Longleat Adventure and Safari Review – Lockdown Edition

We actually came here for our first wedding anniversary, in June 2020 during the first Covid-19 lockdown. It was a fantastic day out for couples and for families. Some facilities and attractions were closed or restricted this year, due to there being extra safety rules, pre-booking requirements or one-way systems in place. It may be worth checking Longleat’s website before travelling or booking. 

In short, there are 3 main elements to the site – Longleat House, the safari park, the attractions around Longleat House. Unfortunately, the house is currently not open due to Covid-19 restrictions, but it’s still worth walking around it as the exterior and gardens are beautiful 

We parked the car in the car park which was conveniently free of charge. 

We then headed for the safari party and boy was I excited. We downloaded the Longleat Safari App (which you can download from the App store or Google Play) so that they couldn talk us through the animals we saw. It was GPS operated so it knew exactly where you were in the park and gave us the commentary accordingly. I was blown away by how tech-savvy it all was! The safari park takes about 45 minutes – 1 hour but I think it could take longer during busy periods.  

There are a few places when you can stop and get out to get a closer view of the animals, however this is mainly an ‘in-car safari’. I enjoyed the African Village as we got up close to the giraffes from the brilliant viewing platform.

As we drove around the park, we saw lions, tigers and many other animals that were roaming free. Of course, nothing is guaranteed with animals, but when we visited, we were able to get great pictures of many of the residents. It was fun going through the monkey drive through and especially when the monkeys get a lift on your car. It is possible to avoid the drive through though as the monkeys can damage your car. 

It was a great day out and a lovely way to spend our lockdown. 

Disclosure: We were given complimentary access passes for the purpose of this review. 

husky-sledding-tromso

Spending New Year’s Eve in Tromso + 3 Day Itinerary

If you’re looking for an adventurous winter wonderland, Tromso in Norway could be your perfect destination. Located on the island of Tromsoya above the Arctic Circle, it is the cultural hub of Northern Norway. People come here in the winter to witness the amazing northern lights that ripples across the sky in the dark winter nights. Surrounded by unspoiled wilderness of fjords and mountains, Tromso is a great place to experience some of nature’s wonders or some of the wintery sports such as Husky Sledging, Snow Mobilling or Reindeer Sledding. 

Tromso was our final spot in our Norway in a Nutshell Tour as we spent 4 nights and 3 full days here. Our itinerary was pretty relaxed compared to the rest of the trip.

Tuesday 31st Dec: AM – Husky Sledging, PM – NYE Fireworks
Wednesday 1st Jan: AM – Explored Tromso, PM – Northern Lights 
Thursday 2nd Jan: AM – Explored neighbouring towns, PM – Northern Lights 

We came to Tromso during their winter which is considered to be from December until late March. People assume that since Tromso is so high up north, it must be freezing in the winter but as it is located by the coast, it had a surprisingly mild climate. It is however the Polar Night where the sun does not rise above the horizon and is dark for most of the day. We did have some beautiful daylight between 10am and 2pm but it does then start to get darker and it gets completely dark around 3:30pm.

Day 1: Husky Sledding and NYE Fireworks

Husky Sledding 

Husky Sledding was on the top of my list of organized activities I wanted to do when staying in Tromso. After doing LOTS of research, we went with Active Tromso whose kennel is located on Kvaloya. We signed up for their ‘one day of dog sledding’ tour 2/3 months beforehand. I recommend booking as many months in advance as they do sell out!

We were picked up at Radisson Blu Hotel in Tromso and the drive to their camp took about 35 minutes. The drive in itself was beautiful as we drove through beautiful snowy mountains. My husband and I were buzzing and literally couldn’t contain our excitement. 

When we arrived, we were greeted by their friendly staff and changed into suitable clothing. We wore a good quality base layer to keep us warm along with a woollen jumper or fleece but they gave us a thick Arctic-proof one-piece. 

husky-sledding-tromso

We then went outside where they introduced us to the adorable Alaskan huskies and the sled! They gave us full instructions on how to mush our team and control the sled. They told us that two participants share a sled, alternating between mushing the sled and being a passenger.  

As soon as they told us to go, the dogs launched into action and the sledges were much speedier and challenging to control. It was super hard with trails over steep and undulating terrain but it was also very exciting and adrenaline-fuelling. One of the reasons we chose this particular tour was that it was the most challenging one in Tromso! It was definitely an adventure riding through the winter wonderland of frozen lakes, forests and majestic mountains. We husky sledded for about 3 hours but trust me when i say, the time whizzed by so quickly. 

husky-sledding-tromso

After giving back the dogs, we sat around a warm fire, drinking hot beverage and exchanged stories of the trip. It was good chatting with the owner of Active Tromso, Tore Albrigsten about his adventure. He is an incredible person who is a mountaineer, marathoner, skier and long-term musher.

Even though we were both feeling very tired and sore, it was the most beautiful adventure I have ever experienced. 

NYE Fireworks 

We got back at 4pm and quickly grabbed something to eat as we were starving! We took off all of the layers we had on from husky sledding and had a nap so that we could be ready to go out to watch the fireworks (I know… we sound so old!). 

We had dinner in the cutest Italian restaurant around the corner from us called Casa Inferno. The pizza was so delicious and the ambiance is quirky, modern and sophisticated.

We then went to see what charming fireworks display Tromso had on offer. We were told by the hotel staff that it was being shot from Mt Storsteinen and can be best seen from the city centre. We started walking over the bridge and were trying to follow where the locals where for the best view. We then spotted lots of people by the river, next to the bridge – so we decided that it would be easier and closer to go there instead of having to continue crossing the bridge.

We were then treated to an intense 30-minute light show as each neighbour in succession launched a considerable arsenal of fireworks. It was the cutest but most disorganised display I’ve ever seen. It was impressive for consisting mainly of individual household displays which looked pretty cool as the sky exploded up and down the length of an island. 

