It’s Adventure Time!

No matter how much time you’ve spent in London, there are always new things to learn about this amazing city, and one very interesting way to do it is with the ‘Alternative London Tours’ offered by Insider London.

Yesterday the brand new batch of LUIP Student Ambassadors and the few of us from last year who are staying on as alums had the most terrible fun running about the city on our very own amazing race style adventure. Engaging both our minds and our sense of discovery, it was a most memorable and mirth-filled day – even the lack of sun and healthy dose of English rain couldn’t dampen our spirits as we ran about investigating clues, snapping pics and incessantly tweeting.

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Euro-Trippin – The Canals of Venice

Venice – This beautiful city was the final stop on our exhausting and wonderful boys trip around Europe. I wish that I could take you through every sight and sound of this wonderful city by the sea, but as it was the end of two weeks of trekking through cobbled streets and trudging through museums, the one day we had in Venice was spent doing pretty much nothing. But don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets.

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Euro-Trippin – Forever Firenze

One of the most beautiful stops on our trip, Florence or Firenze is a city I truly look forward to returning to some day. Not just because of the friendly restaurant proprietors and scenic beauty, but also because, since it was on the tail end of our trip, I didn’t really manage to see a lot of it. Don’t get me wrong, in the short time that we were there we did some brilliant sight-seeing and had some very memorable moments.

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Euro-Trippin – All Roads Lead To Rome

Like the former two cities we visited, Rome was easily manageable on foot – well, at least most of the ‘must-see’ spots aren’t that far away from each other. Which was very good, because I actually found the public transportation system to be rather confusing – there was no call for stops on the buses so we basically had to guess-timate where we were based on our little map, as we passed things we could spot on it – terribly frustrating. Also, buying tickets was a bit of a pain because the machines wouldn’t accept notes if the change to be given was more than 6 Euros – WTF?!

Despite the annoyance of the buses, we had a marvelous stay in Rome. Speaking of stays, I should mention here that the place where we hung our hats for the night – Funny Palace (ok I know that’s not the most confidence inspiring name) – was pretty great. It was just a few minutes from the main Bus/Train Terminal (Termini), which was fantastic, and the proprietor – Mabri – was a really nice guy who really set us up with a great itinerary for hitting up the town in a way best suited to our length of stay – he even marked out the best routes and areas for us and gave us some good tips on avoiding queues and long waits for tickets and threw in a bottle of wine as a welcome gift : ) The room itself was super comfortable and all-in-all I was happy with the pick.

The first great stop on our sight-seeing tour was the Palatino (Palatine Hill) and the Forum Romana (the Forum). It was amazing to walk through the various ruins and imagine what these great structures must have once been like. To look at now, for the average person they might be underwhelming, but if you just sit there and look with your mind’s eye, their once proud majesty and beauty is inspiring – you just need to envision it as it once stood (sort of the loading screen in Assassin’s Creed where you see the city scale to fruition before your eyes). If you’re a history or architecture buff you’ll still get more of a kick out of visiting, as I did, but for a lot of people… Well, let’s just say I saw a lot of disappointed faces. It will definitely be more worth it if you get an audio guide and really get to learn a little (having said that, the two us made do with eavesdropping over other groups ; p – at least that we got a lot of different stories and did bits).

Right next to the ruins of the forum is the Colosseum – the great amphitheater in Rome where so many of exciting stories and movies are set. It is a monumental sight, though it is quite a shame just how much of it has given way to the ages – you see much evidence of the various measures being taken just to hold it together. Still, one advantage of this is that you get to see an x-ray like view of the intricacies of the building – the complex tunnel work in the subterranean levels below the arena floor and the numerous facades and stairways. Though it may not look the part it did in Spartacus or Gladiator, it is still an amazing sight to behold, especially at night – the lights within and without the building serve to bathe it in a beautiful golden and red glow which makes it look just a septic as you would have imagined it should be.

No visit to Rome in complete without a visit to the Vatican. Technically it is the smallest sovereign state in the world (but don’t worry you don’t need a passport to cross over) so for a few hours, you’ll be leaving Italy. The compound is surrounded by massive fortified walls which give it a rather medieval visage as you approach it, but inside, as modernized as any other city. We were advised to book online to avoid queues (which entails a 4 Euro surcharge) and did so to find that everyone had the same idea, meaning there were actually only a handful of people in line. Fail! Still, the extra coin was soon forgotten after we began to walk the halls of the Musee Vaticani (the Vatican Museums). What struck me first of was how beautifully well-preserved the exhibits were. Take for example, the Egyptian exhibits in the Museu Gregario Egizion – the statues were completely undamaged, still had their unblemished marble sheen and there were statues of deities I was familiar with but had never seen, even in the likes of the British Museum in London. And while in the Museu pio Constantine, in looking around at the wonderful statues don’t forget to look down – the intricate mosaics that cover the floors themselves are a work of art. But of course the thing that everyone wants to head towards is the famous Sistine Chapel. The fame of the chapel lies in its frescos, particularly the ceiling of the chapel which was painted by Michelangelo. I would have liked to share a picture with you, but they are super strict about people taking photographs in that room (though it was hilarious to see so many people try – and get caught). Personally, I didn’t think it was that far apart from the many (MANY) frescos we had seen on this trip, but I did marvel at the idea that one man took on the project of such a vast scale – it would have been no small task – and that it impressive.

