How To Get From Seoul To Gyeongju by Train

Gyeongju in south-eastern Korea is often described as a ‘museum without walls.’ It’s easy to see why. It is the former capital of the Silla Kingdom which ruled a large proportion of the Korean peninsula from around 57 BCE to 935 CE. It is genuinely a treasure trove of historic buildings and artefacts. We recommend visiting this wonderful city if you are travelling in South Korea. Here’s our guide on how to travel from Seoul to Gyeongju.

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Seoul to Gyeongju By Train

South Korea’s rail network is fast and efficient. If you want arrive quickly, we recommend using the KTX, the high-speed train service, from Seoul Station. You can reach the main railway station on lines 1 and 4 on the metro. The train station is bright and airy and the departure board will indicate the train number, time, destination and departure track in multiple languages, including English.

Seoul station

When you arrive on the platform, there will be an indication where your train’s car will be located. Your seat reservation will indicate a car and seat number. There is an overhead shelf for smaller bags above the seats inside the carriage, and a storage area for larger luggage at the end of each car by the doors. The train journey takes around two and a half hours from Seoul to Gyeongju.

KTX train

However, the KTX does not reach Gyeongju centre. The train will stop at Singyeongju station which is located a few kilometres out of town. It’s the city’s newest station and was opened in 2010.

Seoul to Gyeongju

You will need to catch a bus or take a taxi to the city centre.

Taxis are definitely easier. They take around 10-15 minutes and cost between 15,000 and 20,000 Won (around $11-15 at current prices). You can also put your luggage into the boot/trunk of the taxi. There are plenty of taxis waiting at the station.

The bus journey takes around 25-30 minutes. Bus numbers 50, 70 or 700 run to and from the station regularly and will take you into town. The cost is 2,500 won (2023 price).

If you have a T-money card you can use this to pay for your bus fare. Just tap your card on entering the bus at the front by the driver and don’t forget to tap out when you exit at the middle of the bus.

We recommend getting a T-money card when you arrive in South Korea which you can pick up on arrival at the airport. They are so convenient for paying for public transport and other services. You can charge them with cash all over the country, including at convenience stores. (N.B. you can only charge them with cash)

One thing that’s worth noting is that when a train comes in there may well be a lot of passengers, so getting a seat on the bus might not be easy. We were the last ones on and had to stand. Not a problem except…

…well, Gyeongju does have a popular theme park but you can truly experience the thrills of a rollercoaster simply by travelling on the bus. Our journey into Gyeongju city was ‘enhanced’ by a driver who was either in a hurry or was a sadist who enjoyed watching hapless tourists in his rearview mirror, loaded with luggage, clinging to the handrails whilst trying to avoid flying around the bus, as he sped up, hurtled around corners and slammed on the brakes.

We think this was a one-off – our bus ride back to the station was much more sedate.

Train Travel Tips

If you are planning to travel by train through South Korea you might want to consider buying a KoRail Pass. These are passes that allow foreign visitors unlimited journeys on the rail network on particular days. There are various options available:

Consecutive Passes: You can use these on either 3 days or 5 days in a row – useful if you are travelling on consecutive days.

Select Passes: You can use these on any 2 individual days or any 4 individual days within a 10 day period. These are useful if you are travelling around Korea and want to spend some time at different locations before moving on.

You can buy the pass within 31 days of travel and you need to know which day you plan to activate the card.

The pass can be ordered online and printed off. You need to carry the pass with you and it is linked to your passport.

The pass can represent good value if you are planning on travelling to lots of locations in South Korea. We recommend checking prices to see whether the cost of a rail pass is cheaper than buying individual tickets.

Tip: If you know your travel dates, book your KTX seats early, several days in advance if possible. Seoul’s railway station has a ticket office where you can purchase tickets and book seats. We went to the office to validate our rail passes and book our seats. We planned to travel on a weekday, three days after our arrival, and had difficulty getting seats together on the train. It meant that we had to leave really early in the morning to catch a train, which turned out to be a blessing as it meant we had more time to explore Gyeongju.

The Korea Trains website has information about timetables and ticket booking.

If you are travelling on the train using a pass you will need to carry a printout of the pass, the seat reservations and your passport to confirm your identity – which should match the name on your pass. We were never challenged during our journey through Korea but the terms of the pass state that you must be able to produce this documentation if requested.

Alternative Ways to Travel From Seoul To Gyeongju

It is possible to catch the express bus to Gyeongju. The price is cheaper and the bus will take you directly into the city centre. The total journey time is around three and a half hours.

The bus leaves from Seoul Express Bus Terminal which is located in the Banpo-dong part of Seocho district. You can reach the bus terminal via metro lines 3, 7 and 9.

You can check the bus route information and ticket availability at the express bus website.

If you want maximum flexibility you can hire a car. The journey time will take around 5-6 hours, depending on where you are travelling from in Seoul and how congested the traffic is. A car would also be very useful when exploring Gyeongju as many of the historic attractions are located a few kilometres from the city centre.

Getting from Busan to Gyeongju

Gyeongju is also a popular day trip from Korea’s southern city of Busan. It’s an hour away on the train. Once again you can use a KTX pass to reach Singyeongju.

Alternatively, there are companies that offer day trips to see the main sights. Although we realise that time can be tight when travelling, we loved Gyeongju so much that we recommend staying in the area if possible. There is so much to see, a day trip would only really scratch the surface.

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Recipe: Simmered Shiitake Mushrooms

Shiitake mushrooms are native to Asia but have become popular all over the world because they are versatile and packed with flavour. They are particularly popular in Japanese cuisine and have a variety of uses. They apparently have some medicinal properties but, more importantly, they are absolutely delicious. We have a fantastic recipe for simmered shiitake mushrooms which can be used as a side dish for many Japanese meals.

Simmered shiitake mushrooms dish

Shiitake can be used as a key ingredient for dashi – Japanese stock – which is used in many traditional dishes, including miso soup. Dashi often uses shaved bonito (a type of fish) flakes but this can be substituted for shiitake mushrooms, complemented with kombu seaweed, to make a flavoursome vegetarian/vegan dashi.

This recipe for simmered shiitake mushrooms is used as a side dish to accompany a wide variety of foods. It is packed with umami flavour which complements the sweetness of the mirin and the saltiness of the soy sauce.

This simmered shiitake dish is very simple to make but requires a little – minimal – preparation as you will need to presoak the mushrooms. Ideally, we recommend soaking the mushrooms overnight as this will allow maximum umami. If you can’t soak overnight, we suggest a minimum of five hours. Also, make sure that you save the water the mushrooms have been soaked in as that is packed with flavour.

How To Make Simmered Shiitake Mushrooms

Ingredients

100g grams dried whole shiitake mushrooms

1 tbs soy sauce

1 tbs mirin (if you can’t get mirin you can use 1 tbs cooking sake and 1 tsp sugar and if you can’t get cooking sake use 1 tbs white wine and 1 tsp sugar)

Water to cover the mushrooms

shiitake mushrooms ingredients

Method

Place the dried mushrooms into a bowl and cover – just to the top of the mushrooms – with water. Soak the dried mushrooms until they are soft. Ideally a minimum of 5 hours, overnight is better. Save the water!

Remove the mushrooms from the water. They should have turned from woody to plump and juicy. Take off the stems if you wish and cut into slices.

Put the mushrooms into a pan.

Add 1 tbs mirin and 1 tbs soy sauce.

Then add the mushroom water to just about cover them. Be careful as there may be a little bit of residue at the bottom of the water bowl, don’t let that go in.

Bring the mushrooms to a simmer until the water has evaporated. This will take about 15 mins.

simmered shiitake mushrooms

Allow to cool and serve cold.

We often use these as a side to accompany a number of dishes – great eaten in the summertime with cold somen noodles, agedashi tofu (fried tofu), vinegared wakame (seaweed) and cucumber salad, and shira ae (mashed tofu and carrot salad).

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Things To Do In Rovaniemi In Winter

Rovaniemi, located right on the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, is a perfect destination for a winter break. We have recently returned from a trip to this lovely city. Our primary reason for visiting was to try to see the Northern Lights. But seeing the marvellous aurora is very much dependent on both an active sun and cloud-free weather, so we weren’t planning on hanging around waiting. We wanted to visit a location where there were lots of activities to enjoy as well. Here is our guide for things to do in Rovaniemi in winter.

Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you click through and decide to make a purchase we will make a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which will help towards the costs of running this site.

How to Get To Rovaniemi

Most people fly into Rovaniemi. The city centre is located around 9km from the compact airport. It is possible to catch a bus with a not very useful timetable (which currently requires a long wait if you arrive in the afternoon and is no good if you arrive in the evening). A taxi ride will cost around €30-35, depending on where you are staying in the city. There is currently no Uber in Rovaniemi.

Where to Stay in Rovaniemi

We spent a week in Rovaniemi and rented an apartment on the edge of the centre. It’s a small city and very easy to walk around, so we were only 10 minutes away from the bars and restaurants. Our apartment, the Rovavist, also had a mini-supermarket beneath the flats, which was very handy for picking up groceries.

Things to Do In Rovaniemi in Winter

We recommend visiting the tourist information office as they have lots of information about the city, including maps and advice on things to do. They also have a weekly events listing so you can discover any concerts and sporting events that are happening during your visit. The office is open Monday to Friday.

In the town there are three interesting museums/art galleries to visit. They are open Tuesday to Sunday.

If you want to visit all three we recommend buying a Culture Pass at €25. This represents really good value as it offers a saving on the total admission price to all three venues and you can visit each of them as many times as you like within a week. All museums are closed on Mondays.

Arktikum is a fabulous museum dedicated to all aspects of life in the Arctic. The exhibits range from information about the Arctic environment, to the lives of indigenous people and local history.

Things to do in Rovaniemi in winter
Things to do in Rovaniemi in winter

Pillke is a science museum which is perfect for children of all ages. It has a strong environmental and sustainability theme, there are lots of highly interactive exhibits and games to play.

There is even multi-lingual karaoke, generally children’s songs, so we belted out a great rendition of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic.

Korundi Culture house is Rovaniemi’s art gallery. It has a number of permanent and temporary exhibitions to enjoy. Many of the works are by local artists and the gallery displays artworks which have an Arctic theme.

Things to Do in Rovaniemi in Winter

The Santa Village

The Santa Village is a big draw for visitors, especially for those travelling with children during the months of November and December. Yes, if you are a fan of all things Christmassy, Rovaniemi is the place where Santa lives and you can visit him all year round.

Things to do in Rovaniemi in winter

The village is free to enter. You can catch the bus (the same one that goes to the airport) from Rovaniemi city centre. It’s about 8km away and you can buy a return ticket to take you back into town – keep it and give it to the driver.

The village is actually located directly on the Arctic Circle so you can stop for photos. You can also buy a certificate for crossing the Arctic Circle.

And you can enter Santa’s house and meet the old guy himself. To be honest, it was a bit crowded in there, even in January. It’s likely to be completely packed in December. And while it’s free to go inside and have your photo taken with Santa, you’ll have to queue for a while and Santa’s elves can later sell you a photo at a pricey price between €35-50. (You’re not obliged to make a purchase.)

And everything else in the village seems expensive. You can visit a reindeer farm and go on a reindeer sleigh ride (adult/child prices €25/€20 for 7 minutes, €40€/30 for 15 minutes) or visit Snowman World, (€29 Euros per person but you can stay all day) which has various winter activities and an ice bar. But the entry costs for these will add up, particularly for families.

We were keen to try Santa’s salmon – cooked using a traditional method baked over an open fire inside a teepee.

Things to do in Rovaniemi in winter

But €25 for a salmon steak (which was mainly delicious, although the skin was burned black and not great to eat), a couple of pieces of flatbread and a blob of cream felt overpriced.

“Just hear those cash tills ringing and Euros jingling too…Ding-aling-aling-aling Ker-ching.”

While a visit to Santa Village would undoubtedly be an experience for families with children, we think, in retrospect, we’d rather have visited the Bad Santa Village! (Which doesn’t exist.)