We then walked back, hand in hand to get a good night’s sleep before tomorrows jam-packed day. 

Day 2: Explored Tromso and Northern Lights! 

We only had one day to explore Tromso and just a matter of hours to see it in the daylight – which is totally doable as it’s a small town! After going hard on the breakfast buffet, we made our way to the first stop – Tromso Cathedral.

Tromso Cathedral

As you are walking through the main street of Tromso, Storgata, you can’t miss the old, beautiful, wooden church called Domkirka. Dating back to 1861, this is the Nothernmost Protestant cathedral and the only one in Norway that is made of wood. There were a number of concerts going on but we didn’t have tickets, and wasn’t too bothered anyway.

Storgata

This is the main pedestrian street in Tromso and is called Stargota. We walked past here numerous times, but never actually explored it properly. Even though shopping wasn’t really on our agenda (and budget) for this trip, there are still plenty of nice shops, cafes and restaurants. Its definitely well worth a stroll. 

Polaria

Our next stop was Polaria which is the world’s northernmost aquarium. We were not too bothered about going inside but from an architectural point of view, the building was fascinating. It was designed to represent Arctic ice floes pushed together. Its white and modern exterior is the perfect accompaniment to the Arctic Cathedral on the other side of the harbour. 

Arctic Cathedral

The final stop of our self-guided walking tour of Tromso was the infamous Arctic Cathedral (or Ishavkatedralen in Norwegian) which is a 30 minute walk from Tromso centre, over the Tromso Bridge. It is in every postcard and is THE image of Tromso. It was built in 1965 and designed by a famous Norwegian architect called Jan Inge Hovig. It has a unique triangular shape which is meant to represent an iceberg and there is a stunning glass mosaic that sparkles with incredible colours when the sun shines through it. Despite being the main tourist attraction, the interior of the church is rather modest and minimal.

Northern Lights Tour! 

Of course, one of the main reasons we were so excited to go to Tromso was to see the Northern Lights! While there’s no place that can guarantee the northern lights, a visit to Tromso will improve your chances of seeing them. The Aurura Borealis is visible only during the winter (Sept – Mar). We opted for a tour with a reputable company that chases Northern Lights all the way to Finland or Sweden – the company was called Polar Adventures. While it wasn’t the cheapest chase tour in Tromso, it wasn’t the most expensive one either. Even though we did not see the northern lights on that night, it was still good fun as they made us a fire where we baked marshmallows and hotdogs. 

For dinner, we wanted something quick and easy so we went to this fast food restaurant called ‘Paletten Grill Najibul’. It was just opposite our hotel (Scandic Tromso Hotel) and the kebab was delicious. The place is small and could do with a touch up, but the meat was good and the proportion was huge! 

Even though we weren’t lucky enough to see the northern lights with the tour, the next day my husband made the spontaneous decision of renting a car out for the day and exploring Tromso neighbouring cities and at the same time, chase the northern lights ourselves. I am so glad we did because just before we were about to call it a night, the lights danced above us.

Our Accommodation

Accommodation in Tromso is expensive, especially during New Year’s Eve, so make sure you budget for it accordingly. We stayed in Scandic Grand Tromso Hotel and it was perfect. Its located right in the middle of the city centre and the main attractions are just a short walk away. It comes with a huge buffet and free tea and coffee (which is so important when going to a cold country!). I loved my stay here and would recommend it. 

How to Spend 24 Hours in Bergen

The final stop of Norway in a Nutshell tour was Bergen – one of the oldest port cities in Europe.  With only 24 hours to spare, including an overnight stay, we wanted to see as much as we could of the city. Luckily, with Bergen being a small city, we were able to cover its main attractions on foot. 

We arrived at Bergen train station at 6pm and of course, it was completely chucking it down. Bergen is known for its rain and is considered the rainiest city in the world. It rains 240 days per year! 

We dropped our bags off at our hotel which was just a mere 2 minutes’ walk from the main train station and made our way in search of dinner. We stayed in Grand Hotel Terminus, a beautiful 131-room classic, yet modern hotel located in the centre of Bergen. It opened in 1928 and is one of the most traditional yet elegant hotels I’ve stayed in. Only a 5 minutes way from Torgalmenningen Square and 10 minutes’ walk from the UNESCO-listed Bryggen Wharf, this hotel is conveniently located in a place where you can easily explore many of the city’s main attractions. 

Evening of Day 1: Dinner at Kafe Special, Fisketorget Fish Market

Kafe Special

Hidden in-between the houses, we found a cosy little café, Kaf Special. I would definitely recommend this place for some delicious freshly made pizza (with what seems to be an infinite selection of toppings) and pasta, at a very affordable price. The atmosphere was super chilled and the service is amazing! We seemed to be the only tourists there and was very popular with the locals. 

Fisketorget Fish Market 

We wanted to go for a walk to digest the food and so we made our way to this fish market located right by the Bryggen. It’s a great place to window-shop or grab a bite to eat. Its been an ongoing market since the 1200s and is part of the port, fishermen and trading locations history. We went to the indoor section of the market which is open year-round – the outdoor market opens on May 1st for the summer. 

Day 2: Funicular up Mt. Floyen, Bryggen

Funicular up Mt. Floyen

One of the most popular things to do in Bergen is to ride the Floibanen funicular up Mt. Floyen. At around 400m, Floyen is one of Bergen’s (small) city mountains and offer the most amazing panoramic views over Bergen and out to sea. The journey only takes about 5-6 minutes but you should try and get there early as there is often a queue. We only stayed at the top for half an hour before making our way down to the next stop. There was a Godt Bodt bakery a few houses down which we stopped for some great coffee. I wanted to try their cardamom bum but we just had a huge breakfast buffet at the hotel so was pretty full. 

