St Peterburg: Chasing my USSR dreams

29 01 2017

Though not a fan of cruises for fear of getting seasick, I mustered my courage to go on an overnight cruise from Helsinki to St Petersburg when I found out that this is the only way to travel to Russia without a Visa. As a kid, I used to stare for a long while at the Soviet Union covering a large part on the world map. Stories of Stalin, the Cold War and the KGB always never fail to fascinate me. Hollywood added my curiousity of USSR (and submarines) with movies like The Hunt for the Red October and Crimson Tide. So no words can describe my excitement when I boarded Viking Cruise to sail across the Baltic Sea to St Petersburg. 

The cruise was a little choppy but manageable. Thankfully I was not seasick. But I did get a scare of my life late at night when I was woken up by loud crashing sound as if the ship hit some hard objects. When I drew open the curtains and saw that the sea was frozen and sea ice was floating all around, the first silly thought that came to my mind was Titanic lol. I almost freaked out and thought that the ship was going down. Then I recalled that this ship has ice breaking ability and managed to composed myself to remain calm. Hilarious haha 🙂

The last leg of the journey as the ship cruise into St Petersburg was nothing short of spectacular as the ship broke its way through the wholly frozen sea to the port with snow falling. Of all the cities that I visited, I would say that St Petersburg is one of my favourite. I love the Hermitage Palace and its collections, the colourful churches including the famous Cathedral of the Holy Saviour on blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Issac’s Cathedral and many more. Even the metro stations with elaborated decorations which double up as bomb shelters during wartime are landmarks themselves. 

Given that the Visa free entry is only valid for 72 hours, it is a pity that I can’t spend more time in Hermitage Palace as well as visit Moscow. For my next trip, I will get the visa and spend a good amount of time there.

Tips:

– Cruise from Helsinki or Estonia to St Petersburg will get you to Russia Visa free for 72 hours.  See my blog on Finland and Estonia.

– Do try the local Russian pancake. There is a local fast food chain Teremok which serves cheap and yummy Russian pancakes. 


– Take a ride on the metro. Each stations are decorated differently and to me they are an open art museum.


– Walk around the city. You will be amazed that even non-touristy sites have also interesting architecture.


– Don’t shun away from Russian winter. There are not many places in the world where you can see frozen sea and rivers. 

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I finally made it to Stockholm!

27 12 2016


Whenever I met up with a friend, she will keep rattling about how beautiful Stockholm is. Well not just her, many travellers to this city have all crowned this city as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. So when I visited Norway, I intended to make a side trip from Oslo to Stockholm but regretfully, I didn’t manage to find time from my tight itinerary. So a year later when I was planning a Nordic trip, I deliberately put Stockholm as one of my must see destination.

I was glad I did. The city is indeed beautiful, set on hundreds of islands in a lagoon. In the old town, one can find beautiful architecture with yellow buildings and cobblestones streets. Want to understand more on the Swedish history and culture? There are plentiful museums such as Vasa museum and Skansen. I particularly love the Skansen (Open Air Museum) which showcase various Swedish buildings across different periods and is a good place to understand Swedish culture and of course take nice photos. Or why not just take a leisurely stroll along the waterfront and the Old Town (Gamla Stan) where sights such as The Royal Palace,The Parliament House, Gustaf Adolf’s square, King’s Garfen, etc?



Food wise, Sweden is not all about Swedish meatballs. In fact, the locals laughed that Swedish meatball is the invention of a furniture shop (aka IKEA) and not their national cuisine. So what is Sweden national cuisine? Nothing specific but the country does have plentiful seafood so seafood stew and mussels are my top favourite.



Tips:

– Take flybus to Central station which is a lot cheaper than the express train. Savings in terms of time via express train is around 25 minutes but price is almost double.

– There is a changing of guards at the Royal Palace daily at around 12pm. You can check with the hotel concierge for the exact timing as the timing differs depending on the season.

– Sweden uses Swedish Kroner. However, you do not need to change to any local currency as credit card can be accepted almost everywhere even if you are making a small purchase. For public transport (eg bus and tram), just buy the tickets from the ticket machine which accepts credit card.

– For hotel, I was staying at Radisson Blu near the bus/train station. A very decent hotel in a good and continent location.





