Tag Archives: weekend trip

Not Just The German Carnival Capital: Your Weekend Guide to Cologne

I admit, I was guilty of it myself: I’ve travelled to quite a few other German cities and towns before, but never really considered going to Cologne, the largest city of the German Bundesland of North Rhine-Westphalia, until I was heading from Berlin to Bavaria this spring and happened to pass through during carnival time. I totally loved my stay! Cologne might not be as well-known as Berlin, Hamburg or Munich, but its friendly, talkative locals will have you forget about being a stranger in no time. Just like in my other favourite cities of Dublin and Glasgow, you can have a brilliant time in Cologne if you immerse yourself in its lively festival, culture, café and pub scene.

Cologne As If Records.jpg

Festival City All Year Round

Kölner, as the locals in Cologne are known, are always up for a party and the city offers an enviable number of festivals throughout the year. From the famous Kölner Karneval in February and a smaller, but equally busy summer version at the end of August, there are always some great events on. Apart from a few of them, you don’t need to be able to speak German to join in and they often even have a website or programme in English. The most popular include Lit Cologne (March), Cologne Pride (the city is very LGBT friendly) and the Film Festival Cologne. While I was visiting during the first weekend of September, there was an urban arts festival on, City Leaks, and I also found a small world music festival, Festival der Kulturen in Troisdorf, which was only 30 minutes away on the train.

Cologne Festival der Kulturen Troisdorf.jpg

It’s all about ‘Veedel’ Culture – Meet the Neighbours

Cologne has a number of distinct neighbourhoods and its locals strongly identify with where they live. Ehrenfeld has an East London or alternative Berlin feel to it, the Südstadt is quieter (but not at carnival time!), Nippes and Agnesviertel has lots of cafes and parks and the Belgisches Viertel is the place to head for boutique clothes and designer shopping. Just like London has its cabmen’s shelters, Cologne has its ‘Büdchen’, little stalls/snack bars where you can purchase a coffee and a bite to eat or some sweets. The Büdchen am Nikolausplatz (tram stop 18 nearby, see pic below) in Köln Sülz (near the University) is especially lively, it’s run by a group of six people who take turns with the shifts and also sometimes organise outdoor live music and little literature events around their stall. The Weisshaus Kino is only 5 minutes down the road on Weisshauptstrasse. If you don’t speak German, don’t worry, some of the cinemas show movies or documentaries in the original version (marked with OV behind the title and Monday is usually the cheap cinema day, expect to pay around €5 or €6 for a ticket).

While I was visiting I joined a local walking tour, which was part of the City Leaks Urban Arts Festival and it took us around the streets and alleys of the Eigelstein quarter, where prostitution has been thriving for hundreds of years up to this day. But you’ll still find hotels, kindergardens and playgrounds nearby. While you might want to stay clear of Ebertplatz at night, the Eigelstein-Torburg square right beside it has some lovely restaurants (burgers, a gelateria, Thai food, coffee) for a sunny afternoon on the terrace or a cosy dinner in wintertime.

Cologne Büdchen am Nikolausplatz.jpg

Café Culture and Brunch Spots

The city has a huge number of cafés and bakeries with a lot of veggie and vegan options. You can basically start wherever you are and pick any nice-looking place. Zeit für Brot in Ehrenfeld is great for people watching (or pet dogs that are passing by) while you munch on one of their super yummy cinnamon, walnut/maple syrup or plum buns (see pic below). Nearby is Café Goldmund, a book café with walls lined with endless number of second hand books. I also love the BadenBaden in the basement of the Neptunbad (spa) in Ehrenfeld (mixed menu including Flammkuchen). But beware, only the ones marked with a green sticker on the back are for sale. Another lovely coffee place is As If Records in the Belgisches Viertel, a record store, vintage store and café rolled into one with very friendly staff.

