Ghent, Belgium

Ghent was a stop over trip on the way to Brugge which I got as a gift. The Medieval architecture is a must see in that part of the country and the one main focus point for me was the Gravensteen castle (see below). The castle is 10th Century surrounded by a moat, I mean what more can you want!!

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As well as the main castle itself the rest of the architecture is also worth seeing. We walked from the train station down towards the center along the canal that led us straight to the castle but also giving us great views of Sint-Michielsplein church (see below) which is just off the main plaza in Ghent (top tip the St.micahels birge is great for photo’s). From there you can get great views of bell towers in all surrounding buildings. The main plaza also leads off to the main shopping street if thats what you fancy.

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The cobble locks everywhere gave you a real feel for the age of the city and you do really feel like you were thrown into the past. There is also boat tours available along the canals, however these don’t operate in winter as parts of the canals are frozen solid. Prices for most attractions werent too expensive, Castle being 10 euro and to climb the bell tower at the main plaza was just 8 euro. All prices and opening times can be found at HERE which I for one found very handy.

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The city itself is quite big however most of the main attractions were all quite close together which made it much simpler for us as a stop over. If you like Medieval architecture then this is definitely the town for you. Im sure Id be back to it sometime in my future anyhow.

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Brussels

For Christmas last year I got a 3 day trip to Brussels for my partner. Although some would say that this is as much a present for myself than him but this is something we seemed to do regularly. 20161227_173515.jpg

Brussels was a wonderful city and great to visit during the Christmas break since the Christmas markets are still around, plenty of Christmas villages with other fun attractions and of course the grand place lights show has to be the most spectacular to visit.

We were staying very central, but even if you are not the metro system is a good one and doesnt cost a fortune either. The city isnt huge so you will still have plenty of time to visit everything you want. Obviously the main attraction is the Grand Place and this is one amazing place. The architecture all around you will have your head spinning. This place is has to be visited both during the day and at night. From the Grand place its only a short walk to Manneken Pis (pissing boy) which is a lot smaller than what I had expected it to be. With another short walk you can get to the royal palace. Another place of interest is park Cinquantenaire with its impressive looking arch as well as millitary and auto museums. 20161228_105542.jpg

A little outside of the main city (by metro) you can find Atonium and Mini Europe with is great fun. You can buy a ticket to go to both or separately when you get there its up to you. Mini Europe is a great photo opportunity where you get to see the miniature versions of all the best European destinations, even in motion. 20161229_125305.jpg

After this city break my legs definitely needed a day or two to recover. As i said its not small but despite that there is still plenty of walking involved and taxi’s arent cheap if you wanted that as an option. As for food, the mussels and fries are their specialty and are available at any corner and why not try the Belgian waffles with toppings of your choice for dessert. You’ll also be delighted if you are a craft beer lover as there is plenty of that in Brussels.

Washington DC

My last stop on my america adventure was Washington DC and the main reason was the Smithsonian for my love of museums and science. DC did not disappoint, between all the museums and monuments there was plenty to keep you busy. Click on the links to bring you straight to the site for more info, price and opening times.

Capitol building and Smithsonian

One of the very first things that i noticed when it comes to Washington DC was just how easy it was to get around, and im not talking public transport, Im talking the streets layout. A,B,C and 1, 2, 3 its as simple as that. In no time at all i found my way to the Capitol building, which i used as my starting point for my museum tour. The capitol building itself is free to enter but if you want a tour you need to book in advance. There is also a list of things you cant bring in so make sure you read that before you decide to go.IMG_0051

First up on the left is the botanical gardens, I just happen to wonder over there without any plans and it was beautiful. Sections where you feel like you’re walking through the actual rain forest. I definitely spent more time there than i intended but not everyone would think of going there.

