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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts from January, 2014

The Year of the Horse Gallops into London

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This Chinese New Year will come galloping in.  The celebration for the Year of the Horse in London is slated to be as bright, noisy and happy as anywhere in the world.  London is reputed to host the largest celebrations marking the Chinese Lunar New Year outside Asia.

In China, Hong Kong and Taiwan the festivities and rituals carry on over a period of 15 days.  In London, however, it will be restricted to the weekend.  2nd February will be the highpoint and main day for celebrations.   The Chinese community and many others too will be celebrating just as vigorously.

Chinese new yearOfficially the celebrations will kick off around noon at Trafalgar Square.  It will be followed by several performances involving acrobatic troupes and traditional dancers from China.  Local artists will perform at a number of sets at a venue on Shaftesbury Avenue.

The West End too will put on a show as befitting its status.  In fact the New Year Parade, led by the Lucky Money God will start here at 10am.  It will then wind its way through the theatre district, down Charing Cross Road before arriving at Trafalgar Square for the official opening.

Chinatown, which stretches from Shaftesbury Avenue to the area around Gerrard Street and includes a part of Soho, will be the main focus of the celebrations.  There will be traditional Horse themed decorations, crafts and food stalls, plenty of dancing drumming and classical Chinese music.  One of the treats will be watching the dragon dancers making their way past the crowds on the streets.  Fireworks!  There are going to be plenty of those and lots of bangs to go along with them.chinatown london

Like the previous years, several thousands will turn up to watch the many events and participate in the numerous parties at the roughly 100 bars, restaurants and cafes in Chinatown.  Of course there will be plenty of delicious food to sample as the restaurants come up with special menus.

Not to be left out, Madame Tussauds will be lighting up the building in lucky red and festooning it with traditional Chinese decorations.  Among the likenesses of Chinese celebrities will be those of martial arts legends, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.  They have been specially brought in from Shanghai and Hong Kong for the New Year celebrations and will remain in London till April.

Joining in the New Year celebrations, the British Film Institute will be casting the spotlight on Chinese cinema by showing over 80 films.  This is part of an extended four month China season and will feature director Feng Xiaogang, China’s Steven Spielberg.

Besides the above, there will be plenty to see and do over this Chinese New Year weekend in London.

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In Salvador Dalí’s Footsteps

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Salvador Dalí was the master and greatest creative practitioner of surrealism.  During his life, Dalí lived and worked in many places in Spain. However, he spent most of his life in his home province of Girona in Catalunya. The region inspired much of his work and also houses the largest collection of his works in the world.
 
Whether you are out to explore the Costa Brava or to discover Dali’s works for yourself, travelling through the northern part of Catalunya will be one of your most rewarding journeys.

For instance, his birthplace Figueres (meaning ‘fig trees,’ which used to grow around it) is a picturesque town with winding streets, cosy cafés and a small yet picturesque ‘Old Town’ section and Square.  It is archetypical of a sleepy Spanish village.

Dali Museum-Its fame is forever entwined with that of its son Dalí and the Theatre Museum Dalí. This museum was built on the remains of a 19th century theatre and incorporates a tower from those ruins. The museum is Dali’s own creation and is reckoned to be the world’s largest surrealistic work.

Another attraction of the town is the well-preserved pentagonal Sant Ferran Castle.  It was built as a military fortress in the eighteenth century and completed in 1753.  It spreads over 5 kilometres making it the largest monument in Catalunya.

Not far from Figueres is the fishing village of Cadaques, another Catalunya gem, which has Dalí connections.  Its white-washed Mediterranean houses, quiet streets, beautiful beaches and the perfect blue waters of its cove simply grab your heart and make you want to stay back – many do and many did.  Some of its most famous visitors were Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Marcel Duchamp, Walt Disney, Richard Hamilton and Melina Mercouri.

Cadaques has an official population of around 3,000 people but at the peak of summer, many times that number visit and stay here. There are also some rather remarkable houses like the Casa Blava (Blue House) that are scattered around the town.