An area that I would definitely recommend you try out, though it is less ‘tourist top 10’ is what we were told is the old part of town – the area across the Ponte Sisto or Ponte Garibaldi bridges, around the Santa Maria in Trastevere. While the architecture in the area is fairly similar to the rest of the city, the vibe is definitely a little bit more rustic and the crowd is generally younger. There were dozens of places to get a cheap cocktail or grab a nice bite or just lounge about. But try and plan your route back if you’re staying not too close because it would be hard walk after a full meal (or a good few drinks) and as I said, public transportation can be confusing.

I really would love to go on forever about the various other sights in Rome, and there are so many more you should see – the Pantheon (which looks so majestic and powerful at night), the Trevi Fountain (where you can join in the tradition of tossing in a coin and making a wish), the Spanish Steps (a great place to just sit and enjoy the sun or watch the crowds) or the Piazza Navona (a really pretty square full of life and colors, both day and night) – but, for the sake of time and brevity, I’ll leave you to discover those on your own (though I have thrown in some pictures).

I can’t however leave you without talking about the food. Oh the food! Personally, Italian is one of my favorite cuisines of all-time (though after a full straight week of it I may not partake for a while). Eating out can be a bit of a hit-and-miss, though for the most part my taste buds were really in heaven. If I had to give you a rule of thumb, it would be to eat at places where the wait staff/hosts are locals – where they weren’t, the food tended to be a bit sub-par. Having said that, the pizzas were just amazing! In India you are hard pressed to find a place that does a good classic thin crust pizza, and if they do they charge a ridiculous amount or it’s so lean it barely feeds one. In Rome we adopted the habit of usually ordering two kinds of pizza and then feasting to our heart’s content. But not just Pizza, the pasta of course is just as brilliant. From day one I was scarfing down amazing Carbonara and Pesto. I’m fairly certain by the end of day three, we had put on twice the weight we had lost walking around Europe thus far. But you know what, WORTH IT! Two places I will go ahead and recommend are Primo Cafe in the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori (where I had an amazing pizza and house white for my birthday dinner) and a little roadside cafe called Cafe Moca, next to the river, where you can get a refreshing Granita made of freshly crushed ice and your choice  of fresh fruit and delicious syrups.

Well I leave you there dear reader (mostly because I am now famished after reliving my gastronomical adventure in Italy). Till next time!

Euro-Trippin – Sunny Barcelona!

After basically walking my feet off in Paris, the laid back vibe of Barcelona was just what I needed. It was also the point in our trip where we finally left grey skies behind for good – all sunshine from day 1.

I was particularly looking forward to this leg of the trip, because I needed a break, and also because of all the friends who told me I just had to check it out after visiting Madrid a few months ago. And truth be told, I have to agree with most of them – Barcelona truly was amazing. It was also quite unlike Madrid. Barcelona had a far more eclectic personality – a greater clash of cultures, which was present in the food, the people and the architecture. To a great extent I think this clash is because there is a definite feeling to assert the native Catalan culture, rather than conform to the homogenous ‘Spanish’ culture that prevails in other parts of the country – you see the Catalan, rather than Spanish, flag hanging out every third window. Even the language is a mix of a bit of Spanish and a majority of Catalan. Like all the cities on our trip, Barcelona was small enough to get around mostly on foot – which is really the way you should explore a new city. But for those less inclined, get a T-10 card – this is similar to the Carnet in Paris, but instead of 10 individual tickets you have one pass, which you can re-use (you can only share it so that’s pretty cool).

