THE LONDON GUIDE - THIRTY-FIVE FREE THINGS TO DO IN LONDON

I have avoided sharing a London guide for the last year and a half because there is just so much to do/see/ eat and pulling a post together was a tad daunting. I decided to break up the blog posts between the attractions; the food; markets; festivals, etc. and that way it seemed significantly less daunting. Kicking off the London series with a list we can all get on board with - FREE. Thirty-five things you can see and do in the city without spending a penny

London
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1. See Big Ben. If you are visiting before summer 2020, you will likely find this icon covered in scaffolding for long overdue renovations; but that does not make it any less of an iconic site in the city. Stop by to visit and explore the area around Big Ben; stroll along Westminister bridge including an incredible view of the London eye (riding the London eye will cost you money, but you can see it for free).

2. Visit the Tate Modern. Perhaps one of my favorite museums in London (and the World). I love this museum for so many reasons including the view of the St Paul’s from the 6th-floor cafe - very few views of St. Paul’s Cathedral as amazing as this one. The permanent exhibitions are free to see; a temporary exhibition carries a price tag.

3. Visit Regent's Park. Visit Queen Mary's garden to see the most extensive collection of Roses in London; pack a picnic and have a lazy afternoon exploring the grounds. If you are feeling to a trek/light workout, then make your way across the park to Primrose Hill.

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4. Hike Primrose Hill. The hill is located on the northern side of Regent's park and on a clear day you get a clear view of central London; Belsize Park and Hampstead.

5. Visit platform 9 3/4. London is home to several Harry Potter specific sights; you can catch the play or take a Harry Potter tour of London and while all of those will cost you. Visiting Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross (outside the Harry Potter shop) is free. The queue can be long, but it is always orderly.

6. Visit the sky garden. Spectacular view of the city from the Sky Garden; if you are in search of greenery in the cold months or just want a fantastic city view - head over to the Sky garden. While it is free, you have to reserve a spot on their website here and make sure to arrive early. There are restaurants and bars you can dine at with a reservation which also gets you access to the garden. However, if you just want access to the garden - reserve your spot and prepare to be awed.

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7. (Window) Shop on Oxford Street. Oxford Street is one of the busiest shopping street in the world and while I try to avoid it as much as possible - if you are visiting here; I think it is a spot to visit at list once. Stop by Selfridges for the ultimate window shopping.

8. Visit the National Gallery. Located on Trafalgar Square, the national gallery is a personal favorite in the city; it is home to over 2,000 paintings some of which date back to the 13th century.

9. Explore Kensington Gardens. Access to Kensington palace requires a ticket (paid ticket); However, exploring the gardens is entirely free home to one of the city's most ornate monuments - the Albert memorial. It is also home to the statue of Queen Victoria and Peter Pan. You can also visit the Italian garden or wander the allotment.

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10. Watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. This generally occurs on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sundays at Buckingham Palace. The ceremony begins at 11 a.m., but you are advised to get there early - I recommend taking your spot no later than 10:15 a.m. The celebration lasts about forty-five minutes. Before visiting, you can confirm the dates and times of the event here.

11. Visit Holland Park and the Japanese Garden. One of the lesser know parks for those who do not live in London; but a very favorite destination for residents. There is quite a bit to see/explore here, but my favorite spot is the Japanese garden. Watch the majestic peacocks and if you visit at the right time in spring - you can photograph the most beautiful cherry blossoms.

12. Explore Portobello Market and Notting Hill. While it was the backdrop for the famous 90's RomCom featuring Julia R and Hugh G; the market is famous all by its self. It is the most notable street markets in Europe where you can shop for antiques; second-hand clothes; food; and enjoy street performances. - then you already know about Portobello road and the market which was featured in the movie Notting Hill.

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Portobello Market
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13. Flower shopping at Columbia Street Flower Market. This Sunday market is one of my favorite things to do on Sundays. Come rain or shine, the market is open till 1 p.m., and you can pick up the lushest floral arrangements. The area around the market has also got some fantastic bakeries; restaurants and coffee shops so you can make a day of exploring this part of London.

14. The Mayfield Lavender Farm. This is not free, but for 1 pound admission fee it might as well be. While Provence will always hold the price for sighting lavender; a very (close) second best is the Mayfield Lavender farm.

