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Europe, Netherlands, Travel

Visiting Amsterdam at Christmas

January 27, 2020

I have only spent Christmas alone once before at that was in Rome. When spending Christmas alone, it is important for me to have something to do on Christmas morning.

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Amsterdam at Christmas was a perfect place because almost all the museums are open on Christmas day. Plus there are tons of things to do in Amsterdam at Christmas time.

Amsterdam Christmas Markets

There are Christmas markets all over Amsterdam and most are open up until Christmas day. One I found was even open on Christmas Day. Here are some of the best Amsterdam Christmas markets to explore.

Ice Village

This Christmas market is located in the Museumplein right behind the Rijksmuseum. The market has a variety of stalls that sell handmade items such as jewelry, postcards and hand knits. There are also a variety of food stalls selling everything from BBQ to stroopwafels. Drink options included beer, mulled wine and hot chocolate.

Ice Village skating rink

The market also had a large outdoor ice skating rink. The rink was filled with kids and they even offered chairs to help you skate if you are out of practice!

The Ice Village Amsterdam was open Christmas day as well making it an ideal place to visit after visiting a museum or two beforehand. It was pretty cold that day so make sure to dress warm. There were a few open fires to gather around to keep warm though.

Amsterdamsche Kerstmarkt

This mostly indoor Christmas market is located in Westergas, Amsterdam. Westergas used to be the city’s gas works and now hosts creative activities throughout the year.

Outside the market are the food stalls, a small ice rink and even a carousel. Inside, there are plenty of vendors to shop from. I saw homemade products such as jewelry, art and food. There was even a Lush stall!

Amsterdamsche Kerstmarkt inside

Bingo was being played on the day I went inside. There were some food stalls inside as well with places to sit.

Some of the small buildings in the Westergas complex had shops inside them as well.

Funky Xmas Market

Also held at Westergas, the Funky Xmas Market is held the three Sundays leading up to Christmas day. This market features items from local artists and fashion designers.

Amsterdam Winter Paradise

This market as all the traditional things you would find at the other Amsterdam Christmas markets but also includes a ferris wheel! You can also go tube sliding on real snow. The festive spirit continues into the night at this market with live music.

Museums, Museums, Museums

Almost all the major museums in Amsterdam are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas day. This was the main reason I chose Amsterdam for my Christmas alone. I love museums and Amsterdam has some of the best ones in the world.

Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum cannot be missed when you arrive at the Museumplein area. It is the large castle-like structure that dominates the area.

The museum is home to over 1 million artifacts! It has a variety of objects on display including paintings, Delftware, ship models, clothing and dollhouses. It is probably one of the most eclectic museums I have ever been inside.  The only museum that I can compare it to would be the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The museum is open on Christmas Day and has plenty of things to keep you busy for the entire day if you want. You can also get a good meal at the Cafe or the Rijks Restaurant.

Be sure to check out the Night Watch, which is Rembrandt’s most famous painting. Starting in 2019, it underwent a yearlong restoration in the public eye. Depending on when you go, you may still be able to check out the restoration process live.

Anne Frank House

Visiting the Anne Frank House while in Amsterdam is a must for most visitors. My advice is that no matter when you are visiting Amsterdam is to book your ticket to this immediately. I booked my ticket about three weeks before I arrived and the only option I had was Christmas Eve at night.

Needless to say, the visit was worth it. The museum has been kept pristine and much of that is thanks to Otto Frank, Anne’s father. He kept it as it was when he was freed from the concentration camps. Even the original bookcase that blocked the secret entrance is still in place.

It isn’t an easy place to visit and even on Christmas Eve it was crowded. However, the magnitude of hiding in a place for two years only to be discovered after the war was officially over and then to be sent to the camps is shocking. The house is a moving experience.

Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum was my choice to visit on Christmas Day in Amsterdam. I thought it would be a popular place to visit on a regular day but it was even packed on Christmas Day.

