Your Guide to Santander, Cantabria, Spain

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings – I promise there are some great tips if you plan to travel here! 🙂

Admittedly, I didn’t spend nearly as much time in Santander as I should have. My original plan was to visit San Sebastian and Bilbao for the 4 day weekend, but my host family insisted that Santander was worth seeing. They told me it was only a short drive past Bilbao, but it ended up being about 1.5 hours past Bilbao. Plan accordingly!

When I researched Santander, not much came up online. That worried me a little, because this would actually be my first trip ever alone (besides moving to Spain in the first place, that is). There weren’t many hostels available in the area either, so if you’re planning to take that route as well, be sure to take that into account.

When I told people I would be going to Santander, most people asked “But… why? What’s there?” It’s true, it isn’t the biggest tourist destination, especially for Americans and Brits. But what I’ve discovered is that it is a pretty popular destination for Spaniards.

Getting There

Santander is about a 1.5 hour bus ride away from Bilbao. There are some lovely views along the way! There is also a train, I suppose it would take about the same time or perhaps a little less. However, be sure to plan ahead and buy your tickets in advance, especially on weekends. When I tried to leave on Sunday to return to Bilbao, I couldn’t leave in the morning like I had planned because both the train and bus were sold out! Luckily I wasn’t in a rush, but that could definitely ruin your trip.

Where to Stay

I stayed at a “hostel” in the Puerto Chico region of Santander, only because during that time it was the only (cheap) thing available. The hostel actually turned out to be a spare room in someone’s apartment, but my stay was nice nonetheless. Since it was my first time travelling alone, I was hoping to meet people at the hostel, so it was a bit disappointing. But I had a nice and pleasant stay with them, the family was very nice (but spoke no English, so be prepared with a little Spanish). If you’re interested, you can book it here on the hostelworld website.

There are also many hotels in the area if you’re not on a budget, and many of them are located more centrally near the peninsula. Airbnb is always good to check, too!

Puerto Chico (Port Area)

If you’re coming to Santander by bus or train, you’ll be dropped off in this area. However, this is not the central part of Santander. At least, not where most of the touristy things to see are located. There is the port, which is quite nice to walk along, and there are many delicious pinchos restaurants to choose from. And, since it isn’t a huge tourist city, you can find some amazing deals on food!

I had a lovely walk along the coast enjoying the view of the villages on the other side of the bay, the views are pretty spectacular (even though the weather wasn’t fantastic). There are also a few parks along this route, with some nice sculptures to admire. Nearby, there is also a sailing school, so you’ll probably see some amateur sailors taking advantage of the day.

The Arch of Banco Santander

In this area, there is also the original Santander Bank (if you don’t know why this should be important, don’t worry – it’s just a very popular bank in Spain). It is nice to check out, especially if you’re into architecture. It was built in the early 1920’s by architect Javier González de Riancho.

The Courtyard of Banco Santander

As you wander along the streets nearby, you’ll find lots of cool street art- if you’re into that kind of thing. I walked around this city alone at night, and while I don’t recommend doing the same, it is a safe and beautiful city to explore if you have the time.

If you wander back towards the coast, you’ll find some lovely parks and statues. Grab a gelato, take the hand of a loved one, observe the sailors… take advantage of the beautiful walk.

I noticed that there were many lovely buildings throughout the city of Santander. Just keep your eyes open, you never know what you’ll find 🙂

If you keep walking north along the coast, heading towards the peninsula, you will pass by the sailing school and also the strangest government building I’ve ever set my eyes upon:

It takes about 20 minutes to walk from the main downtown area of Puerto Chico to this region, and then perhaps 10-15 more minutes to reach the beach and peninsula region. There are buses that you could take, but as of May 2015, google maps did not have them listed in my phone. But I assure you, the walk is worth it!

Peninsula de la Magdelena

After walking along the coast, you’ll find yourself at a nice beach. There is a path that goes along the cliff, or you can slip off your shoes and enjoy walking across the sand. At the end of this beach, there will be another path that’ll lead you towards the main entrance of the park on the Peninsula.

Not a shabby place to live, eh?

The Peninsula is definitely worth a visit, and many tourist sites recommend at least three hours to fully explore it. There is a huge park, a small zoo, and even a palace! The views from this peninsula are breathtaking, even on a cloudy day. And the best part? It is completely free! I guess there are tours inside of the palace, which you can pay extra for. There’s also a little shuttle that you can pay for to take you around the peninsula, but I highly recommend just walking it.

If you follow the path to the left first, you’ll find yourself at their small zoo. They don’t have much, but it is still pretty cool! There are penguins (a funny sight to see with the beach in the background) and seals. If you continue following the path, you’ll come across a mermaid with 3 ships – a very typical photo moment in Santander!

Continue further and up the hill, stopping to admire the views off of the cliffs. After a few minutes, you will see the palace. It isn’t anything super impressive, but it is pretty. You can walk all along it, and then continue on the path back down the hill, on the other side of the peninsula. There are a couple of different paths that lead more inland or closer to the cliffs.

Just imagine having a picnic here. Either on the grassy knoll, or surrounded by beautiful trees with a distant view of the mountains or horizon. Think: jamon serrano, a tasty yet inexpensive wine, some olives, a handsome Spanish man by your side…

Playa de los Peligros

Peña Vieja and the Beaches

When you loop back around the peninsula toward the entrance, if you continue through the gate and to the right, you will find yourself at another lovely beach called Primera Playa (or First Beach). The first thing you’re sure to notice is Peña Vieja (or Old Rock), with lovely views of the other main area of Santander behind it. I’m sure this beach would be lovely during the summer! I went during the Spring, and what with the weather being wetter in the North, the weather varies quite a bit from day to day.

From there, walk further along the coast and you’ll find Parque de Piquío, a small break in between the two main beaches of Santander. They have some lovely gardens and benches and of course a magnificent view of the beach in both directions.

The City near the Main Beaches

After you’ve had enough of the beach (if you can ever have enough of the beach), you can head inland to explore the city area on this side of the peninsula. I noticed lots of unique buildings and enjoyed just strolling through the city. In fact, since my phone wasn’t allowing me to find a bus route home, I just walked straight through the city to the other side and back to Puerto Chico (see above). This was quite a long walk, however, and if you could find an alternative route, that’d probably be for the better.

Another popular tourist location on this side of Santander is the Gran Casino Sardinero. When I was there, there was a big formal event going on, so I couldn’t go inside. But other travel websites say it’s definitely worth a look, even if you don’t gamble!

Food and Drinks

So, you’re in Spain. Of course you’re going to expect the best of the best when it comes to food and drinks. You’re in luck, because Santander has some amazing restaurants, both for a midday “menu del dia” and for some lighter pinchos in the evening with delicious wine. Some of the places I went to I had researched beforehand, and others I just happened to be hungry and went to the first place I could find. All of them were delicious, I think it’s hard to go wrong.

My first night, after walking all through the city, I was exhausted. But I can never be too exhausted for a drink. I stopped in a themed bar named “Little Bobby Speakeasy.” It was still a little early in the evening, so when I entered, there weren’t too many other patrons. However, the place itself is quite lovely and well decorated in the 1920’s style. All of their drinks are inspired by old movies and TV shows. I highly recommend stopping by!

I realized I was a bit hungry, so I decided to go to a place that I had found recommended online: Dias Desur. I only planned on having one or two pinchos and some wine, but that turned into 4 pinchos and 2 glasses of wine. It was amazing, even after having such ridiculously decadent pinchos as I had in San Sebastian. This is a must stop for anyone visiting Santander! It can get quite busy, but it is worth the wait. Something even as simple looking as the teeny weeny mini burger they recommended just had the perfect flavor combination to make my eyes roll back in delight.

On my second day, I walked into a random restaurant along Calle Castelar near Puerto Chico. I ordered the menu del dia (if you’re unaware, it’s amazing – each restaurant puts together a couple of possibilities for a 2-3 course meal, generally with wine and dessert included, for a low, fixed price. I’m not talking about small dishes, either. I’m talking massive plates that’ll make you walk away wishing you had your big Thanksgiving pants) and was blown away by the food. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name now, but I am pretty confident that you wouldn’t be disappointed with any options here.

Don’t be afraid to be a stereotypical tourist… order the paella!

I forget what the name of this was, but it was an unusual name for pork… and it melted in my mouth.

Before catching my bus, I decided to stop at one last place in the Port area for some pinchos. This place was called Casa Lita, and it had a great variety of pinchos, although admittedly not as amazing as Dias Desur (it is hard to beat perfect)… but still quite good.

