15 Useful Things to Know About the Northern Lights in Sweden

One thing that tops many travelers bucket lists is a trip up to the Arctic for a chance at glimpsing the beautiful, mysterious Northern lights that dance across the night sky.

If you are planning a trip to chase the Northern lights in Sweden, you likely have a lot of questions: How much will it cost? Do you need to do any tours to see the Northern lights? Where exactly should I go to have the best chance of seeing the lights? How long should I stay? And how the hell do I get the best photos of ti?

I’ve written this guide to help answer some of the questions I get about seeing the Northern lights in Sweden, mostly from people who have found this post about traveling to Swedish Lapland on a budget.

Here’s some good news: Sweden is more affordable than its Nordic neighbors to the right and left, and luckily, it is one of the better places to see the Northern lights for a variety of reasons.

Aaaand here’s some bad news: No matter what, the Northern lights are unpredictable, and while visiting Sweden on a budget is possible, it is still not cheap by any stretch of the imagination.

Hopefully, this guide will illuminate (ha) some of your questions and equip you with the knowledge you need to successfully plan a trip to see Sweden’s Northern lights. If you have any other questions, please drop me a message in the comments and I’ll answer within a few days!

You will need to go way more north than Stockholm to see the Northern lights

One big misconception about chasing the Northern lights in Sweden is that you can see them all over the country. Unfortunately, this is not so in most cases! If there is an extraordinary amount of solar activity and an especially clear night, you may be able to catch the occasional glimpse of the lights from the Swedish capital. I’ve actually met Swedes who have never seen the Northern lights in their own country!

However, generally, Stockholm is too far south to reliably see the Northern lights. You’ll want to head north to the Arctic Circle in order to have the best possible chance of seeing the Northern lights. The regional hub of Northern Sweden is Kiruna, and there is both a train station and a small airport there. You can easily fly to Kiruna from Stockholm in 1.5 hours on Norwegian or SAS (I flew one way with Norwegian and the other way with SAS as each airline offered cheaper tickets on different days).

northern-lights-budget

Alternately, you can take the train from Stockholm to Kiruna or Abisko, which is a popular option but a little more expensive than flying… though to be honest, I think if you consider the cost of getting to and from the airport in all directions, the train works out to be a better – and more comfortable – deal.

However, the train does take about 17 hours, leaving Stockholm at 6 PM and arriving in Abisko around 11 AM. So if you are super tight on time, or the thought of being on a train that long makes you antsy, you may prefer flying.

Abisko has the best chance of seeing the Northern lights in Sweden

There is a special microclimate in Abisko National Park as a result of Lake Torneträsk, which basically pushes cloud cover away from Abisko at night. In a major snow storm, this won’t be the case, but generally, Abisko enjoys relatively clear nights compared to elsewhere in Sweden and the Arctic. Scientists estimate that if you stay in Abisko for 3 days during aurora season, you have an 80% chance of seeing the Northern lights — those are some good odds!

Also, the population Abisko is tiny – some 85 actual residents, plus a small but robust number of tourists staying in hotels and guesthouses. The perk of this is that there won’t be a lot of light pollution in Abisko. I was able to see the Northern lights just outside the door of my hostel at STF Turiststation, after giving my eyes just a few seconds to adjust to the dark.

The great thing about staying at STF Turiststation is that it’s the only accommodation actually inside of Abisko National Park, so I was able to walk to the frozen-over Lake Torneträsk in about 10 minutes, giving me a great, unobstructed place to see and photograph the Northern lights.

The Northern lights in Sweden can be seen from roughly September to April

This sounds obvious, but it needs to be properly dark in order to see the Northern lights dancing overhead. And if you visit during the peak of summer, which runs from May to August, it is not going to get dark enough at night to see the lights.

In fact, from May 25 to July 19, the sun doesn’t go down at all in Arctic Sweden (using Abisko as a reference point).

Must see Northern lights in Abisko

However, even after the midnight sun ends, it still won’t get dark enough at night until around the end of August. Similarly, while the end of April will still be quite cold and there will be a lot of snow on the ground still, the days are getting longer — about 18 hours long at this point — which gives you precious few hours of actual dark night to see the lights.

But if there’s no solar activity, you won’t see the lights

However, even if you go to Sweden during the aurora season, you are not guaranteed a Northern lights show. The aurora depends on solar activity. To get a bit geeky on you, here’s roughly how it works. Powerful storms on our sun’s surface send particles through our solar system – some of which make it our own pale blue dot, Earth.

Normally, these solar particles just pass over the lower latitudes without any special show. But close to the Earth’s poles, these particles interact with the geomagnetic field, creating light shows when the particles from the sun meet particles from the earth. For a more detailed explanation, this breaks it down quite nicely.

northern lights stf turiststation

So, what does all of this science mean for you? Basically, no storms, no show. But generally, the sun is a pretty active guy. You can use this aurora tracker to predict how the aurora will be over the next 3 days. There’s a lot of information on that site, but basically, anything above a kp 5 (rare) will be visible down in southern Sweden, and anything above a kp 2 (more common) will be visible in the Abisko region.

Still, it’s all just predictions, and nothing is ever guaranteed with the aurora.

The best time of year to see the Northern lights depends on what activities you want to do

Since the aurora can be seen as long as the sky is dark – roughly September to April – pretty much any time within that band will give you opportunities to see Sweden’s Northern lights.

Theoretically, the more hours of darkness there are, the higher your chance of seeing the Northern lights is. However, the deeper you are into winter, the higher the chance of winter storms is. And of course, the Northern lights could be doing the most spectacular dance in the world over your head, and you’d never know it if the sky is blanketed in clouds.

The truth is that while you have a good chance of seeing the Northern lights in Sweden during this time, you shouldn’t plan your whole trip around it. Instead, I recommend planning your trip based on what activities you want to do outside of seeing the lights. This way, you’ll still have a magical and memorable trip, even if the lights and weather don’t cooperate.

When not seeing the Northern lights, dogsledding is a fun way to pass the time

Most people want to see the Northern lights as part of a winter-themed trip, combining it with activities such as dog-sledding, visiting with reindeer, snow-shoeing, and ice-trekking. If that’s the case, I recommend visiting in late October/early November or late January/early February. I personally visited around the  middle of February and saw the lights 3 times (3 nights in a row!), but still had sufficient daylight hours to enjoy activities like dog-sledding.

Keep in mind that if you visit during the polar night, which runs roughly from December 7 to January 5, you won’t have any daylight hours. While there will be some twilight-like light and not pitch blackness during part of the day, it may be a bit disorienting and some activities may not be as enjoyable.

If you want to do hiking, Northern Sweden is an absolutely amazing place for that. The Kungsleden trail is a massive 440 kilometers long and is one of the most famous trails in Sweden. Much of the trail runs through prime Northern lights spotting territory. While you certainly don’t have to hike all of it, you could do a small portion of the trek – such as from Abisko to Nikkaluokta, about 100 kilometers – or shorter day hikes on and around the Kungsleden.

The Kungsleden trail is open until the end of September, so you can definitely combine some hiking days with Northern lights spotting at night, staying in one of the STF huts along the trail or wild camping if you prefer.

You’re more likely to see the Northern lights in Sweden than in Norway or Iceland

Norway and Iceland are two of the most popular places to go searching for the Northern lights, but Sweden actually has a much better climate for seeing the Northern lights.

Basically, anything that shares a coast with the Atlantic is subject to lots of fussy weather. I mean, there’s a reason why the UK and Ireland have notoriously gloomy weather!

Iceland’s weather is infamous for being fickle, and the same goes for Norway. Because Sweden is a bit sheltered from the Atlantic by Norway, which acts as a buffer (in my highly scientific understanding), you have more clear nights and therefore a better chance of seeing the Northern lights.

Iceland is also not necessarily in the Arctic Circle with the highest amount of solar activity. The higher latitude you are, the more likely you are to see solar activity at night. So if the Northern lights are your ultimate goal, I’d definitely opt for Sweden over other countries as a result of the relatively milder weather.

The Northern Lights are not as bright as they look

Now, to burst your bubble a bit – the Northern lights are not quite as green as they look in the photos. The photos you’ve seen of Sweden’s northern lights aren’t photoshopped, though: that’s the work of long exposure.