Van Gogh's Sunflowers

It was worth seeing the Sunflowers though on Christmas morning. My advice would be to book an early morning ticket so that you might avoid some of the crowds.

I also recommend the audio guide to help you understand some of the paintings and to better understand Van Gogh’s life.

Book your Van Gogh Museum ticket here.

After leaving the Van Gogh museum, you can walk down to the Ice Village Christmas market for some poffertjes. Poffertjes are similar to an American pancake but are made with buckwheat and yeast. They are small and puffy served with butter and powdered sugar. Some stalls will let you add Nutella or chocolate.

Stedelijk Museum

If modern art is more your thing, you must visit the Stedelijk Museum.  The Stedelijk is open Christmas Day as well. It features artists such as Jackson Pollack, Marc Chagall and Andy Warhol. The Stedelijk is not on the Museumplein but is accessible by public transportation.

Light Festival

While the Amsterdam Light Festival starts well before the Christmas season, you can easily add it to your Christmas activities list while in the city. The Light Festival is an art installation that happens every year and each year is a different theme.

Light Festival installation of sinking city

Many of the installations are located in or near the canals. This makes it a great opportunity to take a canal cruise and see the lights at the same time. While these are not traditional Christmas lights, they are beautiful and you might get to see some Christmas lights in people’s houses on the canals.

Book your canal cruise here.

The art is from artists all over the world and the installations must be able to withstand the wet Dutch winter.

Food and Drink

Of course, you will want to sample all the food that Amsterdam as to offer at Christmas. I already mentioned the poffertjes and of course, stroopwafels. But to really get a taste you need to head to Foodhallen.

Pulled pork sandwich from Foodhallen

Foodhallen is a food hall with lots of options. What I liked about it was that you order food in one place and then there is community seating so you can sit anywhere. There are also several bars with beer, wine and a gin and tonic bar! There was even a small Christmas market here too.

The Netherlands is known for its tulips and windmills. Since it wasn’t tulip season, I decide to visit a microbrewery in a windmill! Ok, it is actually next to it in a former bathhouse, but it is still pretty cool. The beer was excellent as well. The windmill is the DeGooyer windmill and the brewery is the Brouwerij ‘t IJ.

Beer at Windmill brewery Amsterdam

Where to Stay in Amsterdam at Christmas

There are tons of hotel options in Amsterdam but I prefer to be near the museums and not in the city center. My recommendation is Park Centraal Amsterdam. It is right near the Museumplein and close to public transportation. Check rates here.

Public Transportation at Christmas in Amsterdam

The public transportation ran on Christmas Day. The schedule was a Sunday schedule but seemed pretty regular to me. There were times it was more crowded though. You can buy a ticket on the tram in the back of the tram. My advice is to purchase a pass for the amount of time you will be there as it saves you money and time.

Amsterdam Weather in December

Amsterdam weather in December is cold. It is December after all but don’t come to Amsterdam in December looking for a white Christmas. December in Amsterdam is the most humid month but it isn’t always cold enough to snow. When I was there it rained a few times and a few times it was a hard rain but most of the time it was a fine mist. Pack layers and an umbrella if you are traveling to Amsterdam in December.

Have you been to Amsterdam at Christmas? Share your experience in the comments.

Europe, Greece, Travel

Tips for Taking the Greek Ferry

October 16, 2019
Looking at the sea from the back of a ferry in Greece

Ferry greece

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You dream of going to a Greek Island and soaking up the sun while sipping ouzo, but how did you get to those beautiful islands you dream of? Most of the islands are only accessible by ferry, although some of the larger more popular islands have airports. Booking ferry tickets are much easier than it used to be, but a first timer may need some help navigating the ins and outs of taking a Greek ferry.

Flights and the Ferry

My advice is to never ever book your ferry tickets the same day as your flight. This is especially true if you have hotel reservations paid for or work to return to after your vacation. Fly in and stay in Athens for the night or book a hotel near the ferry port. On my last trip, my ferry choices were to leave either at 7 AM or 4:30 PM which meant arriving in Ios after midnight. I opted for 7 AM, so I booked myself a hotel at Piraeus port for the night before. In this case, I could have never made a 7 AM ferry with any flight.