On Sunday we went for breakfast at the local ‘cat café’ Café Schnurrke, in Ritterstrasse, less than 10 minutes on foot from the Hauptbahnhof. The two black and white resident rescue kitties, Millie and Merlin, might join you on the sofa while you enjoy your breakfast (both veggie and vegan options available) or a cake and a smoothie. Going for breakfast or brunch (usually a buffet or choice of sweet and/or savoury combos) is very popular in Germany, especially at the weekends, and many cafes have special breakfast menus available.

Cologne Zeit für Brot.jpg

Cathedral, Street Art & Unusual Museums

I always like getting an overview of a new city by joining one of the free walking tours (usually in English and often also in Spanish; the only city that didn’t have one was Vienna – for legal reasons – where I simply went to one of the hostels and joined theirs). The Dom (Cathedral), the fourth-tallest in the world, is a no brainer and I suggest you get there first thing in the morning or in any case plan for at least an hour as you’ll have to climb the steps all the way up for the best views. Cologne also has a number of excellent art museums, as well as a few more unusual ones, such as the German Olympic Museum and the Chocolate Museum (which sounds tempting, but I suggest you spend the €11.50 on actual chocolate). There is also lots of fabulous street art to discover, for instance in Ehrenfeld, Eigelstein and other neighbourhoods.

Cologne Street Art Ehrenfeld

Live Music any Day of the Week

Earlier this year, I made a friend on Instagram, who lives in Cologne and enjoys the same kind of music I like. So she gave me lots of great tips and we met up one night for a gig at Kulturcafe Lichtung. In fact, I ended up going there two nights in a row. The musician on Friday night, Ofer Golany from Israel, also told me about a great little (and free) world music festival in Troisdorf, a 40 minute S-Bahn ride away, the Festival der Kulturen. I went there on Saturday and had fantastic homecooked Ethiopian food, listened to various musicians from around the world and met many cute dogs (see Cuddle a Dog a Day). As it was the weekend of the summer carnival, there were also lots of local live bands singing in various pubs in their local dialect, Kölsch (which is pretty much unintelligible by other Germans too, but it’s always a good idea to learn a few phrases before you go). In fact, at the Weißer Holunder pub you can join a Kölsch singalong every Sunday night from 6pm, beginners welcome. Other live music venues to try include Studio 672 (venue &  nightclub), Kulturkirche (a Protestant church but also a concert venue), the Gloria Theater (both plays and gigs), Die Wohngemeinschaft (hip hostel and gig venue), Blue Shell (club, live gigs & poetry slams) and many more.

Where Should I stay?

I found a very cosy Airbnb for my first stay and returned there again as it was the perfect base for me. It is across the river in a quiet neighbourhood and was easy to reach by tram, even after midnight. Any of the Veedel (neighbourhoods) are a great place to stay, just pick it based on whether you’d prefer a quiet night’s sleep or prefer staying in a busier area with the nightlife options right outside your door. Either way, there are many choices, so you can’t really go wrong.

Cologne Airbnb.jpg

Public Transport, More Local Tips & Saving Money

Cologne is fairly walkable and I love discovering it on foot. To get from your accommodation or to a venue quickly though, you can use the local public transport. A single ticket costs €2.80 (buy it with coins or a credit card at a machine at a tram stop or inside the tram, make sure you have one as ticket inspectors patrol the trams and it can cost you €60 if you get caught!), so a public transport day pass (currently €8.60) is usually a good idea. You can use it in the whole city and East of the Rhine river, too. The Cologne Card is only slightly more, for €9 a day it also gives you 20-50% off some museums. As I was there for four days, I bought a weekly ticket for €25.10 (cheaper than 3 day passes). There are trams, buses and S-Bahn (commuter) trains and, in my experience, they were safe to use even at night and also run every few minutes after midnight, so you can book cheaper accommodation a little further out and still won’t have to worry about getting home. The tourist office is very close to the Cathedral and the main train station (where you can leave luggage in lockers or in a left luggage place for ca. €6 a day). There you can pick up a very clear map of the city centre and slightly beyond for about 50 cents and find out about current events. There are quite a few guide books in English, but I was glad I found a few specifically local guides, Green City Guide Köln, Basic Köln and the yearly updated Köln 2 Go (all three in German), which were more aimed at locals and had a lot of great tips for veggie places and more alternative sightseeing options.

