First-Timer’s Guide to Santorini, Greece

For too long I’d scrolled through social media and been tormented by friends travelling through the Greek islands. My only visit to this Mediterranean nation was as a backpacker in 2005, when I revelled in the culture, kebabs and affordability of Athens for a week. Aside from the couple in my hostel room who got intimate most nights, I adored Greece and vowed to return when I got the chance. While I made several trips to Europe in the following years, Greece never quite happened. It was in fact only earlier this year that a friend’s wedding in London prompted a five week trip across the continent with my boyfriend. It was game on, Greece! 

If you regularly read my blog, you’ll know we found a seemingly excellent route from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini but our flight was diverted at the last minute. We instead spent the night in Athens and caught the eight hour ferry to Santorini the next morning. We arrived exhausted, mid-afternoon in the middle of May. In one direction were extraordinary views of the Aegean Sea, and in the other was a parking lot filled with taxis and travellers moving towards a single road up a rocky, barren hill. Our four night holiday had become just two full days, but we met our driver, checked in to our villa and opened a bottle of wine. Let the holiday begin! 

overview

Santorini is the largest of a small group of Greek islands called the Cyclades, about 240 kilometres (150 miles) southeast of Athens. The island is just 20km (12 mi) long, almost a crescent shape with the caldera (volcanic crater) on western side. The three main villages of Fira (also called Thira), Imerovigli and Oia are in the island’s north and on the western side, hence have “caldera” views. The resort-style beaches are on opposite side in the south, with archaeological sites also in the southern half. Santorini has a local population of just 15,000, but numbers swell during the peak summer season (June – August). 

 Oia: a Mediterranean fairytale, even on a cloudy day
Oia: a Mediterranean fairytale, even on a cloudy day

Did you know Santorini isn’t the island’s official name? It was given to the island by the Venetians in 1153, who arrived and saw a chapel for Saint Irene (Santa Irini). The name stuck, but the island remains Thera on all official documents. The capital Fira is a variation of Thera. 

what to do

the views

Sweeping views of the Aegean Sea and the distinct architecture are arguably the number one reason people visit Santorini. From the whitewashed buildings of Fira and Imerovigli to the more colourful townscape of Oia, seeing these villages against the backdrop of the water is unforgettable. Appreciate the different views during the day, sunset and at night when the pools shine turqoise. You can take in the views poolside, over drinks or a meal, while hiking or on a cruise (more details below). Be forewarned – the majority of Santorini is rocky, barren and doesn’t appear on postcards. 

 Imerovigli: watching sunset from our villa on our first night was magic!
Imerovigli: watching sunset from our villa on our first night was magic!

hiking trails

If you’re feeling energetic, there’s a range of walks on the island. The rocky but flat path between Fira and Imerovigli is an easy 45 minutes (no shade) and you can continue north on the more challenging path to Oia. The total walk from Fira to Oia is 10km (6 mi) and takes around 3 to 4 hours. Bring water and sunscreen as there’s little shade unless you retreat to a cafe. My boyfriend and I were still fatigued from hiking in Italy, so we just did the short Fira to Imerovigli section on our first day.

Those who are more adventurous should head to Skaros Rock, accessed from Imerovigli. We didn’t have time during our trip but the hike takes around two hours, and is reportedly challenging at times due to steps and some climbing to reach the top. Only about half the groups we saw from our villa during our stay reached the summit. Bring sunscreen and water, and possibly snacks if you’re going to stay out there. 

 Hiking: views on the trail from Imerovigli to Fira
Hiking: views on the trail from Imerovigli to Fira

ancient sites

Take a history lesson and visit Santorini’s two archaeological sites, Akrotiri and Ancient Thira. Akrotiri is in the island’s south-west, near Red Beach. Entry is €12 or there’s a combined pass with other attractions for €14, although there are some free admission days throughout the year too. Read more here. Ancient Thira is on the top of Mesa Vouno mountain, in the south-east side of the island near Pirassa Beach.  Entry is €4 or you can also get the combined pass. Click here for more details. 

caldera cruise

We lost a day in Santorini because of our flight diversion, but otherwise I would’ve been cruising! While there are mixed reviews online, a work colleague who’d recently been to Santorini highly recommended my boyfriend and I see the island from the water. There are a few companies offering tours of the caldera and hot springs before finishing in Oia for sunset. One for next time! 

 Amoudi Bay: viewed from the top of Oia
Amoudi Bay: viewed from the top of Oia

amoudi bay (oia)

If you cruise the caldera, there’s a good chance your vessel will end in the port of Amoudi Bay at Oia. But you can also walk or drive down from the village and enjoy fresh seafood or a drink. I’m told this is one of the best swimming spots in Santorini. We only had time to gaze down at Amoudi Bay from Oia, and my heart broke a little. I told myself there’ll be other islands. 

beaches

I love the water and desperately wanted to be beachside after a mostly chilly month in Europe. You’ll find Santorini’s most popular beaches along the eastern (non-caldera) side, near the Ancient Thera site. There’s Kamari Beach, and then the resort-like strip of Perissa and Perivolos with sun beds lined up on black sand. We spent several hours lazing by Perivolos Beach but the water was too cold for me! It wasn’t busy, however it a cooler day during the shoulder season.

 Perivolos Beach: more resort style, with plenty of dining and bars opposite
Perivolos Beach: more resort style, with plenty of dining and bars opposite

Less for sunbaking and more for sightseeing are Red Beach and Black Beach. We followed signage while quad biking to reach the parking area for Red Beach, which is then a five minute rocky walk to a viewing area before another 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. I don’t recommend the path for the frail or elderly. Black Beach is also in the south of the island, however we relied on Google Maps because there was no signage. We gave up after making a few wrong turns. 

 Red Beach: more for sightseeing than sunbaking
Red Beach: more for sightseeing than sunbaking

wineries

Being wine lovers, my boyfriend and I weren’t going to miss the chance to drink Greek vino! We booked a tour of Santo Wines weeks in advance and added on six glass of wine tasting and a food platter for sunset (€38 each). The walking tour was around 30 minutes and we learnt about the island’s unique grape growing method, where vines are woven into a basket shape to protect the grapes. Our group then watched a short video about Santorini’s history, which was interesting if a little cheesy. The best part was sitting outside and simply admiring the caldera views with my boyfriend while we enjoyed our enormous trays of wine samples and local produce. 

The wine itself was average and we weren’t tempted to buy any, but the overall experience was magical. Bring a jacket for when the sun goes down and also some spending money, as there’s a sizeable store selling pasta, olives, tomato paste and other produce. Our hotel arranged transport which was €20 return for the two of us. 

 Santo Wines: the six glass wine tasting & food platter
Santo Wines: the six glass wine tasting & food platter

shopping

The biggest collection of shops I saw were in Thira, but they were very touristy. Sometimes that’s fun though! There are plenty of stalls selling dresses, shoes and hats plus standard souvenirs. I was much more interested in the stores in Oia, which looked more artsy. 

food

 Pita: stuffed with fava at my request on Perivolos Beach
Pita: stuffed with fava at my request on Perivolos Beach

Visiting Santorini is like an immersive in the Mediterranean diet, albeit with more wine. Local highlights include:

  • fava: a dish made from split peas, similar to Indian dal or hummus
  • sesame stick: breadsticks coated in sesame seeds
  • capers: edible flower buds from the caper plant 
  • olives: and luscious olive oil

Seafood lovers will be in heaven and there’s no shortage of cheese or salads either. During our three night trip, we had everything from beachside pitas, grazing boards and wine, to fine dining with caldera views. The latter was a brilliant coincidence, as our accomodation Kapari Natural Resorts (see “where to stay” below) boasted one of Santorini’s top restaurants. It was too cold to sit outside, however we spent several hours enjoying three courses and a bottle of white wine recommended by the in-house sommelier. The bill came to just €110, including €45 for the wine. Excellent value – but be sure to book ahead! 

 Kapari Wine Restaurant: my dish of fava, capers and tomato
Kapari Wine Restaurant: my dish of fava, capers and tomato

drinks 

 Kapari Natural Resort: complimentary wine and fruit
Kapari Natural Resort: complimentary wine and fruit

Everyone we spoke to (hotel staff, other guests) recommended a different bar but they can be tricky to find in the village mazes. In the end, we just drank whenever and wherever the mood struck us. The warm days called for Mythos beer while we drank local white wine at night. 

As mentioned under things to do, head to Santo Wines and do wine tasting at sunset. This was one of the most memorable experiences during our three night stay. If we’d had longer, I would’ve spent a day simply reading and drinking while occasionally looking up at the sea.

where to stay

There are three main options if you’re visiting Santorini for the first time:

  • Fira (Thira): the island’s capital and the biggest of Santorini’s three towns. Good for shopping, nightlife and central location. Closest to the airport and port. 
  • Oia: the northernmost and second largest town. It’s artsy, colourful and boasts Amoudi Bay. About 30 minutes (15km/9mi) drive from Fira.
  • Imerovigli: the smallest of three villages, but walking distance (45 mins) from Fira. It’s more like a cluster of cliff-side villas and restaurants than a town, although you’ll find a convenience store and some cafes at the top. In my opinion, it’s the most romantic of the three. 
 Kapari Natural Resort: incredible views in Imerovigli
Kapari Natural Resort: incredible views in Imerovigli

Here are some crude analogies if it helps. For those familiar with the Indonesian island of Bali, Fira is like touristy Kuta, Imerovigli is like the romantic and relaxed Seminyak while Oia is like the artsy and further away Ubud. For those who know New York City, you’d call Fira midtown, Imerovigli Chelsea (close by but less hectic) and Oia would be the East Village or Soho (further away but distinctive vibes). Feel free to dispute these or make your own suggestions in the comments section below! There are other towns to stay in of course, however if you’re visiting for the first-time you probably want to be centrally based with the greatest number of amenities and attractions.

 Kapari Natural Resort: the bedroom and bathroom in our enormous cavern-like villa
Kapari Natural Resort: the bedroom and bathroom in our enormous cavern-like villa

We splurged for the final leg of our Europe trip, staying at Kapari Natural Resort in Imerovigli for €330 (AU$510) per night. The price included a delicious buffet breakfast with made to order dishes as well, which we enjoyed outside overlooking the caldera. Our villa was spacious, cool and well equipped. The kitchen had a stove, kettle and refrigerator although no tea or coffee was supplied. The cavern-like style meant there were few windows, so we couldn’t see the caldera unless we stepped outside. Staff greeted us by name when we arrived and gave us a brief overview of the island and facilities. They continued to welcome us back each evening. 

We booked through boutique hotel website Mr & Mrs Smith which secured us free hotel transfers and a bottle of wine and welcome platter. The hotel’s pool was very small (but we soon saw this was the norm) and cold, but again, it was mid-May. Next time, I’d try find a villa with views from our room or stay in Oia for something different. 

 Map: supplied by our ATV company (click to enlarge)
Map: supplied by our ATV company (click to enlarge)

getting around

It’s easy to walk around Santorini’s villages, but the winding paths can make trying to find a specific location difficult. This is especially the case in Imerovigli, where the nearly identical white properties and low-lying walls can feel like a maze. As mentioned, Fira and Imerovigli are walking distance while Oia, the beaches and archaeological sites will require transport. Your options are buses, taxis and minivans although we only saw cabs around Fira’s main square. We were quoted €40 for a return trip from Imerovigli to Oia in a minivan, which seemed outrageous for a 15 minute journey. We declined.  

