Why I’d have another Helsinki city break

As someone who errs towards a degree of shabby chic when choosing city break destinations, I wasn’t sure how good a match me and Helsinki would be.

I needn’t have worried. Helsinki managed that brilliant trick of balancing “everything just works”, without being glossed and polished to within an inch of its life. Here’s why I would happily return to Helsinki for city break round two!

Helsinki’s urban planning and infrastructure

I’d like to borrow some of Helsinki’s urban planners, please!

OK, so Helsinki doesn’t have the same space restrictions caused by the (rightly) protected higgledy-piggledy ancient architecture of many European towns and cities. However, the Finns have done a brilliant job of making use of the spaces they have. They seemed designed to be used by everyone – and they were!

The car is not king

Helsinki has whole areas designed around pedal- and foot-power instead of cars – bike lanes and footpaths separate from main roads. The result: loads of people of all ages walking and cycling.

A cyclist on a Helsinki city bike goes past some cool street art

A cyclist pedals past some very cool street art on a Helsinki city bike

Helsinki does have cars, it’s just not over-run with them. So much so that when we were walking around during what should’ve been rush hour, I thought it must be a public holiday.

Helsinki street scene with cars and bikes

Cars – yes. Cars everywhere – no 🙂

As well as being healthier, the lack of cars had the added advantage that I could hear myself think. I could have happily heard both sides of a conversation on my phone whilst walking in the city centre. That’s a very unlikely possibility in the UK.

Public transport in Helsinki

I know Helsinki isn’t unique in having integrated public transport and ticketing, but the fact it does makes travelling and journey planning a whole load easier.

We used the Whim app to get public transport tickets (mobile tickets are cheaper), and also to plan our journeys. Not having to spend half an hour figuring out which bus or tram stop we needed was a welcome change from most cities I’ve visited.

Helsinki’s mobile tickets for Zone 1 are €2.20 and for Zone 2 are €4.20. They’re valid for 80 minutes across all public transport.

[box type=”info”]Disclosure: Whim provided us with App travel credit for this trip.[/box]

We used Zone 2 buses (for the airport), trams and the Suomenlinna ferry during our stay. You can also use Whim for the Helsinki city bike scheme, for taxis and for car hire.

Looking back to Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry on our Helsinki city break

Looking back to Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry

Ticket checks on Helsinki’s public transport seemed irregular, but they do happen so don’t be tempted to cheat the system!

Outside of the city, Helsinki also has several commuter train lines, which we used to get to Lahti for our RedBull 400 ski jump run.

Helsinki has a sense of collective responsibility

The Finns really seemed to care about their environment. And by “their”, I don’t just mean things that just impacted them personally.

Little things I really noticed. Cafes and bars were all self-serve, and everyone tidied up after themselves. If there was a rack for dirty crockery, you could be sure pretty much everyone would use it. Certainly far more than at home.

A more obvious social policy is a bottle deposit scheme, which was easy to use even as a visitor. Simply pay a deposit by default on plastic and glass bottles, then take the empties to a recycling receptacle that spits out a voucher to redeem on your next shop. Simple.

[box type=”info”]We used the Insight Guide to Helsinki for our trip. We also love this foldable coffee cup, to get into the Helsinki spirit of reuse and recycle! Buy through these links to help the site, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Something else that really struck me was an apparent lack of homelessness in Helsinki – was that really the case or was I just looking through the city with rose-tinted glasses? Intrigued, I did a bit of research when we got home.

It turns out that Finland is the ONLY country in EU where homelessness is decreasing. And they do that by … providing the homeless with a home.

Not exactly radical, but in Finland they’ve figured that homeless people are more likely to access support services when they’ve got a stable environment to live in.

High quality … everything!

The easiest example of quality in Helsinki I can think of is the food. There was not a soggy sandwich in sight. Processed food just didn’t seem to be a thing. (hallelujah!)