Which Ferry

There are many ferry lines, but not all the ferry lines go to every island. Which means you won’t have a lot of choices on which ferry line you take. You may be able to choose a fast or a slow ferry depending on which island you are going to.

Some of the Greece ferry lines include Blue Star Ferries, Seajets and Hellenic Seaways. They are all reliable ferry companies.

The advantages of taking the fast ferry are less time on the ferry and more time on the Greek Islands. The other advantage is that the fast ferries are usually more modern than the slow ferries.

The disadvantages are if you get sea sick easily, the fast ferry might not be for you. Many of the fast ferries are hydrofoils, which are less stable in the sense that you feel the waves not that they are going to flip over. Another disadvantage is that you are usually not allowed on the deck, especially if the weather is bad. If the weather is really bad, the hydrofoils will be canceled. If you are going to a Greek island in winter, keep this in mind and allow for it in your schedule and bookings.

Book your ferry tickets here with Ferry Hopper!

Which Port to Catch Your Greece Ferry

Athens has three ports in which ferries leave from, Piraeus, Lavrio and Rafina. The issue with this is that not all islands are served by each port. For example, to get to Kea, you will have to leave from Lavrio. If you are booking your own ferry tickets, then I recommend using FerryHopper.  It is straightforward and will give you indirect routes as well as direct routes.  If you are booking your tickets through an agent, make sure to check which port you are leaving from before you set out for your ferry as they are far apart and you will miss your ferry.

Tips for Taking the Greek Ferry

Getting On and Off

The first time I took a Greek ferry, it was from Ios to Santorini and back. Ios is small enough, and I had help, so it wasn’t very hard. But in Santorini, I was alone, and there were a lot more people and a lot more ferries. It also seemed a bit disorganized, although in hindsight it wasn’t.

Tips for Taking the Greek Ferry

If you are on an early morning ferry, go early as you may be able to get on without all the rushing that is associated with getting on later in the day. This is especially true if you are embarking on at the first stop. In Pireaus, you may board even an hour early on some ferries.

At Piraeus there are many gates the ferries leave from and from the beginning to the end is far, so check it and arrive early to find the right gate. On the islands, there may only be one gate or very few gates. The best way to figure out where your ferry will depart from is the ask the Port police. They are in navy uniforms that look a little military in style. Your ferry ticket should have the name of the ferry on it, and most ferries are clearly marked. Some tickets will have your gate number on them.

You need to be there early but not more than 30 minutes. Rarely are ferries early in Greece and more often a few minutes or more late. But the disembarkation and embarkation process is fast, and they won’t wait for you. However, if they arrive early, they will not leave early. Don’t worry if you see your ferry arriving before you have reached the port.

What to Do with Your Luggage

Once you are on, you should store your larger luggage in the area you are directed to. There are too many stairs involved on the ferry, and you won’t want to bring it to your seat. Unless your bag is light, leave it here. It will be fine and there is no reason to worry about it being stolen.  Do take your valuables with you to be sure, though.

Proceed up the stairs, and someone will help you find your seat. Last year, I sat where I wanted, well except for business class but this year they really seemed keen on people sitting in their assigned seats.

Tips for Taking the Greek Ferry

They will announce each port as they get close and everyone will move downstairs to gather their luggage. It will seem chaotic, but don’t stress you will get your luggage and get off the ferry. It is a very efficient system even if it doesn’t look like it.

Do you have any tips for the Greek ferry? Share with us.

Europe, Greece, Travel

Things to Know Before Traveling to Greece

July 1, 2019

Greek Islands In October

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I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have Greece on their bucket list. However, many people have preconceived notions about Greece that are not true or are less than accurate. Knowing the truth will help you plan better and help you enjoy your time in Greece even more. Here are all the things to know before you travel to Greece.

