Ancient Cities, New Destination - Visit Unique Uzbekistan

 
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Contributor:
Andy Marty 

Nationality:
Australian 

Social Links:
Instagram: @andympics

Age Group:
30-40 years 

Gender:
Male 

Travel Style:
 Casual
Photography

 

Destination: Uzbekistan

When you’re scanning for some travel inspiration, you can get overwhelmed with content from the same destinations year after year. The “popular” cities are always incredibly crowded and have become frustratingly touristy - in many cases dissolving away their natural culture. Almost as importantly these days, everyone has already posted a photo from “that place” - its been done!

It is sometimes difficult to find a destination that is a little more unique, less crowded and somewhat undiscovered. Which is why its always exciting that somewhere, which is ironically incredibly old, becomes a “new” destination! Introducing Uzbekistan!

Discover Uzbekistan

Tourism in Uzbekistan is somewhat behind in comparison to many destinations, but in many ways, this is part of its charm. An unpretentious, unspoiled and largely unexplored country that might become your pleasant surprise of this summer! I say “unexplored” with a certain degree of irony – whilst modern travelers are yet to really discover Uzbekistan, it has a prominent place in the history of some of the world’s most famous wanderlusters – explorers like Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta traveled along the silk road, long before their journeys could be documented on social media!

 

So here is everything you need to know about planning a trip to Uzbekistan!

 

Before You Go:

Uzbekistan is in Central Asia and much of the reason it has remained relatively undiscovered from a tourism perspective is likely due to the safety concerns of some of the neighboring countries, like Afghanistan. That being said, Uzbekistan itself appears a relatively safe destination for travellers – there are reports of relatively minor petty crimes, scams etc that are common for most countries. It is absolutely advised to avoid visiting areas close to the borders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan! During our visit we found the people to be extremely friendly and didn’t feel unsafe at any time.

Uzbekistan is a predominantly Muslim country and religious/cultural sensitivities should be observed. It is however a relatively moderate country - you will find alcohol served at many restaurants and there is no need for female travelers to cover the hair or face. There is also quite a strong Russian influence from the former Soviet days. Whilst the local language is Uzbek, if you are able to speak Russian you will be able to quite easily communicate. English isn’t widely spoken outside of hotels, so expect some translation difficulties!

 For the most part, Uzbekistan isn’t overly touristy. Some of the architecture and history of the mosques and madrasahs (Islamic schools) is as impressive as anywhere you will find in the world. These places do draw a crowd, but nothing compared to equivalent attractions in other major cities. More pleasing is that whilst there might be many visitors to the more popular attractions like the Registan in Samarkand, none of them are overly commercialized or full of hawkers selling cheap, unauthentic merchandise. Certainly there are stalls in places like The Registan and around Bukhara, but they tend to sell more local items.

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 Uzbekistan has a rich history through its religious significance and also as a place on the old silk road. Some of the cities like Khiva and Samarkand are extremely old and control over them was critical from a trade perspective and also as they built a base of religious significance. From the Islamic crusades, conquests by Ghengis Kahn through to occupation by Russia and eventual independence, many of the cities had been fought over many times.

 The local currency is the Uzbek Som. There are not many currency exchanges so it is best to change money when arriving at the airport – the exchange is just after passport control. The exchange will accept USD (after year 2001) or Euros only. If you need to withdraw money, there is a machine that will dispense USD which you can then exchange. Generally speaking, Uzbekistan is a very inexpensive place to visit and USD will go a long way!

 Local internet sim cards are extremely cheap and work quite well. Pick one up at the airport close to baggage collection. USD5 will get you 5GB of data! The hotel and “free wifi” in restaurants is not very good from my experience, so if you want to stay in touch, best get a data sim card or use global roaming.

 

 Getting In:

Many nationalities are exempt from requiring an entry visa for travel up to 30 days. Most other passports require an e-visa which is relatively simple to obtain and costs USD20. Check online for your individual requirements.

 Flydubai has just opened up daily flights direct from Dubai to Tashkent and flights are also available direct from USA and from several cities in Europe. The recent increase in direct international flights is resulting in a steady increase of tourist traffic to the country. One of the reasons I love flydubai as an airline, is they open routes to a lot of these “less travelled” destinations and ones that I hadn’t really had on my travel radar. Its such an opportunity to experience some of these hidden gems!

 Most tourists will enter the country through Tashkent airport (map). Previously there were reports of long delays and customs checks at arrivals, however these seem to have reduced significantly and we transited in around 30minutes total (although it was around 5am so may have been less busy).

 There are many registered taxis waiting at the arrivals to take visitors from the airport to their hotel. These are mostly metered taxis and will have a sign on top of the car. In all cities there are a huge number of unregistered “taxis” which are legal. Initially we were reluctant to use the unregistered cars, however they are much more convenient, cheaper and quite friendly. The smaller unregistered cars do tend to be less maintained and in some cases don’t have seat belts in the rear seats. 

 

Getting around:

Google maps works well in Uzbekistan, so its quite easy to find your way and plan trips within cities. The estimated travel times are pretty close to accurate.

Certainly within cities like Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara it is quite cheap and easy to use the unregistered taxis. They are usually easy to find and the price is negotiable, depending on how determined you are to bargain (speaking Russian will be a huge advantage in this!) – in general a 20minute ride will cost you around USD4. Apps like Uber do not work in Uzbkeistan.

In Bukhara you can visit a lot of the interesting places on foot if you stay centrally, however in Tashkent and Samarkand this isn’t as easy.

In Tashkent, the metro system is extremely cheap (each ride only costing around USD0.2) and easy to use. The stations themselves are worth visiting, so planning your trip around using the metro has the added bonus of exploring the amazing architecture of the different stops.

For travel between cities you have several options. If you are going as far as Khiva, you might consider taking a domestic flight from Tashkent to Urgench as this will save you a lot of time. After that, we found the trains to be the best domestic travel option. You will need to book your tickets for the trains in advance and they are busy, so make sure you book a couple of weeks ahead. Use the Uzbekistan Railways website, which can be a little tedious (they wouldn’t accept Australia as a nationality, so I was Austrian for the purpose of train travel). You will need to enter passport details and then be at the station an hour before departure to show your passport and collect your tickets. I would recommend booking 2nd class – you will get a private cabin which is quite comfortable and the price is relatively cheap! There are “fast” trains and “slow” trains, if the timetables suit, I would definitely recommend the faster trains as they are newer and you will save at least an hour on a 4 hour trip! For the most part, the domestic rail system is really good.

You can arrange to either hire your own car and drive between cities or hire a private driver to take you. The private drivers are significantly more expensive than train travel and I would only suggest this if you cant find suitable train tickets. We paid USD100 to travel between Samarkand and Bukhara, a trip that would cost around USD35 for 2 people.

 

Eating in Uzbekistan:

The local food in Uzbekistan is relatively simple, with lots of soups, meats and breads. The national dish is the Plov (or Pilaf) and you need to make a point of trying several, as there is quite a bit of variation. The traditional Plov is rice based with meat that is usually slow cooked lamb. Most will have some bell peppers, sultanas, carrots, chickpeas, quail egg and chili. The better Plovs are full of flavor, with moist, slow cooked lamb. Definitely mark down Osh Markazi on your list as the place to get a really good Plov (lunch for 2 people will cost around USD5).

Other popular dishes are shaslick (meat skewers), Shurpa (a clear soup with a large piece of lamb and some vegetables), a local variant of somosa, fresh salads and the local bread, “non” that is served with almost every meal. 

Desserts and sweet foods are not a big part of the Uzbek diet, so expect more dried fruits and nuts after meal.

Tea is a staple with meals and many restaurants will also serve alcohol including local wines.

A word of caution for vegetarians and vegans – interpretation and translation may be an issue at some places, so take care when ordering. We did order a “greenery soup” at one restaurant assuming it was vegetarian……….it came with meatballs and a boiled egg.

 

1.    Tashkent:

Most visitors to Uzbekistan will arrive in the capital city, Tashkent. Many will then transit straight away to other cities. However it is definitely worth allowing at least a day to explore Tashkent as there are some great places to see.

Being the largest city, there are also a lot of options for accommodation and more chain hotels than in Samarkand or Bukhara. Look at the Hyatt Regency (map) as a great option if you want 5 Star, otherwise the Ramada is also a more affordable 5 star option (USD100-120 per night). There are also a lot of very inexpensive small hotels and if you are staying for a single night and just looking for a bed, you can find somewhere comfortable for around USD50.

A must visit place in Tashkent is Chorsu Bazaar (map) – a huge local market that is full of fresh produce and hugely popular with locals who come everyday to do their shopping. You can reach here easily on the metro and get off at Chorsu Station (map). The huge round building is full of small stalls selling anything from cheese, honey and nuts to meat, pickled vegetables and sweets. It is a hive of activity and even just taking up a spot on the rails upstairs gives you a great vantage point for some “people watching”. Outside are more covered stalls full of fresh produce. There is only a small amount of the cheap merchandise or souvenir type things that you get at most markets in other cities and majority of this is outside the main bazaar. If you enjoy exploring local markets when you travel, you will enjoy wandering through Chorsu Bazaar.  On the southern entrance there are several stands cooking local food and the one next to the steps makes a pretty good Plov!

The bustling Chorsu Bazaar

The bustling Chorsu Bazaar

It is easy to buy anything you want in Tashkent, so it is a great opportunity to pick up some local honey, dried fruits or nuts to take home.

There is a huge area of freshly cut meat and dressed, hanging animals in the market. If this bothers you, definitely avoid this section.

 Close to the Chorsu Bazaar is Kokaldosh Madrasah (map). Compared to some of the other Madrasahs in Samarkand, Bukhara and even in Tashkent, this one isn’t as impressive, but still worth visiting if you have time.

 An important place to visit in Tashkent is the Hazrat Imam Mosque (map) – a newly built mosque with many of the features of traditional Uzbek architecture that you will find throughout the country – sand colored brickwork, tiled mosaics, tall brick minarets and iconic aqua domes. It is the largest place of worship in Uzbekistan. This mosque has special significance in that it houses an ancient copy of the Quran, said to be the oldest in the world and one of the original 5 copies. It is said to be stained with the blood of Caliph Uthman who was murdered while reading it. The museum also contains hair reportedly from the Prophet Mohammed. Opposite the Hazrat Imam Mosque is the Barak Khan Madrasah, built in the 16thcentury and on the south of the square is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque. The square between the 3 buildings is a nice place for photos, especially if there has been some rain creating some reflections.