Outdoor food stalls - a Helsinki city break

Helsinki has plenty of popular outdoor food stalls. Fresh fish soup, yummy bread and coffee were €10.

In coffee shops, freshly made sandwiches on granary bread and plated salads were the norm. On proper crockery.

The coffee was good too, though we’d expected that, as the Finns are apparently the biggest consumers of coffee per person in the world.

It’s true that some of this quality does come at a price. However, Helsinki wasn’t as bank-breaking as we’d anticipated. Prices for food and drinks were around 25% more than in the UK. Coffee shops were self-service, so no tipping required. Oh, and reindeer tastes goooood 🙂

For drinking at home (or in your Airbnb apartment), buy stronger booze like wine and spirits from an Alko off licence. Only beer and cider are sold in supermarkets. Alko stores close on a Sunday; and only open ‘til 6pm on Saturdays (8pm Monday to Friday). Not that we fell foul of this when being quite ready for a night in with a bottle of wine after competing in the RedBull 400. Oh, no, sirree!

If you fancy a tipple when you’re out and about in one of Helsinki’s many green spaces, there are plenty of uber-cool bars where you can quench your thirst.

Even the souvenirs in Helsinki were classy

There was not a dodgy fridge magnet in sight in Helsinki. I mean, how fabulous are these reindeer socks?

Reindeer socks - a quality Helsinki city break souvenir

Reindeer socks, €6 from Helsinki airport

For other lovely craft shopping, the Hakaniemi Market Hall is home to high quality goods as well as the ubiquitous Moomin souvenirs, which are something of a national obsession in Finland. It’s also a rather fine place to have a coffee and watch the world go by.

[box type=”info”]We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Kallio, Helsinki (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link) and flew to Helsinki with Finnair from Manchester. Book your flights via Skyscanner. Help the site by using these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Take me back!

It’s safe to say my slight worries that Helsinki might be a bit too stale for me were well and truly allayed. This was my first ever trip to Scandinavia, and I’m already asking: when can we go again?

Have you visited Helsinki? What’s made you think “yay” or “nay” to Helsinki as a potential city break destination? Share your views below.

A day trip from Campeche to the Edzna Mayan ruins

I love a good Mayan ruin. If they’re of the lesser-visited variety like Edzná, so much the better. With a few days in the colourful Mexican city of Campeche on the western side of the Yucatán peninsula, a day trip to the Edzná ruins was too big a draw to resist.

Edzna Mayan ruins Campeche main plaza

Look up!

Getting from Campeche to Edzná

Being fans of independent travel and public transport, a tour wasn’t an option for us. However, our outdated Lonely Planet guidebook (note to self: buy the new one – details in the box below) sent us in the direction of a bus stop that clearly hadn’t seen a bus for quite some time. Plan B came into force …

[box type=”info”]Don’t make the mistake we did: Get the up-to-date Lonely Planet Guide to Mexico before you go. Help the site by buying the guide through this link, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

Undeterred, and with the knowledge that Mexico is a country that DOES public transport and that there would be SOME way of getting to Edzná from Campeche, we did the only sensible thing possible: followed the collectivos (combi vans). A short bout of out-of-breath-ness later, this led us to a collective of collectivos all painted in red and white, parked up on Calle Chihuahua near Campeche’s market.

Collectivos are a wonder of Mexican transport, and for me, one of my top tips for travelling in Mexico.

Collectivo drivers are pretty helpful, and a few words of Spanish to explain we were going to the Edzná ruins saw us directed to a Bonfil-bound collectivo for the 55km (approx. 1 hr) journey, departing at 11am.

The ruins are a few hundred metres from the main road, but our driver detoured to drop us right at the entrance once we’d conveyed that’s where we were heading. The journey cost 45 peso per person each way (less than £2).

The Mayan ruins of Edzná

Safely dropped off, we paid the 60 peso per person entrance fee (about £2.50) and began our explorations.