List of What to See

  • Peninsula of Magdalena – Beautiful views of the bay and nearby beaches, with free entrance to the park and zoo.You can go by foot (recommended) or pay extra for a little trolley to take you around. There is also a palace at the tip of the Peninsula, you can pay extra to go in.
  • Playa Primera de El Sardinero
  • Piquío Park – A lovely park separating two beaches, with great views on both sides.
  • Parque de Cabo Mayor – Panoramic views
  • Puerto Chico – Lots of restaurants and bars, a nice area to walk around near the port.
  • Edificio del Banco Santander – A nice archway and courtyard in honor of Santander banks in Puerto Chico.
  • Menéndez Pelayo Library: Calle de Rubio, 6 – Beautiful library inside and out, with lots of stained glass and old wooden shelves stuffed to the brim with books.
  • Gran Casino Sardinero: Plaza de Italia, s/n, 1 – Worth seeing, even if you don’t gamble.
  • Barrio Pesquero – A run down area, but worth it for the seafood restaurants.

Where to Eat (AKA The Most Important Part)

  • Café Pub La Rana: Calle de Daoíz y Velarde, 30 – lively joint that is popular with its young clientele who want to line their stomachs before a night out; famous for its patatas bravas, but also serves hamburgers and sandwiches.
  • **Little Bobby Speakeasy**: Calle Sol, 20 – A fun, well decorated 1920’s style bar with great cocktails.
  • La Conveniente: Calle de Gómez Oreña, 9
  • Asubio Gastrobar: Calle Daoiz y Velarde, 23
  • ***Días Desur***: Calle Hernán Cortés, 47 – Absolutely amazing pinchos and delicious wine
  • Casa Lita: Paseo de la Pereda, 37

Your Guide to San Sebastian, Basque Country

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings – I promise there are some great tips if you plan to travel here! 🙂

I was dying to visit Basque Country, and when a 4 day weekend came my way, I decided to take advantage of it. I had heard so many amazing things about San Sebastian in particular that I decided to spend two of my days there, and I wasn’t disappointed. You could easily spend a week here! Just expect to gain more than a couple pounds… But I promise, it is worth it.

Getting There

From Barcelona, it was about an 8 hour bus ride. Sounds like hell, doesn’t it? I took it overnight, hoping to get in some Zzz’s before exploring the following day. Even with melatonin, it was nearly impossible. It didn’t help that there was a crazy guy on my bus who thought he had boarded the party bus, and started playing music loudly on his phone and fist pumping the air. Now, why ever would I put myself through the torture of taking an 8 hour bus overnight there? Because it was much cheaper than both the train and a flight. Plus, I wanted to challenge myself. Now I know that I can do it, I just might consider not doing it again in the future.

Zurriola Beach, my first morning.

The train was the next cheapest option, but it would have still taken at least 6 hours that way. I decided not to fly there because airports are awful, by the time I got to the airport and had to wait for my flight, the time wasted probably would have been similar. My friends did end up flying there and meeting me, but they also paid twice as much and didn’t have as much time there.

As you cross the bridge from the Zurriola Beach side towards the center.

Another problem with taking the overnight bus, however, is that it arrives ridiculously early in the morning to San Sebastian. We arrived at about 5am, and what can you do that early in the morning? Nothing. Nowhere is open, including the hostel I was going to be staying at, so I decided to just wander around with my luggage. I ended up on Zurriola Beach (yes, with my luggage) and watched the surfers come one by one to take advantage of the early morning waves.

Where to Stay

San Sebastian is pretty small, so no matter where you stay, you will probably be within walking distance of all of the important places. If you’re on a budget like me, hostels are a good way to go, but be sure to book ahead of time! Even though I booked a few weeks in advance, there were very few beds left. I stayed at the Surfing Etxea Hostel, and enjoyed my stay.

As the name implies, it is catered towards surfers and even allows you to rent out boards and gear. It is also only a block from Zurriola Beach. I met a lot of really nice people there, and the facilities were clean. My only complaint is that the employees there were always gone. If you were trying to check in or check out, for instance, you might have to wait awhile because they were often out walking their dog. One guy had to give up his 20€ deposit because he had to catch a train and the employees were nowhere to be found.

Parte Vieja (Old Town) The old part of town is where it’s at. See the above map? I starred all of the major things that I wanted to see/do, and they’re all clustered in that central part of Parte Vieja. Granted, the majority of the things I wanted to involved eating, but still. That’s pretty important business when you’re in San Sebastian.

Interesting modern art in front of the Parroquia Santa María

As you walk around this area, you will see some lovely boutiques, plazas, a couple churches, and of course… pinchos (pintxos) bars. It is super common to do a pincho crawl, where you have a drink and a pincho at one bar then wander down the street to the next place… and repeat. Again. And again. We ate and drank so much food here it was ridiculous, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Pintxos

Now, there are good pinchos. And there are meh pinchos. It is important to do your research so that you can avoid the latter! All of the businesses in this area know that tourists are coming for the food, and they often put together cheap ingredients with a slightly inflated price and try to convince you it is legit. It isn’t, don’t fall for it!

Another thing to keep in mind when going for pinchos is that most of the (legit) places do not have much room to sit down. The typical pinchos places are very small and require you to crowd around whatever little counter space is available, so be prepared to stand for awhile! The beer helps, I promise. My friend and I were super hungry after walking around for awhile, so we just stopped inside one of the first places we came across. This was San Sebastian, it had to be good, right? Wrong. The flavors were very bland, and everything was just a bit too fried for my taste. And the beer was more expensive than it should’ve been. One red flag for this place was that it was rather big and had a decent amount of sitting space. I think this is a pretty good indicator that it is more corporate and geared towards tourists.

Our bland, not so bueno first pinchos… Don’t go there!

After that disappointing experience, I looked to my list of recommended restaurants and we decided to heed the online community’s advice. We headed to Borda Berri, which had shown up numerous times in my research as being the best pinchos bar in San Sebastian. When we were at the hostel, also, I overheard some people talking about how amazing it was. When you enter, it is surprisingly small and it can be a bit overwhelming when it’s crowded. Luckily we came at an off-time, so there was plenty of room at the counter. They have a chalkboard with all of their specialties of the day, and pretty much everything there is fantastic. You can’t go wrong, just keep an open mind! I had heard that the gazpacho (on the right) was great and I chose the mushroom risotto (on the left) as a second. My friend loved the gazpacho, but it was a little too strong for me. The risotto was tasty as well. However, I think I played it a little too safe here. I ordered what I knew. As we were eating, we met two lovely ladies from Canada. People are so friendly here! They recommended that we try the local beer (we were upset we hadn’t noticed it before), and it was absolutely delicious. They also recommended us two other dishes that we returned to try the next day.

The octopus at Borda Berri.

I went out of my comfort zone and ordered the octopus and ribs, as recommended by the girls we had met. It was AMAZING. I had tried octopus before, but it had just been meh. This was on another level entirely. It was so delicious, I found myself closing my eyes and savoring every morsel. It was perfectly cooked and practically melted in your mouth. All of the different sauces perfectly balanced with the delicate taste of the octopus, I was tempted to order a second.

The ribs at Borda Berri.

The ribs were also amazing. It was super tender and full of flavor, and all of the sauces along with the flakes of sea salt were just too perfect to describe. You will not regret ordeirng this! And it is a little more in the comfort zone of most people. My friends ordered the gazpacho again and then also tried the stuffed tomato, which they said was delicious. But I don’t think they loved it nearly as much as I loved mine.

Borda Berri is a little more pricy than the other pinchos bars, but it is worth it… I swear. Nearby, there is a quaint and lovely square called Constitución Plaza. It is lovely to walk around and there are also many restaurants and pinchos bar surrounding it, but everything we saw there didn’t look too great. Be forewarned! Go for a quick stroll, but not really anything else. The buildings are really lovely. Nearby, there is a lovely pinchos bar that came highly recommended to us called Taberna Gandarías. One of my colleagues told me that while she was in San Sebastian for 3 days, she went there 4 times… do the math! We were only able to make it once, but we were very impressed by the pinchos. There isn’t much space, and this place in particular had quite a lot of people crowding the counters. Oh, and there’s very little counter space as well. But the prices on tapas and wine are fantastic, and it is definitely worth checking out! Just expect to wait a bit before they can assist you. My friends were super impressed with Gandarias, and I enjoyed it too… But honestly, Borda Berri topped my list for the entire trip.

On the last day, we decided to try something new that wasn’t on my list. We ended up at La Montanera Kota 31, which despite breaking some of my rules, turned out to be fantastic! When we entered, there weren’t many people there and there were lots of places to sit. Normally a red flag. But literally everything we tried here was amazing, including the house wine. We had about 4 pinchos each (totally against the rules for a pinchos crawl, but our feet were tired and we had a table!) and an equal amount of wine, because the wine was actually one of the best ones I have ever tasted. I highly recommend this place!