15. Recreate the Album Cover on Abbey Road. Warning - do this at you peril. This is a bustling road; but if you are patient and plan accordingly, you can recreate the iconic Beatles album cover on Abbey Road, just outside the studio where some of their hits were recorded.

16. Explore Borough Market. This is possibly the most known street food market in Europe; obviously, you have to pay to eat here (and I highly recommend it and have shared a post here to help you with the dining options); but you can also just walk through the market taking in the sights and scents and characters of the market.

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17. Visit Barbican Conservatory. I cannot think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Keep in mind the conservatory is only open certain Sundays and bank holidays during the year; it is the second largest conservatory in the city, and it is entirely free to visit. For a fee, you can also have afternoon tea in the conservatory; afternoon tea requires reservations on the conservatory website.

18. Visit Somerset House. Somerset house is known for its winter skating rink; During the summer months, the water fountains are a perfect destination to cool off from the summer temperatures. The house also hosts several exhibitions during the year; most of which are free including free guided tours three days a week.

19. Photo op at Trafalgar Square. The iconic Trafalgar square is one of the most known public squares in Europe and if you are heading to the National gallery; then you are already there; get your picture in the iconic square with the fountains as a backdrop; if you are visiting London at Christmas, don't miss the annual Norwegian tree.

20. Spend an afternoon at Neal’s Yard. Hidden down a tiny/narrow street in the seven dials; this is one of the prettiest streets in the city and while it covers a small area; you can spend hours here. It is a destination for locals and visitors alike with a variety of shops, spas; coffee bars, and restaurants.

Neal's Yard
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21. Explore Covent Garden. If you are visiting Neal's yard; then you should make a stop to Covent Garden for a shopping and food experience that is uniquely London; you will also find the transport museum here (paid), and you can take in a variety of street performances.

22. Explore the colorful streets of Hampstead. Hampstead does not come up on a lot of London guides, but you will be doing yourself a disservice if you don't explore this part of London. It is like a village within the city. My favorite way to explore is on foot starting from the high street; then on to the Holly Bush; Hampstead Heath; Flask wall and others.

23. Explore the Natural History Museum. This is one of my favorite destinations to escape to in London; entry is free, but you may have to pay to visit a special exhibition. It is located in South Kensington and if you are already here; you should plan to stop by the Victoria and Albert Museum

24. Visit the Victoria and Albert Museum. While the museum is free; a donation is requested (if you can) and why not. The museum is the world's largest museum of applied and decorative arts and design including Michaelangelo's David. When you are done exploring, you can retire to one of the three cafes on the grounds for nourishment; treat yourself to afternoon tea in the historic Morris room (Fridays only) - reservations required. There is also a kid-friendly courtyard for your little ones to run around.

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London

25. Walk along Tower Bridge. It will cost you to visit the tower bridge exhibition aka the glass floor above the bridge; however, the trek across the bridge is free, and you can plan your itinerary to coincide with the lifting of the drawbridge. You can find the lift schedule here. The closest train station to access the bridge is Tower-hill.

26. Stroll along the Thames. The Thames path is about 23 miles long starting at Hampton court to the Albert Bridge with lots of beautiful scenery along the way, so I don't propose you trek it all; pick a start and stop point and stick to that. Save the rest for a different trip.

27. Explore Street Art in Shoreditch. You can pay a tour guide to take you around the area to see all the street art, or you can save your coins and wander Shoreditch on your own. You will have the best luck spotting street arts on these streets - Shoreditch high street; Fashion Street; Brick lane and Toynbee Street.

28. Explore Tate Britain. Not to be confused with the Tate Modern; The Tate Britain is a must visit - it holds the most extensive collection of British art after the National Gallery. The art collection, which includes the works of Turner; Reynolds and Hogarth is exceptional

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29. Complete the South Bank Walk. The South Bank walk itself begins at Westminster bridge and ends at St. Pauls. However, my favorite bit is abridged. I start at Borough market and trek along the bank toward Tate Modern; passing Shakespeare globe along the way; I like to make a stop in at the Tate Modern to take in the latest exhibition before making my way across Millenium footbridge to get to St. Paul. For the best view of the Cathedral, head over to the rooftop terrace at One New Change.