Hazrat Imam Mosque

Hazrat Imam Mosque

Barak Khan Madrasah

Barak Khan Madrasah

 In the evenings, it is worth visiting Brodvey (map) – an open street with lights, stalls and entertainment. There is also plenty to do here for children, especially on weekends. This is also where the more high-end shopping is in Tashkent, with several European stores and boutiques. 

Brodvey

Brodvey

 Around the corner from here is Amir Timur Museum (map), a large modern building containing a huge number of displays, many depicting the life of Amir Timur, a Mongul warlord who played a pivotal role in shaping Uzbekistan’s history and culture. From outside, the building is quite impressive and at night the central dome becomes illuminated and is prominent from some distance away. There is a large statue of Amir Timur in the adjacent Amir Timur Square – a large park with fountains and gardens.

Amir Timur Museum

Amir Timur Museum

An interesting piece of architecture in Tashkent is the iconic Hotel Uzbekistan (map). Opened in 1974 it remained the only high-end hotel in Uzbekistan for many years, with several 4 and 5 star hotels only recently opening in Tashkent. The façade of the hotel is a mix of European and Uzbek architecture, and at sunset takes on an intense golden glow. Until recently, as night took over, the room lights would give a creative pattern to the front of the hotel, however it is now used as a screen for laser advertising……..

 Near to Hotel Uzbekistan is the Dvorets Mezhdunarodnykh Forum (map) – a large function and events center. From the road it is an extremely impressive building with its dominating white columns.

 Something that you definitely shouldn’t miss in Tashkent is riding on the Metro. Not only are these trains a cheap and easy way to get around the city, each station has its own unique architecture – from futuristic to more classical designs. These are an awesome photo opportunity or just a curious thing to do when you’re in Tashkent.

Stations to definitely visit include:

-      Alisher Navoi (my favorite) (map)

-      Tinchlik (map)

-      Mustakillik (map)

-      Bodomzor (map)

We ate at Plov Samsa (map) next to Park Bolazhon in Tashkent. The food was “ok” without being great. Quite traditional Uzbek food with Plov and shaslick, fresh salads, non and Shurpa. It’s a really nice place to sit outside next to the park and have a meal. 

 

2.    Samarkand:

The train ride from Tashkent to Samarkand is around 4 hours. There are plenty of unregistered taxis at the station in Samarkand waiting to transfer you to wherever you need to go – remember, a 20minute ride should cost you under USD5.

Samarkand is an incredibly ancient city, having been founded around 550BC. It was later occupied by the Arabs and became an important city for Islamic studies. Over time, it also featured prominently on the silk road trading route between China and the Mediterranean.

 The highlight of Samarkand is without doubt the Registan (map) – the former ancient center of the city. The complex is a large square bordered on 3 sides by stunning madrasahs – Ulugbek, Shidor and Tilla Khari. These Madrasahs are where Islamic students would live to study the Quran, so the buildings would serve both as classroom, place of worship and accommodation.

The Registan

The Registan

It is the most popular tourist attraction in Samarkand and does draw a significant crowd. Certainly if you want clear photographs you will need to arrive early. Whilst it does say online that it is open 24hours, you need to purchase an entry ticket (USD4 per person) and the ticket office doesn’t open until 8am (April to Oct, then 9am others). 

The front of each Madrasah is incredible and the entire complex offers some of the most impressive architecture you are likely to see. The brickwork, tiled mosaics, glazed minarets and inscriptions are quite stunning and really must be seen to be fully appreciated. After you enter each madrasah it opens into a small courtyard garden. There you will find small stalls, which in some parts are a little touristy, but nowhere near what you find in other countries! Most are selling local products and souvenirs. Hopefully they will try to resist the temptation of being infiltrated with cheap knock offs.

It is now permitted to climb the tower of Ulugbek Madrasah – previously tourists would offer money to the guards and risk getting caught. However since April 2019, tickets can be bought for USD2 to climb up the very narrow staircase and look out over Shidor Madrasah and beyond. Note: towards the top it is VERY narrow – don’t take backpacks etc and “larger” visitors may find it difficult to climb through the small opening at the top! You can also access a corner of the 2ndfloor of the courtyard of the Ulugbek Madrasah which is nice for photos.

View of Shidor Madrasah as seen from the tower of Ulugbek Madrasah

View of Shidor Madrasah as seen from the tower of Ulugbek Madrasah

You should allow at least half a day to be able to explore the Registan. It is possible to arrange a guide for USD2 at the ticket office or you can simply stroll through yourself. After dark there is a light show, which essentially involves the complex being lit up. The night we were in Samarkand it rained heavily which made visiting for photos almost impossible.

Another must visit place in Samarkand is Shah i Zinda (map) – a complex of mausoleums containing the tombs of many members of the ruling families of Samarkand. It is sometimes called “cemetery street” as it is designed as a single long passage way lined with mausoleums.

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The name Shah i Zinda means “The Living King”. It is said that Kusum bin Abbas, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, visited the site in the 7thcentury to spread the word of Islam. He was beheaded but did not die, rather as the story goes, he carried his head to the nearby great well, where he still lives.

Entry to the complex is USD2 with an extra charge of USD0.4 for using your camera. The ticket office opens at 9am. Early there are many local people coming to visit the mausoleums, however from 10:30am, it becomes quite busy with tourists. Unlike the Registan, Shah i Zinda is quite narrow so groups of tourists do appear to make it look busier than it probably is.

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 The Gur Amir Mausoleum (map) is another building well worth visiting for some classic architecture featuring ornate mosaics and inscriptions. There is a small ticket office on the left hand side of the stairs and entry is USD4 (extra for guided tour or for use of cameras).

 A short drive from the Registan area are the remains of the Ulugbek Observatory (map). The scientific work of Mirzo Ulugbek was quite revolutionary for its time and whilst only the foundations of this complex remain, it still has the extraordinary underground trench. Another reason to visit the Ulugbek Observatory is that is very close to a place to eat!

Domashni Restorant (map) was quite highly recommended to try the lamb dish – slow cooked meat served over chickpeas. To be completely honest, I found the lamb a little bit bland and not as soft as I would want for “slow cooked” – it was more like boiled meat, without too much in the way of seasoning. The shaslick was quite nice, as was the clear soup. Moreover, the family-run restaurant was extremely authentic and the staff were incredibly warm.

Now, when you’re in Samarkand, do not miss the opportunity to try what I consider the best Plov I had in Uzbekistan (I tried many). There are 2 Osh Markazi’s in Samarkand and I believe they are very similar, but we ate at Osh Markazi Filial 1 (map) – it is incredibly authentic and unassuming. You walk downstairs to plastic table cloths and simple furnishings, however the seats are filled with locals, which is always a great sign. If you don’t come early, you will likely miss out and Plov is only a lunchtime meal – so plan to be here before 12noon! Essentially you’re looking at a set menu – it is probably best not to try and complicate something that is simple and amazing! Starting with a pot of green tea, the table soon fills with salad, cheeses, yogurt, bread and the hero of the meal, Plov! This plov really hit the mark, the flavors were full and the meat perfectly cooked. The restaurant was extremely busy with trays of freshly cooked plov coming out almost on the minute. In the end, a meal for 2 people will set you back less than USD5………this is an absolute MUST visit in Uzbekistan. 

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 We ate lunch also at a restaurant called Oasis Garden (map). It was quite an “upmarket” restaurant compared to most places in Uzbekistan, although still very affordable. The menu was extensive and contains many western dishes, although some of the translations into English were a little hit and miss. They have a wonderful selection of soups and salads, as well as a huge choice of grilled meat. I would certainly recommend this place for visitors that aren’t very adventurous when it comes to eating local food. The men’s toilets are also worth a curious visit with some humorous artwork above the urinals.

 There isn’t a great deal of street food in Uzbekistan, however there are several stalls in Samarkand selling crab-apples. They are fresh and crisp and with a sprinkle of salt, very tasty as you walk around.

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 In Samarkand we stayed at L’Argamak Hotel (map). The location is quite convenient as it is possible to walk from here to the Registan in around 15 minutes. The rooms are relatively basic, but neat and tidy. There isn’t a huge choice of hotels in Samarkand and L’Argamak represents reasonably good value for money for very comfortable accommodation. The breakfast buffet is simple, yet nice and is an authentic spread of typical Uzbek dishes. The facilities aren’t extensive, so it is essentially a hotel to sleep and have breakfast if you are looking to get out and explore Samarkand.

 

3.    Bukhara:

Another 275km further West is the city of Bukhara. As the only suitable train times were sold out, we decided to travel by private car. I would suggest travelling between cities on train in Uzbkeistan – it is easier and safer! The roads are ok, but the driving can be a little “erratic”.  Travelling by private car is also much more costly.

 I would suggest staying around the Lyabi Hauz (map) area in Bukhara – it is centered around Lyabi Hauz, which translates to “Lyabi Pond” and there are many cafes, restaurants and hotels close by. In the afternoons, it is a popular place for locals to socialise, with old men playing dominoes, women enjoying cups of tea and children playing games in the park. The area is not far from all the major highlights of Bukhara and the city is relatively easy to navigate around on foot.

There are several options for accommodation, ranging from as little as USD20 per night for hostel style boarding. We stayed at Lyabi Hauz Hotel (map) – the rooms are basic but neat, clean and spacious. The central courtyard and terrace are a focal feature of the recently renovated property. Importantly the staff are extremely friendly and very knowledgeable on places to go and where to eat. Breakfast is served on the terrace each morning and is a perfect spot to sit and start your day while you enjoy a traditional Uzbek meal. I would happily recommend staying at Lyabi Hauz Hotel while you explore Bukhara.

 Surrounding the pond of Lyabi Hauz there are several Madrasahs including Kukeldash Madrasah (map), which at the time of construction was the largest in Central Asia. There is also a small bazar- Toqi Sarrofon, which sells many local souvenirs. On the edge of the pond is the quite iconic Lyabi House Restaurant (map). The view and atmosphere on a good day is lovely, but the reviews of the food are not so great and it did look quite touristy.

 The main focal point of Bukhara, and former city-center, is the area known as Poi Kalyan (map) – a large square bordered by Kalyan Mosque (map), Kalyan Minaret (map) and Mir-i-Arab Madrasah (map). There is also nearby Ulugbek Madrasah (map), Abdulaziz Kahn Madrasah (map) and Toqi Zargaron Bazaar (map). 