Rather, the best way to get around the island is to hire a quad bike (or “ATV” as they’re called locally). We arranged ours through our hotel for €56 for the day, which included a few Euros for insurance. There were cheaper bikes but we paid more for a sturdier option. We rode to the southern tip of the island, checked out Red Beach, had lunch on the eastern beaches before heading to Oia in the late afternoon. It was a memorable day, although the weather turned cold and rainy at the end. Be warned there’s no gas station in Oia so fill up at Imerovigli before going further north. 

getting there

 Santorini Airport: not exactly the paradise 
Santorini Airport: not exactly the paradise 

You can reach Santorini by ferry or plane. We attempted to fly and could see Santorini from our window (check out Getting from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini) but ended up Catching the Athens to Santorini ferry instead. Our hotel included transfers from the port (about 20-30 minutes) and to the airport (about 20 minutes). I can’t speak to catching taxis or buses except to say the port was very busy. 

Santorini Airport is very basic. There’s a cafe inside but after clearing security, you’ll have a kiosk and plastic chairs with one lonely person in passport control. The day we left, our flight was delayed two hours because airport workers were on strike. 

money

Greece is part of the European Union and therefore uses the Euro (€). We paid by cash and credit card, only using an ATM once (there was one at the top of Imerovigli next to the convenience store). Santorini isn’t as cheap as you might assume. For example, I got a manicure and pedicure for €45 (AU $70) while my boyfriend got a 60 minute massage for €60 (AU $95). As mentioned, transport can also be expensive. 

language

English is widely spoken but be polite and learn some Greek. My head was already filled with French and Italian, but our waitress at Athens was kind enough to teach me the following: 

  • efcharisto (ef-ka-RIS-to): thank you
  • parakalo (parra-kar-lo): you’re welcome/ please
 Greek lesson: I got some tips from our waitress in Athens
Greek lesson: I got some tips from our waitress in Athens

other tips

  • Don’t expect all of Santorini to look like the postcards. The three main villages are small and beyond them, you’ll find mostly barren rock and the occasional industrial area.
  • There’s not much privacy either. You’ll be able to see the rooftop, paths and balconies of almost every other property around you from your doorstep. 
  • Dress codes are very relaxed. Think maxi dress and sandals for ladies, while guys will be fine in button-up shirts and shorts even for higher-end places. Leave the heels at home.
  • There’s no shade and the sun will radiate off the white buildings. My boyfriend and I can handle sunshine but we got seriously burnt on the return leg of our Imerovigli to Thira walk. 

I didn’t want to leave Santorini, and losing a day of our trip meant we barely saw Oia. The weather in mid-May was also too cool at times to lay by the pool. If we had more time, I would’ve climbed Skaros Rock, cruised the caldera, dined at Amoudi Bay and explored the beautiful art stores of Oia. But I’m grateful we made it to Santorini at all! It was 12 years since my first visit to Greece but I loved it just as much. And I guarantee there’ll be a third visit, although I’ll head to different islands and stay much longer!

QUESTION: Have you been to Santorini? If so, what’s your best tip for first-time visitors? 

Catching the Athens to Santorini Ferry

The sun was rising, the air was fresh and the water was calm. It was mid-May in the Greek capital of Athens and under any other circumstances, the scene would’ve been beautiful. Except my boyfriend and I had barely slept five hours and we were never meant to be in Athens. Let me rewind. 

We were nearing the end of five blissful weeks in Europe. We’d spent months planning our itinerary, taking in everything from a wedding in London, to cycling through French vineyards and hiking Italy’s Cinque Terre. The trip was meant to end with four luxurious nights on the Greek island Santorini. While there hadn’t been an obvious way to get there from Cinque Terre, we eventually worked out a route that had minimal transfers and maximum sightseeing. We were extremely proud of ourselves (read more in How to Get from Cinque Terre to Santorini).

arriving in athens

Just 24 hours before seeing Athens at sunrise, we’d woken up in Florence, Italy and caught a train to Rome Airport to then fly to Santorini. Everything was going to plan! Except the moment we began descending towards the Greek island, the pilot announced it was too windy to land. Our hearts sank. The plane was diverted to Athens, touching down around 3pm. We frustratingly sat on the tarmac for hours, being told various messages from “We’re flying back to Rome,” to “You can disembark in Athens but your bags will be sent to Rome” before eventually “You can get off the plane in Athens with your bags, but find your own way to Santorini.” It was nearly 6pm and we’d been in transit for 12 hours, so my boyfriend and I got off the plane and began making alternate plans. 

There were no more ferries to Santorini that night so our first priority was finding accomodation. Secondly, we wanted to get to Santorini and resume our holiday as soon as possible – mindful that a few hundred people were seeking the exact same thing. I felt like a competitor on the Amazing Race, making phone calls, checking websites, and evaluating our options while waiting by the baggage carousel.

 Herodion Hotel, Athens: view of the Acropolis from Point A restaurant
Herodion Hotel, Athens: view of the Acropolis from Point A restaurant

Our bags finally turned up and we made a last minute booking for the 4 star Herodion Hotel in Plaka (€180). Our taxi driver got lost but we checked-in around 9pm, hit the mini-bar, showered and had dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant Point A. It had a view of the Acropolis, which was a slight consolation given we should’ve had sunset in Santorini. We set an alarm for 5am (the second day in a row) and collapsed around midnight. 

choosing a ferry

There are several ferry companies operating between Athens and Santorini. The vessels differ in size, speed and frequency of service. We chose the Blue Star ferry as it runs daily, departing Athen’s Piraeus Port at 7.25am and arriving in Santorini at 3.10pm. The journey takes eight hours but it’s reportedly the most sturdy of the ferries so it can handle rough weather and offer a fairly smooth journey. Given our flight was diverted because of strong winds, we also wanted the most reliable vessel. The Blue Star ferry stops at multiple ports (Paros – Noxos – Ios) before terminating at Santorini. There’s also a high-speed ferry which takes five hours, but it’s apparently more susceptible to poor weather.

How to Book

I tried calling Blue Star Ferries while we were at Athens Airport but their English was limited (and my Greek is non-existent). We instead bought tickets online for the following morning using the airport wi-fi. There were seats available in every class, despite approaching the high season (June – August). Unfortunately, there’s no option for e-tickets so you’ll still need to collect your paper ticket at least 60 minutes before departure. Note that you can’t buy tickets onboard.

Blue Star Ferries: Ph: +30-210-8919800 | Website 

Cost

The Blue Star ferry can cost as little as €20 for a super economy ticket, but it can’t be booked online. An unassigned economy seat is €40 or for €45 you can have a reserved “aircraft style” numbered seat. I recommended choosing that during high season to be guaranteed a seat, as our ferry had a lot of passengers in mid-May.

 Ferry ticket: €56 for a business class seat
Ferry ticket: €56 for a business class seat

My boyfriend and I opted for business class seats at €56 each, as theoretically we should’ve been sunbaking poolside at our Santorini resort by now. These tickets gave us access to a large lounge area, which was quieter and more comfortable than economy (see more under ‘facilities’ below). Cabin options are also available. Click here for all Blue Star ferry ticket prices.

Getting to the port

From a hotel in central Athens, it takes about 25 minutes by taxi to reach Piraeus Port. We took a cab (€18) as we weren’t familiar or confident in Athens’ pre-dawn public transport. We left our hotel at 5.30am and arrived at 5.50am. It’s important to know which gate your ferry leaves from so your taxi driver can take you there directly (see “port” below). Alternatively, it’s 45 to 60 minutes from central Athens to Piraeus by bus or train/metro (both €1.40). 

The port

The port is HUGE. Do not think you can simply get a cab to the first gate and walk around. That could take you 30 minutes or more, and time is precious when you’re up at dawn. Find your gate by working out which vessel you’re on (this should be on your email booking confirmation or ticket). We were catching Blue Star 2 which departs from Gate 1, while other Blue Star ferries for Santorini left from Gate 6. Click here for a map of Piraeus Port with gates and their corresponding vessels.

 Piraeus Port: the view at Gate 1 before boarding
Piraeus Port: the view at Gate 1 before boarding

Collecting tickets

Our cab dropped us at Gate 1 and I waited with our bags while my boyfriend collected our tickets from the kiosk opposite. It’s a large building so you can’t miss it, and it only took a few minutes. The email booking confirmation states to collect tickets at least one hour before departure but I’m not sure how strictly this is enforced. Obviously, bring ID and have your email confirmation ready along with the credit card you used for the booking.

boarding

Having left our hotel at 5.30am, I was surprised to have travelled to the port, collected our tickets and be boarding at 6.05am. We put our luggage in metal racks in the hull, alongside vehicles that were also making the voyage. It seemed risky to be leaving our bags with no tags or receipt, but it worked out fine. Just remember where you put your luggage. We then followed the signs to business class and got seats by the window. 

 Blue Star 2: the business lounge exceeded all my expectations for a domestic ferry
Blue Star 2: the business lounge exceeded all my expectations for a domestic ferry

Boarding at 6am may sound early for a 7.25am departure, but by the time we’d stowed our bags, found our lounge and got comfortable, we didn’t actually wait too long (maybe 30 minutes). I’d recommend getting to the port by 6.30am, especially if you have luggage or you’re in unassigned seating. If you just have a carry-on bag, you could allow less time – but know which gate you’re going to! 

the ferry 

I’ve caught ferries in Australia, Mexico, New York and perhaps the most memorable – from Dar Es Salaam to Zanzibar in Tanzania. They ranged from standing room only to plastic chairs, with varying amounts of shelter. But the Blue Star ferry was surprisingly modern, huge and well equipped. It’s 176 metres (577 feet) long and can take 1,800 passengers. The economy class area resembles a typical ferry, fairly noisy but comfortable enough and enclosed. You can access open deck areas if you want. Our business class area was like a floating airport lounge with waiters, carpet, comfortable seats, televisions and a full-service restaurant. Staff were wonderful and just as well – because we ordered quite a few coffees, snacks and drinks during our eight hour journey!

 Business class menu: click to enlarge
Business class menu: click to enlarge
 Menu (page 2)
Menu (page 2)
 Menu (page 3)
Menu (page 3)

Facilities

The Blue Star 2 is fully air-conditioned and has a reception, ATM, souvenir shop and food/drink outlets (see more below). Wi-fi was available for €5 from reception but it was incredibly slow. You could access a few emails, but forget Facebook or Instagram. My boyfriend found it faster to use data from his French sim card. You can connect to Blue Ferry’s free in-house entertainment @sea from your smartphone or laptop, which offers some movies, games and travel information. 

 Restaurant: the ferry dining options exceeded expectations! 
Restaurant: the ferry dining options exceeded expectations! 

Food

Economy class has a range of food options, including fast food (burgers, fries, etc) and a cafe. I didn’t look at prices but all the venues were busy. In our business lounge, there was table service and a range of food and drinks available. The offerings were similar to what you’d expect at an airport. Consider bringing cash as the EFTPOS machine only worked intermittently – we just set up a tab and paid when we were closer to shore.

 Restaurant: wine, salads and fava for two for €32
Restaurant: wine, salads and fava for two for €32

A surprising highlight was dining in the ferry’s a la carte restaurant. It was quite an experience to have waiters, white tablecloths and a two-course lunch while sailing through the Greek islands. My boyfriend and I had a large salad each, fava dip and a bottle of wine for €32. It was a great way to spend an hour. 

disembarking 

Each stop is clearly announced but be warned – the ferry will only stay in each location for a few minutes. People began moving as we got closer to Santorini so we followed the crowds and collected our luggage from the hull. Lots of people were impatient and there was a bit of pushing and shoving, but we retrieved bags in time and waited for the doors to open.

 Disembarking: get your luggage early and prepare for the mass exodus
Disembarking: get your luggage early and prepare for the mass exodus
 Santorini Port: not exactly a postcard
Santorini Port: not exactly a postcard

at the port 

We finally arrived in Santorini, 24 hours later than expected and exhausted from two days in transit. We were met by a driver from our hotel and could finally begin our Santorini holiday! Subscribe to my e-newsletter to get my highlights from this stunning Greek island in the weeks ahead. 