Copenhagen – In search of the Little Mermaid 

1 08 2016

Many children would have read the story of The Little Mermaid or watched the Disney cartoon version of it. So it is no surprise that seeing The Little Mermaid has always been on my bucket list. However, many times that I wanted to plan a trip to Copenhagen and the rest of Denmark, friends would say that there is nothing much to see there apart from the “little statute” and hence all these years, the city seems to always got dropped off my travel plans. Finally I just decided that I just have to see it no matter what and planned a 2 nights stopover in this city.

This city does have more to offer than The Little Mermaid. If you have ever been to Copenhagen, you will understand why Lonely Planet has described this city as “the coolest kid on the Nordic block”, “edgier than Stockholm and worldlier than Oslo” and that this Danish capital “gives Scandinavia the X factor”. 


The Old Harbour with its striking colours commonly seen in the Scandinavian countries exhibits an old world charm and reminded me of Norway’s Bergen Harbour.



The walk along the Old Harbour to the royal Amalienborg Palace, the Christiansborg parliament building and the Renaissance Rosenborg Castle (which has a museum containing royal artifacts and beautiful gardens), and of course the famous Little Mermaid statute. Tivoli Gardens is also a famous amusement park and pleasure garden that attracted many tourists and locals but as I was visiting in early spring, it was not opened yet 😦



There are also a lot of museums and nice restaurants for the foodies to indulge in but yes Copenhagen is on the top list of the most expensive city in the Nordic region so budget for this 😜

Tips:

– Transport to/from airport: Airport to city via train or metro (need 3 zones m). May be more worthwhile buying 24 hrs tickets which costs DKK 80 (one way already cost DKK 35).

– The metro doors close pretty quickly so be prepared 🙂

– Denmark uses Danish Kroner. However, you do not need to change to any local currency as credit card can be accepted almost everywhere even if you are making a small purchase. For public transport (eg bus and tram), just buy the tickets from the ticket machine which accepts credit card.

– There is a parade and change of guards every afternoon marching from Rosenborg Castle through the streets and ending up Amalienborg Palace around 12pm. 


– If you are catching a late flight into Copenhagen or an early flight out, you may want to stay in Hilton Hotel which is located just beside the airport. I would say that this is not the most luxurious hotel but I love the convenience of not having to drag my luggage to the city center.





Tallinn ~ Capital of Estonia

31 07 2016

For a girl from the “Little Red Dot” in a land far far away, I would never imagine that I will one day step foot in Estonia. To be honest, my only knowledge of this country before planning this trip was that it was part of Soviet Union. I chanced upon this country when I was planning on what I can do in Helsinki and realized that this mysterious ex-USSR state is just a short cruise away. 


So off I went across the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. There are a number of cruise operator but I decided to choose Viking Line Cruise as it has the timing that I like. The cruise is good (though not the luxurious cruise) with clean toilets and many restaurants serving decent food. 

After 2.5 hours, I arrived in Tallinn, the capital and largest city in Estonia. This city was founded in early 13th century and is well known for its mediaval Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


I could not help but fell in love with this quaint and charming Old Town the moment I stepped foot into it. The well preserved fortresses and turrets, the old mediaval churches with spires constrasting with the orthodox churches showing influence from Russia and the small little shops and cafes lining along those maze of narrow cobblestone alleys made me feel as if I was transported back in time to the mediaval period.

Well, people say pictures day more than a thousand words so here they are.

Tips:

– Unless you are a big eater, it may be much better not to go with the buffet but rather eat at the food court where you get to choose and pay for what you like to eat. It is rather decent and price is not expensive at all. If you join the Captain’s Club, you get discounts on the food too.

– The different cruise operators operate from different ports from Helsinki and Tallinn. Do take note of that so that you don’t get to the wrong port. The two most used operators are Viking Line and Tallink Silja Line. Viking Line operates from Katajanokka Terminal in Helsinki which can be accessible via Tram 4 from Helsinki city center. Tallink Silja Line operates from the West Terminal. Both cruises arrived at different ports in Tallinn too with Viking Line’s one nearer to the city center.

