12 May 2022

Three Weeks in Portugal Part 2 - Lisbon

After checking out the stunning south coast of Portugal I took the train north from Lagos to Lisbon (click here for my post about the Algarve). I found that trains were a bit cheaper than in the UK (but that's not difficult) - the four hour train journey and was only around €20 (with one change in Tunes - you can buy the ticket at the station or online with Omio, there wasn't much difference in price).  Taking the train also gives you an opportunity to really take in the gorgeous landscape. As you get closer to Lisbon you cross the impressive Ponte 25 de Abril bridge (which is not too dissimilar to the Golden Gate Bridge) - the date marks the 1974 revolution which overthrew the totalitarian regime in power at the time. The crossing gives you a fantastic view of the Cristo Rei statue of Jesus, inspired by Christ the Redeemer in Brazil. You arrive at Oriente station (which I have to confess I don't like, there's a lot of concrete and it was impossible to find a bus outside, but on the upside there's a pervading smell of chocolate). Luckily Ubers in Portugal are super cheap and it was only about £3.50 for a twenty five minute drive to the centre. 

Some of the popular sights - a decorated tram, the Rossio station, Monument of the Discoveries and Jeronimos Monastery

I had left booking my accommodation to the last minute so I didn't have as much choice; I ended up at the Green Heart hostel really close to the central Marques de Pombal square. I had a double room and there was free coffee so I couldn't really complain, and the location was great (it just got a bit noisy on the weekend). On my last visit here in 2018 I stayed at the trendy Independente hostel/hotel in between the Chiado and Principe Real districts, but unfortunately it was full. I pretty much used Booking.com to book all of the accommodation for this trip as I got cashback using the Moneybox app, but sometimes it can be cheaper to book direct).

It's a twenty minute walk from the hostel to the centre but it goes quickly, not so much if you pop into some of the interesting antique shops scattered along the way. The hostel was close to a tram stop, but funnily enough on this trip I didn't take the tram and just walked everywhere (I did trams to death on my last trip but it's a must do - the tram to Belem is a popular route). Last time I managed to tick off some of the major tourist spots such as the Castelo de Sao Jorge - a hilltop castle which gives you a great view of the city (I remember there was a wine van and sitting admiring the view sipping Portuguese wine) and the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem. This time I was just happy to walk out of the door and get lost, seeing what I came across along the way. 

Heaven for modern art - Dali, Yves Klein, Cesar Baldessini's Thumb and Gerard Fromanger 

I knew I wanted to revisit the Museu Colecao Berardo, one of my favourite contemporary art museums which is also in Belem (this is where you'll find the original custard tart shop). The museum is home to the work of some of my favourite modern artists, Dali, Yves Klein, Man Ray, Basquiat, Warhol and Lichtenstein just to name a few. There was also an outstanding exhibition of the work of Gerard Fromanger whose massive colourful canvasses really inspired me. I love browsing in the gift shop and reading in the coffee shop here. There's also a cool cafe close by where the coffee is served from an out of use tram! You can also find Belem Tower close to the museum, a UNESCO world heritage site and where the Portuguese explorers disembarked after their epic voyages. 

Food wise I would highly recommend the Time Out Market, an indoor food extravaganza where you can try pretty much all types of Portuguese cuisine as well as world food (there are forty different food stalls). There are so many vendors it can feel overwhelming to decide; I tried the salt cod from Terra do Bacalhau which stinks to high heaven in the supermarket, but isn't too pungent and is really good with chilli jam. Then I sampled  croquettes - a popular Portuguese snack - made with cuttlefish and squid ink, one with goats cheese and a tuna variety, all equally as yummy. Also on offer - Michelin starred dishes, fusion sushi, amazing seafood, all day breakfasts, Portugeuse soups, a stall where you can get traditional queijadas from Sintra (delicious pastries) and all manner of drinks and cocktails. There's also a great salad bar, Vitaminas Garret not far from the market where you can build your own salad and feel very virtuous, until you load up on custard tarts.