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The Kalyan Minaret is the most iconic landmark in Bukhara and one of Uzbekistan’s most well known structures. Whilst built as a place from which to call for prayer, this minaret also served a less peaceful purpose through the ages – for centuries criminals were executed by being thrown from the tower, giving its nickname, The Tower of Death. The brick structure is over 45m high and has a distinctive “crown” rotunda with 16 arches. You will need special permission in order to climb the spiral staircase to the top of the tower for a view across the city. Significantly in the history of Bukhara, the Kalyan Minaret is the only structure that survived fires following invasions by Genghis Khan – the original mosques were completely destroyed. 

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Kalyan Mosque is a large courtyard surrounded by archways. On the roof of the arches are 288 domes – again, access to this rooftop requires special permission. The mosque is open sunrise to sunset and costs USD2 including photography. It is a wonderful place for sunset photos, especially if there has been rain as the courtyard fills with water. There is also a tree and octagonal cathedral within the courtyard.

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Mir-i-Arab Madrasah was built in 1536 by a Yemeni Sheikh of the same name, Mir-i-Arab, who was the religious mentor of Ubaidullah Khan, a highly successful leader and leader of the army. The Madrasah is only open for visitors during special prayer times – it was explained to me that if someone of religious significance wishes to use the Madrasah for prayer, they will open the building and guests may quietly walk around. At all other times, it is not possible to enter. Unfortunately it is simply a matter of “good timing” if you happen to be there when someone wishes to use the Madrasah. In addition to being a religious school, it is also a mausoleum and contains the tombs of Ubaidullah Khan, Mir-i-Arab and other religious teachers. The large archway of the entrance to Mir-i-Arab Madrasah is a beautiful tiled Mosaic and in the afternoons it catches the light of the setting sun very nicely.

There is a great view of the Poi Kalyan square from a café called Chasmai Mirob (map). The food is only ok, but it is worth it for the view. You will need to enter via a staircase on the right hand side and go up to the rooftop terrace. It gets very busy with tourists and the prices reflect this! Expect to pay around USD15 for a Plov, which is very expensive for Uzbekistan. 

Poi Kalyan

Poi Kalyan

Around Poi Kalyan there are several small stores selling ceramics, textiles, hats etc. The main area is benath the domed roof of Toqi Zargaron – it is slightly touristy, but for the most part the goods are genuine and quite authentic. There are metal workers making pairs of scissors, craftsmen playing handmade instruments, spices, textiles and various antiques like badges and war medals. One thing I did notice walking around, even in the small Bazaar is that there isn’t a great deal of street food.

Only a short distance from Poi Kalyan is Ulugbek Madrasah, constructed in 1417 making it one of the oldest buildings in Bukhara. It is free to enter and in April 2019 was undergoing some minor restorations. Inside there is a relatively plain courtyard and some nice archways and doors that can be nice for photography.

Almost opposite Ulugbek Madrasah is the archway of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah, constructed in 1652. It has a large, beautiful archway entrance that catches the setting sun perfectly in the late afternoons. There is a small bazaar and museum in the courtyard of Abdulaiz Khan Madrasah and it costs USD2 to enter. To be honest, you won’t really be missing much if you don’t go inside. The area in front of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah is a great place to watch the sun set over Toqi Zargaron.

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An even better place for sunset is the terrace of Coffee & Shop (map), next to Ulugbek Madrasah. You will need to purchase something like a juice or tea to be able to use the terrace, but it is worth it. Despite having an incredible view, it was never busy when we visited. Looking west you have a great view of the side of Ulugbek Madrasah, Toqi Zargaron and its domed roof, Kalyan Mosque and Minaret, the back of Mir-i-Arab and the front of Abdulaziz Madrasah. As the sun sets behind Kalyan Mosque, the light catches the front of the main arch of Abdulaziz Khan Madrasah. This was probably my favorite view in Bukhara.

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 About a 25 minute walk from Lyabi Hauz (or 15 minutes from Poi Kalyan) is Bolo Hauz Mosque (map) and The Ark (map) at Registan Square – not to be confused with The Registan of Samarkand. The Ark of Bukhara has a long and fascinating history both as a fortress and itself as a city center and place of trade. The origins are somewhat lost to history, with the structure having been destroyed and rebuilt several times. There is folklore that the original Ark was built by Siyavusha, who fell in love with the ruler’s daughter. He was told they could only marry if he built a palace on the back of a bull’s hide. Siyavusha took the bull’s hide and cut it into very thin strips which he joined end to end and stretched out to form the boundary of the huge palace! This has become known as the tale of Dido. 

The Ark has been sacked several times, including by Ghengis Khan and then again in 1920 by invading Russian forces. Now, the Ark is a tourist attraction, entry is USD8 (including guide and use of a camera) and reviews we read described it as not being worth the money or time. Better is to view the structure from the outside with its impressive and unique walls.

Nearby to the Ark is Bolo Hauz Mosque, also known as the “40 Pillar Mosque”. This was the Emirs Mosque during the time of Russian occupation. He would come from his residence and hold Friday prayers here. The mosque is quite distinctive with its high wooden pillars and pond (“Hauz”) in front. Many mosques in Bukhara previously had ponds in front but most have been filled in and only a few remain or are well maintained.

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Only a few minutes walk from Bolo Hauz is the Ismail Samani Mausoleum (map), the burial vault of many of the rulers from the Saminid Dysnasty. Whilst relatively small in size, the mausoleum is the oldest Muslim structure in Bukhara, being completed in 905.

A 10 minute walk the opposite way from Lyabi Hauz is the structure known as Chor Minor (map). It is the only remaining madrasah of what was once a complex of several buildings. Even much of the internal structure of Chor Minor has collapsed in areas. It is likely that Chor Minor was actually part of the accommodation for Islamic students rather than a building used for teaching. Some suggest it was the gatehouse for the rest of the madrasahs behind it, but this is disputed. For a small fee (USD2), you can enter and walk through the building and climb to the roof for a tourist photo if you wish.

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 Getting around the attractions of Bukhara can be done mostly on foot and cars cannot access certain areas around Poi Kalyan. Even within Lyabi Hauz, taxis will only be able to drop you on the road in front of Kukeldash Madrasah and you will need to carry your luggage. If you want to go outside the main areas (for food or to get to the train station) there are almost always taxis waiting at this same place. There are a small number of motorized rickshaws that operate between Poi Kalyan and Registan Square.

There are a number of food options in the Lyabi Hauz area. We ate breakfast each day at Lyabi Hauz Hotel which was really nice and the terrace is a perfect place to sit outside and have pastries and a cup of tea.

There are several restaurants for dinner including Minzifa (map) and Doston House (map - hard to find), which were both fully booked out when we went – both have great reviews. We were able to just get a table at Old Bukhara which also had reasonable reviews but some negative comments about the staff………we couldn’t have had a better experience with the staff – they were very accommodating and extremely friendly. The food was reasonable, really nice shalicks, samosas, salads and soups. Quite reasonably priced and a good atmosphere. 

In general, people seem to eat relatively early, so plan on going for dinner around 7pm.

Our hotel provided several recommendations for dinner including Chinar (map). There is a Chinar close to Lyabi Hauz (the one reviewed on other platforms) and a more authentic one outside the main area. Our hotel insisted we go to the more authentic one which is about a 10minute taxi ride. It is really traditional with mostly locals filling the restaurant. The food is relatively simple and no frills, but very nice, especially if you like grilled meats. The hotel also recommended Karaoke Karavan – a fun place to eat and has good reviews. We didn’t have time to go there and it is also a 10minute taxi ride from Lyabi Hauz.

For lunch you will likely be close to Poi Kalyan. As mentioned earlier, both Coffee & Shop and Chasmai Mirob have incredible views of Poi Kalyan and the nearby madrasahs. Whilst we didn’t eat at Coffee & Shop, the tea is very good and they do serve lunch. Chasmai Mirob has a great view, but the food is not that great and overpriced……….the view is worth the visit though!

 

4.    Khiva:

Unfortunately our itinerary didn’t allow time to visit Khiva – a city on the ancient silk road that also has a history as a former slave trading post. The inner city area is essentially a museum with mosques and madrasahs. From talking to other travellers we met, they suggested it was absolutely worth making time to visit Khiva if you travel to Uzbekistan.

To reach Khiva you need to travel to Urgench – a city 400km further west of Bukhara, and then take a taxi from Urgench to Khiva.  Most people will fly one way between Tashkent and Khiva and then the other way by train via Bukhara and Samarkand.   

 

Suggested 7 Day Itinerary:

Day 1: Land in Tashkent. Spend day exploring Tashkent and stay 1 night at Regency Hyatt.

-      Explore Tashkent via the Metro.

-      Wander through Chorsu Bazaar and have your first Plov.

-      Visit Hazrat Imam Mosque.

Day 2: Travel by train to Samarkand in the morning. Spend 1-2 nights in Samarkand (you can just do Samarkand in 1 night).

-      Spend a half day visiting The Registan complex.

-      Visit Shah-i-zinda

-      Have lunch at Osh Markazi

Day 4: Travel by train to Bukhara. Spend 2 nights in Bukhara at Lyabi Hauz Hotel (Bukhara probably needs 2 nights).

-      Visit Poi Kalyan: Kalyan Mosque and Minaret, Mir-i-Arab Madrasah

-      Visit Registan Square: Bolo Hauz Mosque, The Ark & Ismail Samani Mausoleum.

-      Lunch at Chasmai Mirob terrace

-      Sunset at Coffee & Shop.

-      Dinner at Chinar.

Day 6: Travel by train to Khiva in the morning. Spend 1 night in Khiva

Day 7: Travel by plane back to Tashkent and depart from Tashkent

 

Photography in Uzbekistan: read a full article of best photo spots in Uzbekistan HERE

There are not many restrictions for photography in Uzbekistan – you are free to use a tripod almost anywhere including in the Metro stations and mosques, as long as you are taking photo and not video. 

Flying drones are not permitted in Uzbekistan and I would avoid bringing one into the country if you can. 

Local people are not adverse to having photos taken, most are very friendly and actually quite keen to be in photos. There isn’t a distinctive national dress, although in the winter many locals will wear the large wooly head-dress, the Chugirma. As always, I ask permission before taking any photos of people when I travel and did not have any objections in Uzbekistan. A few people asked for money and USD1 was considered plenty for a photograph and a poorly translated conversation over a cup of tea.

Some of the tourist places will charge a small extra fee if you are going to use a DSLR camera – around USD0.50.

My 5 top Photography Spots in Uzbekistan:

1. The Registan Complex – especially the tiled mosaic archways of Tilla Khari Madrasah using a long lens to square off the archway

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2. Sunset view of Bukhara Mosques and Madrasahs from Coffee & Shop in Bukhara

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3. Inside Kalyan Mosque – the arches, rain reflections and frame from the western arch.