Hike Through the Forest

The Ounasvaara Winter Trail offers a lovely forest walk. Located just outside of the city, across the Candle Bridge (the bridge with the red lights atop) cross the road under the subway and enter the forest. There are trails for hikers, bikers and skiers with maps and signposts to show the way. The forest, covered in snow, is delightful and you can easily spend a few hours exploring the area.

Things to Do in Rovaniemi in Winter
Things to do in Rovaniemi in winter

Things to do in Rovaniemi in winter

Watch The Ice Hockey

Rovaniemi has its own ice hockey team, Roki, that play regular matches. The Lappi Areena is located just outside of town, close to the Ounasvaara forest. The tourist information centre will be able to let you know the match schedule.

If you’re walking to the arena it takes around 40-50 minutes to get there from the city, across the Candle Bridge. The ticket office opens an hour before the game starts and it costs €15 to watch the game. It’s exciting and full of action and Roki fans are incredibly enthusiastic. It’s great viewing for all the family.

ice hockey

Winter Activity Excursions

There are loads of companies in the city that offer all sorts of winter activities. You can go on snowmobiles, enjoy a husky sled ride, go ice-karting or even visit an amethyst mine. We recommend pre-booking as some popular activities may sell out.

We enjoyed two trips. One was a snowshoeing and ice-fishing day where we travelled to a local frozen lake. It was great to learn how to use snowshoes and then walk on deep snow in the local forest.

Then it was onto the frozen lake where we drilled holes in the ice and enjoyed a spot of ice fishing. Sadly we didn’t manage to eat sashimi for lunch that day, the fish were far too canny to fall for our attempts at enticing them to bite. But it’s not really about the fish, it’s a chance to sit quietly amongst nature and enjoy the scenery.

Things to Do in Rovaniemi in Winter
Things to Do in Rovaniemi in Winter

The other trip was a full day to see the frozen waterfalls in the Korouoma canyon. It was the coldest day of the trip, a freeeeeezing -26C, but also the most splendidly beautiful. The canyon is located around 100 km northwest of Rovaniemi and it takes around an hour and a half to drive there. As we travelled along the road, the sun had just risen above the horizon and kissed the treetops.

We walked for 5km, through the forest of spruce, pine and birch trees, all covered in glittery snow, and down into the canyon. We then trekked along the gorge admiring the frozen waterfalls, which would remain utterly static for another couple of months.

Frozen waterfall
Things to Do Rovaniemi Winter

After reaching the resting places we built a fire and cooked sausages on sticks. Then it was time to climb back up the canyon to return. The sun was just about to set and the sky was a glorious pink, the pale moon gently bathing in the light.

Things to Do Rovaniemi Winter

See the Northern Lights

This was our third attempt at seeing the Northern Lights. We had tried previously in Iceland and Norway – and had had a brilliant time in both locations – but failed to see them. So we were hoping for third time lucky.

The Aurora Borealis is one of nature’s most marvellous phenomena. It happens in northern latitudes when the solar wind emits particles from the sun which interact with the atmosphere creating strange and ethereal lights dancing in the sky.

The sun’s activity has a cycle of around 10-11 years and 2024-5 is the expected solar maximum. There are things you can plan for – an active time in the sun cycle and also possibly choose a time of the month when the moon isn’t full.

But trips are often booked months in advance so you have no knowing if the solar wind will be active and the skies clear. We planned to stay in Rovaniemi for a week, so that if the sky was cloudy on our arrival (it was) we had a few days in hand for the weather to clear.

Of course, you can see the lights on a DIY basis. There are all sorts of apps which will notify you of sun activity and weather forecast. You can hire a car and head out into the frozen wilderness.

An alternative is to book a tour. There are various options available. Some involve a snowmobile safari or husky ride into the night which means that at least you have enjoyed an activity even if you don’t see the lights. But you will have to pay again if you want to try again.

We chose a guaranteed northern lights excursion, which sounds a bit strange bearing in mind that you need all the weather and solar activity conditions to be just right. But this tour offers a guarantee of seeing the lights or they will give you your money back. It does cost more than the standard chases but we felt it was worth it.

On booking, we informed the company of our arrival date and tentatively planned a northern lights chase for the following evening. They asked how long we were staying for. This gave them an idea of when they could reschedule the trip if needed.

They monitor both the solar and atmospheric conditions daily and text an update. The first couple of days had 100% cloud cover, so they texted to postpone to the following day.

On the third day we got a call saying that they’d had their meeting and thought that the skies would clear. They predicted an 80% chance of seeing the lights and said we could either go for it or have our money back. We decided to go out and they arranged an evening pickup from our apartment.

Then you go out in a van with a small group of people and head to the clear skies and open spaces away from city lights.

There’s a lot of waiting in the cold so we advise wrapping up warm. But it was worth it – we were treated to the most magical display.

Things to Do Rovaniemi Winter
Things to Do Rovaniemi in Winter

Rovaniemi for Foodies

The city has a good food scene with a wide variety of traditional Lappish dishes to try. Eating out isn’t cheap in Lapland so we combined shopping at local supermarkets to cook in our apartment with dining out at a variety of restaurants.

Fine Dining

There are a number of fine dining restaurants offering traditional Lappish food. Some offer tasting menus. We enjoyed a five course tasting menu at the Arctic Restaurant on Valtakatu.

We enjoyed a silky-smooth crayfish soup followed by reindeer tartare with remoulade and sun-dried tomato. The next courses were white fish with hollandaise, carrot and caviar, and then rare tenderloin of beef with a port jus, potato stack and beetroot puree. A lemon sorbet cleansed the palette before we tucked into a creamy crème brûlée.

Restaurant Nili next door also offers tasting menus.

Fast food

The café at the Arkitum offers a Lappish buffet on weekdays for €15 and includes a cup of good coffee. It’s hearty and filling and tastes great.

We were highly amused by Santa’s Doner Kebab on Koskikatu. Yes, they do offer reindeer – Do(n)ner but no Blitzen or Rudolph! – and the kebab was delicious.

Pure Burger Kauppayhtiö on Valtakatu offered reindeer burgers with dirty fries and Café 21 on Rovakatu offers sweet and savoury waffles as well as a number of pastries and cakes.

Drinking

Finnish people enjoy their coffee and you are guaranteed a great brew. One of the more unusual ways to serve coffee is with bread cheese. Bread cheese, or leipäjuusto, (sometimes known as cheese bread or juustoleipä), is a mild, sweet, squeaky cheese. It has the texture, but not the saltiness, of Halloumi. It can be enjoyed in slices with cloudberry or lingonberry jam.

More unusually it is enjoyed as Kaffeost. Cubes of cheese are submerged in dark black coffee. They soak up the coffee and can be eaten with a spoon. It’s a very unusual way of enjoying cheese – and coffee – but is surprisingly good.

If you enjoy a tipple Finland, like many Scandinavian countries, is pricier than most. We found it to be pricey but not eye-wateringly expensive (certainly not as expensive as Norway or Sweden). There are restrictions on when you can buy booze. No strong beer can be bought from a supermarket after 9pm but weaker beers can. Olvi Kotikalja beer is a traditional dark brown beverage made from rye and barley malt. Its alcohol content is 2.2 % and it tastes like shandy.

Lapland Brewery

If beer is your thing, Rovaniemi’s local brewery is the northernmost brewery in Finland. It has a taproom and also offers tours. They have a good range of beers, and also some alcoholic drinks made by mixing local berries, such as cloudberry, with spirits. It is located 3km outside of town and is walkable from the city centre – it takes around 50 minutes to get there.

The pub Oluthuone, on Koskikatu, is a pub predominantly frequented by local people and offers Rovaniemi and Finnish beer (as well as international brands) at reasonable prices – we’d compare them to London prices. We received a warm welcome.

What to Bring to Rovaniemi in Winter

Warm clothes are essential. The temperatures can be very cold. We visited in January and did the waterfall hike in temperatures of -26C. We recommend wearing layers. Thermals are a good idea to wear underneath your clothes to provide extra insulation. A thick, warm waterproof jacket, woolly hat and gloves are essential. Balaclavas and scarves will also be useful.

In winter you’ll be walking on snow and sometimes ice. Good footwear is essential. You might also want to invest in some rubber straps with mini-spikes which you can fit over your boots.

If you don’t have enough equipment there are plenty of shops where you can buy anything you might need. Also, some of the activity companies will be able to hire exposure suits, if you want to be really snug and warm.

If you plan to go snowmobiling you will need to bring your driving licence.

If you are on a Northern Lights tour take your passport as some of the companies may travel into Norway or Sweden if there’s a chance of clearer weather there. You will also need to be contactable by phone if you are choosing a guaranteed tour so that you can find out about local conditions, so consider an international SIM or an e-SIM if your phone needs one.

There are plenty of things to do in Rovaniemi in winter and we absolutely recommend spending time in this lovely little city and the surrounding countryside.

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A Guide To The Bhutan Tiger’s Nest Trek

One of the highlights of a visit to the delightful Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is a hike to the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery that clings dramatically to a cliff some 900m above the Paro Valley. Here is our guide for what to expect on the Bhutan Tiger’s Nest trek, a hike which is, quite literally, breathtaking.

Travelling in Bhutan is a very different experience to most other journeys. It is standard practice to visit Bhutan with a driver and guide accompanying you, as independent travel is not encouraged in this country. Our lovely guide Dawa accompanied us to the Tiger’s Nest.

Bhutan Tiger nest trek

Paro is probably the flattest region that we visited within mountainous Bhutan and is the city where the country’s international airport is located. The flight in, as the plane weaves its way through the spectacular Himalayas, is an experience in itself. We flew from Nepal, passing Mount Everest on the way. (Top tip – ask for seats on the left side of the plane when checking in at Kathmandu airport.) But the landscape changes dramatically just outside the city as the mountains tower above the river, Paro Chu. Tiger’s Nest is located around 10km north of Paro.

The Legend of the Tiger’s Nest

Tiger’s Nest, known as Paro Taktsang, became a holy place in the 9th century. There is a legend that Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) flew to this location from Singye Dzong on the back of a tigress and meditated inside the cave on the mountainside for several years. Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to Bhutan and is considered to be the most important saint in the country. There is a different legend that the wife of an emperor transformed into a tigress and carried Rinpoche on her back from Tibet. It is thought that the place became holy following the Guru’s meditation when he emerged in eight incarnated forms. A monastery was constructed around the caves in 1692.

Bhutan Tiger’s Nest Trek – The Overall Route

Visiting the Tiger’s Nest is one of the most popular activities in the region. We arrived early in order to get ahead of the crowds. When you arrive you will see that there are a number of mules available for hire. They can take you halfway up the route to the cafeteria, you cannot complete the whole route riding a mule. We don’t like using animals to transport us and we love walking, so chose not to ride. Also we wanted the satisfaction of hiking the whole way!

The photo – taken for posterity from the car park – shows the Tiger’s Nest. Can you see it?

Bhutan Tiger nest trek

Here’s a photo with an arrow to show that it is waaaaaaay in the distance, clinging to the cliff face. It looked like a long way up. It was. But don’t worry, the route isn’t as direct as it looks – no actual climbing required!

Bhutan Tiger's nest trek

Walk To The Halfway Point

The majority of the Tiger’s Nest trek takes place along the adjacent hillside. The walk up to the halfway point isn’t particularly steep – just a consistent upward incline through the woodland on a sandy, occasionally rocky path.

There is a cafeteria at the halfway point where you can get refreshments and use the bathroom if needed. This is as far as the mules will carry anyone. It will also be the last opportunity to use the toilet until you return to this area. The photo below shows the cafeteria from the top viewpoint.

There is a good view of the Tiger’s Nest from the halfway point.

Bhutan Tiger nest trek

Continue To The Viewpoint

Continuing the trek you climb higher and higher until you reach the splendid viewpoint, an essential photo stop which offers your first close-up glimpse of the monastery buildings. It’s at approximately the same elevation as the Tiger’s Nest but it is located across the valley which needs to be traversed.