Overall

The Athens to Santorini ferry exceeded expectations and while eight hours is long, you’ll be amply entertained if you bring a book or iPad and have a meal or two on board. The ship was much more comfortable than expected and while I usually feel nauseous if I read or write on a bus for too long, I was perfectly fine during the journey. As you’d expect, business class was much nicer than economy but the vessel had good, clean and comfortable facilities throughout. It was still disappointing we lost one of four nights in Santorini, but the ferry was far from the wild, windy ride I’d imagined. Six months on, our travel insurance claim is still being assessed but at least we made it to Santorini eventually! 

QUESTION: What’s your most memorable ferry ride? 

One Night in Florence, Italy

I’d heard the most wonderful things about Florence. Called Firenze locally, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region is 280 kilometres (170 miles) or three hours drive from Rome. Friends everywhere had told me how beautiful the city was, filled with Renaissance architecture, paintings and sculpture. I was therefore thrilled when my boyfriend and I’s journey from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini, Greece would include a night in Florence. To be precise, we’d have just 12 hours to see all we could. 

Given we hadn’t planned on stopping in Florence, I considered any sightseeing a bonus. However, the city is easy to get around on foot and lots of attractions are open until 9pm or later making it surprisingly easy to see a lot in a short amount of time. Here’s what we covered in one night:

 

2pm – hotel check-in

A friend who’d lived in Florence recommended we stay around the Duomo area as it was central, there were lots of eateries and attractions nearby, and it was close to the main train station. Given our short stay, we booked the mid-range Residenza d’Epoca Borgi Albizi (AU$190/night) just 15 minutes walk from the train station. We found the address without any problems but inside it was a little tricky to find reception. Our room was also up several flights of stairs (post-Cinque Terre hiking!) but such is Europe.

The room was spacious although it looked partially refurbished – the wardrobe was modern and huge, while the bathroom revealed the building’s true age. Staff were helpful in recommending good nightlife spots (see ‘dinner’ below). Address: Borgo Albizi, 14, Firenze | Website

 Pana e Toscano: getting a Tuscan sandwich is an experience not to be missed! 
Pana e Toscano: getting a Tuscan sandwich is an experience not to be missed! 

2.15pm – sandwich

For every person who raved about Florence’s art, there was another who said our visit had to include a Tuscan sandwich. Think of a thick slab of focaccia stuffed with as much antipasti as you can handle. We’d been recommended the famous All’Antico Vinaio in “sandwich alley” (Via dei Neri), but told to expect long lines. Instead, we went to the less busy but (according to our hotel) equally as good Pana e Toscano (Borgo Degli Albizi 13). I was ecstatic to see a vegan sandwich on the menu (€5) while my boyfriend went for more traditional fillings. Either way, you’ll be stuffed! 

2.30pm – Duomo

 The Duomo: a grand, imposing cathedral in the city centre.
The Duomo: a grand, imposing cathedral in the city centre.

The Duomo is the most famous landmark in Florence. The 15th century cathedral dominates the city’s skyline and is the third largest church in the world. It’s free to visit the cathedral or for €15, you can access all areas (the dome, museum, crypt etc). If you want to climb the dome’s 463 steps, you’ll need to make a reservation (free). Visiting in mid-May, there were long lines everywhere so we simply walked around the outside. It was still impressive! There were lines gathering at another nearby attraction too – you can create your own ice cream at the Magnum Pleasure Store for €4.50.

Address: Piazza Duomo| Opening hours: Generally 10am – 5pm | Website

3pm – mercato centrale

 Tuscan sandwich: my bean-heavy vegan option (€5).
Tuscan sandwich: my bean-heavy vegan option (€5).

My boyfriend and I were still full from our lunchtime focaccia, but we wandered to the Mercarto Centrale anyway. The first floor is full of Italian meats, cheese, pasta and fresh produce. There’s a few liquor outlets too. The second floor is a vibrant food hall, complete with wine bars and a flash cooking school. This place was a gastronomic heaven! I made a note to book a class if I’m ever in Florence again (and to get accommodation with a kitchen!).

Address: Via dell’Ariento, 50123 Firenze | Website

4pm – Ponte Vecchio 

Everyone said I had to see the famed Ponte Vecchio bridge. Honestly, I wouldn’t bother unless you’re seriously into medieval history or architecture. It’s not particularly attractive from a distance and the walk across is brief, crowded and lined with jewellery sellers. I had a much better time two minutes away at Il Papiro. This paper store has several outlets across Europe but the Florence store has been in the same family for five generations. Be sure to visit the room at the back for a paper printing demonstration. You can buy hand printed paper by the sheet, or grab a packet of offcuts for €17. Address: Via Guicciardini, 47r | Website

 Signorvino: resting our feet at a wine bar overlooking the Arno River.
Signorvino: resting our feet at a wine bar overlooking the Arno River.

5pm – Aperitif 

By now, my boyfriend and I were pretty tired. We’d drank a lot of vino on our last night in Cinque Terre and then caught a 9am train and travelled five hours to reach Florence. We rested our feet and minds at Signorvino, overlooking the river. The venue sells take away wine as well as a range of wines by the glass and bottle. Staff didn’t judge me for ordering a much-needed Diet Coke before returning to wine. Its location between Pinto Vecchio and Piazza Michelangelo (see below) makes it an ideal stop before sunset. Make a reservation if you go at dinner time as the venue is relatively small and got busy as we left.

Address: Via de’ Bardi, 46R, 50125 Firenze | Website

 Giardino delle Rose: this small garden is worth a stop when visiting nearby Piazza Michelangelo (free entry).
Giardino delle Rose: this small garden is worth a stop when visiting nearby Piazza Michelangelo (free entry).

6pm – Piazza Michelangelo

One thing I seek in every city is a lookout. Florence boasts Piazza Michelangelo, a large open air area on a hill where you’ll find performers, a restaurant, some souvenir stands and a few food vans. It’s a beautiful spot to watch the sun go down and enjoy an Aperol Spritz. I’m sure you could bring your own beers and picnic if you wanted. To get there, follow the signs along the river and roads. When you see steps, you’re close! There’s also a rose garden next door that’s free and pretty.

8pm – Hotel

We walked back to our hotel to change before dinner. It was only 30 minutes walk from Piazza Michelangelo and we could walk to our next destination too. 

 Palazza Vecchio: sweeping views of Florence at night from the Battlement area. 
Palazza Vecchio: sweeping views of Florence at night from the Battlement area. 

9pm – Palazza Vecchio

 Palazza Vecchio: the main hall's exquisite ceiling.
Palazza Vecchio: the main hall’s exquisite ceiling.

A friend in London had given us the heads up many Florence museums and attractions were open until 9pm or later. Perfect for a couple trying to see it all in a night! We reached Palazza Vecchio (Town Hall) just in time for a 9.30pm tour of the ‘Battlement,’ a fortress on top of the building. The nighttime views of Florence were a beautiful contrast to the scenes we’d seen from Piazza Michelangelo just hours before. You can peer five floors below through glass too and imagine medieval knights and battles. After our rooftop tour, we wandered through the museum for another 45 minutes. The map room, showing continents as imagined in the 15th Century was an absolute highlight, as was the elegant ceiling in the main hall. The museum (“museo“) entrance was €10, with an extra €4 for the battlement. Address: Piazza della Signoria | Website

10.30pm – dinner

 Borgo Antico: delicious food and perfect for people watching.
Borgo Antico: delicious food and perfect for people watching.

Both our hotel reception and a friend had recommended we head south of the river for dinner and nightlife. We literally had a map with a circle drawn on it, but it’s roughly an area just below Ponte Santa Trinita (or around 10 minutes walk from the Ponte Vecchio). We followed the sounds of people and music and grabbed a table at Borgo Antico, facing Piazza Santo Spirito. It was perfect for people watching! 

We ordered a bottle of white wine (€19.50) and scanned the food menu. There were big pizzas, plenty of pastas, large salads, and seafood and meat dishes. My boyfriend chose pizza with spicy salami, capers and mozzarella while I ordered a main of grilled vegetables (exactly what I wanted after days of spaghetti!). Our meals came with delicious wheat bread, olive oil and black olives. The bill was just €51 including the vino. Nearby restaurants began to wind down at midnight although the square stayed busy with people drinking and chatting. I can’t remember whether we caught an Uber or walked back to our hotel, so clearly it was a good night! 

Address: Piazza Santo Spirito, 6-red, 50125 | Website

Florence at night: viewed from the top of Palazza Vecchio (“Town Hall”).

1am – Bed Time 

With our stomachs full of wine, pizza and vegetables, we packed our bags and collapsed. It wasn’t easy when the alarm went off five hours later, but I’m glad we had a night in Florence! It’s a gritty city excentuated by a lot of smokers, but its rich and prosperous history is evident everywhere. I would’ve loved to visit more museums and art galleries, and more wine bars! But we had a 6.45am cab booked for our 7.30am train to Rome Airport, so we had to say farewell to Firenze. You can read what happened next in How To Get From Cinque Terre to Santorini.

practical info

Getting there

As with most European cities, you can reach Florence by air, rail or road. Florence Airport is 10km (6mi) from the city centre or around 30 minutes drive. An alternative is to fly to Pisa which is 80km (50mi) or about 90 minutes from Florence. As mentioned, it’s about about three hours drive from the capital Rome. We caught a train from Cinque Terre to Florence via Pisa, pre-booking through the excellent ticketing website Loco2. The fare was €18.30 each (Monterosso to Pisa €9.90, Pisa to Florence, €8.40). 

Getting around

It’s easy to get around Florence on foot, otherwise taxis and Uber are readily available too. The main train station is Firenze Santa Maria Novella (often “Firenze S.M.”). It has a restaurant, several cafes (including an allergy friendly one!), and a great bookstore. See my post Getting From Cinque Terre to Santorini for full details. 

Language

It’s helpful and polite to know some Italian before you go, although not essential to navigate the city or order food. Check out my post Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre for some handy phrases, or download the free language app Duolingo to practice your Italian before you go! 

QUESTION: When did you maximise a stopover? 

 

How to Get From Cinque Terre to Santorini

They say half the fun of a holiday is planning it and I completely agree. Pondering destinations, gushing at hotels and restaurants, weighing up attractions… all against the backdrop of counting down to your departure date. But the excitement can wane when you hit a logistical glitch. Something you thought would be simple becomes a Rubix cube of combinations, dead-ends and frustration. My boyfriend and I had a five week trip to Europe earlier this year, and Italy’s Cinque Terre and the Greek island of Santorini were both essential destinations. We planned to visit them as late as possible into our holiday to try get the warmest weather. How hard could it be to get from one Mediterranean paradise to another? We were about to discover it could, quite frankly, be hell. 

We’d mapped out a rough itinerary while in Australia that would take in the UK, Scotland, France and Cinque Terre so it made sense Santorini would follow. But a few quick Google searches revealed there was no easy route between the two places. Cinque Terre’s nearest airport is Pisa (150 kilometres/93 miles) but the airlines are limited. My boyfriend and I broadened our search to Florence (200km/125mi) and Venice (270km/168mi) airports without any luck. We reluctantly looked at backtracking to Nice, France but didn’t work either . Not a single airport had a direct flight to Santorini. In fact, we couldn’t even find connecting flights with a journey time under 12 hours or costing less than AU$500. At one stage, we even considered flying to Santorini via Barcelona, Spain and spending the six hour layover in the airport lounge. 

A month before our holiday was due to start, it was time to tackle this dilemma. My boyfriend and I sat in our kitchen, post-gym on a Sunday morning armed with laptops, notepads, smartphones and pens. We were like a pair of code breakers during World War II, trying different combinations of trains and planes from Italy to anywhere in Greece. Blogs and travel forums didn’t have any answers. While we could theoretically stop in Athens or Milan, they were significant detours that would cost us precious nights in Santorini. But tea, toast and and three hours later I yelled out “I’ve cracked the DaVinci code!”

