Taken from the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget, here’s our pick of the best hostels in Europe.

Europe presents an irresistible challenge to the budget traveller. From London’s Royal Parks and Amsterdam’s canals to İstanbul’s Grand Bazaar and the Berlin Wall, just getting tangled up in its sights is a huge draw – you can see the Algarve, the Alps and the Arctic, all in one trip. There’s time travel here too: with Stonehenge and Ephesus, cathedrals and castles, châteaux and palaces (not to mention statement-making modern architecture). But to take all this in, you’ll need to get some kip. Picking accommodation wisely is one of our top tips for backpacking through Europe, and these days hostels go far beyond basic bunks and a breakfast buffet…

Czech Inn, Prague

Historical, whimsical, hedonistic and cynical, Prague bewilders its visitors – and charms them. Fall in love with the city at Czech Inn, which with its oak floors, brushed aluminium and discarded backpacks seems like the product of a tryst between a youth hostel and a luxury hotel. It’s on the edge of the town centre in the great Vinohrady neighbourhood and has a café-bar with live music, great staff and a 24-hour reception.

Jumbo Stay, Arlanda Airport

On a flying visit to Sweden? Treat yourself to a night at a working hotel and hostel built into the shell of an old Boeing 747. Up front in the flight deck, with two adjustable beds and a flat-screen TV, the cockpit suite is the reserve of first-class travellers. Thankfully there’s cheaper accommodation further back in the fuselage, where cattle class used to be.

Photo courtesy of Jumbo Stay

Cocomama, Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a “bucket-list” city for most travellers. Its relaxed attitude to drugs and vice attract thousands of thrill-seekers, but after assault from the haze of cannabis and the gaudy Red Light District, you’ll need somewhere to catch forty winks. Located in a former brothel, this “boutique” hostel has themed dorms sleeping up to six people and lovely en-suite private rooms, plus a pleasant, smoke-free communal/kitchen area, a cute little garden and even a friendly house cat.

Gallery Hostel, Porto

One of Europe’s finest second cities, Porto is less pretentious than the capital, Lisbon, and extremely welcoming. Art-loving travellers in particular will feel right at home in this superb and spacious, hostel-cum-gallery in Porto’s emerging artists’ quarter. The house, built in 1906 and carefully restored, has its own library, bar and TV room. The helpful family running it even offer free tours and trips to local galleries.

Hedonist Hostel, Belgrade

We’ve been keenly following Belgrade’s rejuvenation over the past few years, and its growing stack of terrific hostels is yet another string to its bow. Occupying an old town house, the fantastic Hedonist Hostel is a superb antidote to the ubiquitous apartment-style places that proliferate – bare brick walls and low, wooden-beam ceilings lend it considerable charm. There’s also a chill room with PlayStation, and the chirpy owners lay on regular barbecues in the pretty garden. A massage room and bike rental are available too.

Hostel Celica, Ljubljana

You’ll find the alternative face of Ljubljana, Metelkova, a five-minute walk east of both the bus and train stations. This is one of the city’s most colourful quarters, its graffitied streets now accommodating a cosmopolitan array of independent societies, underground clubs, bars and galleries. Stay at the centre of this artistic district at this brilliantly original hostel in a former military prison. Beds are in bright dorms and two/three-bed “cells”, each designed by a different architect or artist. Expect concerts, exhibitions and parties, too.

Photo courtesy of Hostel Celica

St Christopher’s Inn, Paris

St Christopher’s have two outposts in Paris: a whopper of a hostel with over six hundred beds well-placed for the Eurostar by Gare du Nord and a purpose-built “canal” branch close to the nightlife along the Canal St Martin. They’re a very slick operation: dorm beds have lockable storage cages and USB points in the headboard, plus there are on-site restaurants and bars. Other perks include phones for free international calls, a female only floor and a slew of nightly activities.

Jetpak Alternative, Berlin

You’ll find this attractive, high-end hostel in a gritty Berlin neighbourhood close to all the action in Kreuzberg, a premier twenty- something late-night hangout, and Friedrichshain, home to many of the city’s best clubs and alternative hangouts. Perks include free internet, a buffet breakfast and under-floor heating, along with bicycle rental, laundry facilities and cheap beer.

The Beehive, Rome

No backpacking trip to Europe would be complete without a trip to Rome, recently voted the world’s most beautiful city by Rough Guides readers. The area around Termini station can be pretty insalubrious, but this wonderful hostel still gets our vote as one of the best places to stay. As well as spacious rooms with artisan mirrors and designer furnishings, there’s a vegetarian organic café, a massage room and a quiet leafy patio perfect to unwind with a book.

Photo courtesy of The Beehive

Clink78, London

You’ll find this quirky hostel a short walk from London’s Kings Cross station – an area fast being regenerated. It’s unusually housed in a Victorian courthouse, with dorms of various sizes (some of which are girls-only) painted in cheerful colours. Chill-out space is in the actual courtrooms, while the cheapest of the private rooms are the cramped former police cells.

Hostel Mostel, Sofia

Sofia can seem an uninspiring place to first-time visitors, but this is a city on the up. Much has been done recently to revitalize the centre, and pavement cafés now buzz with life. These days the city also has a number of good hostels, but this one is superb, located in a historic building a short walk from the centre. Besides the free all-you-can-eat breakfast, they offer a bowl of pasta and a bottle of beer for every night of your stay.

