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Posts in ‘Food, Pubs & Nightlife’

My New Favourite Sunny Day Pub…

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I spent the last Bank Holiday Weekend exploring the sights and surrounds of a delightfully sunny London.My adventure began on Saturday morning, when, like 80% of the tourists in the city, I ventured to Notting Hill in hopes of perusing the famous Portobello Road Market (which only happens on Saturday mornings). Full of antiques, jewelry, scarves, knick knacks, gizmos and gadgets, the market is one of my favourite things to do in London—it’s the perfect place browse and shop …to admire colorful buildings and quaint cafes. But the crowds were just a bit too much for me last weekend; I was in the mood for something a bit more relaxing…

My friends and I thus decided to venture further west, away from the bustling markets and tourist sites…and south, towards the river! It was time for a Saturday afternoon pub jaunt.

Pimms, lemonade and lager…yes, please!

We arrived at what immediately became my new, favourite afternoon watering hole: the Old Ship, which is situated along the Thames, near Ravenscourt Park tube station.The delightful little pub seems to have more outdoor seating than any other pub in London, namely because its happy customers tend to sprawl out on the adjacent green:

Old Ship Pub-goers relaxing on green.

The Old Ship Pub in London

And along the riverside wall:

Old Ship Pub Wall

We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon of chatting and people watching over refreshing beverages. Their menu looks great; they even have an upstairs dining room, available for private parties, that opens out onto a balcony.

Thank you, Old Ship—we will be back!

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Oops! We just stumbled across the best Mexican food in London.

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Earlier this week, I was feeling super homesick and so decided I would embark on a quest for the best American Café in London. I know, I know “they’re on every corner,” but I can only go to Starbucks twice a day, alright?

I am talking about authentic American cuisine: huge, diner-style breakfasts, layered club sandwiches, juicy burgers, and real salads, the kind that are loaded with jumbo shrimp (not tiny, frozen ‘prawns’), cheese and fresh veggies….mmm, yummy…

After some crafty Google searches, I was sure that I had found my place: the Chelsea Bun Café, between Fulham Broadway and Sloane Square in SW10. The description was perfect: independently owned, hip, happening, and, most importantly, serving all of my favorite dishes from home. They even had Breakfast for Dinner. Awesome.

I immediately phoned my friend Talina with the news: we had to go to find this little oasis of American glory after work. Certainly she could relate to my enthusiasm: after all, she is from Mexico and has spent much time in north of the border. She agreed. I was pumped.

I cheerfully printed a map and charted a route. Despite the rainy weather and the café’s slightly obscure location in relation to the underground system, we met at Sloane Square, and we were off.

Dearest employees of Chelsea Bun, I hope that you can tell me this: at what time, exactly, does dinner occur in your homes? Because last time I checked, most people in this country dine at 6pm, earliest. Make that as late as 10.30 pm if they’ve had a prolonged, post-work pub jaunt

You’ve advertised yourself as an American/British café that serves dinner. So why, oh why, were you closed at 6pm, after Talina and I trudged for 30 minutes through the rain to find you? And I thought you were American—what a scam.

FINE then, we said, we’ll find someplace EVEN BETTER.

That we can afford…in the poshest neighbourhood in London…right…

After perusing four of the most expensive Italian menus I have seen all year, we were both, officially, starving. “The next place we see, no matter what,” we agreed.

And so we stopped at a brightly lit venue with a yellow awning: Azteca, the window decal read. Talina was elated. Mexican food! But where’s the menu?

Damn, it’s a tequila bar. Tempting, but no way are we throwing back straight Cuervo on empty stomachs.

As we despondently turned away, the door swung open, and a smiling man with a little goatee and a long, shiny ponytail greeted us: “come on, have a drink!”

But we want food. Do you have food?

Talina, take it away…

¿Si? ¿Tienes buena comida? Si…si…pero…pero no hay mucho dinero!

Translation: Really? You do have food? Good food, you say? But listen up dude: we’re cheap.

¡Pero tenemos hambre! But we’re hungry!

And so we braved the menu-less tequila bar in posh Chelsea for dinner. And I satiated my hunger for home with the most American of non-American foods (next to pizza and Chinese takeout): tacos.

Tacos gobernador, to be exact.