Basically, your eyeball is taking in light at, well – the speed of light. Meanwhile, your camera is able to take in light for longer than the split second that light registers in your eye.

Most photos you see of the Northern lights were taken over the span of 3 seconds to 30 seconds, meaning that your camera has captured a lot of light detail that your eye necessarily can’t.

That said, the Northern lights are definitely not invisible – they look more like a faint green, with occasional brightening pops of brighter neon green. On my final night seeing Sweden’s Northern lights, I was treated to a magical show of greens and purples, bands of light moving rapidly across the sky. The lights were so bright that I was even able to capture them looking bright green with a simple smartphone (which is not typical!).

So, don’t go expecting exactly what you see in the photos, but at the same time, don’t worry – should you be lucky enough to spot the Northern lights, you’ll be duly impressed.

You will need a proper camera to photograph the lights

I mentioned that I got super lucky and was able to snap a photo of the lights with my smartphone one night, but that rarely happens, and still, it didn’t do the lights justice. I had much better luck with my actual camera.

I’ve since upgraded my camera gear from my trip to Sweden in 2015, and now I recommend the Sony A6000. It is an excellent entry-level camera that gives professional results. You need a camera which you can change all the settings on: namely, you need to be able to adjust aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. If you are looking for a great travel camera that is affordable, this is my top recommendation.

If you are looking for a more advanced camera, the Sony A7R III is the top-rated mirrorless camera in the game, but it costs a fortune, so it’s only worth getting if you are serious about your photography. When I have the money to upgrade my gear, this is without a doubt the camera I am getting.

But you will also need a tripod

In order to properly capture the Northern lights in Sweden, you will need a tripod. This is because you will need to keep the camera steady for a minimum of 2 seconds or longer in order to get a proper, non-shaky photo. While you may think you can hold still for 2 seconds, trust me – your hands shake naturally (and will do so even more in the snow!) and any photos you take with a long shutter speed will not turn out properly.

I recommend buying a sturdy tripod for traveling in Sweden. I have used this cheapo Amazon tripod, but a proper sturdy tripod is a good investment if you are planning on taking your photography seriously. This one by Vanguard is one of the highest-rated in the industry for the price.

If you don’t plan on pursuing photography beyond the Northern lights, just buy a cheap tripod, but if you are planning to get more serious about landscape photography I highly recommend making an investment in a sturdier tripod.

Another thing to consider is that you will want to use either a self-timer (most cameras come with a 2 second and a 10 second option – 2 seconds should be fine to reduce camera shake) or a remote function to take photos. The Sony A6000/A7R III both have the capability to turn your smartphone into a remote. However, if you already have a DSLR or mirrorless camera that doesn’t have this remote function, you will want to purchase a remote that is compatible with your camera brand, such as this Canon remote or this Nikon remote.

Get comfortable with manual settings before your trip

One big mistake people make when trying to photograph the Northern lights in Sweden is that they don’t get familiar with their camera and tripod beforehand, especially if they buy new gear.  Take the time to read your camera manual and attempt some simple night photos at home before your trip.

You will want to use the largest aperture (which, confusingly, is the smallest possible “f” number your lens is capable of). On many cameras, that is somewhere between f.2 and f.4. You’ll then want to play around with your shutter speed and ISO.

Basically, you want to use an ISO that allows you to get a 3+ second exposure without degrading the image quality too much. On my Sony A6000, my images get grainy above 1600, but higher quality cameras can be cranked up to 3200 or even higher before getting very noisy and ugly.

I’m just an amateur photographer, so this is just what I’ve found from my own experience, but this guide to choosing settings for the Northern lights will likely prove helpful.

The cold will zap your batteries – fast

One thing to considering when trying to photograph the Northern lights is that your camera batteries will drain faster than you ever thought possible – same with your phone if you’re using that as a remote when shooting.

To combat this, you’ll want to bring several back-up batteries. I have these cheap Sony A6000 batteries and they work great – the best part is that it charges two batteries at a time. Grab one or two packs for your trip – it’ll come in handy! I found two fully charged batteries were fine for me, but you may want a third or fourth as back-up if you are shooting for a long time or if the weather is especially cold.

Finally, a small Anker portable charger will be your phone’s best friend, since your phone battery will drain quickly, too.

You don’t need to go on a Northern lights tour, but they can be helpful

If you are lucky with the weather and the timing, there is no need for a Northern lights tour – getting a good photo of the aurora is simply a matter of walking out your front door and setting up your gear.

However, if the weather is going to be unpredictable during your stay, or the aurora forecast is on the low side, you may want to opt for a Northern lights tour. These guys are highly skilled at chasing the Northern lights in Sweden and will do everything in their power to try to get you to a place where you can see the lights, although of course, no one can offer a guarantee. Your Northern lights guides will also bring you to beautiful photography locations where you can have an interesting photo composition, so it may be worthwhile if you are really looking to get some killer photos.

For people traveling on a budget, a Northern lights tour can be quite expensive and actually not really necessary. I personally saw the lights 3 nights in a row during my 3 nights in Abisko – but I may have been exceptionally lucky. Still, the first two nights, I only saw tiny glimpses of the lights from behind the clouds, and perhaps had I gone with a tour guide they would have driven us to a less cloudy location and I could have gotten better photos.

It’s up to you – I’d base it on a combination of your budget, how badly you want to see the Northern lights in Sweden, and how likely you are to ever return to this part of the world. It is far cheaper to pay for a Northern lights tour than a whole ‘nother trip up North!

The Aurora Sky Station is a bit of a rip-off, but their tracker is awesome

Similar to what I wrote above about Northern lights tours, the Aurora Sky Station in Abisko is not really worth the money if you are on a budget.

For one, while you are elevated above Abisko at 900 meters, that generally doesn’t really make a difference in terms of cloud cover. If it is cloudy at sea level, it is likely to be cloudy at the Sky Station. For another, the Sky Station is just that – a station. If there is bad weather at that spot, you are kind of stuck there, and you don’t have the freedom of jumping in a car and driving around looking for better conditions.

They also reserve the right to cancel in case of bad weather and provide a ‘substitute activity’ without giving your money back, so it is a bit of a gamble. Several people have been unlucky with bad weather and not been happy with the replacement activity.

However, the Aurora Sky Station does have a really nice dining experience, where you can take a chairlift up to the Sky Station and have a 4-course meal influenced by Nordic cuisine and Swedish ingredients. It is rather expensive, of course, but if you are really aiming for an unforgettable Northern lights trip it’d be a special thing to add to your itinerary.

Still – the Aurora Sky Station has an awesome live aurora cam! I stayed at STF Turiststation nearby, and instead, what I did was stay warm and cozy inside the hotel and check the live aurora cam every few minutes for a flash of green or see if the clouds were parting – at which point I’d head out with my camera.

Stay as long as you can – even if you’re on a budget

I was visiting Sweden on a short weeklong break, and I gave myself 3 days in Abisko National Park in order to try to see the aurora. While I was super lucky and saw a glimpse of it every night, and one truly spectacular light show, I think that 3 nights is the bare minimum you should spend up north if you are trying to see the Northern lights in Sweden.

There are tons of activities you can enjoy during the day in Swedish Lapland, from husky sledding (a must-do) to snowshoeing to ice-climbing to snowmobiling to just going through wintry hikes in Abisko National Park. You can also ski at nearby Björkliden or go into town to Kiruna for a day of sightseeing in this surprisingly charming mining town.

Kiruna Church Sweden - the jumping off place to see the Northern lights

Many hotels and guesthouses offer free or low-cost snowshoes and cross-country skis during your stay, which is a great way to keep your costs down on a longer stay. Even just sitting in a charming guesthouse with a crackling fire and a cracking book is a good time – so I highly recommend extending your stay to however long is possible, especially since transport is one of the biggest costs and accommodations in Abisko are rather reasonable.

The longer you stay, the better your chances of seeing the Northern lights, so if you can stay for 5 days or better yet a week in the North, then all the better.

Don’t forget to dress warm!

This is yet another “duh” item, but seriously – don’t underestimate the cold! If you are chasing the Northern lights in Sweden, you may be outside for several hours at a time, at temperatures below freezing. A good jacket (I love my North Face parka), thermal layers like these from 32 Degrees, a tight-fitting hat, a warm scarf, and sturdy waterproof gloves are absolute essentials for visiting Arctic Sweden.