Bryggen

We then made our way to the place I was looking forward to seeing the most – Bryggen. This is an old wharf and is home to over 60 narrow, brightly coloured wooden boathouses. Today, these buildings are used by various restaurants, tourist offices and hotels. It actually reminded me more of the houses we would use to play monopoly – all stacked up nicely next to each other. 

Since 1979, Bryggen has been on the UNESCO list for World Cultural Heritage site. This old wharf is a standing reminder of Bergen’s importance as part of the Hanseatic League’s trading empire from the 14th to the mid-16thcentury. The Hanseatic League is an organization founded by northern German towns and merchant communities to protect their mutual trading interest. It established a total of 4 overseas Hanseatic Offices and Bryggen is the only one preserved today. Though fires have ruined a lot of the original buildings (the last being in 1955), Bryggen rebuilds itself, closely following old property structure and redesigning the artistic designs and wood architecture. The area is such a beautiful place to wander around. I just loved the wooden houses that looked like it came straight out of a Harry Potter movie. 

Get lost in Bergen!

We spent the majority of the day getting pulled left and right by the most adorable streets of Bergen. It was nice not having a set plan or route. As we kept walking, every small street was calling our name for us to explore it. Wandering Bergen just made my heart swell with happiness as I instantly fell in love with the beauty, design and architecture of Nordic countries. 

For lunch, we highly recommended trying the traditional Scandinavian hotdogs serving reindeer sausage at Trekoneren! This hotdog stand translates to “three crowns” and is a popular tourist destination in itself. Even though this might be a bit of a queue, I would recommend eating here. My mouth is watering whilst thinking about the classic crispy onion toppings!

Explore the Modern Bergen City Centre

As it was starting to get dark, we just had one more stop before taking the bus to the airport. Even though Bergen’s historic areas are undeniably the city main attraction, we wanted to check out the modern downtown area. It definitely has its own charm to offer with street performers in every corner and locals buzzing about their days. It has all the mainstream shops and some souvenir shops. 

We didn’t get a chance to do any shopping but we did go to Sostrene Hagelin so that we could try some local food at this café. We had some fish cake and fish soup which were very fresh. We wanted to try more things from there but we were still quite full from the hotdog. We highly recommend trying this restaurant if you are visiting Bergen!

We then made our way to the bus stop outside Bergen train station to catch the direct bus to the airport ready for the next stop – Tromso!

DIY Norway in a Nutshell Tour

What is Norway in a Nutshell? 

Norway in a Nutshell tour takes you through Norway’s most breath-taking UNESCO-protected fjord and mountain scenery. It is a packaged tour that combines a scenic ferry ride on two connected fjords (Naerotfjord and Aurlandsfjord), a bus ride on the steep hairpin bends of Stalheimskleiva and a spectacular railway journey in the mountains.

This tour is targeted towards travellers on whirlwind tours of Norway and is a very convenient way to the see the ‘best of the best’ of Norway in limited amount of time. Even though this is meant to be a round trip (Oslo – Bergen – Oslo), we only did as a single journey from Oslo to Bergen with an overnight stop in Flam. Because we did the tour in December where the days are short, we wanted to stay overnight at the beautiful Flamsbrygga Hotell, a chalet- tyle hotel overlooking the fjord. I am so glad we did it in this way as we were able to enjoy lovely views spaced out in two days. 

This was our Norway Itinerary: (December 2019)

Day 1: Arrive in Oslo in the early morning. 

Day 2: Oslo

Day 3: Oslo – Flam. Overnight stay in Flam

Day 4: Flam – Bergen. 

Day 5: Bergen – Tromso (Take a late-night flight to Tromso).

Day 6 – 9: Tromso. 

In order to save money, we pieced together our very own Norway in a Nutshell tour. This was super easy to do as we purchased tickets separately for each part of the journey. We bought the train tickets in advance and just bought tickets for the fjord cruise and the Flam Railway separately. 

Train journey to Flam! 

Starting from Oslo, we set out on a westbound train journey through scenic mountain terrain on the Bergen Railway which is about 4.5 hours. Upon arrival in Mrydal, we disembarked the train. This sleepy Nordic town looks to be straight out of a postcard as the views from this station are stunning. We then changed trains to the legendary Flam Railway. The Flam Railway was built in the 1920s. It finished in 1940 and took around 200 men to build the line, 10 stations, 20 tunnels and bridge. This is a 20.km long branch of the Bergen Line and this train ride is often named one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. It is also one of the steepest train lines from 863 metres at Myrdal to sea level at Flam.  For 45 minutes, you will be able to witness THE MOST spectacular views of the Norwegian mountains and local villages as it glides through steep valleys. 

The Flamsbana scenic route makes one short stop along the route for photos at the base of Kjossen Waterfall. Even though it was frozen, it still made for an awesome spectacle. 

The train rides end in the fjord town of Flam at 2pm, which is where we stayed for the night.

Overnight Stay in Flam 

There are only a few different hotel options in Flam but we stayed in Flamsbrygga Hotell and it was sooooo cosy. It’s just a lovely, rustic quintessential Norwegian hotel located in the harbour of Flam. The room was lovely with a balcony overlooking the fjord and the mountains. The room was very warm and the shower was so hot and powerful. I loved how quirky the room was decorated. 

After checking into the hotel, we just walked around the city. It was tiny and literally took us 15 minutes to discover it all! 

We went back into the hotel, had a lovely warm shower and then changed into our pyjamas. It was only after that we realised, we forgot to check out Aegir Brewery and Pub as it was shut when we first walked around. I dragged my husband out after he insisted, he just wanted to chill in the room and do a tiktok dance. This is a great place for pub food, such as burgers, ribs and soup. As we went in the evening, the pub takes on a Viking theme with a roaring hearth. After sitting by the fireplace and chatting, we went back to the hotel room.  

The hotel breakfast the next day was also on point. Like Oslo, the most delicious smoked salmon was served in this breakfast buffet, which I just stacked my plate along with some eggs and bread. 