Governor’s Tacos. Holy wow, they were awesome. Crispy, handmade flour shells filled with fresh, marinated shrimps, vegetables, salsa and melted cheese.

Talina deemed them exceptional, even in comparison to the tacos back home. She was glowing. At least one of us got to cure a bit of homesickness!

Talina at Azteca Latin Lounge in London

But I’m still a bit confused. Hey, goatee man, the food’s great, but why don’t you have a menu?

“Because we’ve only been serving food for two weeks,” he informed us,“it’s an experiment.”

Well, well…aren’t we privileged to be among the first to grade your taco test.

Azteca, we give you an “A.”

A for Amazing; A for Americans, forget cafés with crappy hours. Go to Azteca!

Don’t you worry, goatee man, we’ll be back for more gobernadores… and maybe even a bit of tequila, too.

Azteca Latin Lounge in Chelsea

¡Que maravilla!

 

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Oxford May Morning 2008: Behind the Scenes

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On the evening of April 30th, there’s no better place to be than inside Oxford’s Magdalen College.

The institution has been leading the surrounding community in May Day tradition for over 500 years. And tomorrow morning, hundreds of locals and tourists will, once again, flock to Magdalen’s picturesque High Street buildings just before dawn to be serenaded from above.

At 6:00 sharp on May 1st, the Magdalen College School Choir will sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from atop the college’s majestic Tower.

Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, UK

In a beautiful, sweeping moment, the buzzing crowds will be silenced. The choir’s hymn will take over, enchanting the entirety of the crowded city block below.

And then the much anticipated performance will end, just like that.

But the festivities will carry on for several hours, with Morris Dancing and impromptu street performances scattered throughout the city centera truly memorable parade of fun for the whole family…

And that’s the fairytale, glossy brochure version of Oxford’s May Morning.

As I mentioned, no better place to be than inside Magdalen College on the eve of May Morning, when the fun really begins…

The party usually starts around 9:00pm in the college’s common rooms and bar, with students dancing, drinking and celebrating the coming of May (and summer!) until the wee hours of the morning.

Why sleep? A champagne breakfast awaits on the rooftop terrace at 5:45am, from which students can listen to the choir in hazy solitude, away from the crowded High Street.

Magdalen College Tower on May Morning

And of course, we can’t forget the traditional May Morning daybreak toast on the Cloisters lawn…

Oxford May Morning champagne toast

No point in leaving college grounds prior to the toast/breakfast, as most gates have been locked; the police have also blocked off the Magdalen Bridge from 3:00am and will refuse crossings until 2 hours after the event, so as to prevent drunken crusaders from leaping into the shallow waters of the Cherwell…

The famed jumping tradition used to be quite common, with hundreds impulsively plummeting over the walls each year; however, now, only a few sneaky stragglers are able break through the barricade. Last year, I (sadly) only witnessed one courageous jumper.

But rumor has it that students will actually be leaving the college this year for a VIP party at Club Escape ; we’ll see if they are re-admitted for breakfast in their intoxicated stupors.

Who knows, maybe they will band together in drunken revelry and rekindle an age-old tradition…

Come on, you crazy Magdalenites, let’s start the summer off with a splash!

Happy May Day.

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Honouring England’s Patron Saint (a valiant American attempt)

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Yesterday, I decided to take on St. George’s Day in full force. My approach: to immerse myself in the day’s festivities and absorb as much English tradition as possible, all the while remaining in tourist “stealth mode”—i.e. no white sneakers, no camera flashes, and only soft-spoken enquiries, so as to draw minimal attention to the good old American accent.

What better place to go, I thought, than to London’s South Bank, home of lively street performances, history, art, culture and oodles of bustling pubs/cafes?

I started off at what I presumed would be a central hub of activity—a sacred edifice dedicated to the man of the day: St. George’s Cathedral in Southwark.

George, was I wrong! The cathedral was virtually empty when I arrived 15 minutes prior to the “special” guided tour. Where were all of the church-goers? The pride-filled locals? The curious tourists? continue reading

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Cultural Adventures, Part II: Spain

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Following my guide to eccentric past times in the UK, I have outlined some of the most intriguing traditions and festivals to experience this year in España.