Whatever you do, make sure you visit Cologne sooner rather than later, it’s one of the easiest cities to enjoy whether you’re a seasoned traveller or a travel newbie of any age.

Cologne Severinstr.jpg

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author. Prices listed are as of August 2017, please confirm them before you go. All photography by Life is a Festival.

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Summer City Break Guide to Stockholm

Stockholm is one of my favourite cities in Europe and it’s easy to see why: beautiful architecture, a seaside location and stylish Nordic design. It was actually my second visit, but the first time was so long ago (12 years, unbelievably) that I decided to do two things, see the best summer sights with the help of Stockholm Pass and simply enjoy being by the sea in one of the most stunning cities of the world.

Stockholm Royal Canal Tour.jpg

Culture Festival & Walking Tour

I couldn’t have picked better weather or, indeed, a better time to visit as right when I arrived the Stockholm Culture Festival was on, which meant lots of free arts and music events around town. Perfect timing! I joined a Free Tour Stockholm walking tour of Gamla Stan (old town), one of which I try and catch in every city I visit, as the guides are usually enthusiastic, the crowd international and you often get lots of inofficial (read, more budget-friendly and authentic) tips for your visit. Our guide dropped us off near the Royal Palace and I heard some loud live music from a stage near the water. When I got closer, I realised it was one of the culture festival events and they had an India theme going, so I ended up eating the most delicious, freshly cooked masala dosa (pancakes) while watching the sun go down over the harbour.

Stockholm culture festival sunset.jpg

Getting the Most out of Your Stockholm Pass

The Stockholm Pass is really useful if, like me, you are trying to get a lot of sightseeing done in a short period of time. There are 24 hour (SEK 595), 48 hour (SEK 795) and 72 hour (SEK 995) options and they include many of the city’s top sights, but not public transport. A one-day travel pass can be added for SEK 120 and a three-day one is SEK 240 (each plus SEK 20 for the card itself). So it’s definitely not cheap, but simply add up what you’re planning on doing and see if it makes sense to get any of the above passes.

Just like in Gothenburg (see my travel guide), it makes sense to plan ahead, i.e. figure out what you most want to see and prioritise that. I opted for a Royal Canal Tour (normally SEK 190, there are also other canal tours, but this one is the one with the largest loop taking you all the way around Djurgarden). You can get your ticket at the ticket booth on Nybroplan (queue early, this is very popular in the summer!), but then walk the short distance over to Strömkajen to the first stop, so you get the best seats at the back of the boat. A must-see for Stockholm first-timers is the fascinating Vasa Museum (normally SEK 130), a restored warship, which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628.

Stockholm Harbour View.jpg

Alas, I didn’t have time for photography museum Fotografiska (normally SEK 130), but it’s meant to be amazing, several people mentioned this to me as a highlight during their stay. The Sky View (normally SEK 150, free with the pass from 10am-12pm, SEK 30 afterwards) is something you can skip if necessary, as it’s outside the city centre and I wasn’t overly impressed with the views, but was fascinated how anyone can work at such a height (see pic below). Instead, opt for a Drottningholm Palace and Boat Tour (normally SEK 325), a visit to the Nobel Museum (normally SEK 100), Nordic Museum (normally SEK 100) or The Royal Palace (normally SEK 160).

Stockholm Sky View.jpg

Another thing I already loved last time around was visiting the world’s oldest open air museum Skansen (normally SEK 100-180), which opened in 1891, combined with a ‘fika’ (coffee and cake break) at one of my top happy places in the world, Rosendals Trädgard (see a pic of their beautiful flower gardens below)! Joining local families and visiting travellers at tables set up under the apple trees, it is a place that lets you forget you are in a buzzling Scandinavian capital. While it seems to have got even busier compared to when I was first here 12 years ago, it is still a place I love dearly and will return to again and again. Skansen is only a shortish walk or ride on tram 7 away and is so big, you could spend the whole day exploring the different areas, watching craftspeople at work, learning about Nordic animals or about domestic ones in the children’s area and seeing a variety of traditional Swedish houses and farm buildings.