The breakthrough was discovering a direct train from Florence to Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport. From there, you could catch a direct flight to Santorini which took just over two hours. The fares were reasonable. The times worked with our itinerary, and in fact, we’d get a night in Florence which I’d never been to before. We booked everything in the following hour and a few months later, we made our way from one paradise to another.  

This route isn’t the quickest way to get from Cinque Terre to Santorini, but it gives you maximum sightseeing with minimal transfers and backtracking. 

Here are the full details:

1. Cinque Terre – Florence 

We were staying in Monterosso, the biggest of Cinque Terre’s towns, so we looked for trains departing here. Using the excellent ticketing website Loco2, we booked:

  • Monterosso to Pisa Centrale (Intercity train 651): departing 9.07am, arriving 10.17am (1 hour, 10 mins) 
  • Pisa Centrale to Firenze S.M (Regional Veloce 3114): departing 10.32am, arriving 11.32am (1 hour)
  • Total time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
  • Cost: €18.30 each (Monterosso to Pisa €9.90, Pisa to Florence, €8.40)

Unfortunately our first train was delayed 15 minutes, meaning we missed our connection. However, we caught the next Pisa to Firenze train which left 20 minutes later.  Our tickets were still valid and conveniently, we didn’t have to change platforms.

 Monterosso Station, Cinque Terre: Our train to Pisa was delayed 15 minutes so we missed our connection.
Monterosso Station, Cinque Terre: Our train to Pisa was delayed 15 minutes so we missed our connection.

2. Overnight in Florence 

I considered any sightseeing in Florence a bonus, but this walk-friendly city was easy to get around and lots of attractions were open until 9pm or later. We reached our hotel around 2pm and stayed out past midnight. Check out my post One Night in Florence for full details.

3. Florence – Rome Airport

Our late-night sightseeing in Florence meant we slept five hours before our early train to Italy’s capital Rome. As mentioned, we found a direct, high speed train from Florence to Fiumicino Airport which arrived three hours before our flight. Again, we booked using Loco2:

  • Firenze S.M. to Fiumicino Aeroporto (Frecciargento 8401): departing 7.38am, arriving 9.55am
  • Total time: 2 hours, 16 minutes 
  • Cost: €27.50 each

If you need breakfast at Firenze station, Moka Cafe has healthy and allergy-friendly options including vegan croissants and paninis, quinoa salads, fruit salad (“macedonia” in Italian), yogurt and rice/soy milk drinks. There’s an impressive bookstore open from 7am too with English books and magazines, plus a busy cafe. Click here for the station’s website. 

 Moka Cafe, Firenze Station: vegan croissants, soy milk and the New York Times. 
Moka Cafe, Firenze Station: vegan croissants, soy milk and the New York Times. 

4. Rome – Santorini

Spanish airline Iberia (in partnership with Vueling, pronounced ‘velling’) was the only carrier we could find offering direct flights from Italy to Santorini. Vueling is a budget airline, so the usual precautions of checking baggage limits and bringing your own food apply. If you’re particularly tall, consider booking extra legroom. My boyfriend is 175cm (5′ 9″) and his knees hit the seat in front of him. We booked directly with Iberia: 

  • Rome (FCO) to Santorini (JTR): IB 5403, departing 12.50pm, arriving 3.15pm
  • Total time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
  • Cost: €125 each, which included 23kg checked baggage per person.

Looking for lunch options at Rome airport? I had a delicious, make your own salad (“insalate”) for €11 with quinoa, chick peas, tomatoes, carrot, dill seeds and olives at Bistrot (Terminal 3, section C) . They also sell focaccia by the kilo. Seriously.  

 Vueling Airlines: the only carrier we could find with direct flights from Italy to Santorini.
Vueling Airlines: the only carrier we could find with direct flights from Italy to Santorini.

but then…

We boarded our flight and the plane took off on time. We were both tired but couldn’t wait for four nights of Greek island luxury! I actually wrote most of this post on the flight and then the plane began to descend. I could see Santorini from my window. The ocean looked incredible! 

But clearly, the travel gods had never intended our journey from Cinque Terre to Santorini to be easy. I could practically taste the olives when the plane suddenly shot up, making my stomach lurch. My boyfriend and I looked at each other worryingly. It wasn’t a good sign.

 Santorini, Greece: the plane suddenly shot up shortly after I took this photo. 
Santorini, Greece: the plane suddenly shot up shortly after I took this photo. 

The pilot announced it was too windy to land in Santorini, so we were diverting to the capital Athens. It was already 3pm so even if the weather improved, our chances of a Greek island sunset that night were gone. Our hearts sunk. We’d worked so hard to avoid having a layover. Where would we stay that night? How would we get to Santorini? Would we get there at all? We’d been in transit for nine hours on five hours sleep. All that planning. All that pride. Pointless.

Our plane finally landed in Athens and we sat on the runway for at least an hour. Then, the pilot made a jawdropping announcement. We were going back to Rome.

Find out how we eventually got to Santorini and stay tuned for my travel tips for the island!

QUESTION: When have you nailed (or failed) travel logistics? 

Tips for Hiking Cinque Terre, Italy

Hiking is something I never thought I’d enjoy. Walking up a hill all day in chunky boots and unattractive attire had as much appeal to me as rolling in grass during hayfever season. But I like running outdoors and I believe in mixing things up fitness-wise, so I gradually succumbed to the idea. My boyfriend and I went on a few hikes around our home city last year and while I didn’t love them, I did feel a sense of calm from the nature hit and absence of protein-smashing weight lifters.

When my boyfriend suggested we visit Italy’s Cinque Terre during our trip to Europe earlier this year, I jumped at the chance. Not only is it jawdroppingly beautiful, but hiking is one of its key attractions. Again, I wasn’t wooed by the long steep hills. I just wanted to keep fit on a five week vacation. Thankfully, Cinque Terre isn’t the hardcore GPS, water filtering and pants with 15 pockets kind of hiking. Advanced routes exist but mostly, you’ll find stunning, centuries old footpaths that should satisfy anyone who likes to move. 

This post covers my general tips for hiking in Cinque Terre and I’ll bring you a detailed guide to specific trails we hiked in coming weeks. For advice on where to stay, eat and how to get to the region, check out My Guide: Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre.

Trails Overview 

The most popular trail is the Blue Path. These are the four scenic, relatively easy paths connecting each of Cinque Terre’s five towns which (in order from north to south) are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The total path stretches 12 kilometres (7.5 miles). Unfortunately, the Corniglia-Manarola and Manarola-Riomaggiore sections were closed during our visit and won’t reopen until 2019. Don’t let that stop you. We found alternatives! 

There’s also the High Path, which as the name suggests is higher and more inland than the Blue Path. It’s far longer than the Cinque Terre, stretching 40km (25mi) from Levanto in the north (shown in map below) to Portovenere in the south (not shown). 

There are plenty more paths, but the above details should suffice for first-timers to the region and beginner hikers. 

Choosing a path

With hundreds of trails to choose from, where should you start? Firstly, check the status of the paths here or ask at a local tourist bureau or railway station. As mentioned, two sections on the Blue Path were closed during our visit (Corniglia-Manarola and Manarola-Riomaggiore) but we found an alternate, intense 50 minute hike over a mountain from Riomaggiore to Manarola. Also, check the weather. You don’t want to hike during or after rain so plan accordingly. 

 Riomaggiore: the Blue Path section to Manarola was closed but we took an intense, 600 step alternative. 
Riomaggiore: the Blue Path section to Manarola was closed but we took an intense, 600 step alternative. 

My suggestions: 

  • If you have one day: Do the Monterosso-Vernazza Blue Path (2 hours) and if you enjoy that, continue with Vernazza-Corniglia (2 hours). You’ll be more than satisfied.
  • If you have three days: You can easily do all of the Blue Path (depending on trail statuses) and an extra hike on the High Path. We did four hikes in three days, including Riomaggiore to Portovenere. This post is coming soon.
  • If you have a week: You lucky thing. You’re spoilt for choice! You can explore Cinque Terre and beyond (such as Levanto, La Spezia or Portovenere) and have a day’s rest at Monterosso’s beaches too. 

If you’re a serious hiker, you’ll nail the entire Cinque Terre in a day but who wants to rush on vacation?

 Monterosso to Vernazza: the most popular hike which takes just two hours. Don't be fooled. There are still steps. 
Monterosso to Vernazza: the most popular hike which takes just two hours. Don’t be fooled. There are still steps. 

How fit do I need to be?

 Vernazza: an easy approach on the trail from Monterosso.
Vernazza: an easy approach on the trail from Monterosso.

I run, cycle and do strength training six days a week but I still found Cinque Terre challenging. This could be because a) I have shorts legs b) I don’t normally hike and c) I’d been eating out and drinking for three weeks before I reached Cinque Terre. If you’re reasonably active, you’ll be fine. 

You control the pace, you can take a break anytime, you’ll be stopping for photographs anyway and there’ll be plenty of struggling seniors (there’ll be lots who’ll kick your ass too). I tried to find yoga classes to stretch out without luck. These are small fishing villages! 

How sore will I get? 

Neither my boyfriend or I were sore after our Monterosso-Vernazza hike but that’s only two hours. You’re bound to get jelly legs at some point on your walk and be prepared to groan when you stand up after lunch. Our accommodation was up two flights of stairs which was painful, and the steps up to train station platforms weren’t pleasant either. By day three, my legs instantly stiffened with the first step. However, I say hiking is like getting a tattoo – it hurts at first but you’ll quickly go numb. For the remaining two weeks of our Europe holiday, my quads seized whenever we went up stairs. Again, we’re two active people in our early 30s who didn’t do any training. We survived. 

Should I do a tour?

Absolutely not. The Blue Path sections are clearly marked and each part only takes a few hours. There are people everywhere. You will NOT get lost! If you’re travelling solo and plan to hit the High Path for a week, then an organised tour might be an option as these trails are less busy and can get a little confusing. My boyfriend and I saw a few tour groups, both on the popular Blue Path and on the High Path. The group on the High Path looked quite professional but even then, their tour leader turned them around after we’d been tailing them for 10 minutes because they’d missed a turn off. 

 Monterosso: the checkpoint to get your trekking pass. 
Monterosso: the checkpoint to get your trekking pass. 
 Hiking fees: €7.50 for a one day pass (adult)
Hiking fees: €7.50 for a one day pass (adult)

Cost

We hiked four paths in three days and only had to pay an entrance fee on the most popular route, which is Monterosso-Vernazza. We paid at the Monterosso checkpoint and there was also a checkpoint on the outskirts of Vernazza. A one day adult pass cost €7.50 (cash only – and your nearest ATM is a good 15 minutes hike down a staircase).

We didn’t bother with a train pass as we weren’t sure of our plans and it’s only €4 per ride anyway. We didn’t see any other checkpoints during our four days of hiking.

What to wear

If you’re in Cinque Terre without athletic gear, you could walk the Monterosso-Vernazza path in shorts and a t-shirt, with casual sneakers or tennis shoes. Your shoes will get dirty, dusty and possibly muddy. Some people say flip flops are fine, but I’d say they’re a last resort and only on the Monterosso-Vernazza path as it’s the most sturdy. You’ll still encounter uneven terrain, dirt, loose rocks, and possibly mud. 

I was very comfortable in my Lululemon crops, Lulu tank and Asics sneakers although my toes were a little sore after day three, even with orthotics. My boyfriend wore board shorts and a t-shirt or singlet, also with sneakers. We sweated like crazy but even in May, I still wore a puffer vest as the sun went down. Both our shoes looked a little worse for wear after Cinque Terre, but were fine once we’d cleaned them. 

I was concerned about going to the villages restaurants and cafes in my hiking gear, but it was perfectly fine. There were hikers everywhere and no-one blinked when we turned up to venues with white tablecloths and suited waiters, despite us being in singlets and sports shoes. This was true at night too. One bar in Monterosso felt like I’d stepped into a North Face catalogue!  