Bhutan Tiger nest monastery

The Final Stretch (aka the Tricky Bit)

When you reach the viewpoint you think you are almost there but the most difficult part of the trek is yet to come. You need to cross the valley to reach the monastery on the other side. You descend slightly along the cliff path, which is easy enough.

Bhutan Tiger nest trek

But then need to cross a narrow section with a waterfall on the cliff-side in order to reach the next mountainside. It’s not hugely difficult but can be a little slippery and isn’t ideal if you’re not keen on heights as there’s a fair old drop to the valley below.

Then it’s a walk up the other side, largely on steps, to the monastery itself.

Entering the Monastery

Once you have reached the monastery entrance you might think you have reached the top. But there are a lot of stairs inside the monastery itself. We trekked up alongside a random fellow traveller who made it to the entrance but was just too tired to explore it! So save a bit of stamina. Shoes must be removed in order to visit the various rooms within the temple.

This is a working monastery so photography is not allowed. The temple is comprised of four main buildings. Padmasmabhava’s cave – the first one he entered riding the tiger, is called Tholu Phuk and the cave where he meditated is Pel Phuk.  Steps have been cut into the rock and there are bridges to cross in order to reach particular rooms.

Bhutan Tiger’s Nest Trek – The Route Down

You return via the exact same route. While the upward journey is hard on your lungs, the downward journey is hard on the knees. Again, although the descent will be quicker, take it easy and don’t rush.

Information About The Hike

When Is The Best Time to Attempt the Hike?

We visited Bhutan in March which was the low season. As it was early spring the weather was a little chilly at times but that was absolutely perfect for walking in. It also meant that the route was less crowded than in the high season (April, May and September to November). It is possible to visit Tiger’s Nest all year round but beware that the monsoon arrives in Bhutan during the summer so trekking wouldn’t be much fun. And we wouldn’t want to attempt the waterfall crossing section on a slippery path in the rain.

Do You Need to Be Fit?

The walk should be fine for anyone of average fitness. The total distance covered is around 6km.  The most challenging element is that you are trekking at altitude – the hike will take you to over 3000m above sea level – and this could well knock the breath out of you. There is a lot less oxygen available at these dizzying heights. The elevation gained is around 500m from the car park to the monastery. Some people do struggle with the altitude and acute mountain sickness is a serious condition. Follow your guide’s instructions and do let them know if you are feeling unwell.

We actually did our trek at the end of our trip to Bhutan. The country has the world’s highest average elevation, although for most of our trip we had been exploring the country at around 2000m above sea level. Waiting until the end of the visit meant that we had a week or so to acclimatise to being at altitude.

What Clothing Should You Wear?

As with all temples in Bhutan modest dress is required to enter the monastery and this includes long-sleeved tops to cover your entire arms. You might want to hike in a t-shirt if the weather is warm but remember to take a light jacket if you want to visit the monastery itself. Long trousers should be worn.

What Should I Bring?

We recommend wearing comfortable clothes and good walking boots or shoes for the hike. Consider wearing footwear with ankle support as you will be walking on an incline for pretty much the entire trek. It’s also worth minimising the equipment you take with you so that you aren’t carrying too much. We did the hike simply taking a day-pack containing water bottles and camera.

How Long Does the Hike Take?

The time varies depending on how fit you are and how you get on walking at altitude. There is no pressure to rush and it isn’t a race, so we advise taking the walk easy. If you need to catch your breath, stop and catch your breath. Some people take three hours, others take eight. We took five hours for the total trip which included the visit to the monastery and a buffet lunch at the resting place while chatting with some very nice visitors from Japan.

Other Places to Visit in Paro

Located in Paro valley, Kyichu Lhakhang is one of Bhutan’s oldest monasteries. Legend tells that it was one of 108 temples constructed on the same day by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, to subdue Sin Mo, a feared demoness.

Kyichu Lhakhang

It has two orange trees in the courtyard and they are purported to bear fruit at all times of the year. There were certainly plenty of oranges on the trees when we visited.

Kyichu Lhakhang

Kyichu Lhakhang

We also enjoyed trying our hands at archery, Bhutan’s national sport. There are practice ranges all over the country and it’s fine to show up and have a go. We had watched a remarkable archery tournament a few days previously – where local archers would compete to hit a tiny target from an incredible distance.

Well, it was great fun but we were fairly useless. Mitch’s first arrow flew over the fence and into the car park – fortunately, there was no one there!

archery in Bhutan

Colin did, however, eventually manage to hit the target!

As with all things in Bhutan, if you want to try a particular activity or visit a particular site, ask your guide and they should be able to arrange it.

We stayed at the Metta Resort on the outskirts of Paro. It was a nice enough place but we found that the food was largely aimed at tourists – both Eastern and Western. We asked our guide whether we could eat at a local restaurant instead of at the hotel, so he took us to a fabulous farmhouse in the evening and we enjoyed traditional Bhutanese fare washed down with ara, an alcoholic drink made from fermented grains.

Essential Information About Visiting Bhutan

The Bhutanese government sets a daily tariff for visitors. When we visited this was $200 per day (low season) which included the costs for our delightful guide and driver, as well as all accommodation, food and entrance to the dzongs and museums. This cost included $65 for a sustainable development fee which went directly to supporting local people. So entrance to the Tiger’s Nest, and all other monasteries/dzongs, was included.

In 2022 Bhutan significantly increased the daily tariff from very expensive to even more expensive by increasing the sustainable development fee to an eye-watering $200 per day (on top of other costs). This resulted in a significant drop in visitor numbers, so the system changed again in 2023. The sustainable development fee has been halved to $100 per day (which is still expensive and doesn’t include accommodation and transportation etc) for the next four years (as at September 2023). So, if you’re planning to visit, it’s worth considering making the journey sooner rather than later. Bhutan is expensive to visit but we feel very much that our time spent in this remarkable kingdom was absolutely worth it.

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A Visit To Bhutan’s Punhaka Dzong
Bhutan’s National Dish – Chilli Cheese
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Best Time To Visit Machu Picchu 2024 Update

It’s easy to see why Machu Picchu is Peru’s biggest tourist attraction. It was our primary reason for wanting visit to Peru (although during our trip we discovered so many amazing places including the Amazonian jungle) and we had high expectations. We weren’t disappointed. Here is our guide about the best time to visit Machu Picchu, how to get tickets and what to expect when you get there. This post has been updated to incorporate the changes to visiting for 2024.

Visit Machu Picchu

Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you click through and decide to make a purchase we will make a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which will help towards the costs of running this site.

Best Time To Visit Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu can be visited year round. The most popular time to visit is June to September with shoulder seasons in May and October. Peru’s rainy season runs from November to March.

But the rules for visiting Machu Picchu have changed for 2024. The reason for this is that the authorities want to protect the site as much as possible and control the crowds. The total number of people allowed to visit is 4,500 each day. This number is split between the people who walk the full Inca trail, the short trail and day visitors.

For visitors to the site the morning and afternoon tickets have been replaced by hourly slots of 190 visitors each.

The Ministry of Culture has introduced 5 circuits. Follow this link to check the route for the sites you wish to see. The tours are of varying duration and are guided. There may be some time for self-exploration at the end of the tour. It is mandatory to have a guide. Because of this it may be worth considering taking an organised trip.

You are allowed to stay for a maximum of 4 hours.

Tickets can be purchased from the Ministry of Culture website.

If you wish to climb Huyana Picchu (the mountain behind the site as seen in the most famouse pictures) you have to purchase a separate ticket. Three hundred tickets will be available each day. There are hourly entrance slots (75 tickets each) from 06:00am to 13:00pm.

If Huyana Picchu sells out, it is possible to climb Huchuy Picchu and get a great alternative view of the site.

How To Get to Machu Picchu

There are several ways to visit Machu Picchu. The most famous is probably the hike along the Inca Trail. The Incas built an intricate and sophisticated network of trails throughout their enormous empire that encompassed Quito (Ecuador) in the north to Santiago (Chile) in the west and to Mendoza (Argentina) in the east. The trails ran to around 40,000km. But the best known trail is that which runs approximately 43km from Peru’s Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu via the sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna.

You can’t just turn up with your walking boots and rucksack – you have to book via a tour operator who is both registered and owns a licence. Access to the trail is controlled and can get extremely busy – up to 500 people, including guides and porters, make the trip each day. This mean that only about 200 visitors can walk the trail.

High season for this trail runs from April until October and should be booked well in advance. The classic four day Inca Trail starts at a place called Km82 (82 km along the railway track that runs between Cusco and Machu Picchu). It reaches a maximum altitude of 4200m so it is really important to have acclimatised fully before attempting the hike. Some operators offer a shorter trek, about 15km, which starts much closer to Machu Picchu, and can usually be completed within a day.

An alternative approach is to travel from the Cusco area, Urubmaba or Ollantaytambo by train. There are a number of options depending on your budget, from the relatively cheap to the downright decadent. Some trains are for Peruvian visitors only, so that local people can visit their country’s most famous attraction. We travelled on the mid-range Vistadome from Poyroy, a station located around 20 minutes from Cusco. It was an early start and the trip took around three and a half hours to arrive at the valley. A light meal and drinks were provided on the way and the views were stunning.

Transportation will be waiting close to the station when you arrive and you will need to buy a ticket to catch a bus that will take you up a road with an inordinate number of hairpin bends to the entrance, on a journey that takes around half an hour.

Arriving At Machu Picchu

Whether you arrive by trail or train it’s the most spectacular sight.

Visit Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was an Inca city that wasn’t located by the Spanish Conquistadors and hence wasn’t plundered or destroyed. It was discovered by American professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. Inca architecture really is remarkable (there are many examples throughout the Sacred Valley between this site and Cusco). The dry stone wall structures are not square, doorways are trapezoidal and the stones are laid in such a way as to provide strength and flexibility. Many of the stones have multiple angles and are cut and sometimes polished to fit together perfectly. They have survived centuries of earthquakes, remaining standing long after the Conquistadors’ flimsy structures had toppled over.

Machu Picchu inside

Although the functions of many of the buildings are not known for sure, archaeologists and anthropologists have determined that Machu Picchu was an important ceremonial site built as a royal estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti.

The function of the Funerary Stone is not fully clear but it is thought that it might be a sacrificial altar.

Visit Machu Picchu
Visit Machu Picchu

The Temple of the Sun was likely to be an astronomical observatory. Niches in the walls may have been used for offerings. There is a rock in the centre which lines up with the morning rays of the sun at the summer solstice.

The Royal Tomb – Palace of the Princess may have housed the Sun princesses or Ñustas. This structure takes full advantage of the natural rock formation.

Machu Picchu Palace of the princess

Best Time to Visit Machu Picchu

The Temple of Three windows is in the area considered to be the Royal Sector. Most archaeologists now believe that the site was built as an estate for Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth Sapa Inca, that is, the emperor of the Inca empire.

The Principal Temple is the largest of the temples in the Royal Sector and has three sides with huge foundation blocks and carefully cut stones.

Visit Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu

It is thought that Intihuatana was used by the Inca people as a sundial. It could have been used to predict the solstices. The shape of the rock resembles Huayna Picchu, the mountain located directly behind the stone.

The mortar district is characterised by the stone circles carved into the rock. The area is also known as the industrial sector. It was originally thought that the mortars were for crushing grain but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for this.

Visit Machu Picchu

The Condor Temple was originally considered to be part of a prison zone but experts these days believe it was more likely to be a temple. One of the rocks has the appearance of the head of a condor, a bird considered to be sacred to the Incas.

And the terraces – both internal and external – are simply spectacular.

The site is huge and there’s still more of the city still to be reclaimed from the jungle – archaeologists are working at uncovering more ruins.

Overnight Stay

Most visitors who visit Machu Picchu are day-trippers but we decided to spend one night at the local village Aguas Calientes (which literally means ‘hot water’ on account of the hot springs) also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo or Machu Picchu Town, in the valley below. We visited before the new restrictions came in which meant that we could hang around the site until sunset when it becomes significantly less busy. (There is just one hotel at Machu Picchu itself and it is expensive.)