The Mayan city of Edzná was a big deal in its day, particularly between 400 and 1000 AD, when it was the powerful regional capital of the western Yucatán. It was eventually abandoned around 1450 AD.

Its buildings reflect its former grandeur, and we happily hauled ourselves up and down the steep steps to towering platforms for a view over what used to be the main plaza.

Edzná's main plaza, Campeche, Mexico

Edzná’s main plaza

The highest structure is out of bounds for climbing, but the rest were fair game, so we gave our hamstrings a good workout as we posed for photos.

main pyramid, Edzna, Campeche

posing in the foreground of the main pyramid

The early buildings at Edzná are typical of the Petén architectural style (Petén nowadays is a region of northern Guatemala), with later structures showing influences of the Tardíos, Chenes and Puuc. Back in the day, the main limestone structures were often painted dark red. Others had facades adorned with the faces of gods and the mythical animals of the Mayan world. You can read more here on Edzná’s history and architecture here.

The Old Sorceress at Edzná

After the main plaza, we ventured off to the Old Sorceress around a ten-minute walk along a grassy track. But not before having acquired impromptu new hairstyles from the surrounding flora!

Reaching the Old Sorceress was Andrew’s excuse to go full-on Indiana Jones, as he scrambled off up the steep and jungle-covered un-restored pyramid.

Overall, we spent about 2 hours at Edzná, although if you’re less photo-happy than us then an hour-and-a-half would be plenty. Although not completely untouristed, most visitors to Edzná were Mexican, and we spotted a grand total of zero tour groups 🙂

Getting from Edzná back to Campeche

For public transport back from Edzná to Campeche we headed to the main road, and hung out under this road junction sign to flag down a collectivo.

how to get from Edzna to Campeche

you can hang out under this road sign to catch transport back to Campeche

The road isn’t too busy and waiting here meant transport options coming from two directions. We had to wait about 15 minutes for a collectivo coming from Bonfil back to Campeche but you may get an offer of a lift whilst you wait.

[box type=”note”]In our case, a guy in a pick-up truck stopped and offered us a lift back from Edzná to Campeche before the collectivo arrived. From prior research, coupled with my previous experience in this part of Mexico, this didn’t seem out of the ordinary. However, I politely declined as I wanted to make sure the public transport option worked so I could write this article 🙂 On a previous trip to Mexico, after a public transport fail at Uxmal caused by my then sub-par Spanish skills, I gladly accepted the offer of a lift to Mérida, resulting in a very entertaining journey with some delightful Venezuelan puppeteers!

I’m not recommending hitching with strangers. On the rare occasions I have accepted a lift (typically due to a public transport fail!) my hitching safety factors include: travelling with someone, being confident that accepting lifts is fairly “normal” wherever I am, and having a “this is ok” vibe when a vehicle stops for me. Obviously the latter is subjective, but I have turned down lifts when it hasn’t felt right. This is entirely my personal take on hitching. You’ll have your own view as to what’s right for you. If you do take up a lift in this part of Mexico, it’s customary to offer to pay the equivalent of the public transport price.[/box]

Practicalities of visiting the Edzná Mayan ruins

column at Edzna, Campeche, Mexico

silly photo-taking optional 🙂

Location: Around 55km from Campeche

Transport to Edzná: 45 peso collectivo from Calle Chihuahua in Campeche, tour or drive

Entrance fee: 60 peso

Food and drink: There’s no food at Edzná, although there is a vending machine for soft drinks. You can pick up cheap eats at Campeche’s market before or after your journey – we had yummy pork rolls for the grand sum of 20 peso each.

Take with you: Water, sunscreen, insect repellant in the rainy season, change or small notes for the collectivo and entrance fee (avoid 500 notes if you can).

To learn more about Edzná: Check out the museum under the Baluarte de la Soledad and also at the Fuerte de San Miguel in Campeche. Both have archaeological exhibits.

