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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 in ‘Holidays & Festivals’

Wimbledon – my freebie 2 hour taster

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I’ve lived in London now for 10 years. I’ve been a tennis fan for over 20. I’ve never been to Wimbledon. Go figure! The excuses to date have ranged from ‘tickets are too hard to get hold of’ or ‘I can’t afford the time of work’ to ‘I hate crowds’ (when I’m at my most curmudgeonly). And if I’m totally honest, my interest in tennis peaks and dives with the attractiveness of the top 5 male seeds…. (The Agassi and Pat Rafter years saw my tennis interest become a mild obsession. I digress…)

So finally, after all these years, I get an email from a friend at 4pm on a rainy Wimbledon afternoon, with the faint prospect of tickets to the late afternoon Murray quarter final. I’m all about the spontaneity (and the ‘free-ness’ of free tickets of course), so I jumped at the prospect, tied up my loose inbox ends and ran up and down tube escalators and train platforms to get to Wimbledon station from Oxford Circus in a record 32 minutes.

It wasn’t until my friend and I were sat on the shuttle to the ground that she revealed her failure to get anything resembling a ticket – but by which case I thought ‘what the hell’ and started window gazing for my first sight of Centre Court. To my surprise, at 7pm on quarter final Wednesday of Wimbledon, gate staff aren’t as attentive as they can be, and it’s fairly easy to slip into the Wimbledon ground unnoticed and free of charge. Bonus! Next stop the bar. Next stop, the famed ‘Murray Mound’ or ‘Henman Hill’ of yore. Huge screen, 1000s of people, not an inch of grass to be seen.

We perched ourselves on the concrete right at the front, next to the over-officious ‘No stopping! Move back!’ stewards and settled in for the final 2 sets of the match. I would have said the atmosphere was electric amongst the passionate masses but that would be a lie. Murray lost in 3 straight sets and the Murray Mound masses were fairly quiet, a bit despondent and at one point, much more interested in the ejection of 2 fairly harmless drunks by an unnecessary 8 policemen. I wasn’t disheartened, I thoroughly enjoyed my free 2 hours at Wimbledon (and I don’t really like Murray anyway – he’s anti English). I cheered the 3 points or so he won with everyone else, groaned at the dubious line calls and just soaked up the sights and sounds of something I’d only ever seen on TV: the pleasant sounding ball-thwacks, player grunts and polite applause, the well-behaved, well-dressed spectators, strawberries and Pimms.

We wondered around the different sections, picked up a free (normally £9) souvenir programme off the floor, got a glance at John McEnroe punditing from a roof top above us, and even wondered into Court 1 (ticketless, again) to watch the final points of the other quarter final. Wimbledon’s got atmosphere. You can’t deny it. Even just wandering around outside of the courts you can soak it up, and it’s all so very civilised and English.

The sun had returned and on leaving at 8.30pm, we looked back to see the ground framed by the most gorgeous pink sunset. As I weaved my way past the polite, orderly taxi and shuttle bus queues, my taster experience felt all too brief and I resolved to return. Next year: tickets (paid for), a day or two off work even and fingers crossed for some better looking top seeds.

Wimbledon Murrays Mound

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Oktoberfest 2008: Plan Ahead!

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One of the biggest mistakes that I made when I was living in Florence back in 2004 was not preparing myself—mentally and logistically—for the craziness that is Oktoberfest. I decided to travel to Munich, Germany for the beloved international beer-a-thon on a last minute whim…fun and exciting, I know. But also…stupid. Young people actually do end up sleeping in train stations, and hotel owners do actually check to make sure you haven’t crammed 14 people into your two double bed shanty…..

Don’t get me wrong—my weekend at Oktoberfest was one of the most amazingly fun weekends EVER. I highly recommend going if you have the energy and the funds!

If you are aching to prost the night away with a group college pals and local, lederhosen-clad brethren this year, then don’t put off organizing your excursion until the last minute. There are a few details that you must consider…now!

First of all, Oktoberfest doesn’t really happen in October: the festival runs for sixteen days up until, and including, the first Sunday in October (it starts on September 20th this year). Most of the “regulars” have their accommodation and traditional costumes sorted out months in advance (the costumes, I learned, are actually a big deal for German participants, serving as important markers of cultural status/pride), if not on the day that they left the festival the previous year.

The most resourceful students on my study abroad program had booked their flights/trains and hostels the previous July …i.e. NOW, if you are planning to travel to Munich this September/October. I made the mistake of waiting until September to plan my trip, and, by this time, there were virtually no flights left. The few available seats that remained were outrageously priced, so I ended up taking a long, expensive overnight train. Book your flights now!