Best Time To Visit Machu Picchu

Aguas Calientes is set up for tourists – there are plenty of places to stay and restaurants to eat at. There are also thermal baths if you feel the need for a good soak at the end of a day’s exploration.

Climbing Huayna Picchu

Another essential thing we wanted to do as part of our visit to Machu Picchu was to climb Huayna Picchu on our second day. We recommend buying two tickets – one to visit the main site and another to climb Huyana Picchu the following day.

Only 300 people are allowed up there each day, and entrance is timed into hourly slots.

We started off early in the morning and caught the first bus from Aguas Calientes.

It’s actually an easier climb than it looks, although you do need to be reasonably fit, and took us about an hour to get right to the very top.

Huayna Picchu

There is a need to wiggle through some rocks on the path.

Needless to say, the view was stunning.

Huayna Picchu view of Machu Picchu

A rufus collared sparrow clearly took the easy route up.

Huayna Picchu view of Machu Picchu sparrow

There are llama and alpaca lawnmowers roaming freely around the whole site and they’re clearly very used to hordes of tourists passing through.

Machu Picchu alpaca

Practical Info About Visiting Machu Picchu

With the new restrictions on visitors book your tickets early! Really early – several months in advance.

There are no toilets on site. It is advisable to bring water, but take in a reusable bottle if possible.

Don’t bring loads of luggage. Bring ID – your passport will be fine.

You have a maximum of four hours at the site. Once you have exited you will not be allowed back in.

Other rules for visiting can be found here. https://www.machupicchu.gob.pe/prohibiciones/

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Inca Valley
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The rock churches of Lalibela in Ethopia
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How to Use Public Transport in Japan

Japan is the most brilliant country to travel through – with exciting, vibrant, neon cities contrasting with serene temples, castle and pagodas alongside some stunningly beautiful countryside, it really has something to offer everyone. You can read about some of the finest places to visit in our guide to Planning a Trip to Japan. The best way to see all these amazing sights is to use public transport. The Japanese transportation network is fast and efficient throughout the whole country. It is also really well interconnected and integrated. Here are some tips for how to use public transport in Japan and the various transport options you might choose to use.

how to use public transport in japan

Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you click through and decide to make a purchase we will make a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which will help towards the costs of running this site.

Travelling By Rail

Japan is famous for its rail network. It’s a great way to travel and is highly efficient. When planning your rail journeys we recommend the excellent Hyperdia site which has timetables and can offer information about all available routes.

If you are planning to travel through the country, it is worth considering a Japan Rail (JR) Pass. They are only available to visitors and, even though they aren’t cheap and the prices have recently increased significantly, they can represent good value. The rail pass would cover the cost of long trips between multiple cities. Beware though, if you are only staying in one city or even hopping between two (e.g. Tokyo to Kyoto and back) it’s not worth buying a rail pass. There is a JR calculator which can help you decide whether it is worth investing in a pass.

It is worth having a think about your trip when planning: If you want to spend a few days in Tokyo before travelling around the country, don’t activate your card until you need to travel outside the city. You might be able to buy a shorter duration card and hence pay less money. Alternatively you might want to consider inter-city buses which are slower but cheaper.

It is possible to buy 7, 14 or 21 day cards, either standard fare or Green Class (first class but, honestly, standard class is fantastic) and you can use them on most bullet trains as well. You need to order your pass before you travel.

You will get a voucher which you then exchange for a rail pass at a JR station. Not all stations issue passes but the main stations and stations at airports will have them. The clock starts ticking from the time you activate your card.

When using the JR pass, just have it ready at the entrance/exits to the platforms at the stations. You can’t go through the automatic gates but there will always be a station attendant on duty in an office at one end of the barriers. Show the card – with the date facing towards them – and they will wave you through.

In terms of knowing when you are arriving at your destination, most platform signs will have the name of the station in roman characters but they will be smaller than the main sign in Japanese. Keep an eye out for them – you’ll soon get used to spotting them. Also, many trains will announce the next station, so you can listen out.  The announcement will be along the lines of, “Tsugi wa Destination desu.”

Travelling in Japan tips

Beware: Not all rail lines are JR. There are quite a lot of private lines running throughout the country, including in some of the cities, so you will have to buy a separate ticket. The delineation between the lines should be clear – if you are changing trains from JR to the private line you will exit the JR station (showing your pass) and can then use a machine to buy a ticket for the line you wish to use.

Fun fact: One of the delightful things about the Tokyo JR lines (and in other cities) is that each station has its own jingle – a short tune that plays when you arrive at the station. You can even buy CDs of all the tunes!

Using the Shinkansen – the Bullet Train

There’s a reason the shinkansen is known as the ‘bullet train.’ If you visit Japan do try to ride the bullet train at least once, it’s part of the experience. You can use your JR pass on all bullet trains, except the super-fast Nozomi. (Don’t worry, the other bullet trains are still very fast indeed.) Most electronic signs toggle between Japanese and English these days so have a look at the boards and wait a few moment to check which platform your train will depart from.

If you are using the shinkansen and have a JR Pass, you can reserve seats for free. Just pop along to a JR booking office – most stations will have them, and the station doesn’t need to be a shinkansen station – and book the seats. You will need to make sure you know which train you want to travel on. We often use Hyperdia to give us a timetable that shows us a variety of options and, as our plans for the day develop, we can point to the particular train we would like to travel on.

We do recommend making a reservation early if you know your plans. Sometimes trains can book up a few days beforehand, so you would have to rely on unreserved seating.

Your ticket will show the car and seat number. On arrival at the platform the car numbers are clearly marked. The platform will indicate where the train will stop for your particular car. Stand in the queue at your boarding point. Everybody is very polite and organised and it’s an efficient way of boarding the train.

Unreserved seating is available on most bullet trains but, as you would expect, you are not guaranteed a seat. We recommend showing up at the platform well before the train arrives and get a good place in the queue. The unreserved cars will be marked so follow the signage to that part of the platform.

Travelling on the shinkansen is a real pleasure. The seats are comfortable and have loads of legroom.

how to use public transport in japan

Foodie Tip: Don’t forget to get a bento box for your journey. It’s an essential part of the travelling experience. These are lunch boxes which contain all sorts of lovely delicacies. Many stations will offer ekiben (station bento) as local specialities.

You can buy food (and drinks, including alcohol) on the train itself. A delightfully low-key attendant glides up and down the carriage, gently asking if you would like to buy anything. But it is more expensive to buy food on the train so we often stock up at the station or a convenience store before we board. It’s absolutely fine to bring your own food.

Travelling in Japan tips shinkansen bento
Travelling in Japan tips shinkansen bento
shinkansen bento

There will usually be a vending machine or three on the platform  – vending machines can be found everywhere in Japan. You can even get a can of hot coffee from some machines!

How To Use the Metro/Subway

Many of Japan’s larger cities also have a metro system. You cannot use your JR pass here. You can pay for each journey but some metro lines have an all-day ticket pass, so it’s worth investigating those, depending on how much you plan to use the transport during the time period you are travelling.

Timing Tip: Metro stations can get extremely busy at rush hour. If you are planning to travel inter-city we recommend waiting until after 9am on weekdays before setting off. If you do need to leave early you may well see immaculately clad, gloved attendants on the platform ensuring that everyone can squish aboard the train.

We recommend buying an e-money card – Suica or Passmo are popular choices. You can charge your card and simply tap in and out of metro stations, the cost being automatically deducted at the gate machine. These cards can also be used in places like konbini – convenience stores – such as Lawson, Family Mart or 7-Eleven. They are often specific to the city/region so can’t necessarily be used all across Japan. For example, a Tokyo card is unlikely to work in the Kansai region.

Charging the cards is easy – most convenience stores will have the ability to do this. You can say, “kono kādo ni chāji shite kudasai,” and indicate the amount. Note that you will need cash to top up these cards, you cannot charge from a bank card or credit card.

If paying for individual tickets, there will be plenty of ticket machines at the metro station. The metro map may seem intimidating if you can’t read Japanese but there is usually an English map – although you might have to look for it. We’ve often downloaded subway maps in English onto our mobile phones. The prices are based on distance, so you need to check what your fare would be using the map.

how to use public transport in japan metro station

There is usually a screen which allows you to select a language and buy tickets in English.

The Japanese language machines may seem a bit daunting but are usually quite visual. You can often select the number of tickets by pressing the button showing the number of people (adults and/or children) travelling. These are the characters to look out for:

Adult (big person): 大人

Child (small person): 小人

If you get really stuck, we’ve often found local people hovering close to the machines, keeping an eye on us to see if we need help. If you say “Destination ni ikimasu” – I’m going to Destination – in all likelihood someone will help you. Don’t forget to thank them – “arigato.”

And if the worst comes to the worst, if you get the cost wrong, the barrier will close on you when you put your ticket in the exit machine and you can just pay the difference at the other end – there will be a member of staff in a booth who can take the excess fare.

When entering and exiting the platform either tap your card or put your individual ticket into the barrier machine. The barriers generally remain open but close rapidly if there is a problem. Be warned: don’t trip over them!

Tip: In Tokyo the Chuo (Rapid) Line and the Yamanoto Line are both Japan Rail so if you have activated your JR Pass you can use it on these tracks. The Yamanoto is a circular route and the Chuo goes straight through the centre of the city so you can reach plenty of stations. Both stop at Tokyo (labelled Tokio here) station where you can connect with the shinkansen.

Travelling on Buses in Japan

Japan has a good bus network which is useful if you are planning to explore some of the more rural areas. There are also bus connections in cities. There will usually be a bus stop close to the railway stations and often they are waiting, ready for the arrival of the train.

Buses can be a bit more challenging than trains as it’s sometimes difficult to know when you have arrived at your stop (although we have often asked the driver the name of the location we are planning to arrive at and they will indicate that you’re on the right bus).

You can ask, “Destination ni ikimasu ka”- does it go to Destination? The driver will indicate whether they do. If a driver crosses their arms in front of them in an X-shape, that’s an indication that the bus doesn’t go to that particular place.

Ticketing and payment systems can vary between companies. Some will have a fixed fare where you get on at the front door and pay the driver.

Others have boarding towards the middle or rear of the bus. When getting on, grab a ticket. It will have a number on it.

Travelling in Japan tips

At the front of the bus you will see a display with grid of numbers showing costs in yen that increase as the journey progresses.

how to use public transport in japan

When you want to get off, press the bell, then make your way to the front of the bus. The cost on the grid corresponding to the number on your ticket is the price and you pay the driver by putting money into the slot on your way out.

Some buses offer change, others don’t, so always try to keep a few 100 Yen coins in change. (And if you don’t spend the 100 Yen coins on the bus, you can easily spend the money playing video games in the multitude of city arcades – so much fun!)

If we’re unsure, we just copy the other passengers!

Ferries in Japan

Japan has a lot of islands along its coastline and there are multiple ferries that you can use to reach them. Ferries are generally easy to use. We have pre-booked some in the past, especially when we visited places that were part of our itinerary and we had already booked hotels. But if we are visiting a particular attraction, we just use ferries on the day.

Yakushima hydrofoil

Japanese Taxis

Taxis in Japan are pretty expensive, so we tend to avoid using them. They are usually clearly marked with a taxi light on the roof. Inside the windscreen there will be neon sign; a red light usually means available and a green light means the taxi is already occupied. You can hail a cab just as you would in many parts of the world. Drivers are reliable and courteous but usually don’t speak much English so it’s a good idea to have your destination written down in Japanese. Hotels/accommodation may have business cards, so you might be able to pick one up in the lobby – you can show it to your driver. 

If you do hop into a cab, the driver will open the door for you from the driver’s seat, it’s automatic. Payment is usually cash but some drivers might take credit cards. Most rides are metered but for some you may be able to agree a fixed fare based on a fixed journey – e.g. to an airport.

Hire car in Japan

If you are travelling in more remote parts of Japan a hire car may be a good option to explore the area. The Japanese Alps are great for driving through. We hired a car on the tiny island of Yakushima and found it was perfect for giving us flexibility. Driving is on the left, as it is in the UK.

Visit Yakushima Shiratani Unsuikyo

Air

It is possible to fly between locations but we wouldn’t recommend it. Even a long journey on the shinkansen would get you to your destination within a comparable time, especially after all the faff getting to an airport and going through security etc.

Most airports are located a fair way from the cities they serve – e.g. it is around a 1.5 hour journey from Shinjuku, Tokyo to Narita Airport. Most airports will have trains shuttling between the airport and the city. Some also have what are called limousine buses, coaches that will travel to particular destinations from the airport to the city.

Trams

Some cities have tram systems. We’ve used trams in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Hakodate and Kagoshima. They work in a similar way to buses except it’s often a bit easier to know when you have reached your destination because they are on rails and the tram stops often have a sign! They are usually fixed-fare and you pay at the end of the trip.

Some trams have machines will only take the correct amount of coins but a lot of the tram stops/stations will have a money changing machine where you can exchange notes for coins. Again, all-day passes are usually available and can be purchased ahead of time, often at stations or tourist offices. Some tram systems will also allow you to tap your e-money card if you have one for the area.

how to use public transport in japan tram

Transportation for your Luggage

Another tip for travelling in Japan is to use the amazing takkyuubin is a luggage forwarding service that will get your bags from one end of the country to the other overnight. It’s reasonably priced and highly efficient.  Although there are many companies, the most well known is Yamato Transport Co , characterised by its kuroneko – black cat – logo with a black cat carrying a black kitten.

We have used this service many times and it has always been exceptionally good. Every business hotel or ryokan we have stayed at has been entirely helpful in arranging the transportation. Say, “Takkyuubin dekimasu ka?” and the helpful staff will not only have the forms, they will fill them out for the luggage destination in Japanese for you. (You can say, “Nihongo o kakemasen” – I can’t write Japanese – if you have the hotel information in kanji).

The staff will often telephone the destination hotel to check that it’s okay for them to receive your luggage and they will hold luggage for a few days if needed. You need to do a little preparation – it’s advisable to send bags the evening before you travel at the latest. And we always make sure we have our next hotel’s name written in Japanese so that the staff can know exactly how to complete the form. (Accommodation sites such as booking.com offer the booking in local language as well as your native language.)

We’ve often sent our luggage to the hotel ahead of time, swanned onto the shinkansen carrying only a day pack, and arrived at our destination to find that our bags have already been sent up to our room.

Quirky Travelling in Japan

Ropeways and Funiculars

Japan is a very mountainous country and many cities have viewing points from the tops of hills and mountains. There are often ropeways and funiculars to take you up to the top so that you can enjoy the spectacular views.

Travelling in Japan tips funicular

Fun Fact: Did you know that Japan has three officially designated “top views”?

Scenic Japan
Scenic Japan
Scenic Japan

Pirate Ships!

The Fuji Five Lakes area is a lovely place to visit and reasonably easy to reach from Tokyo, even as a long day trip. There are loads of things to do – we particularly enjoyed taking the funicular over the smoking volcano where you can visit a splendid sculpture park. And you can take trips across the lake on a… pirate ship! If you’re super-lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the illustrious Mount Fuji, Japan’s national mountain. We were unlucky, unfortunately the area is often cloudy.

Travelling in Japan

Other Travelling in Japan Tips

It’s worth noting that Japan is still a largely cash-based society. Cash machines are being used more but you can’t always rely on them being available, especially if you are travelling outside the big cities. That said, Japan is also a very safe society and, although nothing is 100% safe, we’ve never felt uncomfortable carrying cash.

Some Useful Words and Phrases

Does this go to [destination][Destination] ni ikimasu ka
Where is the train station?Eki wa doko desu ka
Where is the bus stopBuseto wa doko desu ka
Where is…… doko desu ka
How much is this?kore wa ikura desu ka
Asking someone to point to a location
on a map (where is here?)
koko wa doko desu ka
Can I make a reservationyoyaku ga dekismasu ka
I have a reservationyoyaku ga arimasu
Train/bullet train/bus/cardensha/shinkansen/basu/kuruma
Please/thank you/excuse meonegaishimasu/arigato/sumimasen
Scenic Japan
Planning a trip to Japan
Osaka restaurants Japan Dotonburi
Enjoying Osaka’s restaurants in Dotonbori
rural Japan Ainokura
The Gassho Farmhouses of Rural Japan
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Visit The Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo
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A 2 Week Patagonia Itinerary

Patagonia is a dream destination for many people and we had longed to visit this stark, beautiful and remote region for several years. The prospect of travelling to the far southern reaches of the American continent and exploring its wild and beautiful landscapes, gorgeous glaciers and, of course, meeting penguins was irresistible. But unless you live in South America, it is a very long journey to reach Patagonia. And when you get there, distances are long. But it is possible to see many amazing sights within a fortnight. Here is our 2 week Patagonia itinerary.

visit Torres del Paine

Patagonia 2 Week Itinerary

This Patagonia itinerary is quite full on. It starts in Santiago, Chile and finishes in Buenos Aires, Argentina as those are the best cities to connect with most international flights. There is a lot of travelling and we mainly travelled on buses. They are reasonably cheap and pretty comfortable. It’s a very relaxing way to travel and a great way of seeing the countryside. And, needless to say, the scenery was spectacular all the way.

Please note that this post contains affiliate links. If you click through and decide to make a purchase we will earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which will help towards the costs of running this site.

Day 1 Fly to Santiago

Day 2 Santiago

Spend a day exploring Santiago. We don’t recommend flying directly to Patagonia immediately after your international flight, just in case there are any delays.

There are lots of options for things to do in Chile’s capital city. It is lovely to wander through and the metro system cheap and reliable. You can buy a BIP card and share it between your travelling companions. Our hotel kindly lent us a card and we were able to charge it with exactly the right amount of money for the journeys we wanted to take. We just asked the nice lady at the metro ticket office, told her the routes we wanted to take and she charged up the card accordingly.

Set in a valley amidst the towering Andes Santiago is undulating and features a number of hills popping up from the urban sprawl, many of which have become parks. San Christobal park is the largest green space in the city. You can ride the teleferico or funicular and there are plenty of attractions including a zoo, a number of gardens, swimming pools and playgrounds.

San Christobal park  Santiago

The city centre offers some interesting museums, including the national museum, which has some interesting historic objects including a large number of indigenous artefacts. The Museum das Bellas Artes is a grand building with interesting art exhibitions.

Foodie Recommendation: Make sure to visit the Mercado Central de Santiago – it’s the fish market which also has a number of restaurants. Avoid the big, flashy and expensive affair in the middle, there are loads of much smaller restaurants around the perimeter which offer great seafood at reasonable prices, although you may have to avoid the enthusiastic but not overly pushy touts.

Mercado Central Santiago ceviche
Mercado Central Santiago restaurant seafood feast

A slightly unusual option for Santiago is taking a day trip to wine country. Just a couple of hours’ drive from the bustling city is the Maipo Valley, where a lot of Chile’s splendid wine is produced. You can tour some of the wineries in the region and enjoy a tasting. Chile’s climate is suited to growing vines and the wines it produces are exceptional quality.

(NB – we didn’t do all these activities on the day before our Patagonia journey, we had visited Santiago on a previous trip. These are just some of the options for spending time in the city before travelling south.)

Day 3 Fly to Punta Arenas

Back to the airport for the five-hour flight to Punta Arenas. If the weather is clear you will see fantastic views of the Andes and will also fly over Chile’s ‘lake district’. Punta Arenas itself is around half an hour away from the airport and there are plenty of options for the 30-40 minute ride into town, including taxis and shared shuttle buses.

Located on the Strait of Magellan Punta Arenas has some interesting museums including Museo Naval y Marítimo, a maritime museum, Museo Regional de Magallanes, a grand mansion.

There are a number of monuments in the city, including Monumento A Tripulantes Galeta Ancud which commemorates the Strait of Magellan becoming part of Chile on 21st September 1843.

And a monument to famous Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan.

Foodie Recommendation: La Marmita, on Pl Francisco Sampaio 678, is an excellent restaurant to try local food. Guacano carpaccio, hare stew and Patagonia lamb were amongst the dishes we tried.

It’s more expensive than some of the other options but prices were reasonable, especially for the quality of the food. It’s popular so worth booking a table if you are likely to be eating in the evening. Don’t forget to try the local craft beer – there are a lot of varieties available and they are rather good.

Day 4 Penguin Excursion to Magdelena Island

You can’t come to Patagonia and not see penguins! One of the most popular things to do in the area is to take an excursion to Magdelena Island to see the Magellanic penguins. There are lots of tour operators who can arrange the excursion – many will offer a hotel pickup.

The trip involves a short drive to the coast where you will pick up a boat that will take you to Magdelena Island, which is located in the Strait of Magellan around 35km from the mainland.

The island is inhabited by over 100,000 Magellanic penguins and a just few rangers, so you have an excellent chance of encountering them. In fact, you may well be able to get very close. You are asked not to approach or touch the penguins but they may well waddle over to you!

2 week patagonia itinerary

They build nests in the ground, so you have to follow a clearly marked set route as you walk around the island. Nesting season is from October to March.

2 week patagonia itinerary

After around an hour walking round the island, it’s back on the boat to pass by Isla Marta to view the sealions, posing proudly on the shore and occasionally having a territorial spat.

There are alternative excursions available to see King Penguins on the Tierra del Fuego island. It’s a long day – a much further drive and you can’t get so close to the penguins, but if you’re passionate about penguins, it’s worth considering. We loved being able to get so close to the little Magellanics.

Day 5 Bus to Puerto Natales (4 hours)

The bus station in Puerto Arenas is located in the centre of town, so it’s easy to pick up the bus for the drive to Puerto Natales. This is a small port town which is quiet but friendly. It is the main stopping point for the Torres del Paine National Park so is geared for tourists and has plenty of hostels and restaurants.  

There is a lovely walk along the waterfront with the majestic mountains providing a backdrop.

Puerto Natales

Foodie Recommendation: Make sure you enjoy some of the seafood at the plentiful restaurants in the town. The crab is particularly good.

Seafood plate Puerto Natales
crab Puerto Natales

Day 6 Drive to Torres Del Paine

Although tour options such as coach trips are available in Puerto Natales (and indeed from Punta Arenas) we recommend hiring a car to explore this most spectacular region. There are a number of hire car companies in Puerto Natales – just remember to bring your driving licence and an international driving licence. You can travel at your own pace. Driving is very easy on clear roads (follow route 9) and you can choose your route and take your time to stop off at the many gorgeous attractions in the area. Depending on which entrance you decide to drive to the journey should only take a couple of hours, leaving you plenty of time to explore the park.

visit Torres del Paine

Days 7-8 Torres Del Paine

We have a full post about visiting Torres Del Paine. This wild, windy and wonderful wilderness was one of the highlights of the trip. You will need a ticket to enter the park and you have to register with the park authorities when you arrive.

Some of the main attractions include:

Lago Grey – Grey lake which is fed by Grey Glacier. You can walk a trail onto the strangely beautiful beach. Icebergs that have broken from the glacier contrast with the stark grey of the lake.

visit Torres del Paine

Salto Grande Waterfall

Salto Grande Waterfall

Laguna Azul

Laguna azul

You may want to hike to the famous Base de Torres. This is a seven-hour round trip so is possible to do in a day.

visit Torres del Paine

There is also plenty of interesting wildlife to see. You will be certain to see guanacos but maybe you will get lucky and see a large flightless rhea or even a puma!

visit Torres del Paine
Rhea Torres del Paine
puma

There are plenty of attractions to explore and hikes to enjoy, but make sure you have enough time to return the car to Puerto Natales.

Day 9 Bus to El Calafate (7 hours including the border crossing)

This is the longest bus journey and involves crossing the border from Chile into Argentina. The crossing takes a little time but is very straightforward. As you leave Chile, everyone troops off the bus, queues inside a little hut to get their passport stamped and jumps back on the bus. You will then drive a few hundred metres to the Argentina side whereupon everybody troops off the bus, queues inside a little hut to get their passport stamped and jumps back on the bus.

Don’t forget to keep your passport with you. It’s always good practice to carry it on your person instead of packing it into your luggage. Before you travel it would be wise to check whether you need any visas to enter Argentina.

El Calafate is a town that is often called the ‘gateway to Los Glaciares National Park’ as this is the primary draw for visitors.

There are lots of tour companies in town which can offer excursions. We recommend spending at least a couple of days here, particularly taking a boat trip to the Los Glaciares lake and another day visiting the stunning Perito Moreno glacier.

There are some things to do in El Calafate itself. It has a bird sanctuary, Laguna Nimez Reserva, which has some 80 different species of bird to see – local and migratory species. You pay a small fee and can walk around the lake. Binoculars and bird guides are available. If you’re lucky you may see some flamingos!

The Centro de Interpretación Histórica is a small but fascinating museum which showcases fossils, particularly of giant mammals that roamed the earth several millennia ago around the time of the last ice age. It’s a really friendly place to visit and you can enjoy a free cup of mate (pronounced matay) – a herbal infusion that is enormously popular throughout Argentina – indeed it’s the country’s national drink.

Just out of town is the Glaciarium, a museum inside a beautifully designed building, which is an impressive education centre focussing on glaciers and ice.

Foodie Recommendation: Vegetarians look away now. Meat eaters – you can’t come to Patagonia and not taste Cordero a la Estaca. This is Patagonian lamb slow roasted for hours on a spit above the flames of the fire. Because it is cooked on a vertical spit, the fats and juices from the cooking flow back into the meat constantly basting it and enhancing its flavour. It literally falls apart when it is served. If you go to a restaurant you are quite often given free bread with the meal – we found this offered more than enough carbs and was perfect for soaking up those luscious lamby juices.  

Patagonian lamb

The meat is great quality and utterly sumptuous. However, after a few days in the area we did find ourselves craving salad! (And it was available.)

It has to be said that good dining is more difficult – but not impossible – in Argentina if you don’t eat meat.

El Calafate also – curiously – has a sushi restaurant of all things! Well, we had to try sushi at 50 degrees south of the equator! We received a welcome from the friendly proprietors and, although the sushi was very much adapted to local tastes (salmon with cream cheese) it was tasty.

Day 10 Los Glaciares Boat Trip

As its name suggests Los Glaciares is a national park which is not only stunningly beautiful but is a place where you can really get close to the many glaciers of the region. A UNESCO site, thirty percent of this region is covered in ice and the park contains the world’s third largest ice sheet after Antarctica and Greenland. It has more than 40 glaciers in the area.

The first day involved a boat trip across the azure waters of Lago Argentina. Hotel pickups are available and you drive around 50km to Puerto Bandera to catch the boat.

The boat accommodates around 100 passengers. It travels across the lake towards the north channel to the Upsala glacier, South America’s largest ice sheet which is 50km long and 10km wide.

2 week patagonia itinerary

Icebergs regularly calve from the glacier and float serenely across the lake.

Cruising along the coastline you can see how the glaciers have slowly but surely shaped the landscape.

The next glacier is the Spegazzini. It’s just 1.5km wide but is incredibly tall.

Day 11 Perito Moreno Glacier Day Trip

What can beat viewing spectacular glaciers? Walking on a spectacular glacier, that’s what! The following day we enjoyed a visit to the Perito Moreno glacier where we could don crampons and walk on the ice.

Perito Moreno Glacier

There are various options from a couple of hours’ trekking to the Big Ice, an 8 hour full-on hike right onto the glacier.

Perito Moreno Glacier tour

The shorter visits are well worth doing. And there’s a treat at the end. You can read about the full details, including what clothing to wear, in this post.

Because this glacier is accessible by land there is also a viewing platform and boardwalk. So even if you don’t want to trek on the glacier it is possible to admire it. The boardwalk area has a restaurant and bathrooms.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Note: You need to pay a fee to enter Los Glaciares National Park each time and this usually isn’t included in the cost of a tour. As at 2023, the cost is $10,000 AR. We paid in cash, so it’s worth making sure you have enough money with you.

Day 12 Bus to El Chalten (3.5 hours)

Depending on where your hotel is located, the bus station is a short, cheap taxi ride away from the bus terminal on C510, and from there you can catch a bus to El Chalten. It’s around a 3-3.5 hours journey but the scenery is just lovely. When you arrive, the bus stops briefly by the tourist information hut, which is located just out of town. Here you can get a hiking map and briefing about the area in English or Spanish. Then hop back onto the bus for the three-minute drive across the pretty river to the terminal. El Chalten is a very small town and many hotels/hosteria are within walking distance of the bus terminal, but plentiful taxis are available if needed.

View of El Chalten

Day 13 Hiking in El Chalten

El Chalten is a hiker’s haven and a climber’s paradise. There a loads of trails in the area, ranging from easy to challenging amidst stunningly beautiful scenery.  There are many serious climbers who want to attempt the granite heights of the Fitz Roy Massif, but there are some fantastic walks for casual – and significantly less ambitious – hikers. The weather can be very variable and some paths may be closed off for safety reasons if the wind is howling more than usual – and it howls a lot! But even the easier walks are guaranteed to offer great hiking in gorgeous scenery.

Hiking in El Chalten

We have details of the hikes we enjoyed in this post.

Hik

Foodie Recommendations: There are a number of restaurants in the town which offer local fare. There is also craft beer available and the quality is excellent, perfect for a post-hike drink.

Day 14 Bus to El Calafate (3.5 hours)

Depending on when you wish to leave for Calafate (and if the weather is on your side) there may be a chance to get in a few hours’ hiking in the morning. There are regular buses to take you back to El Calafate. It’s worth noting that even if you have pre-booked tickets you may be able to catch an alternative bus. There isn’t a lot to do in town if the weather is bad and you have checked out of your hotel/hosteria. We had planned to do more walking on our last day but it was really wet and very windy and not much fun for hiking. Our lovely hosteria hosts phoned through to the bus station and arranged an earlier bus for us.

Day 15 Fly to Buenos Aires

El Calafate has an international airport around 16 km from the town so is ideal for getting back north. You can get a taxi or a shuttle bus – your hotel should be able to help arrange this.

As with our inbound our flight to Santiago, we gave ourselves a day in hand to catch our international flight, just in case there were delays with our flight from El Calafate. This meant we had a day to explore Buenos Aires before catching our flight home.

There are loads of things to see in BA. We stayed in the Palermo area, which is a cool place to hang out, with plenty of bars and restaurants if you just want to chill after your trip. But there are lots of sights to see within walking distance of Palermo. (It’s a fair walk, depending on where you are staying, so if you’re feeling a bit jaded at the end of your trip, it should be easy to pick up a taxi.)

We particularly enjoyed visiting the famous Cementario de Recoleta, a remarkable cemetery which comprises a huge number of highly decorated mausoleums and tombs. Many famous people have been interred there, including Eva Peron.

The Museo Nationales de Bellas Artes is a fantastic space for discovering local and international art. It’s free to enter and hosts a variety of permanent and temporary exhibitions. Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires, known as MALBA, also has some great exhibitions.

In the adjacent park is the Floraris Generica, a huge sculpture of a flower which opens and closes with the daylight.

There are a number of gardens in the area, including a Japanese garden and botanical gardens, where you can see the yerba mate tree from which mate tea is derived.

When To Visit Patagonia

In the southern hemisphere November to March is Patagonia’s summer, where the days are longer and the temperatures warmer, and hence the most popular time to visit. The shoulder season is November. We travelled in late October (we don’t mind the cold!) and were largely lucky with the weather.  

Dining and Drinking in Patagonia

If you are an omnivore, Patagonia has a huge amount of excellent food. The seafood in Chile is fantastic -with an incredibly long coastline the country has some of the best fish dishes on the planet. We particularly recommend the crab.

In Argentina the Patagonian lamb is an essential meat to try. Steaks are also available – they are good value and usually cooked very well. Guanaco often appears on menus – the flavour is akin to venison. Empanadas – pasties with a variety of fillings – are also fantastic and definitely worth taking with you on a hike or on the bus if you want a packed lunch. Vegetarians may struggle to find a decent variety of dishes but most restaurants will have vegetarian options.

In terms of drinks, Chilean and Argentinian wines are fantastic and there are even some vineyards in Patagonia, albeit much further north than the places visited in this itinerary! Beer drinkers will find a wide variety of excellent local craft beers.

Patagonia craft beer

The tap water is fine to drink. In some areas, notably El Chalten, you can even refill your water bottle directly from the streams and rivers as the water is pure.

Getting Around Patagonia

We travelled on buses throughout our trip, apart from the couple of days in Torres del Paine, when we hired a car.

Buses are large and comfortable and run on a regular schedule. There are usually toilets on board.

You can get tickets at the bus station or online and often your accommodation can help. We recommend pre-booking if you can, especially if you are travelling in high season – it means you can ensure a place on the bus. When you buy a ticket you will be assigned a numbered seat. The other great advantage is that the bus driver knows the route so you can simply sit back and just enjoy the scenery. Obviously delays can sometimes happen but all the buses on our journey ran on time.

El Chalten bus

It would be difficult to do this full itinerary using a car rental because you would be driving through two countries so would need a special permit to take a car from Chile to Argentina. And it would be either very difficult or very expensive to do a one-way return of the car to an agency in another country. If you wanted to drive it would be possible to rent a car in each country and just cross the border on the bus. But, honestly, the buses are a convenient – and much cheaper – way to travel.

What To Bring to Patagonia

Hiking boots/shoes. We recommend wearing these on the plane and putting your other shoes in your checked-in luggage. It’s easier to replace lost ordinary shoes than expensive, properly worn-in walking boots.

Warm clothing. Patagonia can be very cold and, even if it isn’t cold, it can be very windy. We suggest bringing lots of layers so you can add/discard clothes as required.

If you do the Perito Moreno glacier walk you will need long-sleeved clothes, long trousers and gloves. You will wear crampons, so sturdy shoes (or your hiking boots) will be needed.

Wet weather gear – although we were generally lucky with the weather on our trip, you never know when it’s going to rain! Ponchos are a good idea if you get caught in a rainstorm.

Sun protection and sunglasses

Water bottle, particularly if you are hiking.

Patagonia really is one of the most remarkable places on the planet. It is remote but the effort to reach this stunningly beautiful wilderness is emphatically worth it.

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Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge

Wiltshire in southern England can claim some spectacular Neolithic sites. Stonehenge is arguably the most famous prehistoric site in the world, but Avebury’s Stone Circle, just 30km away, is the biggest stone circle in the world. Avebury is less famous than its counterpart to the south but which of these monuments is better to visit, especially if you are short on time? Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge? There’s only one way to find out…

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Introduction to Stonehenge

Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell. Where the Banshees live and they do live well!” – Spinal Tap

Stonehenge is Britain’s most famous prehistoric site. Construction of this famous monument is believed to have started around 5000 years ago during the Neolithic period.

Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge

It is thought that the stones as we know them were established in around 2500 BCE. There are two types of stone used at Stonehenge – sarsens and bluestones. The sarsens are the largest stones, established in two concentric arrangements – the outer circle and inner arc. The bluestones were set up between them. It is believed that the arrangement was changed over the centuries.  

The stones were brought to the site from two different locations – the sarsens from Marlborough Downs, around 25km away, and the bluestones from over 250km away, from the Preseli Hills in Wales! The construction is surprisingly sophisticated with interlocking joints used to ensure stability of the monument.

The purpose of Stonehenge is not entirely clear. The stones’ layout is definitely designed to mark the changing of the seasons. It is thought that midwinter, rather than midsummer, was more important for the people who built Stonehenge – cold, dark midwinter marks the shortest day of the year. Thereafter the days would become longer with increasing light, warmth and the prospect of planting crops in the springtime.

The monument aligns with the midwinter sun as you approach Stonehenge from the avenue. It is uncertain as to whether the ancient people also marked the movement of the moon at Stonehenge. The moon has a more frequent cycle than the sun, so is a good measure of time.

The stones have been restored over the years. In 1918 a number of leaning stones were straightened and fallen stones re-erected. Some were also set in concrete. There have been some major conservation projects over the years and work continues to to preserve the stones to this day.

Visiting Stonehenge

When we were children, our parents could drive to Stonehenge, stop the car on the road and then you could walk right up to the stones, and even climb all over them. Not so, these days. Stonehenge receives over one million visitors every year.  

The monument now has a visitor centre with information about the site and its construction. You can just show up and buy tickets but you may have to wait to get in if the site is busy. You can buy tickets in advance for a timed entry and there is a discount available if you book online.

Once you have arrived you can spend as long as you like there. Parking is free if you have pre-booked or buy a ticket. You can visit for free if you are a member of English Heritage. If you are an overseas visitor you can buy a pass which will get you into over 100 sites in the UK, including Stonehenge. (This pass represents good value if you plan to see at least 2-3 historic attractions on your visit to the UK.)

The monument itself is located around 2 km from the visitor centre so you can walk or catch a shuttle bus to the viewing area. If you’re walking it takes around 25-40 minutes. Dogs are not allowed to visit but there is an exemption for assistance dogs.

The site can get very busy at weekends and bank holidays, as well as during the school holidays.

The Stonehenge VIP tour

It is still possible to walk around the stones. You have to arrive at the visitor centre outside normal visiting hours, either early in the morning or late in the evening. And, of course, you will pay a premium. These visits are extremely popular, tickets are limited and book up very early, so if you want to walk within the stones, plan ahead!

It does cost a lot but is the only way to get near to the stones these days, unless you are planning to attend – with thousands of other people – at the summer solstice. If taking the VIP option, you need to turn up at the bus stop around 10-15 minutes before your allocated time slot. The bus then takes a small group of people to the stones.

You are allowed to wander around them for around 45 minutes but are not allowed to touch the stones. A guide will point out various features. If you’re lucky it may be possible to time the visit for sunrise or sunset.

Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge

Visiting Stonehenge For Free

It is possible to see Stonehenge without pre-booking or paying. You can drive past the visitor centre and continue into Larkhill where you can park.

Then walk along Willoughby Road to reach the public footpath which will take you across the fields that lead to Stonehenge.

You won’t be able to get amongst the stones (most visitors don’t anyway unless they’ve paid for the VIP experience) but you should get a good view.

An alternative, and longer, route is walking from Woodhenge (see below).

You can also visit Stonehenge for free for the summer solstice on 20th to 21st June each year. It is likely to be very busy and there are terms and conditions for entry to the site.

Getting to Stonehenge

Driving is the most efficient way to reach Stonehenge, either driving to the visitor centre or Larkhill. If it’s not possible to drive, there are plenty of coach tours that will offer a day trip from a number of UK cities.

Other Attractions Near Stonehenge

Woodhenge is around 3km (as the crow flies) from Stonehenge and similarly dates from about 2500 BCE. It comprises concentric posts in six oval rings. The structure was around 40m long and 30m wide and thought to be a ceremonial site.

Originally made from wood, the timber has long gone, rotted to obscurity, but after the site was discovered, concrete pillars were inserted into the ground to indicate where the posts would have been located.

Parking is free. You can walk to Stonehenge from Woodhenge via a country path or along the roads. (Another way to visit Stonehenge for free.)

Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge

Introduction to Avebury

And you, my love, won’t you take my hand? We’ll go back in time, to that mystic land.” – Spinal Tap

Avebury is located just 30 km north of Stonehenge (as the crow flies). It is less well-known but is actually the world’s largest stone circle and is even older than Stonehenge. It is thought that construction started in around 2850 BCE.

The main henge comprises an enormous circular bank and ditch which encloses a large circle of around 100 stones which is 1.3km in circumference. Two smaller stone circles are contained within this henge. There are also stone avenues leading to the henge, suggesting that this was probably a ceremonial site.

Key Features of The Avebury Henge

As you drive through Avebury village it is impossible to miss the enormous stones. The henge is huge and you can walk through the fields to see all the stones within the boundary of the site, defined by the enormous banks and ditches.

Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge

You will need to cross a few roads to reach all the stones. (Take care, some of the roads are on bends, so it’s not always easy to see oncoming traffic.)

Just to the south of Avebury is West Kennet Avenue – two rows of standing stones leading to the Sanctuary. Originally comprising over 100 stones, set in a corridor formation, many of the stones were lost over the years.

The stones are very large, but not as big as the ones at the henge. Some are long and thin, others are more triangular/square in shape. Where stones have been lost, there are markers in the form of concrete pillars that show where the original stones would have stood.

Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge

Visiting Avebury

Again, it is easiest to drive to Avebury if you can. There is a car park, operated by the National Trust, which is located a few hundred metres from the main site. It has a charge but is free to members of the National Trust.

Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge

If you aren’t able to drive, you can book a coach tour to Avebury (which often incorporates Stonehenge as well).

 

The site itself is free to visit and you can walk around the stones.

We recommend bringing walking shoes or boots as the site can get a bit muddy and there are flocks of sheep who share the stones with the visitors  – and a fair amount of sheep poo in the fields!

Visiting Avebury For Free (i.e. avoiding parking charges)

There is a car lay-by on the B4003 next to West Kennet Avenue. If you get there early enough (and you will need to as it’s not a large lay-by) or are lucky enough to arrive when someone is leaving, you may be able to park there to walk up the West Kennet Avenue and into Avebury itself.

There is also a small track near Beckhampton close to the Adam and Eve stones where you can park up, but you would have to walk along some of the road to reach Avebury and it’s a fast road.

Alternatively, if you are staying in the area, your accommodation should be able to let you park with them, even if you arrive earlier than the check-in time. Just check beforehand.

Further Neolithic Places to Visit Around Avebury

Silbury Hill

This is Europe’s largest pre-historic man-made earth mound, rising to 30 m in a very satisfactory circular conical shape. Although it is a lush green, grassy hill these days, it was originally kept free of grass, the stark, gleaming white of the underlying chalk standing out against the countryside. It would have been seen for miles around and must have been quite the sight for Neolithic visitors. There is a free car park but you are not allowed to climb the hill these days, the only restriction in the area.

West Kennet Long Barrow

Built in 3650 BCE this barrow was constructed as a chambered tomb. When it was excavated in 1859 nearly 50 people were discovered to have been buried there, along with some of their artefacts. The tomb was sealed in around 2000 BCE and sarsen boulders were used to block its entrance.

There is a car lay-by on the A4 near the footpath to the barrow where you can park. Walk up the hill across the farmland. Like so many of the Avebury sites, you can climb onto the barrow and venture inside.

The Sanctuary

A temple that was constructed from both standing stones and wooden posts sited in concentric rings this was probably a ceremonial temple and is thought to have been built in around 2500BCE. It can be found at the end of the West Kennet Avenue, on Overton Hill, which suggests that it was linked to the henge at Avebury.

Adam and Eve Stones

Located near Beckhampton, just turn off the main road before the roundabout (coming from Avebury) and at the end of the track are two standing stones. It is thought that Eve, the smaller stone, formed part of the Beckhampton route into Avebury.

Other (Non-Neolithic) Attractions in Avebury

Avebury Manor

Dating from the 16th century this manor house was refurbished in 2011 as part of a BBC documentary. Each room has been decorated in the style from a different era – the living room is from 1930, the kitchen from the turn of last century. There are Tudor bedrooms and a Queen Anne room. One of the nice things about the manor is that you are encouraged to touch the objects (obviously treating them with respect) so it’s quite interactive. It also has a pleasant garden.

Alexander Keiller Museum

Keiller was an archaeologist who, having inherited a marmalade business, used his wealth to buy land around Avebury and conducted excavations at the site. A pioneering aerial photographer, he used his skills to understand the archeology of the area from the skies.

He first excavated at Avebury in 1937, clearing undergrowth and discovering buried stones (which naughty farmers had buried centuries ago). Many of the buried stones were recovered into their original holes and where there were missing stones, Keiller placed concrete markers to show where the stones would have been located.

He sold the land to the National Trust (for a nominal value, representing the cost of the farmland) in 1943, hence helping preserve Avebury as an important archeological site. This small museum documents some of the artefacts he found in the area.

There is a fee to enter the manor and museum but National Trust members can visit for free, as can English Heritage Overseas Visitors with the pass.

Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge – Which Is Better?

So you only have time to visit one of the attractions, which do you choose? In our opinion, Avebury is the hands-down winner. Here’s why:

Avebury is free to visit.

You can arrive at any time. Avebury receives fewer visitors than Stonehenge (around 250,000 visitors each year) but is a popular attraction for those in the know, so it can get busy at certain times of the year. That said, it is much bigger and spread out over a wider area so there is more space for everyone to enjoy their visit.

You can walk around the stones and even touch them.

There are lots of other interesting megalithic features at Avebury and some fantastic walks in the lovely English countryside to see them.

There is a pub in the village, amidst the stone circle!

You can stay overnight in Avebury village or close by. This means that you can enjoy the stones in the evening, after the day-trippers have gone home, and earlier in the morning, before the next bunch arrive.

We stayed at the Dorwyn Manor, less than a kilometre’s walk away. It was a great choice, a lovely bed and breakfast hotel with excellent brekkie and an honesty bar (help yourself to some drinks and pay the following morning). We were able to park in their spacious car park as soon as we arrived. Pub grub and local beers are available at the Red Lion pub in the village centre – reputedly one of the most haunted pubs in Britain!

Both sites are undoubtedly of huge historical importance and both are fascinating to visit. But whereas Stonehenge is an icon – precious and protected and to be admired from afar, Avebury is  intimate and inviting and leaves you wanting more.

Stonehenge is a world-famous destination and is great to have ticked off the list but we could go back to explore Avebury time and time again. And indeed we have!

Avebury Stone Circle vs Stonehenge

 

 

Visit Petra in Jordan
Visit Petra in Jordan

 

Machu Picchu

 

Visit Machu Picchu in Peru

 

 

Lalibela Ethopia Churches

 

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

 

Visit Angkor Wat Ta Prohm

 

The remarkable temples of Angkor Wat

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RECIPE Oyakodon Donburi

Oyakodon is a hug in a bowl – the ultimate in Japanese comfort food. Donburi are rice bowls topped with meat, fish, vegetables and other delicious ingredients. Oyakodon is a special type of donburi, which means ‘mother and child’. This is because the main components are chicken and egg! It’s an easy dish to make at home, so here is our recipe for oyakodon.

The great thing about oyakodon is that it is a simmered dish – no frying is needed. It’s also a one pot dish, where (apart from the rice) everything is cooked in the same pan.  It has a lovely complex flavour – umami from the dashi (stock), salty from the soy sauce and sweet as well, a great combination.

There are specialist oyakodon restaurants in Japan – the dish is cheap and popular and, of course, delicious.

Recipe Oyakodon

The base of okyakodon is dashi, a Japanese stock usually made from kombu (kelp seaweed), bonito flakes (shaved fish flakes) or shiitake mushrooms. The ingredients are simmered in water for several minutes and then removed leaving a clear stock full of umami flavour. Dashi forms the basis of many Japanese soups including its famous miso soup.

We have a recipe for dashi here. But if you don’t have time (or ingredients) to make dashi you can buy dashi powder online or at Asian supermarkets. It is possible to make oyakodon without dashi and still get bags of flavour. If you can’t find the powder or don’t want to use dashi, chicken stock or a stock cube will add excellent flavour.

We always use chicken thigh meat to make oyakodon as it has loads more flavour than chicken breast. Interestingly, while chicken breast meat is more expensive than thigh meat in the UK, it’s the other way round in Japan. Chicken thighs are considered to be the best meat for this dish. However, if you prefer chicken breast it’s absolutely fine to use that instead – the flavour of the broth is fantastic and because you are simmering the meat, it won’t go dry but will remain tender and juicy.

Oyakodon Equipment and Pans

If you go to an oyakodon restaurant in Japan they have special pots to cook the food in for individual portions which means that you get the omelette perfectly balanced atop the chicken.

But if you’re cooking at home for more than one person, and are serving different portions from the same pot it’s a bit more difficult to get the fluffy omelette on top. But however you present the food, it is still guaranteed to taste delicious! We tend to use as small a saucepan as we can get the ingredients into – that is with the smallest diameter – in order to get the egg to rest on top.

We have a rice cooker which is absolutely brilliant for cooking rice. Add rice and water (twice as much as the rice by volume), pop on the lid, press the switch and it will cook the rice perfectly, automatically switching itself to a keep warm function. If you don’t have a rice cooker you can cook the rice in a saucepan – same ratio, just let the rice simmer until all the water has absorbed.

Recipe Oyakodon: Ingredients

2 chicken thighs per person

1 onion

100ml dashi (if you can’t get dashi use chicken stock)

1 tbs soy sauce

1 tbs mirin (If you can’t get mirin, use cooking sake. If you can’t get cooking sake use white wine. Whatever substitute you use, add an extra teaspoon of sugar.)

1 tsp sugar

2 eggs

Rice – about 100g per person

2 spring onions (green onions) to serve

Recipe Oyakodon

Method

Start cooking your rice. We use sushi rice as it has a nice texture. We put it in a rice cooker but you can use a pan on the stove. The ratio for both methods to use is 1 cup of rice to 2 cups of water. Cook until all the water is absorbed.

Chop up the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Slice the onion into thin slices.

Make the dashi or stock and add the soy sauce, mirin and sugar. Put into the smallest diameter pan you have (it needs to be deep enough to accommodate all the ingredients). Bring to a boil. When the liquid is simmering add the raw chicken. Stir it around to make sure each piece can cook.

Allow the chicken to simmer for about 5 minutes.

Recipe Oyakodon

Add the onion on top and simmer further for about 10 minutes.

Let everything simmer until the rice is cooked.

Beat the eggs gently in a bowl.

At last minute pour the egg slowly on top of the chicken and onions. Turn the heat off and let the eggs cook for a couple of minutes in the residual heat.

Recipe Oyakodon

Place the rice in a bowl.

Then slide the chicken, egg and any broth on top. This is the tricky part. You can buy special donburi pans which can cook an individual portion that glides neatly onto the rice bowl. But in a practical kitchen, when you are cooking one dish for more than one person and using a standard saucepan, it’s a bit trickier to produce multiple portions without the egg breaking up. So, you may not be able to get the perfect presentation but the finished result will still taste utterly delicious.

Recipe Oyakodon

Finely chop the spring (green) onions and use them for garnish. Enjoy!

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Day of the Dead in Campeche

Our trip to Mexico was a long time coming. Originally planned for March 2020, we had to cancel the trip a week before we were due to fly, due to the pandemic, and rearranged for November 2020. And then cancelled that due to the pandemic. Finally, we managed to make the trip two and a half years later. But we decided to time the new journey to coincide with Mexico’s Day of the Dead – Dia de los Muertos – celebration which takes place in late October/early November and are very glad that we did. We were to spend Day of The Dead in Campeche.

We travelled on buses through Mexico, starting in Mexico City, visiting Puebla, Oaxaca, San Christobal, and Palenque before arriving in Campeche. The journey then proceeded to Merida, Chichen Itza and finally Cancun. Bus journeys are cheap and convenient but distances can be long.

Campeche is around six hours from Palenque or just a couple of hours from Merida if you are travelling on the bus.

Welcome to Campeche – Aaaarrrr!

Campeche is the capital city of the state of Campeche and lies on the Gulf of Mexico looking out over the azure sea. It is known for its colourful city centre and history of piracy.

History of Campeche

Campeche’s name derives from the Mayan phrase, Ah-Kin-Pech, which apparently means ‘the place of snakes and ticks’, which doesn’t sound at all inviting. We can confirm that no snakes or ticks were encountered during our visit.

The Spanish landed at Campeche in 1517 on St Lazarus’s day – the 29th July – and named the location Lazarus. The conquistadors began their occupation of the Yucatan peninsula, consolidating it in 1541-2, when they founded the first enduring Spanish councils at Campeche and Merida. Due to its coastal location Campeche became an important port. Valuable goods such as gold and silver passed through the town but, because of this, it became a target for local pirates. In 1663 the Sack of Campeche, led by pirates Christophe Myngs and Edward Mansvelt, involved a mass of pirates from around the Caribbean who got together some 14 ships and 1400 men and plundered the port.

In 1685 Dutch pirate Laurens de Graaf launched an attack on the city and killed a significant proportion of the population. As a result of these horrific raids, the authorities decided to fortify the central zone and built an extensive wall around it.

Campeche became recognised as a city in 1744, the first in the region. The community developed something of a rivalry with those in nearby Merida, although both cities eventually worked together to try to form an independent state of Yucatan. However, they were integrated into Mexico in 1849.

Campeche’s fortunes have waxed and waned over the years. The city is incredibly photogenic with its well-preserved colourful buildings and pirate legacy and as a result it has attained UNESCO status. It isn’t one of the most popular destinations for tourists, partly because there are many other places to visit on the Yucatan peninsular, but we recommend spending some time in Campeche if you get a chance.

Things to Do in Campeche

There are plenty of walking opportunities, whether strolling along the Malecon walkway, looking out to sea, taking in the sights from the top of the fortified walls, or wandering through the colourful streets.

As well as walking along the walls, there are a couple of museums located in two of the bastions which are located at opposite ends of the wall closest to the sea.

As with many cities, we find the tourist information centre to be a useful source to discover the local attractions. The friendly staff were happy to help us get acquainted with Campeche and suggested places to visit.

Pirate Museum

Documenting Campeche’s history as a port city, this small museum showcases information and artefacts with a focus on understanding its fortunes at the hands of the pirates over the years.

It is a very honest exhibition and dispels some of the romantic myths about pirates and piracy. Although films such as Pirates of the Caribbean have given us the impression of swashbuckling buccaneers, the real pirates who attacked Campeche were often society’s outcasts – marginalised and brutal.

Interestingly, Sir Francis Drake, viewed by the English as a heroic explorer who circumnavigated the globe, was despised by the Spanish as a ‘privateer’, a person who engaged in maritime conflict. Although perhaps it’s not really that surprising – the English and Spanish were fierce enemies at that time and many of the attacks by pirates were sanctioned by the state as ‘commerce raiders’ to undermine Spanish authority in this region.

And, naturally, the museum has a bunch of creepy mannequins in the dungeon.

Don’t forget to head out to the city walls where you can see some of the cannon that defended Campeche.

Museo de La Arquitectura Maya

This small but interesting museum on Baluarte de la Soledad houses a number of archaeological artefacts that have been found in the region. Exhibits are in English and Spanish. It was particularly interesting to learn about the writing systems of the Mayan people.

The highlight exhibit is the elaborate and beautiful mask of the God K’wiil.

Make sure you climb up onto the wall at the end of your visit to get some fantastic views of the city in one direction and the Gulf of Mexico in the other.

The Cathedral

The cathedral is located at the eastern end of the Plaza de la Independencia and is the most important church in the city. Construction started in the 16th century, soon after the Spanish settlers arrived. The cathedral has been expanded and embellished over the centuries. It has two impressive bell towers and a stone façade.

The Sea Promenade

With its location right on the Gulf of Mexico Campeche’s seafront doesn’t have pristine sandy beaches, so isn’t ideal as a seaside destination. But Malecon de Campeche offers a 7km waterfront path and makes for a lovely walk looking out to the deep blue sea.

Campeche Food

Being located right on the coast there is plenty of seafood to enjoy in Campeche. Prawns are very popular. There are plenty of restaurants in the zona centro to choose from.

We enjoyed battered prawns with coconut and mango salsa and prawns with x’catic sauce. X’catic are a type of chilli which are long and thin and a pale green colour when ripe. They are commonly used in the Yucatan area and one of the specialities is x’catic in a cream sauce. While the chillies have a kick, the cream sauce mitigates some of the heat. And the sauce has an unusual blue-green colour.

Day of the Dead in Campeche

We were lucky to be visiting Campeche during the Day of the Dead. This festival takes place on the 1st and 2nd November each year but preparations for the celebrations start much earlier and it is likely that the famous Day of the Dead parades will take place on the Saturday or Sunday before.

Day of the Dead is a celebration for families to remember and commemorate the lives of their ancestors. The origins are slightly unclear but it is thought that they are a combination of the indigenous commemorations of ancestors with Christian traditions; the timing of the celebration aligns with Halloween/All Saint’s Day. The Mayan people believe that death is simply another element of life.

In the time leading up to Day of the Dead relatives will visit the graves of their ancestors and will tidy them and prepare for the festival. Some may even exhume the skeletons of their relatives to clean their bones for up to three years after death. Food will be offered to invite their loved ones to visit. The dead will arrive on the 1st November and return the following day.

Day of The Dead Ofrenda

In the days leading up to the celebration, families and businesses will set up ofrenda. These are like alters which are highly decorated and lay out offerings to invite their deceased relatives to visit them.

The food offered is real but it is rotated every day and replaced with new offerings. The previous day’s items are eaten by the family so as to ensure that food doesn’t go to waste.

There is special Day of the Dead bread, known as Pan de Muertos. The central bread roll represents a skull and the surrounding sections of the bread symbolise the rest of the body.

pan de muertos bread

Marigolds are an essential part of the ofrenda. We saw fields of marigolds as we travelled through Mexico. The flower represents the fragility of life and its orange hue provides a colourful addition to the ofrenda.

Additionally, photos of ancestors may well be on display. And ofrenda are not restricted to humans. People also remember their pets and offerings are made for those as well.

Sugar skulls are a traditional sweet eaten during the festival. These are pure sugar but it is possible to buy chocolate ones as well. They make lovely souvenirs.

sugar skulls day of the dead
chocolate skulls

Day of the Dead in Campeche – The Celebration

Throughout our journey across Mexico in the days leading up to Day of the Dead, we would see homes and businesses preparing for the celebration. Every hotel and restaurant had decorations and ofrenda set up.

The parades in the big cities such as Merida or Oaxaca are very famous and will generally draw large crowds. We were actually delighted that we were able to join the celebrations in a smaller city. Later on, in Merida, we were able to see further ofrenda and some more celebrations but the main parade was in Campeche.

We arrived on the bus in the late morning and made our way to Calle 59 to get our bearings. This is the main street that is usually buzzing with bars and restaurants but during the afternoon we were able to see the ofrenda being set up.

The city decorations reflected the pirate theme.

Day of the Dead in Campeche
Day of the Dead in Campeche

Costumes are an essential part of the celebration. Everyone was happy to pose for photos. It is also possible to get your face painted in full Day of the Dead make-up for a small fee.

Day of the Dead pirates
Day of the Dead in Campeche

Later in the evening the party started. We enjoyed watching the local children perform a dance with great enthusiasm.

Day of the Dead in Campeche

Day of the Dead in Campeche

Day of the Dead in Campeche

There was dancing…

…and, of course, the parade.

Day of the Dead in Campeche

What was lovely about celebrating in Campeche was that it was a much smaller festival – it felt more intimate because it didn’t have large crowds. Above all else, it was such a happy occasion. Everyone was welcome and joining in the celebration was encouraged. We had lots of conversations with friendly locals, who were very pleased to see us.

Even the dogs took part – this little one had possibly the cutest costume ever!

Traditional Food of the Day of the Dead

Along with the food offered to ancestors at the Ofrenda, there are some dishes that are traditionally eaten during the festival.

The most important Day of the Dead food in Yucatan is mucbipollo. It is made with corn bread and shredded chicken, wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked in an underground pit known as a pib. The Mayan word ‘muk’ from mucbipollo means ‘to bury’.

It has a crispy exterior and is delicious but is quite stodgy and very filling. The best street vendors will have queues of hungry punters waiting in line to enjoy a portion.

Mucbipollo Day of the Dead in Campeche

It is a great privilege to be able to join local festivals when travelling. Day of the Dead in Campeche was perfect for us as it was a much smaller, more intimate celebration than in the big cities and we were really welcomed.

And although the Day of the Dead imagery is macabre it is very much a day of joy.

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