30. Explore the British Museum. It reportedly is home of a permanent collection of over eight million works of art sourced during the era of the British empire.

31. Visit the House of Parliament. Watch British democracy unfold at the house of Commons or House of Lords. To observe the proceedings, it is recommended you reserve well in advance.

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British Museum

32. Visit St James Park. At watching the changing of the guides; take time to explore St. James Park. The park is in proximity to Buckingham Palace and other landmarks and includes the mall and horse guard parade.

33. Explore Camden Market. Another favorite market - we have got a load of those here; I love Camden market because it still seems like a secret place for locals and it has got vintage shops; food and artisans - everything my heart craves.

34. Stop by Picadilly Circus. This round open space is one stop I recommend you make at night - it is so much more magical at night. It located in London's West End and connected Piccadilly to Regent-street.

35.Watch Deers at Richmond Park. Charles, I created the park in the 17th century as a deer park, and you can see these beauties on a trek across the park. A trip to Richmond park can take up to an hour and a half depending on your base in the city so plan accordingly.

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Camden market
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HOW TO PREPARE FOR A MOVE ABROAD - 17 THINGS YOU SHOULD DO BEFORE YOUR MOVE

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It has been about fourteen months now since I packed up a decade of doing life in Dallas to move to London. It has been a roller coaster of a move and while I have settled in a lot of areas; there are still days I feel completely out of my depth. One thing that has kept me moving forward has been this space and I am hoping this year; in addition to the travel guides; I can also share the practical ways to travel more and fit that around your work life. Now on to the point of this post, I did not realize how much was entailed in moving countries and there I a few things I wished some one told me before I started the process and ultimately made the plunge. I am not saying it will have impacted the decision to move, but I will have planned better and sooner. If you are thinking of moving abroad for whatever reason, here are twenty things to keep in mind as you prepare. Some will be no brainers and other mights surprise you like it did me.

1. Cancel your services. Make a list of your monthly bills; if you tend to have direct debit set up for your bills; it helps to print out a copy of your bank statement to help you make a list of all of the services I needed to cancel/defer. Some of the more common ones are car insurance; rental insurance; Appliance rentals; toll tags; utility service; cell phone; internet service needs to be suspended or canceled; streaming service that will not work in new home country. Because I travel back to the states a few times, I chose to downgrade my cell phone service to the cheapest option available.

2. Submit your move out notice if renting or Put property up for rental. Most apartments will charge an additional fee if you give less than 60 days move out notice; so as soon as you know you are moving, submit that notice immediately. If you are moving before your lease is up; you may incur cancellation fees. In my case it was one month rent (and my contract did not reimburse me for that). If you own your place, make plans to put it up for rent or sale.

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3. Cancellation fees. The sooner you start prepping for your move the better. Don't forget to factor in cancellation fees for apartment lease; cell phone; utilities etc in your move budget. Those add up to a lot of money.

4. Credit Cards - I recommend keeping at least one credit card open even if you are making a permanent move; it always helps to have that financial connections if you decide to return. One of my colleagues move back to the UK after almost two decades of living state side and it was very useful to have maintained their banking here while they were away; they avoided the hassle that is the process of setting up a bank account/line of credit in the UK. My credit facility in the UK does not offer similar perks as the one in the US i.e. airline/hotel points ; cash back; no foreign fees so I often use my US credit card when traveling. Just make sure to update your travel alerts appropriately.

5. Make a declutter schedule. Start by getting rid of any items you would (should) have gotten rid of move or not. . Hopefully, you have ample notice before you have to move. When you think a move is probable, start decluttering. Don't underestimate what you have accumulated over the years. Be brutal with the process. This process will help streamline the items to ship; store or donate. This is one I wish I did; I crammed everything into the last month of my move and barely slept the entire month.

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6. Schedule Donation Pickup. In line with point 4, figure out what items you are packing and what you are donating early and schedule pickup. Organizations like Salvation army will come pick up donations but require time. I scheduled mine three weeks ahead of schedule and I barely got a date that will not conflict with my actual move date. You also want to do this early one so you have time to clean the property especially if you are renting.