Travelling from Flam to Bergen

First thing in the morning, we had breakfast in the hotel and boarded the boat. We bought the tickets a few months in advance from their official website. This was by far the most favourite part of the tour – a 2 hour cruise through some of Norway’s best fjord scenery, including the picturesque Aurlandsfjord and the dramatic Naerofjord. Naeroyfjord is one of the narrowest fjords in Europe and is also on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. It was so lovely just standing on the deck with the mountains towering over us. 

The weather wasn’t the greatest but luckily the boat has both indoor and outdoor seating. We then arrived in the small village of Gudvangen. From here we boarded a bus that took us through Naeroydalen to the small town of Voss. You can only pay for this bus ride on the bus itself, not in advance. In Voss, we boarded another train with some beautiful scenic nature landscapes and charming villages before arriving in Bergen at 6pm. 

We had such a good time doing this tour in the Winter and I would highly recommend doing it yourself if you can! You save lots of money and you share the exact same journeys and transport with those who paid double the price! 

Sledding Korketrekkeren Like A Boss

Friday 27th December 2019

We got up early and were so excited to do some sledging. This was such a last-minute decision (literally decided the night before) which made it even more exciting! We both knew that no trip to Oslo in the winter would be complete without playing in the snow but this takes playing to a whole new level. Its NOT just a cute, romantic, leisurely ride down a gentle slope in the park. Nope.. this was pure madness. Korketrekkeren translates to “corkscrew” which is what the slope is similar to. When we searched this on YouTube, videos with titles such as Death Sled and The Madness came up.  

This is a bobsled run that was built for the 1952 Winter Olympics. Its 1.25 miles long with over 800 feet of vertical. Depending on your lack of skill and sanity, you might hit speeds in excess of 25 mph. I have no idea what happened to me, but it was like I had no fear, no brakes, no barriers, nothing! Just me, the sledge and my dear god, the speed! But this was soooooo unbelievably fun. 

After checking that Korketrekkeren is open (it was the first day of it opening), we went hard on the buffet, put on several kilos of clothes and then went to the train station.

The Train Ride to Frognerseteren

What was so good about this experience was just easy everything was. Not only can you ride the metro to the hill, you can actually use it as your ski lift. We bought a 24-hour ticket on the metro which will let you ride as much as you want for an entire day. This was helpful for us as we wanted to travel to different parts of Oslo for the second half of the day. Once we had our ticket, we headed down the platform and board the #1 train to Frognerseteren. Metro 1 starts out underground but after a few stops, it goes outside and that’s when the ride itself becomes interesting and beautiful. You start passing through quirky neighbourhoods of Oslo and then, with increasing elevation, you see more snow and stunning snow-covered wood houses. 

When you reach Midstuen Station, you see a mass of sledders boarding with their sledges in hand. This is because the Midstuen is the lower end of the sledding run so this is part of the trian journey would also be the ski lift to the top. When you get to the end of the train line, you can rent your sled form the shop at the bottom of the hill – you basically just follow the people (mostly locals). 

Renting a Sled

We rented our sled from Skiservice Kjelkeurleie Sledges because the sleds are metal, which are supposedly better. There is also another sled rental shop over behind the restaurant, but I think they were closed on the day we went. Once we were inside, we filled out a brief form with our name and contact info along with the payment. Riding in Korketrekkeren is free, but sled rental costs NOK 80-100 per day. We received the sledges and the helmet and they gave us a few instructions as it was our first time sledging (as going down a UK park hill on a plastic float doesn’t count apparently). 

We then went outside and found the starting point (we just followed the crowd!). 

THE SLEDGING! 

It started off relatively well and gentle, which was good so that you can become one with the sled. We practised slowing down, stopped, turning etc. We got the hang of it pretty quickly and even started showing off by leaning into the curve to turn the sled. 

We finally made it to the bottom of the hill and boy was the ride amazing! It was so exciting and such an adrenaline rush. I was shocking at the lack of health and safety precautions that was used to in the UK. Not trying to sound melodramatic, but if you take the wrong turn, or didn’t break in time – then it will not end well. 

The end of the run is rather flat but if you come barrelling fast enough through the final curve then you could sled all the way into Midstuen metro station, which is rather convenient – especially if you see the train pulling in.

It takes about 10 minutes to ride the course if you don’t stop much. It probably took us about 15 minutes realistically. The trains are 15 minutes apart and takes around 16 minutes to ride back up on the metro. 

Apart from the very last ride where I tried to turn around to get my husband’s attention and rode straight into a tree (that was my bad) which ended up bending my thumbnail back, it was SO SO fun.

If you are ever in Oslo during winter, do visit. Just let go, don’t think twice and have the time of your life. 

Oslo Itinerary for a Perfect Weekend Break in Winter

Often rated as one of the world’s best (and most expensive) places to live, Oslo was one of the locations that my husband and I both wanted to visit for a long time. Oslo is the capital of Norway and was founded over 1000 years ago by the famous Harold Hardrada. The city sits at the northern tip of the Oslo Fjord and is surrounded by beautiful mountains and green hills with 40 islands and 343 lakes within the city limits. The city has temperate climate with mid 20s temperature in the summer months, but as we visited in the middle of their winter and it was super cold! 

After trying the British Airways lounge for the first time (eeek, thanks AMEX!), we landed in Oslo airport. Earlier research directed us away from the over-priced Express train into the city and towards the local train. It was only an extra 10 minutes but was half the price. Within 40 minutes, we exited Oslo S Station in the late afternoon and checked into Anker Hotel. As we only had two days in Oslo, we quickly dropped off the bags and made our way to our first stop – Oslo Opera House. With sunset being around 3:30pm, we had to get as much done as we can during the day time.