A bit about our hostel – we were staying at a place called Mediterranean Youth Hostel – I would definitely recommend it to anyone travelling there. It was a really nice place with a friendly vibe, accommodating staff (who happily answered the hundreds of questions my friend had), free wi-fi, comfortable rooms (private or dorms – your call), was handicap friendly and just a 10-15 minute walk from the city center. It totally made the entire experience a whole lot more fun – mostly because of the people we met. One of the best parts of hostel-ing it was the interesting people you meet.  My friend and I had a room next to another pair of friends travelling around Europe who turned out to be a real gas to hang out with – funniest thing was they had actually become friends a few years before when they stayed at the same youth hostel – just goes to show, you never know what good friendships you might make if you just put yourself out there and meet new people. And it wasn’t just them – one of my favourite parts of the hostel was sitting in the common room (adjacent to the fully functioning kitchen – where they even threw some free groceries for common use) and chatting with people who were just coming in or heading off – I’m pretty sure I sold 4 or 5 new travellers into patronizing the Goa Tourism Board : )

Another great thing about our hostel was that it offered a lot of great packages/deals in partnership with this little group called Travel Bound – one of which was a free walking tour through the Gothic quarter in Barcelona. Our guide, Hannah, was a ex-pat who took us through and around the area, all the time sharing some fascinating local history and interesting tales of the old city – it was like a fun history lesson with some light exercise. We saw small local sites like the fountain on Las Ramblas, rumoured to have mystical powers to make you fall in love with Barcelona and the Placa de Sant Felip Neri, a small square with a sad history from the days of the Spanish Civil War – two bombs were dropped in the enclosed area adjacent to a small church that was serving as an orphanage – but which now hosts many games of tag and kick-around by the primary schoolers who run about there during their lunch break. It was an amazing way to see the winding streets and hot-spots and get a real feel for the city. It ended at the Travel Bar – an establishment run by Travel Bound – where you can get yourself some cheap cocktails, the dish of the day for just 1 Euro from 9-10 pm and take many tours of the city or a day trip out to the coast.

While the architecture in the gothic quarter is quite amazing, to really have your mind blown (and put thoroughly at odds with itself) you must check out the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia. This piece architecture is easily one of the most ambitious and unbelievable things I have ever seen with my own eyes (and I also visited Rome on this trip!).  Designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi, this church is breathtaking, confusing, weird and beautiful, all at once. It seems to be such an erratic mix of styles and themes that to imagine one single mind being its creator is baffling – it look like someone designed it while in a fevered dream, while on acid, listening to classical music. The stained glass was particularly amazing – seeing the suns rays (it was a particularly sunny day) stab through the brightly colored glass was just spectacular – the windows seemed almost bursting with life. But what struck me most of all was unlike other churches, especially the ones in Rome, that create a solemn and stoic atmosphere, the Sagrada Familia was bright and white and comfortingly friendly – it could easily be the venue for art shows and exhibitions. And despite its immense size and awe-inspiring stature, it was anything but domineering. All of this and it is not nearly finished. Though the man who envisioned it has passed, construction of this marvel continues and is scheduled to finish only in 2026 – who knows what it will look like then! But that wasn’t the end of our acquaintance (and in the case of my friend – love affair) with Gaudi. We also took a walk around beautiful Park Guell, also designed by him. This massive park is set on a real high point, so you have a wonderful view of the city from a massive square where people gather to sit, maybe exercise/train, take pictures or enjoy a lie in the shade. Here you get a real taste of Gaudi’s love for the themes of nature and life – epitomized by the beautiful mosaic Gaudi Lizard (replicas of which you’ll see at every souvenir shop).

Speaking of parks, you can’t leave Barcelona without heading up to Montjuic – this area, which used to be the Jewish quarter (it literally translates to jew mountain I was told) is full of beautifully manicured parks, great view points and even a Castle which you can reach via cable car (the Funicular). I recommend you spend half a day or so just wandering around or enjoying the sun in one of the parks, or just some lone time with a loved one in the many nooks and crannies ; ), but take some snacks and water along – there are very few places up near the top where you can actually get some grub, and the few that cater are more than happy to take advantage of this fact. The view from the castle is not to be missed (nor is the ride up the Funicular) – you can see the city surrounded by hills on one side and the docks and beach on the other.

If you’re a fan of the beach, and really want to get your tan or swim on, I highly recommend hopping on a train and headed up Costa Brava. The beach in Barcelona is just completely full, so if that’s what you have in mind – all good! But if you want a quieter, cleaner day at the beach, take a train from the Arc de Triomph Metro station (no I didn’t lapse back into my Paris memories) and head up the coast. If you sit on the right side of the train you’ll see the beaches as you pass by, so just pick the one that suits you – nude/clothed, quiet/family – and jump off. We chose a fairly quiet area called Margarat del Mar. The beach was nice and empty, we lay ourselves down on a towel (after a very brief swim in the rather freezing cold water) and simply dozed off – it was the best! After we went into one of the restaurants in town and had a wonderful meal at Celler Sancho-Panzo for a lot less than we would have paid in Barcelona city (bonus!). My next visit to Barcelona I think I’d prefer to spend a few days out there.