Athens is More Than the Acropolis

Most people think of Athens, and they think of the Acropolis that sits on a hill in the center of the city. Many people believe they can visit the Acropolis and be done with Athens. Some people only spend one day in Athens! You still don’t need a week in Athens, but you do need about three days to see more than the Acropolis. One of the best things to do is to visit the Acropolis Museum. It is stunning and is not very large. There is an archeological dig exposed under the building as well.

There are many more museums to explore in Athens as well, including the Benaki Museum and the Museum of Cycladic Art. The Benaki Museum has a wonderful cafe with an outdoor terrace to view the city. There is also all the great food to eat as well. There is good food all over Greece, but Athens has a city feel and more upscale options if that suits you. Many places have excellent views of the Acropolis. I suggest going right before sunset to eat so you can enjoy your Greek food with a stunning sunset.

Athens has many other ancient sites to visit including Hadrian’s Library and the Ancient Agora. These sites can be seen with an additional cost added on to your ticket to the Acropolis. You can easily walk to them after finishing the Acropolis. A short tram ride away are some beaches if you want to make a day trip to the beach while in Athens.

Greece is On its Own Time

Unlike much of Europe, Greece has a much more laid back attitude and it is actually one of the things I love about spending time there. Ferries might be late or may be canceled. You may have to ask for your bill a few times before it arrives. There is no rushing in Greece unless you are driving. Then watch out!

This may be hard for some people to deal with but if you know about it in advance you know what to expect. The only thing I will say is that it usually all works out in the end. Greeks, for the most part, are pretty trustworthy and do not like to let the tourists down.

Strikes

Every summer there are ferry strikes. These seem to only happen during tourist seasons as well. I assume this is because it gives the workers more leverage. They are usually announced in advance so you won’t be standing at the ferry terminal waiting in the heat wondering if the ferry is going to come. However, by the time they are announced, you will probably not be able to change your hotel and everyone will be either buying new tickets or plane tickets. That is if you are on an island with an airport. My advice is to get travel insurance to make sure you are covered for any out of pocket costs you may have to incur. Also, do not book your flight and ferry on the same day! This is a good time to see more of Athens.

Tipping in Greece

I belong to several groups on Facebook about Greece and at least once a week I see questions about tipping in Greece. Like most of Europe, no one in Greece will complain if you don’t tip but most people tip about 10%. This is for restaurants mostly. Even in a cafe or coffee shop, I like to leave something if I have been waited on at a table. For larger groups, everyone should leave 10% as you are most likely taking up several tables during that time. If you feel like the waiter or waitress did an outstanding job, then more than 10% should be given. Another rule of thumb some people use is to round up. For example, if your bill was €18 then you could leave €2 as a tip. Keep in mind Greece is still suffering from economic issues so every bit helps the locals. Another thing to remember is that if paying with a credit card, you may not be able to add a tip after it has gone through the machine. Either ask them to add it to the total or have enough euros to tip in cash.

Santorini is Crowded

For many visiting Greece means the island of Santorini. Santorini is beautiful and has a unique landscape. However, everyone has Santorini on their bucket list and it means it is very crowded during the tourist season. If you must visit Santorini, here are a few tips that may help you avoid the crowds. First, go in the offseason. The main season is May to September with July and August being the busiest. However, I was in Santorini in September and it was still very busy. Go in October or April and you will still get to see the sites without the crowds.

If your only option is to go to Santorini in the tourist season, then stay outside the two main villages of Fira and Oia. They are the most crowded and probably the most expensive places on the island. A great alternative is in the village of Imerovigli. You will still get caldera views from here and the prices are less steep than in Oia.

200 Inhabited Greek Islands

There doesn’t seem to be an exact count of how many inhabited islands there are in Greece, but safe to say there are around 200. This is another reason that Santorini or Mykonos are not the only Greek islands to visit. These islands range from big islands like Crete, Rhodes and Naxos to small islands like Hydra, Aegina and Kythnos. All of these have many different things to do and see. Each island has its own culture and feel. You could go to a different island every time you visit Greece and still not see them all.