Where to stay: We bedded down at the Hotel Socaire in Campeche, in a room so large you could’ve had a football game in there (we didn’t). It was a fabulous place to stay.

[box type=”info”]Prices, info and exchange rates researched in January 2018. Some links in this post are affiliate links, which means I get a small commission and a big smile if you use them to make a purchase. There’s no extra cost to you for doing so :)[/box]

If you’re in this part of the world, I’d highly recommend the Edzná Mayan ruins as a day trip from Campeche. Have you been, or are you going? Share your experiences below.

Day trips from Catania by public transport

Sicily’s second city of Catania makes an ideal base for day trips by public transport to Taormina, Syracuse and Mount Etna. Here’s what to see and how to get there.

Catania day trip 1: Taormina – for ancient ruins and vertiginous viewpoints

Taormina is famed for its ruined Greek theatre, which dates back to the 3rd century BC. Teatro Greco may be hyped up, but it’s worth the visit – the relatively intact amphitheatre looks to the stage, and Mount Etna looms (or smokes!) as a backdrop.

day trips from Catania by public transport - Taormina Teatro Greco

The Teatro Greco in Taormina. Who wouldn’t want to take a day trip here?

The rest of Taormina is postcard pretty, but has the accompanying tourist factor. Prices are far higher than Catania and elsewhere in Sicily.

To escape the crowds, head up to the Monte Tauro viewpoint, a 20 minute signed schlep up from the bypass (Via Circonvallazione), which runs roughly parallel to the tourist drag of Corso Umberto. The views over Taormina are worth the effort.

day trips from Catania by public transport - view over Taormina

A steep hike, but well worth it!

How to get from Catania to Taormina on public transport

The Catania to Taormina bus departs from Catania’s main bus station. The main bus station (not to be confused with the bus stands and small lot in front of the train station) sits a block back from the main road that runs past the train station.

Buses between Catania and Taormina are run by Etna Trasporti. They’re every half hour or hour, depending on the time of day you depart, and take about an hour and ten minutes to make the journey. A return ticket is €8.50. You can find timetables at the Interbus website.

Buses arrive fairly centrally in Taormina in a small bus station. It’s about a 5-10 minute walk from here to the centre – just follow the line of gift shops! Catch the return bus from the same small bus station.

There is a Catania to Taormina train, but the station in Taormina is 2km downhill from the centre. It’s also infrequent. The bus is a better bet.

Catania day trip 2: Syracuse – for beautiful buildings and creepy catacombs

Syracuse’s historical centre is on the peninsula of Ortygia. You could spend hours wandering its alleyways and coastal lookouts.

day trips from Catania by public transport - Syracuse Ortygia

A photo-opp on every corner …

Despite the tourist-attracting UNESCO world heritage status, Syracuse feels a lot more real than Taormina, and prices – even in prime locations – are very reasonable.

The Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square) is the centre piece of it all. This picture gives a flavour for how spectacular it is, and speaks louder than my words.

day trips from Catania by public transport - Syracuse Ortygia Piazza del Duomo

Niiiiiice! Syracuse’s Piazza del Duomo doesn’t disappoint.

Underneath the square, and accessible from it, are the Catacombs of St John. Now set out as a museum, they have some pretty interesting exhibits down there!

day trips from Catania by public transport - Syracuse Ortygia catacombs

One of the original inhabitants of Syracuse’s catacombs.

Away from Ortygia, Syracuse is also home to ancient Greek ruins, spread out over the Parco Archeologico della Neapolis. The 5th century Greek theatre is impressive – but – in my opinion, not a patch on the one at Taormina. However, the scale of the park overall is larger, and it’s worth a visit if you have a couple of hours to spare.

How to get from Catania to Syracuse on public transport

You can reach Syracuse by bus or train from Catania.