But it’s not all about culture and sand – Barcelona is also a great city to go out and have a fun night out. There are dozens of clubs that will fight for your patronage (as long as you follow the standard club rules in re: shoes, shirt, etc.) Now, my friend and I aren’t really the clubbing type, but we decided since it was my birthday that weekend, we’d go out and rage at least once (lord we sound old!). So we went along with some people from our hostel who had signed up for a night-out package – 15 Euros gets you a free drink and entry to a good club, plus some assured company as everyone meets up at a bar for a few cheap rounds before. Turned out to be a lot of fun – and I got a lot more than I bargained for by the end. I may have gotten home at 4:30 am, I may have been hung over the entire next morning, but it was worth it!

Speaking of getting lucky, the weekend that we were in Barcelona also happened to be the weekend that the Merce Festival was on. Four days of art, performances, parades, fireworks and concerts all over the city. There are over 12 venues and something happening pretty much all day. How brilliant is that?! We ended up walking around in the evenings from gig to gig, pausing to listen to some local flavor and imported sounds and on our last day in town we sat at the beach and watched an awesome fireworks show. The streets were full of life and laughter and music and the skies were full of color and light. It truly was an amazing weekend. I was particularly impressed at how everyone was enjoying it so peacefully – thousands of people drinking and eating pretty much all day, crammed together in front of stages and on the sand – I saw far fewer people hunched in corners losing their lunch or wandering around like lost souls than I thought I would. My favourite artist was this African Folk rock singer named Fatoumata Diawara – if you’re into that sort of thing (hell, even if you’re not) I suggest you look her up. The stage for her gig was particularly magnificent, set as it was in front of the Cathedral, with marvelous lights shining across the Cathedral’s façade and the full (ish) moon overhead.

I think all in all, Barcelona was my favourite leg of this trip. While I have many fond words yet to write of Italy, I truly think, even though I didn’t drink from the fountain, I did very much fall in love with the city, and I think I’ll return very soon (provided I can afford it again).

I would however be remiss if I left you without one more tip – try Paella! Even though I’ve been to many Spanish restaurants that offered it, I’ve never tried Paella before because it is primarily a seafood dish. However, in the spirit of “when in Rome” my friend and I decided to try some (with chicken instead of muscles and what not). It was amazing – simply delicious – so if you actually like seafood, it’ll be a major win! For this I would say head over to Barcelonetta – there are dozens of places that serve it and you can pick and choose the one that you feel gives you the best combo/deal. And I’ll pass along the advice that Hannah gave us – sit in one where you don’t see too many pale faces – look for one with “grouchy old locals” (her words not mine!) – that’s where you’ll get the real deal.

Well time to say adieu (pronounced ‘a-dey-o’) dear reader. Next we meet, Rome!

Euro-Trippin – Paris Je T’aime

Having taken a day to get over the sheer exhaustion of two weeks of travelling, I finally sit down to sort through the memories (not to mention some 2000+ photographs!) of what has been an amazing fortnight. It truly has been the trip of a lifetime and even though it has just ended, it already feels like a fond distant memory, perhaps in anticipation of the stories that will be told for years to come.

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Spanish Escape

I just had the most wonderful long weekend in beautiful Madrid – What a great last hurrah before I fly back home to India in 2 days!

The pretence of the actual trip was to attend a one day conference on Intellectual Property organised by the Universidad Autonoma Madrid and Queen Mary University of London, which was great because it meant most of my fellow IP-ers were there in Madrid with me. We went to represent QM and have discussions around the challenges to Intellectual Property in the European Union – we got 3 days full of good food, wine and beautiful architecture in the bargain.

Despite the fact that it’s not a particularly big city, Madrid really does have a lot to see and do! I dare say that even with 2-3 days full of walking around (and lots of clicking with my D80) I still left with many things I missed out on. Well I suppose one should always leave oneself with an excuse to come back : )

My favourite part, hands down, was the first day when we took a super long walk through and around Parque de el Retiro, particularly because that was the one day where we got uninterrupted sun. The beautiful weather just made walking around the beautiful green surroundings all the more wonderful. By the end of the day, though my feet were worn and my legs heavy, my soul was rejuvenated and my heart light. The pace of life in Madrid seems so much more relaxed and spirited than London. If you visit I recommend you definitely go by the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) – the name is a bit deceptive (it’s basically looks a large solarium) – but the surroundings are beautiful. There is large pond out front with a tall fountain, many critters and crawlers to look out for and even a small grotto some of you couples may want to sneak into ; ) and you can end your tour of the park with a visit to the Rose Garden, which has dozens of different species of roses (as well as other flowers I believe) and sit awhile just taking in the exquisite aromas. We also stumbled into the Palacio de Valazquez which is used by the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia to host exhibitions. During our visit they were hosting  an exhibition of conceptual art by Cildo Meireles. I must say, I really did not get most of his work. Though some pieces did have intriguing designs and thought-provoking themes, most seemed rather mundane or banal, but therein lies the beauty of art I suppose – let each see in it what he will.