Dali statueCadaques has honoured Dalí by putting up a statue of him on the beach.  The statue captures his eccentric style, his manic yet haughty expression, his famous upturned moustache and trade mark walking stick.  It was in Cadaqués that Dalí first met his wife Gala in 1929.

Just a little way along the coast is Port Lligat, where Dali lived with Gala for over 40 years.  It is now a house-museum that is just as magical and stunning as the surrounding area. It comprises of several fishermen’s huts that Dalí and Gala joined together.

The house features a labyrinth of passageways and rooms, including his workshop, library, garden and a very lovely pool.  The tiny rooms are crammed with many of Dali’s creations including his last painting which he did not finish and paint brushes.

The highlight of the building though is the whispering room. The acoustics are so brilliant that you can hear a whisper from across the room – over 30 feet away.  The building and its gardens are ‘Cultural Assets of National Interest.’

Dali himself once described the area thus, "… as always, in the perfect and dreamy town of Cadaqués. There, alongside the Latin sea, I have been quenched by light and colour."  And so will you be when you are there.

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Nightlife in Istanbul

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Bosphorus IstanbulNightlife in Istanbul is exciting and varied with a plentiful choice for all tastes.  The city straddles the Bosphorus connecting two continents.  The diversity and contrasts of its night time activities and the entertainment available reflects this geographical spread.

Istanbul has establishments that offer both western and oriental entertainment and both are hugely popular.  It is not uncommon to see lines of people stretching from the doorways of venues and going around the block – all just trying to get in.  Many of these venues are world famous and frequently attract celebrities from around the globe.

One of the factors that make night time entertainment great in Istanbul is accessibility.  This is a very large city and getting around (and across the Bosphorus Straits) can be just that bit challenging – especially at night.  However, there are many venues, which are spread out across several entertainment centres around the city.

For instance there is the Kadiköy district, on the Asian side with many pubs, restaurants and clubs on Iskele and Kadife Streets.  The European side has several well known districts such as ?i?li, Be?ikta?, Ulus, Taksim and Beyo?lu that are packed with pubs, bars, restaurants and venues featuring live music.

Most of the places combine eating, drinking, dance floors and live shows.  However, you need to check first because many night clubs offer only dancing and a bar but no food.  Another thing you should be prepared for is the dress code.  A surprising number and variety of places will insist on a jacket and leather shoes – no jeans, sneakers or flip-flops please!

However you wish to spend your evening, one thing is sure – the venue you choose will have plenty of “attitude” and atmosphere.  You will find every style of interior design from plastic, post-modern, harem-like and traditional English pubs to elegant neo-baroque.  All try to hype up the picturesque view(s) of the Bosphorus or their location on its banks.  Then there are the very popular river cruises on the Bosphorus that also feature live entertainment.

Finding your cuisine for the night will never be a problem.  Seafood, Cretan, Middle Eastern, Turkish kebabs, pasta or classic French and Italian eating places are abundant.

Istanbul night spots have trendy “in” places that serve only cocktails, which are frequented by rising banker types.  Music of all genres can be heard blasting out of entrance doors.  Take your pick – jazz, reggae, world music, electronic, Latin, Turkish, Arabic, indie, rock (Turkish and Western), funk, soul or pop.  Many have world famous DJs and live bands performing regularly.

Of course – as a visitor you cannot miss out on the belly dancers.  And Istanbul has plenty of bars, restaurants and dance places that feature belly dancing as a part of the fare.  The Turkish style of belly dancing is very lively, vigorous and often gymnastic.  Its energy differs from its more contained and conservative Egyptian cousin.  Most belly dancers in Turkey are of Romani ancestry and that has had a strong influence on the Turkish style.

A very popular part of Istanbul’s night scene is the bright, brassy, outrageously gay and transsexual scene.  Be prepared to be shocked and dazzled.  

It is no exaggeration to say that Istanbul’s nightlife rivals any other city in Europe or in the world for that matter.  There is no shortage of the glitzy or shady.  You are bound to find something to satiate your taste for new experiences.

Have Fun!!!

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Enter our Valentine’s Day competition to win a £100 gift voucher!

