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Paris, the City of Lights. Words won't do it justice, but I'll certainly try my best. If there's a must-see city list to travel to, Paris would be at the top of it. From food to history to art, this place will tug at your heart strings when you least expect it.
If you're into art...
There's a reason I started off with art. Paris is home to The Louvre Museum, easily the world's most famous art museum and home to the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. The Louvre itself is a work of art, and it is just as huge as it is beautiful, so be sure to leave a full day to explore it. That being said, no matter how ambitious you are, it's near impossible to see everything in one visit, believe me I tried. My top suggestion for visiting The Louvre is to go as early as possible. Be there in line at opening time, and then head straight for the Mona Lisa after entering the museum. This is the best opportunity to see the Mona Lisa since the crowds aren't nearly as busy as they are later in the day. The great thing about The Louvre is that they are fully aware of their big claim to fame and have signs posted all over showing directions to get to the Mona Lisa, so just follow the yellow brick road, eh signs, and you won't get lost.
If you're into landmarks...
The Eiffel Tower of course! It's great to see it during the day, but it's a must to see it lit up at night. Every night they have a light show at the Eiffel Tower on the hour until about Midnight. Notre Dame is another place that is absolutely worth seeing. This church, much like Westminster Abbey, has been around for almost a thousand years. It's also still a working church, so if you feel inclined you can also catch a service. The thing that frustrated me most though about the tourists I encountered while there is that even though there were signs posted not to take photos, people still insisted on taking them. I understand it's an overwhelmingly beautiful and historic church, but it's important to also respect the wishes of the people working there and attending service, so please refrain from an incessant photo-bonanza and simply take in the fact that you are standing in Notre Dame itself. If you go to Notre Dame, make it a point to venture to the top of the church as well. It's about $10, and it is totally worth it. You get to see the architecture designs up close including the gargoyle statues, and in addition you get to go inside the famous bell tower.
If you're into a nice, relaxing stroll...
Take a walk along the Seine. It is the river that flows through the city center. You can catch local Parisians and tourists taking a break as they sit beside the river, as well as the stunning bridges built along the way. For an extra special treat, get your walk in at sunset.
If you're into food and wine...
Anywhere! Just sit outside and enjoy a cafe. You must try the desserts though. While everyone told me the croissants here would change my life, I actually felt that way about the macaroons, not to be confused with Macron, the new French president. There's also a wonderful market street in the Latin Quarter called Rue Mouffetard that has numerous food stands for you to purchase some local food during your visit.
Next up, learn about one of the most creative attractions in The Netherlands that you've probably never even heard of.
"Just touched down in Londontown." You've finally made it to this historic city. So now what?
For the music fans...
Heading on over to the famous Abbey Road Studios in London is a must. No, it's not just a crosswalk famous for a Beatles Abbey Road album cover but also a working recording studio. Be mindful of the traffic though as you try to get that perfect crosswalk shot, since there are no traffic lights for cars to stop. You'd think after a while the locals would stop driving on that street, but I suppose it's the same when Los Angeles locals brave Hollywood Blvd.; It's still our space to use.
If you're into history...
OK. This is one heck of a city to explore it. England has an incredibly rich history with some buildings as old as a thousand years still up and working in London today. One of my favorite locations was Westminster Abbey. This has been home to the coronations, funerals, and weddings of many famous English monarchs for centuries, and in addition, it is the burial site for not only monarchs but also famous people in British history. And the great news is yes, you can go in Westminster Abbey. The iconic Queen Elizabeth I is also buried here. She ruled England for 45 years without a husband or child and to this day is considered one of England's greatest monarchs. Hell yeah! Not only is the Abbey breathtaking to look at but it is also a working church, where you can submit prayers and talk with reps from the church. When you're done exploring, head over to the Abbey Cafe where you can enjoy a great breakfast and one of the best English teas you will ever have. Purchasing Westminster Abbey tickets ahead of time is a great way to save time when visiting as well.
The Tower of London is also a must-see place with a lot of history. In my case, I thought this place was literally just a tower, but it is in fact a giant fortress that has been around for a thousand years as well. There's lots to explore here, so make sure to allow yourself a good amount of time in your day to check it out. Don't be deterred by the ridiculously long line to see the crown jewels though; They move it along surprisingly quickly. One of the most moving parts of the Tower of London for me was the inscriptions that various prisoners throughout history wrote on the walls. They left their names, messages, pleas for forgiveness, etc. It was really unbelievable to see the last words from these men and women from hundreds of years ago and for most, they were awaiting their inevitable execution. This is again another spot to purchase your Tower of London tickets ahead of time online.