For dinner on the second day we made out way to the Taberna les Lucio in the area known as La Latina. This definitely seems to one of the better areas to come to find a nice place to eat or have a night out. It was unbelievably packed and we had to wait some 35 minutes by the bar before we managed a place, but it was totally worth it. The food was light yet very rich and fulfilling and when we split the bill it wasn’t nearly as dear as I feared. I can see why Sean Connery, Sigourney Weaver and Bruce Springsteen all came to eat here.

Another place you absolutely must see while you’re there is Plaza Mayor. It is a magnificent late square framed internally by cafes where you can sit in the sun and enjoy some refreshing sangria and tapas. I recommend Cafeteria Christina – the staff was super friendly and he sangria was amazing! Or if you prefer you can pop nearby to the Market de San Miguel where there are dozens of food stalls that serve authentic local cuisine as well ones where you can pick up some ham or cheese for the road. It’s quite tight considering how popular it is and there isn’t really space to sit, so I recommend a quick bite and walk through rather than an extended chill session.

Finally, if you’re an art lover you should definitely pop down to the Museu Nacional de Prado. It is located near the Banco de Espana (Bank of Spain) and is one of the largest museums in Europe. And indeed it is massive! We roamed the halls for a full two hours and I we barely covered the rooms dedicated to some 2-3 artists! There are discounted entries for students under the age if 25, but if you feel like you don’t want to spend too much time in there anyway you can go for free from 6-8 pm. Like I mentioned, I am not super into art, and I am definitely not educated in the field, so I let my friends lead the way throughout. The artists they seemed to be particularly drawn to, and who the Museum seemed to have dedicated several rooms to was Francisco Goya. He definitely was quite diverse, but I think I was drawn to his “Black Paintings” the most. This series of works had some very dark and evocative themes – each painting seemed to portray feelings of dread, fear and rage. I’m not sure what happened in his life to summon this phase of his contribution to the art world, but it definitely led to some powerful images being put to canvas.

The one other artist I suggest you check out if you’re there is El Greco though my friend found his works to be lacking diversity, I found them to be quite inspiring, in fact when I walked into the room and saw the first piece I actually said “WOW” out loud. The work was titled “The Adoration of the Shephards” and indeed was aptly titled. His use if vivid colors within a pool of darkness built a beautiful contrast and there seemed to be almost a divine light from the baby Jesus in the middle of the painting, I genuinely thought at first that it was a result of the museum’s lighting!

All in all I am quite sad to have left Madrid so soon – there was so much to do and it is far less expensive than many other European cities. I could have quite easily stayed another few days, but sadly real life was calling. Some of my friend have commented that Barcelona is nicer – a question I look forward to settling for myself later his year when I take my 3 week trip around Europe with my best friend, till then let it be my favourite city in Spain : )

10 Ways to Enjoy London – No Money Down!

No one can argue with the fact that London is an expensive city – between rent, provisions, getting around and a couple of pints a week, it hard to find room in the budget for some fun. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a bit easier if you’re a student. With an NUS Card, or even just your college ID, you have access to discounts at the Cinema, your local Grocery Store, Tourist attractions and many other places. But that will only get you so far won’t it? But have no fear, my dear, there are ways to circumvent a lack of cask flow. If you do your research and plan right, you can have a fun or culture filled day, without spending a penny. Here’s 10 ways to help you start:

1. Visit a Museum/Gallery: London has several wonderful museums. From the expansive Museum of Natural History (that’s one of my favorites – I spent the entire day there once – They even have an animatronic T-Rex!) to the National Gallery or the Tate Modern. You can get your fill of History, Technology or Art, just for the cost of bus/tube fare. Here’s Time Out magazine’s list of museums you can visit for free – Museums in London. But remember to check ahead, there may be admission for particular exhibits/attractions.