7. Excess luggage vs. shipping. If you will staying in temporary housing while you settle into your new home country. Consider shipping some of your possessions instead of having to log it from airport to temp accommodation and then to the my new home. You can request the shippers deliver it to your new home once you have permanent accommodation sorted. This is another reason to start preparing early, various countries have different requirements for shipping items in and these may be burdensome process. A week before my move, I decided to pay for excess luggage to move my possession because the paperwork involved with shipping was time consuming and tedious. Shipping would have been cheaper.

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8. Store ; Ship or Sell. If you are temporarily moving you might consider storing some your items that you won’t be need i.e. furniture or car. I chose to sell my car and furniture. I donated all of my kitchen appliances and moved personal items only. I have 8 bags; a carry on and a backpack (don’t judge, I had a lot of shoes).

9. Make plans for your mail. Switch as much as you can to electronic mailing only and for everything else, find a mail service that can sort and forward your mail to you. I could not find one in the time I had to move; thankfully family and friends have been kind to store my mail in my absence. If you use a mailing service, don't forget to get a notarized form 1583 for your mail forwarding service - most mail forwarding companies will require this of you.

10. Schedule appointment with Healthcare providers. Get your annual physical done; visit your dentist and ophthalmologist before you leave and while you have health insurance. It might take weeks or months to find a healthcare provider in your new home. I fell ill within a few months of moving here and have had to pay out of pocket for all my doctor visits. While you are at, make sure to get prescriptions filled for you needed medications.

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11. Make a to-do list for your new home. if you are going short-term - have a to-do list of all the non-work stuff you want to experience and do. Let's face it - work experience was only 50% of why you chose the expat life. If it is a permanent move, then maybe you need not worry and focus on settling into your new home.

12. Make a shopping list. This should be of items you make not be able to purchase in your new home country. I absolutely love the first aid beauty red clay skin care line. The brand is not available in the UK or Europe and I will need to pay to have it shipped to me. Thankfully, I was aware of this early one and order a few back-ups to bring with me.

13. Professional licenses and Continuing education. Look into whether you can defer compliance while abroad or if CPEs taken abroad will be considered towards your CPE requirements. If not (and you want to keep current on your license) then you have to make sure to schedule time while abroad to keep up with your CPEs.

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14. Update your calendar for birthdays; anniversaries; profession certification renewal and any important dates of your nearest and dearest.

15. Make one last visit to your favorite places. My friend "S" gave me this advice and I cannot stress how important this was to me to have one final drink at my favorite wine bar; mani/pedi at my favorite spa.

16. Inform people. Believe it or not, this is one that actually gets lost the process and you don't want people sending a search party for you.

17. Schedule a going away party. You want to spend some time with your favorite people before moving on to new adventures and you can one final goodbye and not fifty mini good byes. Time is of the essence that last month before your move.

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WHAT TO DO WITH 24 HOURS IN VERONA, ITALY

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Verona, Italy

We were in Milan for a few days and had planned to spend a day in  Lake Como and Bellagio. It had always been on the bucket list and this trip to Italy was going to be the one we got to tick this off the bucket list. Mother nature had other ideas though - we woke up to rain and thunderstorms in Milan and surrounding areas and Lake Como was a no-go. We explored multiple options including Bergamo; Venice; and Verona. Venice was at the top of the list but I had been there the weekend before and other members of my party were saving Venice. Our hotel concierge recommended Verona over Bergamo so after a lazy morning we set out for Verona via train from Milano Centrale.  The train ride took about an hour and a half plus a twenty minutes bus ride to the city and we were ready to start off our day in Verona. If you can, I think the city deserves a weekend to fully enjoy it, but if like us, you don't have the luxury of a weekend, I think a day gives you a glimpse to the heart of this artist hub also known as the city of love. Here is what we got up.

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Verona, Italy
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Arena de verona. The arena is right in the heart if the city in Piazza Bra.  In the summer months, you can catch a show here and when our hosts in Milan heard we were heading to Verona. He could not stop gushing about the shows hosted at the arena (which looks something like the Roman coliseum. The elaborate set design available for public viewing in the piazza held promise of soemthing spectacular behind the arena walls. Unfortunately we were out of luck getting tickets.

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Verona, Italy

Via Mazzini. If you looking to do some shopping, then Via Mazzini is where you want to spend your time. It is very busy street  lined with both high street brands and big designer shops. If you have more than twenty four hours in the city then you have head to the designed outlets in Lake Garda. It was highly recommened and may just be a reason to plan a return trip to Verona. Don't limit yourself to the main avenue, take a detour to side streets for hidden archictecture gems.