If you're into royalty...
Obviously English royal history coincides with both Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, but if you specifically want to see their housing, the first spot to see if of course is Buckingham Palace, the most famous home to the royal family. It's much different seeing it in-person than watching tiny William and Kate Middleton wave to the crowd after their royal wedding on the news. Unfortunately catching the changing of the guard here is dependent on the rain, which tends to be quite frequent in London, so if you don't see it, just know you probably aren't the only one. While I personally didn't catch the changing of the Queen's guards, I did see some English soldiers setting up music stands. That's something right? Just be sure to look up the days and times for the changing of the guard if that's a priority for you to catch. It's not an every-20-minutes kind of thing.
If you're into William Shakespeare...
Lots of people go to London to catch the West End shows, but if you want the theater AND the history, go see a William Shakespeare play at The Globe Theater or also known as Shakespeare's Globe. It's an exact replica of the original and sits right on the bank of the River Thames. They are constantly putting up Shakespeare plays, along with providing Globe Theater tours, as well as tours of the neighborhoods Shakespeare and his contemporaries hung out at. It's really inspiring to see the work of Shakespeare in the city where it originally happened. You can look up the calendar of shows online and pick which one you'd like to attend. As always, purchasing a ticket online ahead of time will guarantee a spot and better seats as these shows tend to sell out regularly.
If you're into food...
The London Borough Market is a great spot near London Bridge to visit. They have lots of different coffee, food, and bar spots. For a dessert treat, try a giant meringue while you're there. Another great spot to grab a bite to eat and a beer with a fantastic view right on the River Thames is the Old Thameside Inn. You have the option to sit inside, but if the weather is nice, enjoy the outdoor view. Order a meat pie and a Guinness and you'll be set with your traditional English meal.
Other highlights to see...
Greenwich Palace, Notting Hill, Portobello Road Market, London Bridge, Big Ben, Parliament.
On the next post, say 'Bonjour' to Paris.
If you're into nature....
See the Highlands. Some of Scotland's most beautiful scenery is located in their famous Highlands. Unfortunately this area is not accessible by public transportation. You have to either get there by renting a car or taking a Scottish Highlands tour. I went the route of the tour for my first trip to the Highlands. I booked with a company called Highland Experience Tours located in Edinburgh. I did the 1 day highlands tour titled Loch Ness, Glen Coe, and the Highlands. Prior to my trip, I researched some of the most beautiful sights in the Highlands and this specific tour incorporated a lot of that. Loch Ness and Glen Coe are the definite highlights of the trip. When you get to Loch Ness, they offer a boat tour for about 14 pounds. It's absolutely worth it, I promise you. Initially I wasn't up for spending the extra money, but you get to see so much more of the Loch Ness lake on the boat ride. There may or may not be a Loch Ness Monster, but you'll just have to visit and find out for yourself.
My main disappointment with the Highland Experience tour was the lack of time spent at some of these areas. I especially would have liked to spend more time at Glen Coe to take in the scenery. I'd say though for your first time to the Highlands, it's nice to have a tour, but if you go again, I'd rent a car and go at your own pace. The two places I didn't get to see on the tour but are still on my list to see are Ben Nevis mountain and the Isle of Skye. Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in the British Isles, with a height of 1,345 meters, and it's also listed as one of the best sights in Scotland. The Isle of Skye is located high up in the north of the country, so you have to go for at least several days. Highland Experience Tours offers a 3 day overnight tour of the Isle of Skye, which had I had more time, I also would have taken advantage of. Everyone I talked with who went there said it's incredible. The tours for this company meet up right in the heart of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, so they are easy to find. Be prepared for a long day, but again, it's totally worth it.
If you're into castles....
There's plenty to choose from! There are many castles in Scotland, and they make sure to maintain them well. The two main castles that were home to Scottish kings and queens were Edinburgh Castle, located in Edinburgh and Stirling Castle, located in Stirling. Because these were the main castles that the Scottish royalty resided in, they also are the busiest when it comes to tourists. At Edinburgh Castle you can see the crown, sword, and scepter used by Mary Queen of Scots when she was crowned. It's crazy to think about the fact that she was only 6 days old when she was crowned, so it's also kind of funny to think of this tiny newborn baby with a giant crown, sword, and scepter being crowned queen of a nation.
The cool thing about Stirling Castle is that you also get to explore the small Scottish village of Stirling as you walk up to where the castle is. I recommend checking out the Darnley Coffee House after visiting the castle. It's a nice place to grab a meal and something to drink. It's even more perfect on a rainy day, which is usually the case in Scotland. For those interested in Scottish history, this cafe was built in the 16th century and was the former home of Lord Darnley, who was the second husband of Mary Queen of Scots and the father to King James I. There are much more things to do at Stirling Castle and is more interactive than it's Edinburgh counterpart. They have actors in costumes portraying either royalty or castle servants. They also have games and displays for kids to have a hands on approach to learning about different aspects of royal life in the Middle Ages. Naturally I had to check it out myself too. After all, I am practically the same height as most kids, so I just blend in.
Another castle that I think is an absolute must to see is Tantallon Castle, which was the home of the Douglas Clan of Scotland. The great thing about this castle is that you get to not only see a castle with a lot of history, but you also get to see one right on the coast as well. Tantallon Castle is located right on the coast in North Berwick, which is one of the sunniest regions of Scotland. North Berwick is also a small seaside village that is really fun to check out. If you're lucky enough to be there in early August you can also see the Scottish Highland Games here as well. The great thing about Tantallon Castle is that there's not nearly as many tourists as Edinburgh or Stirling. If you get there early enough in the morning, there are maybe just several other people there. This castle is much more low key, so you get to really walk throughout it and even up to the top and look out over the scenery. It's so beautiful and surrounded by grass in the front, and then in the back is a small lawn of grass and then the ocean. It was genuinely my favorite thing I saw in Scotland. They even had benches where you could sit and take a moment to soak it all in.
If you decide to check out multiple castles while visiting Scotland, I recommend purchasing the Explorer Pass prior to your trip. They have different deals depending on the length of your stay. I purchased the 3-Day Explorer Pass, which allowed me unlimited visits to any castle throughout Scotland over the course of 3 days, and the days didn't even have to be consecutive. So even though I only managed to see 3 castles, I could have seen more. This 3-Day Explorer Pass only cost $27, and also made things easier when I got to the castles since I didn't have to wait in line to buy tickets. Be sure to check the website for any price changes or updates though.
If you're into food and drinks...
It is a must to have both a Guinness beer and whiskey while in Scotland. I'm not a huge fan of beer, but I fell in love with the Guinness there. I swear it's more fresh over there or simply made better. Whiskey is not my forte', but it's worth it to say you at least tried some while in Scotland, They are known for having some of the best whiskey in the world. During the Highland Experience Tour that I took, we were able to sample some delicious Scottish whiskey. If you're into food, some local food to try is a dish called Haggis. It reminded me of meat loaf. The UK in general is big on meat and potatoes, so you can always go smaller on portions since the food is so filling. Another dish to try is Fish and Chips, although not local to just Scotland, it is popular in the UK. Just be sure to order the small fish, which is already huge to begin with.
So what about the weather in Scotland?
During my stay in early August, the weather was constantly changing. I never experienced a heavy rain in Scotland, but the weather seemed to go from sunshine to clouds to a light rain within an hour. It's also pretty chilly there even in the summer, so a warm scarf will go a long way. If you don't bring one, you can easily find numerous ones to purchase for as low as about $10. If you do visit Scotland in the summer, I managed great with tennis shoes, sweaters, and a spring jacket with a hood. At least if you don't have an umbrella, be sure to have a coat with a hood. Because I was limited on space, I didn't bring a pair of boots, which is probably the one thing I wish I would have brought, especially for my time down in London as well when I got stuck in a non-stop rainstorm.
I hope that when looking at destinations for your next trip you consider Scotland. This country is so beautiful, and the people are very friendly. It's also easy to get around to see other towns with such a great public transportation system. Los Angeles, you need to step it up. Small villages in Scotland have more frequent bus routes than LA. I loved Scotland though. It was easily one of the best countries I've ever visited.
Next up on the blog, Merry Ol' London!
About the author
Jill Zwarensteyn is a writer and comedian who has been featured on Amazon, truTV, The New York Times, Matador Network, BUST Magazine, Sleep Advisor, Tiplr, ARTRPRNR Magazine, YourTango, Thought Catalog, GoMad Nomad, Mashable, The Daily Mail UK, the Cannes Film Festival, LaughFest, Women's Lifestyle Magazine, and the Funny Women Festival LA. For more info visit: http://www.jillzwarensteyn.weebly.com