Another thing, and this is important: Try to plan to be in San Sebastian on a Thursday night. Near Zurriola Beach and along Gran Via Kalea they do an amazing special: 2€ for 1 pincho and one drink of your choice. Is that amazing… or amazingly amazing?! Many pinchos bars around this area participate, and everywhere will be crowded. But it’s worth it… I promise! Some of the pinchos were just alright (I mean, you can’t expect much for such a cheap price), but some of them were absolutely delicious. Definitely take advantage of this! But be careful… it tricks you into drinking more than you probably should… if you can’t resist trying every delicious-looking pincho, like us.

Monte Urgull

View of the bay from Urgull

On the far side of the Parte Vieja is Monte Urgull, one of the two main large hills in San Sebastian. You can climb up this for some lovely views of the city, and can also visit the large Jesus statue at the top. There’s a free museum you can enter, but it didn’t prove to be all that interesting. It isn’t too difficult of a walk, but in the heat, you will definitely start sweating a bit. Dress accordingly! Good thing is, after your hike and working up an appetite, you have loads of pinchos at the bottom of the hill to look forward to. Give yourself about two hours to walk around and explore. There are many different paths that lead to the top, and the occasional bench to take a rest. You will be awarded with some gorgeous views! Don’t miss it.

A peek at Monte Igueldo across the bay. Also worth the visit!

The Beaches

Now, San Sebastian isn’t really known for its beaches in the way other places in Spain are. However, they are lovely and worth a visit! The two main beaches are Playa de la Concha and Playa Zurriola. It is important to know that the North of Spain (or Basque Country, excuse me) rains quite a bit, which is why everything you see is unbelievably green. It did sprinkle a little bit while we were there, and the people we spoke to at the hostel said it had rained all that week. But it doesn’t take away from the beauty, and hey, you can just run into a pinchos bar to ride out the rain!

Playa de la Concha, the main beach in San Sebastian.

If you continue walking along the boardwalk towards Monte Igueldo, you will find many places where the beach disappears and there’s a cliffside instead (depending on the time of day, of course). There are also plenty of places to sit on the rocks to enjoy the waves crashing against the shore. At one point, you’ll come across a little underpass with a pretty building on top and a pretty green garden. You can take the stairs up and picnic there, it is a lovely place to rest and take in the views. The name of the place is Miramar Palace. On the other side of this underpass, you will find the other half of Playa de la Concha.

Miramar Palace

Unfortunately, we didn’t actually make it to the beach during our trip. We were too busy stuffing our faces with pinchos, and probably wouldn’t have looked too hot in a bikini after all of that anyways. But even with the clouds, it was quite warm outside and a few hours later the sky cleared up and it was lovely! This picture below was taken the same day, just about an hour later.

Since San Sebastian is on the northern coast of the Basque Country/Spain and is surrounded by hills, you won’t really see sunsets here. But the views on the beaches are lovely  nonetheless at night!

Monte Igueldo

On the other side of Playa de la Concha, farthest from Parte Vieja, is Monte Igueldo. You have the option of walking up (expect a decent walk), driving up, or taking the funicular up. For the funicular, it only costs about 3€ and includes admission into the mini amusement park at the top (but going on the rides is extra).

The funicular going up Monte Igueldo.

Once at the top, you have some breathtaking views of San Sebastian. I’m pretty sure all of us literally gasped at just how beautiful it was, even though it was sprinkling at that time. It is definitely worth the visit! We came across this cute little boat ride that went along the mountainside, and we just had to try it out. The boats are super small but can fit 4 people. It was about 2€, which was a little pricy considering how short of a ride it was, but it was still fun. There are many other rides there as well, which would be fun for the young ones on a sunny day. However, it isn’t the greatest amusement park in the world and it’s rather pricy. I noticed they also sell beer, wine, and pinchos up there as well for the adults! On the other side of Monte Igueldo, facing away from Playa de la Concha, you can get a sneak peek at the coast. It was so gorgeous, I wish I could’ve just rented a car and spent days exploring all of the small towns along there. It is beyond beautiful in Basque Country.

Pasai and Pasaia (The Fishing Villages)

The fishing villages are to the right of San Sebastian.

Nearby San Sebastian, there are two little fishing villages on the bay. It is popular to go hiking there and take a stroll. We were feeling lazy, however, and didn’t have much time anyways, so we just took the bus. We had google maps at our disposal to figure out the buses, but if you don’t have that just stop into your nearest tourist information point and they’ll give you a heads up. It took us about 25 minutes by bus to get there.

There isn’t a whole lot to do when you’re there, but it is very beautiful and old-European looking. It doesn’t even feel real as you walk along the small cobblestone corridors. There are little restaurants and ice cream shops all along the way that you can stop at for a rest (especially if you decide to do the hike, which can take anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on your pace).

There’s a small boat that you can ride to get to the other side, at a cost of only about 70 cents per person. It is very quick, but a fun experience nonetheless.

There seemed to be more to see and do on the Pasai side, so keep that in mind! If you’re looking to save money, it could be a good idea to pack a picnic lunch and eat along the waterfront.

The Basque Culture

I honestly didn’t know much about Basque people before I left for this trip, and I still don’t. But here are the basics: Basque Country is NOT Spain. Do not talk about Spain here. They have their own very distinct language and are very proud of their culture. In the recent past, there was a terrorist group here called ETA that fought for the independence of the Basque Country and harmed many people. Today, it is safe to visit, but please be respectful of their culture and wishes to be independent! Of course, everyone there also speaks Spanish, so you can get by using your basic Spanish phrases. While we were there, we saw a protest march go through the streets. It was very calm, but later we noticed that there was graffiti placed around some prominent places, and it was such a shame to see that they felt the need to deface private property… but oh well.

List of What to See

  • Playa de la Concha – lovely, where most of the tourists go for a nice beach day.
  • Parte Vieja – right in front of Monte Urgull, this is where you will find all of the amazing pinchos places.
  • Monte Urgull – the hill to the right of Playa de la Concha, with a statue of Jesus at the top. A lovely walk, give yourself a couple of hours and bring some comfortable shoes. Free museum at the top. Amazing views of San Sebastian!
  • Peine de los Vientos – translates to “Comb of the Winds.” This is a sculpture along the waterfront. We weren’t actually able to make it here (to my dismay), but it is definitely worth a visit. It is near Monte Igueldo.
  • Museo San Telmo: Plaza Zuloaga, 1
  • Zurriola Beach – Lovely, less crowded beach for surfers.
  • Monte Igueldo Teleferico – Take the funicular up Monte Igueldo for some amazing views of San Sebastian and the bay. There’s also a small theme park at the top. Only costs about €3 to go up, but it costs extra for the rides.
  • Miramar Palace – Amazing views from the top of the gardens, in the middle of Playa de la Concha.
  • Ayuntamiento de Donostia San Sebastián: Zuhaizti Plaza, 0 – pretty city hall in the center of the city.
  • Plaza de Guipuzkoa
  • Iglesia de Santa Maria del Coro: Calle 31 de Agosto, 46
  • Alderdi-Eder Park – Lovely park for all ages.
  • Plaza de la Constitución – beautiful to people watch and have a drink, used to be an old bull ring.

Where to Eat (AKA The Most Important Part)

  • La Gintoneria Donostiarra: Zabaleta Kalea, 6 – Some of the best gins you will every find.
  • Bar El Doce: San Francisco Kalea, 12 – great food, underground bar at night.
  • ***Bar Nestor: Calle Pescaderia, 11 – Claims to have the best steak in the world, and reviews back this up. Also try the tomato salad. Arrive early to get space, and expect to have to stand. We tried to go there but there was no space.
  • Museo del Whisky: Boulevard Zumardia, 5 – great whiskey bar, live piano music sometimes.
  • ***Bar Borda Berri: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12 – AMAZING tapas and local Basque beer! You NEED to come here!
  • Bar Azkena: De la Brecha Enparantza, 2 – Great bacalao
  • ***Gandarias: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 23 – Delicious, and great variety! It gets extremely busy here, but it is worth it.
  • La Cuchara de San Telmo: Calle del Treinta y Uno de Agosto, 28 – on NY Times List, delicious veal cheek, bacalao and bonito
  • ***Kota 31: 31 de Agosto Kalea, 22Absolutely amazing tapas and wine. A must try!
  • Goiz Argi: Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 4 – try gambas a la plancha with Txakoli wine
  • Txepetxa: C/ Pescadería, 5 – try Gilda and drink Sidra
  • Zeruko: Calle Pescaderia, 10
  • La Mejillonera: Calle del Puerto, 15 – delicious mussels, mejillones picantas, calamares

Your Guide to Amsterdam – Things to Do other than Visit ‘Coffee’ Shops

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings 🙂

Everyone knows Amsterdam, and it is world-renowned for being the city of sin. From it’s wide array of coffee shops to countless streets cloaked in red lights, if you tell a friend you’re going to visit they certainly don’t expect it to be innocent.

Regardless, you don’t have to be the seedy type to enjoy Amsterdam. If you don’t smoke, do drugs, or have sex with strangers, you can still have a lot of fun! The canals that weave their way through the city are gorgeous, and if you’re an art or history lover, there are tons of museums to choose from (*coughAnneFrankcoughVan Goghcough*). You just need to plan ahead!