The addictive custard tarts, veggie burger at Nicalou, salt cod and croquettes at Time Out Market

Foodwise I also really enjoyed Nicolau, a health food cafe which serves up colourful and delicious salads, all day brunch and breakfast dishes, comfort bowls and to-die-for cakes. I choose the vegan burger and asked for a pink bun (saw someone with it and needed) - a chickpea and sweet potato patty with curry and mango sauce. You might have to wait a little bit to be seated but it's worth it, and you can find it near the Sao Nicolau church. My shoulder had been a bit painful for a few days so I was thrilled to stumble upon Ecomassage just across the street (the incense burning outside pulled me in). Filled with plants and instantly calming, I opted for a twenty minute chair massage (€20) and was stretched out, kneaded and cracked back into alignment by a seasoned professional. Feeling human again, I spent the rest of the afternoon sifting through vinyl at Louie Louie, a popular record shop where the ceiling is covered with vinyl (I picked up a limited edition Beatles EP).

A plant paradise at Eco Massage, record heaven at Louie Louie

I didn't get the chance to venture outside of Lisbon on my last trip, so this time trips to Sintra and Cascais were high on my list of things to do.  Sintra, famous for it's fairytale castles and Cascais being a popular seaside destination. I decided to stay in Sintra for a couple of nights and spend one day sightseeing there, and the next day in Cascais before traveling on to Porto; both are good options for day trips if you base yourself in Lisbon. An hour by train from the capital, Sintra boasts stunning natural scenery, the fairytale National Palace of Pena and the Castle of the Moors which offer fascinating insights into Portuguese history as well as fantastic views of the Sintra region. 

I stayed at Quinta De Sao Francisco, a large property about five minutes drive from the centre of Sintra in the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park with amazing views of the Pena Palace and a huge breakfast on offer. I ditched my bags and called an Uber to take me to the Palace; a lot of people take one of the many tuk tuks to the top but that looked pretty scary! The super fit can attempt a forty five minute steep hike or you can take the 434 bus from outside the train station. It costs €14 to gain entry to the Palace and the Park, you can book your ticket online or on one of the machines outside. It's completely different to any castle or palace that I've ever visited before, it's almost like a child's drawing has been brought to life in front of your eyes - a lemon yellow, lilac and burnt orange romantic wonder with grey and canary yellow walls/turrets and chess board, moorish  tiled archways. Inside you'll find numerous staterooms filled with the luxurious possessions of its previous resident, King Fernando II (the Artist King) who cryptically told his architect that it must represent an opera. It was used as a summer residence to escape the heat of the city.  

The stunning colours of Pena Palace, the tile detail, the light in the chapel and the gorgeous view 

I was most impressed with the terrace walk, the chapel with the light reflecting off the stained glass windows and the amazing views of the valley and park (on a clear day the Palace can be seen from Lisbon). It's worth a visit for the eighty five hectare park alone which plays home to trees from far-flung places - Sequoias from the US, Japanese Cryptomeria and a wide variety of ferns from Australia and New Zealand, as well as waterfalls and secret pavilions. There's a reasonably priced cafe and gift shop for all of your palace souvenirs (it was lovely to have a coffee and custard tart and savour the view). I didn't have a lot of time so I prioritised visiting Pena Palace; if you have more time there's also the Palacio National de Sintra (with the white cone towers) and the Moorish castle to visit. 

Everyone knows about the addictive pasteis da nada (custard tarts) which are quite common in the UK now (I fell in love with the Nutella ones in Lisbon). Sintra boasts its own must-try pastry - the Queijada, a small sweet cake made with soft cheese, eggs, sugar, milk and flour. You can buy them in pretty much every cafe in Sintra, and on the way to the Palace you can stop at the original bakery Fabrica das Verdadeiras (founded in 1756) to try different flavours including almond, milk and orange (you can get six for five euros - I bought a box to bring home but typically ate them in one night). There are plenty of cafes and restaurant around the train station - I recommend Cafe Saudade and Incomum restaurant which has a bargain €12.50 lunch menu. 