2. Check out a TV Show taping: I went for a taping once for a BBC Show. It was quite a great experience. It’s amazing to see just how they film an ensemble comedy (and how many times you have to laugh at the same joke ; p). But you might be more inclined to check out a News Show or maybe a Quiz? Who knows, if they have audience participation you may even get your 15 minutes of fame. Apply now and go watch TV being made at the BBC – BBC Tapings

3. Take A Walking Tour: There are several exciting walking tours you can take in London. You can get entails on any hostel site or on Time Out. Most of them cost a few quid though. However, Sandemans New Europe does FREE tours of London every day. That’s right, it’s absolutely free. You’re welcome to tip your guide at the end, but that’s on you. You can book the tour for any number of people, so whether you’re on your own, with a few friends, or taking the entire extended family (that’s a lot of people if you’re Indian like me ; p), it’s all good! Book Now

4. Check out the Street Markets: There are some fantastic street markets to check out in the city. While they all tend to have the standard tourist goods, like Bobby Hats, Sunglasses or Fedoras, they also have their own uniqueness. For example, the Portobello Road Market is rather known for having quant antique shops and even stalls where people sell some really cool old stuff. Camden Town is another well-known market, the down side of course is that it’s a perfect tourist trap. Still, it has some nice cafes and stalls that are worth checking out, even if you don;t buy any of that rubbish. If you’re a foodie you should definitely check out Borough Market. It has a reputation as one of the best food markets in the city and you can find choice local and international produce.

5. Catch a free Concert: There are many venues throughout the city where you can sit and enjoy an evening of music with your mates. If you’re into rock I would suggest one of the many pubs in Camden Town, where there are regularly local bands playing in the evenings and entry is usually free before 10-11 PM. If you’d like to enjoy something a bit more classical head over to The National Theatre where they regularly have free events open to the general public, first come first served of course. Another option is for you to check out the Royal College of Music. All of their events, unless stated otherwise, are free.

6. A Free Comedy Gig: There are dozens of comedy clubs in the capital (Alliteration. Love it!) that host free nights. They feature regular local comics as well as new comers and fresh faces. So check out Angel Comedy in Camden Walk, which features the best of the open mic circuit as well as a professional headliner. Or check out the various free shows offered by The Comedy Bin.

7. Visit A Park: If you find yourself experiencing a beautiful sunny day (they’re rare, but they do happen), you might want to get out and take in the green. So why not visit one of the exquisite, and for the most part, massive parks in and around London. They are beautifully maintained, with mini-attractions like play areas, statues and carved shrubs and some even have some wildlife. You may have to rent a car or take a bus to some of them, but a day out of the city might be just what the doctor ordered, because trust me, if there’s sun, Londoners will flock to the Parks to get some much-needed Vitamin D. Here’s Time Out’s helpful list of London’s Major Parks.

8. Star Gaze: Head on over to the Astronomy Centre, located in the Royal Observatory to see the history of the universe in 4 minutes or touch 4.5 billion year old meteorite (yes you can actually touch it!). The Astronomy Centre and galleries are open daily from 10 to 5 and admission is free.

9. Watch A Movie: There are quiet a few organizations that organize free film screenings on a regular basis/hand out free tickets to screenings in the city. You just have to do your homework and be quick, and a little bit lucky. The Radio Station LBC 97.3 FM hands out tickets for monthly screenings by its LBC Film Club. In the past they’ve done popular titles such as The Hangover, Frost/Nixon and RocknRolla. So check back regularly. Or sign up to Free Movies UK to get the chance to attend preview screenings of new movies at your local cinema.

10. Explore: Last but not least, just get off your butt and walk around. There are so many beautiful and breathtaking sights to see in London. Some might have an admission cost to see the inside, but they are beautiful to look at even if you don’t go in. Go see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace; see St. Paul’s Cathedral; walk along the river Thames; go visit Shakespeare’s Globe. There’s literally no end to the things you can see.

Well I hope this small, but nowhere close to exhaustive, list of things helps some of you branch out and load up on some fun, without putting any additional drain on your purse strings. I hope you’ll buy me a pint one day with the additional beer money ; )

St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin – Part II: My Rules for St. Paddy’s

Alright now a lot of people go to Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day. And why not! If you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford it, you should definitely pencil it into your bucket list. The city is beautiful, and because its nice and compact you don’t need too many days to experience it fully, which leaves you time to travel around to some of the smaller towns in Ireland – also an experience I recommend. But you want to make sure you use your time well, so here are some my tips, based on my weekend there, to help you hit the ground running. I’m going to stay away from generic advice like “book a place early” and stick to stuff that’s gonna help once you actually get into the city.