– Helsinki is just 2.5 hours from Tallinn so if you are visiting and staying in Tallinn, you may want to consider popping by Helsinki https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/helsinki-and-its-many-islands/





Helsinki and its many islands

31 07 2016

Finland is known as the land of thousand islands and it is not hard to understand why when you step foot in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. The beautiful city sits on the peninsula in the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki is a coastal city consisting of many islands.  

It is rather sad to see that the typical package tours to “Scandinavia” or Nordic tours mostly cover Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo and other cities in Norway but somehow Finland and its beautiful capital seems to be off the radar. All thanks to my fascination over “Santa Claus land” (Rovaniemi), I got a chance to stopover in Helsinki and was glad that I did. 

In the city center at Senate Square, you will not missed this magnificent white colour building with green dome towering over the surrounding square. This is Helsinki’s giant cathedral. There may be many cathedrals in Europe but I would say this neoclassical one is one of the nicest one in Nordic and a contrast to the Uspenski Cathedral nearby.


My favourite site in Helsinki is Sommerland, an island accessible via a short and scenic ferry ride from the harbour in the city center. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this tranquil island is pretty cool and beautiful to walk around. It was first constructed by the Swedes in 1748 as a defense against the Russians. For history lovers, you will enjoy being immersed in the history of how this little island changes hands and purposes from being a defense fort to a garrison when the Russians took over in 1808 to a park in 1918 when it became part of Finland.



For music and art lovers, do visit the Sibelius park and monument. The park is really beautiful even in Winter! The statute of Sibelius and the pipes was very unique. Apparently when it is windy, the monument will play a beautiful sound. Too bad I wasn’t lucky enough to hear it 😦

Right down by the harbor is the Central market where you can do lots of souvenir shopping and eat some local food.


There are also a lot of other museums in Helsinki which I didn’t have the time to visit.
Helsinki tips:

– You can get to/from Helsinki airport to the city centre (stops at train station) via the airport bus (Bus 65). It takes around an hour and you can get tickets either from the bus driver (in cash) or from the ticket machine at the bus stop (which takes cash or card). Cost is €5 which is much cheaper than train (and train is not much faster).

– Sign boards & tourist information booths are not that easily found. It will be better if you do some research on your own beforehand.

– Finland uses euros and most places accept credit cards.

– You can take a day trip to exotic Tallin in Estonia. A charming old town, Tallin seems to be a movie set transporting one back into time which I covered in a separate blog https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/tallinn-capital-of-estonia/

– If you are interested to visit “Santa Claus land” in the Finnish Lapland or just want to catch the Northern Lights, it is just a short flight from Helsinki. You can refer to my earlier blog https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/merry-christmas-all-year-round-rovaniemi/

– Ever want to visit Russia but was put off by Visa requirements? There is a way to get to Russia Visa free fro Helsinki on an overnight cruise to St Petersburg. Check out my blog https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2017/01/29/st-peterburg-chasing-my-ussr-dreams/



Food:

We know food in Nordic countries is not cheap but I would say compared to the other countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the pricing on average in Finland is slightly cheaper. Here are some of the decent price restaurants:

– If you want to try some Finnish cuisine, I will highly recommend Zetor where you can get some special Finnish fish (not sure the name but you can refer to the picture below), reindeer meat sausages and other Finnish delights. This is quite a hip restaurant somewhat like Hard Rock Cafe.

– Morrison’s which is located in the city center offers lovely set lunches and affordable dinner. Below is a simple set lunch of cheap and yummy grilled salmon.


– If you are tired of Finnish food, pop by Rosso an Italian restaurant which is highly popular with the locals. You can see that this is one of my favourite too 🙂


– For those on a tighter budget, Vapiano is also a good choice. It serves pizzas, pastas and other grills with a meal costing less than $15! I love the pastas there particularly when you have a good looking cute chef cooking that lol 😝





Merry Christmas all year round – Rovaniemi

24 12 2015

It is Christmas again! On this Christmas eve, I will like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Christmas is my favourite holiday season. It is not just the season for Christians to celebrate the birth of Jesus but many non-Christians are also celebrating this festival of giving. One of the most loved characters in the world is of course our dear Santa Claus. I still remember that as a young kid, I would pester my parents to take me to the shopping malls to meet Santa. Not surprisingly, I was not alone. When Santa appeared, all the kids will be rushing to gather around him, telling him that we have been good children and worthy of a present from him 🙂

Santa 1

It is well known that Santa’s hometown is very far north and rather inaccessible and hence the best place to see him is to visit his office in the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi. So when I had the chance to take a little break, I decided to brave the cold weather and make my way all the way to Rovaniemi in Finland to fulfil my childhood Christmas fantasy. It is not really the most convenient places to visit as one would need to take a domestic flight from Helsinki up into the Arctic circle.