I’ve actually written a complete packing list for Northern Sweden, which you can find here.  If you don’t have proper winter gear, you will definitely want to buy it beforehand, as consumer goods in Sweden are quite expensive and you will pay a huge premium on clothing you buy in Sweden compared to what you can buy on Amazon back home.

frozen waterfalls in Abisko National Park

Where to Stay to See the Northern Lights in Sweden

Like I said, don’t expect cheap in Sweden, but at the same time, you can find a variety of accommodation options that are suitable for different budgets.

Budget: The best option for where to stay in Abisko if you are traveling on a budget is hands down Abisko Guesthouse. Prices here are extremely reasonable, but the rooms are quite small as a result, and the facilities are more akin to hostel than a hotel. Still, it has nice perks like free use of a traditional Swedish sauna! You won’t be staying in Abisko National Park itself (my preference) but it is a great location nonetheless, easily walkable to town where you can buy groceries and other necessities. It’s especially good if you want to plan a longer, active holiday because the prices are low and they have a lot of activities they can help you book, from snowmobiling to husky-sledding to ice-climbing and beyond. As it’s the most reasonable option by far, it does tend to book up, so click here to check rates, availability, and reviews well in advance of your trip.

Mid-Range: This is where I stayed when in Abisko – we were initially planning on staying elsewhere in Abisko, but a last-minute problem at our guesthouse left us getting booked in here. We certainly didn’t complain as it was quite an upgrade! STF Turiststation is located in Abisko National Park a short distance from the shores of the frozen lake. With two amazing, well-stocked kitchens (truly the best of any facility I’ve ever stayed at), tons of areas to lounge around in, extremely reasonably priced breakfast and lunch buffets, and two of their own saunas, STF is in my opinion the best place to stay in Northern Sweden. Click her to see rates, availability, photos, and reviews.

Luxury: Icehotel in Jukkasjarvi is famous for a reason – this gorgeous hotel is one-of-a-kind. What a lot of people don’t know, though, is that this hotel has both cold rooms made of ice and traditional hotel rooms called ‘warm rooms’ which are much more affordably priced. If you wanted, you could do one night in an ice room to have the crazy, once-in-a-lifetime experience and then spend a few nights in one of the warm rooms. The cold room is -5C — so very cold — but it comes with a sleeping bag with a liner, so that you will be kept warm even as you sleep in a room made of ice. Just note that Jukkasjarvi is far from Abisko, and it doesn’t have quite the same luck that Abisko does in terms of pushing the cloud cover away, but it is located very far from any source of light pollution and you still have an excellent chance of spotting the Northern lights  in Jukkasjarvi. The Icehotel understandably is quite popular, so book in advance if you have your heart set on visiting it. Click here to check rates, availability, reviews, and photos!

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Planning a Northern lights trip? Try chasing the Northern lights in Sweden. Swedish Lapland is one of the best places on earth to see the aurora borealis. Here are 15 things to know before planning a trip to Northern Sweden! Tips on Abisko, Kiruna, Jukkasjarvi / Ice Hotel and beyond.

30 Unique Things To Do In Kyiv, Ukraine’s Lovable Capital City

Note: This post was written in 2018 prior to the invasion of Kyiv by Russian forces. It is obviously not safe to visit Kyiv at this time. I will not be updating this post until the war is over and it is safe to travel in Ukraine again. I stand with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, as well as the brave Russians who risk their freedom to protest against this senseless war. I look forward to visiting Ukraine again when it is safe to do so. Slava Ukraini <3

Within minutes of stepping foot in Kyiv, I knew I had discovered one of my new favorite cities.

I had a feeling I would like Kyiv – after all, I did book myself two weeks there, with the intention of getting to know the city under its skin a bit. And I am so glad I followed that initial impulse and really got to know the city.

Kyiv to me feels like a city on the rise, improving rapidly. To put it simply, the energy in the city is electric.

There are new businesses opening up on every corner, catering to a new generation of locals who are more upwardly mobile than generations past and more excited for their country’s future.

And it shows in the streets. Hipster coffee shops and trendy cafés are popping up on nearly every block. Street art is on every other corner. There are restaurants that serve brunch that would make an Australian weep with joy. 

Yet meanwhile, the old way of Kyiv continues. Vintage trams totter along on shoddy streets, ancient metro cars roar along the well-worn tracks, and paint is peeling from every other facade.

Towering above the new and old, the polished and the decaying, are the stately, gold-domed cathedrals everywhere.

Standing tall above the city of Kyiv, they remind you just how important Kyiv has been – and will be – throughout the centuries.

I could go on about why I’m so obsessed with Kyiv for hours – but I digress. Let’s get down to business. After spending two weeks enjoying this beautiful city, here are my top things to do in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Discover the mummies of the Pechersk Lavra

Also known of the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves, the Pechersk Lavra is hands-down the most interesting Orthodox monastery I’ve ever been to.

And considering I live in the Balkans and travel more in Eastern Europe than anywhere else in the world, that’s a superlative that means something.

The Lavra complex is quite large. After paying for entrance into the complex (about 25 hryvnia, or ~$1 USD), you’ll pass through a beautifully ornate gate with painted iconography and gilded in gold.

One of the first things you’ll see is the Great Lavra Belltower, which at a height of nearly 100 meters was once the tallest belltower in all of Kyiv.

There are several churches within the Pechersk Lavra complex, but one of the most interesting is the Dormition Cathedral, which was built in the 11th century but completely destroyed in World War II.

The church was painstakingly restored and is now a convincing replica of how it used to be in its heyday.

But I haven’t gotten to the most interesting part of the Lavra yet: the labyrinthine cave monastery located further down the hill, which was built in 1051. 

This complex of tunnels and crypts is every bit as unique as it is spooky. Admission is free, but purchase a candle for 3 hryvnia to light the way (and add to the creepy ambiance).

Over 100 important Orthodox figures have been buried in the Lavra complex over the past millennia.

If you look carefully at the coffins, you’ll notice that under the robes, there are actual dead bodies — look for the telltale mummified hands. Undoubtedly, it’s one of the creepiest, yet most interesting things to see in Kyiv!

Marvel at the Microminiature Museum

The nondescript entrance to the museum – don’t miss it!

While I wanted to put this first, the Microminiature Museum is located inside the Pechersk Lavra complex so you’ll have to pay for an admission ticket in order to even get into the area in which you’ll find the museum.

After that, you’ll have to pay separate admission to the museum, an additional 50 hryvnia.

The Microminiature Museum is exactly what it sounds: miniatures done on an extremely small scale, best appreciated through a microscope.

The level of technical prowess involved in creating these microminiatures is astounding, and Mykola Syadristy – the artist who created all of these miniatures – is unparalleled in the field.

In fact, even modern machines can’t replicate what he was able to accomplish with these microminiatures. Photographs are not allowed in the museum, but even so – they wouldn’t be able to capture what you see.

In the museum, I saw everything from a complete, perfect chess resting atop the head of a pin, to a camel and pyramid threading the eye of a needle, to a rose embedded in a single strand of hair.

The museum is small and can be seen in approximately 20 minutes, but it’s the best thing to do in Kyiv in my opinion. I left feeling like a giddy child.

Stop and shop at Bessarabsky Market

I went into Bessarabsky Market (Rynok) twice during my stay in Kyiv and loved walking around it.

The market is still used by locals today, even though it is rather upscale compared to other smaller markets you’ll find dotting the streets of Kyiv.

The produce is stacked beautifully and you’ll see lots of traditional Ukrainian products, like pickled everything and exotic caviar. I couldn’t stop marveling at the beautiful jars of pickled and preserved everything!

I should also pause here to give a shoutout to my favorite Ukrainian supermarket, Silpo, which is quite possibly the best supermarket in Europe and can be found in the ground floor of the Gulliver complex.

Seriously — you can’t miss shopping at Silpo. It’ll kill any stereotypes you ever had about traveling Ukraine – this place is like the Whole Foods of Eastern Europe, without the obnoxious price tags.