From there I just headed down to every museum along the road including the native american museum and hirshhorn museum and sculpture park but the real gem was the air and space museum with its life size airplanes handing from the ceiling, the planetarium and so much more. I felt like I had spent a full day there despite only being there for an hour or so. I was completely engulfed.IMG_0068.JPG

Across the green was the national art gallery, despite the fact I’m not a huge art fan I was still fairly interested when walking around this museum. Beside the art museum is the national history museum, this was another gem of a place. Aside from the different exhibits and learning there was the butterfly pavilion. One of my favourite experiences was being in a dome full of butterflies some of which were as big as much face. It really was awe inspiring to be there. The entry to the butterfly pavilion is only every few hours and you have to get a ticket in ahead of time. If you’re doing a museum day, plan your time well and check out the websites for all the up to date information of the exhibits to make sure you don’t miss out on something awesome.

Monument & Memorials

Well as far as monuments go DC definitely has its fair share starting with one of the most famous ones the Washington monument which unfortunately was under renovation when I was there and still is until 2019. I recon the view from the top is definitely worth a second visit to the city. IMG_0100.JPGFrom the Washington monument its straight ahead towards the Lincoln memorial with the world war 2 memorial and the Lincoln reflective pool along the way. Like many people there I had brought a lunch with me and sat on the steps of the memorial under Lincoln’s feet. The view from the top of the stairs is beautiful and I’m not just talking about Lincoln himself. To the right of the Lincoln memorial was the Korean war veterans memorial and one of both saddest and heartfelt memorials I had ever visited. Staying in that direction you eventually get to the Martin Luther King memorial and the tidal basin with a perfect view of the Thomas Jefferson memorial. Across from the Potomac river is the famous Arlington cemetery which is the grave site of John F Kennedy and also the tomb of the unknown soldier.

White House & City

The main attraction of course for most would be getting a glimpse at the white house. There was always a crown at the park anytime I walked past but I wont lie I did stand with the crowd at one stage too even got a thrill to see the helicopter land just outside the house, although nothing even happened. The rest of the city has loads to offer, attractions and museums such as the international spy museum or madame tussauds which I love no matter how many times I go.

All in all Washington DC has so much to offer you will walk the feet off yourself. Definitely take a few days if visiting as you will need it and I’m glad that I spent 3 days in this exciting city full of things to do. I think this city was the perfect ending to my 4 months spent in the states.

 

Philadelphia

Following on from my last months post, I had taken the bus again from New york down to Philadelphia. I didnt think the city was that big and gave it less than two days on my schedule. Once again just like with new york this proven to be a far more interesting city than I expected.

Once I arrived I set off to go visit the Eastern State Penetentiary. I managed to get there just before closing and got to walk around a mostly empty prison along with my guided headset. Once again I had a lot more fun on my own exploring different cells and reading up on the history of the place.

From there I didn’t really have any further plan so I wondered over to the art museum which happened to be the famous rocky steps location. Watching people running up and down for photos and videos was quite entertaining but I decided to pass on that one.

From the art museum you can walk back along a pretty lane way covered by trees all the way to the city. In the city there is plenty of art installations and mosaics to see. I couldn’t go to Philadelphia and not see the liberty bell of course but that didn’t prove to be too interesting. It is as it sounds just a bell.

After wondering around I came across the burial place of Benjamin Franklin and of course got myself a Philly cheese steak sandwich.
Perhaps Philadelphia doesn’t come across as full of activities as my last post on New York but it was in it’s own way a lovely place to visit. I know for a fact that when I was leaving I regretted now allocating more time to this city.

New York

Following my two days in Boston I got on a bus to New York City. I had stayed with my cousin in jersey but was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to get into the city via public transport. I didnt think New York would be my favourite stop however that quickly changed. I had decided to spend 4 days in New York given that there was so much to see and do.

Manhattan

Times square was an obvious one to visit, and I went in the evening just to be even more impressed by the lights off all the screens. Its got so much happening, so many people there its busy but yet not too crowded. Around the times square there was a few places to visit, like the wax museum and the Ripleys believe it or not. Those two places I went on my own and still enjoyed it so much. There was plenty of shops, bars and restaurants all around there to keep you entertained.