Airport 1.jpg

The Christmas atmosphere started as soon as I landed in Rovaniemi. The whole airport is decorated with Christmas decorations and Santa Claus pictures and figurines can be seen at almost every corner. So you can imagine how Christmassy Santa Claus Village is. Apparently, this is THE PLACE where it is Christmas all year round! The little village has many beautiful buildings covered with Christmas lightings and snow.

ROvaniemi 3

My first stop is Santa’s office. I was quite surprised that there was a long queue to meet him and those in the line are not just kids but many adults! I guess that we all want to re-live our childhood dreams to see Santa. When it was my turn to meet Santa, an elf came forward to me and asked if I have been good, to which I reassured him lol.  He gave me the thumbs up then escorted me into Santa’s office which is a large festive studio with a photographer elf. Santa was sitting on his comfortable arm chair. He graciously offered the seat beside him and I never forget those few moments when we chatted and took some photos. It was as if he has some magical powers which can remove all my worries and enthralled me with happiness. No words can describe the feeling and you just need to experience it yourself J

Postcard 1.jpg

The other attractions in the Santa Claus Village are the Santa Post Office where you can send a letter to anywhere globally and the letter would carry the special Santa Claus stamp. There are also rides that one that take like reindeer rides, dog sledging, snowmobile and more.

 

Circle 1

Rovaniemi 5

Santa must have brought me luck. I did not know that there was an annual reindeer racing competition in Rovaniemi where reindeers will race against one another down a long snowy path pulling their owners in ski behind them to see who the fastest reindeer is to be pulling Santa’s sledge. I would say that the race was the most entertaining and unique one that I have ever seen, one that many others and I were willing to brave the really cold and windy weather.

Reindeer 2

Rovaniemi 1

I have seen travel shows featuring snow hotels where the whole hotel is made of ice and snow and thus took the opportunity to visit the Arctic Snow Hotel, about 45 minutes’ drive from Rovaniemi city centre. It was really fascinating and gorgeous to see the entire hotel (an igloo) made of ice with the rooms, the beds, tables, chairs and even cups crafted out from ice. There is a nice ice chapel in hotel and it will really be cool (literally and figuratively) to say “I do” here! Guess what, as I stood out of the ice hotel, the whole sky was lighted with the mysterious and enchanting northern lights!! This was my second time seeing the lights, the first being in Iceland. I did made a northern lights trip up to Tromso the year before but the weather was so bad that I did not sight anything. This time round, I was crossing my fingers on whether I would be lucky to see one but was pleasantly surprise to see an amazing show due to extraordinary solar activities! Was this the work of Santa and his elves? 😛

Lights 2

LIghts 3.jpg

My stay in the Lapland was short but I would say that it was one of the most magical and exhilarating experiences for me. Like many adults, my belief in Santa diminished as the years go by. But does it really matter whether Santa is real? He has brought and will surely continue to bring joyfulness to everyone who believes in him. Well, it is the spirit of Christmas that really matters. This is the season to be merry, to share and to bring joy to all those around us. Merry Christmas Ho Ho Ho!!!

Tips:

  • December is the peak season so if you would like cheaper air fares and accommodation, do visit during the off-peak season such as February. There is still snow and it is cool to have Christmas again just two months after Christmas J
  • There is no charge to visit Santa Claus Village but you need to pay if you will like to do some activities (e.g. reindeer ride, dog sledging, etc).
  • It is free to meet Santa. Photos will be taken and if you want them, you need to buy. Purchase is optional.
  • To get to the Santa Claus Village, you can take bus number 8. Check out the bus schedule as it does not run frequently.
  • You should spend some time in Helsinki which I have blog separately https://thecarefreetraveller.wordpress.com/2016/07/31/helsinki-and-its-many-islands/




Budapest – A tale of 2 cities

27 10 2015

I was “grounded” for a few months and was looking for a short Christmas break getaway. One evening while I was playing Czardas (Hungarian dance song), Hungary just came to my mind and I decided to go on a solo trip to Budapest (yes it was pretty random lol).  