Af Chapman, Stockholm

Built across fourteen islands, water and green space dominate the landscape of Stockholm, so it’s no surprise that you’ll find one of the world’s most elegant hostels inside a converted Stockholm landmark, the tall sailing ship, Af Chapman.  If you can’t get one of the pricier beds on board, there are cheaper rooms on dry land in the hostel building, which houses the reception and a breakfast room plus a decent café.

For a full guide to travelling in Europe, check out the Rough Guide to Europe on a BudgetCompare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

 

Think of The Gambia and sun, sea and sand package holidays might spring to mind, but visitors are starting to explore beyond the beaches. Lynn Houghton tells us eight of the best ways to get off the beaten track.

The tiny West African country of The Gambia is dissected by its namesake, the River Gambia. Much of the landscape is dominated by the river and its tributaries, and beyond the coast you’ll find enormous swathes of lesser-explored mangrove forest, deserted beaches and ‘up country’ adventures. If you’re thinking of eschewing the popular Atlantic Coast beach resorts, here are eight ideas for experiencing a more authentic side of The Gambia, taking in the country’s natural beauty and biodiversity.

Discover the UNESCO-listed Wassu stone circles

About a five-hour drive from Banjul on the north bank of the River Gambia is the pre-historic sacred UNESCO site of the Wassu stone circles. The laterite stones, a rich deep mahogany colour, compare in age with Stonehenge in England, and are thought to have a religious purpose, marking burials here for 1500 years. The museum has some interesting information but folklore is much more exciting: talk to the Stone Man, the site’s erstwhile caretaker. He says you can see lights shining from behind the stones at night – a common occurrence according to the superstitious locals.

See foraging chimps at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre

Swinging from the treetops and squabbling with the baboons, West African Chimps are relishing their environment at the Chimp Rehabilitation Centre in the River Gambia National Park. They roam free on the Baboon Islands in the middle of the river, while rare red colobus monkeys congregate on the mainland. The centre was started by Leslie Brewer-Marsden in 1979: the first chimps brought here were rescuées and mistreated pets, and there are now 107 completely wild chimpanzees that thrive on these three islands. From Thursday through Sunday, visitors can follow behind a feeding boat to see the chimps in their natural habitat as they come to the riverside to grab a meal.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Explore lush mangroves in the Matasuku Forest

Centuries of legend surround the ancient Matasuku Forest, a nearly pristine area of mangrove covering 17.5 square kilometres along a tributary named Mandinka Bolong. From time immemorial, the forest was a no-go area and thought to be inhabited by demons and dragons. A Mali King, along with his troops, once managed to make the forest his stronghold but he was ousted by a local tribe; according to folklore, the king’s head, throne and crown are buried somewhere on the land. Today, things are more peaceful. The area has been developed into a sustainable tourism project, the Matasuku Cultural Forest, in partnership with the Gambian government and now includes lodges and a base camp with an arts and crafts market run by local Kembujeh villagers.

Spot rare birds at Baobolong Wetland Reserve

As the dawn mist clears and the morning sun starts to rise, there is possibly no better place in West Africa for birdlife than the Baobolong Nature Reserve. Over 500 species of birds are attracted to the River Gambia in all their feathered glory. Take a traditional boat from Tendaba Lodge, a mere seven kilometres away on the south side of the river, to spot rare African Fin Foot or Fish Eagles.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Float down the River Gambia

Going canoeing along one of the River Gambia’s creeks in a traditional fishing boat or dugout, called a pirogue, is wonderful way to cool off when temperatures soar. Rentals are available from Lamin Lodge, a wooden structure built on stilts over the water, or you can take a full-day trip in a larger motorised boat to explore Kunta Kinteh Island and enjoy a spot of fishing.

Visit traditional fishing villages

To experience local life on the coast, visit the vibrant, colourful coastal fishing market of Tanji in the Kombo region or travel further south to the more authentic fishing village of Gunjur. The market is at its most frenetic at the crack of dawn, when the traditional fishing boats come to shore with their catch. Though fishermen work at a feverish pace, women are equally busy hauling the fish from the boats into large baskets balanced on their heads. Take a wander along the shore and see other workers taking gutting and scaling the fish ready for sale; anyone can purchase a fresh seafood breakfast for a just few Dalasi.

Image by Lynn Houghton

Check out the street art scene

Art project Wide Open Walls has brought street artists from all over the world to adorn the walls of Galloya village with sophisticated graffiti art. Some of the work is representational, while some is wholly avant-garde, but all the murals are distinctive. The project is the brainchild of Lawrence Williams, and has even inspired the village children to take up making art. Lawrence and Gambian artist, Njogu, work as a pair and have named themselves the ‘Bush Dwellers’. Many street artists are publicity shy and prefer to be known by a name they choose for themselves that reflects their work; artistic duo Neil and Hadley from the UK are ‘Best Ever’, for example, while Brazilian artist Rimon Guimarães has named himself ‘RIM’.

…finally, for the adventurous

Fancy a quicker way of getting across the River Gambia than the vehicle and pedestrian ferry from Banjul, where a three-hour wait is common? Simply wander over to Terminal Road. Once there, young men carry patrons at full pelt on their shoulders down to the beach and into the water to then toss them into an enormous fishing boat. This crossing takes about half an hour and the process is repeated, in reverse, on the other side. The experience probably isn’t at the top of anyone’s health and safety list, but should be tried at least once.