Another must see was a Broadway show. Although I hadn’t intended on going before I arrived my cousin had talked me into it. It isn’t cheap but the experience is definitely worth it. Just one of those things you should experience in your lifetime I think and I’m not even that big on plays or musicals.

One of the places I was told about was the Chelsea Market and the highline. The highline was one of my highlights of New York. A park stretching above the city along an old rail line, I mean if that alone doesn’t catch your interest I don’t know what will. When I reached the end of the park near Greenwich I walked down towards the bottom of the island where I discovered a sweet memorial for all those who immigrated from Ireland during the famine. The memorial looked like a small piece of Irish country side places in the middle of New York.

The famine memorial turned out to be only a short walk towards the twin towers memorial. Be warned the queue is long and a passport is required to get in. I found the memorial to be quite sad to be at, kind of like the Titanic museum in Belfast.

I could not resist going up the empire state building. Despite being told that you can go to the top of the rockafella instead and the views would be just the same but less queue I still didn’t care. I tried to go early to beat the traffic of tourists however there is no avoiding it completely at such an attraction. I enjoyed going up, learned about the building and the views of course. This was one of the experiences I wish I had someone to share it with though.

Central Park, well lets just say I underestimated the size. There was way more to it then I had imagined and you can spend hours in it. I seen loads of animals and performers. It was very relaxed. You can take boat rides on the lake there however I felt like rowing romantically by myself was a little weird.

Surroundings

Despite the shear size of Manhattan and all the things to do there I did manage to see some of the surrounding area’s. I walked across the Brooklyn bridge of course and then doubled back along the Manhattan bridge where I got some brilliant photos of the Brooklyn bridge from the distance.

I went out to Brighton beach which is little being transported to Russia. The amount of Russians living there is insane but to top it all off most of the shop names aren’t even in English. A walk along the beach and a visit to the fair made me completely forget I was even in New York.

One of the things I was told from the start is to not waste your time or money going to the statue of Liberty but instead to take the free ferry over and see the statue from the waterfront. This is exactly the advice I followed and I was very glad I did, the trip wasn’t long and the views were pretty cool.

 

Overall I really enjoyed New York and got to see a lot in my short stay. Im sure there would be loads to see again the next time Im back. I would definitely recommend to go with a friend. Its not lonely to spend the time on your own there but some parts are more enjoyable shared with someone.

Boston, MA

After my J1 summer in Chicago I decided to travel across some of the cities on the east coast and my first stop was Boston. Ive heard a lot about Boston so when i got there I expected it to be a lot bigger than it was. Given that I had only given 2 days for my stop off in Boston it worked out perfect.

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This was one of my favourite ways to see a city, what a great idea. The freedom trail is what it is, a red line trail going through the city that you follow. You can download the map from their website but frankly you wont need to. The trail leads you along all the best sights from Boston Common all the way to the USS Constitution. The walk is long but covers absolutely everything you would want to see including burial grounds and a great view of Charles river. This one would take you a full day but enjoy it!

Samuel Adams Brewery

Im not a huge beer drinker and after the first brewery they all look the same right? Well this one sure wasnt. The entry first of all is FREE, and the ticket they give you is a beer label from their bottles, that in itself is pretty cool. The tour doesnt take long and if you get there in the first half of the day its not packed either. At the end of the tour you get to do some beer tasting. If thats not enough there is a free Doyles party bus that brings you around to the famous bar. Having a drink at the bar will also get you a complimentary Samuel Adams glass, uniquely crafted for a better beer drinking experience.

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Whale Watching

Why did I have to mention this one, well because not everything in Boston is free and fun like the first two points i made. This was a massive waste of time as more or less within the first 10mins of the 4 hour trip we were told that there will be no whales to see as they are all gone down the south for warmer waters. The best part of the trip was getting to see boston from the water along with the different islands that surround the harbour, thats about it. After 4hrs on a boat with no whales in sight the company did offer a free ticket for the next whale watching but not refunds. Given that i was only there for 2 days I wasnt risking another 4 hours wasted at sea.