By the time I looked into accommodation, there was not one single hostel bed free in the city. I definitely do not recommend the “figure it out when we get there” approach—over 6 million visitors will be sleeping in and around Munich when you visit. Fortunately, someone in our group was resourceful enough to find us a reasonably-priced hotel room (reasonably priced because we split it 9 ways! And – eek – almost got caught! I do not recommend this approach!) …just two weeks before our visit.

Once you are finally at the fest, another useful tip: instead of gulping down a breakfast beer, start the day with a shandy (a tasty mix of beer and lemon soda), rather than overflowing steins of potent booze. The locals have already caught onto this trick, and they will be the ones that start at 10am and are still table dancing at dusk. Mix it up! You have all morning, afternoon, night, followed by the next afternoon, morning, night… afternoon…

Lastly, after a few days of tabletop debauchery, I realized that there was so much to see in and around the beautiful city of Munich! I definitely recommend planning a few excursions and activities; I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the city on a bike tour, which was led by a lively guide and, of course, included pub stops!

Also, though it feels strange, and even ‘wrong’, to abandon the world’s largest drinking festival to visit serious and solemn historical landmarks, you must consider: what is the likelihood that you will ever be in Munich, or for that matter, Germany, again? I personally chose to spend a day exploring the history of the region and took a trip to nearby Dachau; my visit to the Memorial Camp was life-changing, and I definitely do not regret it.

Well, that’s all on Munich/Oktoberfest for now! Do post a message if you have any questions or insights, and I will get back to you as quickly as possible.

I do hope that you make the most of your German adventure by planning smartly and traveling safely…

Good luck, and have fun!

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A Summer of Shakespeare

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Celebrate Shakespeare’s 444th birthday in London and Stratford-Upon-Avon.

This summer marks the celebration of two important milestones:

1. William Shakespeare’s 444th Birthday.

2. Somewhat reasonable English weather…

…which means that it’s time to get into the Shakespeare spirit…by witnessing his creative genius…at some of the most authentic of venues…

1. The Globe Theatre, London.

Start by paying a visit to the one and only Globe Theatre, located on London’s South Bank; I had the pleasure of witnessing the ‘official’ celebration of Shakespeare’s Birthday here on April 23rd. And from the spontaneous, mid-afternoon “Happy Birthday” serenade by a lively group of pub crawlers…to a vibrant musical performance, staged on a floating Elizabethan theatre in the middle of the Thames…it was an event not to be missed!

There are still plenty of opportunities to immerse yourselves in this unique, historical celebration in the coming months…namely, by attending a Shakespeare play at the Globe!

As stated on their website:

“This year we perform his most searching tragedy, King Lear; his most wild and inventive comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; his most thrilling and savage satire, Timon of Athens, and his invention of a new form, the sit-com, in The Merry Wives of Windsor…”

Join in on one of the Globe’s most exciting theatrical runs to date!

2. The Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford Upon Avon.

After experiencing the wonders of the Globe, you could take an overnight trip to Stratford Upon Avon—the birthplace of Shakespeare—to get a feel for his earliest sources of inspiration.

Wander through the town’s quaint, cobblestone streets, visit Anne Hathaway’s cottage, and see a Shakespeare play, performed by the world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company.

This summer’s RSC productions include: Romeo and Juliet, Don John, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, and Hamlet.

The Oxford, Warwick Castle and Overnight in Stratford Tour departs from London daily and includes lodging at a 3 star hotel—a fantastic way to experience some of England’s most famous historical landmarks.

Happy Birthday, Will!

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Unique Learning Holidays

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Are you aching to break free from the office mundanity?

Do you ever daydream about that hobby, vocation or artistic skill that you never took the time to pursue?

Then why not combine relaxation and leisure with personal development on one of these unique learning holidays………

1. Get Creative in Paris

If you’ve ever strolled through the bustling Montmarte area of Paris—and witnessed the artists happily immersed in their craft—then you’ve probably romanticised your own potentials as a painter.Next time you’re in Paris, rather than purchasing a postcard of a painting, why not paint a pretty postcard yourself!

Get creative in Paris on a half day painting tour, through which you will learn the compositional basics of watercolor painting as you replicate a charming Parisian scene on a postcard.

Make mum proud!

2. Learn to Cook in the Mediterranean.

Do you dream of the fresh fish, cheeses, olives, and fruits of the Mediterranean? Want to learn how to recreate the deliciousness of Eastern Spanish cuisine in your very own kitchen?Then I suggest first embarking on a trip to Malaga, Spain, where you can partake in a Mediterranean Cooking class.

Shop for fresh veggies at a local market, learn to make authentic dishes from a local chef, and at the end of the day, enjoy a nice sit down meal, as you taste your very own creations—and some delectable wines—with your new friends.

3. Pottery Making in Africa

Get down and dirty…behind the pottery wheel…in Tunisia. Immerse yourself in the culture of Nabeul, known for its pottery and ceramic making, as you develop talents of your own!