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We think travel is best shared with those you love. What is the best trip you’ve ever taken with your significant other and why? Be it your partner, friend, mum or parrot, whoever you hold dear in the world – we want to hear from you.

Drop us a few lines at valentines@isango.com and you’ll enter the competition to win a £100 gift voucher to spend at isango.com. Share the love and surprise your loved one with a tour of your choice!

Competition closes on 14th February at noon. Winner will be announced on the same day. 

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Getting to Disneyland Paris by Train

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One thing we often hear from our customers is that they would love to spend a day at Disneyland during their time in Paris, but have concerns about how to get there.  While at first glance the Parisian transport network may seem overwhelming, it really is super-simple and with these basics you will easily plan your journey to the Parks.

If you have not bought your tickets yet, check out our great price for the Disneyland Paris 1 Day Hopper Ticket.  Or if you would rather go for a transport-inclusive package we also have this day trip with transport.

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What train do I take and where do I board?

Disneyland Paris is easily connected to central Paris using the RER A.  This suburban railway service runs every 10-30 minutes depending on the time of day and will get you to Disneyland Paris in just 30-40 minutes.

You can get a direct train from the following Paris Stations:

Charles de Gaulle Etoile:  Located at the top of the Champs-Élysées, there are several entrances which surround the Arc de Triomphe.  Anyone staying west of the city centre should use this station. 

Auber:  Located on Rue Auber, close to the Opera Garnier and the department stores of Boulevard Haussman.

Chatlet Les Halles:  One of Paris’ major interchanges is convenient for those staying near the Louvre, Île de la Cité and the Latin Quarter.

Gare de Lyon: Convenient for those with hotels in the south east of Paris, near Gare d’Austerlitz or Bercy.

For Disneyland Paris you need to get off at Marne-la-Vallee – Chessy.  The park gates are less than 5 minutes’ walk from here.

What tickets do I need?

When using the ticket window, you can simply explain you need a ticket for Disneyland (Billet pour Disneyland). You will find that most ticket office staff will be able to help you in buying the correct ticket.

Alternatively, you can use one of the self-service machines, all of which have the option to be used in English. One of the first questions you are asked is if you want tickets to “Paris” or “Ile de France” – choose Ile de France and from here the machines are very easy to use.

Boarding the train

No matter which of the stations listed above you board at, look out for the signs for RER A towards Marne-la-Vallee – Chessy or Boissy Saint-Leger. For Disneyland Paris you need the train towards Marne-la-Vallee – Chessy, be sure to board the right train as from the same platform trains also go to Boissy Saint-Leger. 

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A Bibliophile’s Guide to Britain & Ireland

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1.    Oxfordshire, England

Oxford University

Explore the rich heritage of the city that has long been a haven for authors, poets as well as dozens of note-worthy journalists, writers, politicians, and artists. As is typical of a university town, Oxford is packed full of great pubs, however unlike most university towns, Oxford’s pubs are famous. The Bear is one of England’s oldest pubs, Tolkien and C. S. Lewis regularly drank at The Eagle and Child, and The Lamb and Flag was frequented by the likes of Thomas Hardy and Graham Greene. Go on a hop on hop off tour to get a genuine flavour of Oxford’s glorious literary past and vibrant present. Visit the hallowed portals of the University which inspired Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy among others. In the University the historic Bodlein Library is one of the oldest and largest libraries in England. 

2.    Bath, England  

Roman thermal spril at Bath

Bath’s most famous resident, Jane Austen set two of her books Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in the city and lived there in the 1800s. Bath has year round events and activities for Austen fans to enjoy. Every summer people dress-up in Regency finery and attend the annual Netherfield Ball to dance like Darcy, Lizzy, Bingley and Jane. In the Fall, Bath holds a nine-day festival celebrating all things Austen. This includes a world famous Grand Regency Costume parade where 600 Austen fans from all over the world descend on Bath in Regency era costumes to open the festival. If you can’t make it for the festival, the Jane Austen Centre is open all year with exhibitions on Austen’s time in this city and a Regency themed Tea Room. While in Bath, be sure to take a dip in its ancient open-air thermal springs like they did in the 18th century. 