As I noted before, there is still time to make 2008 a year of cultural adventure! So take a chance, and discover some of Europe’s most bewildering and unconventional pastimes.

A guide to some of Spain’s most unique celebrations.

1. La Diada de Sant Jordi (Lovers’ Day).
What
: Like Valentine’s Day, except boys get books (?)
Where: Barcelona, Spain.
When: 23 April 2008.

Get ready for a little spring sunshine…and lots of Latin love!

This April, hopeless romantics will unite in the streets of Barcelona to honor Saint George, who, like our man Valentine, inspires thousands of young lovers to make their passions public via reciprocal gift giving. Stroll down Las Ramblas, and immerse yourself in the amorous buzz as you delight in street performances, quirky architecture, and, of course, the colorful merchandise of nearly every florist and book seller in Catalonia! Join in on the tradition: gentleman, woo your novias with roses, and ladies, make your men blush with some heartfelt selections of prose. continue reading

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Lisbon: a city for everyone!

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The westernmost capital city of continental Europe is more than just a rowdy cluster of nightclubs and beach bars. With its lively summer schedule of cultural festivals, unique, kid-friendly events and oceanfront activities, Lisbon, Portugal is the perfect destination for young singles and extended families alike.

Kick off your summer with a rockin’ getaway.

It’s true—thousands of party-seeking youths will flock to the city in late May for the third annual “Rock in Rio Lisboa—For a Better World” Concert. But come on mom and dad—live a little! The concert is, after all, for charity. With appearances by Rod Stewart, Bon Jovi, Lenny Kravitz, and Alanis Morrisette, there’s a little bit of rockin’ fun for everyone.

Not convinced? Not to worry—your family will find its niche in this beachfront cultural mecca. Where else in the world can you find sun, sand, nightlife, experimental theatre, international dog shows, fresh seafood and delicious pasties de nata??

Family Adventures

Upon arrival, you may want to slap on your sunscreen and head straight for the shore. Go right ahead—there is much to do and see on the beaches surrounding Lisbon. You might consider a coastal tour, complete with an excursion to Cabo de Roca, Europe’s westernmost point, where you will capture a stunning, kaleidoscopic sunset. Or get active: join in on the Praia Grande Beach games (ongoing, for all ages) or embark on an Atlantic Coast bike adventure.

Be sure to explore the diverse city sights on a guided historical and cultural tour, which will take you to the famous, 15th century BelémTower, along with the burial site of explorer Vasco De Gama. Then, capture the picturesque cityscape and its natural surrounds on a cruise down the Tagus River.

Depending on when you visit, you will encounter a range of family-friendly activities, including the Ericurea Seafood Festival (June), the Equestrian Show at Queluznate Palace (weekly) and the Estoril International Dog Show (August).

Culture, culture, culture.

The arts are booming this summer in Lisbon. With an extensive calendar of music, theatre, dance and film festivals occurring between late May and mid September, there are copious opportunities to experience both local culture and international collaborations through a variety of mediums.

You are bound to encounter something of interest during your stay, from the experimental street “encounters” of the Alkantara Performing Arts Festival (22 May – 8 June) to the classical and contemporary jazz performances of the Estoril Music Festival (2 July – 3 August). Also popular are the FIA Lisboa International Handicrafts Fair (June – July), the Almada International Theatre Festival (July), and the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (September).

The city, of course, truly comes alive at night! Get a taste of local culture on an evening tour, complete with a traditional dinner and folkloric show. Then, head to the oh-so-chic Bar do Rio and join the fiery locals on the dance floor at Lux until the wee hours of the morning.

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New Orleans Jazz Fest — April 25th-May 4th, 2008

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Mardi Gras is definitely not for everyone. Though I had am amazing time overall, indulging in King Cakes, beer and colorful revelry (and apparently phoning my mother several times to thank her for the gift of life), I can distinctly remember attending the Endymion parade on Bourbon Street (despite prior warnings not to enter the heart of the downtown area on Saturday night of Mardi Gras) and actually being pinned between 2 people, lifted 3 inches off the ground, and transported for a good solid minute with the whims of the crowd. I had no control over my arms, legs, or personal possessions. There was no space to breathe.