There’s just so much charm in Amsterdam, even in the random neighbourhoods.

Expect lots and lots of people. We should have seen it coming, but it was a little bit overwhelming, especially compared with all of the other cities we visited that trip in Belgium (read about Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp). We asked a local if it was normal to have so many people or if it was just because of the holiday weekend, and she replied that it was always like that. So prep yourselves.

Museum Tickets – Plan Ahead!

Two weeks before leaving, I tried to book tickets for the Anne Frank House. Everything was fully booked for months into the future. I had heard that lines outside of the Anne Frank House could last for many hours, so my friends and I decided not to make that commitment. If you’re planning a trip, buy everything ahead! Even for the Van Gogh tickets you had to wait a few hours in line. We got lucky and only had to wait about 45 minutes to buy the tickets, and we bought them for an entrance time of 3 hours in advance so that we could walk around.

Accomodations

Since it was a holiday weekend, most hostels and hotels were already booked up or at extremely insane prices (for instance, one hostel was charging nearly 80€ for a simple hostel bed in a room of 30 more – insane!). We ended up deciding on the ibis Amsterdam Airport Hotel, which is about a 30 minute train ride away from the center of the city. Not ideal, but necessary. They provided a free shuttle to the airport, but it was the worst experience ever for us. The shuttle only comes once every 30 minutes or so, and if you’re there on a busy weekend, it can be nearly impossible to get on. Everyone is shoved in like sardines, and many people who have already been waiting for over 30 minutes had to wait yet another 30 minutes for the next bus, with no guarantee of space. When you’re on vacation or trying to get to the airport, that’s the last thing you need.

Public Transportation – The 3 Day Pass

From there, you take the shuttle to the airport and then take the train to the center of Amsterdam. The train pass is very confusing, even though they sell it to you as being very simple and all-inclusive. We bought a 3 day pass for 25€, and they assured us that it worked on all buses and trains in the city. But that’s the trick, right there… the airport and hotel are NOT technically in the city of Amsterdam. So when we tried to take the night bus back, we were told that are passes were useless and we’d have to pay 7€. WTF. Luckily, the bus driver was kind enough to let us on anyways. But all of that stress was enough to really piss us off, especially since we had 2 more nights to figure out.

Another stupid thing about the pass – you have to check yourself in AND out. I had never seen this before. When you enter the bus or train, you scan your card. But you CAN NOT forget to scan it again upon exiting, or it’ll screw with your card. We ended up having to go back to the airport and reset our cards because they refused to scan (we think we missed a scan upon exit one time).

Even though the pass proved to be a royal pain in the ass, it was necessary. Without it, public transportation in Amsterdam is ridiculously expensive. We also found a night bus that was included with our pass (hooray!), but it only picked up in one part of Amsterdam, came only once an hour, and it took FOREVER to get to the hotel. We fell asleep on the bus every single time we took it. Plus, the bus stop is about a 10-15 minute walk from the hotel itself… in the freezing cold.

The moral of this story? Don’t stay at the ibis Airport Hotel unless you absolutely have to!

The City

When you finally arrive in Amsterdam, you will find all kinds of food shops with waffles, fries, burgers… you name it! We ate so many fries on this trip, it was ridiculous. We preferred the waffles in Brussels, though. Of course, you also find a lot of coffee and sex shops. It IS Amsterdam, after all. Weed and fatty foods go together like peanut butter and jelly.

On our first day, we decided to take it easy and just wander around. We ended up near the Red Light District, and it was super interesting to see just how many canals there are that wind through the city. Sure, you know that Amsterdam is known for its beautiful canals… but until you’re there, it really doesn’t hit you. Also, Amsterdam’s layout on a map looks super cool (and illustrates my point about just how many canals there are):

The Red Light District and The Oude Church (or Oude Kerk)

Near the famous Red Light District, you will find The Oude Church, Amsterdam’s oldest building. A strange place for a church, eh? You have to pay to go inside, so we decided to pass… considering just how many churches you come across when in Europe.

The Red Light District is like no other place in the world. Women are literally on display at all hours of the day, scantily clad in lingerie of all types. You find all varieties of women, from blonde to dark haired, skinny to fat, etc. It wasn’t nearly as sketchy feeling as I had thought, and my friends and I didn’t feel uncomfortable walking down these streets, even at night. I wouldn’t go alone, though. We were truly surprised by just how many customers these ladies got, at all hours! The rooms are super small (basically a closet), and oftentimes you just see the girls looking bored and playing on their phones. I was surprised by just how little effort they put in, but I suppose the customers come anyways.

In between all of the women on display, you find sex shops and shows galore. There are dildos, vibrators, and toys of all types out on display like candy. Guys hang outside of theatres and try to convince you to go in, at insane prices. We asked, just for fun, how much a certain show cost and he said €60 for a half hour… insane! There are shows here for everyone’s tastes, but expect to shell out a lot of cash.. if that’s what you’re into. They also have peep shows, where you pay 2€ to see a couple going at it for 2 minutes. It’s a strange city for sure!

Another thing – there’s a strict no camera policy, hence a lack of photos besides the pretty canals. I was super tempted to take pictures, but you won’t find anyone else with one and I hear that the ladies put the curtains down and get pretty upset if you try.

Doesn’t look sketchy at all, am I right?

The ‘Coffee’ Shops

I have a question… what if you legitimately want a coffee? What then? I didn’t see any legit coffee shops!

Anyways, the famous Amsterdam Coffee Shops are EVERYWHERE. Some are bigger and more corporate than others. For instance, I wanted to take a peek inside one of them and the bouncers asked to see our passports and made us go through a metal detector. At a different one, they just asked if we were old enough and were happy enough when we said yes. While smoky inside, the coffee shops were not at all what I expected. People weren’t going crazy or acting super stupid, it was very chill. It was mostly people having casual conversations with their friends.

We didn’t partake in any of it, but from what I saw the prices aren’t cheap. Also, in every tourist shop you go into, they sell “weed” cookies, candy, beer, etc. You name it, they have it. But don’t expect there to really be weed in there, my friends. Most of the time it is just clever packaging and maybe a hint of weed flavor. Not to mention, everything is ridiculously overpriced.

Another thing I was super surprised by was how many ‘head shops’ there were that sold every drug you can imagine, from mushrooms to ecstasy. I knew marijuana was legal here, but I had no idea pretty much everything else was as well. Be careful if that’s what you’re into!

Leidseplein

On the far end of the main part of Amsterdam, you find Leidseplein, a very popular square for young people. There are tons of bars, restaurants, and concert halls here. We walked the whole way, but we would recommend taking a tram considering it is free with the 3 day pass and it is much quicker.

Drinks here are super expensive, so beware. You can expect to pay about €5 for a pint, which is up there with Dublin for some of Europe’s priciest drinks. Also, on weekends, they seem to make you charge for the restroom… EVERYWHERE. It was super frustrating. When you’re out drinking with friends, the last thing you want to bother with is some jerk making you pay 50 cents every time you need to go. Be prepared, and bring change!

If you really enjoy music, especially electro, be sure to check the concert halls in this area for their schedules and tickets (see at the end of this post).

The I Amsterdam Sign and Museumsplein

It is obligatory to take a picture with the Amsterdam sign when you’re there, or so it seems from the plethora of photos all over the internet. Before we went, I had read somewhere that it’s necessary to arrive very early in the morning in order to get a decent picture without hoards of people in it. We didn’t heed this advice, unfortunately. If this is a priority for you, keep this in mind!

Nearby, you’ll find the Rijksmuseum (in fact, that’s the building you see behind the I amsterdam sign), the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum. Like I mentioned before, it is necessary to buy tickets to all of these places beforehand, unless you have tons of time to kill! The Rijksmuseum is very highly rated, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time for that and the Van Gogh Museum. You can expect to pay about 17.50€ to enter, and you’ll find a lovely collection of masterpieces including Rembrandt and Vermeer. It closes at 5pm.

A garden to the right of the Rijksmuseum.

The Stedelijk Museum costs about 15€, and last time I checked, it stayed open a little longer, until 6pm. In here, you will find Monet, Picasso, Rodin, etc. And last but not least, the Van Gogh Museum will cost you about 17€ and is open until 10pm on Friday. It displays Van Gogh’s early works and drawings, and has some great hand-written letters between himself, his brother, and his friends. It was very interesting, there was a lot about Van Gogh that I did not know before!

Van Gogh’s Palette

Would you have ever guessed this was by Van Gogh? There’s an interesting story behind it, too.

The Keukenkoff Gardens, Where You’ll See More Tulips than you have in your Entire Life!

View from the top of the windmill. I wasn’t kidding when I said there were tons of people.

