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Europe, Portugal, Travel

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

June 25, 2018

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

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.

You could easily mistake the colorful buildings of Porto for just brightly painted buildings, but upon closer inspection, you realize they are covered in thousands of detailed tiles or azulejos. Azulejo is the name for the painted tin-glazed tiles you see in Portugal. Porto seemed practically covered in azulejos.


Azulejo comes from the Arabic word az-zulayj, which means polished stone. The earliest known azulejo tiles come from the 13th-century. You can see many of these in Seville and the Alhambra in Spain. The early tiles were one color and cut in distinctive shapes to create patterns. Many of these reflect the Arab love geometric patterns and colors.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

King Manuel I of Portugal saw the tiles in 1503 while on a visit to Seville and he brought back the idea to Portugal. You can see early examples of this in Sintra, Portugal at the National Palace.

In the second half of the 17th-century, the azulejos started to have a blue and white theme that was influenced by the Netherlands. These tiles were imported, but that all changed when imports of azulejos were banned. This led to the Portuguese making their own tiles.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

Mass production began not long after and the azulejos became more and more popular. The 18th-century brought the large narrative panels you see on many churches and cathedrals today.

You can see the azulejos in many cities today in Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines. They are still used in decoration today. If you also make it to Lisbon, go visit the Museu Nacional do Azulejos. It houses the largest collection of Portuguese tiles in the world.

Where to Find Azulejos in Porto

Porto Sao Bento Train Station

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

The azulejo tile in the Port Sao Bento has made this train station famous. There are approximately 20,000 tiles covering the walls of the inside of the train station. The tiles are also located on the outside of the station.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

Most of the tiles in the train station are scenes from Portuguese history. Above the scenes are displays of the history of transportation. You could stand in here for hours looking at all the details. I loved watching the light change the feeling of the tiles while standing in there.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

Porto Cathedral

Overlooking Porto, the Porto Cathedral offers remarkable views of the city and the River Duoro. Outside the Cathedral, there are azulejos in the loggia.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

While the sanctuary is not decorated with azulejos, you can pay the €3 fee to the cloister to see an amazing azulejo mosaic. It depicts the life of the Virgin Mary and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The entrance to the cloister is to the right of the entrance. I could not find the number of tiles for the cathedral, but it must rival the train station.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

Cais da Ribeira

The Ribeira neighborhood is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Cais da Ribeira is the waterfront portion along the River Duoro. Here is where you can see many homes decorated with azulejos. Each house is so colorful and this is where I realized they were tiles not paint.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

If you walk up to the second level, past the restaurants and shops on the first level, you can get up close to the buildings to see the tiles. Most of these homes are still occupied by the people of Porto and you will see their laundry hanging in front of the tiles and windows. It makes for a colorful photo.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

If you want to wake up to this every day you can by staying in the Invicta Ribeira Boat Hotel, check here for rates, I stayed here and enjoyed being in the cultural heart of Porto. It sits in the River Duoro right across from the Cais da Ribeira. Plus who doesn’t want to sleep on a riverboat!

Igreja da Misericordia

This church is a hidden gem of azulejos in Porto. The church is only accessible outside mass hours through the museum next door, Museu da Misericordia do Porto. The entrance fee is €5, which gives you access to the museum and the church.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

The church was built in 1584. The original azulejo tiles were installed in 1628. Few of these survive today and many were replaced in 1866. There are reports that the ones in the stairwell leading to the tribune and sacristy are originals. The current tiles are in the blue and white tradition.

There was no one in the church when I visited. It was very peaceful to be in a beautiful church all alone. There were very few limits on where I could go inside and think that is because it is still a working church. The museum is worth a visit as it covers the charitable history of the organization and has some amazing pieces of art on exhibit.