Mardi Gras is one of those memorable, “once in a lifetime” experiences but is definitely not the best way to experience New Orleans. I always recommend to anyone interested in absorbing some of the culture, music, history (and cuisine!) of this amazing city to come in the Fall or late Spring, when they can actually walk through and appreciate the French Quarter…and breathe! Not to worry—the partying never stops—there is always something crazy happening on Bourbon Street. Always a group of middle aged men throwing beads over a balcony, always lots of Hurricane Cocktails to be consumed, always the odd tap dancer or quirky “statue” gracing your path and even, occasionally, a celebrity or two across the bar (Britney Spears, for example, is from nearby Kentwood and has been spotted several times in Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar).

For the adventurous, music-loving, party-going traveler, who wants a well-rounded experience of The Big Easy, I suggest heading down at the end of the month for Jazz Fest. This is arguably the best event that the city has to offer—many locals actually prefer Jazz Fest to Mardi Gras.

The festival takes place over 2 weekends on late April/early May at the Fair Ground Race Course, just 10 minutes outside of the French Quarter. Though there are doubtlessly hundreds of thousands that come to witness the diverse, extensive line up of performers (over 1000—jazz, blues, R&B, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, folk, Latin, rock, rap, country, bluegrass and more), there is also tons of open space, making the experience a lot more bearable than that of claustrophobic Canal Street on Lundi Gras (Fat Monday). Some will spend the day lounging on blankets to the tunes of Widespread Panic; other more energetic types may partake in some 3rd row moshing (as I did when L.L. Cool J started throwing $20 bills into the audience during his 2003 performance). This year, the headliners include: Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, The Neville Brothers, Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw, Santana, Sheryl Crow, and Irma Thomas, among many others.

The Fest definitely doesn’t end on the fair ground at dusk. There are countless evening shows lined up at venues across the city—some advertised, some not. My personal favorite was a $5 Counting Crows “performance” that I stumbled across one evening on a French Quarter side street. Picture an intoxicated Adam Duritz belting Madonna covers to 40 drunks in a small room on a Tuesday night. It was fantastic.

Another highlight was the (sold out) 3am G. Love and Special Sauce jam session at Tipitina’s, followed by the ? ? ? . . .

And of course, for the ardent sightseer, there are plenty of interesting excursions, including walking tours, voodoo/ ghost tours, and river cruises.

(To answer the big, burning question on your minds, you can indeed view some of the worst hit sites of Hurricane Katrina on this guided tour.)

For those of you lucky enough to be venturing down to the Big Easy in the coming weeks, please do have some crawfish jambalaya and a drive-thru daiquiri (yes, a drive thru daiquiri) for me.

Enjoy the Fest!

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A GL/OBAMA TRAVEL ADVENTURE.

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The presidential candidate’s multicultural roots are all the rage. What could this fiery, young senator do for America’s international image? Does it matter that he was born in Hawaii, has roots in Africa, snapped some snazzy school photos in Indonesia, may or may not have absorbed some fragments of Muslim teachings between the age of 6-8 in Jakarta, and probably has a 7th cousin, twice removed from, I don’t know, northwest Mongolia?

I’m not going to get (too) political. This is a travel website! But, oh man, would it be an adventure to trace the life and times of the world’s most scrutinized political figurehead.

From Kenya to Kansas, it’s time to embark on the international, multicultural, hip, happening Globama Tour.

 

1. Ireland:

Surprise! You thought I would start with Kenya, but did you know that Obama’s great, great, great, great grandfather may have been an Irish shoemaker? (I know: stop traffic). Indeed, once upon a time, long, long ago, at a rural crossroads between Dublin and Limerick, Mr. Fulmuth Kearney awoke to the ways of the New World and abandoned his father’s trade for the land of the free. continue reading

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Pond Hoppers Unite in Reykjavik, Iceland.

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Did you know that North America is moving away from Europe at a rate of 2cm per year? When’s the last time you saw your cousin in Boston? Your best friend in London?

Why not meet up halfway at the famed point of continental divergence?

Just three and a half hours from London and five hours from Boston, Reykjavik, Iceland is the perfect pit stop for young working professionals and university students seeking a spring or summer getaway. Literally bubbling over with steam and energy, this up-and-coming European hotspot sits directly above the Eurasian and American tectonic plates, which, in parting ways, propel massive amounts of geothermal energy upwards through earth’s crust. Hence the bursting geysers, bubbling hot springs and raucous nightlife that characterize this unique and vibrant city.