Some Quick Tips

  1. Get A Map: When you land in Dublin Airport go to the Tourist Office, right next to the front exit, and get yourself a map. Their maps are really helpful – with all of the main areas and sights marked out clearly. Having it on me made getting around a breeze!
  2. Get Your Green On: Buy yourself a souvenir hat or badge or beard. Get into the spirit of the festival and get some green on you. And don’t worry about feeling a fool because, trust me, everyone joins in on the fun : )
  3. Enjoy The Live Music: A lot of the bars in the Temple Bar area do live music. Go check it out. They feature local talent doing covers, traditional Irish music, as well as original stuff. It will really complete the experience.
  4. Don’t Bother With Taxis: Unless you didn’t manage to get a place to stay within the city, you don’t really need a taxi. Everything is pretty much walking distance and the walking also helps burn off some of the calories that comes with enjoying Bulmers or Guinness. Plus the extra Euros means some extra pints : D
  5. Forget The Clubs: Some people might want to check out the clubbing nightlife. Well most of the clubs seem to be located near the Grand Canal, South of City Center. In my personal opinion though, it’s not worth it. They all pretty much play the standard chart hits and have long lines outside – why wait in the cold like idiots when you can be warm with a pint inside you at a pub with everyone?
  6. Talk To The Locals: Sometimes one is wary of trying to befriend locals while on vacation. Don’t worry about that. The people in Dublin are so friendly. And who knows, they may even let you in some local hot-spots or secrets in exchange for some camaraderie and friendly conversation. Plus, how awesome are their accents!
  7. Try The Local Fare: There’s no point in going all the way to Ireland and not trying the local food and drink. Try some local whiskey, Paddy’s for example – which is rarely sold outside of Ireland (the only place that I know of personally is Milroy’s in Soho) or the Dublin Coddle – which is an amazing stew dish with onions, ham, sausages, carrots and potatoes.
  8. Be Safe:  Last but not least, while everyone is there to have a good time, just remember that not everyone can hold their liquor and people tend to try to take advantage of tourists. If someone comes up to you and acts friendly on the street, don’t be rude, but at the same time, watch your wallet. Also, I saw so many hapless tourists, at the end of what was obviously a long bender, out on the cold street – don’t be stupid, enjoy your pint responsibly and stick with your buddies. Nothing ruins a great weekend like getting into a fight or losing your phone or wallet.

What To See

  1. St. Patrick’s Cathedral: If you travel to Dublin for St. Paddy’s you should definitely drop by this beautiful Cathedral. Now I’ll admit, being slightly pre-occupied with getting some Bulmers, I didn’t actually go in. But the grounds themselves were worth the walk over. Beautiful green lawns, a swing set (let your inner child flourish) and majestic view of the Cathedral itself in the backdrop.
  2. St. Stephen’s Green: This lovely park near Trinity College seems quite massive compared to the small scale of the city itself. Once inside there are many little sections and nooks where you can sit and enjoy the weather (should you be lucky enough to get sunny skies and a warm day like I was) – multiple Gazebos, a stone area (I think it was an Open Air Theatre), a jungle gym for the kiddies and plenty of benches to pop a squat.
  3. Trinity College: Right in the center of Dublin, the massive compound is full of wonderful examples of old architecture and it’s absolutely free to roam around and have a look. Come back in the evening for a cool lighting display that uses the front facade as a backdrop
  4. Temple Bar (The Area): This is the area that is full of pubs and bars. Its full of people in the evening so if you want to stake out a place in one articular pub come early. Worth visiting both during the day and night.
  5. Temple Bar (The Bar): This is one of the most massive pubs/bars that I have ever been to. It was supremely packed on Friday, even though we entered at like 10. Saturday it was impossible to get in as early as 9. But if you can manage, it’s definitely worth it. There was live music and it was so full of lively people having a real blast.
  6. Grafton Street: Though the stores themselves are no treat, this street is full of buskers, providing lots of entertainment – from sand sculptors to live bands and even a booth where you can take a picture of yourself as a Leprechaun. There are also plenty of booths to buy knickknacks, souvenirs and flowers.
  7. The Guinness Storehouse: One of the staple attractions of the city. Again I didn’t visit myself, but that’s because I don’t like Guinness, but based on the number of people I saw with souvenir bags, you should probably drop in.
  8. The Jameson’s Brewery: If its anything like their other brewery in Cork, which I visited in 2011, you should definitely drop in. They have a special Distillery Reserve that is only sold in Dublin and Cork. You can even have your name printed into the label of the bottle. I still have mine, even though the whiskey was finished off long ago ; p
  9. The Hairy Lemon: Located on Stephen Street Lower, I found this bar/restaurant to quite cosy and the people working there friendly and humorous. It’s a nice little place to get some authentic Irish food. They have more staple fare as well if you’re not gastronomically adventurous.

There are of course so many more places to see. I recommend that you look around for yourself and explore as much as possible. Its easy and doesn’t take that long. And its cheap because you can walk pretty much everywhere.