Rua das Flores

The Igreja da Misericordia is located on this street so if you visit the church, you won’t miss the tiles on this street. Almost every building on this long street is covered in azulejos. The name of the street comes from the gardens that used to be here when the street was opened between 1521 and 1525.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

Preservation and Protection

The azulejo tiles have been known to be vandalized or be stolen. In an effort to prevent this in 2013 it was forbidden to destroy any building that had an exterior covered in azulejos in Lisbon. In 2017, the law extended to the whole country and included the interior of buildings.

Azulejos, Tiles of Porto

While it will not be hard to find azulejos in Porto, you will have a hard time not stopping to take pictures of every single one. Would you like to see more and learn about azulejos? I recommend these books on azulejos.


Europe, Greece, Travel

5 Alternatives to Santorini

June 18, 2018
Ios, Greece

After I wrote my post, Why I Didn’t Love Santorini, many people ask what islands they should visit instead. So I am giving you my five alternatives to Santorini.

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.

A few of these islands are close to Santorini and a few are closer to Athens. Each of them has comparisons to Santorini in some way and all of them are less expensive than Santorini, Greece. You could visit one of these islands or go island hopping between a few of them.

1. Paros

Alternatives to Santorini

Paros is one of the larger Cycladic Islands and is accessible by ferry daily from Piraeus port in Athens. Do not confuse it with Poros, which is an island close to Athens.

There is something for everyone on Paros. You can visit historic sites, get a tan on the beach or go windsurfing! It is a great alternative to Santorini because the villages have a similar style and since the main village, Parikia, is flat it is more accessible than Oia on Santorini.

Things to See and Do on Paros

  • Visit Panayia Ekatondapiliani Cathedral – This is also known as the church with 100 doors. It is very beautiful and there are tons to see.
  • Old Port of Naoussa – This is one of those iconic Greek places where cafe tables meet the sea!
  • Wander Parikia Town – This is one of the most beautiful towns on the islands I have seen. Tons of shops and restaurants to see as well.
  • Go Windsurfing – For the more adventurous, Paros has lots of wind making it a top spot for windsurfing.
  • Visit Golden Beach – One of the most beautiful beaches on the island and it is large. You might even be able to see the windsurfers from here.

Paros Hotel Recommendations

Parikia – Check out the Argonauta Hotel right in the center of town with great access to everything.  Click here to check prices.

Naousa – Hotel Liprando lovely hotel is in the center of Naousa and is comfortable and convenient. Click here to check prices.

2. Naxos

Right next to Paros is Naxos, the largest of the Cycladic Islands. Naxos has tons of beautiful beaches. It is also extremely family-friendly. You can fly to Naxos as well as take the ferry.

Book a day sailing trip from Naxos here.

I like Naxos better than Santorini as it is also flat at the port and the Chora is right next to a great beach. It means you don’t have to walk far for dinner or rent a car. There are also some amazing restaurants in Naxos as well so you will never lack for great food.

Things to See and Do in Naxos

  • Visit the Kastro – Located right in the Chora, the 13th-century Kastro is an ancient castle with three gates. Two of those gates are still in existence. The Kastro has several things to see inside including the Archaeological Museum.
  • See the Temple of Apollo – This is hard to miss as it sits near the entrance of the port. Walking out to it is easy and offers great views of the sea.
  • Take a Dip at Agios Prokopios Beach – This great beach is right next to the Chora and has plenty of cafes and bars to hang out in as well.
  • Go to the Eggares Olive Press Museum – The olive tree and oil are a very important part of Greek life. This covers the whole operation of the press operation.
  • Take a Day Sail – Spend the day on the water and visit places only reachable by boat. Book your day sail here!

Naxos Town – Galaxy Hotel is right on the beach and also offers easy access to Naxos Town. Click here to check prices.

Plaka Beach – Located at the quiet end of a stunning beach, Plaza Beach Hotel is a great option. Click here to check prices.

3. Ios

Alternatives to Santorini

Ios is close to Santorini and in my opinion, has the better sunset! The Chora is up on a hill just like Santorini but without the volcano.