Enjoy the amazing third wave coffee scene

Forget any pre-formed ideas you have about Kyiv being a cold post-Soviet city — Kyiv is hip and modern as hell, and you’ll see this more than ever in the specialty coffee scene.

The coffee scene in Kyiv is simply amazing and luckily my friend Megan has already navigated it in great detail in her excellent Kyiv coffee guide.

I meant to go to more places on her list, but since First Point was only two blocks from my Airbnb in Podil, I ended up there nearly every day, guzzling their delicious flat whites and snacking on their amazing quiche and lemonade cake.

I did manage to visit Blue Cup on one of the rare days I pulled myself away from First Point and wasn’t disappointed either. Definitely a worthwhile stop for coffee if you’re near Maidan Square or Khreshchatyk – and they look like they have delicious salads, too!

Pay your respects to the victims of the Holodomor

Many people are familiar with the Chernobyl tragedy in Ukraine, but fewer people realize the extent of the suffering of Ukrainians during the 20th century at the hands of the Soviet leadership.

In two short years between 1932 and 1933, somewhere in between 3.5 and 10 million Ukrainians were starved to death in a man-made famine orchestrated by the Soviet Union.

Many believe that Stalin was the architect of this famine, targeting ethnic Ukrainians in order to quelch the rumblings of an uprising — something that certainly wouldn’t be out of character for a man like Joseph Stalin.

The Holodomor Genocide Museum is a poignant small museum located underground the Park of Eternal Glory, nearby the Pechersk Lavra complex. Admission to the museum is around 20 hryvnia.

There is not a lot of information in English available, but the most important symbols of the loss incurred during the Holodomor need no language.

The museum contains several books listing the names of those who died in each district (oblast) in a series of tomes that form a circle around the room, each book far larger than it should be.

A monument in the middle of museum shows a silo filled with grains of wheat – each grain of wheat represents one soul lost.

It’s a small museum that can be seen in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes, but visiting is an important part of understanding 20th century Ukraine, in my opinion.

Meet (and perhaps climb) Rodina Mat

During your time in Kyiv, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll catch a glimpse of Rodina Mat, otherwise known as Mother Motherland.

At a whopping height of 340 feet (over 100 meters, including her sword), located on top of one of Kyiv’s hills, she’s apparently the 18th largest statue in the world (suck it, Statue of Liberty, who is a measly #42).

Nearly every SSR had some version of the Motherland monument – I’ve seen similar monuments in Yerevan and Tbilisi – but this one in particular is one of the tallest and most impressive.

Apparently, you can climb to the top of Rodina Mat’s shield for an epic view over Kyiv, but I was in a hurry visiting Rodina Mat and the war museum nearby before my flight out, so I didn’t ask around to figure out how to get up to her shield.

Hunt for Soviet architecture

Some of Kyiv’s Soviet architecture is easy to find – Rodina Mat ain’t exactly hiding, nor are the war monuments at her base (shown below).

But if you are a fan of hunting down Soviet architecture and monuments, Kyiv has plenty to offer.

I stumbled across the Hotel Salut while walking from Arsenalna towards Pecharsk Lavra with some friends, but if I were to actually go out on a hunt for Soviet architecture in Kyiv, I’d follow this awesome Soviet architecture guide by my friend Megan.

Learn about Ukraine’s past in the World War II Museum

Perhaps the longest-named museum I’ve ever visited, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War is part of the Rodina Mat complex.

In the courtyard outside the museum itself, you’ll find some Soviet-era statues and several disused army tanks – many times being used as a makeshift playground for tiny children.

At first I thought this was the entirety of the ‘museum’ – turns out I nearly missed the enormous and excellent museum nestled at the base of Mother Motherland herself!

As the name purports, the museum is primarily dedicated to the history of World War II and its impact on Ukraine, but the ground floor at the moment is dedicated to a not-so-temporary exhibit about the ongoing struggle in Eastern Ukraine (Donbass) between Ukraine and Russia.

As the war has largely dropped out of mainstream media, but is still felt quite acutely by Ukrainians, it was important to visit this museum and understand the ongoing impact of the war in the East.

Check out the Kyiv underground economy

By this, I don’t mean buying drugs – I mean marveling at all the economy that is taking place underneath Kyiv’s walkways.

As with many post-communist countries, there are several underpasses at busy intersections.

While as a person with a pedestrian-first mentality, who believes it’s shitty urban planning to make pedestrians go up and down stairs in order to cross a simple street just not to inconvenience the traffic, I actually like what Kyiv has done to their underpasses.

People buy flowers, espressos, underwear, odds and ends – these mini-market stalls truly seem to be a part of people’s everyday life

An upscale underground market near Bessarabsky Rynok

Take the metro to the deepest station in the world

I don’t usually love riding the metro (I blame it on NYC-induced public transport PTSD). However, in Kyiv, I’m a whole different person.

The metro is an amazing and reliable way to get around, and at only 8 hryvnia for a single ride (after a recent price hike), it is extremely affordable.

Kyiv is built atop several hills, with plentiful sources of underground water. Great for building a city – not so great for building a subway.

As a result, the Kyiv metro is one of the deepest metro systems in the world, and Arsenalna Metro is the deepest metro station in the world, constructed a massive 105.5 meters underground (346 feet for my fellow metric-shunning Americans).

To get from the bottom of Arsenalna takes an ear-popping (yes, literally – for me, at least!) 5 minutes or so by the two escalators which bring you to the surface.

One other cool thing about Arsenalna is that the room between the two escalators forms a massive echo chamber. Make like a tourist and clap to hear the echo – it’s quite amusing.

The Arsenalna metro stop is nearby the Pecharsk Lavra complex so it’s not super out of the way to visit.

Visit the heart of Kyiv at Maidan Square

A lot of the recent history of Kyiv can be found in Maidan Square, a place you likely saw on the news during the Euromaidan Revolution.

Now, Maidan Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Ukrainian – good luck pronouncing that!) is a peaceful place where friends meet up before going out or just sit and enjoy the weather on nice days.

Many of the free walking tours of Kyiv will start at Maidan Square, so if you do one of these tours it’s quite likely you’ll see Maidan Square and her tell-tale angel statue at some point during your stay.

Explore the craft beer & cocktail scene

I idiotically managed to get bit by a stray cat in Odessa and spent most of my time in Kyiv getting rabies shots (side bar: the American Medical Center in Kyiv is A+)…. and as a result, I wasn’t able to drink in Kyiv the entire time I was there, so I have nowhere I can point you to personally.

However, I highly recommend checking out either Megan’s guide to craft beer in Kyiv or Amy’s excellent guide to craft cocktails in Kyiv.

If you prefer a more guided approach to learning about Ukraine’s burgeoning craft beer scene, this craft beer tour comes highly recommended! Check prices, rates, and availability here.

Go on a self-guided street art tour

By now, it’s common for European cities to have street art, but what I find so impressive about Kyiv’s street art scene is the sheer scale of it.

Often, the street art pieces take up the entire 6+ story facade of a building, adding color and life to buildings that have seen better days.

There is so much street art in Kyiv that the city actually has its very own app for finding street art. Unfortunately, the app is only available for iPhones for now (click here for iOS if you have it).

However, Kathmandu & Beyond has also created an excellent web guide to street art in Kyiv with a map you can use offline, which you can find here.

If you prefer a guided tour, it is possible to book a guided street art tour online.

Eat amazing Ukrainian food

I think that Ukrainian food is probably my favorite of all the Eastern European cuisines. Here are a few of my can’t-miss dishes:

  • Borscht (duh): Both the red and green varieties are delicious, though of course red is more traditional.
  • Salo: Cured lard, essentially, but so delicious on Ukrainian bread!
  • Pickled herring: Also delicious on bread as an appetizer
  • Varenyky: Similar to Russian pelmeni or Polish pierogi, these Ukraninian dumplings are best enjoyed stuffed with cabbage, potato, or meat. Or some combination of the above! There are also sweet varieties.
  • Deruny: Potato pancakes served with sour cream, sometimes stuffed with other goodies like mushrooms
  • Mixed grill: Ukrainian BBQ is not for the faint of heart, but unless you’re a vegetarian, you’ve got to at least try to mixed BBQ plate before leaving Ukraine. Your heart will not thank you, but your stomach will.