St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin – Part I: A Craic Filled Weekend

This weekend about a dozen friends and I hopped down to beautiful Dublin to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. By all counts, it was just what the doctor ordered. I don’t know what it was – the excitement of traveling to a new city, celebrating St. Paddy’s for the first time ever, hanging out with so many of my friends all weekend or the prospect of drinking nearly continuously for 2 days straight – but it honestly was one of the greatest weekends in a long time.

We arrived in town around 10 in the morning on Friday, which was great, because it meant the whole day to look around and explore the city while the second batch of friends arrived later in the evening. As we disembarked from the bus at O’ Connell Street I was literally bubbling with excitement. Seriously, I was like a small child in a candy store! Once we finally managed to hunt down one of our friends, who had come over the day before, we began our adventure – us in all our fresh faced exuberance, him in his pajamas!

One of the first things I noticed about Dublin is that its such a small city. One could easily make ones way from one end to the another in under an hour, as long as you walked with purpose. This was absolutely great because it meant we saw so much of it that first day. We started by looking around the campus of Trinity College, located pretty much right in the middle of Dublin. It was a beautiful area with majestic buildings seemingly rich in history and architectural heritage. From there we made our way to the St. Stephen’s Green, a beautiful large park, situated in the somewhat southern half, which was full of beautiful flowers and amazing green spaces. We were exceptionally lucky too – apart from a few minutes of sparse drizzle, we were treated to heavenly weather. It was sunny and warm and after a few hours of walking around and basking in those rays I just wanted to lie down on the grass or under a tree and take a nap. It rather reminded me of being back home in Delhi, during those rare weeks in the year where the weather is transitioning between super cold and super hot and it is, to quote Goldilocks, “juuuust right!“.

Having worked up an appetite and a thirst from our strolling about town, it came time to find a proper Irish pub and get a nice hot meal. We ended up in a place called “The Hairy Lemon” (love the name, love their trade mark more!) where we settled in to our small table by the window and prepared ourselves for our first St. Paddy’s pint (drum roll please!). I found out something interesting through our server – apparently the phenomenon of “Green Beer” is not an Irish tradition, but rather an Irish-American tradition. To quote our server, “If you get a Green beer in Ireland, you’re in the wrong place!” I fear I lost even more points in his eyes when I ordered Cider instead of Guinness (I’m sorry, I just don’t like the flavor, in fact, I think it’s quite shite), but I redeemed myself when I ordered the “Dublin Coddle” (in his words “Well Done. You’re back“). I recommend you try this if ever you’re down in Ireland – it’s an amazing stew with carrots, onions, sausages, ham and potatoes – simply scrumptious. I’d like to share so more about the sights, sounds and tastes of Dublin, but I’ll save that for the second part of this post – “My Rules for St. Paddy’s”.

Once the sun went down and we found ourselves in the embrace of the evening breeze, there was but one thing to do – track down pint after pint of Guinness (or in my case, Bulmers). There are so many amazing places to go have a drink in Dublin, but the really popular area is Temple Bar. Now do note that while the area itself is called “Temple Bar”, there is also an actual Temple Bar, so be sure to know where exactly you’re telling your friends to meet you ; p We spent both our evenings basically just bouncing from pub to pub downing our drinks and having a riotously  good time. Most of the places in Temple Bar feature live music, which really gives the evening a special touch. Though I did notice a high volume of U2 covers ; ) And the music isn’t restricted to the establishments. There were buskers on the streets of Temple Bar playing music, performing or offering face-painting services for passing tourists. At one point my friend and I actually borrowed the set-up one of one of the buskers (who looked a lot like a young Joey Ramone) and performed one of the songs we wrote for the crowd. We even made him a couple of Euros from people who’s topped and listened. One of our friends had his iPhone out, so I will try to track down that video for you – after all, as I said to our congregated audience, “This is probably the only time you’re gonna hear this song live in the streets of Dublin“. More certainly so because in my rather fatigued and inebriated state I’m fairly certain I changed the words of the song ; p

Sigh I really could go on forever about this trip. By the end I was completely spent, but in a very good way. Today I get my exam date sheet, so the pressure will really be on to work and prepare. This weekend really helped clear some cobwebs and replenish some much-needed psycho-spiritual energy. I don’t know what you were up to this St. Paddy’s weekend dear readers, but I hope you had a wonderful weekend too. Happy St. Patrick’s.

P.S. Please don’t get the impression that I sent the entire weekend doped up – Craic, though pronounced “Crack” does not mean what it sounds like – it is the sort of all-encompassing Irish word to describe fun and mirth and enjoyment and laughter. So yes, indeed it was rather Craic filled : )