You will not regret having immersed yourself in the therapeutic process of pottery making; the beauty of this course is that it runs daily—you can pick and choose which days you want to learn and how much time you wish to relax and soak in the beautiful scenery of the Tunisian coastline…It’s time to get creative!

Other Courses:

Photography Tours

Cooking Lunch with the Countess in Paris

Bumbu Bali Cooking Class

Belly Dancing in Tunisia

Blue Elephant Cooking School in Bangkok

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Cool things for American Expats to do on 4th of July in London.

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“Yankee Doodle came to London, just to ride the ponies…”

You are that Yankee Doodle Boy! (or Girl!)

While I am not aware of any upcoming pony parades through Parliament, I can offer my fellow American expats some festive suggestions re: things to do on the upcoming day o’ independence…

What: The Great American Beer Festival
Where: White Horse Pub, 1 – 3 Parsons Green, London, SW6 4UL
When: July 4th-6th, 2008.

No, no, no—not just a bunch of bottles of Bud Light and Michelob Ultra (AKA ‘water’). Tons of specialty American microbreweries (with some British favourites mixed in) will be represented at the famous White Horse Pub on the weekend of the 4th. From Chicago’s ‘Goose Island’ Beer Company to Denver’s ‘Flying Dog’ Brewery, there will be tons of flavors to whet your palette as you soak in the youthful vibrancy (and, hopefully, sunshine!) of Parson’s Green. Get ready for, beers, BBQ, line dancing, live music, and more!

What: O2 Wireless Festival
Where: Hyde Park, London
When: July 3rd – 6th, 2008.

There’s something for every homesick Yankee at the 02 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park; this 4-day extravaganza features performances by Counting Crows, Jay-Z, Goo Goo Dolls and Beck…to name a few. With 5 stages and 100 + performances, this is the biggest London music festival of the year! Again, let’s hope for sunshine…

What: 4th of July Barbeque (Organized by the London Expat American Meetup Group)
Where: Mile End Park, Grove Road & Clinton Road, London, E3 4PE
When: July 5th, 2008 from 2: 30 pm.

If you are looking for something a bit more casual and relaxing, why not whip together Grandma’s best potato salad recipe, grab a case of beer, and join in on the patriotic, picknicking fun with some fellow Americans on Saturday afternoon?

But first, you must join the American Expat Meetup Group (just Google it)—a very useful forum, especially for London newbies!

(And yes, bring your kids, but leave your fireworks at home.)

Know of any other 4th of July events going on in London? Then post below!

HAPPY 4th!!!

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Father’s Day 2008: The Gift of Adventure

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Do not underestimate the crazy types of things your father would do with his free time: those receding silver streaks mean nothing. In fact, they were probably, unavoidably, caused by you.

You see, a protective dad’s biggest fear is that his kids are secretly behaving half as stupidly as he was during the dumbest moment of his own youth. Most dads are just giant kids, really. And this Father’s Day (Sunday 15 June 2008!) is the perfect opportunity to make your old man feel like a young lad again. Give him the father’s day gift of a lifetime! It’s time to send dad on one of these…

Big Kid Adventure Tours

1. Four Wheeling through the Australian Outback.

Your mother will hate it (thus he’ll love it even more) when you sweep your dad away on a vacation Down Under, where he can trail blaze through rugged, open plains on his very own 4×4 motorbike! He will delight in pioneering the breathtaking landscapes and beloved fauna of Oz.

(You can assure mother that the tour is led by experienced local bikers!)

2. White Water Rafting on the Ganges

The ultimate adventure. A two-day excursion to India’s prime rafting spot—a most thrilling (and beautiful!) stretch of the Ganges River in the north.

After a refreshing afternoon and overnight stay at the Ganges Nature Camp, your favorite Big Kid will brave the rapids full force (mothers: helmets are provided, and the rapids are interspersed with calm swimming spots and picturesque scenery).

The bravest dads may opt for a quick cliff dive before completing the five-hour journey in Rishikesh.

The excursion includes hotel pick up and drop off, transportation to camp in an air-conditioned vehicle, accommodation in safari tents, rafting equipment, trained and professional guides, and various adventure activities (jungle walking, body surfing, cliff jumping, etc.).

3. Helicopter Ride over Grand Canyon

Who wouldn’t love it? (Actually, I think my acrophobic mother would hate this one, too…).

Suitable for the busy businessman, this exhilarating flight will give your deserving dad a breathtaking vantage point of the grand, cavernous expanse of striated rock that he dreamed about as a boy.

The tour commences at the Southern Rim and will bring him soaring through the center and across to Imperial Point, which boasts spectacular views of the Canyon, the Painted Desert and the Colorado River.

4. Everglades Safari Park Tour

Perfect for all the binocular-clad dads out there, this (affordable!) airboat ride excursion through the Everglades National Park, the “largest subtropical wilderness in the US,”will bring ‘em face-to-face with mother nature.