What to bring

The obvious stuff – water, a hat, suncream and your phone or camera. On the short Blue Path hikes we had a 500ml (16 oz.) bottle each, and on the longer High Path hike (Riomaggiore – Portovenere) we had two bottles each. We also brought a small towel and a sweater/puffer vest each, as it did cool in the afternoons. My boyfriend brought a spare t-shirt to change into after hiking as he’d sweat through the first one. I saw people carrying their dogs on the path and people with baby hiking frames too. 

 Riomaggiore-Manarola: don't try this in the rain!
Riomaggiore-Manarola: don’t try this in the rain!
 Monterosso-Vernazza: you'll be walking single file.
Monterosso-Vernazza: you’ll be walking single file.

Facilities

There were no restrooms on any of the routes we did, except for the 12km (7.5mi) Riomaggiore-Portovenere path which had a cafe at Pass of Telegrafo and you can also break in Campiglia. I stay really hydrated and was concerned I’d need a bathroom break, even on the two hour hikes. But we sweated so much it wasn’t an issue. Don’t assume you can run into trees if nature calls – the trails are busy, they’re mostly exposed and there’s a cliff face below so it’s not always safe or possible to deviate. 

I didn’t see any water available despite signage on the Riomaggiore-Portovenere route, but there were occasionally picnic tables or flat rocks where you could have a nice break. 

 Riomaggiore to Manarola: downhill may look easy, but the ground is uneven with loose rocks and often steep steps.
Riomaggiore to Manarola: downhill may look easy, but the ground is uneven with loose rocks and often steep steps.

When to go

We were in the Cinque Terre in mid-May and temperatures were around 17-18°C (62-65°F). It was fresh in the morning so I wore a puffer vest at first but quickly shed it. I love the heat and I don’t sweat much – but boy, did we sweat on those tracks! You’re walking uphill and there’s only occasional shade. I told myself I wouldn’t want to visit any later, even if the nights were cool enough to warrant a jacket. The crowds were also noticeable at this time, and multiple times we had to wait at narrow sections or go slowly upstairs because of people ahead. Thinking back, I’d possibly go a few weeks later but only so I could ditch the coat at night.

Do NOT hike in the rain or immediately after. Even in dry conditions, I came close to slipping several times wearing my reliable, $200 cross-trainers. There are loose rocks too. It must have rained in the days before our visit as the paths were also muddy in some parts. 

Transport

There are a few ways to reach your starting point or return to your accommodation: 

  • Train: There’s a station in every village and services are frequent (every 20 minutes), fast (5 minutes or less between each town) and affordable (€4 per journey). If travelling to or from Corniglia, be aware the village is on a hilltop and the train station is at sea level, with about 15 flights of stairs connecting them! I did see a sign for a shuttle bus but didn’t use it. 
  • Ferry: The ferry is much slower but a nice way to sightsee and appreciate the terrain you’ve covered at the end of the day. A one-way adult ticket from Portovenere to Monterosso is €18, with services approximately every 30-90 minutes. The ferry doesn’t stop at Corniglia. Click here for the 2017 timetable.
  • Walk: If your trail is a loop or you’re feeling energetic, you can get home on foot. I guarantee this is less attractive after a few aperitifs
 Vernazza: viewed from the ferry. We had lunch at the cafe with the green roof! 
Vernazza: viewed from the ferry. We had lunch at the cafe with the green roof! 

References 

The website In Cinque Terre is excellent. We used this extensively to plan our hikes and found the information both detailed and accurate. The estimated hiking times were more or less correct too.

My boyfriend downloaded the app Trails of Cinque Terre (AU$4.49) which I highly recommend if you’re doing the Riomaggiore-Portovenere route. I liked that we could track the distance we covered – 12 km (7.5mi) in less than five hours! It was also helpful when the path reached a fork or wasn’t obvious. Every step is valuable and you don’t want to go uphill unnecessarily! 

More info

Want to see the four hikes we did on our trip? Stay tuned – that post will be up shortly! As mentioned, you can also check out my guide Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre for general tips on the area, such as where to stay, language and where to eat.

The Cinque Terre trails have been the most memorable hikes of my life and inspired me to find more treks around the world. Monterosso to Vernazza is a walk everyone should do once in a lifetime, and the region’s National Park and UNESCO Heritage Listing statuses make it some of the most pristine yet tourist friendly paths you can find. The scenery was breathtaking and jawdropping, and I’m forever grateful my boyfriend suggested we visit Cinque Terre.

QUESTION: Where’s your favourite hiking spot in the world? 

Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre: My Guide

About a year ago, my boyfriend and I sat down with a giant piece of cardboard, a handful of Sharpies and our laptops. We’d booked return flights to London to see one of my best friends get married and we had month afterwards to explore Europe! My dream was to cycle through French vineyards while my boyfriend wanted to visit Cinque Terre. I’d never heard of it. “It’s in Italy. It looks cool!” he said. He showed me some photos on Instagram. It looked incredible so it went onto our list.

Our plans progressed and in May this year, we boarded a train in Nice, France and five hours later arrived in Cinque Terre. It was a surreal moment, disembarking at Monterosso’s small train station at sunset and towing our suitcases along the beach path to our guest house. The days that ensued were absolutely magical. 

If you’re looking for spectacular scenery, dramatic architecture and a relaxed village vibe, Cinque Terre delivers it all. Bonus: Italian food and wine! 

Orientation

Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) is on the northern Italian coastline, about two hours north-west of Florence and 450 kilometres (280 miles) north-west of Rome. It comprises a string of five coastal towns, each a few kilometres apart. Cinque Terre is a national park and was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 for its outstanding cultural value, along with nearby Portovenere and several islands.

 Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 
Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 

From north to south, Cinque Terre’s towns are: 

  • Monterosso: the biggest, made up of Old Town and New Town (about 10 minutes walk between them). It has a large beach area. 
  • Vernazza: arguably the second most popular village, and rivalling Maranola for most beautiful. Probably the most photographed, thanks to being an easy hike from Monterosso. Vernazza has an iconic pier and castle. 
  • Corniglia: the only town without direct beach access, it’s instead perched high on a hill. For that reason, it has the least number of tourists. Considered the most quant and peaceful. 
  • Manarolo (shown in the cover photo): another popular choice, often considered the most beautiful.
  • Riomaggiore: the most southern village in Cinque Terre, so the first one you’ll reach if travelling north along the coast.

 Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.
Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.

It’s worth noting the nearby towns, as they’re important for getting your direction right on train travel: Levanto is north of Monterosso and you’ll find La Spezia and Portovenere south/south-east of Riomaggiore. 

where to stay

My boyfriend and I found this one of the most difficult things to decide when planning our visit. Thankfully, a colleague had just been to Cinque Terre and recommended we stay in Monterosso’s Old Town. He said it was beautiful, and the only village big enough to handle the influx of tourists without feeling too crowded. He was spot on! Make sure you book accommodation as soon as you can. We were travelling in the shoulder-season and had limited options when trying to book three months in advance!

 Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.
Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.

We got a double room at the perfectly located Affittacamere Irene for 4 nights (Via XX Settembre 16, Monterosso | €130/night). It was one of four rooms at the family-run guesthouse and very spacious, just a minute or two from Monterosso’s bars, restaurants and bakeries. Our host was running the guesthouse for her mother and personally showed us to our room, along giving us an introduction to the region. She provided some great dining recommendations too! The complimentary snacks, tea and coffee were enough for a light breakfast before hiking and the small fridge was handy too.

If you’re struggling to pick a town, consider these factors:

  • 1. How much luggage do you have? 

Make no mistake – Cinque Terre is steep. While the main street may be wide and comparatively flat, guesthouses may be several flights of uneven steps so taking a cab (if available) isn’t an option. We had a 23kg (50 lb.) suitcase each but thankfully our accommodation was a 10 minute, flat walk from the train station. Corniglia is on top of a hill but the train station is at sea level. It’ll take you at least 10 minutes to go down the stairs, let alone going up with a bag! If you’ve just got a weekend duffel, you’ve got more options. 

 Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 
Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 

  • 2. How many bar/dining options do you want? 

Monterosso is the biggest of the towns, so if you like to explore different venues over a few nights, this is a good bet. We didn’t actually make it to the New Town area during our four night stay because we had so many local choices! We spent less time in Vernazza and Manarola, but there were multiple dining spots on offer too, both by the water and at higher lookouts. Corniglia is the smallest town although one of our favourite bars was here (see “drinks” below). Riomaggiore is the only village we didn’t eat or drink in, but only because it didn’t work with our hikes. 

  • 3. Will you spend more time hiking or beaching? 

Monterosso has the biggest beach area, made up of public and private facilities. Vernazza and Manarola have small harbours to swim in. As Corniglia is perched on a hill, beach access is possible but not easy. The town to train station stairs would be torture after a day of hiking and there’s no ferry access. Riomaggiore has a rocky, pebbly beach but the town is an excellent base for hiking, as you can continue further south to Portovenere.

 Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.
Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.

The best advice I can give is that ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you stay. None of the villages are particularly big, they all have similar facilities and the Regionale trains between them are cheap (€4), fast and frequent. If you like bigger towns and have a heavy suitcase, go for Monterosso. If you want the most quant and least touristy village, head to Corniglia. I felt Vernazza was overcrowded with tourists, but this may change at night once daytrippers have left. Manarola was a magnet for Instagrammers but honestly, most of Cinque Terre is selfie-central. It’s shame we only transitted through Riomaggiore! I’d possibly stay there or in Manarola next time, mostly to explore alternate hiking routes. My boyfriend said he’d happily return to Monterosso. 

what to do

Hiking

If you’re mildly active, you’ve got to do at least one hike in Cinque Terre. There are popular hikes, each 1-3 hours, connecting each of the villages as well as more challenging, professional paths. These footpaths have actually connected the villages for centuries. The most popular walk is the simple, two-hour hike between Monterosso and Vernazza. It’s a perfect introduction to the region and one of the most memorable experiences of my life. 

 Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you'll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 
Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you’ll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 

My boyfriend and I were keen to hike as much as we could, and we did four journeys in three days (each one harder than the last!). The scenery was jaw-dropping and breathtaking at almost every step and meeting travellers from all around the world was a bonus. Our daily routine became a morning hike, leisurely lunch, an afternoon hike and apertifs (see “drinks” below) before returning to Monterosso for dinner. I’ll do a separate, detailed post about our hikes shortly but in the interim, this website has detailed, accurate advice: www.incinqueterre.com/en/trails-advice.

Beach

Make your Cinque Terre trip a real vacation by spending a day at the beach. As mentioned, Monterosso has the biggest beach area (both private and public facilities) but you can reach the water from any of the villages with varying levels of difficulty. We spent an hour or so sunbaking on rocks at Vernazza, but in Manarola it was too chilly to swim in the small harbour. The beaches are more rock than sand, so bring a towel. 

 Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.
Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.

Churches

Whether it’s a sanctuary, monument or plain old church, each village has at least one place of worship. I saw two – a church in Vernazza we awkwardly walked through to get to a beach and another on our hike between Riomaggiore and Portovenere. I’ve seen enough churches and temples in my travels for a lifetime, but if this is your thing you’ll some options in each town.

Cooking classes

I love taking cooking classes abroad and Cinque Terre would’ve been exceptional! I looked into local schools and found most classes were around €130. When researching this post, I did see the cafe Nessun Dorma (see “where to eat” below) offered a pesto making course for €35. Amazing! If you offer or have taken a cooking class in Cinque Terre, please comment below.

where to eat

 Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!
Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!

Cinque Terre is in Italy’s Liguria region which is famous for its pesto! You’ll find the short, twisted trofie pasta on most menus, as the shape is apparently well-suited to the famous basil sauce. Sadly, pesto contains parmesan so I couldn’t try any but I ate a lot of other food! Spaghetti pomodoro, minestrone, salads, bruschetta, focaccia and dairy-free gelato! The menus were seafood heavy too, with anchovies a local specialty. The meat dishes are a great option if you need a break from carbs. 