I ate traditional Ukranian food at a few different restaurants during my stay, but my favorites were Varenichnaya Katyusha nearby Bessarabsky Rynok and Kupidon near Khreshchatyk Avenue.

Interested in learning how to cook like a Ukrainian? Consider taking a half-day cooking class.

Or try some delicious international food

Long gone are the days where all you could find in Kyiv is Ukrainian food.

While Georgian food is huge in Kyiv, it’s actually not one of my preferred cuisines so I took a risk and tried some of Kyiv’s Asian offerings and I was blown away by the quality of food I tried.

I had excellent Vietnamese food at Chang including top-notch fresh summer rolls and excellent beef pho, polished off with a Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk – perfection the likes of which I’d expect from any Vietnamese restaurant in California or NYC (nothing can touch Vietnam, I know).

I also had quite good and very affordable ramen at Menya Musashi, which is a mini-chain of Japanese restaurants in Kyiv. I had mouth-wateringly delicious (and eye-wateringly expensive) Thai curry at San Tori and outrageously delicious Korean food at Pyan-Se Bar. 

I had such good success with international food in Kyiv that I almost braved a Mexican food restaurant… before backing out because I remembered that Mexican food in Europe is never a good idea.

Stroll along the river Dnieper

One of my favorite things about Kyiv is that it is a city on a river – and a big, impressive river no less.

I recommend taking a walk from Podil past the St. Nicolas Wondermaker on the Water Church, stopping at Poshtova Ploshcha.

It’s got beautiful views and you end in a cute square with a carousel and plenty of people out and enjoying the square.

Many people don’t know that Kyiv has beaches, but it’s true!

It was pissing down rain nearly my entire stay in Kyiv, but I’ve been told Hidropark is the place to be in the summer when it’s sunny.

You won’t find many locals actually in the water — it looks quite polluted, to be honest — but it has a proper sandy beach and would make a fine place for reading a book and having a picnic on a summery day.

Admire St. Andrew’s Church, the jewel of Kyiv

If there is one building more beautiful than all the others in Kyiv, it’s St. Andrew’s.

Perched high atop a hill (as it should be), the church is easily visible from many parts of the Kyiv skyline.

I love it for quite a silly reason – it’s the exact shade of my favorite Crayola crayon when I was a kid (robin’s egg blue, naturally).

But it’s lovable for more reasons than just that, obviously. It’s one of the most exemplary pieces of Baroque architecture in Kyiv.

As gorgeous as the exterior is, the inside is just as lovely, with a red wall of saints and icons displayed prominently in the center.

Whereas many Orthodox churches are a bit round and plain for my taste, I love the gaudiness and ostentation of St. Andrew’s Church, which looks almost a bit like a crown on the top of Kyiv’s Andriyivska hill.

Explore the other blue church

Not far from St. Andrew’s Church, my favorite in Kyiv, there is another blue church that makes pretty much every list of things to do in Kyiv — the St. Michael’s Gold-Domed Monastery.

A functioning monastery, this blue-toned church was actually demolished by Soviets in the 1930s, but was restored in 1999, 8 years after Ukraine’s independence.

Similar to St. Andrew’s, St. Michael’s exterior is done in a Baroque style, but what I find even more interesting is the reconstructed yet traditional Byzantine interior including gold-plated mosaics of beloved Orthodox icons.

Because of the walls surrounding the monastery, it is actually quite difficult to photograph St. Michael’s without a proper wide angle lens on a full-frame camera… but a great hack is heading to the St. Sophia bell tower, w here you can get amazing photos of not only St. Michael’s but lovely St. Andrew’s as well.

Check out the quirky One Street Museum

Located on Andriyivskyy Descent, which is colloquially referred to as “Kyiv’s Montmartre” for all the galleries and artists on this street, it’s easy to bypass One Street Museum.

But I recommend not giving it a pass if you’re a fan of vintage oddities!

This odd museum – more of a collection, really – is home to lots of interesting antiques, including odd vintage postcards and pages from books from the Pechersk Lavra back in the 17th century.

It’s also home to a strange collection of death masks, apparently, but when I visited in July 2018 these were no longer on display (perhaps on loan to another museum?)

Like most museums in Kyiv, it is small, easily manageable to see in under 30 minutes, and affordable (about the equivalent of $1 USD). So if you’re nearby, I recommend giving it a peek.

Peruse the open air markets of Andriyivskyy Descent

If you’re already on this famous street to see the One Street Museum or St. Andrew’s Church, you should definitely stop to check out the open air vintage markets along Andriyivskyy Descent.

You’ll find all sorts of wares, from used books to vintage tableware and glassware, small pins from the Soviet era, and more.

Ride the funicular or walk up Volodymyrska Hill

The funicular was closed for construction when I was visiting Kyiv in July 2018 (I’m not sure if it’s finished yet), but the best views of the city are up here.

I wasn’t about to climb the steps up to Volodymyrska Hill in 90 F/ 32 C temperatures, to be honest, but those who visit when the funicular is open or are less exercise-averse than I am will surely enjoy this beautiful view.

Here’s a photo taken by someone less lazy than me:

Marvel at beautiful frescos at St. Sophia

St. Sophia, alongside the Pechersk Lavra complex, makes up a joint UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kyiv, and with good reason. St. Sophia the church is lovely itself, but the real beauty is inside.

The frescoes inside are truly incredible, though it should be noted that you are not allowed to take photos inside due to the risk of damaging them.

When purchasing your ticket, I recommend that just purchase a ticket to the grounds plus entry to the cathedral, and maybe add on the bell tower if you want to climb up for a great view over Kyiv. I bought the ticket that included everything, and I found a lot of the “extras” to not be worth the price.

The Bell Tower views were worth the extra 60 or so hryvnia, in my opinion: just look at those views!

Catch an opera (if you’re there in the right season)

I think I’m a bit cursed and I always go to cities with a vibrant opera culture during their summer seasons an never end up getting to see performances.

Which is a shame, because I actually really love opera and ballet…. especially in Eastern Europe, where seeing shows are insanely affordable.

As in, in Kyiv, the cheapest tickets to the opera cost about $2 USD.

Even if you go outside the opera season like I did (I visited in July), you should still stop and admire the amazing architecture of the opera house.

See Kyiv’s version of the Golden Gate

Kyiv’s “Golden Gate” is nothing like San Francisco’s, so forgive me if I’m a bit biased (and unimpressed).

However, it is nearby several important sites (and my favorite Vietnamese restaurant) so I ended up passing by the Golden Gate twice during my time in Kyiv.

I think it’s worth stopping by if you are in the neighborhood, but not necessarily going out of your way to see.

As with many of Kyiv’s historical points, its original integrity has been damaged during the Soviet era.

The gate was completely rebuilt by Soviets in 1982 – supposedly to celebrate Kyiv’s 1500 years of existence. There are no exact images of the previous gate to reference for authenticity.

Still, it’s an important point of reference in Kyiv throughout history.

It was essentially used as a victory arch, modeled after the victory arch of former Constantinople, an arch the likes of which you see in Paris, Barcelona, and other cities around the world for centuries.

Now it’s an oddly thrown-together tourist oddity.

It’s not one of my top things to do in Kyiv, but it’s worth a quick stop by if you are in the area (and you likely will be).

Stroll around hipster Podil

I based myself in Podil for my two weeks in Kyiv and it was a great decision, as it quickly became one of my favorite neighborhoods in Kyiv.

There is just so much going on here – there are countless bars and restaurants and cafés all around the neighborhood. It truly has a bohemian, revivalist feel that really resonated with me.

I don’t want to give too much directions here as I think part of the joy of discovering Podil is wandering around without any specific purpose, with camera in tow. Here are just a few shots of my favorite parts of Podil. However, if you prefer a more structured exploration of the neighborhood, you can sign up for a guided walking tour of Podil.

Check out the odd, interactive Chernobyl Museum

I personally decided not to go to Chernobyl during my time in Kyiv but I couldn’t miss the Chernobyl Museum…

Especially considering it was two blocks away from where I was staying in Podil.

I didn’t get the audio guide because I didn’t have enough cash on me to cover the rental fee plus deposit (some 150 hyrvnia or so, more or less) and that was a big mistake.