The day after I took the bus from Sintra to Cascais, another popular tourist destination with great beaches and plenty of culture/galleries. You can take the 403 or the 417 bus from outside Sintra train station; the 417 is faster at thirty minutes so I took that on the way there. If you're going back to Sintra take the 403 which takes about an hour but is well worth it for the stunning views, you can even stop at the Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in Europe for pics of the lighthouse or if you fancy an unforgettable hike. 

The beach in Cascais, sculptures in the art square, street art 

A charming traditional Portuguese fishing town, Cascais like Sintra historically was the summer retreat of the Portuguese nobility - you'll find an imposing fort, lavish mansions and villas and tiny cobbled streets as well as  lively bars and restaurants, boutique hotels and lots of shopping options. I left the bus station and headed towards the beach craving an ice cream. Not far from the 17th Citadel, I stumbled across the Cidadela Art District which is home to a number of independent galleries, bookshops and sculptures set around a large cobbled courtyard (I loved the giant pair of binoculars and huge heads). I spent quite a bit of time in Indie not a bookshop (which pretty much is a bookshop) which had a great selection of the newest fiction and non fiction. There were also a couple of second hand book shops, you could spend hours browsing and trying not to spend a fortune (I've notices that books are much more expensive abroad - a novel is often around €15 so yeah I was mainly browsing). I stopped for sushi at Sushissimo and did a bit of shopping (I recommend Be We) before catching the 403 back to Sintra via the scenic route which was amazing although pretty steep at points. I had an early night and in the morning caught the train back to Lisbon and then bought a ticket for the five hour train journey to Porto (€28), for the final leg of my Portuguese adventure! Find out more about fabulous Porto in my next post. 

I've tried to link all places I visited in the text above, so just click on the places to find out more. Obviously I didn't get everywhere that I wanted to go so here are some other places in Lisbon to check out:

  • Botanical gardens complete with peacocks! 
  • Castelo de Sao Jorge - great views of the city 
  • Santa Justa lift - more great views 
  • LX Factory - cool arts centre with shops and eateries
  • Ride the famous tram 28 to the Alfama district 
  • The National Tile Museum (if you're into tiles)
  • Visit the lively Barrio Alto for nightlife
I love using Get Your Guide to book trips when I'm in a new city! Here are some links to great trips you can enjoy in Lisbon! 

  • Lisbon Tram No.28 ride and walking tour
  • Palace, Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Cascais day trip (a great to see all of the sites if you haven't got much time)
  • Pena Palace and Park Entrance Ticket (if you want to book your ticket in advance) 

  • 1 May 2022

    Three Weeks in Portugal Part 1 - The Algarve

    Since the restrictions have eased, I have indulged the wanderlust in me by doing short trips to Majorca, Island and Madeira. Unfortunately this only served to make my appetite even bigger, so I decided to do a longer trip in March, partly to try and jump straight to the spring weather in the UK and partly because it's been about eight years since I did a three week trip (Thailand in 2013). 

    I'm trying to remember how I decided upon Portugal; all of a sudden I had the Lonely Planet Portugal and Porto guidebooks in my hand. Ah ok - it was because that I read that there are a lot of digital nomads in Portugal and there are active communities in the Algarve, Lisbon and Porto. I wanted to combine work with travel, and see if I could do a decent job of balancing the two and meeting new people. 

    I mainly went for the custard tarts 

    I originally was going to fly to Porto from Manchester but one of the recent storms was raging when I was scheduled to fly, so I chickened out and decided to delay for a week. I changed my mind and decided to start in the South and work my way up north, flying from Newcastle into Faro with Ryanair, then getting the train to Lagos, Lisbon and Porto before flying back from Porto to Manchester. I'm not the biggest fan of flying but I felt much calmer avoiding the storm (we took off in strong winds to Madeira and it's not an experience I'd like to repeat). 