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Piazza delle Erbe. At the end of Via Mazzini to the left, we stumbled on Piazza delle Erbe. The Piazza seemed to be heart of the city housing both history and present. The square is lined with quaint architecture; restaurants; cafes and bars with a day market operating in the center of the square. The square is also home to Torre del Gardello and Fontana del Madonna.

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Palazzo Maffei. Located in Piazza della Erbe. The baroque facade of the Palace cannot be missed. The top of the facade facing the Piazza has six statues of greek divinities - Hercules ; Jupiter; Venus; Mercury; Appollo and Minerva. If you have time to explore the interipr. It is home to a helicodia stone staircase that makes for spectacular photographs.

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Verona, Italy

Piazza dei Signori. From Piazza Delle Erbe, walk through the Costa Arch to arrive in Piazza del Signori. The square is less busy than Piazza delle Erbe but dont let that put you off. The Piazza is the perfect place to view the facade of the domus nova; renaissance loggia del consiglio and the monument of Dante. Just off the Piazza is small arch leading to Mercato Veccho (Old Market) with the Scala della Ragione (Stairs of Reason); home to the Modern art gallery of Verona and Torre dei Lamberti (aka tower of love) which offers incredible views of the city from the bell tower. 

Verona, Italy
Verona, Italy

Scaliger Tombs. Because Verona was a sponteneous trip, I did not have the luxury of planning. I left the rest of my party at Via Mazzini to wander off  on my own. I stumbled on Scaliger tombs in the process. The tombs is located outside church of Santa Maria Antica. It is a gothic style monument to celebrate the Scaliger family who ruled Verona in the 14th century. As an architecture fan, I can tell you I have never seen anything quite like it and it ranks high up there in my book. Also, pictures don't do it justice.

Verona, Italy
Verona, Italy
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Casa de Romeo. Just down the road from the tombs, I stumbled on Casa de Romeo. Yep ! that Romeo - the one from Romeo and Juliet. I heard some tour guide say they are no 100% sure it is his house but given the information available - it is most likely than not it is his house. Take that as you will. 

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Casa de Guillitte. Not too far from Casa de Romeo was Juliet's house. Compared to Casa de Romeo, there is no doubt this place was "Juliet's home". There is a museum in her honor and you can go up to the balcony for a photo op and re-live moment from the fmaous Shakespeare tragedy. In the courtyard, there is a statue of her which you can touch in hopes of finding love in your life.

Verona, Italy
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Ponte Pietra. Wandering through narrow roads, I found myself at Ponte Pietra which is the oldest bridge in Verona and offers an incredible view of Castel San Pietro and a panaromic view of the city. I am told the bridge has a history like the city and if you are a fan of architecture, the history is one to look up. If you are not, it is still a great spot to visit in Verona. 

Verona, Italy

Castel San Pietro. Before planning out sponteneous trip to Verona, I knew exactly two things baout the city Castel San Pietro and Lake Gardi. Unfortunately, I could not see the latter due to the short visit and the rain which eventually caught up with us in Verona. The rain also ruined plans to hike up to Castel San Pietro, instead, I admired it from the banks of Ponte Pietra. It is quite impressive.

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I think we could have done and seen a lot more than we did but we spent about two hours of our time there in Zara hiding from the rain. I found my new favorite summer shoe in the process so I am not complaining. Don't leave Verona without having a meal. One of the best meals I have had in Italy was in Verona at a spot called Ristorante Greppia - the Caprese salad was divine.

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Verona, Italy
Verona, Italy
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Verona, Italy
Verona, Italy

EDINBURGH CITY GUIDE - A WEEKEND GUIDE TO EXPLORING SCOTLAND'S CAPITAL

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This hilly capital city of Scotland is a must-visit. I have been visiting the United Kingdom since I was 17 and never got around to visiting the other Countries in the Kingdom which includes Wales; Northern Ireland and Scotland. I have spent all of my visits in England and I have only just realised how much of a disservice I have done to myself by doing that - one of my travel goals this year is to visit all the Countries in the United Kingdom. If you are already in London this should be an easy fete to accomplish. I got to spend my last birthday in Edinburgh with my Mom and we had an incredible time in the city.