Day 1

Oslo Opera House

Oslo Opera House was our first stop and was something my architect husband was super keen on seeing – and it was worth it! This is home to the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet and is unique in the sense that it is the only Opera House in the world where you can walk on the roof. Its angled exterior surfaces are covered with Italian marble and white granite. It looks stunning in the photos. 

This contemporary Opera House is relatively new, only opening in April 2018. Designed by Snohetta, it won numerous awards including the Culture Award at the 2008 World Architecture Festival and the 2009 EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture. 

opera-house-oslo

When you look at the Fjords, you will see the She Lies (Hun Ligger) Sculpture by Monica Bonvinci which is made out of stainless steel and glass which is meant to represent an iceberg. It sits on a concrete platform and is meant to move with the tides and wind which then offers changing reflections of the water and the opera house. See behind us:

We actually came back the next day later in the evening to see the lobby. Its one of those things where I am so glad my husband loves architecture as I wouldn’t have been too fussed if I missed it. But boy am I glad I went in! The lobby is absolutely beautiful and contemporary. It was minimalistic but well thought-out. I loved how the lobby is surrounded by 49ft tall windows and to ensure the views of the water are not blocked, they had very little framing.

oslo-opera-house-interior

Akershus Fortress

We then walked 15 minutes to the Akershus Fortress. This was built in the 1290s and is used as a Palace, royal residence and a prison. We didn’t go on an official tour but just walked around this Medieval Castle grounds which is free to do. The fortress was mainly built to protect Oslo and holds a good position for combat because of the immediate proximity to the sea.  During World War II, Norwegian resistance fighters were executed by Nazi firing squads here while the same happened to collaborators after the war. 

Its definitely worth the visit and you can enjoy panoramic views of the harbour and city from here. 

Oslo City Hall 

We then walked a further nine minutes to the horrible City Hall. Im sorry (or am i?) but it really is an ugly building that just doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the stylish and hip architecture. It was constructed in the 1930s and houses the city council and lots of the administration services of Oslo. It also hosts the Nobel Peace Prize Awards. At least move it from the waters edge… :/  

city-hall-oslo

Aker Brygge

Moving very swiftly on, we walked past the Nobel Peace Centre to the upscale neighbourhood of Aker Brygge that was developed on the site of a former shipyard. The boardwalk is full of yummy (and extremely expensive) restaurants, quirky cafes and unique little boutiques. 

It’s a cool place just to wander and explore the lively pier. We walked to the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art whilst watching the colourful and dramatic sunset 

Royal Palace

Just as the sun set, we walked 20 minutes to the Royal Palace (I know, we love walking!). The Royal Palace dates from 1840 and is the official home of the Norwegian monarch King Harald V. Interestingly, King Harald is the first Norwegian born monarch for over 640 years! Unbelievable. The palace looked fantastic in the late afternoon sunset – it also looked like its been taken straight out of a Wes Anderson movie with its majesty and delicate shade of primrose yellow. The palace is surrounded by a huge park and path leading to the main shopping street. Its quite interesting how close you can get to the front door considering the King still lives there! 

When we went on 26th December 2019, there was a vigil outside the palace as the family of Princess Martha Louise’s ex-husband, Ari Behn announced that Behn had “taken his own life”. It is quite unusual that these reports came out considering that Norway has always been a country that’s been reluctant to report or otherwise publicly acknowledge suicide. Either way, there were swarms of people weeping by the column outside the palace which was filled with candles and flowers.

Christmas Market

We walked down the infamous Karl Johan Street and accidently (but thankfully!) walked straight into their Christmas market! I LOVE European Christmas markets and this one did not disappoint. As always, there were lots of little stalls selling handicrafts, sweets and hot drinks. There was a busy ice-skating rink in the middle. We walked around and sat by the fire with a hot drink. I just remember turning to look at my husband, who in turn was staring into the fire and just smiling and appreciating life. Its strange the small things that you remember in these holidays. By this point, we were so hungry and in the borderline of being hangry. We both had our heart set on eating pizza and luckily there was Peppe’s Pizza a 3 minutes walk away from the market! We also wanted to try this as it’s a highly popular chain of pizza restaurants across Oslo. We shared a large pizza and it was so delicious but I think we also just appreciated taking our layers off and being indoors in the heat! We then went back to Anker Hotel which was conveniently a 16 minutes’ walk away. 

Day 2

We woke up and hit the breakfast buffet hard, ready and fuelled for the day ahead. Our first stop was Kortetrkkeren 

Korketrekkeren Tobaggan Run 

We spent half a day sledging! As we just had such a blast, I wanted to write about this detail – especially as there wasn’t that much information about it online. See the blog post here

Viking Ship Museum

After one crazyyyyyyy morning sledging, we went to the Viking Ship Museum. After learning about Vikings in primary and secondary school, I was so fascinated by them. The structure of the museum itself was built to house two remarkably well-preserved funerary Viking ships. These ships data back to the 800s but it was only in 1903 that the world’s largest Viking grave was discovered on the Oseberg Farm, a short distance south of Oslo (thus the name Oseberg Ship). When a prominent figure died, the Vikings would build an entire ship to bury the bodies along with their worldly possessions. Archaeologists say that this particular ship was the women’s grave and that they were powerful during their time. 

I was mesmerised at the excellent condition and perfectly preserved the ship was – its detailed carvings and dark, thick planks looked like something from a movie set! 

Norwegian Museum of Cultural History 

Right next to the Viking Ship Museum was the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. Due to time constraints, we didn’t actually have enough time to go inside but to be honest, we weren’t too bothered. We did pop our heads in and discovered some collections of artifacts from all social groups and all regions of the country.

Vigeland Park

We then took bus 30 to Vigeland Park and boy did this park amaze me. It is one of the most visited sites in Norway and the largest sculptures park in the world. Located inside Oslo’s Frognerparken, it is definitely unique.