    Somehow I'd never done the popular family trip to the Algarve as a child - I questioned whether I should go and wondered if it would be too touristy but reminded myself that I could avoid the tourist traps. My plan was to stay in a co-working space with an office attached to meet people and hopefully prospective clients so I found a place that I thought fitted those requirements in Faro - GrowIN Digital Nomads right in the centre of Faro (only two kilometres from the Airport and around the corner from the Carmo Church with the famous Chapel of the Bones). I arrived at the property and was quickly told that the offices weren't open (!) and that I was the only person staying there apart from a guy who was looking after the place for the owner. So much for making new connections! I decided to go with the flow and maybe accept that I could have some time off in the South before making more connections in the busier Lisbon and Porto. I discovered a Facebook group for remote workers (I'll link it at the bottom of the post) but it seemed quite quiet in the comments (I guess to be expected after everything that's happened). 

    Typical Portuguese architecture, boat trip on Ria Formosa, cheese and walnut toast and the Chapel of Bones 

    The property itself was actually really nice, I landed in a big double room with high ceilings and there was a shared bathroom and kitchen space if you felt like cooking (I wish I could say that I cooked during the three weeks but I got pretty comfortable being a tourist...). The location was central and I would recommend it even if you're just on holiday there. The pizza was good in the restaurant next door (Paparazzi) and there was a great all you can eat Sushi place (Sushi Ya) just around the corner. 

    Faro itself is pretty compact, with most of the main sights within walking distance of each other. On the first day in a new place I like to walk around and get lost - there were so many gorgeous buildings (some of the most impressive architecture I've seen was in Portugal). Spending some time exploring the Old Town is a must-do and gives you a real sense of the history of the Algarve's capital, leading you around medieval cobble stoned, orange tree-lined streets towards the 13th century Cathedral, a hodge-podge of gothic, renaissance and baroque features. A highlight was a visit to the Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Carmo, with its twin towers and lemon yellow painted facade. Like many churches in Portugal, the interior is covered in Brazilian gold leaf and is seriously impressive. The big draw however is the Capelo des Ossos (Chapel of Bones) behind the church. Not for the faint-hearted, the chapel is decorated with the skulls and bones of over 1,000 monks which cover the walls and ceiling. I was fascinated and spent some time trying to figure out which part of the body the bones came from (spine, knees etc). It was quite strange that a primary school was next door, with small kids playing next to all of these bones. 

    Nature lovers will enjoy the Ria Formosa lagoon, a large national park/series of islands where many birds stop during their migration in the spring and autumn. I booked a sunset boat trip with Formosamar (€20) to get a closer look at the wetlands and some of the wildlife there (spoonbills, storks, herons and my favourite - flamingoes)! I didn't see flamingos on that trip but it made me determined to search them out when I visited Tavira further along the coast. 

    Statue in Tavira, the view from the boat trip complete with flying flamingo, the salt factory and the fragrant jasmine arch in the castle gardens 

    After a few days exploring Faro I took the forty minute train journey to Tavira, partly due to my flamingo mission. The town is rightly billed as the Venice of the Algarve, and boasts lots of traditional architecture with Moorish influences. The town itself is very compact with a main plaza ringed with seafood restaurants and cafes. Take the steep path up towards the 8th century Moorish castle and you'll come across the castle gardens. After the steep climb this was a great place to pause and breathe. The air was scented with jasmine and the medieval walls were covered in bougainvillea (I didn't even go into the castle because I was so enamoured by the garden). Nearby you'll find the bright white Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo; it's worth climbing the bell tower for great views of the old town and the salt plains. 

    After seeing the historical sites I moved closer to my goal to see flamingos, and booked another boat trip with Algarve Fun. As the only person on the trip I had the guide to myself, a seasoned fisherman who had worked all over the world and lived on the Ihla de Tavira, a tropical island just off the coast on the Ria Formosa (lucky thing). What he didn't know about the area wasn't worth knowing. I managed to see a single flamingo in flight but unfortunately not a flamboyance (cool name for a group of flamingoes). I think he felt bad about it so he elongated the trip and I saw a lot of other birds. Luckily he told me where to find them and that if I walked about one kilometre out of town there was about sixty of them (might of been handy to know before the trip but it was nice anyway). 

    Tavira flamingos

    I disembarked and set off down a dusty road to Quatro Aguas feeling a bit concerned that it was quite isolated but luckily other tourists started walking past me coming from the other direction so I continued. As I turned the corner I clocked them, sure enough there was about sixty of them feeding; they weren't bright pink but more white with pink legs. My iPhone camera was rubbish but it was exciting to get closer to them and watch them for a while. Tired after all of the walking around but satisfied, I got the train back to Faro and started to read up on my next destination, Lagos. 