Ios has 75km of beaches and is the island to visit if you are wanting to party or even if you are not. Given that parts of the activities are geared to young people, it makes much of the accommodation more affordable than Santorini.

Is Santorini still on your list? Buy my Santorini Itineraries – 1, 3, and 5 Day Guides to make the most of your trip!

Things to See and Do in Ios

  • Explore Skarkos – This is one of the best-preserved ancient sites in the Cyclades. You can see some artifacts from Skarkos in the Archaeology Museum in the Chora.
  • Visit Managanari Beach – One of the most beautiful beaches in Greece. You can take a bus for the day to the stunning beach.
  • Eat at Octopus Tree – This tiny port restaurant has some of the best Greek food on Ios. I recommend the fried zucchini fritters. Here is my list of all the best places to eat in Ios.
  • Watch the Sunset from the Liostasi Hotel – The sunset in Ios is stunning and due to its unobstructed views, the Liostatsi is one of the best places to see it. You don’t have to be staying there, just order a drink from their bar.
  •  Visit Homer’s Tomb – Homer the poet is supposedly buried on Ios. It is a drive, but worth visiting. The view from here is amazing.

Near the port – Kritkikakis Village Hotel is one of my favorite hotels in Greece. The staff are friendly and the rooms are comfortable. Click here to check prices.

Near the Chora – This luxury hotel offers amazing views of the sunset and a great pool. Click here to check prices.

4. Kea

Alternatives to Santorini

Kea is a great alternative to Santorini which is close to Athens. It is also great if you want a less touristy option as it is mostly Athenians that come here. You could come to Kea on a day trip if you wanted to as well.

The hilltop village is white and blue like Santorini and offers great views of the island.

Things to See and Do in Kea

  • See the Lion of Kea – Located in the hilltop village of Ioulis is a Lion sculpture. It was carved before 600 BC.
  • Visit the Archaeology Museum – Also in the village of Ioulis is a small but great museum. The pottery has feminine features and I have never seen anything like them before.
  • Go Scuba Diving – This is one of the few islands that have seen with a dive shop. The waters here were calm making it a great place to dive.
  • Hike to Ancient Karthea – This is a long hike but worth it to see the site and go swimming after.
  • Eat at Bourkarion – This family-owned restaurant is located in the village of Vourkari, which is just down from the port of Korissa.

Kea does not have tons of hotel options but the ones they do have are wonderful, including the Porto Kea Suites. Click here to check prices.

5. Kythnos

Kythnos is also not far from Athens and is another great alternative to Santorini. The island is not too big, but if you really want to explore you will need a car as some of the best places to eat are not in the port. Kythnos still has some of the best food I have eaten in Greece.

It is also great as it is not crowded and much more affordable than Santorini.

Things to See and Do in Kythnos

  • Take a Dip in the Thermal Springs – In the village of Loutra right in the sea is a thermal spring.
  • Eat Mussels at Sofrano – Also in the village of Loutra is the great restaurant of Sofrano which has some of the best mussels I have ever had in my life.
  • Visit the hilltop Chora – This is one of the most charming white and blue villages and reminded me most of Oia in Santorini.
  • Swim at Kolona Bay – This two-sided bay offers great swimming and a stunning view of the surrounding island. There is a narrow strip of beach to relax on, but it is never crowded.
  • Visit Katafiki Cave – This is one of the largest caves in Greece. It was a mine and is now a tourist attraction.

Loutra – The beautiful Kythnos Bay Hotel is right on the beach! Click here to check prices.

At the port – Kontseta is right at the port and offers great access to restaurants. Click here to check prices.

I would never tell you not to visit Santorini, but it is expensive and is very crowded in the high season. If you are only going to Greece once, then visit Santorini for a day or two and then visit one of these great alternatives. There are over 200 islands in Greece, so you have plenty to choose from!

Still, planning on visiting Santorini? Check out my ebook, Santorini Itineraries – 1, 3, and 5 Day Guides.

Do you have favorite Greek islands that are alternatives to Santorini? Share with us in the comments!