 

I have heard quite a lot about how beautiful Budapest is and thus decided to see for myself. I was so glad that I did. Everything that I had heard about Budapest really lived up to its name. Indeed, Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities that I have been to. The Danube River divides the city into two – Buda and Pest. Or more correctly, Budapest is in fact made up of these two contrasting cities.   

On one side of the river is the historic Buda and its famous Buda Castle on Castle Hill, the Royal Palace, St Matthias Church, and the Fisherman’s Bastion. The Castle Hill offers incredible views of the Danube River, Pest and the various bridges that link Buda and Pest including one of the world’s most beautiful bridges – Chain Bridge. 

 

  

 
 
Next to the Castle Hill is the Gellért hill with Hungary’s version of the Statute of Liberty and Citadel.

 
  
Despite the cold weather, I love walking along the river and across the beautifully lighted Chain Bridge and Castle in the night. I can fully understand why so many people can fall in love with this city (I am one of them) 🙂 

 

  

On the other side of the river is lively Pest, with the St.Stephen’s Basilica, the gothic style Parliament building, Andrássy Avenue which is the Hungarian version of Champs-Élysées which stretches from City Hall to the Heroes Square, the Central Market and so on. As it was the Christmas season, there were Christmas markets at Vörösmarty square and also St Stephen’s Basilica, of which the Vörösmarty square one was bigger. 
  

 Also at the Pest side, there is a Jewish quarter with its famous Dohany street Grand Synagogue, Kazinczy street Ortodox Synagogue, Rombach street Synagogue, Gozsdu Courtyard, Wallenberg Memorial Park and the last piece of ghetto wall.

 

The most fulfilling part of my solo trip was that I made a couple of new friends from England. It just happened that the hotel I was staying in (Zenit Hotel) was having some staff party and they invited hotel guests to join (for free). Most guests were speaking Hungarian and I was glad to find this group of English whom I was able to chat with (and they were super glad that there was one more English speaking guest lol). So after a few drinks and nice food, friendships developed! Who says travelling alone will be lonely? If you reach out, friends can be found everywhere 🙂
Tips:

1) To get to/from airport and city, you can take the taxi or the airport shuttle which is a cheaper option and drops you at your hotel. Of course, the cheapest way is via the public transport which is not too difficult if you are staying in Central Pest. Take bus no 200E from the airport to the metro terminus at Kobanya/Kispest and then change to the blue Metro line no 3. (Blue Metro, which is the #3 line) which stops at Deak ter at Central Pest where all three Metro lines intersect.

2) There are tons of walking tours that you can do. You can ask your hotel for the maps of recommended walking tours (I recall there are 8 of them) and I will highly recommend doing all of them. Though for the one that covers the Andrássy Avenue to Heroes Square, I will suggest that you just cover the stretch near City Hall to Opera House and then take the metro to Heroes Square. Otherwise, it will take you (or at least for me) around 45 minutes to walk that stretch! 

3) The Hungarians love their baths. So you may want to set aside some time to soak in one of the baths which can be a good idea after doing all the walking tours lol.

   

Food:

1) The goulash soup (gulyasleves) is Hungary’s most famous dish. So how can one come to Hungary without trying this? (It was so yummy that I forgot to took a photo before I ate!)

2) Do try out New York Cafe. The cafe is so beautiful and I felt as if I was transported back to one of the beautiful halls in the Titanic. Food wise, it is pretty nice and reasonably priced. 

 

3) If you are in Budapest during Christmas, do head down to one of the 2 Christmas market where you will be able to get those yummy Christmas delicacies. I love the festive vibes at these markets. It really feels like Christmas is coming! Of course, don’t miss drinking the mulled wine. I prefer the red versus white 🙂

   
 
 

Accommodation:

I was staying at Hotel Zenit which is located at Pest behind Marriott hotel and just 5 minutes walk to the Chain Bridge and Vörösmarty square. The location is perfect and the room is cleaned and comfortable. I will recommend this hotel if you are looking for a central hotel but not willing to folk up the extra dollars to stay at Four Seasons, Swissotel or Marriott.