Interrailing Packages City Guides

Rome - a mini guide

Romantic, majestic and utterly captivating, there is nowhere on earth quite like Rome. If a city were to boast of having it all, that city could easily be Rome. From food to culture, from nightlife to shopping, from architecture to history and, of course, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Vatican City and on and on   - a city bathed in sun and literally dotted with gobsmackingly gorgeous ruins and sights.

But that’s enough eulogising about this sprawling capital of Italy - if you haven’t heard of Rome before, you’ve probably been hiding under a rock since primary school. You know Rome, it’s famous - but what to do when you have two (maybe three) days in the city? Here’s our mini guide to help :)

The essentials - top five

  • Colosseum This awe inspiring monumental ruin is all that remains of the famous 3-tiered Roman amphitheater, once used for bloodthirsty gladiatorial games. The largest amphitheatre ever built, it was 88m long and 156m wide with room for 55,000 spectators. Just outside the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine, a 25m high monument built in AD315 to mark the victory of Constantine over Maxentius at Pons Milvius. The Colosseum is open from 8.30am to 3.30pm daily and expect queues (go early if possible)
  • Pantheon - A former Roman temple dedicated to all the gods of pagan Rome, now a church, the Pantheon was built and dedicated between AD 118 and 125. It is extremely well preserved and boasts a dome as well as Renaissance tombs, including that of Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I as well as the famous Renaissance painter Raphael and his fiancée. Free, which is always a bonus in expensive Rome, and particularly lovely early in the morning or in the evening when the crowds dissipate.
  • Trevi Fountain An aqueduct-fed rococo fountain and one of the oldest water sources in the city, this stunning fountain is home to a series of white stone, sculpted figures. It stands at an impressive  85 feet tall and almost 65 feet wide, spilling roughly 2,824,800 cubic feet of water every day. And, hey, it’s free!
  • St Peter’s Basilica - An Italian Renaissance church in Vatican City, the papal enclave within the city. Its famous dome was designed by Michelangelo and yes you can go all the way to the top where you can enjoy 360 degree views of the city. You can also go downwards - the underground crypt beneath houses the tombs of scores of popes, including the tomb of John Paul II which is in the grottoes below the floor of the Basilica and is free to enter. When the current pope is in residence, he usually appears at his window above St Peter's Square on Sundays at noon to pray and bless the crowd.
  • Sistine Chapel - This famous chapel is based in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City. It is the chapel’s Renaissance frescos which have earned it worldwide fame, particularly the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgment by Michelangelo.

Not to be missed (if you have time)

  • The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill - Located in the same archaeological area, the Forum and the Palatine Hill are adjacent to each other (two birds with one stone). While it may look like a confusing sprawl of ruins, the Forum was actually a centre of political and social activity, including the city’s marketplace, business district and civic centre. Landmark sights include the Arco di Settimio Severo, the Curia, and the Casa delle Vestali; however, it may be worth investing in a tour or guide book to help you navigate your way. The nearby Palatine Hill is the centremost of the seven hills on which Rome was built and, as well as being one of the most ancient parts of the city, was home to aristocrats and emperors back in its heyday,
  • Spanish steps - A set of 138 steps in an irregular butterfly design, linking the lower Piazza di Spagna with the upper piazza Trinita dei Monti and its twin tower Trinità dei Monti church. A traditional meeting place, this area is always buzzing with people and activity. Close by you will find the house where English poet John Keats lived and died; it is now a museum dedicated to his memory.
  • Catacombs and crypts - There are at least forty of these ancient, underground burial places, so it can be difficult to choose which to visit. However, the Catacombs of Domitilla (the only catacombs still containing human remains) and the Catacombs of Callixtus are probably the most popular. The Capuchin Crypts are also a must see, offering a Caravaggio painting (St Francis in Meditation) and a chapel made entirely out of human bones!

The Budget or Broke Recommendation (i.e. free)

Via Vittorio Veneto (or simply Via Vittorio Veneto) -  A symbol of the La Dolce Vita, this was once one of the most famous, elegant and expensive streets in the city and it is still thronged with exclusive hotels, bars and cafes. Take a stroll along and visit the ancient gate, the Porta Pinciana, and the large, city centre Piazza Barberini if you have time (and energy).

