIDE DIAMOND CAVE
Do I think we got a little scammed paying 100 baht per person to enter Diamond Cave? Yes. Was it still worth it? Also yes. Diamond Cave probably isn’t going to blow you away if you’ve been inside pretty much any other cave ever, but it’s the best Railay has to offer. And it’s pretty cool to see the inside of the cliffs that make up so much of the landscape in Railay. It’s fairly dark inside, but the cave is lit well enough that you can see the many stalactites and stalagmites making up the interior of the cave. The only disappointing thing for me was how little of the cave is actually open to visitors. I definitely would have enjoyed being able to explore a little deeper!
VISIT PRINCESS CAVE
Not so much a cave as a shrine really, Princess Cave on Phra Nang Beach is one you won’t be able to miss. (Seriously, good luck ignoring the giant 4-foot phallus and all its colorful, multi-sized friends as you enter the beach. It’s impossible.) While the cave has become somewhat of a tourist attraction in recent years, it actually serves a cultural purpose as a place for local people to leave an offering (in this case, a wooden lingam) to ensure fertility and prosperity in their lives. But if anyone actually comes here to make offerings, I never saw it. It’s mostly amused tourists who visit to take almost obligatory and definitely questionable selfies.
Without a doubt, my favorite thing to do in Railay was kayaking around the peninsula! There are organized kayaking tours available, but it’s much cheaper (and very easy) to rent equipment and head out on your own. We rented our kayak from a shop on West Railay Beach for 300 baht ($8) for two hours. (If you’re not sure how long you’ll be out, you can leave a 300 baht deposit and your hotel key and pay the balance when you get back.)
If you’re leaving from West Railay Beach, I recommend paddling towards the tiny rock islands just off the coastline and checking those out before heading towards Phra Nang Beach. Passing that, you’ll discover a small chain of tiny private beaches in between Phra Nang Beach and East Railay Beach. Needless to say, we parked our kayak and enjoyed our own little tropical paradise until the tide made our beach vanish! From there, you can complete the route by heading towards East Railay Beach and then circling back. Altogether, not counting time on the private beaches, the route will probably take just under two hours to complete. If you’re up for a real adventure, you can rent a kayak for the whole day and head out to some of the larger islands off the coast!
CATCH A SUNSET
As luck would have it, you can actually catch a beautiful sunset from all four beaches in Railay. That’s right, even the one on the east coast. (I’m telling you, this place has some pretty magical qualities!)
The most popular locations for watching sunset are definitely West Railay Beach and Phra Nang Beach (pictured above). People start finding their spot for the show at least an hour before sunset, and the beaches get crowded quite quickly. That being said, they’re not nearly as crowded as they are during the day, so there’s plenty of space for everyone. For photographers, these beaches will be the best choice since there’s a seemingly endless amount of ways you can use the surrounding landscape to make compelling sunset shots.
While you can see the same sunset from Tonsai Beach that you’ll see from West Railay Beach, I really only recommend watching sunset from there if you’re staying in Tonsai. It’s too difficult to make your way back to Railay from Tonsai after dark unless you’re willing to pay for a long-tail boat.
If you’re fine with not being on an actual beach for sunset, I highly recommend catching one from Tew Lay Bar in East Railay. It’s a super chilled out, hippie-style outdoor bar with hammocks, beanbag chairs, and patios that stretch out over the water at high tide. And because of the way the..
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