The Gambia Experience offers a variety of travel options and flights to The Gambia including stays at Mandina River Lodge on a B&B basis. Compare flights, book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Europe has it all: sprawling cities and quaint villages; boulevards, promenades and railways; mountains, beaches and lakes. Some places will be exactly how you imagined: Venice is everything it’s cracked up to be; springtime in Paris has even hardened cynics melting with the romance of it all; Oxford’s colleges really are like Harry Potter film sets. Others will surprise, with their under-the-radar nature or statement-making modern architecture.

Whether you’re planning to see it all or explore the hidden corners of the continent, these are our top 12 tips for backpacking through Europe, taken from our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget.

1. Pick your season wisely

If you decide to travel during the peak summer season, try heading east – the Balkan coastline, the Slovenian mountains and Baltic cities are all fantastic places for making the most of your money. When tourist traffic dies down as autumn approaches, head to the Med. The famous coastlines and islands of southern Europe are quieter at this time of year, and the cities of Spain and Italy begin to look their best. Wintertime brings world-class skiing and epic New Year parties. Come spring it’s worth heading north to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, France and the British Isles, where you’ll find beautifully long days and relatively affordable prices.

2. Take the train

Getting around by train is still the best option, and you’ll appreciate the diversity of Europe best at ground level. Plus, if you make your longest journeys overnight and sleep on the train, you’ll forego accommodation costs for the night. Most countries are accessible with an Interrail Global pass or the equivalent Eurail pass. Depending on your time and budget, choose one corner of the continent then consider a budget flight for that unmissable experience elsewhere. Make sure you check out our tips for travelling by train in Europe.

Pixabay/CC0

3. Be savvy about accommodation

Although accommodation is one of the key costs to consider when planning your trip, it needn’t be a stumbling block to a budget-conscious tour of Europe. Indeed, even in Europe’s pricier destinations the hostel system means there is always an affordable place to stay – and some are truly fantastic. Homestays will often give you better value for money than most hotels so they are also worth considering. If you’re prepared to camp, you can get by on very little while staying at some excellently equipped sites. Come summer, university accommodation can be a cheap option in some countries. Be sure to book in advance regardless of your budget during the peak summer months.

4. Plan your trip around a festival

There’s always some event or other happening in Europe, and the bigger shindigs can be reason enough for visiting a place. Be warned, though, that you need to plan well in advance. Some of the most spectacular extravaganzas include: St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, when Dublin becomes the epicentre of the shamrock-strewn, Guinness-fuelled fun; Roskilde in Denmark, Glastonbury’s Scandinavian rival with a mass naked run thrown in for good measure; and Italy’s bizarre battle of the oranges in Ivrea.

Pixabay/CC0

5. Eat like a local

You’ll come across some of the world’s greatest cuisines on a trip to Europe, so make sure to savour them. A backpacking budget needn’t be a hindrance either. If you shun tourist traps to eat and drink with the locals, you’ll find plenty of foodie experiences that won’t break the bank. Treat yourself to small portions but big flavours with a tapas dish or two in Spain; relish the world’s favourite cuisine at an Italian trattoria; or discover the art form of the open sandwich with smørrebrød in Denmark. Don’t skip breakfast, either – an oven-fresh croissant or calorie-jammed “full English” are not to be missed.

6. Find the freebies

Being on a budget doesn’t mean you should miss out, even in some of the world’s most sophisticated cities. Many iconic European experiences are mercifully light on the pocket: look out for free city walking tours, try the great Italian tradition of aperitivo in Rome, make the most of the free museums in London and try cooking with local ingredients rather than eating out. We’ve got lists of the top free things to do in Paris, Barcelona, London, Dublin and Berlin to get you started.

7. Get outdoors

It can be tempting to focus backpacking through Europe on a succession of capital cities – but you’d be missing out on a lot. Europe offers a host of outdoor pursuits that animate its wide open spaces, too, from horseriding in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains and surfing on Portugal’s gnarled Alentejo coast to cross-country skiing in Norway and watching Mother Nature’s greatest show in Swedish Lapland.

Filip Stoyanov/Flickr

 8. Allow yourself the odd splurge

One advantage of budget travel is that it makes splurging all the sweeter – and for a little “flashpacking” guidance, we include Treat Yourself tips throughout our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. If you’re mostly staying in dorms, splash out on the odd private hostel room or boutique hotel; swing by a speakeasy for cocktails in Paris; gorge yourself on pasta in Rome; and allow yourself a day of watersports in Croatia.

9. Stay up late

Whether it’s Berlin and London’s hipster dives, flamenco in Seville, Budapest’s ruin bars, or the enotecas that celebrate Italy’s rejuvenated wine industry, there are countless reasons to stay up till sunrise. Europe lives for the wee hours and you’ll be following in some famous footsteps. Think about ordering a knee-buckling Duvel beer at Brussels’ historic La Fleur en Papier Doré, a time-worn café once the favourite hunt of Surrealist painter Magritte and Tintin creator Hergé, or sipping a pint in one of Oxford’s historic pubs, like the Eagle and Child, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s old haunt.

10. Hit the beach

Clubbed and pubbed out? It’s time to hit the beach. If you’re looking for heat, Formentera’s beaches are quieter and wilder than on neighbouring Ibiza, while Croatia and Italy have a slew of beautiful stretches of sand. If you want to head off the beaten track, consider Mogren in Montenegro, part of the so-called “Budva Riviera” that stretches either side of Montenegro’s party town par excellence.