TIME OFF WORK. I took a week off work while my Mom was visiting. We were on the first flight out of Luton airport to Edinburgh on a Tuesday morning and returned to London on a late evening flight on Thursday. However, this is a trip (and itinerary) that is perfect for a weekend getaway with no need to use up your vacation days. Arrive Friday evening and leave Sunday evening (or Monday morning).

Edinburgh

GETTING AROUND. There is a bus service that runs from the airport into the city center with multiple stops along the way. Once in the city, the transport system is very reliable; we were not staying in the city center; so we relied heavily on the buses to get around. We were lucky to have a stop right outside our Hotel. Make sure to have cash on you to pay for fare on the bus. It cost us about 20 pounds for two people over our threes days/two nights in the city.

WHERE TO STAY. We stayed at the The Dunstane Houses which was not in the city centre but we did not find that to be an issue. We absolutely loved our accommodation and I recommend it to anyone heading to Edinburgh. It was very homely and customer service was top notch. It felt less like a hotel and more like staying at a (very) lush room at a friend’s place. Struggling to describe it - simply put - we enjoyed our stay and will stay here again if ever in Edinburgh.

Dunstane Houses
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WHERE TO EAT. Our culinary adventures in Edinburgh began at Urban Angel - a highly recommended brunch spot in the city center. I thoroughly enjoyed my french toast and bacon dish. Other brunch spots we loved Cafe MIlk and Word of Mouth cafe. Word of mouth cafe was good but it was a bit out of the city centre. If you don’t have the time to make a trip out - a few other options are Brochan; Century General Store; Hyde and Son or Soderbergh Bakery. Surprisingly we only had lunch once during our visit; we typically had a late breakfast and that carried us through the day. If you want something quick and delicious, I recommend the pulled pork sandwiches at Oink. Several of the brunch spots also serve lunch; these spots were also highly recommended Groats pop up cafe ; the hideout cafe and Gannet Guga.

Oink
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For dinner, we treated ourselves, it was my birthday trip and the first time I was traveling with my mom as an adult so we stretched our budget for dinner. I cannot say enough good things about the food at Yamato - a Japanese restaurant just off one of the main streets. I had to stop myself from eating my way through the menu. We also dined at Baba - a Mediterranean restaurant - this was one of the best meals I had in 2018. The hummus was amazing. There is also a fish and chick pea dish I thoroughly enjoyed. These spots were highly recommended Saiko Kitchen; and Bistro at Hotel du Vin. I could not leave the city without trying some authentic shortbread - we stumbled on a spot in Old town that has become one of my most recommended spots in Edinburgh - Pinnies and Poppyseed. They make fantastic shortbread in a variety of flavors. While we could not visit the Palace of Holyroodhouse , we had a lovely snack and hot chocolate at the cafe at the palace.

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Yamamoto
Word of Mouth Cafe
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WHERE TO EXPLORE. Our first stop was Dean’s village; I think we could have spent the entire day here. It was such a lovely place. I recommend planning about three hours here to explore all of the narrow roads; there is so much beauty in Dean’s village to be discovered by leisurely wandering. Keep in mind there are parts that are not flat so appropriate footwear is recommended. You can access Dean’s village from Prince Street - the main street in the city centre. It is about a five minute walk from Prince Street. Follow the walkaway along the Water of Leith. While in Dean’s village, do not miss Dean Bridge or the temple of St. Bernard well . Don’t miss Well’s court which is possibly the most striking building in Dean’s Village so keep an eye out for it. From here you are also in close proximity to two museum - the Gallery of Modern art and Dean gallery.

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Dean's Village
Temple of St. Bernard well
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Dean's Village

We stopped by the Jenners building; the Scott monument which has some great views of Old town and the Prince Street garden. While there is an option to climb up to the top for even better views - we chose to pass on the hike. The Prince Street garden is incredibly beautiful; we were visiting in early spring and were rewarded with gorgeous blooms. We made a stop at the National Gallery of Scotland and loved see the paintings that capture the history of the Country. Then it was uphill to explore Old Town. There is so much hidden gem in Old town you should not miss; thankfully I found Shawna’s Exploring Edinburgh instagram page just before our trip and it was a excellent reference for the spots that will not pop up on any guide unless you are a local - Ramsay garden ; the heart shape Ivy adorning an entry way just off the Royal mile; and Victoria street just to name a few.