You won’t find McDonalds or sushi anywhere, and pizza is only occasionally on menus. I chuckled at the number of restaurants with signs saying “NO EGGS!,” referring to Americans’ love of a cooked breakfast. You’ll receive a bread basket everywhere – it’s included as part of the €2-3 per person service charge.

Our favourite places were: 

 Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 
Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 

  • Monterosso: Ristorante Ciak (Piazza Don Minzoni 6) served the most gobsmackingly delicious meal I had during my entire visit. I couldn’t finish my gnocchi (€14) so staff kindly packed it to go. Local white wine was €19 a bottle. You MUST eat here! 
  • Vernazza: We had a post-hike lunch at Al Castello, perched high near the iconic castle overlooking the town and sea. The food was fine, but it was the views and value that were impressive. We paid €14 for a bottle of house white and €8 for spaghetti pomodoro.
  • Corniglia: We walked past half a dozen restaurants before reaching the exquisitely located Bar Terza Terra. It was like we were on a private island, tucked around a corner with only a dozen other people taking in the incredible scenery. We had multiple Aperol spritzes (€6) paired with assorted bruschetta (€7) and focaccia (from €2.50). A real highlight! 
  • Manarola: I’d go back to Nessun Dorma in a heartbeat! This entirely outdoor venue is exceptionally popular due to its stunning views of the town. It was full of Instagrammers but was surprisingly good value given the setting. They had a range of drink and platters combinations from €11-20, focaccias at €6-7 and of course Aperol spritzes. This venue alone is worth a day trip to Manarola. 

drink

 Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking Manarola.
Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking Manarola.

We arrived in Cinque Terre after four days in France’s best vineyards but that didn’t stop us from guzzling Italian vino. While you can’t compare Grand Cru with the local Cinque Terre wine, we truly enjoyed everything we drank. My boyfriend and I ordered mostly local white wines, which were around €15-20 for a bottle and €4-8 for a glass. On one occasion we tried an €8 bottle of house white, which surprisingly good too. Beer lovers, there’s options for you too. 

Aperitif is something I’d heard of but not experienced. Consider it Italy’s cocktail hour, enjoyed pre-dinner with snacks such as chips, nuts or crackers. 

Recommended bars: 

  • Monterosso: La Balena Blue (or “the Blue Whale”). Our host suggested this place but it took us a while to find because the signage was quite small. I liked that Italians were drinking here, and people would simply drop in and say hello. A few people had their dogs with them. 
  • Corniglia: We had lunch at Bar Terza Terra, but I’d return just for drinks. And the scenery! 
  • Mararola: I’m repeating myself, but go to Nessun Dorma. You could stare at Manarola all day.

 Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!
Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!

 Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).
Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).

getting around

The Regionale train is by the far the easiest way to get between towns. The services are fast, frequent and only €4 per trip. Be sure to check the last train times (around midnight) to avoid being stranded after dinner. Click here for the timetable.

 Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.
Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.

A ferry also connects all the towns except Corniglia, and goes further south to Portovenere. The ferries are less frequent, every hour or so, and more expensive (€18 one way Portovenere to Monterosso) but it’s a nice way to see the villages from the water. Click here for the 2017 timetable.

Of course, you can walk between the towns too with each only 1.5 – 4km (0.9 – 2.5mi) apart. The villages themselves are best explored on foot due to their small size and steep inclines. 

getting there

The nearest major cities are Milan (220km/135mi) and Genoa (130km/80mi) in the north, and to the south-east Pisa (100km/62mi) and Florence (170km/105mi). As mentioned, Italy’s capital Rome is about 450km south-east of Cinque Terre (or a five hour train ride). The simplest way to reach Cinque Terre is to fly or catch a train to one of these cities, and then catch another train.

 Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre's railway tunnels. So beautiful! 
Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre’s railway tunnels. So beautiful! 

We travelled from Nice, France to Genoa (3 hours) and then onto Monterosso (1 h, 15 mins) which was €24.90 each, for both journeys. We pre-booked our tickets using the excellent website Loco2. Italian trains are frequently delayed so be generous with connection times. We were delayed by 20 minutes a few times and saw others delayed by 40 minutes. You could also hire a car but we found the train services were more than adequate.

 Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.
Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.

money

You’ll need Euros (€) for Cinque Terre, as it’s part of Italy. I was surprised at how affordable the area was, given it’s touristy and somewhat remote. For example, a basic pasta was often €8-10 and focaccias at a bar started from €2.50. Be warned: there’s only a couple of ATMs in each town, and they were frequently out of service. You can pay for trains and maybe half the restaurants by credit card, but smaller grocers and hiking fees for example were cash only. 

language  

I used our train ride to Monterosso to brush up on my Italian (learnt in Rome, 2006 while backpacking). English was widely spoken in Cinque Terre but to varying degrees. Either way, it’s polite to know the basics. Download the free app Duolingo to learn Italian, otherwise here are some essentials: 

  • Hello/bye = ciao (“chow”)
  • Thank you = grazie
  • Please = per favoure
  • Excuse me/pardon = scusi
  • Do you have a table for two? = Avete un tavolo per due?
  • May I have..? = Vorrei..?
  • White/red wine = bianco/rosso vini

other tips

Don’t buy stamps from postcard vendors. They’ll cost you €3 each (on top of the card) and are actually part of some private courier service. Instead, search for a post office here.

I left Cinque Terre feeling I’d had a once in a lifetime experience. The walks were spectacular and the villages, although touristy, were as unspoilt as the scenery. It was a fantastic way to stay fit while travelling and inspired me to explore much more of Italy and its regional cruises. To my boyfriend – thank you for choosing such a stunning, memorable destination! 

QUESTION: Where’s your favourite place in Italy?

Seeing Nice, France in Five Hours

How much of a city can you see in five hours? That was the challenge my boyfriend and I faced in Nice, France during our recent trip to Europe. Our train arrived on a Sunday at 10.30pm and we were leaving 2pm the next day. Allowing for hotel check-in, a decent night’s sleep and returning to the train station, we had a blank canvas from 8am to 1pm. I wanted to see all the attractions I could!

Nice is the capital of the French Riviera, just 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the Italian border and about 900km (560mi) south-east of Paris. It has a long history of being a tourist centre, thanks to its mild climate and ideal location between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains. Many of today’s attractions, such as Promenade des Anglais, were actually built in the 19th Century to cater for aristocratic visitors. 

 Nice, Cote d'Azur: beach, history, culture and shopping! 
Nice, Cote d’Azur: beach, history, culture and shopping! 

Working against us was the fact we were visiting on May 8, when the French observe Victory in Europe Day. This holiday marks the end of World War II in Europe and there are formalities across the country. We’d been warned at our previous stop in Beaune that some businesses would be closed, along with government agencies and services like the post office. I was still determined to make the most of our short stay!

Here’s what we did: 

first stop: 9am – Castle Hill

I set an alarm for 8am, skipped a shower and threw on my gym gear to head to Castle Hill, one of Nice’s top attractions. This was the city’s original site until King Louis XIV ordered soldiers to dismantle the castle in 1706. 

Castle Hill Park, or Parc du Chateau, opens at 8.30am and it was 30 minutes walk from our hotel. We went via the winding streets of Nice’s Old City Vieille Ville before going up several sets of stairs in what seemed to be a residential area. There was no signage so it was almost a surprise when we reached a small, rear entrance to the park. It was only marked by a gate and had a list of rules fixed to it. There were more stairs beyond the gate but they only took us a few minutes.

 Castle Hill: a waterfall was such a surprise in a city park! 
Castle Hill: a waterfall was such a surprise in a city park! 

The air was fresh and the sky was cloudy but we had the place almost to ourselves. We followed a main path, which had signs pointing to attractions and facilities. After walking for 10 minutes or so, we could hear water! We followed our ears and discovered an impressive man-made waterfall. We continued walking one viewing platform, took some photos, then went to another. The views were such a reward for our (relatively) early wake up! 

 Castle Hill: offering spectacular views across the city to the mountains.
Castle Hill: offering spectacular views across the city to the mountains.

You get glimpses of the city and sea from the park, so it’s easy explore without a map. While our itinerary didn’t allow for a picnic, you could easily enjoy a coffee or bring lunch here as there were lots of benches with panoramic views. Entry was free too!

 Castle Hill: one of several lookouts across the city. We had a bizarre, cloudy morning.
Castle Hill: one of several lookouts across the city. We had a bizarre, cloudy morning.

How to get there

 Castle Hill: part of the main staircase down to the beachfront. 
Castle Hill: part of the main staircase down to the beachfront. 

Put Hotel Süisse (15 Quai Rauba Capeu) into Google Maps as the park’s main entrance is right next to its front door. After five or so sets of steps, you’ll be directly at the park’s main viewing area. There were plenty of fitness enthusiasts going up and down the stairs and we even saw some extreme mountain bikers, but you’ll be fine in flat shoes and jeans.

Alternatively, you can take a rear entrance via some winding staircases near Montée Menica to reach Allée François Aragon. A few times we thought we were reaching a dead end or entering someone’s backyard, but we reached the park by following our instincts – it’s hard to miss the city’s biggest hill. This route worked well for our city loop. 

Hours: 8.30am – 8pm April to September (6pm October to March) | http://en.nicetourisme.com

9.30am – Beachfront

There was no time for a swim and it was a cool 12°C (53 °F), but seeing Nice’s beachfront was awesome! We descended Castle Hill’s main staircase and reached the waterfront near a giant #ILoveNice sculpture. I actually saw one man snorkelling, despite the temperature! We took a short stroll among the runners, dog walkers and tourists before moving on. If you had more time, you could continue to the famous Promenade des Anglais.  

 Beachfront: viewed from the main staircase entrance to Castle Hill. 
Beachfront: viewed from the main staircase entrance to Castle Hill. 

10am – Breakfast

We’d skipped breakfast so by this time, I was ready for some food! I’d spotted Paper Plane cafe on Yelp the day before so we went there from the beachfront (about 15 minutes walk). Unfortunately, it was closed because of the holiday. It was also starting to rain. We grabbed a quick coffee and Earl Grey at a nearby bistro instead and adjusted our plans. We would need to get lunch before that 2pm train!

10.30am – Hotel check-out

It was time to return to our hotel near Nice’s main train station Gare de Nice Ville, shower and check-out before 12pm. Thankfully we could store our bags at reception, giving us a few extra hours to explore the city without luggage. Full accommodation details are under ‘Where to Stay’ below. 

11.30am – Avenue Jean Médecin

Our hotel was close to Avenue Jean Médecin, which is one of Nice’s main north-to-south thoroughfares. It’s lined with shops and cafes and despite the holiday, most places were open and there were lots of people out. We made a quick but necessary stop at Monoprix grocery store for some healthy train snacks. I grabbed a French lentil salad, my boyfriend got a pre-made chicken poulet wrap and fruit. The pastry selection was impressive, and there were savoury tarts too. You could skip this part of Nice sightseeing, unless you’re catching a train that afternoon too!

 Beach art: this sculpture attracted a lot of selfie sticks and Instagrammers!
Beach art: this sculpture attracted a lot of selfie sticks and Instagrammers!

12pm – Lunch

 Lunch at Place Massena: I was in salad heaven! 
Lunch at Place Massena: I was in salad heaven! 

We saw plenty of cafes along Avenue Jean Médecin but time was limited and the French don’t rush mealtimes. We’d been in serious Bourgogne meat, cheese and bread territory for three days and were craving something fresh. I spotted a few tables of people eating big salads at So Green (11 Place Masséna), so we went inside. Choose your salad base, choose your toppings and add your sauces – I went crazy over the variety! Chick peas, raisins, sundried tomatoes, beetroot, sesame seeds, chilli flakes and rocket. Lunch was around €35 for two with sparkling water, but it was exactly what we wanted. The 20 minute break in the sunshine was a welcome bonus.