We had read really good things about this, so we decided to devote one day to going. That day happened to be Easter, and everyone else had the same idea. You can pick up a bus from the airport that will take you there, it is about a 50 minute ride. However, if you’re unlucky, you will be stuck standing in the bus the whole time. Since Easter was a big day for the gardens, when we arrived at the airport there was a huge line like I’ve never seen. We almost ditched our plans immediately. However, we asked a few people towards the front of the line how long they had been waiting, and they said only about an hour. We sucked it up and decided to go for it. Luckily, they’re very efficient! It costs about 25€ for the gardens and transport to and from the airport.

It is basically a huge park with tons of different types of tulips. There are some buildings scattered throughout that house various exhibitions using different kinds of flowers, it was pretty cool to see. There’s also a windmill that you can go inside. The gardens are only open for 2 months a year, so check to see if you’re they’re during the right time! It begins at the end of March and ends sometime in May. If you go in the beginning of April, not all of the flowers will be bloomed, but it is very nice nonetheless.

We were lucky that we went at the right time, they were celebrating the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death and had one building entirely themed after his paintings. Check their website to see if there are any special events!

Sight-seeing

  • Van Gogh Museum: Paulus Potterstraat 7, €15, 9am-5pm Sat & Sun, 9am to 10pm Fri – A must-see. Opened by Van Gogh’s brother, contains a large collection of drawings, paintings, and letters.
  • Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: Museumplein 10, €15. 10am-6pm – Monet, Picasso, Chagall, Rodin, etc.
  • Rijksmuseum: Museumstraat 1,€17.50, 9am-5pm – Also a must-see, housing Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other masterpieces.
  • Heineken Experience: Stadhouderskade 78 – I didn’t personally do this, but it had good reviews. It is nearby Museumplein.
  • Albert Cuypmarkt: 10am-5pm Friday and Saturday – Large market that sells everything you can imagine, including many local specialties.
  • Anne Frank House: Prinsengracht 263-267, €9, 9am-7pm – Obviously a very important think to visit while in Amsterdam, but be sure to buy your tickets way in advance!
  • Royal Palace Amsterdam: Dam Square, €10, 12pm-5pm
  • Sex Museum: Damrak 18 – Worth a visit if you have an open mind!
  • Oude Kerk: Oudekerksplein 23, €5, 10am-6pm (Mon-Sat), 1pm-5:30pm (Sun) – Amsterdam’s oldest building, near the Red Light District.
  • Red Light District (De Wallen): Enge Kerksteeg 3 – No comment necessary.
  • Begijnhof: Begijnhof 30, 8am-5pm – Former convent.
  • Keukenhoff Gardens: Stationsweg 166A – Tulips galore! Only open 2 months a year. Outside of Amsterdam, pick up a bus at the airport.
  • Amsterdams Verzetsmuseum: Plantage Kerklaan 61A – History of the Resistance during WWII.
  • Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder: Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40 – A hidden church with fascinating history.

Local Food Specialties – Must Try!

  • Patatje Oorlog – A delicious sauce to put on fries: mayo (mayo is on everything!), sate sauce and onions. The literal translation is war chips. Mannekin Pis is the best place to try it: Damrak 41
  • Stamppot – mashed potatoes with vegetables and sausage.
  • Stroopwafels – waffle caramal sandwiches
  • Bitterballen – deep-fried gravy bites
  • Appelgeback – apple tart
  • Poffetjeslittle pancakes with sugar

Super delicious!

Restaurants and Cheap Eats

Food is very important to me. Like, REALLY important to me. I generally research the best places online before I go somewhere, and back home in California I ALWAYS yelp places. I had read on one blog that they were very disappointed in the food they tried, and that it was necessary to research good places before going. Don’t have to ask me twice! Here’s the list of places all over Amsterdam I found in my research:

  • Burgerlijk: Runstraat 1 – huge, delicious burgers
  • Sky Lounge: DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Amsterdam Centraal Station, Oosterdoksstraat 4 – try bitterballen here! Amazing view of the city.
  • Bar Huf: Reguliersdwarsstraat 43II – Great fondue and hang out place.
  • Café Het Paleis – Paleisstraat Centrum 16 – Good for lunch or coffee. Try appelgebak!
  • 5&33: Martelaarsgracht 5 – Great atmosphere, and good place to share food.
  • Nam Kee: Zeedijk 111-113 – Cheap and delicious Chinese food.
  • Hap Hmm: Eerste Helmersstraat 33 – cheap eats, around 6€ for a filling meal!
  • Latei: Zeedijk 143 – healthy snacks, vegetarian meals.
  • Broodjeszaak ‘t Kuyltje: Gasthuismolensteeg 9 HS – Dutch sandwiches.
  • Singel 404: 1016 AK Amsterdam – Claims to have the best sandwiches in Amsterdam, starting at 5€.

Some of the burgers at the Getto.

  • **Getto**: Warmoesstraat 51 – Actually made it to this room! Near the Red Light District, it is a very fun place with great food. Everything is drag queen themed, and they also put on shows! They also have some great and delicious drink specials. Worth a visit!
  • Peperwortel: Overtoom 140 – Great fusion of food.

Drink Places

  • Cafe Kooper: Leidseplein 16 – dive bar, but nice
  • Skek: Zeedijk 4-8 – Good hang out place, and if you’re still hungry they offer snacks and burgers.

  • Brouwerij ‘t IJ: Funenkade 7 – A brewery inside of a windmill! It was super cool, but unfortunately closes super early… at 6pm I believe. Great beer! Worth a visit, even though it is on the far side of the city. Use the tram!
  • In De Wildeman: Kolksteeg 3
    • One of the best drinking establishments I have been to. Huge selection of ales with a great barman. Relaxing atmosphere and somewhere you just keep revisiting. Search it out – you will not be disappointed

A City a Day: Antwerp, or ‘Hand Throw’ (A Guide)

For a list of things to see or places to eat, scroll to the bottom. Otherwise, enjoy the pictures and ramblings 🙂

After saying goodbye to beautiful Ghent and Bruges, we headed off to our last Belgian city of our Benelux tour: Antwerp. I didn’t know much about the city itself, but after doing some research it seemed like a worthwhile and quirky place to visit.

We got off the train, and the first thing you are struck by is the beautiful station. It is huge and just gorgeous to look at, has numerous floors, and there is even a zoo attached to it! In fact, Newsweek once rated it the world’s 4th greatest train station, and the British Magazine Mashable rated it the world’s most beautiful. It is definitely worth a peek around!

From there, we headed towards our hostel so we could get rid of our heavy bags. We stayed at Antwerp Student Hostel, which was okay but I would not highly recommend it. The price was pretty high for what it was (although it was a holiday weekend, so that might have contributed to it) and the staff weren’t the nicest (in fact, they were a bit rude). About half of the beds are in what they call “capsules” – basically wooden boxes with one open side. If you’re claustrophobic, this is not the place for you!

Anyways, Antwerp is a decent sized city, but if you’re able-bodied, you can pretty much walk everywhere (at least, that’s what we did). I have starred all of the main attractions that I found in my research.

Our first stop was St. Carolus Borromeuskerk, a quaint church in a quiet square. It was pretty on the outside, but (as I’ve mentioned before) when you travel around Europe, all of the churches kind of begin to blur together. My friends and I even joked that we should start a blog just on all of the churches we had seen in this one trip alone.

A short walk from there is Grote Markt and Antwerp City Hall. It is a lovely square with a quite unique and eye-catching centerpiece. If you look very closely, the man at the top of the statue is holding (and about to throw) a severed hand. Ew. Legend has it that there was a giant who used to charge people to cross the river, and when they couldn’t pay, or refused to, he would cut off their hand and throw it into the river. One day, a dashing young knight came along and said “Screw you, giant!” (I’m sure more eloquently than that) and cut off the giant’s hand, throwing it into the water like all of the giants’ victims. For good measure, he cut off his head, too. Lovely story, isn’t it? The name of the city, Antwerpen, literally translates to ‘hand throw.’

A couple of blocks away, you will find the beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp, or Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal. It’s imposing tower and prominent clock can be seen from all over the city, and it is rather impressive. Inside, you have to pay a small fee in order to see the famous paintings it houses. To get a peek of the cathedral, just sneak off to the left of the ticket booth and go into the prayer area, but stay quiet! It took 169 years to build this masterpiece.

The above picture is the free view you get from the prayer area, and below is one of the halls of paintings you can see if you pay the entrance fee. I hear it is definitely worth a visit and holds many Rubens, but we didn’t have time to go.

At this point, we were starving so we decided to head to one of the restaurants on my list. About a 10 minute walk away from the cathedral and through Groenplaats square (shown below, with a nice statue of Rubens), and admittedly a little hard to find, we stopped at De Groote Witte Arend, a lovely restaurant inside of an old 17th century convent building. It was definitely charming, and the food was local and delicious.