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4. Shah-i-zinda – the narrow street lined by blue tiled mausoleums.

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5. Tashkent Metro Stations – especially Alisher Navoi

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read a full article of best photo spots in Uzbekistan HERE

 

Walk Through History - Krakow, Poland

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Contributor:
 Andy

Nationality:
 Australian

Social Links:
Instagram: @andympics

Age Group:
 30-40 years

Gender:
 Male

Travel Style:
 Casual, photography

 

Destination: Krakow, Poland - July 2018.

Inspiration:

I had a few days available to travel and flicked through possible destination routes on the flydubai website to find one that looked interesting and had a good deal. Flights to Krakow were a great price and it was somewhere I hadn’t really thought too much about before but looked like a place to explore for a few days - booked a ticket and flew to Krakow! 

Getting There:

I flew with flydubai from Dubai to John Paul II International Airport. It is only a short distance outside from the main tourist area for Krakow – Old Town. The flight is around 6 hours and has you landing just before midnight. 
The airport is only relatively small with very few shops. After midnight, there is a Relax store that is open. Here you can purchase Orange sim cards with data (which is incredibly cheap – 6Gb for less than USD2). Have them activate your sim card. 
Currency in Poland is the Polish Zloty. It is easy to exchange money at any of the currency exchanges in Old Town or draw direct from an ATM.
I found in general that Uber worked extremely well in Krakow  - clean, efficient and not too expensive.  I was easily able to get an Uber from the airport to my hotel, which took around 25 minutes. 

Local Knowledge:

Krakow is a very old city, having been civilized for thousands of years. It has an incredible history – some colourful, some very sad and others full of tales that have been somewhat embellished over time. It is definitely worth doing some guided tours to learn more about some of these historical facts, myths and everything in between. Probably the most famous tale is that of the Wawel Dragon who, as legend has it, lived in a lair on the banks of the Vistula River. They would feed the dragon sheep to stop it from eating the city’s children. The dragon was eventually “slain” by a local cobbler who stuffed a lamb’s skin with poison. As reward, King Krakus offered his daughter’s hand in marriage. 

Where To Stay:

I stayed at Puro Krakow (map), which I found through booking.com. I chose this hotel mostly for the proximity to Old Town where I wanted to spend a lot of my time and the value for money.

Puro certainly represented great value for money and is perfectly suited for travellers. The design of the rooms is minimalist, yet has everything you need. It is very modern including tablets to control all the in room features.  It isn’t the sort of hotel I would recommend if you are looking to lounge around – but Krakow isn’t really the city for this anyway, its for getting out and exploring! I walked each day from the hotel to the North entrance of the Old Town, where a lot of the highlights an atmosphere of Krakow can be found. It is only around a 5-10 minute walk. 

Puro also have a new property in the district of Kazimierz (Puro Kazimierz), which is also a tourist highlight in its own right. This property is still only around 5-10 minutes walk from Old Town, but from the South end. The Kazimierz Puro has more features including fitness centre, spa and restaurants. It still represents excellent value for money and the rooms are really well set out. I did a tour of this hotel and would certainly recommend comparing each and deciding which suits your needs.

There are a huge number of hostels within Old Town and if this is your travel style, you will be well catered for. Hostels in the North East of the Old ~Town would be a great starting point. They are close to good places to eat and nightlife.

Some of the other chain hotels are further away from Old Town, however as a traveller looking to get the most out of a few days, I would suggest staying within walking distance of Old Town. 

What To Do:

 Krakow is a wonderful city to visit for people looking to really explore – there is a lot of fascinating history, both ancient and modern. Probably the best way to get to see and learn as much of the cities history in a short space of time is to go on one of the walking tours. I am not normally someone who goes on guided tours (I like to explore at my own pace), but I actually went on 2 of these walking tours with City Walks Krakow. They do a tour of Old Town and one for Kazimierz (The Jewish Quarter). The tours are “free” with a tipping system at the end. They are well worth it, you cover a LOT of the city in a relatively short space of time and they have loads of information about places to eat, other places to visit and helped getting my tours to Auschwitz and Salt Mines arranged. You can meet the guides everyday outside St Mary’s Bascilica (map).

1.    Old Town (Stare Miasto): (map)

This is a must visit area for anyone coming to Krakow - you almost can’t avoid it. It is the historical city centre and the history is incredible – some of the buildings have windows half below street level, because the ground of the city has been built up on top of itself so many times over the years, it has actually increased around 4 feet in some places. Much of the Old Town I covered with the City Walks Krakow guided tour..

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The highlights that you absolutely need to make sure you see include:

-      The Planty (map) is the park that surrounds the Old Town and is worth taking a walk around, especially on a summer weekend – there will be small concerts, entertainers and local people enjoying the park. It is a great place to ride around on a bike. Do make sure you stop at Chimney Cake Bakery (map) at the North of the Planty and get yourself a cake……..trust me!

-      At the North of the Planty is The Barbican (map) – a fortress that was used to defend the city from invaders. There is a famous story of the fort almost being sacked by an invading Russian army. The last remaining soldier, who had run out of bullets, used his coat button to shoot the Russian General and cause their retreat……….fact or fiction, the story is now infamous.

-      The walls that surrounded the Old Town were almost all torn down by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in an effort to open the city up for trading. Only 3 towers and part of the wall at the North still stand, as locals were able to convince them that this would protect the city from the cold North winds in Winter. St Florians Gate (map) at the north is a great place to enter Old Town. On the right as you walk through is a colourful display of paintings for sale.

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-      St Mary’s Basciica (map): With its 2 tall towers built by 2 brothers, it is an architectural focal point of Old Town. Inside the cathedral has some amazing stained glass windows and murals. Climb up the stairs of the tallest tower for a great view over the city. On the hour a trumpet player plays a song from each window at the top of the tower, stopping abruptly at the point in the song where according to locals, a trumpeter was shot in the neck by an arrow as he attempted to warn the city of an impending attack. Tickets to enter the Bascilica and climb the tower can be purchased from a small information office opposite the South of the building (near to Hard Rock Café - map) – it is 10 PZL to enter the Bascilica (only after 11:30) and 15PZL to climb the tower (you will need to book a time for this so go early and reserve the time you want).

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-      In front of St Mary’s Bascillica are numerous horse drawn carriages, known locally as Dorozka. They are, as expected, a little touristy, but offer a unique way of seeing the Old Town.

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-      Rynek Glowny (map) is the Main Market Square in the Old Town and remains one of the largest Medi-evil market squares in the world. It is surrounded by some impressive architecture including St Mary’s Bacillica, Cloth Hall (map) and the shadows of Town Hall Tower. Whilst the square is relatively quiet in the mornings, it gets progressively busier during the day, especially on the weekends. By late afternoon and into the evenings there are stalls and entertainers. On the other side of Cloth Hall is an area where seemingly each week a new form of entertainment is arranged and numerous stall selling locally made crafts, sweets and food. In the middle of Cloth Hall is the old market, which now is largely filled with shops selling souvenirs. There is also an underground museum beneath Cloth Hall, which is a great representation of what the city was like centuries ago.

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-      The Town Hall Tower (map) provides an alternative view across the city and looks at the Bascilica Towers across the square.

-      The Jagiellonian University (map) is one of the oldest surviving universities in the world, founded in 1364 by Casimir The Great. Past students include Nicholas Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. It is a wonderful old building and academics will get nostalgic about walking in the footsteps of one of humanity’s great mathematicians.

-      Wawel Castle (map) is at the Southern end of Old Town and stands as one of the most impressive and significant buildings. On the guided tour there is only time to briefly pass through the grounds, however you can come back and do a full tour for only 14PZL – it is worth noting there are 2 ticket offices and everyone tends to use the first one, so use the 2ndone inside, its much quicker! The castle also has some fascinating history. Like many important buildings, it was commissioned by Casimir The Great during the 13thCentury, however the land on Wawel Hill had been a significant settlement for some 50,000 years, with it becoming an important trading site on the banks of the Vistula River. After its completion, the castle became the residence of Polish Royal Families until the capital was moved to Warsaw. The best place for photos of Wawel Castle is in front of the cafes on the South-West of the castle (Trattoria Wawel) – it looks across the lawn and is ideal at sunset. The castle closes at 5pm and the security might try and hurry you up, but I just pretended that I was packing up each time. Another nice spot to photograph Wawel Castle is from Grunwaldski Bridge (map), especially after sunset for some long exposures.

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-      Otherwise, Old Town is just a great place to walk around, with so many fascinating little streets, shops and stalls. I mention a few of the different places to try for food, but to be honest, there are countless and you might stumble across a gem!  

1.    Kazimierz (The Jewish Quarter) (map):

Kazimierz is known as the “Jewish Quarter” as for many years it is where a large Jewish community lived – prior to the Nazi invasion during World War II. In reality, the original Jewish area of Krakow was part of the Old Town, however, the Jewish people moved to in 1495 Kazimierz after a fire in Krakow and the subsequent rebuilding of that area of the city. Kazimierz became a district rich in Jewish culture. During WWII however, Jews from Kazimierz and all of Krakow were forced to live in a small area that became known as the Jewish ghetto. A tour of Kazimierz will include some of the history that relates to this awful time in the city’s history.

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There is some fascinating architecture and incredible street art through the winding alleyways of Kazimierz. There are also a number of museums that contain details of events that occurred during the time of the Jewish ghetto. As the history is quite involved, it is definitely worth taking one of the guided tours if you are interested in learning about the details.

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Plac Nowy (map) is a market square in Kazimierz that has a flea market in the mornings. There are some antiques and clothes and it is the same area that the Zapikanka’s are sold – these are a must try!

 

2.    Zalew Zakrzowek (Zakrzowek Lake) (map):

This was one of the most surprising places in Krakow – I had never heard of this place until I started looking up some good places to take photos. It is an old mine quarry with stunning blue water, sheer white limestone faces and surrounded by dense forest. It is close enough to the south end of Old Town that you could ride there (or even take a long walk), otherwise, its about a 10 minute car ride.  

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It is absolutely somewhere to visit in the Summer, in fact on a warm Summer weekend, this is a must! The weather is warm enough that you can go swimming and there are areas that are patrolled and very safe. Other places have edges that are “safe” for cliff jumping and many locals will take the leap. 

You need to pay a small entrance fee (20 PZL) to access most areas.

It is a beautiful place to watch the sunset and for photos, or flying a drone!