Dad will relish in the abundant flora and fauna as he watches the gators in action, explores the marshes by foot and truly immerses himself in one of America’s most precious ecosystems.

This most affordable Father’s Day gift includes: a wildlife nature show, reptile cave exhibits, an alligator wrestling show, and, of course, an airboat ride!

5. Bungee Jumping in New Zealand

For the craziest Big Kids out there, this one is pretty self-explanatory:

1. Climb (200 ft up the stunning Auckland harbour bridge),

2. Strap (on the appropriate gear), and…

3. JUMP!

He will even get a complimentary t-shirt and bungee certification…

The Gift of Adventure

This Father’s Day, forget the gardening gadgets and golfing shirts, and ignite dad’s inner child—send him on the Big Kid Adventure of a Lifetime!

Excursions:
Quad Biking in Australian Outback

White Water Rafting on the Ganges

Helicopter Ride over Grand Canyon

Everglades Safari Park Tour

Bungee Jumping in New Zealand

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Planning Your Bank Holiday Weekend

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Phase 1: Destination Selection + Flights.

If you’re anything like me, you probably waited until the last minute (i.e. NOW) to start planning a trip away for the upcoming May Bank Holiday (weekend of the 24th). A few of your friends probably came back suntanned and smiling from their early spring Moroccan and Andalusian getaways, thus inspiring you to embark on a fun little beachside excursion and of your own…

And then you saw the flight prices. Eek!

My mini holiday plans have become exponentially less exotic since I began researching, er, 5 days ago. I’m travelling from London with an Aussie, beach-loving friend of mine: we started out with grand ideas of jetting down to Tunisia or to the north coast of Sardinia.

But then…we saw the flight prices.

Okay, we thought, maybe somewhere a bit closer to home would be more feasible. The north coast of Spain? A bit of Basque country action in San Sebastian? Or perhaps a surfing excursion to Biarritz, France?

Still, no flights under £300. Unless, of course, we opted to depart at 6:00 am on a Wednesday from Stansted Airport, which, as many Londoners know, is a complete nightmare to fly out of—even at a decent time of day. However, the discount air carrier flights from Stansted can be worth the headache (brought on by complicated transfers, massive queues) for longer trips, planned well in advance. But for the busy professional seeking a quick weekend break: Gatwick and Heathrow all the way.

We gave in to the reality that our trip would have to be driven by the whims of the low-cost air carrier market, and we thus narrowed our destination selection to a few coastal, European cities that we deemed would pose more affordable flights: Lisbon, Bilbao, Nice, and Marseille.

Still, nothing within our budgets…with the exception of the touristy package holidays we found on lastminute.co.uk. It was time to let go of the ‘beach holiday’ idea and focus on the high-traffic ‘city break’ destinations: Amsterdam? Madrid? Rome? Paris? Prices were looking much better, but, unfortunately, one or both of us had already been to each of these cities.

Hmm…Wales? Brighton? The Isle of Wight…?

Where would we go?

“It’s too bad you’ve already been to Ireland,” we both said at the same time.

We quickly discovered that both of us had always wanted to go to Dublin! We ended up booking our flights (fist spotted on skyscanner.net – a very useful site!) with Aer Lingus, which not only offered competitive prices, but also provided flexibility in departure times and crucially, given our desire to depart post-workday, departures from Heathrow.

In conclusion, some tips for those planning budget, last minute weekend getaways from London:

- It’s not too late to book something affordable, but you can pretty much forget trips to locations that your great auntie in America hasn’t heard of.

- Unless, of course, you are willing to take a risk with an all-inclusive travel package. For this, try lastminute.co.uk.

- Use skyscanner.net to get comprehensive overview of the various airlines and available flights to your destination. Beyond Ryanair, Easy Jet, etc., there are often smaller, region-specific companies to choose from, depending on your destination.

- If you can’t possibly miss a day of work, forego the appealingly-priced flights out of Stansted, which are not worth the extra travel time, transportation costs and the massive queues that you will face upon arrival to the airport.

- Stick to the major ‘city break’ destinations – Paris, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, Dublin, etc.—for better deals and more flexible scheduling.

Happy Planning!

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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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UK Cultural Festivals

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Hidden away in the most seemingly ordinary of countryside villages and isolated of coastal towns are some of Britain’s best kept secrets—unique cultural traditions that can be witnessed nowhere else in the world.

My advice for the whimsical and curious traveller in search of new sights: it’s time to think beyond location. Seek to experience. The most fascinating things can happen in the most unexpected of places, many of which are easily accessible, affordable and perhaps even a short car or boat trip away.

Think eccentric; think outlandish. Make 2008 a year of cultural adventure, and discover some of Europe’s most bewildering and unconventional pastimes…

A guide to some of the UK’s greatest cultural secrets. 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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