3.    Dublin, Ireland

Oscar Wilde statue in Dublin

Dubliners love words and Dublin has given the world such towering literary figures as Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Shaw and Wilde to name but a few. Designated UNESCO City of Literature in 2010, Dublin’s written tradition stretches back to 800 A.D. with the Book of Kells, one of the most beautifully illuminated manuscripts in the world on display at Trinity College Dublin. One Merrion Sqaure is the home of Oscar Wilde, a beautiful example of Georgian architecture restored to an approximate version of their appearance in Oscar’s day and can only be visited on a guided tour. Across the road, is a flamboyant statue of the man himself, reclining on a huge granite stone seemingly without a care in the world! Prose and pints go together in this city which has produced four Nobel Prize laureates in Literature. Participate in the popular Literary Pub Crawl on the cobbled streets of Dublin which promises to give you “the pleasant notion of simultaneously replacing brain cells as you drown them…” 

4.   London, England

London at dusk

London has cemented its reputation as the culture capital of the world and for good reason. A bibliophile or an aspiring writer can spend a lifetime in London and still not see everything! For Londoners and tourists there are all kinds of walks to trace the literary legacy of some of English language’s greatest writers from Chaucer to Dickens, Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, J.K. Rowling to Arthur Conan Doyle who have lived in London or been inspired by the city at some point in their life. Though an obvious choice to include, The British Library cannot be denied by bookworms. It houses one-of-a-kind manuscripts including hand-written excerpts from Beowulf, King Henry IV and many more. A highlight is Jane Austen’s personal notebook as well as her writing desk. The mix of the old and the new is what captivates thousands of visitors. No literary buff's educational adventure would be complete without taking a tour of the fashionable Bloomsbury area in the London Borough of Camden. It's a great way to learn the literary history of the neighbourhood. The Lamb bar and pub in the heart of Bloomsbury district has long been frequented by Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Another landmark is the Charles Dickens Museum, where the permanent exhibition is a representation of what the house looked like while Dickens resided there and is home to an extensive collection of surviving possessions. 

5.   Edinburgh, Scotland 

Edinburgh Old Town

Edinburgh has been the home of many well respected and popular writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Arthur Conan Doyle; along with contemporary authors J.K. Rowling, Ian Rankin, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith. Edinburgh's streets are steeped in literary history and there is never a dearth of inspiration in this awe-inspiring Scottish capital. In the centre of Edinburgh is St Andrew Square, Edinburgh's Poetry Garden where you can float poetry written on paper lotus across the square's pond and make it part of the garden permanently. A must see for Pottermaniacs is The Elephant House, a gourmet tea and coffee shop, where J.K. Rowling wrote much of her early novels in the back room overlooking the Edinburgh Castle. Walk down the West Port street in Edinburgh’s Old Town which features taverns that have opened their doors to William Wordsworth, Robert Burns and Walter Scott. An essential part of Scottish culture are these pubs and taverns where famous literary figures would go and mix with the common people over Scottish ales and whiskies.

6.    Stratford-Upon-Avon, England

Anne Hathaway childhood home

This delightful little town is famous as the birthplace of England’s greatest poet and playwright, William Shakespeare. Home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, five historic houses linked to the Bard and a wealth of other tourist attractions, there is a lot to see in this Heritage city. Visit the house where the world’s most famous playwright was born and grew up. Tour Mary Arden's House, the childhood home of Shakespeare's mother and learn about Tudor life on Palmer’s Farm, an experience that transports visitor’s back to the 1570’s. Also visit the picturesque family home of Anne Hathaway where young Shakespeare courted his future bride Anne. Watch a play at the historic Royal Shakespeare Theatre situated on the western bank of river Avon. The best time to visit Stratford is between April and July when there are plenty of festivals, parades, concerts, and workshops for young and old to take part in.