The Vigeland Park is filled with art instalments designed by Gustav Vigeland, a Norwegian sculptures (same guy who designed the Nobel Peace Prize). These instalments covers 80 acres of Frogner Park and features 212 bronze and granite sculptures. The first thing I noticed is that all of them are naked. Vigeland said “it is only when you put clothes on people, that religion and origin are identified. When you are naked you can be anyone, anywhere and at any time”. I was so impressed with how accurate the statues are as all ages and genders being represented. The main theme is the circle of life. The highlights of this park are: 

The bronze fountains – From the centre of the square basin, six men support a large basin from which the fountain water flows

The monolith’s terrace which houses a 17-meter high column showing 121 intertwined human figures. The column is called monolith because it was carved in a single piece of granite.

The granite bridge – This has 58 life-size bronze statues of men, women and children represented. The Sinnataggen (the furious child) is the most famous statue, which has become one of the symbols of Oslo. My favourite was the women dancing while pulling her long hair (Khaled says she looks like me on a bad day – cheers) 

Barcode Project

We were almost going to call it a day, but my husband was keen to check out the controversial Barcode project. Located to the west of the centre of Oslo, next to the Opera House, this consists of 12 narrow high-rise buildings of different heights and widths and with some space in between them (this looking like a barcode). Now it houses leading national and international businesses and 10,000 people work here on a daily basis. 

It is controversial in the sense that almost 70% of Oslo’s population was not in favour of the project and try to campaign against it. They thought it was an architecturally provocative project, at least for the traditional standards of the Norwegian capital. It is in stark contrast of the city which has low houses, is open with lots of green areas. 

We just walked around there and went up to the bridge connecting the buildings before we called it a day and wanted to grab some dinner. 

Dinner at Rice Bowl Restaurant

As we wanted something cheap and cheerful and very filling, we went to this high recommended and very popular restaurant that just happened to be around the corner from the Barcode Project. They serve tasty, affordable Thai food in huge portions. Just look at the smile in Khaled’s face was when the food came! 

Accommodation Review: Anker Hotel 

I would definitely recommend this hotel. It was a slick, almost business-like hotel which is well located in the city centre. Everyone knows how super-expensive Oslo is but this hotel was extremely affordable (£30 per night for the both of us!). It also included a buffet breakfast which we hit quite heavily each morning. This was my FIRST plate of my buffet selection. It was so fresh and delicious. I loved the smoked salmon! 

Week-Long Stay in Astley Castle

Ever fancied spending some time in your very own castle?  

Astley Castle is an 800-hundred-year-old Grade II listed building located in Warwickshire, England. It has links to three Queens of England and Victorian novelist Georgie Elliot. For hundreds of years, it stood as a fortified manor house but became derelict after being turned into a hotel and gutted by fire in 1978. 

In 2005, grants were obtained from the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage (and many other organizations and individuals) to restore the historic building and turn it into a holiday home. The project was given to architects Witherford Watson Mann to complete the design and cost a whooping £2.7m. Fusing the old with the new in 2013, it won a major design award, the RIBA Stirling Prize for Architecture. It recently opened its doors to allow for accommodation up to 8 people. 

What I loved about this castle is that some of the original 13th century stonework and timbers were preserved and integrated with a beautiful intrinsic modern design. It’s almost as if the new living accommodation has been carefully and sensitively stitched into the shell of this ancient moated castle. Truth be told, I’ve never seen anything like it.

As you enter the building, you will walk through the bare ruins of the outer walls which will then lead into four ground-floor bedrooms. Each bedroom has its own unique style and viewpoint. There were two rooms with double beds and two with single beds. As we went with three other couples, this was slightly inconvenient. However, it doesn’t take away from the breathtakingly beautiful building. 

This is the view from our bedroom: 

The timber staircase will then lead you upstairs to the one large open-plan hall, incorporating a fully-equipped kitchen with a medieval-style wooden dining area and lounge. This is where we spent most our time cooking and playing games. As we stayed for four nights, every couple took it in turn to cook a three-course meal one night. We had the first night to cook and so I cooked vegetarian stuffed courgettes with rice. At that time (pre-Covid), I wasn’t very confident in cooking so I just wanted to get it out of the way ASAP. Now that I spent time during the lockdown learning how to cook, I wish I could go back to make a more elaborate and delicious dish.

There is also an outdoor dining area within part of the stone walls. We had a bbq one afternoon where the guys would be outside with the drone acting as a fan and headlights. The food was so delicious!

After dinner, we would sit down and play games – namely charades. There is a fireplace with logs already cut up, which we would spend every night putting on, drinking chai and talking until the early hours of the morning. It was just perfect and special spending quality time with our friends. 

The building had large windows that looked out onto the neighbouring village church and across a moat to fields and trees. 

As we spent 5 days in the area, we decided to do a few days trips to keep us busy. One day we just walked around the castle, which in itself was pretty. Another day we all drove to Peak District but as the weather wasn’t on our side, we only walked up a hill, got extremely muddy and then walked backed down. In the last day, we also ventured out into Warwick where we had the most delicious breakfast at The Neighbourhood Leamington, walked around Warwick Castle and then indulged in the Tring Champneys Spa.

If you’re looking to enjoy a short break somewhere truly different and unique, check out one of Warwickshire’s best kept secrets! 

The good news is it won’t cost a king’s ransom but the bad news is there’s a long waiting list.

1 Week Itinerary For Los Angeles, California

The last stretch of my California road trip was a week in Los Angeles. We were pretty exhausted at this point, after spending a few days in Simi Valley, San Diego, Las Vegas and San Francisco. After landing at the airport, we took an uber to our Air BnB located in West Hollywood – it was actually my favourite Air Bnb I ever stayed at!

Here a few top things to do in your one-week trip to Los Angeles.

Central LA (Hollywood)

Sunset Boulevard

One of LA’s most iconic sites, Hollywood Boulevard features dazzling attractions such as the iconic Walk of Fame and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Hollywood Walk of Fame

We were super excited to walk down the Hollywood Blvd for the walk of fame, where we saw the star-stubbed sidewalk. This is where 2,600 Hollywood entertainers have earned the achievement of a lifetime in the form of a 5-point star embedded in the sidewalk. 