 

3.    Wieliczka Salt Mines (map)

This is one of the major tourist attractions in Krakow and huge numbers of visitors go down beneath the surface to explore the ancient salt mines that have produced the once expensive commodity for centuries.

It is best to book a guided tour and similar to Auschwitz, there are companies that will arrange collection from your hotel, a reserved spot in a tour of your language and return afterwards.

It is interesting to see how they used to mine salt and how the process has evolved. The carvings, especially the underground cathedral (established in the hope of warding off mine collapses by providing a place for miners to pray) are incredible – almost everything underground is made from salt and you are encouraged to taste it to confirm. Just don’t taste the ground, it is made of concrete!

I wouldn’t describe it as an absolute highlight and personally if I had to choose between a tour of Auschwitz or the salt mines, I would definitely choose Auschwitz.

 

4.    Auschwitz:

See below in “Must See” or visit a “Review of visiting Auschwitz

Where To Eat:

Especially around Rynek Glowny, almost every shop seems to be a restaurant or café. There is certainly no shortage of places to try and have listed as many as I went to. There is a heavy emphasis on pork, which I don’t eat, but if that is your preference, you will find no shortage of places serving pork knuckle.

There are lots of cafés around Rynek Glowny (The Main Square) and the close you get to the square, the more expensive they become. Within a short walking distance are many less expensive options.

-      Goscinna Chata: (map) Close to Rynek Glowny. The food is fantastic, with a long menu of pretty traditional cuisine. It is one of the best options to try authentic Polish food. It is not too expensive with a main and dessert costing around 50-60PZL. Definitely get the potato pancakes with apple & honey – this was my best dessert in Krakow! On the down side, the service is average at best, but the food makes up for the slow staff.

-  Kuchnia Starapolska U Babci Maliny: (map) Very unique place to go for dinner! Half the fun is finding it – you need to walk down a hallway, into a small courtyard and then down the stairs on the right side. You go underground through a quirky entrance. The restaurant is very fun, with traditional décor and photos on the walls. It is bar service only and the food is very traditional! The food itself is only fair, but its a fun experience, especially if you’re going with a group.

Potato Pancakes at Goscinna Chata.

Potato Pancakes at Goscinna Chata.

-      Milkbar Tomazsu: (map) Great café for breakfast or lunch, serving pretty traditional polish food, including the local delicacy, pierogi. I had pierogi at several places and this was the best I had. They also do pretty good pancakes.  The café is only small and you may end up needing to share a table.

-      Przpiecek 24hr: (map) This is a 24 hour pierogi café – very handy to note if you plan on having a few late nights at some of the local pubs! The pierogi aren’t the best I had in Krakow, but at 3am, the availability may be a greater factor than the quality. I found them a bit bland and soggy – like wet ravioli with no sauce.

-      Gospoda Koko: (map) This is a very traditional polish restaurant. There are actually several rooms within the restaurant, with the downstairs being much more like a tavern. The food is very basic, so don’t expect fine dining. If you’re on a budget and want some Polish fare, its worth a try!

-      Café Camelot: (map) This is by far the best café close to Main Market Square and it came highly recommended from locals. It is a beautifully decorated café with setaing inside and out. Be warned, it opens at 9am and if you want a table outside, be there before 9! The menu itself is really nicely done and has a huge breakfast selection, including healthy options. Both the food and the coffee are really good. This is definitely another great place to come for breakfast.

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-      Chimney Cake Bakery: (map) I’m told there are these places in a few other Eastern European cities, but I hadn’t found them – it is a game changer. Chimney cakes are like large cylindrical cinnamon coated doughnuts that have a coating of a spread inside (I went for nutella) and then a sprinkling of almonds. When they are fresh and hot, they are incredible! It makes me happy and sad just writing about the,. Chimney Cake Bakery are the place I would highly recommend and there is one at the North East of the Platzy outside the wall of Old Town. Go there!

-      The Spaghetti: (map) One of the restaurants that borders the Main Market Square. It is typically Italian cuisine, so if you want a change from the Polish and Eastern European fare, this is a place to come for pizza and pasta.

-      Slodki Wentzl: (map) Café right on the Main Square. The coffee is good without being great. The dessert selection is also pretty good, however I would choose Good Lood over here for ice cream! The big appeal of this place is you can sit drinking your coffe and enjoying your cake while you watch the action of the Main Square! It is a good choice if you want that atmosphere.

-      Goralskie Praliny Coctail Bar: Another place that came highly recommended but to be honest, I would suggest others. The service wasn’t great and the doughnuts cost more than a Chimney Cake and cant be compared to them!

-      Piecarnia Buczek: (map) Just outside the Old Town. Decent bakery if you need somewhere to grab some lunch on the go. They have a reasonable selection of wraps, rolls and sandwhiches as well as pastries.

-      Siesta Café: (map) Doesn’t have a large menu, but a nice place to come for coffee and cake. Not far from the Main Market Square and is perfect for an afternoon tea stop………just like a siesta!

-     Ambasada Sledzia: (map) Very laid back tapas bar, also close to the Main Market Square. It is a great place to come for an afternmoon drink and small meal. You probably want to like herring, as this place specializes in different varieties of herring dishes. I had the mustards and bread coated herrings and loved both……..but I love herrings! Really like this place!

-     Morskie Oko: (map) Really traditional Polish restaurant that has wonderful decor and the staff are dressed traditionally also - makes for a pretty unique experience. The menu is Polish with options like potato pancakes (which were admittedly a little bland). Definitely worth trying is the Oscypek, a Tatra Mountain cheese that is a local specialy.

-      Obwarzanek: These are the local bagels sold from street carts all around the city. They are almost identical to “simit” in Istanbul. A very traditional food to eat in Krakow and always available.

-      There are loads of ice-cream, shops in Krakow and if youre visitiong in Summer, you will want to know where they are! Good Lood (map) came very highly recommended and on a hot day, you will see why – the queues will be out onto the streets. They have a huge range of really unique flavours that are constantly changing. There was a green apple & cherry sorbet when I was there that was amazing! There are 2 famous shops in Kazimierz, one is in Plac Nowy. Another good option for ice cream is Krakowski Lodi and these can be found in lots of locations!

-      Zapikanka in Plac Nowy, Kazimierz: (map) Zapikanka are another local favourite in Krakow and there is really only one place to go and try them. The circle in the middle of Plac Nowy has around 20 window fronts that make these open baguettes with pizza topping. You can walk around and choose which one you think has the toppings you like the best. I actually went 3 times and tended to just go to the windows that looked busy! They take around 20 minutes to make, so place your order then have a look around at the flea market.

Good Lood ice cream!

Good Lood ice cream!

-      Wesola Café: (map) This café would not be out of place in Melbourne! Whilst it isn’t overly Polish, it is outstanding! This is a must visit for lovers of good a breakfast, coffee and that genuine café atmosphere. It is not far from Galeria Krakowska Mall and Puro Hotel. The food really is excellent including healthy options or a selection of cakes. The coffee was the best I had in Krakow. 


Must See: Auschwitz (map)

I can only describe Auschwitz as “ a place nobody will enjoy, but everyone must visit”. I have written a comprehensive review of Auschwitz, that includes all the information about booking guided tours, what you can take and some of what to expect. (LINK TO AUSCHWITZ REVIEW)

Essentiually, “Auschwitz” is a complex of concentration camps that were used by the Garman Nazi regimn during World War II. The main camps were Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The tours take you around tehse two faciliuties and give some insight into trhe autrcities that occurred there. It is quite a sad, depressing and humbling experience to learn to depths humnanity can  reach. However, it also serves as a critical reminder, in the hope we don’t make the same mistakes again.

Gallery of Auschwitz:

Must Do: Walking Tour with City Walks Krakow (map)

Krakow, and especially Old Town, is a wonderful city to explore by foot. There is such a fascinating history with many folk tales and stories that blur facts and fiction. The best way to appreciate this is by taking one of the many guided tours. Many companies offer a “free “ service with the option to tip accordingly at the end. I did walking tours of Old Town and Kazimierz. I would suggest doing at least the Old Town tour in your first day and then the Kazimierz if you have enough time. On the Old Town tour, you will get pkenty of information about some good places to eat, what other things are wiorth seeing and you can book tours for places like the salt mines and Auschwitz.

Excess Baggage:

I visited Krakow solo and found it a really safe and easy city to explore. It probably isn’t an ideal family destination for young children as there isn’t a whole lot for them to see or do. The major attractions aren’t really suitable for children and to explore the city there is a lot of walking! Krakow is perfect for couples, groups of friends (the nightlife scene is great) backpackers and solo travellers. 


3 Top Places to Visit:

1.    Auschwitz Concentration Camps (map): I cannot say this will be a pleasant experience, but it is an absolute must! It’s a humbling and emotional look at a very sad reminder of what humanity is capable of. (Link to Auschwitz Review)

2.    Zalew Zakrzowek: (map) The old quarry that is now a “hidden lake” is an absolute must in the summer, especially on a warm weekend, when locals come in larhe numbers to swim, sunbathe and jump from the steep limestone cliffs.

3.    Rynek Glowny: (map) The focal point of Old Town Krakow. You can sopend hours simply wandering in and around this historical market square. There are so many places to eat and things to see and do – you will be drawn here.

Very sad history at Auschwitz

Very sad history at Auschwitz

Hidden gem of Zalew Zakrzowek

Hidden gem of Zalew Zakrzowek

Rynek Glowny - the centre of Old Town

Rynek Glowny - the centre of Old Town

3 Instagram Photos in Krakow:

1.    Wawel Castel from in front of Trattoria Wawel. (map)

Wawel Castle sunset

Wawel Castle sunset

2.    Arches of Cloth Hall looking at St Mary’s Bascilica (map)

Arches of Cloth Hall

Arches of Cloth Hall

3.    Zalew Zakrzowek: (map) Such a unique place close to centre of Krakow. It’s a perfect spot for drones, action shots of cliff diving in summer and sunset of the white cliffs.

Evenings at Zalew Zakrzowek

Evenings at Zalew Zakrzowek

3 Top Places to Eat:

1.    Plac Nowy for Zapikanka: (map) These are like an open baguette with pizza toppings. You can choose from a large variety of toppings including cheese, mushrooms, vegetables, meats, spices and sauces. In the centre of Plac Nowy is a circle of windows that serve traditional Zapikanka and this is the place to come to try it! There are around 20 window fronts, try either Endzior or Zapiekanki.