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National Gallery of Scotland
Prince Street Gardens
Edinburgh
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Prince street gardens

The Royal mile is a long stretch that runs from Edinburgh castle to Palace of Holyroodhouse. We enjoyed our time at both - the views from Edinburgh castle are spectacular. A note of caution when heading to Palace of Holyrioodhouse - confirm openings on the website before visiting; we could not get access to the palace as it was the week a prominent person was visiting and staying at the castle so most of it was closed; we rested and had scones and tea at the cafe. While in Old town and Royal Mile, we visited St. Giles Cathedral; University of Edinburgh school of divinity (aka New college on the mound) and The Scotch Whisky Experience. Other recommended stops on the mile - Camera Obscura; Mary King’s close; and John Knox house.

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John Knox's House
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Edinburgh castle
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Day II adventures started at the Edinburgh castle - we got rained out on day one and really wanted to see the view with clear skies. It was worth the trek up hill with the most amazing view of the city. Our second day was very relaxed because I was planning to hike to the highest point in the city. We spent some time not he Royal mile docking in on various alley ways like World’s end close. Then we went in search of Greyfriars Bobby. I will not ruin the legend for you but know that it is worth a visit. Please do not rub his nose - that is a specific plea by locals so abide by it.

If you have been around this corner of the internet for a while - this next bit will not surprise you. I spent the afternoon hiking up to Authur’s seat. This is the main peak of hills in the city; the starting point is the Holyrood Park and while it is the most challenging hike I have completed to date - it also ranks as one of the most rewarding hikes. The views of Edinburgh from the top is breathtaking. After the hike, we sat in on a session at the Scottish Parliament. That was a different kind of tourism but very informative. We wrapped up the day exploring New Town and Prince Street. One activity I did not get to do and still have major FOMO about - hiking to the top of Cannon Hill - I hear the view of the city is just as incredible as the view from Arthur’s seat.

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I cannot recommend Shawna’s instagram page enough - we found some amazing spots for our various photo shoots; these will not pop up on any guide and I have not shared those here because I think it will be doing you a disservice; but stop by her page and let her photographs be your guide to this city.

THE BRUSSELS CITY GUIDE - TWENTY THINGS TO DO (AND PLACES TO EAT) IN BRUSEELS

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So much to share from my time in Belgium. This was different than a lot of my trips but that was exactly what made it perfect. I am usually on the go and trying to fit multiple trips into one. My time in Brussels was very different, it was slow paced; I slept in and I did not get to do all the things. One thing did not change though - my eating. I still ate my weight in food. Between the waffles; fries and the local dishes - I feel like I gained 10 pounds over the weekend.

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If you are thinking about Belgium - waste no time; finalize your plans; book your trip and get ready for an incredible time. I stayed in the Rogier area at the Hotel Le Plaza Brussels. Rogier is not quite city center but it is close enough. It is a short ten minute walk to city center and less than a ten minute walk to the Brussels nord train station. Rogier train station is a short walk from the hotel and access to city center means access to all the food and shopping options your heart desires. If you are headed this way, here are a few things I recommend for your itinerary.

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Visit Grand Place. The facade of the buildings that make up the grand place is my definition of architectural opulence. The grand place is a UNESCO world heritage site in the center of the city and known for its decorative facade. The square is surround by the guild house; Maison du roi and city hall. If you find yourself here on a saturday you will likely catch a wedding or two. The square is also lined with shops and restaurants and if you are interested - the Belgium museum of beer.

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Manneken Pis. The bronze sculpture of the urinating boy stands as a symbol of Belgium (and of the City’s defiance). is a must see. The statue is replicated all over the city. The main statue is a short walk from the grand place and one of the most visited spots in Brussels. These days you will find the statue clad in one of a reported miniature nine hundred suits.

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Statue of Everard ‘t Serclaes. The statue of the reclining man is just off the grand place and legend has it that rubbing the statue will bring you luck. If you believe in such; then by all mean go for it. If not, still stop by and read up on history of the statue and man depicted in the statue. Everard was lord of Kruikenburg who recovered the city from the Flemings.

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Visit Brussels Park. If you want a break from the city or a spot to picnic or work out. The Brussels park is ideal. It is the largest public park in Brussels in walking distance to the palace and mont des arts. There is a main pond and several monuments that add to the character of this park.

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The Royal Palace of Brussels. This is the administrative home of the king and queen of Belgium. It is only open to the public (for free) every day (except for Mondays) during the summer (end of July to early September). Unfortunately, I could not visit the interior; the exterior and gardens are accessible and very lovely.

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Shop at Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert. This is known as one of the oldest shopping arcades in the world. Apparently it is older than the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan. The shopping arcade is lined with restaurants ; film theater. Some of Belgium best chocolatiers have shops here including Mary and Leonidas.

Eat Waffles. Belgian waffles are top notch - they are so good. If you google best waffles in Brussels - you will get a variety of options. I decided to treat myself to Maison Dandoy. Waffle and one topping of choice will set you back seven euros if you are dining in their tea room. Prepare to wait in line for fifteen to twenty-five minutes; but I thought it was worth it. I decided to go for the dine in option. I ordered the waffle with one topping of speculoos ice cream. If you have tried the famous Dutch Christmas cookie then you are in for treat. if you are in a treat yo self mode - then can I recommend the hot chocolate with whip cream as well.

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Eat Frites (Fries). Good lord, they make amazing fries in Belgium; the price for an order of fries and sauce range from 2.50 euro to 7 euros and worth the splurge. In my research Maison Antoine and Frit Flagey were highly recommended. The latter was out of my way and the former is closed on Sundays. Instead, I decided to try Fritland which is in the heart of city centre. This spot has been around for a few decades and their fries and sauce will set you back about 4.20 euro and they are the best fries I have ever eaten.

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Belgian Centre for Comic Strip Art. This was probably my favorite part of the trip (don’t judge). Did you know the Smurfs was created by the famous Belgian cartoonist - Peyo ? There was an exhibition of the Smurfs and great female comic artist on while I was visiting. I missed the Mangis exhibition by a day (insert: sad face). Ticket to the centre is 10 euro and I thought it was worth every penny.

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Visit Mini-Europe. The park is a reproduction of famous monuments from the European countries - from big ben to the Eiffel tower and everything in between. The monuments are reported to be at a scale of 1:25. The entry fee is 15 euro and I initially thought it was too steep but I really enjoyed my time there, It is not something I will do again (maybe when I have kids), but I am glad I stretched my budget to fit this one on the itinerary, The park is about a half hour from city centre. From Rogier train station, take the number six train all the way to Heysel train station; a short seven minute walk will get you to Mini-Europe and the Atomium.

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Check out the Atomium. Next to Mini-Europe is the Atomium. This is the last remaining structure from the 1958 world’s fair. The very unique structure is made up of nine atoms; five of which are open to the public and house restaurant with panoramic view; exhibition and a view deck with a telescope that gets you views of Antwerp and its port. It cost 12 euros to visit the interior.

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Explore Mont des arts. You could easier spend several hours here. It is about ten minutes from the palace or about fifteen minutes from the grand place. This hill of arts has got all the art your heart desires. The garden is a work of art in itself and the complex is home to the royal library; national archives; the mim (museum of musical instruments); Belvue museum and so much more. My time was spent in the garden taking a break from the trek around the city; there is a restaurant/bar at the top of the hill. Brussels centre train station is not far off. You can get trains to other parts of Belgium from there.

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Plan a day trip (or two). You know how much I love my day trips and Brussels is perfectly stationed for several day trips. Brugge is less than an hour and half away; Antwerp , Brugge and Ghent is about an hour from central station. You can also take a train to Amsterdam and other parts of Europe from central station.

Where to eat in Brussels. The food in Brussels is fantastic. For brunch, I recommend Peck 47 and Streetpecker. Lyly’s is an amazing fondue restaurant in the city center; Grimbergen cafe has a great menu mix - the steak and flemish beef stew were excellent.

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Drink Belgian Beer. Full disclaimer ! I am not a beer person and was very overwhelmed by all the options. The folks at La Belgique gourmande were incredible to this beer novice and after my twenty questions to the staff, I decided to try the Belirium red. It was really good. If you like beer, you should check out the beer museum located in the Grand place.

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