    Just ninety minutes by train from Faro, Lagos is a port town with (you guessed it) an old town, plenty of squares and churches but stands out as a tourist destination for it's stunning coastline, namely the Ponta da Piedade sandstone cliffs and towers. (I've been remiss in mentioning the many amazing beaches along this coastline mainly because I stupidly didn't go to the beach). Here I was really impressed with my accommodation, the Nature Guesthouse about ten minutes walk from the centre. Surrounded by jasmine and lemon trees, the guesthouse is a peaceful hideaway with themed rooms (water, spiritual, yoga) and gardens complete with sun loungers. I stayed in the Water room, with a king sized bed large bathroom and balcony. Continental breakfast was included in the price in the adjoining Sensations guesthouse (cake for breakfast? Yes please). 

    Fresh sardines, the spectacular Ponte de Piedade, street art next to the fort, delicious clams at Adega da Marina

    The owner of the guesthouse recommend Adega da Marina, a really good seafood restaurant down by the river (I can also recommend Bar Millennium Jardim in town where I had delicious sardines). It was really busy but I highly recommend the clams/limpettes, easily some of the best seafood that I've eaten. The restaurant was only a five minute walk from the jetty where the boat tours depart from. I booked two boat tours with my go-app for tours (Get Your Guide) - an hour long trip to the stunning coastline of the Ponta da Piedade and a two hour trip to the Benagil Cave, a spectacular cave which is the subject of thousands of Instagram posts. The hour long trip was excellent value, and I marvelled at the towers of rock which reminded me of something out of the Pirates of the Caribbean. The captain of the boat even took us into a few small caves despite the sea being a little bit rough. I was less impressed with the longer trip to the Benagil Cave, as because of the rough seas we couldn't enter the cave on that day (so I thought they should have cancelled it). Despite that it was nice to be out on the water, and I met a woman who had been to 72 countries so that was a very interesting conversation! 

    Another place worth visiting but I didn't actually get to is Sagres, the extreme western tip of the Algarve and the southwestern most point of Europe. With its amazing beaches, and windswept barren landscapes, it's a big draw for hikers, cyclists and surfers. You can relax on a number of sheltered beaches and perhaps see some storks nesting on the cliff faces (the only place in the world where they're known to do this). 

    I was really blown away by the beauty of the coastline, the nature and the food in the south, and the fact that it's so cheap to eat and get around (train tickets are a lot cheaper than the UK, you can get a great meal for five euros and Ubers were literally three euros). 

    Click the links below for more Algarve info:

    Visit Portugal Algarve

    Algarve Addicts on Youtube

    Algarve Tourist

    Algarve history etc - Wikipedia 

    Algarve Digital Nomads Facebook Group 

    Here are the links to Get Your Guide trips in the Algarve which I found were fantastic value and really easy to book:

    Boat trip to the Ponte Da Piedade (75 minutes)

    2 hour Boat trip to Benagil cave

    Boat trip to Tavira

    Ria Formosa boat trip 

    17 January 2022

    Transatlantic Bowie at Wylam Brewery 7.1.22

    After the brilliance of the recent Blondie show at Wylam Brewery in December, I knew the Transatlantic Ensemble Bowie show wouldn't disappoint. The Ensemble has amassed a reputation for recreating the music of the greatest rock and pop stars of all time, and regularly plays to packed out venues all around the country and further afield. 

    The gig felt like the perfect way to celebrate the genius of Bowie, the day before what would have been his 75th birthday. All of the hits were covered much to our collective delight, kicking off with Ziggy Stardust and Rebel Rebel through to a Fashion/Fame mashup before the break, then coming back with big singalongs and much bopping around to Under Pressure, Life on Mars, Starman and wrapping things up perfectly with Heroes.