Pixabay/CC0

11. Go under the radar

If you’re looking for Europe’s charm without the crowds, you’ll want to consider straying from the well-worn routes. Some of our favourite under-the-radar towns include Olomouc in the Czech Republic, a pint-sized Prague with less people and more charm (and cobblestones), and Berat, a gorgeous Albanian town where row after row of Ottoman buildings loom down at you from the sides of a steep valley.

12. Stay safe

Take some basic precautions to stay safe. It’s not a good idea to walk around flashing an obviously expensive camera or smartphone, and keep your eyes (and hands if necessary) on your bags at all times. Exercise caution in hostels and on trains; padlocking your bags to the luggage rack if you’re on an overnight train increases the likelihood that they’ll still be there in the morning. It’s also a good idea to take a photocopy of your passport and keep it safe somewhere online.

 

For a complete guide to backpacking through Europe, check out our latest Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Compare flightsbook hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. Header image via Agustin Rafael Reyes/Flickr.

On a trip to Mexico’s Riviera Nayarit, just a short drive from bright lights of Puerto Vallarta, Neil McQuillian discovers the unexpected…

There! I whipped my head round to get a better look. Yes – roger that – no doubt about it. That rare combination of bright, clashing colours and drab browns: remarkable. Quite a sighting. I never thought I’d encounter one like her in these parts.

For this, surely, was absolutely the wrong sort of habitat. I was just 40km – a half-hour drive – north of Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco state’s second-biggest city, a sizzling party town throbbing with North American tourists. I’d have expected my lesser-spotted to shun this neck of the woods.

But no – I’d seen a hippy all right. With the grey slab of a highway gas station forecourt for a backdrop, her beach camo tan and golden dreadlocks was unmistakable. And she’d been thumbing for a ride too: textbook hippy behaviour.

This was only my first full day in Mexico. I’d not yet experienced central Puerto Vallarta for myself, though I’d flown into its airport on one of Thomson’s newly launched direct flights from the UK (the only services here from Europe that don’t require a change). I’d then immediately scarpered north up the coast – having read about the town’s spring-break steam-letting reputation, I didn’t fancy it much. I was after tranquility.

Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco

“hubs of hippiedom and bastions of bodaciousness”

Yet Guillermo, my guide, assured me that, not only were the towns we’d be visiting that day chilled: they were hubs of hippiedom, bastions of bodaciousness. I’d been on the edge of my passenger seat ever since – and then there she was, right on cue, a vision in tie-dye.

Even without the proximity of Vallarta (as it’s known), there’s another reason I was dubious about this hippy idea. This stretch of coastline, just over the state border from Jalisco, has been rebranded in recent years. No longer is it the easily overlooked southern corner of Nayarit state, a ragtag of little towns overshadowed by Vallarta. No – these days it is Riviera Nayarit. Mexico’s tourism bigwigs are turning the full force of their will towards it, with the resorts already in place rather more power-shower than flower-power. And beware: the last time the tourist kingmakers got so exercised, Cancún was their target. We know what happened there.

Yet once we’d turned off the highway, the approach road to Sayulita – the best-known of Nayarit’s boho beach towns – certainly didn’t feel like it was gearing up for a touristic boom. Billowing trees crowded in as we drove along. Wire fences were strung between rudely carved posts. Little huts with thinning palapa roofs sat by battered old cars, parked at wonky angles on uneven ground. So far, so hippy.

But while Sayulita itself was a jumble, it was a just-so jumble. The functionally surfaced approach road gave way to tourist-pleasing cobbles. Every low-rise concrete building seemed to be painted a different colour. The central plaza was brisk with bunting and the trees here did as they were told, sprouting up out of little rectangular cut-outs in the sidewalk. It was quaint rather than kooky – and not a hippy in sight.

Surfing in Sayulita, Nayarit

“What could possibly have attracted a group of mind-altering-drug enthusiasts to an area associated with hallucinogenic cacti?”

Guillermo, though, adamant about the town’s alternative credentials, directed me towards the local “galleries” lurking in the shadows of those neatly managed trees. They were shops. Artsy shops, certainly, but shops nonetheless.

I liked them. In one, staffed by a hip local, I bought a boho-chic throw, knowingly striped in shocking pink and neon yellow. Another specialized in the art of the Huichols, a shamanistic and animistic people local to this region. Their art is eye-popping – which is quite how it should be, given that ritual use of peyote (a hallucinogenic cactus) is its inspiration. I solemnly purchased some Huichol art greetings cards to mark my brush with this weighty, mystical culture. (Though what greeting I hope to convey by sending someone an image of two wolf-people playing banjos, or one of a woman with snakes for arms and hair like electrified golden seaweed, firing out multicoloured babies from between her splayed legs, I do not know. I may need peyote to find out.)

So at this juncture, Sayulita seemed to be more about window-shopping than tree-hugging. But peyote – now that was interesting. Guillermo had already revealed that the first wave of hippies arrived at this coastline in the 1960s. So I pondered (paraphrasing Mrs Merton), what could possibly have attracted a group of mind-altering-drug enthusiasts to an area associated with hallucinogenic cacti?

Well, the surf, actually. Or so Guillermo assured me. That pioneering bunch were Sayulita dreamin’. And their followers still are – the conditions here are some of the finest in Mexico. The beach itself was gorgeous too. Yet, as in town, there was a wash of commercialism to it all: a surf board rental shack here, sun loungers for hire there, beach hawkers selling everything from shrimp skewers to woven baskets.