Local cuisine

Italy! Pizza, pasta, ice cream = trousers with an elasticated wasitband! Cheap and oh so tasty, try the pizza bianca (foccacia style pizza bread) from a local bakery or grab some delicious suppli (fried rice balls).

Gift ideas

Depending on your budget, everything from an Italian silk scarf to freshly-made chocolates and hey, if those purse strings are tightening, just remember - what mum wouldn’t love a cheap and cheerful Colosseum ornament for her mantlepiece?


Ljubljana - a mini guide

The largest city in Slovenia, Ljubljana offers a leafy, peaceful small town vibe with all the attractions and activities of a cosmopolitan capital city.  

European Green Capital 2016, this mid sized metropolis offers a buzzing centre dedicated (outside delivery hours) to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. Further adding to those environmental credentials, it is also one of the few European capitals offering safe, natural drinking water straight from the tap (or water fountain). However, don’t let all that greenery, sparkling river and picture perfect architecture fool you - with 63,000 enrolled students, the University of Ljubljana is among the largest universities in Europe with a cultural and partying nightlife to match.

If Ljubljana itself isn’t enough, it’s worth noting the location at the centre of Slovenia makes it a perfect base for further exploration, including the Julian alps, and the diamond in its already glittering crown, Lake Bled. We highly recommend you visit Bled island via traditional wooden boat (Pletna) then climb the 99 stone steps to reach the beautiful Assumption of Mary Church. And on your way, don’t forget to take a moment to drink in the stunning views of  the 12th century Bled Castle, standing sentry over the lake on a cliff. Stunning.

If you prefer something a touch more adventurous, then consider visiting the  24,120m long Postojna cave, with its statuesque network of karst tunnels, galleries, and halls. It also boasts the oldest underground post office in the world and the most famous underground animal – the human fish (proteus). If you fancy some overground fun afterwards then the Postojna Adventure Park offers a not-for-the fainthearted trail through the forest via bridges, ladders, ropes and wires.

Top Five To Do List

The Old Town – A tourist hotspot stretching from the banks of the Ljubljanica River to directly below Castle Hill, this is where the work of Jože Plečnik (1872–1957), Slovenia’s famous urban planner shines. Think cobbled streets, arched alleys and monuments as well as bars, cafes, restaurants, shops and, of course, top attractions including Triple Bridge, the river canal, the ornate Franciscan church and Ljubljana castle.

The 16th-century Ljubljana Castle - This complex overlooking the city is the biggest castle in the city and offers a number of interesting museums and historical rooms, as well as galleries, a café, a nightclub, and two restaurants - and of course amazing views from the Outlook Tower. The castle’s courtyard is free to enter if you’re a bit low on funds; though if you have the cash a funicular will take you up the hill and save your pins the walk. Guided tours (Classic or the more fun Time Machine) are available and evening entertainment in the summer ranges from an open air cinema to concerts to dance evenings.  

The National and University Library of Slovenia - Designed by good old Jože Plečnik, this is considered his masterpiece. The two handles on the main entrance door are decorated with the head of Pegasus, a winged horse symbolically guiding you to knowledge. From here, head up the central staircase with its 32 pillars of black Podpeč marble and into the grand reading room, lit by chandeliers and two huge glass walls. Regular library tours for individual visitors are run once a month. Guided tours can also be arranged by prior appointment.

Šmarna Gora - Just five miles outside the city, get your hiking boots on for this strenuous 669m climb (roughly 30-35 minutes). There are a number of different routes up and, once there, you can enjoy a drink, some traditional Slovenian food and those views!

Plecnik's Central market - An open-air and covered market running the breadth of he Ljubljanica river embankment from the Dragon Bridge to Triple Bridge. Here you can pick up fresh Slovenian fruit, vegetables, dry-cured meat, bread and so on - perfect if you’re cooking or picnicking, and a nice walk to drink in the atmosphere if you’re not. Sunday’s flea market finishes at 2pm and offers a lovely Sunday morning stroll through antiques, memorabilia and bric a brac.

The budget or broke recommendation (ie free)

Grab a selfie at the art nouveau Dragon bridge, adorned with four dragon statues that could be straight out of Game of Thrones.

Local cuisine

As with all cities, Ljubljana offers a wide variety of restaurants, cafes and food stalls. Highly recommended though, if the timing suits, is the weekly Friday Odprta Kuhna food market (10am to 9/10pm, early spring to late autumn).

If you’re looking for something traditionally Slovenian, then the Kranjska klobasa (Carniolan sausage) or Prekmurska gibanica (Prekmurje layered cake) might be worth a try. There are also three wine-growing regions in Slovenia so a wee tipple might just help wash it all down.

Gift ideas

A sample of the local arts and crafts, from crockery to glass to Idrija lace, is always a lovely way to remember your visit, as well as supporting local artisans. A dragon is the city’s symbol so look for this on your giftware for that authentic feel. If that doesn’t float your boat, look out for a piece of Yugoslav Republic memorabilia at the Sunday flea market.

*Picture of Ljubljana by Flickr user, Lorenzo Magnis. Used under the Creative Commons licence:
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/




Paris - a mini guide

The city of love, renowned for its art, culture, gastronomy, history, nightlife, people - how on earth do you pen a mini guide about a city with such an expanse of, well, everything? Not such an easy task, but we hope we have given it a go and we hope it will give you Interrailers just a flavour of what this gorgeous, melting pot of a metropolis has to offer.

The essentials - top five

  • Eiffel Tower - Situated on the Champ de Mars, no visit to the French capital is complete without a visit to this great, iron structure, the grand Tower, which has become synonymous with the city. There are  three levels for visitors to enjoy the views, with restaurants on the first and second levels.

  • Notre-Dame - The bells, the bells! This imposing, medieval Catholic cathedral is situated on the Île de la Cité in the fourth arrondissement of Paris. As well as being simply stunning in its own right, the cathedral is famous as the home of the fictional Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell ringer who dreams of seeing life outside the bell tower. The cathedral has 10 bells, which are tolled to mark the hours of the day and various occasions and services.

  • Musée du Louvre - The biggest and most famous museum in Paris, this monumental (it has 70,000 pieces of art and over 650,000 square feet of gallery space) structure is home of the Mona Lisa, The Raft of the Medusa and Venus de Milo

  • Pont Neuf - The oldest standing bridge (Pont Neuf actually means new bridge, lol) across the river Seine, it features an equestrian statue of Henri IV and the 12 rounded arches each have a keystone carved with humorous grotesques fact fans!

  • Sacré-Cœur - The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, this Roman Catholic church is based at the summit of the butte Montmartre, the highest point in the city at 430 ft high, and is another of the city’s most memorable icons.

Not to be missed (if you have time)

  • Champs-Elysées - This lengthy avenue is home to the usual mishmash of mega-brands, from Abercrombie & Fitch, Louis Vuitton and Gucci to McDonalds and Adidas, you would expect for such a famous landmark. However, don't let the same old (or uber expensive) shops put you off, the Champs is worth a stroll along if nothing else but to say you've been there, done that and, of course, you can always pop into the Arc de Triomphe for that spot o cluture with your McFlurry.

  • Montmartre - As well as being home to the Sacré-Cœur (and the Moulin Rouge cabaret house, pictured)  this buzzing district retains a certain artsy intimacy amongst its cobblestones and steep, winding streets. The village is also home to the Boulevard de Clichy, renowned as the city’s red light district…

  • River Seine - Give the tootsies a rest and take a water tour along the river Seine, which cuts through the heart of the city.

  • Saint Germain des Pres - While not quite what it was in its heyday in the 40s and 50s, this quarter is still quite the sophisticated little hotspot, and offers shops, cafes, museums and galleries. It is Paris so yes, expect crowds, but it is a picturesque neighbourhood well worth a meander through and is a lovely spot for some people watching.

The Budget or Broke Recommendation (i.e. free)

The Trocadero - these gardens are where to enjoy the best views of the Eiffel Tower (night and day) and, if that isn’t enough, you can also relax, grab a bite to eat and and sun yourself beside the famous Warsaw fountains.

Local cuisine

It’s Paris. Everything, with chocolate. If you’re on a budget then try the Croque-monsieur, an oozy ham and chees grilled sandwich, or pick up a croissant, a filled baguette or a pan au chocolat.  If you’re not on a budget then this is the city for fine dining so go wild!

Gift ideas

If you're on a romantic getaway then an engagement ring perhaps? Or maybe just a mini Eiffel Tower on a keyring…

Making the most of your visit

The Paris Passlib is the official pass from the city and, dependent on the type of pass you buy, gives you admission to leading museums and monuments in Paris and Ile-de-France, as well as sightseeing tours and unlimited transport in zones 1 to 3. It is  available for 1 (the Paris Passlib’ Mini) , 2, 3, or 5 days (these versions include a ticket for unlimited travel in zones 1 to 3) so choose the version that best suits your plans. More info, including how to buy, is available here.

Photographer credit: Alison Wright.


 

Dubrovnik – a mini guide


In a nutshell

Situated by the deep blue waters of the Adriatic Sea, in Southern Croatia, is the magnificent walled city of Dubrovnik. A UNESCO world heritage site since the late 70s, the city is becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination and, offering sunshine and beaches alongside its city culture, architecture and history, it's easy to see why.

In another string to the city’s bow, Dubrovnik has also become renowned as a filming location too. Put firmly on the Game of Thrones map, the city has doubled as King’s Landing, the fictional capital of the realm’s seven kingdoms. For true GoT aficionados (or anyone interested) there are Game of Thrones walking tours, hosted by “in the know” guides who are likely to regale you with all the filming and location information you need, as well as some backstage gossip.

The sun and the sea means peak season (July to August) are busy, busy, busy while the low, winter season, from November to around Easter, can be a tad lonely with a lot of businesses shutting up shop for the season. The optimal time is the mid seasons, May to June, September to October, where the weather is still good and there is plenty happening. Be advised though – the city’s popularity means it is more expensive than other Croatian cities, but beautiful Dunbrovnik is well worth it.

Top Five To Do List

Walking the walls – No visit to the city is complete without a good hike around the famous (and magnificent) city walls. The views across the old town and the sparkling Adriatic are truly sublime. The are entrances from near the Pile Gate (the busiest entrance), the Ploče Gate (gets the steepest climbs out of the way first) and the Maritime Museum. Bring water and sunscreen, there is little shelter when you’re on the walls.

Rector’s Palace – This gorgeous Gothic-Renaissance palace was built in the 1400s as the seat of the elected rector of the Republic of Ragusa, housing his private chambers, public halls, administrative offices and (woohoo) a dungeon. Today the palace has been turned into the Cultural History Museum where you can view the richly appointed offices and quarters of the Rector, plus the arsenal, courtroom and prison cells.

Cable car– What better way to see the city on a sunny day than by cable car? Buy a one way ticket up, enjoy a drink in one of the two viewing terraces then savour the glorious views by walking the trail back down the mountain (or not, they do return tickets too so never fret if yiu're nothing the walking type).

Visit the old town – This historic area is, of course, Dubrovnik’s must see spot and it is lovely to melt into the crowd and just enjoy strolling along, soaking in the sights - the ancient stone walls, the medieval ramparts, the white sheets drying in the sun, the chatter and hubbub. The main entrance from the city centre is through the Pile City Gate, overlooked by two forts: Minčeta with views across the city and Bokar, looking out for enemies approaching by sea. from the south.

Lokrum island – Dubrovnik’s beaches are gorgeous but they can get crowded so why not take a taxi boat from Dubrovnik's old port to the forested island of Lokrum. The beaches are rocky but clean and safe, and there is even a nude beach should you fancy it. Bored with sunbathing? Visit the 19th-century Napoleonic Fort Royale, which has stunning views of the Old Town.

The Budget or Broke Recommendation (i.e. free)

Take a stroll along Placa (or Stradun) street, pictured above, which divides the city into its northern and southern halves. This beautiful pedestrian-only area boasts a number of beautiful attractions (the Onofrio Fountain, the Romanesque Church of the Savior, now a concert venue, an ancient tower clock, the town square dominated by the Church of St Blaine and a Franciscan Monastery) as well as lots of lovely cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops.

Local cuisine

Given the Adriatic is on the city’s doorstep, it's no surprise that fresh fish and seafood feature heavily on local menus, from octopus salad, black risotto to whole fresh fish (sea bass, grouper, scorpion fish, pilchards, mackerel, sea bream). Fish is usually grilled, drizzled with garlic and olive oil and a served with a lemon wedge.

Gift ideas

Tourism is a big industry here so there is lots of the usual souvenir tat on offer, and what's wrong with a Dubrovnik key ring anyway? The local olive oil is a lovely gift for those at home (though tough to cart around in a backpack if you’re heading back on the Interrailing trail), or if you want to splash the cash then grab a handmade silk tie, one of the best known Croatian souvenirs.

Picture credit: Juriann Teulings


 

Bruges – a mini guide


In a nutshell

Described by Lonely Planet as a “fairy-tale medieval town”, when it comes to quaint beauty and an old Europe feel (cobbles, canals, spires and towers), the centre of Bruges doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it is one of the most well preserved medieval towns in Europe and its centre has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 2000.

Situated in northwest Belgium, in the province of West Flanders, weather wise, Bruges isn't the place to go for endless sunshine – it can be colder and damper than other Central European spots. Be prepared for the odd rain shower, even in summer, and wrap up well in wine. However, don't let the odd drop of rain out you off – picture postcard Bruges has a charm all of its own which is worth packing a brolly for.

Top Five To Do List

The Belfry – Bruges’ most famous landmark is its imposing 13th century Belfry situated in Market Square. There are 366 steps to the top (it is narrow too so prepare for a tight squeeze) and it holds 47 bells, which may prove rather loud if you happen to be at the top as they ring out. The building also leans 87cm to the east fact finders so no, your eyes aren't deceiving you - it isn't straight!

The Markt (Market Square) – Home to the Belfry as well as the Provincial Court and the statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, this is a lovely little spot (aside from the usual tourist shops) for a walk around or to catch up on some people watching. Every Wednesday the market comes to the Markt so if your schedule suits pop down on a Wednesday and see the array of Flemish produce on offer.

Take a canal tour – Bruges has been dubbed the Venice of the North with its cross crossing waterways offering some unmissable views, plus it gives your tootsies a break from the cobbles.

The Stadhuis (City Hall) – One of the oldest city halls in Belgium, this rather imposing Gothic building boasts a beautiful interior which includes a golden ceiling and walls decorated with depictions of historical events. While you are in the area, nip over to the nearby Basilica of the Holy Blood too. Built in the 12th century, this minor Basilica is famed as the home of the relic of the Holy Blood (a vial of blood said to be that of Jesus Christ).

The Begijnhof – This gorgeous garden complex includes a church and a 17th century dwelling open as a four room museum (complete with a blue and white tiled kitchen and a rather austere bedroom). This little gem is also home to a convent of Benedictine nuns which helps with the air of calm but be warned – it does get busy, go early if you can.


The Budget or Broke Recommendation (i.e. free)

Feeling romantic then head to the small but gorgeous Hof Arents park. There you can view the Knights of the Apocalypse sculptures and enjoy the view from the cute little hump back Bonifacius bridge, also known as Lovers’ Bridge.

Local cuisine

It’s Belgium so indulge in a little chocolate heaven from one of the many chocolate shops. You could even be really, really bad and throw in a delicious Belgian waffle with chocolate on top. And wash it all down with a Belgian beer (Bruges has three working breweries – Bourgogne des Flandres, De Halve Maan and Fort Lapin). You are on holiday after all!

Gift ideas

Bruges is renowned for its lace (a special kind of part lace, with pieces made then joined together later to make the final lace). There is even a lace school (and museum) called the Kantcentrum. So you could get hands on and try making some lace, or just buy a doily for your mum.

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