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Of course there was a lot more to see and talk about when it came to Boston and I would definitely recommend the city to any of my friends but the above where my highlights. I was pleased with all i got to cram into my short stay.

Chicago – Parks and Navy Pier

Parks and navy pier are the go to places in Chicago and the most popular and well known.

Millennium Park

Probably most well known for the cloud gate aka the bean of Chicago. IMG_7671.JPG

Not only does this park house the famous mirror bean which you must take a photo with, it also has many other attractions. You can chill out on the lawn in front of the Pritzker pavillion, plan this one ahead as there is always shows or movies on. Bring a blanket, picnic and enjoy the view. Walk around to the crown fountain which is a shallow pool separated by two 50 foot towers. Take a walk around the chase promenade as there is always different art installations free for the public to view.

Grant Park

The grant park connected to the millennium park leads all the way to the museum campus. Along the way you can find the Buckingham fountain which is one of the worlds largest fountains and the art institute as well as sports fields and gardens. This park is also home to most of the food and music festivals on during the summer months, including the grand taste of Chicago and music festivals such as Lollapalooza.

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Lincoln Park

I have touched on the Lincoln park previously when I discussed the zoo that it houses as well as the lily pond and many more. See my previous blog entry on Chicago – Museums and Zoo.

Navy Pier

One of the most visited attractions of Chicago. What is it though, well its everything. Its bars, restaurants, ferris wheel, mini golf, cruises, museums, shops and the list goes on. Its a two part pier in that there is the outdoors area as well as the indoor. Here you can spend a whole day if you wanted. Getting there is a fair walk from the loop, the scenery on the walk to it is nothing spectacular so I would advice to splash out and get a taxi there or the bus even which stops just outside the entrance. From the Pier you can walk on towards the memorial park and onto the beach front along the skyscrapers. There is plenty of water taxi’s and cruises available from the pier itself.

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Chicago – Museums & Zoo

Full disclosure Im a fan of a good museum or aquarium, however i am quite picky since sometimes it can be a bit of “been there done that” surely they are all the same at this stage. Chicago however was an exception for me.

The Museum of Science and Industry

This one is a bit out of the city but easy to get to by 1209279_10151685745962513_1464709010_nbus, just do the research before hand. This is one of the most interactive science museums I have ever been to and easy in the top two best museums for me beating any in Washington DC. The museum is also near University of Chicago and Washington park so there is plenty to see and do around the museum too. I would give this trip a full day, get there early as the place itself is huge…no spoilers but it has an actual submarine!!! The tickets arent sky high either at just $18 per adult but you can also get a discount if you order online beforehand.

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I know i already said this about the museum of science but this was one of the best aquariums I have been to. One of the gems of this place is the jelly fish rooms, thats a must!!! You can just get lost in their movements and there is no many kinds. Petting stingrays and seal shows its all there. Its not just tanks full of water there are jungle like tanks and dont forget a 4D movie just for the fun. The tickets are pricey but well worth the trip, the cost will set you back $40 with a half day worth of fun. Around the aquarium you will also find the Field museum, Adler planetarium and surrounding parks which lead into Grant park and millennium park. From the aquarium itself you can get the water taxi all the way to navy pier which gives you some amazing views of the city skyline from the water. Main tip is get there early, the queue can become huge very quick and in the summer heat its the last thing you’d want to do even if they provide cover.IMG_7792

Lincoln Zoo

Guess what….this one is free. Yes the Chicago zoo is absolutely free and the animals are up closer than most Zoo’s in Europe. It has an interactive farm, bird house and conservatory. One of the little gems of this place is the Alfred Caldwell Lily pond just north of the zoo, its not big but definitely something to see. The public beaches stretch along the side of the zoo which have once again a lovely view of the city skyline rising from the sand.