The train takes between 1hr 5 minutes and 1hr 20 minutes and costs €6.90 each way. Trains are every hour or two hours, depending on the time of day. You can find timetables and buy tickets at the Trenitalia website (available in English as well as Italian). Syracuse is Siracusa in Italian. As with all Italian trains, validate your ticket before you board.

There are also regular (approximately hourly) Interbus buses between Catania and Syracuse. They take around 1 hr 25 minutes. Find the timetable on the Interbus website.

Buses leave from the bus station in Catania, located as described in the Taormina day trip. They arrive at Syracuse’s bus station, which is a couple of blocks from its train station.

It’s a walk from Syracuse’s train and bus stations to the attractions. At a decent pace, it takes about 20 minutes to walk to Ortygia and around 20 minutes to the ruins. They’re in opposite directions from one another.

Catania day trip 3: Mount Etna – for mild adventures at altitude

The summits and craters of Europe’s most active volcano boast an other-worldly atmosphere, alternating between a dark ashy hell and a red landscaped Mars. Both are incredibly photogenic, especially against a bright sky.

day trips from Catania - visiting Mount Etna

A volcano, or Mars? This pic was taken in late April, and the hat/jacket and sunscreen were most definitely needed 🙂

From Refugio Sapienza at 2000 metres above sea level, you can cable car and/or walk/jeep to the summit and craters at 3000 metres.

At this altitude, be prepared for a possible shortness of breath, intense sun, and all weathers. There’s loose ash everywhere, so beach flip flops are not recommended ☺

How to take a day trip from Catania to Mount Etna

There’s only one bus a day each way between Catania and Mount Etna, so don’t miss it ☺

The AST bus from Catania departs from the small lot near the stands outside the railway station (not the main bus station) at 8.15am. It takes 2 hours – with a stop en-route – to reach Refugio Sapienza, which is the closest you can get on public transport. The return bus is at 4.30pm, arriving back in Catania for around 6pm.

Buy your bus tickets in advance from the ticket office, and your cable car / jeep tickets for the summit at the Refugio. Check out my full and detailed post about Mount Etna logistics, timetables and pricing to find out more.

[box type=”info”]I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for most of my time in Catania (££ discount off your first Airbnb stay with this link), and also had a one-night stay in the slightly fancy and recommended Liberty Hotel. I used the Lonely Planet Guide to Sicily as an overview guide. Help the site by using these links, at no extra cost to you.[/box]

These are just three possible day trips from Catania by public transport. And there are more … you could also take day trips to Noto and Enna. Catania itself is also full of charms – sometimes of the shabby chic variety. Just writing this makes me want to go back!

Have you used Catania as a base for day trips? Where else would you recommend? Share your tips and ideas below.

How to (re)create the feeling of travel at home

How much time do you spend travelling every year? Two weeks? Three? Four if you’re lucky?

What about the other 48+ weeks? How can you experience what you love about your holidays and travel in everyday life?

Here are some top tips for creating – or recreating – the feeling of travel at home.

Be a tourist at home

Yes, it’s a cliché.

Godamn it, just wear your Bermuda shorts, hang your expensive camera off your neck and walk really slowly. And give it a rest about the cliché thing 😉

Or … go on that walking tour of your city. Pack a picnic for a day out in the countryside. Head into the gallery you’ve walked past on your way to work for the last two years (note to self: I need to do this!) Visit a neighbouring town on market day and starting taking pictures of fruit and vegetable displays!

travel at home: vegetable photographs!

Who can resist a photo of a prize cauliflower? These bad boys were on show at the Lealholm Show in Yorkshire.

Whatever works for you, it’s all good.

Travel at home on public transport*

*Don’t take this advice when you need to get a Benny bookshelf home from IKEA.

travel at home

Many a tale has eminated from a Mexican combi van. Why not at home too?