12.30pm – Place Masséna

We could squeeze in one last attraction before our 2pm train. While there wasn’t much to see in the centre of Place Masséna apart from a fountain, I was glad we could tick off another landmark. Grabbing lunch nearby and people watching was the right was to appreciate the area. But our time was up. We reluctantly returned to our hotel, collected our luggage and walked to the station for our train to Italy. We’d been in Nice just 15 hours but had seen a lot! 

 Place Massena: Nice's town square, about 10-15 minutes from the beachfront.
Place Massena: Nice’s town square, about 10-15 minutes from the beachfront.

next time

If we’d had a few more hours, I would’ve loved to have walked along Promenade de Anglais and looked at the shops around Place Masséna. Nice also boasts a lot of museums, including Musée Matisse (dedicated to 20th century painter Henri Matisse), and the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art (Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain) or MAMAC. A beachfront dinner would’ve been nice too – but there’s always next time! 

practical info

Getting there

We travelled to Nice by train from Beaune, Burgundy (€62, first class). The direct journey was a pleasant, six hours on SNCF. We used the excellent website Loco2.com to book all our train travel before leaving Australia. If you’d rather fly, Nice is well serviced by air. A direct flight from London takes about 2 hours or its 1.5 hours from Paris. Nice Cote d’Azur Airport is 7km from downtown.

Where to stay

There’s a cluster of hotels near Nice Ville train station, including our choice Ibis Centre Notre Dame (41 Rue Lamartine). It was clean, modern and basic but good value for one night (€67). The location was ideal, as it was just five minutes walk from the train station and 20 minutes or so from the beachfront. Next time I’m in Nice, l’d stay by the sea for the views or Place Masséna for its centrality. 

Where else?

If you’re looking to add on to your Nice vacation, head north to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy or venture across the border to Italy’s Cinque Terre (my guide is coming soon!).

 Nice beachfront: viewed from sea level near the #ILoveNice sculpture. 
Nice beachfront: viewed from sea level near the #ILoveNice sculpture. 

Seeing a city in five hours isn’t ideal, but when life gives you a layover… make travel lemonade! Our brief visit gave us a taste of the French Riviera, which is starkly different to the forest and villages of central France. I’d love to return to Nice and spend a few days by the beachfront, going for a morning run, having a leisurely lunch and spending my afternoons at museums and shopping malls before romantic evening meals. Merci pour un petit mais gentilé visite Nice! 

QUESTION: Where’s your favourite part of France? 

Three Days in Beaune, France

Have you ever had a travel vision you desperately wanted to make reality? For a year, I’d dreamed of cycling through French villages and drinking chardonnay. Yes, I’m utterly city-centric but vineyards don’t grow downtown. When my boyfriend and I had the chance to spend five weeks in Europe earlier this year, experiencing regional France was at the top of my list.

I didn’t know much about French wine or whether small towns even existed nowadays. I googled France’s best wine regions (particularly for chardonnay) and cross-referenced a few wine websites. The town of Beaune, Côte-d’Or in east central France was repeatedly mentioned. To be sure this is where I wanted to holiday, I typed Beaune into Google Images and immediately liked what I saw. Vineyards, villages and greenery. There wasn’t a single skyscraper in sight! 

My holiday dream was edging closer but the final element was cycling. I searched for day tours and found a highly rated company offering a full day of biking through local wineries, along with lunch. It looked perfect! We booked a three night stay in Beaune and three months later, my holiday dream became reality.

orientation

Beaune is the wine-making capital of Burgundy (Bourgogne, in French). The town is semi-walled, with most hotels, restaurants and attractions contained within or close to its 2.5 kilometre ring road. The town centre loosely comprises Beaune’s famous Hospices (also known as Hôtel-Dieu), Place de la Halle (town square) and nearby Place Carnot (park). From here, you’ll find Rue Monge and Rue Carnot with cafes and shops, while Avenue de la Republique and Rue de l’Hotel Dieu are direct routes out of the town. 

Beaune’s train station (Gare de Beaune) is outside the walled section, about 10-15 minutes walk from the Hospices. 

 The view from our hotel window: I was living my travel dream!
The view from our hotel window: I was living my travel dream!

Getting there/around

Beaune is two hours by train from Paris, stopping in Dijon (€23, 90 minutes, first class) then transferring to a regional train (€4.40, 20 minutes, to Beaune). When transferring in Dijon, don’t be alarmed if your train isn’t listed on the display boards. Ours left from a separate platform outside the station. An information officer pointed us to an exit, and told us to follow the orange line on the ground for two minutes. Sounds odd, but this will be helpful if you visit! We pre-booked all our tickets before leaving Australia via the excellent website Loco2

When in Beaune, it’s easy to get around on foot as the town centre is flat and fairly compact. If you’re towing a suitcase, be aware of cobblestones and high kerbs. I didn’t see many taxis, however we never had a need for one. There a few car hire companies near the train station which we considered, but ultimately didn’t need. 

What to do

1. Wine tasting/education

Wine is the key industry in Beaune and you’ll see it everywhere – from vineyards to wine bars, the heavy concentration of wine stores and even a wine museum! However don’t expect to visit wineries or vineyards without a tour or appointment. Many are family-run and they don’t have the facilities or time to open to the public. This is slowly changing, but like much of France, tradition here is very strong.

My favourite experiences were: 

  • Wine Stores

If you want to immediately immerse yourself in wine, visit Domaine des Vins in the town centre. There are six red and white wines available by the glass, or just browse the extraordinary range. We got a crash course here on local wines the first day we arrived, with one of the owners explaining the different villages and characteristics of the wines they each produced. There are many other wine stores in Beaune, but Domaine de Vins is the only one I saw offering tastings. Prices varied from €6 to €15 for a glass. Address: 16 Place de la Halle (near the Hospices). 

  • Bike & Wine Tour

We booked a full day cycling and wine tour with Bourgogne Evasion (€137/ AU$200 each). After some difficulty meeting our guide Florian (we didn’t realise the tourism office had temporarily relocated as the confirmation email went to my junk folder), we were driven 15 minutes to the top of a hill for our briefing and bike set up. It was a beautiful sunny Friday and we were lucky to be the only ones booked on the tour that day.

 Bike & wine tour: the best way to experience Beaune's wine region.
Bike & wine tour: the best way to experience Beaune’s wine region.

Over 24km, we cycled through towns including Meursault and Pommard, getting a fascinating political and social history along with wine education. We learnt about viticulture, the strict French regulations and the different appellations from regional to Grand Cru. It was like we’d biked into the National Geographic channel. 

We saw a castle, had wine tasting plein air, enjoyed a leisurely two-course lunch at a restaurant and visited two wineries. An unexpected highlight was stopping at a vineyard along the road and comparing the different rows – you could see the varied approaches taken by different winemakers. 

 Bike & wine tour: my travel dream became reality the moment I saw this!
Bike & wine tour: my travel dream became reality the moment I saw this!

There were one or two steep hills and while the website says it’s an easy ride, I would rate it as moderate. However, there was no pressure to rush your day. The number of people who greeted our guide Florian as we cycled through the villages is evidence of his popularity and experience. For both myself and my boyfriend, this tour was one of the best days of our entire five week trip. I highly recommend it! More info & bookings: http://burgundybiketour.com

  • Wine Tasting – La Cave de l’Ange Gardien

This was the most wonderful and surreal afternoon. For €10, my boyfriend and I sampled three whites and three reds over three hours with a fascinating lesson in the art of wine tasting and French wine. We booked almost by accident, walking downstairs into the modest cave  and being told they could do a lesson on Saturday at 3pm. Our teacher Nicola was witty, charming and extremely knowledgeable. If you’ve got the time, do it! Address: 38 Boulevard Marechal Foch.

  • Bar hopping 

Of course, you could educate yourself in Beaune’s wines simply by drinking them! There are plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants offering a wide variety of local wines. It was common to be given complimentary nuts, chips or other small snacks with your drink, especially when ordering a pichet (250ml). Prices varied greatly, so there’s something for every budget. See the drink section below for specific recommendations. 

Lastly, we didn’t make it to the Musee de Vin (Museum of Wine) or the labyrinth wine cellars of Patriarche, which our tour guide had recommended. But they’re on my list for next time!

 Hospices de Beaune: providing free healthcare for the poor in the town centre from the mid-1400s.
Hospices de Beaune: providing free healthcare for the poor in the town centre from the mid-1400s.

2. Hospices de Beaune (Hôtel-Dieu)

You can’t miss the hospices in the centre of Beaune. Built in 1443 as a hospital for the poor, l’Hôtel-Dieu is the heart and pride of the town. I was skeptical – how interesting could an old hospital be? But my expectations were greatly exceeded. After buying our tickets (€7.50 adult), my boyfriend and I walk through the hospices using the free audio guide and map. The history, architecture and artifacts such as uniforms, tapestries and equipment were impressive. The insight into medieval medicine was also an eye-opener. We spent just under an hour here. 

Opening hours: 7 days, 9am – 6.30pm, with last entry at 5.30pm | http://hospices-de-beaune.com

3. Saturday markets

Buying a baguette in France has been one of my life goals. I bought one at a supermarket in Paris, but the experience didn’t feel very authentic. I’d made sure our stay in Beaune included a Saturday so we could experience the weekly market! On a Saturday morning, the town centre is taken over by sellers offering everything from meat, cheese and fresh produce to baskets and clothing. The produce was excellent quality. We enjoyed fresh mandarines, berries, olives and bread along with sun-dried tomato tapenade and pastries.

 Saturday market: I bought a fresh French baguette here and achieved one of my life goals! 
Saturday market: I bought a fresh French baguette here and achieved one of my life goals! 

If your French is rusty, some sellers speak English but you could equally say Bonjour and point at items with a polite s’il vous plait. Nothing was too pricey, although we did pay €10 for a large handful of tapenade. The ensuing picnic in our hotel room was magic. Bring cash.

 Saturday market: this was one of at least a dozen cheese stands!
Saturday market: this was one of at least a dozen cheese stands!

 Saturday market: if only our hotel room had a kitchen. 
Saturday market: if only our hotel room had a kitchen. 

4. La Moutarderie (Mustard Mill)

The last thing I expected to do in France was a mustard degustation but given Beaune’s proximity to Dijon, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d actually walked past La Moutarderie without realising it on our first day, as the exterior is quite modest. There are three spaces inside – the old mill, the current production area and the tasting zone. We tried to book a tour but the times didn’t work for us, so we just did mustard tasting instead. What an experience! The range of flavours and chatty, happy staff member explaining the varieties were excellent. While I was disappointed we couldn’t do a tour, the tasting alone was worth it. And it was free! There’s also a vending machine wall of mini mustards for €1 each – perfect souvenirs or gifts! Address: 31 Rue du Faubourg. 

Opening hours: 9.30am – 6pm Monday to Saturday, closed most Sundays | http://www.fallot.com/

 La Moutarderie: we spent an entire hour tasting mustards, including walnut, blueberry and balsamic flavours.
La Moutarderie: we spent an entire hour tasting mustards, including walnut, blueberry and balsamic flavours.

Food

French cuisine dominates most of the eateries across town – this is serious meat and cheese territory. Being a lactose-intolerant vegetarian was a challenge (which I’d expected), especially as most menus were in French. As my bike tour guide explained “We are happy to do vegetarian and no dairy… but we just don’t know how to do it!.” Thankfully, the French do beautiful big salads with luscious dressings. If you’re picky or have allergies, try connect to wifi and Google Translate menu ingredients. Anchovies were quite common, as was raw salmon and of course, cheese (fromage)! The bread baskets filled with slices of fresh, delicious baguettes were constant, and quite a lifesaver. 