    The solos were a real highlight; each hit showcased the talents of a particular musician. We were wowed by the brilliance of the sax players, the guy on keys, the guitarists, the drummer and the trumpeter (not to mention the two female singers who shared the vocals). It was genuinely lovely to see the band members encourage and applaud each other for their improvisational talent.

    Click above to watch the Ensemble play Life On Mars 

    My Bowie-loving friend and I tried some interesting beers and enjoyed having a bit of a dance afterwards (there's usually a DJ spinning retro hits after the band has played). I also can't resist the photo booth every time I go (I recommend eating there too - the food is always good). If you haven't been before, I can highly recommend a night listening to some of the best music ever written in the Grade II listed Palace of Arts in Exhibition Park! 

    Transatlantic Ensemble musicians: Emma Prior/Charlotte Churchman (Vocals), Matt Roberts/Leo Aarons-Richardson/Jonny Griffiths (Brass), Tello Morgado (Percussion), Louis van der Westhuizen (Bass), Daniel Hale (Drums), Mikayl Dawood (Guitar), Gabriel Piers-Mantell (Keys)

    Future shows at Wylam Brewery:

    • Motoon Valentine's Special - 18th February 2022
    • A Night At The Brewery feat. The Music of Queen - 19th February 2022 (rescheduled)
    • The London African Gospel Choir plays Marley - 12th March 2022

    Click here for a link to all 2022 events 

    Debbie x 

    3 January 2022

    Iceland - Land Of Fire And Ice!

    I think a lot of us who love travel many hours during lockdown planning and dreaming about the places we wanted to go when travel was back on again (let's just say that a few Lonely Planet guides dropped through my letterbox over twenty months). Being a city break person, I realised I hadn't spent much time going to the traditional destinations that are popular around Christmas time, such as Vienna, Salzberg, Cologne, Estonia, Prague and Talliin, to name a few. Vienna was high on my list for the gluhwein, traditional coffeehouses and the Giant Christmas Bow. I was about to book to fly from Newcastle with Jet2, but unfortunately Austria went into lockdown on the same day. Determined to experience Christmas in a different culture, my thoughts drifted to Iceland. I was all set to go there about ten years ago but I got sick just beforehand, so the travel guide has been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time. I managed to find a good deal with lastminute.com - return flights from Manchester and four nights in Hotel Muli, a three star hotel close to the centre of the city for £288. 

    At that point (December 6th) the only testing requirement was a Day 2 PCR (which, annoyingly had gone up considerably to £48 from the £19 I paid for Majorca). Then in the days that follows the powers that be decreed that a pre-departure test (not a home test) was required, as well as a test in a testing centre before you left the destination. Great! My pre-departure test was with ExpressTest (£39) - luckily Iceland is accepting antigen lateral flow fit to fly tests which are cheaper than PCR tests. I found a test centre in Rekjavik the night before I flew back which was offering free tests. Instead of using Testing For All for a Day 2 PCR when I came back, I found a slightly cheaper price with Randox Testing (£43 with £5 off with an Easyjet code). So all in all £82 for tests, which would be enough to put a lot of people off but I didn't have a choice, having already booked. (If you're travelling make sure you check the requirements for where you're going as some places accept antigen tests and others insist on PCR, and others aren't asking for a test to enter the country, making the trip much cheaper). If you need a pre-departure test that needs to be shown at an airport, they won't accept home tests - you need a certificate from a provider. 

    The view from the flight, a Christmas boy at the airport, Hotel Muli and the Imagine Peace Tower

    That's the testing bit over, thank God! And now on to the nice part. The hotel was a couple of stops by bus to the centre of Rekjavik so I decided to spend the first of three days checking out the city centre. (I didn't have a set plan before travelling of what I was going to over the three days, I usually like to go with the flow, but I quickly realised it's the kind of place where you can do lots of trips - I imagine lots of people have a full itinerary before they leave. Luckily there were places left on trips so I booked them via the Get Your Guide app while I was there. More on trips later). When I got to my hotel on the first night, I noticed a blue laser beam shining up into the night sky and I remembered that Yoko Ono had created the Imagine Peace Tower - a wishing well from which a tall tower of light emerges between October 9th and 8th December (his birthday and anniversary of his death). As a massive Beatles fan it was a very cool thing to see, and it's possible to visit the Videy island to get a closer look. 