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Places Like Santorini
Europe, Spain, Travel

Witnessing History in Barcelona

June 11, 2018
Witnessing History in Barcelona

Arriving in Barcelona the same week as the Catalan independence referendum and the violence that came with it made me somewhat nervous, but I knew I would be witnessing history in Barcelona as well. Not that I usually let things like that affect my plans. I moved to New York City nine months after 9/11, I moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and I went to the Caribbean for three months during hurricane season the year after Hurricane Ike. This was a bit different as it was so soon, but I decided I couldn’t miss Barcelona and it really was too close to my travel time to change my plans. 

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.


My flight landed in the early morning hours on October 7, 2017, so I didn’t see all the Catalan flags that were hanging from many balconies. I also had no idea that protests had been planned for that day and for the next day after.

As I walked from my hotel to the Picasso Museum, I had to pass by the Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya, the presidential offices of Catalonia. Not that I knew what it was at the time. Crowds of people were dressed in white holding signs that read “Shall we talk?” in Spanish and Catalan, calling for discussions between Catalonia and Madrid. My nerves took hold and I wondered if I should find another way, but I soon realized what the signs read and many people had their small children with them. News cameras were also present and I felt a bit more comfortable but did not hang around.

Helicopters woke me the next morning. That day I had tickets for the Casa Museu Gaudi at Park Guell. Given I already purchased tickets, I was not going let the protest get in the way. Along the way, the taxi had to stop many times for the protestors to cross. These were pro-union protestors and were carrying the Spanish flag.

While this protest still seemed peaceful, there were many more people than the day before and they were chanting loudly. The taxi driver thought it wouldn’t last all day so I decided to spend more time near Park Guell than originally planned as it wasn’t near the protest site at all. Of course, vertigo hit that day and I eventually ended up back in bed at the hotel that afternoon unable to sleep due to the helicopters I could still hear overhead.

Feeling better but still hearing the helicopters and chanting, I decided to go out anyway and went to Las Ramblas outside my hotel. It still didn’t feel dangerous, but I kept up my caution and only stayed on Las Ramblas for a few minutes. Fortunately, these all the protests stayed peaceful even though more unrest continued through the week I was there.

Travel During Unrest

Many people were concerned about me going to Barcelona and for a few days, I was as well. I watched the news and decided to go ahead. However, I know that this political unrest did change people’s travel plans. This included a trip my parents recently returned from where the itinerary changed from Barcelona to Valencia instead. Of course, I had told them it was fine but they were on a tour so they had to go with the tour.

Making the decision to keep or change your plans has to be made on your own personal level of safety, news, and cost. If you feel comfortable and the news is peaceful then I would say continue on with your trip. But do need to remain aware of what is happening in the area. Which while there can be hard if you don’t speak the language.

Avoid the areas of protest if you can. I was really unable due to lack of knowledge and my hotel location on Las Ramblas. Do not get involved as you do not know the whole situation.

If you do decide to change your plans, check with you travel insurance and see if changing your trip might be covered. See if modifying your plans would cost that much. I could have flown into Barcelona and flown out right away, but this would have cost me my entire whole hotel stay as I had pre-paid for a discount. However, if things had been violent and I had been stuck in my hotel then I might not have cared.

Ultimately, you have to decide what you are comfortable with. I kept my family and friends up to date with daily calls so they knew I was safe. I also had decided that if it did get violent, I would stay in my hotel until it was time to go. It was exciting to know that I was potentially witnessing history in Barcelona. 

Have you ever traveled somewhere during unrest? What was your experience?

Europe, Museums, Travel

15 Things To Do in Malta

May 29, 2018
Mdina Malta

Malta made its way onto my travel bucket list when I was living in Qatar and I kept hearing about it from other travel bloggers. It doesn’t hurt that it is an island as I have a weakness for them and there are so many things to do in Malta. Since I was working my way West after Greece, Malta made a logical next stop.

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.