If you’re not familiar with French food culture, there aren’t many places with ‘grab and go’ options. I didn’t see takeaway coffee during our entire stay, and you won’t find fast food outlets or sushi to go. Bakeries are the exception, and I did surprise my boyfriend by bringing him a lemon tart one morning. 

 French cuisine: Beaune is serious meat and cheese territory.
French cuisine: Beaune is serious meat and cheese territory.

Dining out can therefore get a little expensive with restaurant salads around €12-18 and mains from €15. Meat and cheese platters were prolific and good value for two people grazing. I saw one sandwich shop which was probably more casual and affordable, but the cooler weather meant getting take away and sitting outdoors wasn’t an option for us.

You’ll find plenty of dining on Rue Monge and around Place Carnot, as well as all along Rue Jean-Francois Maufoux, which becomes Rue Maufoux and eventually Rue du Faubourg Bretonnière.

My suggestions: 

 La Lune: an exceptional dinner, fusing French and Japanese cuisine.
La Lune: an exceptional dinner, fusing French and Japanese cuisine.

  • La Lune (32 Rue Maufoux): It’s not your typical French fare, but this was one of the most memorable meals during our entire five weeks in Europe. La Lune is Japanese and French fusion: think asparagus with sweet miso, grilled mushrooms and an excellent wine list of course! Book ahead as the venue is small – you can contact them via Facebook. 
  • Les Negotiants (7 Petite Place Carnot): This venue in the centre was packed with people drinking and eating on a sunny afternoon. The staff were so happy and helpful (they smiled at my mediocre French) and service was prompt. We returned a few days later for a casual lunch on a rainy Sunday and enjoyed the cosy atmosphere indoors, along with seeing local families and friends dining. 

If you need groceries, there’s a small store in the centre called Casino Shop and there’s an Aldi within walking distance too. 

Drink

We drank a lot of wine, by the glass and by the bottle! As mentioned, you’ll often be given bread or small snacks such as nuts or chips with your order. We found this was most common when ordering a pichet (250ml) of wine. I wish I could return to Beaune just to experience its wine lists all over again! 

  • La Dilettante (11 Rue du Faubourg Bretonnière): this wine bar was full at 2pm when we arrived thirsty and a little hungry. We tried again 15 minutes later and got a table, and spent an hour or two sampling most of the wines available by the glass. There was a limited afternoon food menu – I had a simple green salad while my boyfriend had a chicken gratine, and we shared the bread basket. It was a fun spot with plenty of take away wine too.
  • Brasserie Le Carnot (18 Rue Carnot): a large bistro with a large undercover, al fresco area too. Again, it was the staff who made us feel welcome here. We ordered a few pichets and enjoyed the generous complimentary snacks.  

 La Dilettante: a cosy space for wine, food and friends.
La Dilettante: a cosy space for wine, food and friends.

shopping

Most retail is concentrated along Rue Carnot, Rue Monge and surrounding Place Carnot. The majority of stores were closed on a Sunday, but you’ll otherwise find some homewares, souvenirs and small clothing stores. Sephora is the most commercialised store you’ll find, while Minelli is a French shoe franchise (where I picked up some great ankle boots in Paris!). Of course, wine stores are everywhere.

For food shopping, the fromagerie Alain Hess boasts 200 types of cheeses, along with condiments, crackers and other gourmet items. I was astounded at the variety and would have purchased so much if we had a bar fridge or extra suitcase! As mentioned under food, you can get general groceries at Casino Shop (4 Rue Carnot) and there’s an Aldi.

Where to stay

We stayed at Hotel Abbaye de Maizières (19 Rue Maizières), a 4 star hotel in the town centre for about €200/AU$300 a night. I’d been immediately enchanted by its striking cellar and history – the property was owned by monks from the 13th Century until the French Revolution! The luxury linen, plush robes and Clarins toiletries were lovely. If the room had a bar fridge and wine glasses, it would’ve been perfect!

 Abbaye de Maizieres: historic and beautiful.
Abbaye de Maizieres: historic and beautiful.

The location was ideal with most attractions, restaurants and cafes within five to 10 minutes walk. We’d hoped to dine in the restaurant, but found it was mostly quiet. The hotel is about 10 to 15 minutes walk from the train station which we handled fine with our large suitcases. 

 Abbaye de Maizières: the cellar restaurant and lobby .
Abbaye de Maizières: the cellar restaurant and lobby .

Language

Do yourself a favour and learn a little French before you go. Sometimes, I would speak French and receive a response in English but my efforts were always appreciated. Here are some basics, remembering the French don’t usually pronounce the last letter or two of their words.

  • Hello/good day: Bonjour
  • Hello/good evening: Bonsoir
  • Yes/no: Oui (“we”)/Non (“no”)
  • Please: S‘il vous plaît
  • Thank you: Merci
  • I would like..: Je voudrais… (“voo-dreh”)
  • What is..?: Quell est..? (“kel-eh”)
  • Have a nice day: Bonne journée (said as a farewell)
  • Do you speak English? Parlez-vous anglais? (“on-glay”)

Other tips

Lots of businesses will close for lunch between 12pm and 2pm, including the post office La Poste. Many of the shops in the town centre close on Sundays too. Opening hours are usually in 24 hour format, such as 900 h to 1730 h. If you want to make the most of the Saturday market, get accommodation with cooking facilities. I desperately wanted to roast asparagus!

Overall, Beaune was everything I’d hoped for and it was refreshing to spend time in a place which hadn’t succumbed to modern pressures. The French approach to dining – quality produce, smaller portions and taking time to eat is a lesson we could all embrace. I loved learning about French wine, viticulture and the history of the region. After my wine tasting lesson, I’ve never looked at a glass the same way again! Merci Beaune pour une parfait vacance!.

QUESTION: Have you had a travel vision you were obsessed with? 

A Day Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland

There are several things I consider travel jackpot. A flight upgrade. A hotel upgrade. Any upgrade. Early check-in after a red eye flight. Being the only couple booked on a group tour. Lift access at a train station! But another one of my favourite holiday wins is the opportunity to see a city you hadn’t counted on. 

My boyfriend and I were visiting friends in Glasgow, Scotland last month as part of our five week trip to Europe. We had one day left in the city and were sat around our friend’s breakfast table thinking about what to do. When Edinburgh was suggested, I initially dismissed the idea. I’d spent five hours on a train from London that week and wasn’t keen for another long travel day. But then I was told Edinburgh was only 50 minutes away by train. I had no idea! I’d been to the UK before and it was, in fact, my second visit to Glasgow. I felt foolish but it was decided – we’d make a day trip to Edinburgh. A brand new city. Unexpectedly. Holiday jackpot! 

orientation

Edinburgh has two main areas – the Old Town and New Town (which, despite its name, was actually built in the 1700s). Old Town sits on top of a hill, crowned by the magnificent Edinburgh Castle. There are steep cobblestone streets, souvenir shops and it’s also home to the National Museum. 

By contrast, New Town is largely flat with neat, well-planned streets. Here you’ll find the main train station Edinburgh Waverley, gardens and the shopping precinct. It’s a short (10 minute) walk between Old Town and New Town, with The Mound being the most common thoroughfare. The Mound is also home to the National Gallery and the Bank of Scotland headquarters. 

 Old Town: cobblestone streets, old buildings and simply beautiful.
Old Town: cobblestone streets, old buildings and simply beautiful.

getting there

Edinburgh is about an hour’s drive from Glasgow or you can catch the train. You can get a return off-peak ticket for £12, allowing you to depart Glasgow after 9.15am weekdays (anytime weekends) and catch the 4.30pm train back. A peak ticket is £23 but you can travel anytime. The journey take about 50 to 60 minutes, depending on exactly where you leave from and how many stops the train makes. The countryside views are beautiful! Click here for the ScotRail website. Alternatively, there are frequent trains from London to Edinburgh, taking about 4.5 hours (from £30). 

Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh Castle was at the top of my sightseeing list and I got my first glimpse as we pulled into Edinburgh station. My friend pointed out the view from our train window was a unique angle you couldn’t get in the city. Edinburgh Castle was a 15 minute walk from Edinburgh station, via a short but steep stair case. We arrived at 12.45pm and had our tickets (£17 for an adult) within a few minutes. 

 Edinburgh Castle: stunning views of the city.
Edinburgh Castle: stunning views of the city.

We followed the crowds to wait for the One O’Clock Gun. The firing of the gun dates back to 1861, allowing ships to set their maritime clocks for navigation. At exactly 1pm, the gun went off. It was entertaining but brief. Don’t worry if you miss it and note: the gun isn’t fired on Sundays either. 

I was much more fascinated by the actual castle. I had expected one large building, with long hallways connecting different rooms and courtyards like in the movies. But Edinburgh Castle was more like clusters of individual buildings, with big outdoor areas. Some buildings had been converted into mini-museums, and others like the Grand Hall were more of a recreation. 

 Edinburgh Castle: sweeping views of old buildings, all the way to the ocean.
Edinburgh Castle: sweeping views of old buildings, all the way to the ocean.

The views across the city were breathtaking and it was easy to see why the location had such military value. I enjoyed looking out to the ocean and countryside as much as exploring the castle itself. Our entire visit lasted an hour, but you could spend much more time there if you read every bit of information. We didn’t visit the War Museum either, but that’s because we were ready for lunch.

Opening hours: 9.30am – 6pm (5pm 1 Oct – 31 Mar) | https://www.edinburghcastle.gov.uk

lunch: rose street

 Vegetarian haggis: like a Scottish take on meatloaf.
Vegetarian haggis: like a Scottish take on meatloaf.

After visiting Edinburgh Castle, we walked to New Town via The Mound. The route took us past the impressive National Gallery and the Princes Street Gardens. Our destination was Rose Street, where you’ll find plenty of pubs and restaurants offering hearty looking meals.

I was keen to try some traditional Scottish food and was intrigued by vegetarian haggis. I spotted it on a menu outside Auld Hundred so we grabbed a table upstairs. I ordered vegetarian haggis with ‘neeps and tatties’ (£7.95), or ‘turnips and potatoes’ for those who aren’t versed in local lingo. My boyfriend and our friend ordered chicken breast stuffed with haggis (£10.50) and macaroni cheese with chips (£7.75) respectively. With a round of beers, we were set! Unfortunately, I didn’t like the random beer I’d chosen so I defaulted to a pint of Tennents lager (£3.75).

Our meals arrived and we didn’t waste a minute. My vegetarian haggis tasted like a mild falafel relative, with a chewy, thick oat texture. My boyfriend said his chicken-stuffed haggis was far tastier than his initial haggis experience many years ago. All in all, a hearty and warming lunch. Don’t forget to tip 10 per cent at restaurants!

 View of New Town from Edinburgh Castle: you can see the railway line and National Gallery along The Mound.
View of New Town from Edinburgh Castle: you can see the railway line and National Gallery along The Mound.

SHOPPING

By now, we had less than an hour before our train left for Glasgow. From Rose Street we walked up to George Street towards St Andrew Square. Here I was introduced to the small but beautiful department store Harvey Nicols. If you can’t afford the designer shoes or clothing, head to the 4th floor to experience the Chocolate Lounge. It’s like a sushi train, but instead offers various chocolates and desserts along with champagne. It was beautiful! This floor is also where you’ll find a great selection of wine and spirits, along with gourmet foods. 

Next time

We caught the latest train back possible on our off-peak tickets, which departed Edinburgh about 4.30pm. Next time I visit the Scottish capital, I’ll check out the National Gallery, go whisky tasting and visit the port district of Leith which is about 10 minutes drive from the city centre. 

Edinburgh is a city unlike anywhere I’ve been before, especially Old Town. Walking through its streets is almost like time travel if you can ignore the selfie sticks and hoards of people. The level of restoration and preservation of old buildings is extraordinary, and the historic feel continues well beyond Old Town when looking out across rooftops. Edinburgh was an unexpected bonus on our holiday but such a highlight! 

QUESTION: When did you unexpectedly visit a bonus city?