The museum had very little information in English so all I could do was wander around the exhibits and look at the different artifacts. It was interesting for sure, but it would have meant a lot more to me with context, I’m sure.

However, what I found especially interesting about the Chernobyl Museum was all the art installations. It is a bit surreal to see the way that Ukrainian artists have chosen to represent the disaster. To characterize it, I’d say that it’s a little gaudy, totally quirky, but ultimately a very symbolic and introspective endeavor.

Or actually visit Chernobyl itself

Photo Credit: Stephanie Craig

I personally opted not to visit Chernobyl, preferring to get to know Kyiv as a city during my stay.

While I’m sure I’ll go in the future, I opted to spend my time getting to know the living, breathing Kyiv without the aura of Chernobyl’s destruction clouding my perception of it.

However, if you think that this is the one and only time you’ll visit Ukraine, I think you should try to go to Chernobyl if it interests you. I personally know I’ll be back to Kyiv time and again, so not going wasn’t a big miss for me.

Here’s the best-rated day tour of Chernobyl – you can check for reviews & availability here. Keep in mind that you need to book several days in advance because of the permitting required to visit Chernobyl.
The more adventurous amongst us may opt for a 2-day tour of Chernoybl including an overnight stay.

Check out the Ukrainian-flag-colored St Volodymyr’s Cathedral

It’s surprising that many tourists skip St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral as this is actually one of the more important cathedrals in Kyiv – it’s the mother cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in fact.

The church narrowly avoided damage during the Soviet era, and in fact it was  one of the very few places in the USSR where tourists were permitted to visit a working Orthodox church.

I’ve heard there are beautiful mosaics on the inside, commissioned by top Venetian artists, but there was a wedding taking place when I arrived at the cathedral so I wasn’t able to take a peek inside.

Cruise down the Dnipro River

The river Dnieper (also written Dnipro) passes through Kyiv, bisecting it into its central, touristy side where most travelers stay and its more industrial-looking side on the other half of the river.

One of the best ways to see the immensity of Kyiv is by taking a river sightseeing cruise down the Dnipro river.

Check out tours and availability here.

Explore the so-called ‘Museum of Corruption’

The Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 ended with the ouster of pro-Russian, ultra-corrupt Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia amidst bloody protests. He left behind the Mezhyhirya Residence, which has become representative of his profligate spending.

Now, it’s a common place to visit for people who are curious to learn more about Yanukovych and his corruption to visit. You need to visit with a tour guide, however, although if you simply want to visit the grounds without entering the house that is possible without a guide.

Check private tours of Mezhyhirya here or you can join a group tour of the residence here.

Where to Stay in Kyiv

Kyiv has a great range of accommodation options, from super budget-friendly to luxury. Better yet, the prices are quite affordable for tourists from the US or Western Europe due to a favorable exchange rate with the hryvnia.

I personally stayed in an Airbnb in Podil for my two weeks. I don’t really recommend the Airbnb I stayed in as I had constant struggles with the hot water and electricity, and even though the host tried his best to fix the issues, it was still a huge pain in the ass over a two-week stay. However, I’ve listed a few recommendations from budget, mid-range, and luxury price brackets for those who prefer a hostel or hotel.

Budget: I very nearly stayed in Sky Hostel before realizing that me in a dorm for two weeks was a recipe for murder.  I loved the airy décor of this place (so many hostels feel cramped and dingy, with zero attention paid to aesthetics). The prime Podil location can’t be beat, either! Prices are very reasonable for Ukraine – not the cheapest, but definitely a very good deal. Check prices, reviews, and availability here.

Mid-range: Kyiv has plenty of affordable boutique hotels that offer a comfortable, trendy stay at a decent price. The Live Here Hotel  (let’s pause to quickly LOL at the name) has a great look and excellent reviews. The bedroom decor is super modern and spacious, with great leather detailing, comfortable beds, amenities like a desk you can easily work from, etc. Plus you can’t beat the location! Check prices, reviews, and availability here. 

For something truly different, you can stay in Hotel Salut, the Soviet-era hotel pictured above! A friend who organizes tours in Ukraine actually uses this hotel for his guests every time they visit, because while the exterior is a bit cold and Soviet-esque, the rooms are comfortable, the staff is friendly, and it’s easy walking distance to the Lavra and several other monuments. Plus, who doesn’t want to be able to say they stayed in a true Soviet hotel? Check prices, reviews, and availability here. 

Luxury: Kyiv is a modern city that caters a lot to business clientele and as a result, you will see tons of luxury, business-oriented hotels in the city. For something luxurious but less stuffy, I recommend the funky MaNNa Boutique Hotel located in my favorite neighborhood, Podil. The rooms are huge and beautifully quirky, with fun and interesting décor in each room – whether it’s an artful tumble of books, a pop art poster of a pug, or a more traditionally artsy room. Each room is very different so be sure to look through the photos of each room to ensure you’re getting the style you like! Check prices, rooms, and availability here. 

I personally love this kind of quirky-chic aesthetic, but if you prefer something more traditionally luxe, I would definitely recommend the Hyatt Regency, which will surely not disappoint. Ultra-luxurious with epic views over Kyiv, a gorgeous rooftop bar with views over St. Michael’s, spacious clean white rooms, enormous bathrooms I’d happily consider an apartment in NYC — it’s the most luxurious place in town. Check prices, reviews, and availability here – sometimes the prices are surprisingly affordable!

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A 1 Week Mexico Itinerary You Can Steal: 7 Perfect Days in Mexico

Ahh, Mexico. I’ve spent months of my life in this beautiful country, exploring several different states, and yet I still never feel like I’ve seen enough.

I can never keep myself from Mexico for long – its culture and natural beauty (and let’s not lie – its tacos) keep me coming back time and again.

There are an impossible number of ways to spend one week in Mexico, and of course, this is just one idea.

Other ways to spend a week in Mexico include traveling to Puerto Vallarta and its small neighboring surf town of Sayulita, relaxing in resorts in Baja California like Cabo Azul Resort in Los Cabos, sunbathing on the beaches in Huatulco, Mexico or exploring the famous Riviera Maya.

This Mexico itinerary covers a little bit of everything in three different states in Mexico, giving you city vibes, cultural appreciation, foodie heaven, and of course — some beach time!

Thank you to Kristen Youngs of the blog One Bag Nomad for authoring this piece. Check out her stellar 1 week in Mexico itinerary below!

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Mexico is all too frequently checked off travelers’ “must visit” lists after spending a sun-filled weekend in Cancun for bachelorette parties, family vacations, and even romantic getaway. The entire country is often considered “seen and done” after hitting up its world-famous beaches (or stopping by on a cruise).

Of course, any savvy traveler knows a country is much more than just its tourist highlights, and that couldn’t be more true for Mexico — a country with more culture, diversity, and breathtaking scenery than most of its visitors will ever lay eyes on.

Mexico is perfectly well-rounded; it has an experience, city, or sight you’ll fall in love with, no matter what kind of traveler you are. Because of its sheer size, you could truthfully spend weeks or even months traveling around the country without feeling like you’ve truly “seen” it (if you’re lucky enough to work from your laptop, don’t be surprised if you find yourself considering staying in Mexico long-term).

Fortunately, with its solid network of buses and flights, you can still experience the beauty of Mexico, even if you don’t have a month’s worth of vacation days saved up.

This 1 week Mexico itinerary will take you from the city to the mountains to some of the most gorgeous beaches you’ll ever lay eyes on. Each day will give you a different taste of what Mexican culture is like, from one unique spot to the next. By the end, you’ll be raving about this country’s quaint mountain towns just as much as its white sandy beaches.

The Ultimate 1 Week Mexico Itinerary

Day 1: Arriving in Mexico City

Mexico City is a bustling hub for international tourists. With one of the biggest airports in the world, it sees countless people come through each year. While there are dozens of other airports you could arrive into, Mexico City will serve as both an easy entry point, as well as your first stop in this itinerary.

From the airport, you have several options for getting downtown. The metro is well connected and cheap, so if you’re watching your budget on this trip, it’s a great (albeit crowded) option. That being said, if you have a lot of luggage with you, it’s going to be a tight fit. Also, be aware that theft happens in all crowded cities around the world; Mexico City is no different, so keep an eye on your bags.