The bus, the train, the tram, a ferry … they give you three things a solo journey in the car can’t:

  1. You can take in the scenery/countryside. Unless you’re in a commuter train. In which case you’ll be too busy smelling someone’s armpit whilst contorted into a position a yogi would be proud of.
  2. The chance to meet new people. Y’know, in the way you do when you’re on holiday.
  3. The potential for a travel story to tell. Most of mine seem to involve random strangers offering me food/alcohol. Yup, even in the UK.

Of course, going sans car also gives you the opportunity to vigorously bemoan the price of public transport in your own country: ‘£5!? Are you kidding? I’m only going 10 miles! I could get all the way across Nicaragua for that!’

Find travel events and exhibitions

I spent my Saturday evening looking at pictures of elephants in Namibia and hearing tales from the guy who took them.

travel at home: events and exhibitions

Elephants! These ones are from South Africa.

How? Good old Eventbrite! International sites such as Eventbrite, Meetup, Twitter, plus local freebie magazines and websites are a full-on catalogue of “what’s on” information.

travel at home in York

My version of travel at home: in York, proudly wearing a Yorkshire flat cap at the Tour de Yorkshire cycle race

You can find photography exhibitions such as the Travel Photographer of the Year, literary events or business festivals featuring talks by explorers such Sir Ranulph Fiennes, themed events and shows such as the Banff Mountain film festival, talks by folks who’ve lived, worked, explored, or snapped pictures in exotic locales … including Namibian-elephant-photography types. They’re all happening at a location near(ish) you.

You just need to put in the Google time to recreate your travel vibe or inspire your next adventure!

Can’t find anything suitable? Create your own! Meetup allows you to create your own groups.

Travel at home through your tastebuds

Can you find your favourite travel taste back home?

I get quite excited by anywhere that sells churros and chocolate; churros being long strips of sugary doughnut awesomeness. They’re the Spanish equivalent of a 2am kebab.

Travel at home: churros and chocolate

Churros and Chocolate. Photo by Esther Levy via Trover.com

My life was almost complete when a local cocktail bar started serving pisco sours (thanks to Chile and Peru for that particular discovery).

I also get slightly upset if Thai food uses Western aubergine (eggplant) rather than Thai aubergine. Note to self: Western aubergine is not evil and I am not the food police.

Why not go on your own authentic food hunt?

If anyone can find good Mexican food (not of the Texmex variety) in the UK, please tell me where 🙂

Let the written word be an inspiration…

Travel blogs, works by authors such as Paul Theroux, Rolf Potts or Bill Bryson, books set in locations near and far (Our Man in Havana, A Town Like Alice).

Hemingway reminds me of Florida and Cuba when I "travel at home"

Hemingway reminds me of Florida and Cuba when I “travel at home”

The written word can bring worlds from far away into our hands and imaginations.

And … it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune … Apps like Overdrive allow you to download books for free from your local library.

You can also support your favourite travel bloggers by using links on their sites to buy your books online 🙂

Look at pretty pictures on Instagram!

I have to admit, I’ve become a bit of an Instagram-o-holic.

Not only are there some awe-inspiring photos to give you destination-planning wanderlust, there are more formats, light techniques and angles on show to give you photography ideas and tips for when you get there.

I’m currently lusting after the Spanish region of Andalucia. Again. And sunsets over water pretty much anywhere. I’m drooling over these accounts:

@andy_roxby – Yorkshire. Beautiful Yorkshire

@jsftravel – Travel pics from around the world

@esejapan – true inspiration on my recent Croatia trip

@ludesfleurs – colours, colours, colours

@ig_andalucia_ dreaming of Andalucia, Spain

Plus, you can follow me … @thegapyearedit, of course!

How to travel at home: summed up

By expanding our mindset around “what we usually do when we’re at home”, experiencing the travel vibe doesn’t have to be limited to the moment from which we step off a plane.

Don’t be fooled into thinking all the magic happens somewhere else. Some of it is right there, on your doorstep.

How do you (re)create the feeling of travel at home? Share your tips below 🙂