Chicago – The Skyscrapers

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This time 4 years ago I finished my last ever college exams and headed over to Chicago for 3 months on a J1. The reason I picked to go to Chicago was through recommendation and Im so glad I listened. Fortunately there is so much to go through when it comes to Chicago that this will not be the last time I write about it. This Chapter will be dedicated to the city and its buildings. Let me just point out that before Chicago I had never seen skyscrapers in real life so the moment we got off the CTA and into the street my jaw dropped. I stood frozen with my mouth open for a good 10 minutes I just couldn’t believe how tall they were!!! IMG_7688

Marina City (Corn Cobs)

First on the list are the iconic corn cob buildings. Even if you have never heard of them you have probably seen them at some point. The best view of these are from the near by bridges such as the one off Dearborn street or else the water taxi which you can get just off Michigan avenue. Interesting fact is that the apartments in those buildings have no interior right angles as each is shaped like a pizza slice.

Willis Tower

If you did get the water taxi to go past the marina city then it will bring you along the river straight to the willis tower. This is the iconic tower with the glass floor on the 103rd floor (sky deck). The building itself is impressive up close as well as from a distance. To visit the sky deck only costs $23 which is not a lot when you get to step out over the city. Im not afraid of highs but I had to have someone hold my hand when I went to sit down on it because you feel like you will just fall through!!! The view of the city from there is spectacular. The willis tower and sky deck are a must see.

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John Hancock Center

This is the 100 story tall black sky scraper off the magnificent mile. The sky scraper offers observation decks with a view of the city and the beach front. The entry to the observation deck only costs $20 with an additional $7 if you want to experience the tilt. However if you are short for cash you can always visit the Bar/Restaurant for a drink with a view just a floor below the observation deck.

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Other notable mentions go to Tribune Tower, Aqua tower and the Crain communications building. One of the best ways to see all the skyscrapers is from the water front, either along the river through the city or across the Chicago harbor. Dont forget you can also visit the observation decks at night for a whole different experience.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

My trip to Amsterdam was for a long weekend away with the girls. Its a place many people speak fondly of and one that i was always interested in visiting. The idea of coffee shops and red light district made seem so exciting. 20160326_152016

As soon as we got to Amsterdam we went straight to Dam square where the main feature has to be the royal palace. While on the square we stopped by tourist information and booked all our touristy sightseeing tour tickets straight away since you get a good discount when you get them in packages. We got tickets for Madam Tussauds, Amsterdam Dungeons, Ice Bar and The Heineken Experience.  Since Madam Tussauds is on Dam place from there you can get great areal shots of the whole square and the royal palace. I have been to London and Edinburgh Dungeons before and loved both experiences however Amsterdam Dungeons weren’t quite up to the same standard and I wouldn’t recommend it. Ice Bar was brilliant, mostly for pictures though and very short experience as you wouldn’t spend too much time in it. The Heineken experience however was the most entertaining brewery tours I have been on, plenty of interactive parts and good flow through the impressive building itself not to mention the view from the roof top bar at the end. I would recommend getting the tickets for these in advance as you get to skip the queue, which can make all the difference if you are only going for a short break. The Heineken experience queues were pretty long in particular.

One of the most popular and must see parts of Amsterdam was the canals. Now you cant miss them when you are walking around but it is quite another thing to see them from the water, plus you get all the history lessons and stories at the same time.

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Cant exactly talk about Amsterdam without a mention of the red light district. Obviously my opinion on it would be the polar opposite to that of most men however for me although it was interesting it also seemed very seedy and quite frankly I felt very uncomfortable in that area walking past all the windows. The district itself is pretty nice along with many bars which are packed full of people but as a woman I didn’t feel comfortable. Although the sex museum is quite the opposite, fun and at a very low price too.

There were many things I wish I had gotten to see but even as small as Amsterdam is a shirt weekend cant guarantee you enough time to see everything. One thing we didn’t get to see was Anne Franks house, the queue (although we went early in the morning) was over an hour long to get in, so the most we got was a view from the outside. One other thing I wish i got to see was Micropia but that’s purely as a microbiologist I guess. The question is would I come back, and to be honest I don’t know if i would. There are other places around Europe that i felt have more to offer, as well as the fact I didn’t like the red light scene or the consistent smell of weed I just don’t think this was a city for me. However I’m glad I got to experience it and make my own mind up about it.