Stockholm Rosendals Trädgard.jpg

As I was keen to repeat my lovely island experience from Gothenburg, I also took the boat to Stora Fjäderholmen island (normally SEK 145), a half hour boat trip from Nybroplan pier. There are thousands of islands in the Stockholm archipelago, but it would have taken way too long to get there, so I guess I’ll just have to return again. You can walk around the small island (see pic below) in no time and see glassblowers at work, look at wooden boats or watch the sailing boats go by from one of the cafes. Or, like me, share your lunch with Tyson, the island’s resident ginger tomcat (see Instagram for pictures).

Stockholm Stora Fjäderholmen Island.jpg

A great evening option included in the Stockholm Pass is the Grönalund amusement park (normally SEK 115-250 without rides). I was thrilled to see, after already having booked my flights, that the inspirational Patti Smith (I love her memoirs Just Kids and M Train), was going to play a gig on the last night of  my stay, plus, to top it all off, there was even a solar eclipse that night! To get in for free on a music night all you need to do is turn up before 6pm (I made it to the front row by arriving around 4pm, but just go when they open if the concert is important to you or join later if not). Needless to say, her gig was epic, such a lovely atmosphere and I met lots of other gig goers from different countries. It finished around 9.30pm and you can catch tram 7 to the city centre afterwards, they had plenty of extra buses, too.

Stockholm Gröna Lund Stage.jpg

Design Hotel or Quirky Hostel – Your Choice

I spent my three nights in Stockholm in three different places, all a few minutes walk from each other. I can recommend design hotels Tegnerlunden and Birger Jarl for a great night’s sleep (pictured below is the suite I stayed in at BJ, but the regular rooms are equally stylish, they are about a 15-20 minute walk or a short metro ride from the main train Station T Centralen) and both also had fantastic breakfast buffets. I only wish I’d had more time to enjoy them.

Stockholm Birger Jarl Suite.jpg

Alternatively, City Backpackers Hostel offers a central (10 minutes on foot from T Centralen) and friendly welcome to weary travellers on a budget. The four-bed dorm was comfy, they have great facilities and the breakfast (not included, neither are the sheets, probably the only downsides, but common in Scandinavia) was great, too.

Three More Tips

Make sure you don’t miss Kungsträdgarden metro station, as it has the most fascinating painted ceilings and walls, the below is just one section of it, google it, it looks amazing!

Stockholm Kungstradgarden Underground Station

Sweden is generally fairly expensive, but you can save your money and the environment by refilling your bottle with tap water, as it’s drinkable and there are water taps in public areas or just take it from any sink.

And, if you’re spending a whopping SEK 21 for a stamp on a postcard home, make sure your effort isn’t wasted by putting it in the bright yellow letterbox, not the blue one for local mail.

Stockholm letterboxes.jpg

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival was provided with a 48 hour Stockholm Pass by the nice folks at Destination Stockholm. Prices are as of August 2017, please confirm them online before you go. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

 

A Bookish Christmas: The Hay Festival Winter Weekend 2016

Have you ever wanted to go to a place where everything revolves around books, where you can spend a whole weekend browsing tons of second-hand bookshops all without leaving the little town you’re staying in? Then the world’s first ‘book town’, Hay-on-Wye is definitely for you! Since Richard Booth (bookshop pictured below) opened his first bookshop in the little Welsh town near Hereford in the 1960s many other towns from all around the world have followed his example and joined the International Organisation of Book Towns.

hay-richard-booths-bookshop

I had been to the ‘big’ book festival in the summer of 2009 once before the year I started the blog and had had an absolutely fabulous time, but had never made it to the winter edition until this year. It was exactly what I needed a month before Christmas: a few days away from it all in a cosy B&B surrounded by books, taking in the beautiful scenery, munching mince pies and sipping mulled wine like it was an Olympic sport AND a book festival on top of all that – genius!