The Mainland

Mainland Greece is much larger than all the islands and there is so much to see there. The second largest city in Greece is Thessaloniki. Not only does it have the benefits of a city with cultural things to do but Thessaloniki has beautiful beaches as well. You can get to Thessaloniki by train from Athens or a quick flight from Athens.

Meteora is another gem of a place to visit on the mainland. Meteora is famous for the monasteries that are perched on top of high rocks that almost seem impossible to get to let alone build. You can either drive from Athens or take the train.

Another option on the mainland is the Peloponnese region. The Peloponnese is a peninsula and isn’t too far from Athens. This is were Kalamata is and where the famous Kalamata olive is from. This region is also known for its beautiful beaches.

Less Expensive

People are always asking me if Greece is expensive. The answer is yes if you are going to Santorini or Mykonos. However, if you are not going to these two places then my answer is no. Hotel prices vary across islands and the season, but even the 2 star hotels in Greece are nice. Most islands don’t have that many luxury resorts and you can always find something near the beach. I just booked a hotel in Naxos for 6 nights for less than $250 without breakfast. It is even less expensive if you go in September or later. Food is not expensive and you can eat out for about €25 for two people not including drinks. Although in some places, that does include one glass of wine. Look for where the locals are eating and not only will you get great food but good value for your money.

Smoking

This is the only bad thing about Greece. Greeks still smoke a lot and I am comparing this to Italians! For the most part, it probably isn’t a big deal unless they are smoking next to you at dinner. Most restaurants in Greece do not allow smoking inside and you will most likely be eating outside. If it does bother you, ask the waiter to move you or if you are in a cafe, just move tables.

Sailing the Greek Islands

Sailing is a great way to see many islands in a short period of time without having to ferry hop with your luggage. This was how I saw Greece the first time and I fell in love. We sailed to 14 islands. While you don’t have as much time to explore if you were visiting a few islands for two weeks but it gives you a good feel for what the island is like and you can plan your return trip. It is very relaxing and being on the water with the Greek breeze feels amazing. Most sailing trips have a preplanned itinerary but I have seen a few that let you plan the trip as you go based on the guests wants and the weather. Go in September as the water is warmest and the wind is not so high.

When to Visit Greece

My preferred month is September. The water is warm and so is the weather. The nights can be cool but never chilly. The crowds have left by then as well. October is also nice but many places start to close in October so there are fewer options for hotels and dining. However, you will have the beaches to yourself. You can also get good deals with shopping later in September you go.

If you must go in the summer due to work or school, I recommend going in June. The crowds haven’t started yet and the prices will still be low. The hotels and restaurants will be open by this time as well.

Beach Nudity

Beach nudity is common in Greece. Some beaches are more prone to it than others. If it is at a large beach the nudists tend to stay away from the sunbeds and umbrella areas. You will see some topless sunbathing on almost all the beaches. I am going to be totally honest and tell you that I am not a fan of full nudity for a variety of reasons. However, I have learned to accept it and try to look away as much as possible. Maybe I would feel differently if it was young fit people I was seeing naked and not 80-year-old men!

Cash

Cash is king in Greece. Restaurants would prefer you pay in cash. Some do this to avoid the taxes and some because they don’t want to pay the credit card fees. Technically the tax thing is illegal but unless you get a ridiculous bill, I would just pay and let it go. Paying in cash will endear you to the restaurant as well. Get Euros at the airport and take out enough to last you as long as you can. There are ATM fees in Greece and on some islands, the fee is quite high. On the small or less populated islands, ATMs can be a bit harder to come by.

No Toilet Paper in the Toilet

I saved the worst thing for last! On all of the islands, you cannot flush toilet paper. There will be a small covered trash can to dispose of your toilet paper in. It can be unsettling at first, but everyone is doing it. And no, it doesn’t smell either. The reason you have to do this is that the pipes can’t handle it. In Athens, this isn’t an issue as the plumbing is better there.