The waiter recommended the local specialty Stoemp, basically mashed potatoes with eggs, lettuce, and bacon added. It was quite delicious (I was a little wary about the eggs) and extremely filling! I would definitely recommend it. However, if you’re with friends, it might be a good idea to order a meat plate as well and share, so you can have both your carbs and a meaty protein.

After that filling lunch, we decided to head toward the river and see Hetsteen Castle then try to make it up to the MAS Museum. We asked the waiter for directions, and he warned us “You know it is a small castle, right? Not really anything to see?” However, when we got there, we were glad we made the short journey. Although small, it is still very picturesque and right on the river. There is even a nice cafe inside where you can have a rest and look out over the water.

We wandered along the waterfront for a bit (be sure to look back towards the city center, there are some nice views of the cathedral), then headed up north towards the MAS Museum. We stopped at St. Paul’s Church, or Sint-Paulusparochie, along the way. The church was unique because in the gardens they had statues and a diarama of sorts of various important scenes from the Bible. I had never seen anything quite like it. The inside was nice, but nothing out of the ordinary. When you walk in, at the far end there is another hallway with some interesting paintings that are worth a visit.

One thing that surprised (and confused) us was at the far end of the Cathedral, near the altar. In the picture above, you see white, black, and gray balls of differing sizes connected by strings. Weird, right? There was no informational poster or anything, but I have the feeling it was a temporary exhibit of some sort.

From there, we headed directly North. It was getting late and we wanted to be sure that we got there before dark (while the MAS exhibits close at 5 or 6, you can still go all the way to the top for the views). What we didn’t realize is that Antwerp has a mini Red Light District. We were so busy trying to read street signs and check our map that we didn’t realize where we were headed. Next thing we knew, there were women in string bikinis posing for us in the windows and men perusing slowly, deliberately. In fact, thinking back now, just a couple minutes prior a guy passed by us and gave us a weird hand signal and laughed, then power walked towards the main street. We had no idea what to make of it, but perhaps that should have been a clue.

Since we were heading to Amsterdam the following day, we decided to let this be a ‘taste’ of what was to come. We walked a little bit faster, but slow enough where we could still see what was happening. It felt nerve-wracking to be the only girls walking this street, surrounded by half naked women. I couldn’t believe how popular it was in the early afternoon! If you’re in the area during the day, it is worth a look if you’re in a decent sized group. However, I wouldn’t recommend anyone coming at night or even going by themselves during the day. It isn’t Amsterdam, there aren’t a lot of tourists around. It seemed like mostly a local thing, and a sketchy local thing at that.

From there, it was about a 10 minute to MAS, or Museum aan de Stroom. It is a very unique building, 10 stories high, with big, curved glass. If you arrive after the museum closes, you can take the escalators all the way to the top.

I hear it is a very nice museum, so if you’re in the area and have time, it is probably worth the visit. The views from the top are also nice, but I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to see it if time was an issue.

By this time, our feet were killing us, it was freezing, and we were dying for a drink. We headed back towards the center and bar hopped a bit, and luckily were able to catch the beautiful sunset against the Cathedral.

It is a very lovely city, especially when wandering the streets at night. We went to a nightclub that night and I met a guy who was from there, and he asked me why the hell we came to Antwerp because there was “nothing there.” A lot of Belgians seemed to have that opinion, but don’t let it stop you from making a visit if you have time! We truly enjoyed our time, and enjoyed lots of good Belgian beers and fries. We were sad to say goodbye!

THINGS TO SEE

  • Rubenshuis (Ruben’s House): Wapper 9 to11 – We didn’t make it to this, but if you are a fan of art (and, of course, Rubens), you should definitely take a look. The inside holds a lot of special treasures and also has a nice garden.
  • Carolus Borromeuskerk (Carolus Borromeus Church): Hendrik Conscienceplein 12
  • Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (Cathedral of Our Lady Antwerp): Groenplaats 21, €5, 10am-5pm – Belgium’s finest Gothic cathedral, took 169 years to make. You can see it from all over the city. It costs money to enter the main portion with the altar and paintings, but you can have a free glimpse by (quietly) entering the prayer area.
  • Grote Markt – The main square, also where city hall is.This is where you will find the famous statue where Antwerp gets it’s name. The man at the top is named Brabo, and he cut of the giant Antigoon’s hand (and head).
  • Antwerp City Hall: Grote Markt 1 – Built in the mid-1500’s.
  • Groenplaats: 2000 Antwerpen – Lots of bars and restaurants.
  • Museum Plantin-Moretus: Vrijdagmarkt 22-23, €8, 10am-5pm – We didn’t visit, but it is highly rated. It is a medieval building and has a lovely courtyard, an antique library and bookshop.
  • Het Steen: Steenplein 1 – Small but beautiful castle on the river. In front, there is a very strange statue of a peeping Tom (we didn’t get it). There is nothing to see inside, just a cafe.
  • Sint-Paulusparochie (Saint Paul’s Church): Sint-Paulusstraat 22 – Lovely church, some Rubens inside!
  • MAS: Hanzestedenplaats 1, €5 – We didn’t see the museum portion, but be sure to get the ipod guide or use your phone with QR code capabilities because apparently nothing is in English. It is free to go all the way up to the top for the views.
  • Cogels Osylei: Zurenborg – A lovely street to walk down (supposedly, we didn’t have the chance to see it!) but a bit out of the way.

FOOD and DRINK

  • De Groote Witte Arend: Reyndersstraat 18, €13-22 – Built inside a 17th century convent building. Great, local food and drinks! Try the stoemp, carbonnades, or rabbit.
  • Den billekletser: Hoogstraat 20 – unique beer bar
  • Falafel Tof – cheap
  • Le John: Kasteelpleinstraat 23, €13-26, dinner only, very artistic inside.

A City a Day: In Bruges (A Guide)

When we were planning this trip, we had a real dilemma about whether to go to Bruges or Ghent (or both!). We didn’t have much time to explore every city since we only had a little over a week off from school, so we really had to prioritize. We had already planned one day in Luxembourg and one day in Brussels, so we decided to book ourselves for two nights in Ghent to give us a buffer day. If we made it to Ghent early in the morning and had all day to explore, then we could see Bruges the next day. But if we arrived late from Brussels, then we’d have to skip Bruges and use that extra day to enjoy Ghent.

Luckily, we planned everything out really well and could fit in both Ghent and Bruges – I am so happy we did! Pretty much everyone I had spoken to said that Bruges was a must-see, but one of the girls we were travelling with had already been and said it wasn’t that great. Her friend, who was currently living in Belgium, had recommended Ghent as a better, less-touristy option. While Bruges was definitely more crowded and more catered towards tourists, it was worth the visit. It is very small and easy to see within a day or two.

It is very easy to get from Ghent to Bruges. It was about a 30 minute train ride and only cost us €6 each way. To get to the main center from the train station, just follow the crowds and go towards the towers you see in the distance. Along the way, you pass some beautiful parks.

Center of Bruges in Relation to Train Station

Main Center of Bruges

‘t Zand Square Fountain

Near the concert hall, you will find one of the beautiful main squares with the ‘t Zand Fountain. It is a lovely square to people watch and enjoy the day, or to grab lunch with a nice view. Although, from what I understand, we REALLY lucked out with how nice of a day it was… it’s not common to be sunny here. So be prepared with a jacket and an umbrella, just in case.

After enjoying ‘t Zand, head back towards the center in the direction of the towers in the distance. Bruges is rather small, so it only takes about a 10 minute walk to get anywhere. We didn’t even use a map while we were here until we needed to go back to the train station.

As you wander around, you will find the many famous canals of Bruges. There are many canal boats that give you a short tour of the city, and it runs at about €8 for 30 minutes. We are glad we invested in the journey, it was very beautiful and informational.

Since we didn’t know if we were going to make it to Bruges or not, I didn’t do any research beforehand. However, we were easily able to wander around the city and come across the main sites.

Near the Market Square, you will find the famous beer wall. If you like beer, this is definitely worth a visit! They have a long wall dedicated to Belgian beers with their accompanying glasses. They have a small bar where you can do beer tastings, and a lovely patio where you can sit next to the canal and sip a cold one, watching the boats go by. They also have a large store with souveniers and tons of beer that you can stock up on. Don’t miss this! I was dying to do a tasting, but there was a long line and we wanted to make sure we saw everything else.

A short walk from the beer wall is the Belfry tower and main square of Bruges. It is such a picturesque square, and it is definitely worth spending some time at. We had lunch at one of the restaurants along the side that advertised 3 courses for €15. It was good, but nothing to rave about. We repeated the delicious waterzooi and stew that we had tried in Ghent, I highly recommend them both!