Go wild.

Reykjavik is one of Europe’s most happening party spots: its trendy cafes are many, its music scene is bustling, and its clubs can turn your weekend into a 72-hour party. Begin your wild escapade with some local cuisine at the world renowned Siggi Hall restaurant, where you can indulge in traditional Icelandic food with a contemporary twist. Try the tasty smoked salmon dish, which, craftily soaked in gin and tonic, will prime your palette for the festivities in store. After shaking hands with Chef Siggi himself, venture to the easily navigable downtown streets to Gaukur á Stöng—Reykjavik’s oldest pub. Enjoy some live music as you soak in the beauty and charm of the local crowd; after a few vodka spiked beers (yes, vodka spiked beers!), your inner Viking will guide you forth on an all night clubbing adventure…that you will never remember to forget.

Get natural.

Reykjavik’s surrounding natural features—to the historic and ongoing fascination of geologists, environmental engineers, writers and artists—are some of the most unique and awe inspiring on the planet. If you’re craving a bit of rejuvenation and serenity, you should embark on the Golden Circle Tour—the most popular and efficient way to witness the steaming geysers, volcanic craters and magnificent waterfalls that characterize the island’s landscape. Stop off at the greenhouse village of Hveragerði to witness innovative methods of natural energy use. Or, if you desire a bit of creative inspiration, you might take the excursion to Snæfellsjökull National Park, a “radiating” energy hub that attracts some of the world’s most ardent mystics, mediums and dreamers. Experience the luminous, glacier-capped volcano that captivated the imagination of Jules Verne in writing his famous Journey to the Center of the Earth. Harness a bit of earth’s energy yourself, and return rejuvenated.

Choose your own adventure.

Whether you’re pub-crawling Londoner or a club-hungry spring breaker…a nature-knowing scientist or a beauty-loving artist, you will find your niche in Reykjavik. So go ahead and explore: journey to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge for a bit of culture, nightlife, nature and renewal.

 

Other tour ideas:

Northern Lights Tour

Romantic Evening at the Blue Lagoon Express.

On the Trail of the Icelandic Sagas…

 

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Orlando for Dummies

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My American friends call it Orlando, Florida, which means there are probably tens of other Orlandos across the US? But this one is the holy grail of consumer tourism. Theme parks have popped up like mushrooms with a symbiotic generation of hordes of hotels and restaurants to welcome fun hungry tourists.Beyond Disneyworld, EPCOT, Animal Land, Universal Studios, and Sea World, there must be other 20 parks: the pirate’s park, the water park, the fear park, the parrot’s park…And rolling across Orlando by car is an endless sequence: hotel, restaurant, hotel, restaurant, park, hotel, restaurant, t-shirt shop, restaurant, park, hotel..At the airport, I ask for a map to find out how to get to the hotel. I get offered a free, 150-page guide. The requested map is one on one thin page, and the other 149 pages are dedicated to ads for parks, restaurants and hotels. The last page is the pearl – a tipping guide, teaching Europeans how to tip! 15% for cabs and restaurants, 1 buck for suitcase handling, 1 buck for asking the concierge for directions, and 2-3 bucks if the directions are complex.Orlando, Florida: Land of the Tip.Restaurants are competing in a permanent race to put more stuff on your plate. We spent the first evening at a conference buffet. Great idea: you can pick, choose and pace your meal. But the second evening, we had a team dinner at a famous steak house, where obviously, they do steaks. The waiter carries a large tray full of fresh meat cuts – it’s the menu. WaiterShe goes on to tell us every detail about every cut: age, weight, texture, taste, most appropriate cooking method. She’s fighting for her 15% tip. (I should have recorded the speech).I go for a respectable, 23 ounce filet mignon (there are only 2 in each cow, I learn). It’s called “The Fabulous.” When I order, she nods in confidence: “The Fabulous – good choice.” I feel important. The slab of meat, which lands on my dish 5 minutes later, also looks important. Perfectly cooked, melts in your mouth.But my ears start buzzing half way through. My body can’t take a full Fab.

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