    The unique Hallgrimskirkja, Rekjavik Art Museum, Tjornin lake and a traditional Icelandic house)

    I decided to do the typical tourist stuff and to start took the bus to Hallsgrimskirkja, a church like no other most people have ever seen. Constructed to resemble volcanic basalt, it looks like a weird, white concrete spacecraft and is visible from twenty miles away. Named after a poet who wrote Iceland's most popular hymn book, the building was controversial and the architect didn't live to see it completed (it was finished in 1986). I was hoping that the interior would match the impressive exterior, but it was quite plain (it's easy to take stained glass for granted).  It's possible to go to the top but I didn't realise until afterwards. 

    Some Rekjavik street art, sculpture and christmas decorations (they love cats)

    The church is really close to the main shopping streets, Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur (known as the artist's street), where you'll find  a mixture of  shops and quirky boutiques, cafes and bars. I was quite surprised at the number of shops selling souvenirs - so many! The centre is pretty compact - my first stop was the Rekjavik Art Museum in Hafnarhus (1500ISK or £8.60), just near the Old Harbour. Looking through the windows I clocked a very strange multicoloured fur dome which was part of an exhibition called Abrakadabra - The Magic of Contemporary Art. The museum has a permanent exhibition of collages by famous Icelandic postmodernist Erro, which is definitely worth a look. And I realised that a lot of places do free tea and coffee which is a bit of a revelation!

    I had lunch across the road at Vegan World Peace restaurant, which has an Asian menu and perfectly replicated typical meat dishes with meat substitutes (the Kung Pao was delicious). Then I set off to the National Museum, which is about fifteen minutes walk from the centre and takes you past the scenic Tjornin lake, complete with many swans. It was pretty frozen and some brave people were attempting to skate on it. The National Museum (2,000ISK or £11.60) holds some amazing artefacts from the time of Settlement (by the Vikings in the 10th century) spanning all the way up to modern day. You'll find glass covered skeletons, weapons and day to day objects, as well as lots of religious artefacts and replicas of traditional housing and even longboats. The cafe is a great place to take a break before walking back to the centre (especially if you go in December and are acclimatising to -3C temperatures). 

    Speciality Lobster soup, vegan chinese at Vegan World Peace, amazing ice cream and my new obsession Malt og Applesin 

    By this time I was getting hungry and happened to walk past Saegreifinn, which had a sign outside offering lobster soup in a bowl made out of black bread. When in Rome...The soup was delicious and warming and the staff were lovely and really helpful in answering my tourist questions. I couldn't eat all of the black bread though. If you fancy a few drinks its worth hitting the happy hours between around 4pm and 6pm otherwise the cocktails can get expensive. I popped into the Hard Rock Cafe to check out the memorabilia and had a cocktail just outside of happy hour, ouch! I was pretty tired after hitting the museums so made my way back to my hotel to check out the different tours that I'd seen advertised in the windows of the tourist companies in the city centre. The Get Your Guide app was really helpful and easy to use - I decided upon the eight hour Golden Circle bus tour (£38), which is one of the most popular tours and takes in the spectacular Gullfoss Waterfall, the sprouting geyser of Strokkur and the Kerid Crater. Most of the tours leave from outside the Storm Hotel in the centre at Bus Stop 12, so I got an early night for a 9am start. 

    I somehow managed to drag myself out of bed on time and get to the tour bus, which ended up being pretty full. Our guide was knowledgeable and calm (handy traits for a tour guide). After about forty minutes we stopped off at Hveragerdi to get a coffee and snacks before our first real stop at the Kerid Crater, a 3,000 year old crater lake which is normally deep blue with vivid green moss and red rock, when not covered with snow. It was still really impressive, if not a bit too slippy to get really close. I definitely wasn't prepared for the majesty of Gullfoss Waterfall, the 105ft marvel is absolutely spectacular and I could have spent many hours just staring at it, wrapped up with cocoa. Like many of the tourist sites, there's a cafe where you can get some hot food to warm up. We then carried on to the famous Geysir hot spring in Haukadalur Valley. The actual geysir isn't very active, so to see some explosive action you're transported to Strokkur hot spring which shoots boiling water between twenty metres and forty metres into the air, approximately every eight minutes. I nearly froze my hand off, gloveless holding my phone waiting for it to erupt, but it was worth it - a reminder of the power of nature. Around the geyser the ground bubbles, which reminded me of the sulphur pools in Roturua, New Zealand. 