After lunch, we ventured up into the Belfry tower. Be prepared for a line! We probably waited at least 30 minutes to get in. And a warning – the steps to go up this tower are extremely narrow, so if you are afraid of this sort of thing you should probably re-think going in. It is one way up and one way down, so often someone has to squeeze tightly against the wall to let other people pass in the opposite direction. It is definitely a trek! But there are some very nice views at the top. Another thing, once you get to the top the wind is INSANE. Don’t wear a dress… =X

Near the main square is a Godiva store, so we decided to check it out. You can never go wrong with Belgian chocolate. I asked the lady for her recommendations, and ended up with the following. The latter was an actual cherry (with the pit inside) covered in chocolate and sprinkles. It was a nice change from the fake type you can get back home in a box!

That afternoon, we wandered aimlessly through the charming streets and then took a walk through the park back to the train station. Something about rivers makes everything prettier!

So, what’s the verdict? Bruges or Ghent? While I loved Bruges and was glad that we made time for it, I think I honestly prefer Ghent. It just had a smaller town charm, and lots of life wherever you looked. And the views from the Belfry in Ghent are just breathtaking.

A City a Day: Ghent, Here Be Dragons! (A Guide)

Stars indicate main attractions. At the bottom, you will see Backstay Hostel, a short walk from the center.

For food and drink recommendations, scroll to the bottom! 🙂

When we were planning this trip, we weren’t sure whether we should go to Ghent, Bruges, or both. We had all heard great things about Bruges, but one of the friends that was with us had said that Ghent was better and less touristy. Following her advice, we decided to book two nights in Ghent to give ourselves a buffer and allow ourselves to possibly go to Bruges for a day trip on one of those days. Ghent is less than 2 hours away from Brussels by train.

We stayed at Backstay Hostel Ghent, which I would highly recommend to anyone. It was one of the nicest hostels I’ve ever stayed at, with every floor in a different theme. They even had a cinema room! We never got to check it out, but it seemed pretty cool. The beds were also very modern looking, and each bed had a little compartment near the pillow with 3 personal plugs. They also provided complimentary lockers which was a nice touch. Oh, and their breakfast! It was probably the best breakfast I’ve ever had at a hostel, you could make your own waffles and hard-boiled eggs in addition to the usual lunch meats and cereal. Fantastic! And it is only about a 10 minute walk to the center of town.

The main center. You can pretty much get anywhere in the city within 10 minutes by foot!

Our first stop was St. Bavo’s Cathedral, which is famous for the art it houses including the Mystic Lamb by Hubert and Jan van Eyck (as shown in the movie Monuments Men). You have to pay an extra fee to see the painting and the audioguide is included. Only one of my friends went inside, and she said it was very interesting. The rest of the cathedral is very beautiful, and you can go down inside of the original crypt and see some other timeless art pieces along with some really old books.

Inside St. Bavo’s

Like in the other cities we visited (Brussels and Luxembourg), everything was under construction so we couldn’t get a picture of the exterior. It’s crazy, I’m thinking that maybe they try to build everything in spring before all of the tourists come in summer? Who knows.

Stolen from Wikipedia, just to show the outside of St. Bavo’s which we didn’t get to see.

Just across the small square, you will find the Belfry Het Belfort van Gent, a large tower topped with a dragon. It is one of the most important buildings in Ghent and symbolizes their independence. A dragon was placed at the top of the tower in the late 1300’s to watch over the city and also the precious documents held within. Today, the dragon at the top is not the original. If you go inside, though, you can see one of the originals on display.

The Belfry, with the golden dragon at the top.

Once you get to the very top, you are graced with some absolutely amazing views of the city. It is a tight squeeze to get through some of the areas, especially if there are a lot of people, but it is definitely worth it. The best view is the side the goes towards Saint Nicholas’ Church.

Saint Nicholas’ Church. It was such a beautiful day!

View from another side.

Just some lovely buildings near the Belfry that I couldn’t help but take a picture of.

If you’ve been throughout Europe, you know that there are more Cathedrals than you can count. It can be quite difficult to remember them all, they just all start to blur together. You have to start taking note of unique characteristics of each one if you want to remember them, but the reality is that you really only remember the truly spectacular ones. For me, that includes the amazing Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Notre Dame in Lyon, and the Notre Dame in Paris. Saint Nicholas’ Cathedral is one of those that I think I will always remember for the grand looking exterior. Inside it is nice as well, but there’s something about this medieval architecture that is really impressive.

Saint Nicholas’ Church

If you continue down the street and to the right, you reach the Graslei area of Ghent. The first street will take you down an avenue with tons of restaurants and shops, and the second street on the right will take you down the waterfront. Both are worth exploring! The buildings are all so beautiful. My descriptions don’t do it justice, so here’s some candy for your eyes:

We found a restaurant in the Graslei area, and unfortunately I can’t remember it’s name 😦 But it was near the Pizza Hut! They recommended me a local beer called Petrus, which I highly recommend! I loveloveloved it! Strangely, I couldn’t find it anywhere else.

We ordered the local specialties that I had read were really worth trying: waterzooi and stoverij. The waterzooi was AMAZING. It is a local specialty from Ghent, supposedly Charles V’s favorite dish! I don’t blame him. If you leave Ghent without trying this deliciousness, you’ve failed at life. You can get it with either chicken or fish. I tried the fish, which I guess is the original. The sauce is a very creamy, rich sauce that is sure to please even the pickiest of eaters.

Fish Waterzooi, topped with gray shrimp (another specialty in Belgium). I can not even tell you how amazing and mouth-wateringly delicous this was. I want more. Now.

Stoverij, a decadent beef stew. I never ordered this while I was in Belgium (I just ordered waterzooi repeatedly because I loved it so much), but my friends really liked this dish. I had a taste and it seemed tasty, but very, very rich.

Chicken Waterzooi. Same delicious sauce.

After our delicious meal, we went about exploring the city some more. We crossed the river to explore the Kraanlei neighborhood.

Here, you will find the Castle of the Counts Gravensteen, a cute little castle built in the 1100’s. We ended up not going inside, but it comes highly recommended on most travel sites.

Gravensteen Castle

One thing you should definitely do while in Ghent (well, I suppose anywhere, really) is to stop in the little shops on the way to see what they offer. I ended up picking up some local tea and chocolates that I just couldn’t say  no to. That’s one of my favorite things about travelling. I always ask the shopkeepers what they recommend, and it’s so easy to do that here because everyone speaks English!

After exploring the Kranlei Neighbourhood and Patershol district (it has nice reviews on TripAdvisor, but there was nothing going on when we were walking around), we went back towards the center of the city and happened across Vrijdagmarkt Square. It is adorned with lovely buildings, a statue, and a plethora of great-looking restaurants. We were still full from our lunch, so we decided to find a drink somewhere nearby.

We found a little bar called Cafe Afsnis right next to St. Jacob’s Church. It had a lovely interior, kind of old-fashioned with candles and wood. The bartender was extremely friendly and helpful and encouraged me to try a passion fruit jenever, a popular liquor in Belgium. It was delicious! The smell was unbelievably tropical, yet not too sweet. She also recommended a nice beer.

After our rest, we decided to just wander around a little bit more to see if we had missed anything. Ghent is very small, and even in a day we were satisfied with what we saw. The beauty of Ghent is just aimlessly wandering around and seeing what surprises it has in store for you.

View from St. Michael’s Bridge

St. Michael’s Church

Street Art visible from St. Michael’s Bridge

View of St. Nicholas’ Church from St. Michael’s Bridge

We headed back to the hostel to freshen up, then headed back out that night to find some bars that we had heard were really good.

We went to the Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant (see address below) and enjoyed some good drinks. The bartenders were great at recommending local beers! We then went to Hot Club De Gand, but we arrived a little too late because it was packed due to a live band playing. It looked like a really nice place, though, and is definitely worth the look. We ended up at ‘t dreupelkot nearby, and it is a must-stop! It is a very small bar, and also very popular. It is famous for having tons of flavors of jenever, including cranberry, cactus, fig, licorice, strawberry, passion fruit, etc… the list goes on! Great prices and definitely worth the visit.

We felt like dancing, so from there we headed back towards our hostel and (thanks to the recommendation of some locals) visited the popular Sint-Pietersplein, where all the young people go out for drinks and dancing at night. We went into the first club we saw and stayed all night! They had one of the best DJ’s we had ever heard, he played all of the classics and hits. We also met some very friendly people, I highly recommend checking this area out! But go in groups – we were told that it isn’t too safe to wander around on your own at night here.

From my research, here are the highest-rated food and drink places:

  • Gentse Stadsbrouwerij Gruut: Grote Huidevettershoek 10 – Local favourite dishes and home-brewed beers.
  • t’Klokhuys: Corduwaniersstraat 65 – eat waterzooi!
  • Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant: Groentenmarkt 9 – beautiful waterfront terrace, great beer pub.
  • Hot Club De Gand: Groentenmarkt 15b – cozy concerts, outdoor seating with candles, nice lounge
  • Dulle Griet: Vrijdagmarkt 50 – selection of 250 different drinks
  • Groot Vleeshuis: Groentenmarkt 7 – old butcher’s hall turned restaurant and cafe
  • ‘t dreupelkot: Groentenmarkt 12 – tons of flavors of jenever! Very popular, worth a visit. Try the cactus flavor, it tastes like a margarita!
  • De Trollekelder: Bij Sint-Jacobs 17 – great locals bar

One thing that I really wanted to do that we didn’t have time for is the Museum Dr. Guislain, a mental-health museum (psych was my major!) housed in an old asylum. How cool is that?! It is located a bit outside the city, which is why we didn’t have time, but if you’re a nerd like me… check it out! And tell me how it is!