2.    Wesola Café (map) & Café Camelot (map): Tough to split these 2 cafes. They are quite different, but both excellent. Wesola being a much more cosmopolitan style that reminded me so much of going to a great café in Melbourne. Café Camelot is a little more unique and traditional, but avoids being bland (at all), the décor is beautiful and its easily the best café close to the main market square. If youy are in Krakow for 2 mornings – spend 1 at each of these! 

3.    Chimney Cake Bakery (map): I have had similar versions of this before, but none come close to the cakes from these stores. Try the one at the north of Old Town – nutella with crushed almonds…………you’re welcome.





























Incredible India Part 1 - Pune

 
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Contributor:
Andy

Nationality:
Australian 

Social Links:
Instagram: @andrewmarty_

Age Group:
30-40

Gender:
Male

Travel Style:
Casual, photography

 

Destination: Pune, India, May 2018

Inspiration:

India had always been a destination that I had planned to travel to, so when the opportunity to combine a trip with my love for sport, it seemed like the perfect timing! The Indian Premier League cricket tournament held each year has rapidly become the highlight of the indian sporting calendar. Through an association with Australian clothing company, Big Dogg Clothing, I had the opportunity to meet with many of the players and go to games.

I also took the opportunity to ensure I had time to dedicate to seeing the sights and experiencing the culture of one of the most fascinating travel destinations in the world. My first stop on a 18 day tour around India would be Pune.

Getting There:

I fly into Mumbai with flydubai. Where I can, I prefer to fly with flydubai as their rates are always the best and I dont tend to need add ons like inflight meals or entertainment, so I prefer to pocket the savings.

I had originally planned to fly into Chennai, however the team playing in Chennai had been forced to move their games due to ongoing protests that had begun to affect the cricket games. So, instead I moved my flight to land in Mumbai and transfer from there to Pune, where Chennai would now play their home game.

Landing at Mumbai airport was far less dramatic than I imagined. Perhaps it was because it was 6:00am, but there was almost no crowd and getting through immigration was really quick. As Australian passport holder, I require only an online visa to enter India - be aware you need to complete this process at least 4 days prior to travel and the online form is quite long. You dont really receive any offical visa or even a pdf - only an email which you can print and take with you.

I spoke to a lot of people about internal transport in India. I had initially intended to use trains as my main way of getting from city to city, however was warned against this for several reasons - there can be long delays, lots of cancellations, they are extremely crowded during holiday times (when I was there) and that using private cars can be far easier. In some situations, even the process of booking train tickets can be a frustrating process - see the review on Agra! So, with that in mind, I actually found using Uber to be a really reliable way to get around India! It was safe, relatively clean and not too expensive. I caught an Uber from from Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (Sahar International) (map) to Pune for Rs3,600 ($50) and it took just over 3 hours. It was an easy drive and we stopped on the way for food. 

Local Knowledge:

I always like to stay connected when I travel - partly to keep up on social media and sports results (no seriously.....), but mostly to remain contactable for family. So I try and get a sim card in the country I land in and load it with internet data. India was one of the more difficult places I have found to get a sim card - so be prepared to use your home sim and pay for some roaming! The shop at the airport weren't open until 10am which was the first problem. Next even at teh shops in Pune, I required a letter from the hotel (police clearance form), my passport, the print out of my visa and a passport photo - so have all these things with you. Even when purchased, the sim card took 2 days to activate. The coverage from my Vodafone sim was average at best. The only positive was that the internet was very cheap!

Where To Stay:

I stayed at Hotel Saga Plaza (map) and found it to be overall very disappointing. The hotel is quite dated, with old furniture and fittings. The rooms are adequate and if you are just looking for a place to sleep it may be sufficient. The disappointing aspect for me was that the staff appeared to show very little interest in their guests, to the point of ignoring you at the front desk - which is not something i had encountered to that extent in many hotels before!

Depending on your budget and expectations, I would likely look elsewhere in Pune. For the same price you are likely able to find somewhere better.

What To Do:

Pune is largely an academic city, with many top Universities. As a consequence the city is home to a lot of younger people either studying or working.

I found the easiest way to get around in most cities in India was via rickshaw - they are cheap, easy to find and for themes part faster than anything else. 

I caught a rickshaw to the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum (map) - which is a quirky collection of everyday items used in Indian life  - everything from spoons, typewriters, doors, artwork and statues. Its an interesting look back at how cultures in Indian have lived over time. Cost is Rs200 for foreigners and extra to use a camera (Rs500). The museum is open from 10am to 5pm.

From there I went to Shaniwar Wada Fort (map)- a palace once occupied by the Peshwar rulers. It was built in 1732 and largely damaged by fire in 1828. The huge fort walls and remained as did the enormous gateway, which was built so large because at the time, the rulers would arrive to the palace on the back of elephants. It is an easy walk around the walls of teh fort and lots of local families come of an afternoon to enjoy the gardens. Entry is Rs200 for foreigners and the gates are open 9am to 5pm

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Somewhere unique to visit close to Pune, which I dignity have time for is the Osho Meditation Resort. There are a long list of conditions, costs and procedures associated with entering the resort as a day guest. It is a luxurious property based around the practices Oshu (Bhagwan Three Rajneesh) a flamboyant "guru" who advocated sex as a pathway to enlightenment!

There is a fun nightlife scene in Pune and somewhere nice to visit on a weekend evening is Classic Rock Coffee Company (map)- a really laid back venue that hosts a lot of live music, including from local performers. It has a very chilled atmosphere and is a great place o go for a drink with friends or to meet people.

Eating:

Pune is a great place to try some traditional Maharashtran cuisine. Definitely find a restaurant serving traditional Thali style meals - you are presented with a large metal plate and the server will come and offer a range of foods which are placed around teh plate and eaten by hand. The dishes are vegetarian and range from very mild to moderately spiced. You will generally have rice, a range of dal, vegetables, pickles, chutneys and breads. It is an experience in itself to not just try the food, but the serving and eating. I ate at Shabree (map) and the food was full of flavour - definitely worth a try when visiting Pune.

There are a number of street food options everywhere in Pune. For the most part during my stay in India, I resisted the temptation of trying the genuine street food from the small stands. I normally love sampling all sorts of street food when I travel, but since i had a tight schedule and cricket games to get to, I didn't take the risk!

Pune has quite a strong food culture with cuisines from all over the world.  It is home to India's only dedicated food magazine - Trofii, so this will be a good start if you are visiting Pune and looking for some culinary inspiration!. I was lucky enough to have dinner with the magazine's director & editor, Vidhya (Instagram: @vidhyatiwari) who shared a lot of insight into the food scene in Pune and India.

Must Do:

My favourite thing to do in almost any city I travel to is to get out and walk around. I will usually try to find out where the local markets are, as thats usually the best place to find as many local people and get a great insight into a city's culture.

Shree Shiva Chhatrapati Market (Pune Yard Market) (map), the local market in Pune is relatively small and is not somewhere to visit for vegetarians or those who get a little queasy. Compared to some other markets I would visit in places like Bangalore, this market isn't really a on the same level. But for me its more about getting out, walking the streets, meeting local people and chatting with them about their lives.

Must See:

My main inspiration to visit India this time was the cricket! So my first IPL really was a highlight! Due to circumstances, this match had been shifted from Chennai to Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium. The stadium isn't actually in Pune and the traffic getting from Pune to the ground meant I probably could've stayed in Mumbai and driven from there! That said, the experience of being in the crowd for a game featuring MS Dhoni's Chennai (who would go on to win the tournament) and Virat Kholi's Bangalore was unforgettable. The atmosphere in the stadiums is intense and the passion the fans have not just for teams, but for individual players is incredible. If you love sport and even more, if you love cricket, make a point of visiting India during the IPL!

Number 1 Travel Tip:

A huge concern for travellers visiting India is staying healthy! For the most part I avoided getting really sick by only drinking bottled water/juices/soft drinks (make sure the seals are genuine and haven't been refilled), not drinking ice cubes, avoiding salad and not eating at the small food stands. I still ate at a lot of local restaurants and cafes and had few issues.

I did take with me all the precautions in terms of electrolytes and immodium in case there was an issue, I got me vaccinations up to do date before I flew and was cautious about hygiene. Standards in India will range from genuine 5 star luxury to literally seeing people defecate in the street next to a restaurant! If you are careful and do a few basic things, you should be fine. I will write a blog on "staying healthy in India soon".

Excess Baggage:

Whilst I never felt unsafe in Pune, or in India for that matter, taking care when crossing roads and in traffic is a priority! The roads are busy, nobody indicates and a short toot o the horn is the only warning you will get as a rickshaw or taxi flies past you!

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Bucharest, Romania - Visit the home of Dracula

 
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The Romanian capital, Bucharest, was a pleasant surprise for a 4 day visit! Be inspired to book a flight to visit the home of Dracula and find out where to go, what to see & where to eat. 

 

Contributor:
Andy

Nationality:
Australian

Social Links:
Instagram: @andrewmarty_

Age Group:
30 - 40 years

Gender:
Male

Travel Style:
Casual
Adventure
Photography

 

Destination: Bucharest, Romania - August 2017

Inspiration:

To be completely honest, Bucharest wasn't a city that had featured on my travel list. The idea to visit the Romanian capital came from seeing a great deal on the flydubai website. It presented an opportunity to visit a really unique destination. I did a quick bit of googling and it looked like a great place to go and explore for a few days - so I booked flights and a couple of hotels.

Getting There:

The international airport is Henri Coanda, also known as Otopeni. It receives flights from a number of European cities, including London. Flydubai has a daily flight departing Dubai and this is an excellent link up for anyone looking to travel via this Middle Eastern hub. Flydubai is a less expensive carrier, giving the option to purchase a ticket without meal and entertainment, which I don't need! The money I save flying with flydubai goes straight into the travel budget for the next trip!

The airport is only relatively small and many people don't speak great English. As you exit on the right hand side, there is a stall that sells Orange mobile sim cards. The internet was quite cheap and worked really well.

From Otopeni airport, you have several options to reach central Bucharest. There is a bus that goes to downtown Bucharest (service 783), you need to purchase your tickets from a machine inside the airport. Some hotels offer a free shuttle service, which if you get might be worthwhile. I found Uber to work extremely well in Bucharest - if you dotty already have the app on your mobile, I would suggest downloading it and starting an Uber account before, it took all the hassle out of getting around. Many people warn against the taxis in Bucharest, whilst others insist the standards have improved in recent years. From my experience, I would avoid the taxis - they will try to rip you off and many look unsafe. 

When I couldn't walk somewhere, I tended to use Uber for short car trips and found it cheap, clean and easy to use! Not once did I have any issues at all.

The bus service in Bucharest works quite well, but it wasn't often where I needed to be.

You can rent bicycles quite cheaply - note you need to purchase a card from one of the I'Velo shops and you can then use this card to swap bikes around the city, which works really well. It looks a little crazy to ride around the main streets but definitely in places like Herastrau Park, taking a bike ride is the ideal way to get around!

Local Knowledge:

Bucharest is a great city to explore on foot. I did a lot of walking in my 4 days there. If you are a phone tragic like me, Google maps is great in Bucharest, especially since most of the places have names in Romanian and English! I have tried to add the google map links below for all the places of interest.

A word of warning for when you are walking around - be very cautious of the cars! They don't always stop at red lights and don't seem to look too carefully for pedestrians, so just always be on the watch!

Where To Stay:

I spent time in 2 hotels just to get a look at 2 areas:

Firstly, I stayed in Concorde Old Bucharest (map)- a 4 star hotel that opened early 2017. I chose this hotel because it had good reviews and its location was perfect for exploring Old Town. It is close to lots of the restaurants, cafes and clubs in Old Town which is perfect if you are planning to experience some of the nightlife in Bucharest. Old Town also has some of the attractions to visit and has a great atmosphere for walking around. The rooms in the Concorde were relatively small and basic. If you are just looking for a base to explore from, its very suitable. The amenities weren't great and there wasn't any complimentary water. The concierge/reception staff weren't great and didn't really have any recommendations for things like places to eat. I would definitely look at staying in or around Old Town if you are wanting to be amongst the night life.

The Bucharest Sheraton (map) is relatively centrally located and is a 5 star property. There was a noticeable difference in the quality and service compared to Concorde and the difference in price wasn't that much. The reception/concierge staff were excellent and gave great advice about places to visit & restaurants. The rooms are very nice, there is a gym/spa thats more than adequate.

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What To Do:

You can divide exploring Bucharest into a few areas:

1. Old Town (Lipscani):

This area of Bucharest has been revamped - the architecture and cobbled streets are largely original, but they have been developed into restaurants, cafes and boutiques amongst some cultural places. The streets are all closed to cars, so its easy to stroll around. At night, many of the areas flood with people and the clubs along Strada Setani are mostly open fronted, creating a great atmosphere.

Curtea Verche: The ruins of the Crown Palace built by Vlad "The Impaler" Tsepes during the 16th Century - a time when Bucharest was first becoming a city. (map)

Biserica Sfantul Anton: Said to be the first church in Bucharest. It is a stunning building that is still in use today. Definitely worth walking through. (map)

Carturesti Carusel : One of the more impressive bookstores you will visit. Really bright and colourful. In addition to books, has lots of music, stationary, toys etc. There is lots to do for kids. (map)

 
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Stavropoleos Monastery: Church built in the 18th Century and still in use today - you will see several nuns and priests going about their rituals inside and around the small garden. The exterior of the church is beautifully decorated and is one of the more impressive pieces of architecture in Old Town. (map)

National Bank of Romania Museum: A large and extremely impressive building that now houses a great collection of old coins. If you are interested in coins and history, the guided tours provide a great insight - the tours run every 2 hours from 10am to 4pm and you need to prebook via the website. (map)

2. Calea Victoriei (Victory Avenue):

A main road that runs North-South through Bucharest. It was the first paved road in Bucharest and one of the only ever wooden paved roads in the world. Its ability to be used in the wet winter months made it a hugely important road in the development of Bucharest and the suburbs either side became very wealthy neighbourhoods. It was re-named "Calea Victoria" in 1878 after the Romanian Independence War - the army would march down this road after passing through the Arch of Triumph. Now, many boutiques and luxury stores line the road. It is a good route to walk up to see many of the interesting features of Bucharest.

Sarindar Fountain: When I visited the exterior was totally hoarded for restoration, however it is said to be quite attractive when lit up at night. (map)

Kretzulescu Church: A small, but very nice looking church that is also still in use. (map)

An old lady feeds pigeons outside Kretzulescu Church

An old lady feeds pigeons outside Kretzulescu Church

Piata Revolutiei (Revolution Square): The focal point of the square is a large monument commemorating those who suffered and died during the 1989 Revolution against communism. Romania and in particular Bucharest has a sad and interesting recent history tied into the Communist regime that ended with the arrest and execution of former dictator Nicholae Ceausescu. The monument is a strange looking one and still draws criticism from locals who claim it lacks context - it has been dubbed the "potato on a skewer". In 2012 it was vandalised with red paint which has never been removed and give the appearance that the "potato" is bleeding. There are several other statues and sculptures around the square. (map)

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Union of Architects: Just around the corner from Revolution Square is a unique building that is a fusion between old and new architecture. An interesting photo is to also include the classic communist architecture of the building behind it. (map)

Central University Library: A really impressive building with a large statue of King Carol I of Romania in front of it. (map)

 
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Museum of the Romanian Peasant: This museum is highly recommended, however it is unfortunately closed for renovations during 2017. There is a small room displaying some photos that is open, but best too wait until it re-opens. (map)

 
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Romanian Atheneum: A really impressive building and garden. It is used for concerts for the George Enescu Philharmonic. You can take a tour inside for 10L, which is really impressive but photos are not allowed. (map)

 
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Anticariat UNU: If you are looking for antiques or especially if you are interested in old books, pay a visit to Anticariat UNU. It is quite close to the Revolution Square. Its a bit crowded inside and not that well organised, but they do have some interesting things. (map)

Arch of Triumph (Arch De Triumf): This monument will have you thinking of the iconic Arch on the Champs Elysee in Paris. The arch was initially hurriedly built in 1878 for then victorious troops to march through. It has since been rebuilt and is still used for military parades to march beneath. The round-about is really busy with traffic and it makes for a nice photo spot at night.  (map)

 
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 3. Palace of Parliament: (map)

The most significant building in Bucharest. It was ordered to be built by Ceausescu during his reign - he wanted a building for all Government affairs and also for he and his family to live. He had become, somewhat justifiably, paranoid with the fear that people within Bucharest wanted to kill him. The design went to great lengths to protect Ceauscesu, including the exclusion of air-conditioning as he believed people would attempt to poison him through this. The building was only 70% completed when he was over-thrown. Following the Revolution, there was debate about what should be down to the building, with many believing it represented communism. The huge cost that had gone into its construction made it almost impossible to destroy and the decision was made to finish its construction and for it to be used as a Parliamentary building and host large events such as weddings.

The building is considered the 2nd largest in the world, after The Pentagon. One of the best view from the outside is from the eastern side - it looks directly at the balcony and is especially impressive at night when it is all lit up. There is a parking lot on the other side of the road and some colourful fountains that provide good vantage points for photography. The North entrance (public entrance) also gives some good views.

Guided tours of the interior cost 30L. You will need to book (get your concierge to call) during the busy times and tours are run in different languages at different times. You will need to bring, and then hand over your passport before entering! So if you are not comfortable with this, you won't be permitted entry. It costs extra to take photos with a camera but is free with phones. The tour is interesting, but doesn't give a deep insight into the history - I found that it was "carefully" worded when talking about Ceausescu. The balcony provides a nice view and was the place where Michael Jackson stood and infamously announced "Hello Budapest". There is also a terrace which apparently provides excellent views of the city, but it was closed when I visited due to "technical difficulties".

4. Parks:

Cismigiu Park (map): The park is around Cismigiu Lake - in the summer you can hire small row boats and in the winter it freezes over for ice skating. Its a nice park to walk through, especially on a Summer evening. There's also a nice terrace restaurant, Gradina Cismigiu (map), that opens in the evenings in the serves a pretty decent gelato with a great view of all the action on the lake. There is an nice photo spot of the Aleea Magnoliei bridge.

Kiselleff Park: Is a small and very green park. Has a small market on Friday mornings. If you don't get to visit, you haven't missed much other than a nice place to sit.

Herastrau Park (Parcul Herastrau): (map) This is the largest park in Bucharest and is situated around the massive land-makde Lake Herastrau. This park is definitely worth spending an afternoon walking around. Inside the park is the Dimitri Gusti National Village Museum - map, which is a large open air display of traditional Romanian dwellings and dating back centuries. There are exhibitions and traditional activities that kids can join in. There are a large number of paths through the park and I would suggest hiring one of the I'Velo bikes (need to purchase a card from one of the offices) from the south-west entrance (near to the Arch of Triumph). You can take cruises on the lake or hire small row boats. There are quite a few restaurant and cafes around the park, however if you are looking for a bit of atmosphere to unwind on a summers afternoon, definitely pay a visit to Beraria (map) - it is set up like a European beer garden with themes of many popular European cities. The food is good and they have a huge range of beers!

5. Other Places of Interest:

Palatul Primaverii (Former house of Nicholae Ceausescu): This is where the former Dictator and his family lived at the time he was overthrown. Ceausescu had made a point of styling individual rooms to replicate places around the world he had visited. You can take a guided tour and they run every 2 hours alternating between Romanian and English on Wednesday through to Sunday. It is best to book as they do get tour groups visit. (map)

 
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Piata Obor (Obor Market): This is the largest fresh food market in Bucharest. For some reason I love to visit fresh food markets in cities I visit - its always a great insight into the local culture. The Obor market is full of fresh fruit and vegetables and many of the flavours of Romanian dishes dominate the stalls - potatoes, tomatoes, garlic and berries! There is laneway after laneway of fresh produce and upstairs is a fresh and preserved meats section. Note, I was warned afterwards that you are not supposed to take photos in the upstairs area, not sure why. Outside, there is the customary stalls of cheap Chinese knock-offs and some more local food stalls. There is also a really great cafe with a bakery that is absolutely a must visit!! It is called Terasa Platou, its not on Google maps but is opposite this pin (map)

Eating:

Something that surprised me a lot was how late cafes and restaurants opened in Bucharest. If you like to go our for breakfast, you might spend a lot of time searching. Even in Old Town where there are lots of small restaurants, most dont open until 10am or more often midday - so hotel breakfasts are going to be almost a necessity! Caru Cu Bere (below) does serve breakfast from 8am if you are in the Old Town area.

I asked around (friends, locals and concierge) and visited the following:

Caru Cu Bere: Located in Old Town, this is a well known restaurant with great quality local cuisine. They're famous for their pork knuckle and sour cabbage. Really nice to sit outside on a summer evening. Meals average around 50L which is quite reasonable. (map)

Saray: Middle eastern style restaurant with really great atmosphere. Always busy and the food is very good. Not expensive. If you are in Old Town I would probably suggest Caru Cu Bere but this is an alternative. (map)

Vatra: Really authentic Romanian restaurant. Make a booking to be seated outside and you will also enjoy a traditional dancing show. If you want to experience some Romanian dishes, this is a good start. The chicken wrapped in cabbage leaves are worth trying! The deserts are nice, but be prepared - they are sickly sweet! I would definitely recommend this for a dinner. (map)

Aubergine: Located in Old Town. This came highly recommended. The food is really great and has a selection of fresh juices,  although the service was really slow. The decor and atmosphere is really nice and the menu is super healthy. The presentation of the food is great! The calamari/prawn with eggplant dish was definitely worth recommending. (map)

Storage Room: Located next to Aubergine. The food is well priced and this is a good spot to have something to eat before having a night out in Old Town. The dishes aren't overly adventurous but are ok. (map)

Dristor Kepap: The classic late night kabab shop. These are really popular with the locals, especially late at night when everything else will be shut. (map)

Other places discussed above include Beraria (Herastrau Park), Gradina Cismigiu (Cismigiu Park), Teresa Platou (Obor Market).

Must Do:

If you get the chance to do a day trip out of Bucharest there are some great places to visit. While I was there many people recommended visiting the town of Brasov - the landscape is meant to be stunning and theres some interesting history. It is a full day or an overnight trip, so you might want to plan this well in advance.

Instead, I took the bus out to the Monastery in Snagov where it is said the body of Vlad "The Impaler" Tepes III is buried. Following his death, his head was taken to Constantinople and his body was buried in a small Monastery on and island in Lake Snagov. Unless you have your own car, you will need to either Uber (which will be expensive) or catch public transport. The small buses are cheap (6 Lei) and relatively easy to catch from the station Piata Presei (map) - there is a small "ticket office" for AXI tours. There are 2 buses that run to Snagov - the 261 will take you to Silistea on the North of the lake and the 262 will take you to a road on the South. I took the 262 and it is a shortish walk to the Hotel Astoria (map). It is a little confusing but from the Astoria it is possible to convince someone to take you for a short boat trip to the Monastery island. The boat ride itself is quite fun and gives a good look around the lake. The man charged me 50 Lei, however this rate seemed that it was quite "flexible" The Monastery itself is small and has some interesting history about Vlad III - entry is a small fee (15 Lei). It remains unclear exactly why he was the inspiration for Bramm Stokers fictional character, Count Dracula - other than his bloodthirsty regime, there is no evidence to suggest he actually drank blood etc. 

Number 1 Travel Tip:

Whilst I never felt "unsafe" in Bucharest, I would advise to avoid the taxis, so downloading Uber on your phone and making sure you pick up a data card makes getting around much easier!

5 Word Travel:

Pleasantly surprising, full of culture.

Excess Baggage:

Bucharest is a city that wasn't high on my travel list.........but I am really glad I booked the flights. I wish I had planned to stay a little longer and spend more time exploring Romania.

San Francisco, USA - 48 Hours in SF

 
 
 

Contributor:
Yvette & Steve

Nationality:
USA

Social Links:
Instagram: @redlenslifestyle
Website: www.redlenslifestyle.com

Age Group:
 

Gender:
Couple

Travel Style:
Adventure, Photography

 

Destination: San Francisco, USA. July 2016.

This beautiful City by the Bay is definitely an experience.  Like many other major cities, it’s divided by neighborhoods each with their own strong personality and characteristics.  We stayed in the Mission District and while it’s known to be “trendy” we actually found it to be more “hipsterish”.   With over priced coffee shops a plenty and various cuisine restaurants filling main street, you’re definitely in the heart of something.  After exploring the city a bit more, I think I would have preferred to stay in the Marina District and visit Mission, but none the less, it was fresh.  Two days is definitely not enough to explore the whole city but it’s a good start.

Where to Eat: You have to get dinner at Tadichs.  It’s actually the oldest restaurant in the country.  Primarily seafood but with steak options as well, this restaurant has a Peter Luger’s decor and feel.  Rustic wood trim and sectioned off areas give the place a historic feel.  Delarosa is a modern Italian Restaurant in the Marina District with great food and even better cocktails.  Continuing the Italian culture of family dining, the restaurant has long tables where guests take seats until the whole table is full.  The burrata bruschetta with honey and hazelnuts is to die for!  For a quick lunch head to the Mission District to Pica Pica.  This colorful Venezuelan joint is known for its Arepa sandwiches.  Grilled corn pockets are stuffed with your choice of meat, vegetables, and sauces; order at the counter, grab a number, and take a seat. Those buns are heaven and the Pulled Pork is to Die for.  But don’t die, just order seconds! Search Eatwith to see if someone is hosting at the time you’re there.  We had dinner with Chef Manville and loved it.  Bon Appetit!

What to Do: Take a walk in Muir Woods.  This boardwalk laid forest is beyond beautiful.  Trees touch the sky and chipmunks dance at your feet (That really happened!).  It’s actually unbelievable and maybe slightly romantic.  In the heart of the Mission District is the Secret Tiled Staircase.  This beautiful mosaic tiled staircase leads to a vantage point that overlooks the whole city.  To find it go to 1700 16th Avenue, 94122.  While you’re there, stroll down through Balmy Alley.  This block of art murals is so unique to the area.  When that’s all over and you need a good sweat, take a Hammer class at The Garage with some professional athletes.  This gym won’t disappoint.

Where to Stay: We found an awesome 1 bedroom Air BnB that we really loved.  Very Feng-shui, the open concept kitchen/living Room really made the space feel much larger than it actually it is.  With floor to ceiling windows and a balcony over looking the district, during the day the sun filled up the entire flat.  Next time though we’ll probably stay in the Marina District.  I think I liked that area more.

 
 

Salalah, Oman - 6 Reasons to Stay at Anantala Salalah

 
 
 

Contributor:
George

Nationality:
 

Social Links:
Instagram: @gmr83
Website: www.georgerishan.com

Age Group:
 

Gender:
Male

Travel Style:
Photography, food, history

 

Destination: Anantara, Salalah, Oman. July 2017

Salalah is one of my favorite cities in the Gulf and Anantara is one of my favorite hotel brands so the fact that the city now has an Anantara hotel meant it was time for another visit.

Salalah is about two hours via a direct flight on flydubai whose schedule allows you to fly in on Thursday afternoon and fly out on Saturday evening to have more time to explore. Check out a previous post I wrote on why you should visit this city.

Anantara Salalah is one of the newest Anantara properties in the world, and has been open since late 2016.

ANANTARA IS A MEMBER OF THE DISCOVERY LOYALTY PROGRAMME, WHICH I HIGHLY RECOMMEND JOINING FOR FREE AS IT OFFERS YOU DISCOUNTS AND OTHER PERKS AT 35 INDEPENDENT LUXURY HOTEL BRANDS, INCLUDING ANANTARA, IN 76 COUNTRIES.

Strategically located between the ocean and a fresh water lagoon, Anantara Salalah, or Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara as it’s officially called, has 30 premier sea view rooms and 10 deluxe rooms with sea or garden views in addition to 96 villas, including 88 private pool villas.. The streets surrounding the resort are filled with coconut and palm trees which you’ll certainly notice as you’re making your way to the entrance. A plantation belonging to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos is also nearby so you know you’re in a good neighborhood

 
 

As with other reviews, I will not focus on the factual information which you can find on the hotel’s website, but I will list the things that I thought were special about this hotel:

1. The Maldivian vibe: Salalah’s location on the Indian Ocean makes it the closest to the Maldives that we will be from Dubai. The fact that Anantara Salalah has villas with private pools overlooking the turquoise/azure waters of the ocean and the nearby fresh water lagoon certainly adds to that exclusive Maldivian vibe that we all crave and often cannot afford!

 
 

2. Food: I usually avoid hotel food like the plague but at Anantara, I know it’s always different from the standard hotel food. On Thursdays, Anantara Salalah hosts a seafood night at one of its three restaurants, which features a seafood component in everything from the soup all the way to the succulent lobster and delicious fish tajine. The hotel is also home to the Mekong restaurant which is probably the most authentic Asian restaurant that I have been to. It serves Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese food (separately, so none of that “fusion” monkey business!). Do not miss out on their delicious appetizers!

 
 

3. Meet the Gurus: I keep being impressed by how pioneering and innovative the Anantara brand is and Anantara Salalah is no different with their introduction of the “gurus” who are individuals each specialized in a certain domain. They now have a wine guru, a healthy juice and smoothie guru, and *drum roll* the Salalah guru. And they do not take the word “guru” lightly — I mean these people are real genuine experts in their fields. My experience was with the Salalah guru, Hussain, a fascinating Salalahlite (is that even a word?!) who may or may not have been born in a cave and who knows the area better than the back of his hand. How well is the “back of his hand” you ask? A day before our excursion I showed him a couple of shaky extremely low resolution pictures that I pulled of the internet of places that I wanted to go to and it literally took him three seconds to figure out where they were and exactly where the photographers were standing when they took the pictures. So if you’re staying at Anantara Salalah, make sure you book Hussain, and even if you don’t do your own research, he has a ton of suggestions for you on where to go based on your interests so have a chat with him before you head out.

 
 

4. Learn about the local history: Dhofar, the name of the province in which Salalah is located, not only has a unique climate to the rest of the Gulf but it also has a bit of history too with studies saying that humans settled here even before the Neolithic Age. A 5-minute drive away from the hotel is the city’s largest archaeological site and a frankincense museum which tells the story of the city’s history as a trade hub in the ancient world. Anantara Salalah not only has a complimentary shuttle to the site and museum, but you’ll also get free access by staying at the hotel. I honestly didn’t have high expectations for the museum at first, but it turned out that they have some really fascinating artifacts with a lot of info on every piece.

 
 

5. Spa: The spa at Anantara Salalah is located relatively separate from the rest of the resort but right across from the main entrance for a quieter experience. The minimalist design and deliciously refreshing beverages served there prepare you mentally for the treatment you’re about to get. I highly recommend the hotel’s signature massage which includes in addition to the actual massage, some stretching and focus on your body’s pressure points. The spa is also home to an aesthetically gorgeous Turkish hammam which wasn’t yet operational when I visited.

 
 

6. The personal and quirky touches: I’m not gonna lie, I do like it when hotel staff remember my name especially if it’s a large hotel. The staff at breakfast even remembered how and when I’d like my coffee and how I liked my eggs! I also liked the quirky subtle touches around the resort, like a customized doorbell with your name on it, and a funny coconut-based weather indicator.

If you’d like to know more about the hotel, you can check its websiteFacebook, or Instagram, or send me an email at hello@georgerishan.com