    After lunch our last stop was Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of the first national assembly of Iceland in 930AD (basically their first parliament). You can walk between two tectonic plates (the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate) in the Almannagja Gorge.  The Park was heavily featured in Game of Thrones in Season One and Season Four. Adventurous types can snorkel or scuba dive in the Silfra ravine. Thoroughly impressed with the tour, on the way back to Rekjavik I booked onto the slightly longer (ten hour) South Coast tour, again using the Get Your Guide app. 

    (from top left - the Kerid crater, Strokkur, Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellier Park)

    That evening I decided to check out the Hlemmur Food Market, an eclectic food hall housed in the old bus terminal. Great for foodies who'd like to try a variety of Icelandic and world cuisines, here you can find an experimental restaurant which showcases foraged Icelandic foods (Skal) as well as Vietnamese (I had some delicious vegetarian rolls), a steakhouse, an authentic Napolitan pizza place, an LA taco joint and a pretty impressive gelato shop where you can get Icelandic Skyr ice cream. You can also sample Icelandic lamb and top quality tea and coffee. I also got obsessed with their national Christmas drink, Malt og Applesin - a non-alcoholic mix of orange soda and malt drink. You can buy it mixed or separate and mix it yourself - a lot of Icelandic people have their own family recipe to get the quantities exactly right and often add cola or other mixers. I tried to bring as much back as possible but ran out quickly and need more (the malt drink by itself is delicious). The highlight food-wise for me was the Lobster soup at Sjavarhornid in Rekjavik centre; served with black lava bread - highly recommended! 

    After a good night's sleep I dragged myself out of bed to get to the bus stop at 8am for the South Coast tour (£58), hungry to see more sites. Our tour guide was Polish who'd lived in Iceland for a while, and played us a variety of Icelandic music over the course of the tour. We stopped off pretty early at Hvolsvollur to get coffee and snacks - a small town of 950 people with an interesting interactive earthquake museum. Next stop was Skogafoss (not far from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that caused travel chaos in 2010), another magnificent waterfall with a sixty metre drop. You can walk right up to it and also get a great view from a staircase that leads to an observational platform, and often there's the chance to get a great rainbow shot. I was not prepared for how stunning the Solheimajokull glacier would be - I practically cried when I got up close to it. The shades of blue of the ice were capitavating and along with the Gulfoss waterfall the most spectacular sites for me. It deeply saddened me to hear that it's likely to disappear in the next thirty years due to climate change. We finished the tour at the Reynisfjara Beach, famous for it's black sand, unique rock formations and jagged sea stacks, said to be trolls that were frozen in time because they were out in sunlight! The Gardar Cliff looks like something out of Game of Thrones, which look like giant organ pipes. I was blown away by the tours and think they're great value to see as many sights and natural wonders as possible. I'd like to go back in the summer and hire a car but it was too icy and dangerous to drive in winter, in my opinion. 

    Skogafoss waterfall, the spectacular Solheimajokull glacier, Reynisfjara black beach and sea stack basalt columns 

    I knew that Iceland was going to be memorable but I was genuinely blown away by its natural beauty, culture, art and food and will definitely be going back - I'd love to do:

    * The Northern Lights tour by boat (visibility wasn't great when I was there)
    * A Volcano hike (scary)
    * A snowmobile tour 
    * The Blue Lagoon/Sky Lagoon (very touristy but must do)
    * Whale watching 
    * A food tour (a couple at the airport told me that it was great)
    * Horse riding 
    * Ice caves 

    I hope I've done a good job of convincing you to put Iceland at the top of your travel list! All of the places I visited are hyperlinked so you can find out more. Happy travelling! 

    Debbie x