Another museum with good reviews is the Huis van Alijn in the Kraanlei neighbourhood. It only costs €5 to go in and displays everyday things from life in the last 100+ years.

A City a Day: Luxembourg, a Fairytale City (A Guide)

This will be my first Guide Post, so let’s see how it goes! Before my most recent trips, I have spent hours and hours researching and planning everything, and instead of just throwing everything away when I’m finished, I figured that this information might come in handy for others interested in visiting these places. Below, I will not only share pictures and personal experiences, but also include names of restaurants, hotels, museums, etc. that I researched and might be of use for those coming to visit. If you have anything you think I missed, please feel free to let me know in the comments! I will also link to informational websites that describe each site further.

************

I don’t know how we did it, but we found really cheap flights to Luxembourg during Spring Break (we paid €45 one way). If we had left on any other day, the prices shot up to over €200… insane! You really have to do your research if you want to include Luxembourg on your itinerary if you don’t want to pay a fortune.

We arrived at around noon, and it was a rainy day. The rain normally wouldn’t bother me too much, but it was also EXTREMELY windy… it was almost pointless to use an umbrella because it kept either flying away or getting blown upside down. In fact, all of my friends had to throw away their umbrellas at the end of the day because they were ruined. But, no matter… we weren’t the type of people to let a little rain and wind ruin our day!

In my research, I read that it was pretty easy to catch a bus from the airport and take it straight into the city. In front of the bus stop is a machine where you can buy tickets, and a short term ticket costs €2. We bought our tickets only to find out that buses were free on Sundays =X No matter… Also, we were told to take Bus #9 and it would take us very close to where our hostel was. However, when Bus #9 arrived, it drove right past us and a group of at least 8 other people… wtf? We ended up hopping on a different bus and getting a transfer in the city center.

There is only one hostel in Luxembourg City, and it’s actually a pretty nice one: Luxembourg Youth Hostel. It is HUGE, and looks more like a hotel than a hostel on the outside. It was very clean, and we only paid about €25 for the night. Plus breakfast was included! Can you get better than that? Yes, you can! We paid to have a 6 bed dorm, and there were 4 of us. I emailed the hostel asking if we could be placed in the same room, and to our surprise they upgraded us to a 4 bed room so we could have our privacy. The staff were also extremely friendly. I highly recommend it!

The hostel is right down the hill from the main road that takes you into the city center. It is a little bit of a hike to get back up, but not too bad. The views as you cross the bridge are also incredible. Unfortunately, there was a lot of construction going on… one entire bridge was covered in ugly steel and tarps. And there were cranes everywhere. But it was still unbelievably beautiful, even in the rain.

As you cross the bridge, you will pass by the Casemates du Bock, which are basically old passageways carved into the mountainside. Unfortunately we didn’t have much time to explore all of them, but you will find them throughout the city and they are highly recommended to see.

One of the first things we came across was Saint Michael’s Church, which was unfortunately under construction on the outside. I’d recommend having a peek inside, I really loved the unique stained glass.

We were starving after all of that travelling (woke up at 4am and got to the hostel around 2pm), so we started out immediately trying to find a place to eat. One of the first restaurants we came across was a lovely French cafe called Le Friquet’s (1, rue Sigefroi, L-2536 Luxembourg). We arrived pretty late, so we had the entire restaurant to ourselves. They were advertising their plate of the day, which appeared to be chicken. We were all going to order it when luckily the waitress warned us that it was basically stuffed chicken intestines… I’m all down for trying new foods, but I’m really glad we figured that out in time!

In the end, we decided on a specialty called Bouchée à la reine, which I highly recommend! It is basically a stuffed pastry covered in a deliciously creamy sauce, we were all very impressed. It cost €18.50, but it was honestly one of the best meals that I’ve ever had and was enough food to keep us full for the entire evening.

Bouchée à la reine

One thing that you hear about Luxembourg that it is an extremely expensive city. In fact, it is the richest country in Europe! Who knew. In all of my research, I read that you couldn’t really expect to eat cheaply in Luxembourg… and I’d have to back up this consensus. The receptionist at our hostel even told us that we wouldn’t be able to find a meal cheaper than €15, and that it would be at McDonald’s. If you’re planning to come here, keep this in mind! Also, be careful about ordering water at restaurants… we ended up paying €7 for a bottle of water that gave each of us a small glass’ worth =0 Such a rip-off! Might as well have bought wine.

Nearby the restaurant is the Musée national d’histoire et d’art Luxembourg (MNHA), which was on our list of things to see but we decided not to go in. I have heard very good things about it, though, so if you have the time and you enjoy museums, give it a try.

Kaale Kaffi Shop (9 Rue de la Boucherie)

From there, we continued on towards the palace. On the way, we passed by a cute coffee shop… and caffeine was greatly appreciated after our long morning. It was probably one of the most delicious coffees I have ever tried, and also one of the most unique coffee shops which also sold vintage wares. It is called Kaale Kaffi, and is definitely worth the pick-me-up and caffeinated deliciousness.

The Palais Grand Ducal is very small, and not at all what you’d think of when you think of the richest country in the world. There weren’t gates around it, either… just one lonely looking guard keeping watch. You can’t go in, either. So it was a little anti-climactic.

What it looks like on a sunny day, Photo Cred: inzumi.com

Nearby is the Place d’Armes, a large square where young people meet up. There are many restaurants in this area, along with shops, and it’s a good place to waste some time. There weren’t too many people there on the day we went due to the rain, but I imagine it’d be lovely on a sunny day. Nearby is another square called Place Guillaume II, which is worth checking out on a nice Sunday because there is an open market.

If you’re interested in museums, there is the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg which has great reviews on all of the travel websites. Apparently it is state-of-the-art and very interesting. Unfortunately, my friends and I prefered to walk around and explore rather than stay inside, so I can’t vouch for this.

Going south a little further, you hit the Cathédrale Notre-Dame (no, not the big one in Paris). Like most cathedrals, it is very beautiful… but the more you travel Europe, the more these cathedrals start to blur together. By the end of our trip, my friends and I were joking that we should start a blog just about churches because we visited so many. We ended up sitting inside for a bit as a safe haven from the wind and rain… which is exactly what a church is supposed to function as, isn’t it? A safe haven?

Nearby is the Place de la Constitution, a nice square with a tall monument in the middle and topped with the statue of a girl in gold. It has lovely views of the valley and city across the way, but the wind made it really difficult for us to stop and admire it for longer.

If you continue down south a bit, you will find the Chemin de la Corniche, otherwise known as Europe’s Most Beautiful Balcony. And it lives up to it’s name. As you look around, you feel even more like you’re in the middle of a fairytale. There’s just a charming atmosphere that emanates through the entire city, and being able to see these views from above is just marvellous (even in the rain!). It is very green here, and it’s easy just to sit there and admire the views for awhile. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, a lot of construction was going on during this time… so you can see cranes in the background of a lot of these pictures.

Nearby, there is an elevator that you can take to go down to the bottom level of the city called Grund. When you exit the elevator, you walk through a small tunnel showcasing local artists. Some of them were very interesting! Others were just… weird.

At the other end of the tunnel, there are a bunch of small streets, cafes, and a lovely river cutting through it all. Not much was open on a Sunday, but we did stop at a local cafe called for a drink. It was an English bar, and the bartender was very nice. It had a cool feeling to it because one wall of the cafe was the hill-side. It is easy to find because it is the first place you find to the left when you exit the tunnel.

The Grund Neighbourhood is very beautiful and quaint, plus there’s a lot of places to pop in for a rest. Definitely worth the visit, but preferably on a nice day!

Forgive the crazy hair… the wind and rain got to it!

After seeing all of that, and stopping in yet another church to shelter us, we decided to just head in whatever direction felt right to explore what was left of the small city. We ended up coming across these strange statues in the middle of town, and couldn’t help joining in on the fun.

We wandered around some more at night, but unfortunately all of the lights and rain didn’t allow my photos to show up correctly. But here’s an idea of what beauty you can expect from the amazing Luxembourg City at night:

We didn’t end up going out to eat that night, but rather just grabbed some warm soup and a beer at our hostel. However, I had done some research on affordable places to eat that might be useful to other people:

Food

Bars

I had also planned a half day across the river in the more industrial part of town, but we never got around to seeing it because we thought we should head to Brussels in the morning. But, from my research, I hear these are pretty nice to see as well: