Mountains to the Sea: Top Day Trips from Lisbon to Sintra or Cascais

While Lisbon is a wonderful city trip destination, you might also want to explore a bit further. A train trip to Sintra or Cascais is an easy option for an enjoyable day out. Pick Sintra if you are into history, architecture and trees (and pastries!), choose Cascais for a picture-perfect outing to the seaside, or ideally discover them both!

Sintra – Historic Town in the Hills Above Lisbon

Sintra can easily be reached by direct train in about 40 minutes from Rossio station in Lisbon (only €4.50 return with your Viva Viagem card, see the Lisbon post for more details on public transport options). It has quite a number of attractions to offer, so it is worth doing a bit of research and pick your preferred ones. You could also stay overnight to have more time for your sightseeing. Bear in mind that it is also popular with local visitors, so weekends and public holidays can be extra busy. Here is a suggested itinerary that worked very well for me with some additional alternative suggestions. If you are sure which day you’d like to go, I suggest booking your tickets online via the Parques de Sintra website. It’ll save you 5% plus you can skip the ticket buying queue at the attractions.

Take an early train from Rossio and when you arrive in Sintra, look for the 434 bus to take you to your first stop: Pena Palace (pic above). Most people will be doing this, so you can also start with another attraction, but Pena Palace is furthest uphill from the station, so it makes sense to cover this distance by bus. You can pay cash with the driver, you’ll only need a single ticket (€4) as you can walk downhill to the next attractions and into town. There is, however, also a day pass for €11.50. A day out in Sintra does require quite a bit of walking, I think I clocked about 20km when I was there, but there is an additional mini bus from the entrance of the park to the Pena Palace (€3) and you could use the 434 bus day pass to get from one place to the next and back into the town centre. There are also organised bus tours from Lisbon, some of which cover Cascais and Estoril on the coast as well.

Pena Palace

Pena Palace is a 19th century Romanticist castle with sumptuous state rooms and a colourful, hedonistic design and is set within lush forests with beautiful exotic trees. It is most visitors’ first stop in Sintra and tends to be very busy. After having weighed up the options and time constraints on a day trip, I decided to pay for entry into the park (€7.50), but not into the castle (€14 for both, additional guided tours available). It gave me the opportunity for lots of great photos of the vibrant and quirky buildings plus I had enough time to explore the lovely park with views over the surrounding landscape.

Moorish Castle

The signposting within the park can be a bit confusing, but once you leave (same place as the park entrance, good toilets), simply follow the road downhill (left) and within 5 minutes or so you’ll see the entrance to the Moorish Castle (€8, pic above). I was positively surprised by it as it really felt like time travelling to the past with its fortified walls and fantastic views over the town of Sintra, and even as far as the Lisbon coast. If you are travelling with children, this will probably be the most fun stop for them! They also have a small outdoor café and good toilet facilities on site, so it’s a great place for a lunch break before you continue on to the next attraction.

Quinta da Regaleira

This 16th century Renaissance-style manor house (€10) was supposed to be my third and last stop, but as it was such a hot day and having already walked all the way into town (passing the Christian Anderson house, the Danish writer lived there in 1866), I decided to just take pictures of the outside. It is a beautiful building though, so well worth adding to your schedule, if you have enough time and energy.

National Palace of Sintra

The former royal residence (pic above) is now a fascinating museum (€10) and yet another beautiful building to visit while you’re in Sintra. After you have successfully completed all your serious sightseeing, you have definitely earned a treat (or two) and tada: Sintra doesn’t disappoint when it comes to catering for those with a sweet tooth. The two local specialities are Travesseiro da Sintra (pic below at Casa Piriquita) and Queijada da Sintra, both incredibly sugary, but worth giving them a try.

Cascais and Estoril – the Portuguese Riviera Awaits

If you fancy a visit to the seaside, hop on the train to Cascais at Lisbon’s Cais do Sodre station (€4.50 return with your Viva Viagem card). It is the perfect beach outing and only 40 minutes from the Portuguese capital.

The town centre is very easy to navigate and the place has a friendly, relaxed vibe. As I arrived fairly late the day I visited, I was looking for a nice brunch spot and hit the jackpot with House of Wonders, a colourful café (pic of my delicious plate below) with plenty of outdoor seating just a few minutes from the train station.

After my brunch I wandered along the seafront, past some of the beaches and the Santa Marta Lighthouse (pic above), to the Boca do Inferno (pic below, a lot more dramatic in stormy weather). There is a little café with toilets there and free outdoors wifi. My favourite part of Cascais was the Parque Marechal Carmona though. The sizeable and varied green space next to the Museu Condes de Castro Guimarães is a welcome break from the heat and includes a pond with turtles, lots of exotic trees and plants, and free-roaming peacocks, chickens and cockerels. Some of them even joined us on the terrace of the café overlooking the pond (if you are not a fan of birds, you might want to avoid this place).

I then walked all the way to Estoril (where you can catch a train back to Lisbon) along the seafront, passing many small beaches (pic below) with lots of welcoming cafes with a view. There is also a cycle path, so you can rent a bike and venture out further along the coast if you like. On your return to Lisbon by train you’ll be less than 5 minutes from the amazing Timeout Market for a huge choice of food options from around Portugal or you can catch a ferry to Cacilhas and walk along the quay to some of the seafront restaurants there (just make sure you book in advance).

Disclaimer: All photography  Life is a Festival. Any prices mentioned may be different by the time you visit and may vary, so please confirm them before you go.

Scotland to Europe by Interrail: Essential Tips

With so many recent issues with cancelled flights since the pandemic and the added benefit of a much lower carbon footprint with train travel, I decided to give interrail a try this summer to get from Scotland to Bavaria and South Tyrol with a weekend in Paris thrown in for good measure. There is a lot of information on all the details online, but so much of it in fact, that it can be kind of mind-blowing when you first start researching your trip. Fear not though as once you get your head around it, it’s all relatively straightforward. Here are the basics you need to know and other things I learned while trying it out in real life.

Is it very expensive?

It depends. If you’re planning on going to just one place for a long weekend and have hardly any luggage, a flight might be more convenient for you (even though not very climate-friendly, of course). Interrail tickets start at €246 for 4 days of travel within one month, which includes one outbound and one inbound journey from/back to your home country. You will also need to add at least €64 for the two compulsory Eurostar seat reservations (make sure you book these as soon as you have an idea when you would like to go as they can sell out early).  As an example, I had a 5 days within 1 month ticket for €282 and travelled from Glasgow to London and onto Paris with Eurostar (pix above and below) on the first day, then Paris to Bavaria on another, did a return trip from Bavaria to South Tyrol and then returned in one day from Bavaria (7am) via Paris via London to Glasgow (10pm), which included about 2 hours in between each leg, so plenty of time in case there are any delays.

How does it actually work step by step?

Seat61.com is a good place to head for doing some in-depth pre-trip research, but I’ve summarised the most important points below based on my real-life experience. You can either buy a paper pass (sent to you with a fixed start date) or a mobile pass (sent by email, flexible start date up to 11 months after buying your pass, which is great if you see a good pass offer throughout the year). The below refers to using a mobile pass.

  1. Download the rail planner app
  2. Choose the pass you want and buy it on interrail.eu, you will receive your pass number in an email (they sometimes do special offers of 25 % or even up to 50 % off)
  3. Load the pass into the app by opening the app, clicking on my pass, clicking on add a new mobile pass, entering your last name and the pass number (found in the email you received after buying the pass online), agreeing to the terms and clicking add this pass
  4. Connect the pass to a trip, which means go to my trip (bottom), click the plus sign (top right) and create a name for your trip, then save it. You can then search for various train trips you are interested in with the planner (bottom left in the app) and add them to your trip
  5. Activate your pass by clicking start activation, enter your passport or ID number, then choose your first travel day (can be changed up to midnight CET before that day)
  6. Buy your seat reservations online, e.g. from interrail.eu for convenience (€2 fee per seat, mine ranged from €13 for a German ICE to €30 for the unavoidable Eurostar reservation, but some cheaper ones in other countries), directly from the train companies (see list) or from a train station en route (the last one not advisable for Eurostar and some other popular trains, e.g. Thalys or TGV in France as they tend to sell out during popular times). The app will also give you the option of choosing trains that do not require seat reservations (often slower, more local ones with quite a few changes)
  7. On your actual travel day, activate a day on your pass by clicking on my trip, picking the journey you want by clicking on/sliding the grey symbol/toggle next to a trip, so it turns orange, then clicking on use a travel day when that message pops up and it will be activated and show up in your pass as a travel day
  8. Get on your chosen train and when a conductor comes through, simply click on my pass and tap show ticket plus show your seat reservation (if applicable) and potentially your ID, that’s it!

Sample train schedules from Scotland to European Cities

Here are two examples of places in Europe that you could comfortably travel to by using just one of your interrail pass days and have a few nice lunch or coffee breaks in the different countries along the way:

Glasgow Central 8.36am
London Euston 1.08pm
London St Pancras Intl 3.04pm
Bruxelles-Midi 6.05pm
Bruxelles-Midi 6.25pm
Köln HBF 8.15pm

Edinburgh 7.30am
London Kings Cross 11.50am
London St Pancras Intl 1.31pm
Paris Nord 4.47pm
Paris Nord 5.25pm
Amsterdam Centraal 8.45pm

Other Useful Tips Before You Go

Try and leave a reasonable amount of time for changing trains, especially before your Eurostar journey, where it took me about 45 minutes to get through the queue and past passport control. The recommended time is to plan for 90 minutes if you can.

Be aware that as you are passing through various countries, all sorts of unexpected things like train delays, strikes or cancellations can happen at any point. For instance, on my trip a Thalys from France to Germany got cancelled and as the seat reservation was made through interrail.eu, I had to contact them for a refund (good response via dms on twitter).

I would definitely recommend downloading the rail planner app early, so you can see what connections are available and play around with it before you even get your pass. You can save potential travel ideas under my trip and start daydreaming about all your future train adventures, for instance a hiking trip to South Tyrol.

Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival. Please refer to the official interrail website for up to date information on any of the above mentioned options. Prices mentioned are as of October 2022 and may be different by the time you visit, so please confirm them before you go.

South Tyrol Car-Free: A Long Weekend of Hiking, Food & Culture

As part of my late summer interrail trip I had been looking for a suitable destination for a long weekend. I had initially thought of a city trip, but then decided on hiking and eventually found the perfect place: Algund, just outside the spa resort of Meran in South Tyrol. The charming garden village is easily reachable by train, the region is famous for apple orchards and vineyards and there is a huge number of hiking, walking and other activities on offer plus some great local cuisine and culture to explore.

Meran is well connected to Munich, Innsbruck and various Northern Italian cities. I picked Algund as some of the walks and one chair lift started right there and most of the hotels or B&Bs had a beautiful view over the valley, like the lovely smaller one I stayed in, the Pension an der Linde. The 213 and 235 bus (free with your guest pass, more details below) from right outside Meran train station take you there directly.

Free Guest Pass For Museums And Public Transport

Most accommodations will give you a free guest pass which is valid for up to seven days and includes public transport (even to other cities in South Tyrol by local train), for instance the many handy local buses that usually start at Meran central station (e.g. 213 to Töll and 235 to Vellau, which both pass through Algund, 221 to Dorf Tirol, 211 to Lana etc.). It also provides you with discounts for some of the lifts in the area, so it’s well worth using as much as you can.

Half-Day Hike With Stunning Views: Vellau, Leiter Alm, Steinegg, Hochmuth

Take the 235 bus to Vellau (free with guest pass) or the chair lift from Algund to Vellau (€9 return), walk over to the basket lift (€9 single) and when you arrive at about 1550m walk up the short path to rustic Leiter Alm terrace restaurant, continue on to the Merano High Mountain Trail (24, this section is also called Hans-Frieden-Weg), after about an hour you will reach Steinegg Inn where you can stop for a cappuccino or some local food with fabulous views over the Meraner Land and the city or, if too busy, walk down some steps to Hochmuth with a similar offering (plus the cableway down to Dorf Tirol).

From Hochmuth you can walk back to Vellau via the Vellau Rock Trail (22, Vellauer Felsenweg), where the views are even more spectacular. It is only advisable for those without a fear of heights as the path is exposed and much narrower than the previous one (but partly secured with steel ropes). It took me less than an hour and a half and there are lots of benches to enjoy the view. When you get to Vellau follow the signs to the cable lift and catch it back down to Algund.

Waalwege – Stroll Through Apple Orchards and Vineyards

A ‘waal’ is an ancient irrigation channel (very similar to the ‘levadas’ in the mountains of Madeira) and there are many ‘Waalwege’ in the area to discover. The most scenic way to get from Algund to Meran is the Algunder Waalweg, which starts at Plars, but if you are starting from Algund, like I did, walk up the hill from the Maratscher bus stop (ask anyone you come across, as it is slightly hidden next to some holiday apartments), then turn right once you are on the Waalweg.

You’ll soon pass Leiter am Waal (a great local restaurant worth stopping at) and the views to your right of Algund and the whole valley while you are passing vineyards and apple orchards are breathtaking. At the end of the path you’ll walk across a small suspension bridge. Keep right and walk along the main road (be very mindful of traffic) for about 400m until you see the entrance to the Tappeiner Trail, one of the most beautiful high-level promenades in Europe lined with exotic plants and trees named after one of Meran’s largest benefactors. You can follow the path right into the centre of Meran and the whole walk from Algund took only about 2 hours.

Another Waalweg I greatly enjoyed was the Marlinger Waalweg. Get on the 213 bus to Töll (stop just before the bridge/weir), walk across the bridge, turn left and then follow the path along the valley all the way to Lana (you can get off it at various villages before, too, if you like), where you turn left and walk downhill through some orchards and a residential area to the main road to catch the 211 bus back to Meran. The whole walk (ca. 12km) with a few photo stops took around 3 hours and there are several small cafes with in- and outdoor seating along the way where you can take a break with a view over vineyards and orchards. There are also always little food and drink stations with honesty boxes along the Waal paths, so you can stock up on fresh produce like apples, pears and figs (especially in late summer during harvest time) and homemade jams or apple juice. 

Explore the Alpine Town of Meran on Foot

On Saturday I joined a fascinating 90-minute guided walking tour (€9) led by a knowledgeable local historian (German only, but confirm options with the Meran tourist information). While the spa town of Meran has long been famous for its unique year-round sunny climate and is a popular holiday destination with beautiful art nouveau architecture, it may not be obvious to the first-time visitor that the region has had quite a turbulent political history in the past decades and centuries. It can easily be explored on foot in a day, but also offers plenty of options if you have some spare time, like a visit to the thermal baths or Trauttmansdorf Castle and its stunning botanical gardens, strolling the Lauben (arcades) with its quaint restaurants and cafes as well as the Steinach quarter with its charming old town character.

Discover Local History at the Medieval Tyrol Castle

Another intriguing walk is a visit to Schloss Tirol (€8 or free with guest pass), which is situated just above Dorf Tirol village. You can either take the 221 local bus to the village from Meran or walk up (ca. 45 minutes with great views, however uphill all the way) and then follow the main street until you get to a car wash on the left, turn into the Falknerweg for panoramic views of the valley and keep following the road up (you’ll spot the castle on the hill ahead). The castle itself dates back to the 11th century and houses a fabulous museum on the history of South Tyrol (lots to explore for children, too, plus a small café and souvenir shop), so it’s a great choice, especially for a rainy day. On the way you’ll pass the Mair am Ort dog hotel, a great base for those travelling with their pooches and they also have a pleasant terrace café with a view over the valley.

Delicious South Tyrolian and Italian Food

The area offers lots of enticing options from traditional South Tyrolean dishes like Schlutzkrapfen (tortellini-like pasta with butter and parmesan cheese, see pic) to authentic Italian food. Happy Cow had a few suggestions for vegan options, but it’s definitely a meat eater’s paradise and I mainly had veggie pasta, salad and woodfired pizza, which were all very good and reasonably priced, e.g. at Römerkeller restaurant in Meran and MaVie in Algund.

I also greatly enjoyed the gelato, e.g. from Gelateria Costantin, and there were many inviting cafes with a great view to admire, like the kiosk at the historic Pulverturm (gunpowder tower) or the café at the Wandelhalle right by the river. There are also weekly food markets (usually Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year) where you can stock up on locally produced delicacies plus many of the village farms have little honesty boxes on the side of roads or paths with homemade jams, fruit syrups and other products that also make excellent, unique souvenirs.

A Year-Round Destination for Hikers and Foodies

Apart from all the hiking and culture the area offers, there are also a huge amount of children’s activities, like themed guided walks, as well as paragliding, cycling, tours of an apple orchard, llama trekking and horse riding. Late summer or early autumn are definitely a good time to visit as it was still very warm, but not too hot, later in the autumn you can enjoy ‘Törggelen’ , tasting wine and chestnuts, experience the cosiness of the pre-Christmas season or observe nature coming alive again in springtime. Please bear in mind that the majority of visitors to this area are German-speaking and a lot of the guided tours and experiences are therefore offered in German (and sometimes in Italian). Make sure you confirm before booking anything that there is an option in English available. In any case, the stunning scenery and fantastic food will make the area well worth a visit any time of the year.

Disclaimer: All photography  Life is a Festival. Any prices mentioned may be different by the time you visit and may vary, so please confirm them before you go.

40 Years of Global Sounds – WOMAD Festival 2022

As I happened to be in London for a few weeks this summer, I finally made it to WOMAD Festival, which took place from 28 July until 1 August 2022 at the Charlton Estate near Malmesbury in Wiltshire. It was the festival’s 40th anniversary celebration and it didn’t take me long to see why people love it so much. The site is beautiful, the line-up includes artists from all around the globe and many different musical genres and on top of that there are so many other activities to try and enjoy, my main problem was to ignore all the things I was missing, because it was impossible to experience them all. Here are some tips how to get the best out of your festival weekend, if you’re attending WOMAD for the first time.

Travel and Accommodation

I took a train from London Paddington to Chippenham (ca. 1 hour) and then caught a shuttle (ca. 30 mins) to the festival (used to be £5, now £10 per leg/person). It’s great to have this car-free option, but car parking is completely free, so it would be fantastic if eco-friendly travel could be prioritised in future. Tip: Make sure you get to the shuttle bus stop very early if you have advanced train tickets as there was such a delay (despite queueing early) that I missed my train by a few minutes and had to buy a new ticket. There was plenty of space for camping and a mix of portaloos (most of which sadly got pretty grotty overnight) and composting toilets (by far the cleaner and more eco-friendly choice, from Compoost Solutions), showers (make sure to choose a spot near them if that is a priority) and some drinking water outlets/sinks. Glamping options and more ‘fancy’ (i.e. sinks/mirrors/flushing loos) toilet facilities were also available at an extra charge.

Music Line-up

WOMAD has several larger and a few smaller stages spread around the festival site, about half of them in the open air and the rest under cover. It might take you a couple of hours to find your way around the place, so if you want to see particular bands, make sure to get there early for a good spot in the front. The line-up covers a huge cross=section of genres, so you can experience fantastic music from different continents without leaving the UK.

My highlights included Gilberto Gil & family (Brazil, pic above), Cimafunk (Cuba), Fantastic Negrito (USA, pic below), Folknery (Ukraine), Angelique Kidjo (Benin), Sam Amidon (USA), Johanna Juhola (Finland), Les Amazones d’Afrique (Mali, Benin, Guinea), Mariachi Las Adelitas (Mexico), Sonah Jobarteh (The Gambia), Elaha Soroor & Kefaya (Afghanistan/Italy/London), Osibisa (Ghana) and The Dhol Foundation (UK). Many of the sets and talks also had British sign language interpretation, which was great to see.

Other Activities on Site

The World of Words tent was probably my favourite non-music venue as it offered a great choice of talks from Ukrainian band Folknery (pic below) telling us about their global bike travels and folk traditions, to a humorous review of the papers on Sunday morning and even a screening of a very good documentary film, Hostile. Right next to it was the Physics Pavillion and the Cosmodrome that were super popular with science fans of all ages throughout the festival weekend (so queue early).

I also attended a fascinating ‘forest walk’ (pic below) during which our knowledgeable guide showed us various tree species around the arboretum, including a beautiful cork oak. There was also an extensive area with children’s activities for all ages from babies to teenagers, with crafts, theatre and even a climbing wall. Adults could while away a few relaxing hours getting a massage in the World of Wellbeing area or join a yoga or a singing class in the forest. The Taste of the World tent was also quite unique. Artists from around the world cooked traditional dishes in front of a live audience while chatting about their music and culture. Apart from all these offerings there was also a more traditional ‘funfair’ area with a ferris wheel and bumper cars, and lots of stalls with beautiful handmade crafts, clothing and other products.

Food & Drink

There was a huge choice of food available, including plenty of vegetarian and vegan options. I had a delicious vegan burger (pic below), a large salad/deli plate and a plant-based curry the three nights I was there and bought enough other food in the nearby Aldi (on the way to Malmesbury village, maybe a 15 min. walk away) for my other meals. Cuisines included Asian, Mediterranean, Eastern European, British, Caribbean and many more plus cooked breakfast, a cider tent, lots of coffee stalls and dessert options, too, so you will definitely never go hungry.

Experiences Not to be Missed

I particularly enjoyed the All Singing All Dancing tent as it offered some brilliant dance workshops, including raggaeton, Jamaican dance hall and banghra, with some of this year’s festival artists. You also don’t want to miss the ‘secret’ Museum of the Moon stage (pic below) hidden in a beautiful clearing surrounded by greenery off the camping area, which was especially atmospheric after the sun had gone down. I always finished my festival nights at the small but perfectly formed Lunched Out Lizard Rajasthani tent, which not only served excellent chai, but also the freshest tropical, latin and raggae sounds curated by the Racubah collective and other DJs and was a really chilled place for dancing.

Why Lisbon is Simply Irresistible: Your Guide to the Charming Portuguese Capital

When I visited Madeira for the first time in May, I came back desperate to book another trip that would replicate the wonderful time I’d had there and potentially even top it. After doing a bit of online research I realised that Lisbon is basically one large street party during most of June due to the ‘Santos Populares’ festivities (see my San Antonio Festival playlist, so you can sing along like a local!) and less than a month later I found myself in the stunning ‘City of Light’. I was well aware that when you have high expectations of a place, they do not always match up with reality. Lisbon, however, lived up to every promise and more for me. So let me share my favourite places with you and also some logistical tips for first time visitors. As there was way too much information to pack into just one post, I decided to do another one for Best Day Trips from Lisbon (tips for Sintra and Cascais). You can easily spend 5+ days in the city, but if you only have 2-3 days, try and prioritize based on your interests and you’ll still have an amazing stay.

Arrival and Where to Stay

Lisbon’s airport is close to the city centre and very well connected by the local metro. It’s one of the nicest metro systems (spacious and clean) I’ve come across and easy to navigate, so when you leave the airport head to the metro entrance, buy a Viva Viagem card (50 cents, reloadable) in one of the machines (press British flag for English, also usually friendly staff around to help) and load it with a few euros (one trip with your card is only €1.35). I also found the city centre really safe to walk around at night and after a few days I felt thoroughly at home, even though I don’t speak Portuguese (yet).

In terms of where to stay you have many enticing options to choose from. As I booked my trip quite late, I ‘ended up’ near Rato metro station and the beautiful Jardim das Amoreiras (Mulberry Tree Park), which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it was a pleasant, quiet neighbourhood and easy to walk to most places while I also had excellent metro, tram and bus connections right at my doorstep. If you prefer to be in the thick of things (and are OK with e.g. more noise in the streets at night), Alfama, Barrio Alto, Chiado and Baixa are all great options. So is Belem by the sea (just a few minutes away by train or bus) or even Cascais or Estoril (if you prefer a beach holiday with a bit of city sightseeing thrown in). I would choose a hotel over an Airbnb as like in many other popular cities more and more locals get pushed out by holiday rentals nowadays. If your accommodation is anywhere near a Pingo Doce supermarket, rejoice, as you’ll easily get all your basic supplies and more there (the one near Rato was so good and I even got to know some of the staff after a few days).

Castles, Museums and Other Highlights

Lisbon offers a huge choice of attractions and it can be a bit overwhelming. My usual strategy is making a shortlist of personal ‘must sees’ based on guidebooks and online research and then grouping them by area. I also usually start out with a walking tour to get my bearings and some historical background (so many differently themed ones available in Lisbon), but as I arrived during the San Antonio festival, I somehow never got around to it this time as I was so busy exploring the different neighbourhoods.

Some of my favourites included:
– The Castelo de Sao Jorge (on left in pic above) with spectacular views, I highly recommend booking a tour, as it made it so much more interesting
– A tour of the Casa da Amalia Museum (the actual former home of Amalia Rodrigues, incl. her still alive African Grey parrot Chico), one of, if not the most famous, Portuguese fado singers whose song ‘Cheira Bem, Cheira a Lisboa’ (smells nice, smells like Lisbon) is a popular singalong in all the squares during the June festivities and at football matches; there is also a fado museum in the Alfama area, if you want to learn more about its history
Berardo Museo Arte Deco (next to LX Factory), which I found by talking to another traveller, they do a fantastic guided tour in English including a wine/port wine tasting in their own bar at the end (all just €5) and the furniture and artwork displayed are excellent
Livraria Bertrand, the world’s oldest bookshop, they’ll even stamp your bought book for you as a souvenir and have a nice little café at the back if you need a break from exploring
LX Factory (pronounced ‘l-shish factory’) where you can visit local artists’ studios, the cool Ler Devagar bookshop (pic below) and have a meal or drink in one of the lovely cafes on site

Carmo Convent, beautiful church ruins and an archaeological museum plus a chance to meet resident feline Carlota
Cross the river by ferry (use your Viva Viagem card) from Cais de Sodre to Cacilhas and take a bus/tuk tuk (negotiate, I paid only €3)/walk to the Cristo Rei statue for wonderful views over the city, walk along the waterfront for street art and restaurants
– Discover old Lisbon in Alfama, Mouraria and Graca on foot with its small lanes, street art and stunning viewpoints plus the Campo de Santa Clara flea market on Tuesdays and Saturdays (next to Sao Vicente church)
Campo de Ourique is a non-touristy neighbourhood and the last stop of the 28 tram where you can stroll through the beautiful historic Prazeres Cemetery
Rua Augusta Arch is worth the €3 to get to the top and admire the view over the River Tejo and the huge Praca do Comercio
Casa dos Bicos (‘House of Spikes’) was built on the old city walls and is now housing the Saramago museum
Belem has several attractions including the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos monastery and the Berardo Collection Museum, an impressive modern art museum, plus the Padrao dos Descobrimentos monument and of course the Torre de Belem

Bear in mind there are lots and lots of other places to visit and the above are just suggestions based on what I managed to fit in and thoroughly enjoyed.

Ride the Historic Lisbon Trams

A trip with the 28 tram is simply a must-do and the queues are often long, but there are also other lines like the 12, 24 and 25. I managed to hop on the 28 in Praca Camoes (€1.50 per trip with your Viva Viagem card, just hold it onto the machine at the front, or pay the driver directly (€3). Masks were still required in all public transport in summer 2022 without exceptions. Do not stick your camera or head too far out the window as the trams travel fairly fast and the streets are narrow. Please be considerate to locals using the trams as their daily transport and offer your seat to e.g. an older person who needs it more than you.

Public Transport Day Pass or Lisboa Card

I personally did not have enough time to fit in enough museum sightseeing this time to make it worth getting a Lisboa card (24, 48 or 72 hrs), but you can make a list of things you definitely want to see, add up the cost and check if it is worth getting it, it might well be. However, the public transport passes are very useful and start at just €6.45 for a 24 hr city centre one (more in the next section plus be aware that you can either load zapping credit OR a 24 hr transport pass onto one Viva Viagem card at a time, I just bought two separate ones and marked them accordingly).

Historic Elevators and Lifts – Cheapest Option Plus Beat the Queues

This is probably the best money saving tip I can give you in terms of attractions and public transport. Load a 24 hr card for €6.45 onto your Viva Viagem card and it’ll include the expensive but unmissable ‘fancy’ transportation around the city centre (normally €3-4 a pop).
Santa Justa Lift: 45 m high tower, do not queue for ages with the tourists at the bottom, walk up the stairs, cross the street, turn right up the hill and in 5 mins you are at the viewing platform at the top, queue at the left to take the elevator down (only 20 seconds!)
Gloria Elevator (pic above): Ride it either way between Avenida Liberdade and the Miradouro Sao Pedro de Alcantara, with some fun street art along the way
Bica Elevator: Ride it up from Rua de Sao Paolo (not far from the ferry and Timeout Market) or down from Travessa do Cabral (iconic photo looking down, which is also near Praca Camoes, 28 & 24 tram stops plus the Mantegueria pasteis de nata shop).

The Beautiful Miradouros, Parks and Quiosques of Lisbon

The stunning viewpoints and cute little park kiosks are my very favourite thing about Lisbon! While we have ‘munro bagging’ in Scotland, in Lisbon you can do a walking tour of the 7 hills and stop off at each of these little oases along the way. They are a great place to enjoy a coffee, a snack or a glass of local port wine, watch local life go by, cuddle a dog (see my insta for the cutest ones I met), admire the many exotic trees, read a book and enjoy the sunshine or a sunset with a view over the city. My favourites include Alcantara (last pic below), Principe Real, Luzia, Monte, Catarina, Portas do Sol, Amoreiras (pic above), Graca, Alegria, Camoes, Estrela and there are many, many more. I cannot recommend highly enough to make time for some of these tranquil moments even if you have a busy sightseeing schedule planned.

Eat Your Way around Portuguese Specialities

Timeout Market: in the Mercado da Ribeira across from the Cais de Sodre ferry terminal, this is THE place to sample lots of different specialities in one location ranging from simple soups (€4-5) or desserts to top of the range cooking (from around €10), don’t be put off by the bustle and noise when you first enter, pick a few things to eat and take a seat at one of the large communal tables with other people from around the world and enjoy your delicious meal
Pasteis de Nata de Belem (pic above; singular: um pastel de nata): arguably the best custard tards around, so try them there (sit-in queue often shorter, beautiful tiled-covered, historic building) and watch them freshly made during your visit to see the other attractions of Belem
Queijadas da Sintra/Travesseiro da Sintra: there are a lot of different types of queijadas (small cakes) in Portugal, named after places or people like queens and apart from the pasteis de nata, I also recommend trying these (ideally in Sintra), they are all extremely sweet though
Casa do Alentejo: this well-hidden gem in Rua das Portas de Santo Antao (near Rossio station) is a restaurant in the former 17th c. Alverca Palace, enjoy the hearty food (pic below) in the sunny courtyard

Cataplana: is a Portuguese fish stew and also the name of the clam-like copper pot it is cooked in, so delicious
Pasteis de Bacalhau: not sweet this time as they are salted codfish cakes and you can sample them as starters or snacks in various cafes or kiosks
Ginjinha Bars: there are several of them dotted around the city centre, e.g. A Ginjinha and Ginginha do Carmo (chocolate cups), where you can try this sweet local speciality, a sour-cherry liqueur
There are so many other yummy things to sample, you’ll be spoilt for choice. While I was doing research for my trip, I also came across the To Lisbon with Love podcast and found their food and drink recommendations particularly good.

Live Music

If you are in any way interested in music, attending a live fado concert during your visit is a must. However, there are a lot of music experiences geared mostly towards tourists that might be entertaining, but not always that authentic. After doing lots of research, I found Real Fado Concerts (check their insta) and booked a show in a former underground water reservoir built in 1864 right under Principe Real Square. The young singer, Beatriz Felicio, plus the two guitarists were fabulous, the audience small (maybe 15) and the sound fantastic due to the unusual location (pic below). Casa da Amalia also do live concerts in their garden a few times a week and I also heard about two recommended venues called Duque da Rua and Senhor Vinho plus there is a fado walking tour you can join. Most fado concerts (with or without food) tend to be from €20 upwards.

Another place I really enjoyed is Hot Club de Portugal Jazz Club in Praca Alegria, one of the oldest (since 1948) and most prestigious jazz clubs in Europe. It is open Tue-Sat from 10pm-2am, so arrive a few minutes before opening to get a seat (usually around €10, cash only, the bar had very reasonable prices and the club a very relaxed atmosphere).

As I was in Lisbon during early summer, I tried to make the best of outdoor events and music, but there are plenty of good indoor venues, too. If you’re looking for a low-key evening with inventive local food and wine in a friendly neighbourhood with good live music almost nightly, look no further than the Flores da Pampa restaurant (I enjoyed some fun West-African kora music when I was there) in Praca dos Flores.

I really fell in love with Lisbon and its people and I hope you do, too. On my last morning in the city, I ventured up to the highest miradouro of them all, the Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte and came across a wall with tiles that read: Boa Viagem, Lisboa espera por ti – Happy travels, Lisbon is waiting for you. What a beautiful message and just what my heavy heart needed to hear as I was so reluctant to leave this stunning place, which I’m sure I’ll return to again and again.

Disclaimer: All photography Life is a Festival. Any prices mentioned may be different by the time you visit and may vary, so please confirm them before you go.

One-Day Music Party in the Highlands: The Gathering 2022

I haven’t been to many one-day festivals, but The Gathering in Inverness, a fairly new event that started only in 2019 and focuses on traditional Scottish music, had such a packed line-up of bands I really liked, I just decided to go for it. I took a train (3.5 hours direct) up to Inverness on 28 May, arrived midday and the venue, the Northern Meeting Park, was less than a 10 minute walk from Inverness station. There was a main stage and a much smaller stage 2 and plenty of enticing local food and drink (including enough meat-free options) on offer to keep everyone going from lunchtime until 10.30pm, which was the cut-off time, presumably as the event took place right next to a residential city centre area.

The festival had a really relaxed vibe to it and I met lots of friendly people of all ages. I liked how it suited everyone from groups of youngsters out with their friends to families with babies sitting around on blankets to real music fans dancing in the front. It seemed to really bring the local community together and everything appeared well organised (also top marks for whatever company ran the portable toilets, they did an amazing job keeping them clean all day, something often neglected at largish outdoor events).

Now to the live music. I managed to catch most bands on the day and the sets were spaced out with half hour breaks in between acts, so I also had time to head over to stage 2 for short sets by Lairig and Heisk, both fantastic, will definitely look out for them in future. They had the audience on their feet dancing in no time and the fact that it was quite a small tent made for an especially nice atmosphere.

The mainstage line-up offered one highlight after another. Alas, I missed Project Smok (hoping to catch them in Glasgow sometime), but really enjoyed Heron Valley with band members from all over Scotland, like Oban, Lewis, Cowal, Glasgow and Stirling. Torridon from Ross-shire brought some more rocky Scottish sounds to the event and around mid afternoon it was time for Manran, who I had only discovered last December in Aberdeen and then seen at this year’s Celtic Connections in Glasgow. It was a great set as usual, even though the quieter songs got a little bit lost in the boisterous outdoor gig atmosphere.

Up next were The Peatbog Faeries from the Isle of Skye, who combine traditional Scottish music with some very danceable grooves, which seemed to work perfectly for the mixed-age audience. Their set was followed by Skerryvore, a Scottish force of nature who had everyone dancing and singing during their whole set (see pic below). Capercaillie are always a joy to listen to, but had similar issues as Manran. Their quieter songs got mostly drowned out with the drizzle and wind during their set, definitely a downside to outdoor shows, even though it was luckily really sunny for most of the day. Still a fantastic band that I would highly recommend seeing live. The final act of the night was indie folk band Elephant Sessions, whose mix of trad, funk and electronica was a particular favourite with the many younger attendees. All in all a fantastic day. I just hope a few more female musicians can be added to future festival line-ups. There are certainly enough talented candidates to choose from on the Scottish music scene and beyond.

Having missed out on festival ‘practice’ for two years during the pandemic, at the end of the evening I was so tired from being on my feet and dancing most of the day, that I was just glad my B&B and my cosy bed were a mere 5-minute walk away. On Sunday I went for a nice brunch and a wander around town and was back in Glasgow by Sunday evening. If you fancy giving festivals a try, but do not feel up to camping or travelling far, this is a great event that is totally doable with public transport and also on your own. You won’t feel like a stranger for long, I certainly didn’t.

Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival.

Aye Write 2022: Glasgow’s Literature Festival Returns With Stellar Line-up

In March 2020 I had got a message from the Aye Write team that my volunteer shifts had been cancelled due to this new virus that had just been named: Covid-19. A few days later the first lockdown was announced and we all went into full pandemic mode with festivals and events moving completely online, if that was possible at all. Fast forward two years to May 2022 and Glasgow’s Aye Write literature festival was finally back (6 – 22 May) with a packed in-person line-up that more than made up for two years of missing out on live author talks.

I worked two shifts this year, one at the Mitchell Library and the other at Tramway arts centre, in the Southside of the city. Both days had one highlight after another with a varied and super intriguing list of speakers, who all did signings afterwards with readers queueing up eagerly to get their hands on the latest books. Aaaahhh… it was so great to have all the lovely hustle and bustle of an actual book festival back again!

The first event was a roundtable hosted by author Karen Campbell with three first-time authors whose books all sounded really excellent: Kirsty Capes, Louise Nealon & Emily Edwards (see pic above). This was followed by a wonderfully humorous (despite the mostly serious subject matter) talk by ex-police officer Kevin Maxwell discussing his memoir ‘Forced Out’. What an inspiring speaker, who overcame a lot of adversity and meets life’s challenges with such a positive attitude (see pic below).

Next up were author and activist Laura Bates and barrister and writer Harriet Johnson reminding us that we still have a long way to go in terms of ending violence against women. My last event that day was an interview with Jess Phillips on her life as an MP. She might be one of the most outspoken politicians I’ve ever come across and it was refreshing to hear her perspective as a woman navigating the ins and outs of Westminster on a daily basis (resident rodents and flooded bathrooms included).

My second shift covered three fantastic talks at Tramway in the Southside on the last day of the festival. As I arrived early, I spent some time exploring the local oasis that is the Hidden Gardens. I highly recommend grabbing a cuppa from the café and enjoying a bit of peace and calm there and also explore the ever-changing art exhibitions in their large indoor space (both are family- but sadly not dog-friendly, a bit unusual for Glasgow). The first talk was on White Supremacy, Black Lives and Scotland’s Role in the Slave Trade. While this issue has not always had the public attention it should have, it’s good to see more and more scholars and writers discussing it in recent years. A more honest look at our past is surely the main way forward for a future without racism.

Popular Edinburgh-based crime writer Ian Rankin took to the stage next discussing his latest novel ‘The Dark Remains’, turning the manuscript by the late William McIlvanney, seen by many as ‘the godfather of tartan noir’, into a fascinating-sounding read (see pic above). The closing event of the day and also the whole festival was an interview with Sottish writer and rapper Darren McGarvey on his latest book ‘The Social Distance Between Us’. He never fails to eloquently talk about class discrimination in UK society and the book’s mission ‘to place the affluent under the same scrutinous microscope as the poor’ definitely resonated with many in the festival audience.

Of course this was only a tiny portion of the many talks and workshops on offer at this year’s festival. Even if you have not heard of some of the names on the line-up, I highly recommend putting Aye Write in your calendar, so you don’t miss out on any upcoming events.

Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival.

Madeira Flower Festival: Practical Tips for Visitors

If you’re planning on visiting Madeira during the ‘Festa da Flor’ in May, you might have some questions regarding the timing of your holiday and what to expect. As I attended the vibrant flower festival in Funchal in May 2022, I have put together this handy list for you, so you’ll get a quick overview and can be sure not to miss any of the highlights.

When and where does the flower festival take place?

The flower festival takes place in Madeira every April or May and while the main highlight of the festival is the flower parade in Funchal on the first Sunday of the festival (in 2002 it was on 8 May), there will also be lots of related events on during the rest of the month. The updated information can be found on the official Madeira Tourism website, although I recommend you pick up a printed brochure from your hotel or the tourist office when you get there to confirm the exact times and locations for concerts and other happenings.

What are the main events?

The most impressive event the majority of visitors are here for is of course the annual Allegoric Flower Parade in Funchal, which has been around since 1979 and brings a stream of colourful floats and groups of dancers in elaborate costumes to Madeira’s capital. They can be seen parading through Avenida do Mar, a scenic parkway along Funchal’s harbourfront, showing off floats that have been designed and built for months by local clubs from all around the island and been decorated with thousands of fresh flowers the night before. There is also a ‘Wall of Hope’ being created the day before the parade where children pin flowers to a wall as a symbol of peace in the Praça do Município and various other happenings in Funchal and other municipalities.

When is the Funchal flower festival parade and where does it take place?

In 2022 the flower parade started at 4.30pm on Sunday, 8 May, on Avenida do Mar proceeding west towards the cruise ship port. It took about 2 hours and it was a really fun experience. Just make sure you bring plenty of sunscreen, water and snacks, especially if you have children with you. The nearest public toilets are in Jardim Municipal and in Praça do Povo.

Is there an entry fee and do I need to book tickets in advance?

The parade is free to attend for all if you don’t mind standing. Just make sure you arrive about an hour early to get a good spot along the parade route. If you prefer a seat, there were grandstand seats available for around €40,-/person, which can be booked online or in person from the tourist office.

Where should I stay in Funchal for best access and least hassle during the flower festival?

Anywhere in the centre of Funchal is a great location as it is not a very large city. I stayed next to Jardim Municipal, which to me was the perfect spot as I loved hanging out in the kiosk cafe (snacks, drinks, free wifi) in the beautiful city park in the early evenings. The area between the Teatro Municipal Baltazar Diaz and the park plus along Avenida Arriage up to the Cathedral seemed to be the main gathering place for everyone in the evenings. There were free nightly live music concerts (popular, folk and fado music) from Thursday to Sunday and stalls where you could sample freshly made local ‘poncha’ and snacks plus buy various flower- and Madeira-related souvenirs.

What else is happening besides the parade?

The main Madeira Tourism website has an up to date list of all the events that are part of the flower festival, so you can plan ahead, but as mentioned above, there was plenty of free entertainment around the city centre that generally finished around 10pm. I also greatly enjoyed viewing the ‘best in show’ of the flower competition in a temporary pavilion along Avenida do Mar, where you could admire the most exotic types of flowers for free and buy bulbs and living plants at a stall outside. Plus you can get a close-up look at and pictures with the floats following the parade and the day(s) after as they get ‘parked’ near Praça do Povo by the harbour.

Anything else to keep in mind?

As I decided to stand on the harbour side of the parade route to have the best light for pictures, this meant that I had to walk all the way down to one end after the parade to get back to the centre as there was no way to cross the fence anywhere in the middle. If you are worried about not getting a table in a particular restaurant right after the parade as everyone else will have the same idea of course, by all means do book ahead. But in my experience there were so many restaurants and cafés in Funchal, you should easily find one to suit your taste and budget, even on very busy days. Just keep an eye on how many cruise ships are docked in the harbour while you are visiting (when I was there it was about 1-3 per day, but can be as many as 30 around New Year’s apparently). Check on pages like Cruise Mapper to find out more.

While the flower festival is certainly one of the highlights of the Madeiran calendar, the island has so much more to offer: awesome hikes, dolphin-watching, delicious food, tobogganing down city streets and swimming in natural sea-water pools being just a few of them. If you’re planning your first trip to Madeira, check out my one-week itinerary for first-time visitors with top tips on what not to miss!

Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival. Any prices mentioned may be different by the time you visit and may vary, so please confirm them before you go.

Top Tips For First-Time Visitors to Madeira Without a Car – a One-Week Itinerary

Camara de Lobos fishing village

At the beginning of the year I decided that I really needed to get back into travelling properly and had been looking at Portugal before the pandemic. As there were still lots of different covid rules in various countries in spring, I did something I’d never done before to be on the safe side: I booked a ‘package holiday’ (direct flight from Glasgow and apartment in Funchal). Then I also remembered that Madeira was supposed to have a beautiful flower festival and luckily enough there was availability for early May, hurrah!

Traditional poncha drink in Funcha

Before booking the trip, I did some research and quickly figured out that the island had lots of advantages: it offers versatility in terms of activities, has all the things I’m interested in (culture, nature, wildlife) and as it is fairly small, it is easy to base yourself in one place (e.g. the capital Funchal, which I highly recommend if you do not rent a car) and do day trips or shorter activities from there while also being able to enjoy strolls around town in the evenings.

As I wanted to see a good bit of the island’s different landscapes but also do a few longer hikes, I chose a mix of activities for my week:

Day 1: A Walk around Funchal and Dolphin Watching
With just over 100k inhabitants, the seaside town of Funchal is a great place to discover on foot. I absolutely fell in love with the many exotic urban trees, like Jacaranda, African Tulip and Tipuana, and it felt very safe in the evenings (I mostly spent time in the centre, near the old town and around the seafront) and there are a huge number of bars, cafes and restaurants to try out. You can also admire the beautiful painted doors on and off Rua de Santa Maria as part of a regeneration project and pop into the Mercado dos Lavradores, a permanent, colourful (and mostly touristy) farmer’s market with fruit, flowers and fish stalls.

Common dolphins swimming alongside speedboat off the south coast of Madeira

The dolphin boat trip was my absolute highlight of the whole holiday! I picked a two-hour speedboat trip and we managed to spot two pods, common dolphins (pic above) that partly swam alongside the boat, and some bottlenose dolphins plus even a loggerhead turtle. Whales are a bit rarer, but can also be seen at times. The sightings are not guaranteed and vary throughout the year and the marine biologist on board stressed how important it is to not see them in aquariums, but in the wild to appreciate their true beauty. I couldn’t agree more!

Day 2: 25 Fountains Levada Walk
This is a very popular and fairly moderate walk (still ca. 11km) as it is mostly flat with some steps up and down and leads you through some of the island’s lush vegetation along the famous levadas waterways (a unique irrigation system largely built by working-class people and slaves). It is also a good choice if the weather forecast is not that great, as you’ll mainly be in the forest, just make sure you bring good footwear, layers, including a waterproof one, and maybe a small torch as the walk involves a couple of tunnels (the longest being ca. 800m long).

Waterfall during the 25 fountains levada walk in Madeira

We had a very knowledgeable guide who pointed out names of plants and trees in various languages, so while it was very busy with tourists (I mean busy, you’ll partly be queueing to pass groups of people due to narrow paths), it was still worth it, there is a beautiful waterfall along the way and you get to meet the local chaffinches if you bring seeds or nuts for them (please do not feed them bread or crisps).

Feeding chaffinches during levada walk in Madeira

Day 3: Jeep Tour of the Northwest of the Island
This is a popular tour covering a lot of sights in the south and northwest of the island and there are minibuses (up to 16 people) and jeep options (4-8 people, back is open in good weather, so bring a hat/scarf if needed). Our tour included Camara de Lobos fishing village (loved this little place), Ponta do Sol, Canhas passing banana and wine plantations, Calheta, Paul da Serra (reminded me of the Scottish Highlands complete with roaming cows), Ribeira Brava, Seixal (black sand beach) and our main stop, Porto Moniz (with natural sea water swimming pools and some chilled out Madeiran wall lizards).

Madeiran wall lizard

On the way back we stopped at Cabo Girão seacliffs viewpoint (with 580m the highest in Europe and the second highest in the world), Veu da Noiva waterfall and did some off-road driving on very steep village roads and mountain paths.

Porto Moniz with its natural pools from above

Day 4: Hike from Pico Areeiro to Pico Ruivo
This hike is classed as difficult and is recommended only for regular hikers, but I managed to do it and there were even families with older children. It offers the most scenic views (including seeing a Madeiran red-legged partridge, see pic below) high up in the mountains (we started on Areeiro at 1800m, walked mostly downhill for 2 hours, then back up to Ruivo 1800m for an hour, the toughest part, to a hut (with one toilet), 15 minutes to the top and another 45 minutes or so down to our pick-up point) and you can do a sunrise walk as well. I loved doing this walk as our guide made sure to stay with the last person in our group of 10, so it felt completely safe. It is not ideal if you suffer from vertigo or have knee issues as the middle part is fairly steep including some metal steps and you should make sure to bring at least 1 litre of water and some nutritious snacks plus shoes with good grip (I also brought hiking poles). We had the most perfect weather conditions and views, but I met some people who did this hike on a windy, rainy day, which made it a lot tougher and they were basically surrounded by clouds/fog all day, so try and book it for a clear day.

Mountain view including partridge on hike from Pico Areeiro to Pico Ruivo

Day 5: Jeep Tour of the Northeast of the Island
This was my second jeep tour, this time covering the northeast of the Island. We first drove up to Pico do Areeiro for the views, Ribeiro Frio, had a short levada walk to Balcões viewpoint (more chaffinches to feed), did some more off-road driving through the eucalyptus forest, spent lunchtime in a bakery café in Santana (queijadas, small round cheesecakes were my favourites), where you can see the traditional A-Frame Houses.

A-frame house in Santana Madeira

Later we visited a rum factory in Porto da Cruz (using sugar cane grown on the island), which also had a beautiful beach, and finally headed to the viewpoint of Ponta de São Lourenço (you can do hikes of the peninsula). I would have loved to see Machico, the old capital of Madeira, and visit the wicker factory in Camacha, but there just wasn’t enough time during our day.

Ponta de São Lourenço viewpoint on Madeira

Day 6: Valley of the Nuns plus Madeira Flower Festival Parade
On Sunday morning I had booked a half day trip to Curral das Freiras (Nuns’ Valley) as it fitted my schedule and it ended up being one of my favourite outings of the week: Pico dos Barcelos viewpoint over Funchal (pic below), Eira do Serrado viewpoint over Nuns’ Valley, then a drive down into the village and time to look around plus taste some of the chestnut delicacies (cake, liqueur etc.), plus a stop at Camara de Lobos fishing village (see first pic of the post). A lot of value for just 4 hours, really recommend this.

Pico dos Barcelos viewpoint Madeira

The highlight of the flower festival, the annual flower parade in Funchal, took place on Sunday afternoon at 4.30pm and it was like a carnival procession with lots of colourful floats, fun music, thousands of flowers, dancers and children in costumes and was an absolute joy to be part of. Unlike what you might read online, you can – but absolutely do not need to – buy a seat for this event, just turn up fairly early anywhere along the route (Funchal seafront) and join in the fun. I met people from all over the world while waiting for the parade to begin and it lasted about 2 hours plus you might get a chance to pose with some of the participants in beautiful outfits afterwards. There was also some great live music and other performances plus food, drink and other stalls around the city centre during the duration of the festival.

Flower Parade in Funchal, Madeira, with colourful costumes

Day 7: Cable Car to Monte and Toboggan Ride
The visit to the Monte neighbourhood of Funchal and the ca. 2km ‘carros de cesto’ (toboggan) ride downhill to Livramento was one of those ‘must do’ experiences that I wasn’t so sure of at first, but then I was so glad I’d decided to go for it (and it’s not scary at all, trust the drivers, they are very skilled and experienced). Here are some options depending on your budget and time available:

  1. Cheapest: steep uphill walk from Funchal to Monte (maybe 1 hour), share a toboggan down with one or two others (15 euros each), walk down the rest of the way (30 mins)
  2. Medium budget: bus 19/20/21 from Funchal to Monte (ca. 2 euros, from driver), share a toboggan with one or two others (15 euros each), take the bus back down (another 2 euros)
  3. Most expensive: cable car with great views (12,50 euros one way, 18 return, second part not needed if using the sleds), toboggan by yourself (25 euros), taxi down (should be around 7 euros, beware of ‘tourist’ prices)

There are lots of things I just couldn’t fit in, like various botanic gardens, so make up your mind for what your personal priorities are and plan accordingly. Madeira does have a few beaches, but is certainly not an ideal destination if that is the main focus of your holiday. It also has a lot of adventure sports activities, like canyoning and paragliding to take advantage of.

Additional practical advice:

Cost of activities and booking/planning tips: All the tours I booked were very reasonable and started at 15 euros for a half day (4 hour) excursion, mini bus tours (up to 16 people) tend to be from 25 euros while the jeep tours (around 4-8 passengers) are around 45 euros, guided all day hikes around 35 euros and for the dolphin and whale watching there is a catamaran option (25 euros, not quite as likely to see wildlife, but has toilet and refreshments to buy) or a speedboat option (45 euros, you’ll get another trip if no sightings, more detailed talk from marine biologist onboard). All these could be booked online beforehand (recommended in busy months and because Funchal is a cruise ship port year-round, most tours have free cancellation up to the day before) or the day before/on the day in Funchal and there are lots of similar operators to choose from. It can be a bit overwhelming to choose, but you can basically see most of the island with the two full day tours I outlined above. Just a bit of a warning: make sure you get a confirmation for each tour with the pick-up time and location (often conveniently your hotel or nearby) and be there on time as their whole schedule depends on passengers being punctual or you might loose out on the tour otherwise.

Best time to travel: I felt very lucky with my early May trip as we had 20-24 degrees and it was mostly sunny, but do prepare for mixed weather due to its exposed location as an island. When I asked around the late summer and also the Christmas and New Year’s period seem great times to visit due to various festivities and due to the year-round mildish weather.

Vegetarian and vegan food: Absolutely no issues finding veggie food and I also came across good vegan options, including a restaurant with a separate plant-based menu, Olives. I also had a delicious bean burger with fries (yep, not very traditional, but life is about enjoyable moments, not just ticking off lists) and a poncha overlooking the harbour at Hamburgueria do Mercado.

Veggie burger and poncha overlooking Funchal harbour

Eating out and supermarkets: If your accommodation option does not include breakfast, I would opt for having it in a local café, it is inexpensive and you can soak up the atmosphere, e.g. sit amongst the most beautiful exotic plants with birdsong all around you in one of my favourites, the café of Jardim Municipal (see pic a bit further up), or have a quick brekkie stop at Opan, an inexpensive, modern bakery café, that has a few outlets around town. I also recommend trying Bolo do Caco, a stone-baked round loaf of bread that you can get as a yummy snack with melted cheese together with ‘uma bica’ (an espresso) or ‘uma chinesa’ (coffee with milk). The atmosphere around town was really chilled, as Madeira does not tend to attract party tourists (even though you can dance in bars and clubs until late) and the vibe was friendly and lively. Please consider giving tips wherever you can as Portugal has some of the lowest hourly rates in Europe and even rounding up to the nearest euro adds up for the workers.

Bolo de Caco with coffee Funchal

Car rental, bus/jeep tours or public transport: If you really enjoy driving on narrow, steep, windy roads and are not fazed by parking issues in popular tourist spots, by all means, go for a rental, as you’ll clearly have more freedom to choose your own routes and itinerary. If you have limited time and still want to see a lot, the small group tours are an excellent choice, and as a solo traveller they were also great to meet other people. If you mostly need to get from the place where you are staying to the start of your hike or want to just travel from A to B, the Madeiran public transport or prepaid taxis are a great option.

Selfie with our jeep driver/guide in Madeira

Souvenirs: There are plenty of Madeiran products that make great souvenirs. From the traditional carapuça hat (surprisingly, it was cheapest, just 5 euros, at a tourist shop in Nun’s Valley, and they are actually made on the island and come in different sizes) to embroidery, the famous fortified Madeiran wine, premixed Poncha (even though to try the real thing, it needs to be mixed right in front of your eyes). The La Vie Shopping Centre has a large Pingo Doce supermarket and there is a Continente Modelo in the old town. Both had some great local jams made with chestnuts, fig and honey etc. which are an inexpensive, but authentic pressie for loved ones. During the flower festival on the streets and also in the Mercado dos Lavradores you can buy various flower bulbs and seeds, talk to the vendors to make sure they will flourish in your home country.

Cable car from Funchal to Monte

I hope the above is helpful if you are already planning a visit to beautiful Madeira island or you are now inspired to book your own trip. It really is a stunning part of Europe and I cannot recommend it highly enough! Feel free to comment below if you have any additional questions.

Disclaimer: All photography Ⓒ Life is a Festival. Prices may be different by the time you visit and may vary, so please confirm them before you go.

Staying In is the New Going Out: Free & by Donation Online Resources for Culture Lovers

Post last updated on 04 May 2020

Rainbow fairy door in forest

Life is still a festival, just in a different way

We’re all in the same boat at the moment. No one can really make any plans for the foreseeable future, in most countries we’re asked to stay at home as much as we can and travel is completely out of the question. Some of us might have holidays cancelled and, in my case, my whole calendar of festivals and cultural events has been wiped out pretty much overnight.

Yes, this can all be very frustrating and a time of heightened anxiety for many of us, but we don’t really have a choice and life is what we make it after all. Lots of fun things have recently been started by creative folks all over the world to help connecting us in these unusual times. I’m going to try and collect a good few here and update the post regularly, so do bookmark this page and check back whenever you’re in need of some positive inspiration (no mention of the c. word allowed!).

The good thing about being signed up to lots of newsletters by bands, cultural organisations, venues and other interesting creatives is that now most things have moved online, my inbox is brimming with helpful and positive tips from everyone. I’ve grouped them into a number of categories and will keep adding to them whenever I get time to do it.

One more thing: most of the things I’m listing below are free as there will be a lot of you out there who are already feeling the pressure of just keeping going at the moment. However, please also think about how you can help your local community in any way you can, which does not always have to be financially. Look around your city’s streets and pick a few independent cafes and shops you like, follow them online and ask how you can help. Buy merch by smaller, independent musicians and other artists, if you can, as birthday or Christmas presents. The options are endless and you can do all this from your own home.

Online music festivals

To my delight, within days of most of us being at home instead of out and about, a lot of smaller and larger initiatives have sprung up to either take existing cancelled events online or as fundraisers for musicians who are having a hard time at the moment. I’ve already missed a few but here are some upcoming ones:

The Folk on Foot Front Room Festival happened on Easter Monday on Youtube and Facebook and had a stellar folk music line-up with half hour sets by Karine Polwart, Kris Drever, Peggy Seeger etc.. and can still be watched online. Donations are still open, too, and will be shared between the participating musicians and the Help Musicians UK charity.

Folks at Home is another online folk music initiative. While it is not streaming live, it has over 27 hours of exclusive online content for ticket holders (proceeds to the musicians). So you can watch whenever you feel like it.

Oregon-based music festival Pickathon have decided to do online live gigs in aid of MusiCares at 1pm PCT (luckily for us 9pm UK time) on various dates starting on 8 April. Can’t wait to tune in!

There are also more and more fundraisers for independent music venues, many of which, let’s face it, are struggling to survive at the best of times. If you want them to still be there after the crisis, why not adopt your local venue, like The Greennote in London, where I used to volunteer, or The Glad Cafe in Glasgow, where I live now, and donate to them directly. A good organisation to check out for additional information is Music Venue Trust.

stay positive sticker on tree trunk in Scottish forest park

Live music streams

Live music is a big part of my life and it’s been really hard getting used to going from several gigs a week to absolutely zero. Socialising and listening to music by artists who care about other people and the world does not have to stop completely though. Like everything else, it has just gone online for now! While the time difference makes it sometimes a bit tricky to catch every event and still get enough sleep, it has the one big advantage that we are now all ONE big global audience. These musicians have been doing live streams recently, so check them out and follow them for more virtual gigs:

Peggy Seeger (Sundays at 5pm), Sierra Hull, Don Gallardo, The Barr Brothers, The Royal Jelly Jive, Dougie MacLean (every second night at 8pm), Anne McCue, Elaine Lennon, James Hodder, Andrew Combs, Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay, Cathy Jordan, Mo Kenney, Daoiri Farrell, Niamh Regan, Rachael Sage and many more. If you’re not familiar with the above artists, check them out, you might quite like them and they all have a back catalogue of fantastic music for you to get!

I recommend signing up for newsletters by the Journal of Music and Shrewsbury Folk Festival (the SFF Youtube channel is pretty awesome, too), who are doing online music listings on a regular basis now.

US radio NPR have an impressive list of daily live concerts by musicians of various genres.

Secret Sessions, London’s monthly new music night, is now also doing live stream takeovers of their Instagram account with inspiring mini gigs by talented performers, usually at 7pm.

US-based Signature Sounds have some fantastic ‘home sessions’ with Americana artists.

The Green Note in London are now offering online gigs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 8pm (suggested paypal donation for the musicians of £10 per show) with a great line-up of Americana and folk musicians.

UK folk musician John Spiers is running an #IsolationPubSession on his Youtube channel for everyone to play and sing along.

Sofar Sounds has also launched online gigs in their listening room. As with all the others, donations to the artists are encouraged.

The #Covidceilidh hashtag on Twitter (you can see the vieos without having an account) has been fun to follow with musical contributions from around the world. #LiveFromHome seems to be mostly US-based sessions of any kind of genre.

Check out the Life is a Festival Youtube channel for videos of past festival performances and plan your next festival visit from your couch!

If you’re planning on doing your own live streams from your home, The Space have a handy low-tech low-cost streaming guide for doing just that.

Author events

I need to do some more online research to find more live readings, but all the book festival websites and other organisations promoting reading are usually a good start.

BBC Arts has recently launched Culture in Quarantine, a virtual arts season, which will also include The Big Book Weekend, co-founded by authors Kit de Waal and Molly Flatt, happening 8-10 May. It will run in cooperation with MyVLF, a free global virtual literary festival holding online author events.

The Scottish Wigtown Bookfestival is doing #WigtownWednesdays with live author talks, book club sessions and literatry pub quizzes.

There is a new Scottish crime writing podcast: The Tartan Noir Show.

The Edinburgh Book Festival (one of my very favourites, see my review) has a lovely audio and video section with lots of inspiring author talks.

Cambridge Literature Festival had #thelisteningfestival 17-19 April and might do more online events.

The Hay Book Festival in Wales (have been both to the summer and the winter version, both brilliant) has a wealth of interesting material on their webiste, including films, podcasts and free resources for school children.

Poet and Scots Makar Jackie Kay seems to be doing a new poem every Sunday on her Twitter account. She is inspiring and funny, you’ll love it.

#ShelfIsolating is a fun Twitter hashtag to join other booklovers, libraries etc. who are talking about reading, authors and books

NHS rainbow sign outside a shop in Glasgow

Film screenings

There are various organisations offering a catalogue of films for free online, for instance 200 free documentaries by IDFA, the BFI’s online film collection, this year’s (sadly cancelled) SXSW latest short films, shortfilm.de (most films in English or with subtitles) and others.

Mubi also seems to currently be doing a free three month trial of their movie screening service, sign up via this Filmhouse link.

We Are One is a global free event on Youtube that brings together 20 international film festivals from 29 May until 7 June and includes fiction, documentaries, music, comedy & filmmaker conversations. 

London’s Open City Documentary Festival has a huge online film archive with many free films to watch.e

If you like adventure and outdoor films, Explorersweb has collected a list of so far 400 (!) free to watch ones: List 1 (mostly Banff Mountain Film Fest), List 2, List 3, List 4

Bertha DocHouse in London has a great online hub with recorded interviews with filmmakers and is also working on more live stream collaborations.

Other streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, NowTv or Britbox are also often offering 30 days free trials or pretty cheap monthly fees. They can be cancelled anytime, so you can mix and match to get the best new content when you want it or can afford it.

Theatre shows

The Stage has a rolling list of theatre productions, which are now available to view online, including some charity projects in support of e.g. the NHS.

The National Theatre is now screeing one of their hit shows every Thursday at 7pm online for free, so this is my new weekly theatre night! Again, please support them with a donation, if you can, any amount will help.

The Coronet Theatre in Notthing Hill has an Inside Out online content and event section with cultural content.

Other fun & social online events

One of my local Meetup groups did a pub quiz and an open mic on Zoom, which were both great fun, so I bet your local groups are doing similar things. You can usually join for free (or a small fee for admin costs) and as it’s mostly smaller groups, it is a lovely way of keeping in touch with people or even make new friends while self-isolating, especially if you live on your own.

The Edinburgh Science Festival has been cancelled, but has announced some future online happenings, so keep an eye on their website or sign up to their newsletter.

The Cosmic Shambles have started a pretty impressive Stay at Home Festival with a almost daily mix of science, book and comedy shows on their Youtube channel. Intriguing stuff! Again, donations very welcome.

The Arts Society is running online lectures on arts topics to try and promote connection through a shared love for the arts.

If you fancy brushing up on your French skills, head over to the Alliance Francaise website, which has a fantastic collection of free films and materials.

There are also quite a few online choirs, such as Sofa Singers or Gareth Malone’s #GreatBritishHomeChorus now, which you can join from anywhere in the world online. No excuse not to get singing!

Keeping active indoors (and outdoors, if you can) & beating anxiety

Yoga with Adriene has been my favourite go to channel on Youtube for taking some time out and getting a new perspective for a long time. This is what got me into yoga and you’ll get something out of it whether you’re a total beginner or a pracised yogi. Plus, there is Benji, the dog!

New York non-profit The Tricycle Foundation has started free/by donation online practise sessions with inspirational teachers, such as Pema Chödrön and Jack Kornfield. Make sure you sign up beforehand for the Zoom link. They also offer a great worldwide live online meditation calendar. One of their contributors, NY-based journalist Jihii Jolly, has also compiled her own list of useful resources & online tools, reading tips and more.

UK-based World Yoga Festival offers online yoga, meditation and cooking classes.

If you are OK to do so, it’s also a really good idea to get some fresh air outside while keeping to your location’s physical distancing rules, of course. I’m lucky to have a large park right behind my home and I try and get out there as often as I can. Even just a few minutes a day make me feel so much better.

Be kind to yourself and others

There seem to be quite a few negatives about our current situation: clearly the actual danger to people’s lives (do keep up with trustworthy news sources and avoid the scams!), anxiety because of worrying about family and friends while being separated from them, boredom, lack of money or other ways life is restricted at the moment.

But here is the good news. This crisis also brought out the best in many people and in our communities. Volunteer opportunities (e.g. NHS responders in England or Ready Scotland) and mutual aid groups have sprung up practically overnight, there is a real focus on living in the moment, minimalism and not taking anything for granted anymore. While there seems to be more tension and anxiety in the air, there is also kindness to be found wherever you look. There are so many positive things we can focus our time and energy on, including taking a little more time for ourselves.

There is a new online radio show for Scottish volunteers called Radio V with a new show every Saturday.

This brilliant online letter writing project called #DearFriend was started in Aberdeen, but anyone from around the world can write to care home residents – write your letter now!

Action for Happiness has a Coping Calendar and lots of other useful resources for staying positive.

Action for Happiness Coping Calendar April 2020

What all of us can do right now

Contact a friend, family member or neighbour and ask if they’re OK. They might have an issue you didn’t know about, maybe to do with their health or mental health, work or just not being able to cope that well with change as quickly as you might be able to.

And don’t forget to show yourself some love, too. I’ve been taking a lot more baths recently and am enjoying my favourite foods even more than usual. Sending everyone a virtual hug from my home office in Glasgow. Stay safe, look after each other and let’s keep inspiring one another!

Home office