San Pancho, Nayarit

“San Pancho as everyone knows it, felt like Sayulita – just without all the people”

That’s not to say I didn’t like Sayulita. I liked it a lot. I’d happily spend a holiday there. But I’d sort of pictured it more like The Beach. It seemed to me that its legendary hippy identity had been commodified somewhat. So I started wondering – had my sighting been running away?

As it turns out, she might well have been – but probably only ten minutes north along the road. San Francisco, or San Pancho as everyone knows it, felt like Sayulita – just without all the people. Its beach had precisely the same sweep, the same marshy area to one side, the same sun, the same sea. Yet that was about it. An elemental place. Huge grey and white herons floated languidly around. Maybe they had at Sayulita too. I just hadn’t noticed. My mind started moving with them.

I noticed that a few dome tents sat towards the back of the beach. I sat at one of the few beachside restaurants and ate superb, smoky aguachile, watching a long-haired guy who was sitting on a pile of backpacks plonked in the middle of the sand. I waited to see if he would move. He didn’t. He was on to something good.

The oldest tourist destination on Earth, Egypt has a multitude of things to see and do. There are ancient pyramids, crumbling temples and vast deserts to explore – on foot or by camel – not forgetting the great river Nile. Find the top things not to miss in Egypt for your next trip.

Portland, Oregon, can be addressed in many ways. It’s a city of soubriquets, bearing nicknames bestowed by locals to reflect its charms: The City of Roses to those who love its natural abundance; The City of Bridges by those who can’t help but notice the freeway’s influence; Beervana by fans of its prolific brew culture.

PDX to pilots and Stumptown to locals, it’s borrowed a catchphrase from another city down south; “keep Portland weird” is a mantra familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Austin, Texas. It’s also one of those west coast cities, like LA or Palo Alto, whose reputation precedes it and whose essence is endlessly debated.

To the outside world, it’s Portlandia, “where  young people go to retire”, where – according to Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen and Sleater Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein –  the ‘90s is alive, people are content to be unambitious, sleep to 11 and hang out with their friends. A place marooned blissfully in a simpler past where city slackers in plaid shirts and tribal tattoos still read paper books.

We i-spyed plenty of Portland clichés. A vintage clothes shop playing The Bends. A bicycle barista handing out free coffee in a shady university park. Flyers advertising beer yoga. Men with dogs curled over their shoulders like living stoles playing Magic: The Gathering. A feminist bookstore offering protection from all manner of persecution. We did not see anyone playing with a diablo.

Photo: Canadian Veggie / Flickr Creative Commons

Portland sits snugly in its pigeonholes but of course offers much more than Portlandia suggests, comfortably surpassing all the requirements a modern visitor might throw at it.

Craft beer is a thing now – well, Portland has 50+ local breweries. Food trucks have spread like a rash across most western cities; Portland has more than 700 for its half a million city dwellers. Green spaces? The city is riddled with them. In fact, if you’re a fan of wine, live music, gregarious and predominantly liberal locals, books or culture, it’s well worth the two-hour, $15 ride from Seattle.

Cycle superhighways (proper ones, not like the ones we have in England) crisscross the city and the Willamette river, linking its disparate neighbourhoods and providing the easiest, greenest, and most Portland way to see the city.

We started our exploration with sliders and nitro Irish stout at rock’n’roll themed hotel McMenamins, in the Pearl District, Portland’s revamped industrial zone. It’s home to Powell’s City Of Books, declared with the usual American superlative pride as the largest in world, and housing over a million books in 3,500 sections, as well as a massive brewery – Deschutes – who offer tasting flights featuring their latest brews. Books and beer were quickly to become the defining motif of the trip.

Further south, Portland’s Downtown District to the west of the Willamette houses many of the city’s main attractions and we ticked off a few, the contemplative Japanese Garden and the International Rose Test Garden probably the best among them. There are also numerous foodie pilgrimages to be made in this part of town, and we did our best at those, from a flaming Spanish coffee mixed and ignited at the table at Huber’s to doughnuts shaped like a penis and covered in bacon at Voodoo Doughnuts, via poached chicken at bloggers’ favourite food cart Nong’s Khao Man Gai.

Photo:  Ryan Stavely / Flickr Creative Commons

These were all preambles to Portland’s main attraction, though: the suburbs scattered across the eastern half of the city. Up north, Alberta is perhaps the spiritual home of Portland as we know it from the TV, the home of that feminist bookshop, among numerous whole foodsy spots and other crumbling monuments to the counterculture. It’s been deemed gentrified by the locals, which is bad news if you like things to stay raw, but good news if you’re a fan of olive oil ice cream, and some of the parks and residential streets nearby are stunning.

A handful of blocks to the west, Mississippi and Williams are two parallel swathes of excellent coffee shops and food trucks, populated by art school students and other hipster types. ¿Por Que No? serve up the best tacos I’ve tasted north of San Francisco and Ristretto proffer perhaps the city’s finest coffee.

Photo:  rickchung.com / Flickr Creative Commons

Hawthorne & Belmont further south are Beervana’s heart, home to an embarrassment of brew pubs. Cascade Brewing Barrel House specialised in sour beers, oak aged and fruit-infused, tart tipples that edge towards 10% ABV and are presented like a wine tasting with cheese plates and a price point to match. Strawberry, goji berry, apricot, honey and ginger lime can all be enthusiastically vouched for. Lucky Labrador, meanwhile, was a dog friendly pub (naturally) full of laptop-toting drinkers and card players while Green Dragon offered 62 taps of craft beer joy.

On my wife’s insistence, and as recommended by none other than Time magazine, we stopped by a strip club. These are done differently in Portland, and Sassy’s was more of a community affair, featuring a 50/50 male/female split among the clientele, and a world away from the dismal pound-in-a-pint-glass affairs that fester malignantly in London’s darker corners. There’s another in the city that serves vegan food and only allows its dancers to shed non-animal-based clothing – classic Portland. From here, food trucks and bookshops continue south as far as the eye can see – and the belly can withstand – down to Clinton.

Cycling back over the imposing Steel Bridge, under an incessant and uncharacteristic sun and spurred on by a craft beer buzz, it dawned on us that Portland had just leaped to pole position in our ranking of US cities. The ’90s might be alive and well round here, but if this is time travel, we’ll be first in the DeLorean.

Tim stayed in the James Brown room at legendary bar/gig venue/boutique hotel McMenamins and got around Portland on Pedal Bike Tours rentals.

Planning a trip to Croatia and wondering which 17 things you shouldn’t miss? Always thought about Croatia for a holiday but never knew what it had to offer?

Allow us to present our favourite things to see and do in this beautiful European country.

Quinns on Capitol Hill, around 8pm on the Saturday night, is when we hit the wall. Halfway though a wild boar sloppy joe, which oozed out of its brioche confines like meaty magma, spilling fried onion and Fresno pepper across the plate in an explosion of gluttonous joy, we were done. Finished. Finito. Couldn’t have a morsel more. Except perhaps a bite of that Brussels sprout and mustard cream-stuffed Scotch egg. Thanks for being our server tonight, but please stop bringing food.

The restaurant, in the heart of Seattle’s lively, gay-friendly, still somewhat countercultural part of town, is not a place for calorie counting. A touch of pretentiousness aside (I’m not sure how much the chips, or French fries, or ‘frites’ as they’re known here, benefitted from Fontina fonduta and veal demi-glace), it’s a feeder’s paradise but far from unique in a city renowned for its food.

Photo:  msparksls / Flickr Creative Commons

We’d started our Richman-esque tour with salmon. First we watched them swimming in the fish ladder at Ballard Locks, in the northwest of the city, navigating between the salty waters of Puget Sound and the fresh water of Lake Union, a great spot for walking, seal-spotting and exploring the nearby Scandinavian communities.

Then we ate them, at Pike Place Fish Market by the Elliott Bay waterfront in downtown Seattle, hacked into chunks by a man in knee-high wellies, smoked, infused with garlic and pepper, and turned to jerky. While we devoured them, and some sliced Nova Scotia salmon lox, other men in overalls threw fish at each other, bellowing banter to conjure a scene that drew in hordes of camera-toting shoppers.

Photo: Alanosaur / Flick Creative Commons

Pike Place Fish sits in the centre of Pike Place Market, an obscenely touristy spot but an essential consideration for anyone that likes food. Their salmon, swordfish, trout, tuna, sturgeon, stockfish, crab, shrimp, and mussels (not to mention oysters so good they empty your wallet fast, lending a new meaning to Dickens’ immortal “poverty and oysters always seem to go together”) sit among an abundance of treats.

We joined one of Savor Seattle’s tours, which start somewhat inauspiciously in a comedy club whose walls are covered with second hand chewing gum. Once we’d pushed the masticated polymers out of our minds, and run through the guide’s opening gambit of jokes, we were quickly whisked round various shops and stalls to begin the feeding.

Daily Dozen’s doughnuts kicked things off, steaming dough bites doused in sugar and lasting all of ten seconds between us, before creamy, chunky seafood bisque at Pike Place Chowder, doughy pastries from  Piroshky Piroshky that would melt Red from Orange Is The New Black’s heart, and more creamy, chunky joy from the mac cheese at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. Come to think of it, there was a lot of dough and a lot of cream involved, a rapid gorge with a chocolate cherry or two (from Chukar Cherries) on top.

Photo: Brighter than sunshine / Flickr Creative Commons

As one of the oldest continuous markets in the country, Pike Place has a chequered history. Growing out of an impromptu collection of farmers over a hundred years ago, it officially took shape in 1907 amid allegations of corruption and disagreements between city officials and producers. It’s since weathered scandals – inexcusable purging of Japanese-Americans in the early ’40s and plans for demolition in the ’60s – and thanks to an innovative scheme in the ’80s whereby locals could sponsor floor tiles to donate funds, its future looks secure.

After the morning tour, and a tasting flight of Washington State wines from Lost River Winery later (it was 5pm on the east coast at that point), we explored the area, including the Space Needle and Elliott Bay.

Before long we were hungry again, so headed to a few of Tom Douglas’ restaurants. The chef has built a small empire in Seattle, and managed to conquer numerous food types in the process; his outposts cover Italian, Greek, Asian and seafood. We ducked into Lola for some dolmades stuffed with herbs, pine nuts and currants, before waddling half a block to Serious Pie. Pie means pizza, and here it means paper-thin crusts cooked at 700°F and loaded with topping choices that trigger debilitating menu paralysis. Yukon Gold potato with rosemary and pecorino was an inspired mix, as was sweet fennel sausage with roasted peppers and provolone. Pale ales and apricot ciders did the honours in accompaniment.

Photo: solsken / Flickr Creative Commons

These additional snacks gave us energy to see some more of Seattle, including Bruce and Brandon Lee’s graves at the top of a hill in Lake View Cemetery. The father-son spot is pretty poignant, although I felt for the other souls adjacent, whose memory was trampled unheeded by a cavalcade of comfy shoes.

Gas Works Park, meanwhile, was a picturesque place to perch across the lake, enabling food coma slumps on the ground under the faraway buzz of incessant seaplanes. The nearby Fremont Brewing Company, meanwhile, introduced me to the concept of growlers, big beer containers that allow you to take home your favourite brews.

Photo:  tinatinatinatinatina / Flickr Creative Commons

The following morning we took a bus to Portland, but not before a manic dash to The Crumpet Shop at Pike Place. Specialising in proper English crumpets for nearly four decades, they give them an American spin (think walnuts, honey and ricotta), but indulged my lifelong penchant for Marmite, cheddar and cucumber. We also managed to follow in Obama’s footsteps briefly, and grabbed a bag of doughnuts from Top Pot on the way to the station, because you just never know when hunger will strike.

We stayed at Hotel Andra in the downtown district, which is nestled among shops, bars, and near Pike Place Market. And yes, we did get room service.

Featured image of Seattle Skyline by  howardignatius on Flickr (Creative Commons).

Is there such a thing as a cheap sleep in Croatia? It’s certainly something that’s hard to find in summer, when the coast fills up with visitors and prices rise proportionately. There’s probably no other country in Europe where the cost of accommodation is subject to such seasonal distortions. However there are still plenty of places that offer a fair deal, especially when it comes to family-run pensions, backpacker hostels, and a new breed of B&Bs. We’ve found ten places that try to offer something out of the ordinary, but aren’t out to empty your bank account at the same time. This is where to stay in Croatia when you’re on a budget:

4City Windows, Zagreb

The Croatian capital was something of a B&B wasteland until the excellent little Studio Kairos opened up a couple of years back. Latest to pick up the B&B baton is 4CityWindows, a beautifully converted downtown flat with a bright, mood-enhancing kitchen-common room packed with contemporary Croatian pop-art. The rooms are small, cute, and imaginatively themed – one of the hosts is an animated-film specialist, which helps to explain the cartoon characters adorning some of the walls.
Doubles 580-690Kn; single occupancy 440-530Kn

Photograph courtesy of 4City Windows

Art Hostel Like, Zagreb

Is it a hostel? Is it a hotel? Do we care? Despite the naff name, Art Hostel Like has carved something of a unique niche for itself since opening in 2013, offering sparsely-furnished but neat white-cube double rooms, each with a contemporary-art mural covering the wall above the beds. Some have a mezzanine floor perfect for sleeping a third adult or a couple of kids. Breakfast is served in the common room-cum-café for a few extra kunas, although with this part of Zagreb so full of bakeries, this is one place where it wouldn’t hurt to go out and buy your own.
Doubles from 570Kn

Vienna Apartments, Osijek

Urban B&Bs don’t come much cuter than Vienna Apartments, a friendly little place in a courtyard just off Osijek’s main café-strip. The rooms are small but thoughtfully designed, with an electric kettle for tea and coffee as well as flat-screen TVs and pristine modern bathrooms. They didn’t provide breakfast when they first started out, but this has since been added to save you the effort of popping out in search of pastries.
Doubles from 425Kn

Hostel Pipištrelo, Pula

The Istrian peninsula was somewhat lagging behind in the hostel stakes until the opening of Pipištrelo, an imaginatively designed hostel right on the seafront, decked out in bold colours and pop art motifs. There’s a small kitchen on the ground floor, a social area next to the reception, and several shelves of books that are available for exchange.
Dorm 140kn, double 400kn

Image courtesy of Boutique Hostel Forum, Zadar

Boutique Hostel Forum, Zadar

Home to inspiring social sculptures like the Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun, Zadar has carved out something of a reputation for twenty-first-century Adriatic chic. Fitting into this picture perfectly is Boutique Hostel Forum, a bold piece of interior design decked out by the same team responsible for Croatia’s first boutique backpacker haven, Goli & Bosi in Split. Forum offers a mixture of dorm rooms and hotel-standard private doubles (with breakfast included), plus free Wi-Fi and a fully equipped communal kitchen.
Dorm 205Kn, double 800Kn

Fregadon, Silba

The islands of Northern Dalmatia still offer a degree of wild-beach solitude that you might not find elsewhere, along with the kind of characterful accommodation that hasn’t been solidly booked months in advance. It’s idyllic Silba that’s the site of one of Dalmatia’s best family-run pensions, the Fregadon. Offering pleasant rooms and a soothing garden setting, this is almost in the boutique category. Breakfast and a sumptuous evening meal are offered in the downstairs garden restaurant.
Double with half-board 580Kn

Villa Varoš, Split

Split’s popularity with travellers has gone through the roof in recent years and the number of hostels and apartments has mushroomed to meet the demand. One place that has been around for a while is Villa Varoš, a charming and cosy guesthouse on the fringes of the Kasbah-like Varoš quarter. Set in a lovingly restored stone house, rooms are kitted out with homely, semi-rustic furnishings together with a/c and TV. Breakfast can be arranged in a tavern just round the corner.
Doubles from 610kn

 

Photo courtesy of Karmen, Dubrovnik

Karmen, Dubrovnik

Prices in Dubrovnik are rising so sharply that sooner or later you’ll have to be an oligarch in order to even enter the old town, never mind sleep in it. Thankfully there are still places like Karmen offering apartments in an old stone house within the shadow of the city walls. Rooms have a homely mix of furnishings and crockery and the whole place is full of books and prints – the main stairway is decked out with enough sepia photographs and historic maps to make a history museum proud. Owned by an English-born Dubrovčanin who is very much a pillar of the local community, it is both welcoming and unique.
Two-person apartments from 600Kn

Fresh Sheets, Dubrovnik

There’s a budget Fresh Sheets, and a not-so-budget Fresh Sheets, both of which enjoy superb locations in Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Tucked up against the sea walls, the hostel has been going for several years already and offers dorm accommodation in a tall, thin house – there are some great roofline views from the top-floor lavatory. The B&B is a relatively new venture (opened in summer 2013) and offers swanky, contemporary-styled doubles and apartments on the second floor of an eighteenth-century building, complete with freshly-cooked breakfast in a homely communal kitchen. Overlooking the cathedral, the Rector’s Palace and the Gundulić Square market, the B&B boasts unique views; which probably explains why the prices are a bit outside the budget envelope – travel out of season and you might get a bargain.
Hostel dorm beds from 300Kn; B&B doubles from 1000Kn

Boutique Accommodation Mljet

Located in a restored village schoolhouse right in the centre of Mljet National Park, Boutique Accommodation Mljet is one of the most romantic places to stay in the southern Dalmatian islands. Features include wooden floors, exposed stonework, and well-chosen furnishings that mix farmhouse chic with modern comforts. Two doubles come with kitchenettes and TVs, a simply decorated third one can be used as a kid’s room if you are travelling as a family.
Doubles from 525Kn

Explore these locations and more with the Rough Guide to Croatia. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Holiday homes for stoners, electric tuk tuks, and the website that promises to freeze airfares solid: it’s the latest travel news briefing from Rough Guides.

Finding fair fares

Have you ever held back from booking a flight, only to check again later and find that the fare has shot skywards? Well check this out: a website is being developed to help travellers ‘lock’ flight prices and prevent fares from climbing higher.

Level Skies lets users cap the cost of a flight by paying a small, upfront fee, which acts as a kind of insurance policy. If the fare rises between that first day and an agreed point in the future (the maximum amount of time is four weeks), the site will refund the difference.

Another really cool thing about the site is that you don’t need to select precise dates and times. This gives you the flexibility to make minor alterations to your schedule without incurring the airlines’ usual fees for flight changes.

Of course, if the cost of your trip stays the same or even drops after you’ve paid the upfront fee, you might feel like you’ve wasted your money. And for the three return trips I checked while using the site – from London Heathrow to Dubai, New York and Paris – Skyscanner managed to come up with lower (fixed) fares. So if you know when you want to fly, and are sure you won’t be changing your plans, you may want to stick to trawling the web.

Gambling on Glasvegas

This time next year it’ll be possible to fly direct from Glasgow to Las Vegas, even if you’ve never won a jackpot. Thomas Cook Airlines announced plans for a summer service from Glasgow following a string of one-off flights. The route, which is expected to run from May–October, is the first regular service to connect Scotland with the casino capital. Return fares start at £499.

The website with high hopes

The accommodation rental website AirTHC, best described as Airbnb for pot smokers, has been renamed just weeks after its launch. TravelTHC, as it’s now known, will continue to help tourists find marijuana-friendly holiday rentals across Colorado, which legalised the sale of recreational cannabis at the start of 2014. While the drug itself is legal, smoking it in public places (and most hotels) is not. But in the privacy of a rented holiday home, tourists can smoke whenever they like. Not surprisingly, when you consider that Washington state’s first recreational weed dispensaries are expected to open this summer, the website has plans to expand.

Copenhagen gets three new bridges – for bikes

Laid-back, eco-minded and flat as a pancake: Copenhagen is well known for being a good place to cycle. By the end of this year, snow permitting, getting around the city on two wheels will be even quicker. According to a report in the Copenhagen Post, three specially built ‘bicycle bridges’ will open this December, threading together parts of the city that are currently separated by water. The bridges are part of a plan to encourage even more people to cycle in the city. By 2025, authorities want at least 50 per cent of all trips to work and school to be made by bike.

Tuk tuks… in America?

In recent years there have been calls to start replacing Asia’s spluttering auto-rickshaws, or tuk tuks, with cleaner electric versions. Gas-guzzlers are still the norm in cities across the region, but battery-powered rickshaws are slowly taking to the roads. And now, the idea of small, green passenger vehicles is gaining traction beyond Asia – and not just on golf courses.

Amsterdam’s Tuk Tuk Factory, which already sells its ‘e-Tuks’ in Europe, has just signed a deal with a company in the USA. That firm, e-Tuk USA, wants to get the vehicles approved for use on American roads. But despite the e-Tuks having a range of up to 50 miles, there’s not much chance they’ll end America’s love affair with the car; the companies’ modest target is to sell 500 units over the next few years.

Final call: an Almaty influx of tourists

The American hotel brand Hyatt has revealed plans to return to Kazakhstan in 2017, with the re-opening of the hotel it ran in Almaty for more than 13 years. It’s the latest international chain to commit to a future in Kazakhstan, which was named one of the planet’s fastest-growing tourist economies in 2013. So is the country worth visiting? I’ll shut up and let these videos by Denis Frantsouzov do the talking.


Amazing Kazakhstan from Denis Frantsouzov on Vimeo.


Kaindy – Sunken Forest from Denis Frantsouzov on Vimeo.

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