I had arrived in Hay on Friday night just in time for the big Christmas light switch-on with Ben Fogle in the centre of town. There was a little Christmas market in a sizeable tent by the Cheese Market and it was the first time this year I really felt like Christmas isn’t all that far off now. A little later that evening a lot of us gathered for music of a very different kind, the Ben Baddoo Afrobeat Band. It took place in the Castle, which is about to get an exciting makeover (more details below), one large room of which was nicely decorated with holly twigs, a real Christmas tree and a roaring fire in the corner. After a few minutes, the West African beats had everyone shedding their coats and dancing as if we were partying in much more sunny climes.

hay-street-2016

Saturday morning started out well with an intriguing talk by Gruffyd Aled Williams about the significance of Owain Glyndwr in Welsh history followed by braving the pretty chilly temperatures on an equally fascinating guided tour of the now obsolete Hay Railway, which was in fact a narrow gauge horse-drawn tramway and was in operation from 1864 to 1962. After having checked out the pop-up stalls of the food festival and warmed up with some spiced apple cake and latte at the Old Stables Tea Rooms in the centre of Hay, it was time for another event, this time in St. Mary’s church. Ben Rawlence talked about his book ‘City of Thorns’, which describes life in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya and we also heard from Yohannes who made it to the UK from Ethiopia via the Libyan desert and Calais. Lots of food for thought about what home means to all of us, especially at this time of the year.

I ended the evening with a lovely carol singalong in Hay Castle with more mulled wine, homemade mince pies and in good company. It was strange being in a small community such as Hay where nearly everyone knows each other and it felt at times almost like gate-crashing some sort of private celebration. I did meet a few others though who had come from further afield, such as London, like myself, Manchester and even Belgium to attend the festival. We all agreed we wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else that weekend.

hay-bookbox

My Sunday began with an absolutely fabulous tour of Hay Castle (read up on its history and planned restoration on the Hay Castle Trust website) led by Mari Fforde. I’ve always loved how old houses preserve so much history over the centuries and was glad to see how passionate the local committee is about keeping their local history alive. It was a really dark, cold day, but thankfully the town centre was lit up by many beautiful lights, all the shop windows were lovingly decorated, there was a vintage festival on in town and many mugs of hot beverages waiting to be consumed by thirsty festival goers.

After finally having had enough time to do a really good bookshop crawl (yessss!), I attended my last talk of the weekend, ‘Browse: The World in Bookshops’, with the book’s editor Henry Hitchings who was interviewed by Hay Festival director Peter Florence (see picture below) in the Swan hotel, which was also the official festival HQ. The festival closing event at the Castle was another concert, this time with Australian born, Bristol based singer-songwriter Nuala Honan. Of course, there was more mulled wine and more lively conversation until it was time for the short walk back to my B&B and, alas, bye bye to Hay-on-Wye the following morning.

hay-henry-hitchings-talk

Judging by the many sold out events of the weekend, the smaller, more intimate sister of the bigger Hay Festival is definitely a successful addition to the already existing roster of literary events in Hay. For me, it was the perfect booklovers weekend getaway and now I’m looking forward to Christmas even more!

Hay also has a vibrant social media presence, if you’re into that kind of thing. Do check out the below twitter accounts for updates on events, foodie delights and more if you’re planning a visit: @hayfestival @HayHOWLs (to stop the closure of their local library!) @chefonrun @BoothsBookshop @childrnsbkshop @haycastle @HayMarketsLtd @4bruce7 @alanababycorner @marifromvalley @thestoryofbooks @haydoesvintage @broomfieldhse @haycheesemarket @Chris_the_Book @globeathay @Oxfam_at_Hay @thefudgeshop @OtherworldzHay @thefudgeshop and many more.

hay-on-wye-bookshop