7.    Wales, England

Medieval castle ruins in Wales countryside

2014 marks the centenary of the Welsh poet, author and legend Dylan Thomas. Explore the vast seascapes, village tracks, dusky moorlands, brimming meadows and lush parklands that have inspired his works. At the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, see the permanent exhibition, ‘Man and Myth’ which includes Dylan Thomas' worksheets, recordings, artwork and even the suit Dylan wore in New York in 1953, the year he died. They also conduct the annual Dylan Thomas Festival that takes place each year from 27th October to 9th of November. Social historian Raymond Williams often embedded his work in Wales and Welsh cultural themes. Malcome Pryces noir novels set in Aberystwyth, Eve Green by Susan Fletcher and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle have all used Wales as a setting. 

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London’s Hidden Gems

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Anyone who knows anything about London is well aware of the city’s top tourist attractions: the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London. London, it turns out, is a pretty touristy place. You can’t go anywhere without running into someone carrying a giant camera around their neck, holding up a crumpled city map, and standing on a street corner looking unbearably confused. I know you all know what I’m talking about. Because we’ve all been there. This is the tourist’s right of passage. You can’t visit London – or any major city – without experiencing this at least once. It will make for great stories one day. But, in the event that you want to escape the madness, avoid tourist traps, and explore some of London’s lesser-traveled roads, here are my picks for London’s hidden gems and some of my favorite places outside the city centre.

In no particular order:

1.  Primrose Hill

watermarkprimrose

If you’ve ever wondered what London looks like to a bird, Primrose Hill is probably the closest you will get. Primrose Hill is, as the name suggests, a big hill on the edge of Regent’s Park. Now, I know that most people these days are likely to avoid hills at all costs (is there an escalator anywhere?), but you absolutely must climb this one! The view is absolutely stunning and totally unparalleled. I promise you, the climb is completely worth it (like that Miley Cyrus song from way back when). Once you make it to the top, a view of the entire city down below awaits you. You can see everything from the London Eye to Big Ben to the Shard. It’s all there. Don’t forget your camera! It makes for excellent panoramic shots. If you want to make the trip extra special, go just before sunset and bring along a bottle of wine. Who says happiness doesn’t come cheap?

2.  Brick Lane

dankunzbrick

Brick Lane is most famous for its delectable Indian food (and with good reason), but don’t leave after you eat. The East London area is the cultural hub of the city. If artsy and alternative is your thing, East London is the place for you! After indulging on the delicious food, take a walk around the Brick Lane area (just don’t get up too quickly. You might split your pants). Here, you can find markets selling even more food and any other number of things from jewelry to paintings to clothing to trinkets. Brick Lane is also famous for the murals of graffiti and street art. This isn’t the kind of graffiti you see on under overpasses and in tunnels and at train stations. It’s art. And it’s really cool. Go!

3.  Hampstead Heath

watermarkhampstead

Hampstead Heath is undoubtedly one of my favorite spots in all of London. Just 25 minutes outside of the bustling city centre, Hampstead Heath is the perfect getaway for  nature lovers. You’ll know you’ve made it when all you can hear is silence, and the sound of birds chirping has replaced the sound of honking horns. You can practically feel all of the tension escape from your body and your muscles unknot as you breathe in the fresh clean smell of nature. Everyone needs a break every once and a while.

Hampstead Heath is really just a big park with sprawling green fields and ponds and forests of big tall trees and all of that naturey goodness you’ve been missing in the city. It is the perfect place for frolicking. If you go to Hampstead Heath you absolutely must frolic. It makes the experience 100 times better (that’s a proven fact). At this point in the blog, you’re probably looking at your computer screen like I’m crazy. I know what you’re thinking. Frolic, you say? Do I look like a pony? A deer? Well, I am almost 100 percent certain that you are neither. But frolic you must! When you visit Hampstead Heath, you will instantly understand this and thank me for giving you this wonderful suggestion. You are out in nature, so frolic it up! Hop, skip, jump, roll, tumble. Do whatever your heart desires. That’s what parks are for, after all! 

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The Old City of Palma

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The city of Palma on the island of Majorca is an ancient one.  It has always been important in the history and culture of the western Mediterranean Sea.  That has resulted in a rich, diverse and, at times very tumultuous past.  That past has left behind magnificent reminders that are still visible, intact and available for visitors to enjoy today.

The best place to get a glimpse into Palma’s past is the Old City (or Old Town).  It is a charming combination of an intricate web of shady, narrow, winding streets lined by pink Mediterranean style houses and lovely gothic buildings mixed in for good measure.  Many of the houses are adorned with window boxes and narrow wrought-iron balconies, detailed metal carvings and overhanging eaves that add to its lure.

While there is much that is attractive and worth seeing in the Old City, it is the Cathedral of Santa Maria de Palma that dominates and receives the most visitors.  It is a very, very large and magnificent Gothic, neo-gothic, restored building that took about 300 years (1299 to 1601) to complete.  It sits between the Royal Palace of La Almudaina and overlooks the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea.

There are still some aspects of the town that are reminders of Palma’s Arab/Moorish past and their influences can still be seen.  Nowhere more so than the locality called Bany Arabs or Arab Baths.  You take a quiet street called Ca’n Serra that is close to the Cathedral to reach this small two-roomed brick building.  It dates back to the 11th century and was once part of a larger residential complex.  The bath room itself has a cupola, and twelve columns that were removed from some Roman era building.  The baths are surrounded by beautiful gardens – Ca’n Fontirroig.

Then there is the ancient and still operational fishermen and sailors locality of El Jonquet. The most notable features of this area are the old mills that overlook it from above.

Bellver castleBellver Castle is a unique structure because of its cylindrical form.  While not technically a part of the old city, Bellver Castle is quite integral to the medieval history of the city and the island.   It was built in the 14th century upon the ruins of a Moorish site and set high on a hill giving it fabulous (no doubt strategic too) views of the whole island.  This distinctive fortress has three large towers and a central courtyard and houses an archaeological museum filled sculptures of times gone by.  It has served as a residence for the Majorcan kings, a fortress and a prison.

While you stroll through this beautiful and old part of Palma you are bound to see a rather more modern addition to the area.  They are the rubbish bins!  They are attractive, like so much else in the Old City, and made of bronze.  These rubbish bins are made up of two sections – an upper cylindrical part where you place your garbage.  You turn a handle on the side, which then drops the refuse into the lower, rectangular storage portion.

When you are done seeing the area you could relax in one of the quaint little restaurants along the sea front and admire the view.

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1st Day of the New Year in Stockholm’s Old Town

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As New Year's Eve rapidly approached and I was faced with spending it in my pesky home town in grey, boring Finland, a friend and I decided that we needed to get away. The trip to Stockholm from Finland is easy and traversed often by Finns via a cruise liner. This is one of the most convenient ways for Finns to take a small break: a cruise to Stockholm is easy and quick – enjoying the tax free shops on board comes as an added bonus. Our ship docked at 10.30am on the 1st of January and the vessel was eerily, yet understandably quiet. After a night of boogeing on the party boat we were starving and headed out early.

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Ranked #3 on TripAdvisor for things to do in Stockholm, we headed for Stockholm’s Gamla Stan i.e. Old Town. The walk to the area from the port takes about 15 minutes and although there was nothing much of interest to look at along the way, at least we found evidence of a night of heavy partying. 

Celebrations

Gamla Stan is one of the largest and best preserved medieval city centres in Europe, and here you can see the Royal Palace with its 600 rooms, Sweden’s national cathedral Stockholm Cathedral and the Nobel Museum. The Christmas wreaths and decorations were still in place and created a cosy atmosphere even post-Christmas.

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The area isn’t huge and perfect for a leisurely wander along the cobbled streets, peering into crowded passageways and gazing up on the medieval buildings, the surfaces of which look powdery and ancient. There are so many little details on the buildings you'll be snap happy throughout your stroll. Gamla Stan is unsurprisingly very touristy with the appropriate offering of souvenir shops, sweet shops and bric a brac – none of which tickled our fancy. However, we did stop over for a tasty lunch in one of the little cafes that dot the streets.

Gamla Stan is definitely worth checking out when in Stockholm, but head over early morning to avoid the crowds!
Keen on a bit of Stockholm sightseeing beyond the Old Town? Take a bus tour of the city and get your bearings from day one!

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