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (TCL Chinese Theatre)

Down the street from the infamous walk of fame is the Chinese Theatre which décor was modelled after the red Chinese Pagoda. This is where countless blockbuster movies held its global premiere, included the 1977 George Lucas Star Wars. This place is also famous for housing over 200 handprints and footprints of famous celebrities in the front yard of the theatre. 

Hollywood Sign Hike

You cannot come to California and not do LA’s most famous hike up to the Hollywood sign! We didn’t climb all the way to the top because we didn’t have enough time, but we did walk up to the cute 1930s Griffith Observatory, which is perched on the southern slopes of Mount Hollywood and provides great panoramic views of the Hollywood Hills, the Hollywood Sign and the gridded city below.   

Rodeo drive

Just as you can’t visit Egypt without visiting the pyramids of Giza, you can’t come to Los Angeles without visiting the infamous Rodeo Drive. We really enjoyed walking down this shopping strip (and subtly trying to spot a celeb!). 

The Beverley Hills Hotel

The famed ‘pink palace’ is a great place for brunch or people watching. We went to get an ice cream sundae and of course people watch! The interior is truly stunning and a time warp in itself. 

Universal Studios Hollywood 

After already going to Universal Studios in Florida, I was excited to what the biggest theme park and film studio in the world has to offer! I was blown away – you truly get the ultimate Hollywood experience with the movie – themed rides and a behind-the-scenes studio tour.It was great watching the shows of how they make the fire effect. 

This theme does get crazy busy, so I would recommend getting there early and try to go off-peak if you can. 

Westside LA (The Beaches)

Santa Monica 

Santa Monica is famous for the beach, the pier and the stores. On the pier, you’ll find tons of restaurants, arcades, roller coasters, fairground rides and street artists performing from early noon until late at night. This pier is particularly important because it is at the end of Route 66, the highway that stretches across most of the US.

My cousin, Heba drove me here and we walked along Third Street Promenade to try Philz Coffee – defo recommended if you need a coffee fix! 

Venice Beach

There is a lot more things to do in Venice Beach than in Santa Monica. The Uber dropped us off at Venice Canals Historic District where we walked along the manmade canals, which is modelled after Venice in Italy (hence the name). The canals actually used to be 2-3 times bigger than it is today, but due to the automobile gaining popularity, most of the canals ere closed and turned into normal roads. 

We then walked to Venice Beach and very quickly noticed Muscle Beach, the outdoor gym – it was a fun but bizarre sight-seeing these hugely bulky, muscly men working out and almost putting on a show for the girls. We then grabbed a hot dog and sat on the basketball pitch stands to do some people-watching and absorb the electric atmosphere. I loved how diverse this beach town is!

We continued walked down the Venice Boardwalk where we noticed the famous Venice Beach sign and the Skate bowl where skaters performed their tricks.

We actually came back to here to watch one of the best sunsets in the world and to have dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant called C&O Trattoria. It was so authentically Italian with the food and atmosphere both being on point. As soon as you sit on the table, they would bring around these small amazing garlic knots every 10-15 minutes. Its so hard not to inhale too many before your tasty meal arrives, because they just tasted SO fresh.

Malibu

I actually came to Malibu on a day trip with my Californian cousins in the first weekend I arrived. There is plenty to do in this area, included the Getty Centre and Getty Villa. We didn’t end up going to either of these as I wasn’t really interested in museums of modern art/classical history and would rather spend it in what Malibu is best known for – its beaches. So the first thing we did was to go and grab some breakfast from the SunLife Organics where we had the best Samurai Bowl filled with granola, banana and strawberry. Heba also took me to the Sunset Café in Malibu where this woman was randomly talking to us about her husband and always being alone in the house. I forget out outgoing Americans can be compared to the slightly more reserved Brits!

Surfing in Ventura

There are some incredible life experiences you will never forget. For me, the very last minute and spontaneous decision of going surfing in Ventura with most amazing cousin Heba, was definitely one of those times.

After stopping off at Coastal Cone & Parlor for some waffle fish cone, we went to a rental shop to get a swimsuit and surf board! with those in hand and a quick lesson with Heba, we surfed until we physically couldn’t carry on! It was the best experience of the trip!

TOP THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO – MY HEN DO CALIFORNIA ROAD TRIP (PART 3)

Truth be told, I didn’t know much about San Francisco and what it offered. All I knew was that it was a city of high-tech and start-ups. Little did know that it has diverse restaurants, quirky roof-top bars and fun little neighbourhoods. 

This was the fourth leg of my amazing hen do – the first being Simi Valley, then San Diego, then Las Vegas before finally taking a plane to SF. We only had three days to explore this condensed city filled with a quirky energy unique to San Francisco. 

San Francisco is crammed into about 47 square miles of hills and coastline. One advice I would give is to make sure you pack your windbreakers and warm layers because you are essentially guaranteed a visit from the affectionately named, Karl the Fog. 

So here are top 7 things to do during your visit to the ‘City By the Bay’!

North Beach (aka Little Italy)

We went to Little Italy on our first evening in San Francisco, mainly because we were super hungry and this is were Tony’s Pizza was. This small town-treasure is a historically Italian neighbourhood and you can still the prominent influence it still holds. We really enjoyed just walking around and exploring the cutest little cafes and restaurants.

Tony’s Pizza Napolitana 

We were told by almost EVERYONE that if you want to experience North Beach like a local, to end the day with a slice of Tony’s pizza and then walk up to Coit Tower or Telegraph Hill for panoramic views of SF and the Bay area. Little did we know though that the queue was going to be MASSIVE and was more than 2 hours waiting list. Stubbornly, we put our name on the list and walked around the neighbourhood. 

pizza-san-francisco

Lombard Street

After walking towards Coit Tower, we walked to Lombard Street. This is where you will get a view of the famous 8 hairpin turns of ‘crooked street’. The street leading up to it was so steep that we had to walk backwards. Just by pure excitement of seeing this street, I was walking way ahead and my friends kept calling me the ‘cub scout’ – nice.

lombard-street-san-francisco

Mama’s on Washington Square: 

My friends and I remember reading about this place prior to our visit, but then just stumbled upon it whilst walking to Lombard Street. For over 50 years, this small restaurant on the corner of Stockton and Filbert in the Washington Square of San Francisco has been attracting crowds with its delicious breakfast food. Menu items include fluffy benedicts, homemade jam, fresh omelettes, spicy Italian sausage and 5 types of French toast. However, like all of the good restaurants in SF, Mama’s tends to have a pretty big line, especially on the weekends. Luckily, we only had to wait for 30 minutes, which wasn’t too bad. The food was definitely worth it!

Visit Pier 39 on Fisherman’s Wharf

Visiting the Fisherman’s Wharf in SF is a must-do for anyone visiting the city. It is central to the Historical Waterfront District in the city and is so popular with tourists. Popular attractions here are Pier 39, Ghirardelli Square (try the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company amazing chocolate and ice cream sundae – its well worth the calories!) and honking sea lions. You should also try Boudin Bakery Café to try the infamous clam chowder.

Visit the Golden Gate Bridge

San Francisco’s top tourist sight, it would be almost criminal if you visited San Francisco without stopping by to see the Golden Gate Bridge! It’s a beautiful structure and draws your eye no matter where you view it from. No trip to SF would be complete without visiting here. At its completion in 1937, the suspension bridge was considered an engineering marvel – the longest main bridge span in the world. 

There is a pedestrian walkway that spans the entire mile-wide bridge, as well as a bike path – but we just took an uber to get to the other side because of the time constraints (or because we were lazy). We went to a more local spot recommended by my cousin for a great viewpoint – Battery Spencer. We took an uber to the top of the huge hill and was also blown away (like… literally). The wind was incredibly strong, especially while you still have to walk a little longer to get to the top. Once we got to the top, we were spoiled with beautiful views of San Francisco. 

Once we got down, we were about to order an uber before realising that none of us have signal! Worst of all, there were no taxis and hardly anyone present. We had to wait a while to eventually hitchhike our way to the side of the bridge. It was lucky we spotted two guys getting out of a taxi that they’ve rented for the day and they were kind enough to cram us in the back. It did make for some funny conversations! 

Once we got down, we were about to order an uber before realising that none of us have signal! Worst of all, there were no taxis and hardly anyone present. We had to wait a while to eventually hitchhike our way to the side of the bridge. It was lucky we spotted two guys getting out of a taxi that they’ve rented for the day and they were kind enough to cram us in the back. It did make for some funny conversations! 

Ride a cablecar

San Francisco is home to one of the world’s last manually operated cable car systems. We used it to get from the pier to Union Square – but the convenient exit and entry stops also happens to be located at some of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. We waited for almost 45 minutes but getting on – but it’s one of those things that you cannot leave without doing. 

Go shopping in Union Square

We didn’t actually have time to go shopping, but we walked around Union Square. Union square actually used to be where Civil War rallies were held, but the square has since morphed into a hub for high-end shopping in SF. It is a part of the city that is bustling with life with its fancy boutiques, department stores, art galleries, luxury hotels and theatres. 

Explore Chinatown

I don’t usually go to Chinatowns but after hearing that the one in SG is home to the largest Chinatown outside of Asia and the oldest in USA, I had to go. Established in 1848, it boasts an impressive display of markets, speciality shops and restaurants. More importantly, it has played an integral part in the history, culture and livelihood of Chinese immigrants.

Many tour guides would almost mention to pop into Fortune Cookie Factory to learn more about the cookies history – did you know that fortune cookie was actually created in SF? 

I loved just taking a stroll here and enjoying the ambiance. It looks like we are in a different world altogether as its maintained many of the old traditions and customs for years. 

Alcatraz

You’ve probably seen it in movies or at least heard of it – but now, you can get the chance to see it in person. Alcatraz is an island in the SF Bay and was once a military and federal prison. It has since been converted to a National Historic Landmark that you can tour. I didn’t know much about it before I went, but it was fascinating hearing about the atrocities meted out of the prisons – its scary and gruesome. When the federal prison was in operation, it was believed to have kept the hard criminals at bay. Most notorious of them all was Al Capone, who was imprisoned here. They moved there due the to its isolated location and since the waters of SF Bay are so cold and the currents so strong, they thought that it was impossible to escape the island.

The prison was built in 1910 – 1912 as a military prison; it became a federal prison in 1934 and operated until March 1963, when it was closed due to the very high maintenance costs.

My friend and I took a guided tour of Alcatraz Island first thing in the morning. You really should book it a few weeks in advance if you can as it can get fully booked. We were quite lucky as we kept a tab on the website the day before and luckily two tickets became available for the time slot we wanted. It is usually a 1.5 to 2 hour guided tour and you would have to a 15 minutes ferry ride each way.

Charmaines Rooftop bar

We were recommended this rooftop bar by my cousin, and no wonder Charmaines rooftop bar is the hottest roof bar at the moment in San Francisco. The views are amazing and the interior is flawless – so modern and chic. When we got there, we found ourselves a firepit outside and sat around it chatting. I am such a sucker for views – but this one was amazing!

One tip from me is to get there as early as you can. This bar is so popular (and for good reason), so you could potentially face a long time of waiting to get into the bar. It is really worth the wait and you will have a fabulous time there!

Accommodation:

We stayed in Courtyard by Marriott San Francisco Union Square. Its a great hotel if you want to stay somewhere central, clean and affordable!