These are all the things you should know before traveling to Greece. I hope that I have answered all your pressing questions or have given you some things you didn’t know. Is there anything about visiting Greece that you think I have missed? Tell me in the comments.

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Driving, Europe, Montenegro, Travel

Tips for Driving in Montenegro

October 25, 2018
Tips for Driving in Montenegro

 

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on the link and make a purchase, I may earn a commission at no additional cost to you.

Two lane highways and cliffside drives dominated my driving in Montenegro. Knowing me, it was a good thing I didn’t know that the coast of Montenegro was a series of steep rock faces heading into the Adriatic Sea; otherwise, I might not have rented a car. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me as much as it usually does! Renting a car is the most efficient way to see the Old Towns of Montenegro. Here are my tips for driving in Montenegro and not going over the cliffs.

The Roads

Almost every road was a two-lane road. The only place I went in Montenegro that had more than two lanes was Budva and that was only in the central part of town. Many of these roads were narrow, and you share the roads with tour buses and public buses. These narrow roads started just after Herceg Novi and continued to Bar. Since I stuck to the coast of Montenegro, I am not sure if the roads inland are wider or more than two lanes. The narrow lanes bothered me more than the cliff driving, probably because I couldn’t see the edge or the water from the cliffs in most cases.

Most of the roads I drove on were in decent shape. This is especially true near the towns. However, some of the bridges seemed like they needed some work. Although, none seemed dangerous. Rural roads are not in as good of shape according to the articles I have read.

Due to the narrow roads and the lack of multiple lanes, traffic can be an issue in the towns. I noticed that traffic was very heavy in Kotor when there was a cruise ship in the bay and even worse if there were two cruise ships or if it was a large ship. Most of the traffic was centered around Kotor old town. Getting into Budva was another place I saw lots of traffic. After I left Montenegro, I learned that Budva is a popular beach spot for Eastern Europeans and that explained the amount of traffic there.


Auto Europe Car Rentals

The Rules

As in much of Europe, you drive on the right in Montenegro. According to the rules I have looked up, you should drive with low beams on during the day in Montenegro. I only discovered this after I saw people doing it. Obviously, you will want to drive with your regular lights on during the night. I also turned them on when going through the mountain tunnels.

The speed limit varied a lot on the roads and sometimes went down to 30 Kmh in towns. Pay attention to the signs as they changed quickly and the fines for speeding more than 10 Kmh are steep and can include jail time. My GPS beeped at me when it knew the speed limit was changing and I was going over it. Hint, rent the GPS from your car rental company. Seatbelts are required. I did see cops pulling people over, but never saw a radar gun. They may have just been pulling people over to check papers. This never happened to me, though. They also just wave at you to pull over and were not chasing people down in their cars with a siren or lights.

An international drivers license was not required, but I did rent my car in Croatia, check prices here. My advice is to have one if you are planning on driving overseas in any country. They do not cost much, and it is better to be safe than sorry!

The legal drinking limit is very low at .03% so my advice would to just not drink and drive in Montenegro. It isn’t worth going to jail in any country for a drink.

Parking

Parking in Montenegro was a bit haphazard. My Airbnb advertised free parking, but in reality, it was pullover as close to the wall next to the house as close as possible next to the street. It was a good thing my rental car was small and I never saw large passenger cars in Montenegro. Many areas in Montenegro had paid parking areas. At first, I was reluctant to do use the paid parking as usually, it is expensive, but then I saw how cheap it was and I immediately started parking in the paid spots. I never paid more than €3 for parking. In some towns, there was free parking, but it was usually full. In Herceg Novi, I couldn’t figure out where to pay. I asked an official-looking man in the parking lot and I had to go to the mini market and pay and then put the ticket on my dashboard. Most of the other parking was take a ticket and pay on the way out or pay an attendant.

Overall, driving in Montenegro was pretty easy. Have you driven in Montenegro? What was your experience?