Malta is located in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and North Africa. It consists of 18 uninhabited islands and three inhabited that include, Malta, Gozo and Comino. Malta is full of history and beautiful architecture.

Malta is not very big but much of the places to see are spread out and the public transportation is not efficient and many times the buses were very full. This is something to keep in mind when making your plans. If you rent a car, Malta drives on the left!

1. Valletta City Gate

This impressive structure is the fifth gate to be located at this site. It makes for a grand entrance to Valletta, the capital of Malta. As you enter, look down into the ditch and see how deep it is. You can also see the curtain wall that surrounds much of the city of Valletta.

15 Things to do in Malta

The Valletta City Gate takes you to Republic street which runs all the way to the other side of the city to Fort St. Elmo. It is a great street to walk down, see local life and many sites. Since Valletta is small, you can easily walk everywhere you want to go, just beware of the hills.

2. St. John’s Co-Cathedral

St. John’s Co-Cathedral is one of the most ornate cathedrals I have ever seen. It is decorated in the Baroque style. The construction was completed in 1577, however, the Baroque interior wasn’t installed until the 1660s.

15 Things to do in Malta
15 Things to do in Malta

There was a line to get into the cathedral, so go early and be prepared to wait. The cost to get in was €10 for adults. It was very crowded as they don’t seem to limit the number of people they allow inside.

15 Things to do in Malta

3. Fort St. Elmo

Fort St. Elmo is a star fort, meaning it is shaped like a star. While there was a small post present prior to 1552, the current fort was started in 1552 after Malta was attacked by the Ottomans. Malta was attacked again by the Ottomans in 1565.

15 Things to do in Malta

The fort offers stunning views of the surrounding harbors. The fort now contains the National War Museum. It costs €10 to enter for adults.

4. Upper Barrakka Gardens

The gardens offer the best view of the Grand Harbour. They were originally built as a place of recreation for the knights of the Italian language of the Order of St. John. It is a great place to relax and watch boats enter and leave the harbor.

15 Things to do in Malta

For the gardens, you can see the cannons of the Saluting Battery. Twice a day the cannons are fired. Once at noon and again at 5:00 pm. Both the gardens and cannons are free.

15 Things to do in Malta

5. Auberge de Castille

This is the office of the Prime Minister of Malta. The building is in the Baroque style. You can go in on a guided tour. Unfortunately, I didn’t know about this when I was there and so I didn’t get to go inside.

15 Things to do in Malta

Even though I couldn’t go inside, I noticed a crowd gathering outside and guards. I began to ask around as to what was happening and people said Prince Charles was coming! About 45 minutes later, he finally arrived and I was able to get a couple of photos. Just wish I had my telephoto lens! The guards were pretty impressive as well.

6. Grandmaster’s Palace

The Grandmaster’s Palace is one of the most popular things to do in Malta. Built between the 16th and 18th century, the Palace was built for the Grand Master of the Order of St. John. The order ruled Malta from 1530 to 1798. This rule had great effects on Malta, which can still see today in the many forts, bastions, and towers they built.

15 Things to do in Malta

The Palace is home to the State Rooms and the Armoury. Both can be visited for the entrance fee of €10. Be sure to look up and down in the State Rooms as some of the ceilings have great paintings on them. Also, walk around the courtyards to enjoy the architecture.

15 Things to do in Malta

7. National Museum of Archeology

Every history lover will need to stop here to discover the ancient history of Malta. Artifacts inside range from 5000 BC to 400 BC. The museum is not large, but definitely has some interesting things on exhibit. It is located on Republic Street in Valletta.

15 Things to do in Malta

One of the highlights is the “Venus of Malta.” Having seen the real Venus, I was expecting a statue of a woman. It is a statue but it is about three inches tall. It is still stunning, but much smaller than expected!

8. Mdina Gate

Many of you Game of Thrones fans will recognize this gate from the third episode of season one. The Mdina gate is the main entrance into the city of Mdina. Mdina is also known as the ‘quiet city’ because very few cars are allowed to drive inside. If you arrive at Mdina by bus or taxi, the Mdina Gate is the most likely place for them to drop you off.

15 Things to do in Malta

The Mdina Gate was built in 1724 as the new entrance to Mdina. To the right of the gate, you can see the walled up medieval gate that was the entrance before. You can also get a good look at the city walls from the bridge to the gate.

9. St. Paul’s Cathedral

The official name of this cathedral is the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Paul. It is located inside the city of Mdina. The current cathedral was built from 1696 to 1705 after the previous one was severely damaged in an earthquake in 1693.

15 Things to do in Malta

The exterior is built in the Baroque style, like many of the historic building in Malta. It has a commanding presence in the square it occupies. While not as gilded as St. John’s Co-Cathedral, St. Paul’s has some beautiful frescos on the ceiling. Several frescos have adorned the ceiling and been destroyed in earthquakes and repair work.

10. Cathedral Museum

Right next door to the Cathedral is the museum. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside but the artifacts were stunning. Some of the silver pieces were bigger than me. There are also silver and gold statues of the apostles. The museum also houses a rare coin collection that spans 2000 years.

The building the museum is located in is the former Seminary. It was built between 1733 and 1742. The museum was moved from the cathedral to the Seminary in 1969. The entrance fee includes the museum and the Cathedral. When I went you had to buy your ticket at the museum first then go to the Cathedral.

11. Palazzo Falson

This was one of those gems I found by accident. I passed the entrance to this house and the courtyard caught my eye. It was then that I realized I could go inside. I really had no idea what it was all about but I love a historic house.

15 Things to do in Malta

The house was likely built in 1495 incorporating a synagogue that was next to the site. This makes it the second oldest house in Mdina. There is some doubt as to if the Falsone family ever lived in the house or if it was just named after them. Now it operates as a museum that represents a house, which is divided into 17 rooms. My favorites were the library and the kitchen. An audio tour is included in the entrance fee.

15 Things to do in Malta

12. Bastion Square

A short walk from Palazzo Falson is Bastion Square. It is the perfect place to rest a bit and eat a gelato! There is a gelato shop right in the square. Not only that but it offers amazing views of Malta! You can also get a sense of the thickness of the city walls here.

15 Things to do in Malta

13. Eat a Pastizzi at Crystal Palace

A Maltese pastry, called a pastizzi is a must eat while at Mdina. The Crystal Palace, probably the oldest pastizzi shop on the island, is located right outside Mdina in Rabat. The pastizzi, flaky pastry puffs, comes with either ricotta cheese or mushy peas inside.

15 Things to do in Malta

I ordered two because they are so cheap, but if you aren’t that hungry just get one. They are bigger than they look. Mine was very hot as they had just come out of the oven. One was a perfect cheesy snack!

14. Sliema Beach

Going to the beach is what most people come to do in Malta. You can swim right off the rocks in Sliema. There are places to lay out and sunbath there as well. However, it is all flat rock in this part of Malta so you might want to bring something soft to lay on.

What I thought was great was the small pools that had been carved into the rocks to sit in. There were also several beach clubs along the beach. It was too chilly for me to swim, but I enjoyed watching the water from here. Plus you can walk along the street above the beach get great views of the coast.

15 Things to do in Malta
15 Things to do in Malta

15. Take the Sliema Ferry

When the weather is good, you can take the Sliema Ferry to Valletta. It is the more time efficient way to get to Valletta than the bus. Best of all it offers great views of Valletta from the water. Some of the most iconic views can be seen this way. When you arrive in Valletta, you can walk up the hill to Valletta or take a mini bus to the center, which is an extra charge. Then on the return, you get great views of Sliema.

15 Things to do in Malta

There is so much more to do in Malta and on the other two islands, but I was only there for three days and as I mentioned two were rainy so I didn’t get to Gozo or Comino. Have you been to Malta? What is your favorite part?