Alternatively, you can hire a taxi from any stand within the arrivals hall of the airport. You shouldn’t be quoted more than about $15 USD for the one-way journey. Considering the convenience of a door-to-door taxi, that $15 could be well worth it.

Either way, Mexico City’s international airport is only about 8 miles outside of the main part of town, so the trip shouldn’t take too long, depending on traffic.

Head to La Condesa, one of Mexico City’s most colorful and vibrant neighborhoods. Before you do anything, stop into a local churro shop and pair this sweet, deep fried snack with a traditional Mexican hot chocolate. El Moro is a popular spot for this mouthwatering combo — you’ll find both locals and tourists lining up. As long as you can find churros being made fresh and on the spot, though, you really can’t go wrong.

Arriving in Mexico City can be overwhelming because there’s just so much to see, do, and eat. Avoid the urge to jam pack your first day, though, and just spend a couple hours strolling through nearby Chapultepec Park, which feels like stepping into a green sanctuary after being surrounded by so much city.

Make sure to check out Chapultepec Castle while you’re there, which feels more like something you might find in Versailles, France, than in this vibrant Latin American country. The castle has a small entrance fee and is home to the National Museum of History, where you can get a great insight into Mexico’s past.

If you’re still feeling up for more adventure, spend the next couple hours wandering around Condesa, popping into the street markets, stalls, and vendors you see along the way. Or, if you’re a museum buff, stop into the National Anthropology Museum or the Frida Kahlo Museum in Coyoacán — both world famous and easy places to spend an afternoon.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure to finish off your evening with some authentic Mexican tacos. You’ll have no trouble finding them in and around Condesa, but a solid option if you’re nearby is El Pescadito, which serves up a mean fish taco.

Day 2: Exploring the City

After getting your bearings, spend your second day in Mexico exploring the sights downtown. Before you hit the pavement, though, start your day with another Mexico City staple — chilaquiles — which are comparable nachos, but softer, and eaten with a fork for breakfast. You won’t need to search hard for these. In fact, I suggest simply stopping at the busiest food cart you find in the morning; they’re almost certain to serve good chilaquiles.

Afterwards, jump on the Metro and get off at the Zócalo stop. From there, spend some time wandering around the giant Plaza de la Constitución. Also check out the Museo de Templo Mayor, just a few minutes walk from there, where you’ll find ruins from an ancient Aztec temple — uncovered less than 50 years ago during planned construction work.

If you’re up for more museum time, you’ll have tons of options to choose from around the Zócalo; Mexico City is simply bursting with them. Alternatively, head a few minutes walk farther to the Palacio de Bellas Artes, where local shows and performing arts are held. Whether you see a performance or not, the building itself is stunning.

To wind down the day, grab another meal of authentic tacos from any of the well-reviewed restaurants around the Zócalo. You’ll pay a bit more here, but if you’re at all a foodie, you won’t be disappointed; this city thrives on its culinary scene.

Day 3: Head to Guanajuato

If this massive city of 20 million feels at all overwhelming, your next couple of days in this 1 week Mexico itinerary will certainly slow things down.

Guanajuato is a small, picturesque town sitting at the base of surrounding mountains. Shaped like a bowl, this city’s brightly colored buildings and houses climb up the surrounding hills, making nearly every view a memorable one.

You can get to nearby Del Bajio International Airport in Léon, Mexico via direct flight from Mexico City in about an hour. One way flights go for as low as $40 if you’re looking at the right time (here’s a great guide on finding cheap plane tickets if you aren’t able to uncover any good deals), making the trip cheap and quick.

Alternatively, you can take the 5-6 hour bus ride via coach from Mexico City directly to Guanajuato. Primera Plus is a clean coach line that operates like you would expect a national train line in Europe to function. It’s quick and efficient, and tickets are around $25 one-way. If you have the extra money to spare, however, the plane ride is easier and faster.

If you decide to fly into Guanajuato, you’ll need to take a taxi from the airport into town (about a 45-minute ride). You can pay for an official taxi up-front (in pesos or USD), before you even exit the airport arrivals area. Or, if you’re arriving via bus, you’ll be dropped off outside the city, but you can easily hail a cab from the terminal. The cost to your hotel should be no more than $2 USD.

Once you’re inside the town and settled in (don’t worry, hotel recommendations are coming later in this guide), you’ll want to grab some lunch and coffee from Santo Café, where you can sit on an outdoor archway overlooking a cobblestone pedestrian street. Order the fajitas and relax while the street performers serenade you from below.

Afterwards, spend the rest of your day wandering around this fairytale town. You’ll find lots of walking-only streets with cafes spilling out onto lush squares and sidewalks. The city literally twinkles at nightfall, and a cold beer and outdoor seating are the perfect way to wind down.

Day 4: Mummies or Mountains

You probably weren’t expecting to see mummies in this out-of-the-way Mexican town, but it’s something Guanajuato is well known for. Over 100 real mummies were discovered in a faux-cemetery nearby and have since become an international point of interest. In fact, some of Guanajuato’s mummies travel to exhibits all over the world.

The Museo de las Momias is located a bit outside the city, up a hill. The easiest ways to get there are by public bus or taxi, neither of which should cost more than $2-$3 USD. You can take either option from the center of town.

If you’re not into mummies, the mountains are right there for the taking. I suggest booking a tour for either a hike, mountain bike ride, or horseback ride, which you can easily do from the city. Beware, the sun is intense in Guanajuato, so if you’re opting for an outdoor adventure, lather on that sunscreen.

Day 5: Head to the Yucatan Peninsula

After you’ve explored Mexico’s biggest city, and then spent some time around the mountains, it’s time to head to the beach.

The Yucatan Peninsula is home to places like Cancún and Cozumel — hot spots for resort-goers. And while they each boast beautiful beaches, there are many, far more secluded shores to visit.

Your next destination on this 1 week Mexico itinerary is Isla Holbox, a small island with no cars, located about a 2-hour drive from Cancun. You’ll want to take a flight from Guanajuato’s airport (BJX) to Cancún, which will take about 2.5 hours nonstop and set you back as little as $30 for a one-way ticket.

Once you arrive in Cancún, it’s best to head straight to Holbox to make the most of your time there. The journey will take several hours, but I promise, it’s well worth it.

You have a few options for getting to Holbox if you don’t have your own car:

  • Take a taxi from the Cancún airport to Chiquila, where you can get the ferry to Holbox. This option will cost you the most, as taxis are notoriously expensive there.
  • Take a shared shuttle from Cancún airport to Chiquila. This option is a little cheaper; the company, Holbox Shuttle, offers the ride at $40 per person, with about a 2-3 hour travel time.
  • Take the ADO bus from Cancún center to Chiquila. This option is the cheapest (prices are around $15 one way), but it’ll take the longest. The bus journey itself is about 3.5 hours, but you first need to get from the airport to the ADO bus terminal.

If it’s within your budget, the second option is the best combination of affordability and speed. Once you’re dropped off at the Chiquila ferry, you can buy a ticket with either one of the two ferry companies there. Boats leave every half hour, take about 20-30 minutes to make the journey to Holbox Island, and cost around $8 one-way.

In total, from your arrival in Cancun to your arrival in Holbox, you’ll likely spend anywhere from 3 to 6 hours. With an early or midday flight from Guanajuato, that’ll give you the perfect amount of time to settle into your hotel, throw on some flip flops, and find a beach-side spot for some Mexican seafood and beer. Coquitos Beach Club and Restaurant, with palapas and loungers right in the sand, is where I suggest heading to catch the sunset.

Day 6: Beaches, Bikes, and Buggies

Holbox is small, so getting around isn’t tough. Your main modes of transportation will be: walking, biking, golf cart, or ‘taxi’ — a.k.a someone else driving a golf cart.

You know all the photos you see of people lounging in hammocks actually in the ocean? That happens at Hotel Villas Flamingos, and it’s just as glorious as it looks. Depending on how far away you are from Villas Flamingos, start your day by either taking an early stroll or golf cart ride over there.

The hammocks at Villas Flamingos fill up quickly, so it’s best to get there in the morning if you want to claim one for yourself.

Afterwards, take a short walk toward the main part of town (the island is so small, it’s easy to find).

On the way there, you’ll pass by bicycle rentals from shops and hostels. You can find rentals for as low as $1 per hour, and because there are no cars on the island, using a bike to get around is simple. Consider renting one for 2-3 hours and cycling to the nearby beaches. When you find an empty one, stop off and plant yourself in the sand for a while.

If it’s too hot to bike around, you can also rent your own golf cart; if you love the idea of having your own “buggy” all to yourself, you can rent one for a full 24 hours. Otherwise, just pick one up hourly from a shop in town. You’ll likely pay around $8 per hour (or less if renting for a half or full day).

While the beaches are spectacular, Holbox town itself is worth exploring, too. Walk, pedal, or cart yourself through the streets and check out all the famous artwork on the buildings. You’ll find vibrant, colorful street art all around the island — it’s well worth spending an hour or two discovering.

Day 7: Snorkel or Paddle Around Holbox

If you have the full day to spend on Holbox, there are lots of tours you can take from the island. One of the most popular is to go snorkeling with whale sharks, which are docile and harmless (albeit gigantic) fish.

Whale sharks are only spotted off Isla Holbox from May through September, and you can only find responsible whale shark tours in few parts of the world, so if you’re there at the right time, take the opportunity. Prices for these tours aren’t cheap (the tour operator, Holbox Whale Shark Tours, offers trips at $130 per person), but the experience is truly unbelievable.

If you’re sticking to a strict budget, a great alternative is renting kayaks for the day and exploring the island on your own. Or, if you’d like a little bit of structure, join a kayaking tour to Holbox’s mangroves, where you can see flamingos, crocodiles, and other wildlife. VIP Holbox offers the tour for $45 per person, whereas a solo kayak rental will run you about $7 per hour.

Where to Stay in Mexico

Every spot included in this Mexico itinerary has a wealth of accommodation options for absolutely any budget, especially if you’re coming from neighboring countries to the north or south. In terms of cost of living, Mexico generally falls below that of Central America, South America, and definitely the rest of North America.

For convenience’s sake, these hostel and hotel recommendations will be broken up into budget, mid-range, and luxury categories:

  • Budget = $10-$20 per person, per night
  • Mid-range = $50-$100 per room, per night
  • Luxury = $150+ per room, per night

Mexico City

Budget: La Condesa and Roma Norte are the perfect neighborhoods to base yourself during your Mexico City portion of this itinerary. Not only are the neighborhoods artsy and full of local cafes, they’re also easily accessible to most of Mexico City’s highlights. Hostel Home, located smack dab in the middle of Roma and Condesa, is clean, comfortable, and affordable. While many hostels in Mexico City are known as “party spots,” Hostel Home truly does feel like a home. The relaxed furniture, common areas, and staff all give the place more of a family feel than that of a hotel. Whether you’re looking for a budget option or not, this is a great one.

Mid-range: Nearby Hotel MX Roma has a vibe that’s a little hard to explain; think rustic, chic, and modular living. The rooms are colorful and clean, with each section of the living space being separated in its own little cube. Sleeping in the bed almost feels like you’re in one of Tokyo’s capsule hotels (although a much larger version). Outside of the rooms, the entire hotel has its own unique flair with portions of exposed brick and lots of woodwork. It’s certainly unique, and will absolutely make for a memorable Mexico City stay.

Luxury: If you have a significant amount of wiggle room in your budget and really want to go all out, La Valise in the Roma Norte neighborhood will be worthy of your cash. Even the lowest accommodation level here is astounding, but if you’re lucky enough to book one of their “Terraza” rooms, you’re in for a treat. Not only are these rooms more like loft apartments, you can literally open the walls to the terrace and slide the bed outside onto the balcony (it runs on tracks). You honestly might have a hard time pulling yourself away from this hotel to go out and explore, but for a luxurious stay, this is the spot.

Guanajuato

Budget: Guanajuato is easily covered on foot (except for its many, steep stairs); the main part of town itself is pretty small. That means you won’t be too restricted when choosing the location of your hotel — they’ll all be fairly central. For a great budget option, book a couple nights at Casa Lupita Homestay. While their private rooms fall into the “mid-range” category, they do offer dorm beds at a lower cost. This is one of the nicest hostels you’ll find, where the accommodations are clean and modern, but still have a colorful touch reminiscent of Mexico. Casa Lupita is located just steps away from all the major attractions in Guanajuato, making it an easy home-base for your trip.

Mid-range: A great in-between option is Hotel de la Paz, situated down a small alley, right off the main square. The rooms are basic, but comfortable, are kept spotlessly clean, and even include breakfast (although you’ll have to walk a few blocks down to their neighboring hotel for it). The best part about this hotel is its rooftop area, where you can get a bird’s eye view of the town, with its brightly colored buildings crawling up the sides of all the surrounding mountains.

Luxury: Average costs in Guanajuato are much lower than Mexico City; your hotel options will generally give you more bang for your buck. Whereas a 4 or 5 star Mexico City hotel might cost $300 or more, the same quality hotel in Guanajuato will likely be half that. Hotel Boutique 1850 is a great example — you’ll feel like you’re getting complete luxury at a much lower cost than expected. Each of the 20 rooms in this hotel are all tastefully designed in different color schemes and styles. Some are bright and airy, while others have darker, wood tones for an extra classy feel. To top it off, there’s a bar on the roof where you can take in Guanajuato’s dazzling sunsets.

Isla Holbox

Budget: Holbox is like a budget traveler’s haven. It’s hard to imagine you could find such affordable accommodation on this little slice of paradise, but you’ll definitely have options. Hostel la Isla Holbox is the first place I’d suggest looking. Private rooms are more expensive, but their dorm beds are a good budget option (although a bit rustic). The good news is, the rooms are just a couple minutes walk to the beach, so if you’re not into the “rustic” vibe, that might overshadow it. If you’re looking to save even more money and really want to live the “island life” for a couple days, Hostel & Cabanas Ida y Vuelta offers hammocks with mosquito nets under palm shelters outside for about $7 per night. It’s certainly not for everyone, but if you want to be one with nature, you’ll have the perfect chance there.

Mid-range: If you prefer a little more space and a little less nature, consider booking your stay at Hotel Villas El Jardin, which offers apartment-like accommodation for middle-of-the-road budgets. Each room is exceptionally clean and modern, with ensuite bathrooms, kitchenettes, comfortable living areas, and balconies. With the beach only a 2 minute walk away, you can’t really go wrong here. It’s comfortable, affordable, and convenient to the rest of the island.

Luxury: Just like there are more than enough budget options on Holbox, you’ll find just as many hotels catering to the luxury traveler. Ventanaiso Beachfront Hotel is a prime example. While this hotel isn’t flashy or overly luxurious in appearance, what really puts it over the top is it’s location — smack dab in the middle of a gorgeous, sandy beach. Ventanaiso offers high ceiling rooms with spacious balconies overlooking the ocean right outside. You can literally step from your room, straight onto the sand. Like in Guanajuato, the cost of luxury on Holbox gets you more than it would than in places like Mexico City. If you’re in the mood to go out with bang at the end of your 1 week trip around Mexico, this hotel wouldn’t be a bad place to do it.

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Got only 7 days in Mexico? This one week Mexico itinerary will bring you to the throbbing capital of Mexico City, to the quaint mountains of Guanajuato, and the lovely beaches of Isla Holbox. Experience the best of Mexico in just 1 week - read for suggestions on how to best plan your Mexico trip with this awesome itinerary.

About the Author:

Kristen Youngs co-operates two online businesses while traveling the world full-time. Visit her website, One Bag Nomad, to learn how to travel as long as you want and build a successful online business, completely location-free. You can also find her on Pinterest.

7 Reasons to Visit the Spectacular Westfjords, Iceland

It’s 2018. Every single person you know has probably already been to or is planning a trip to Iceland. It’s not surprising: Iceland is pretty much Instagram-perfection.

We’ve all seen those photos of the Blue Lagoon, picture-perfect waterfalls, and pristine black sand beaches. But let’s pull behind the curtain a bit.

People are everywhere you look — everywhere. And yet one of the most beautiful parts of Iceland is within a half day’s driving distance from Reykjavik, and it is just as stunning as it is blissfully empty of tourists.

I spent 8 days in Western Iceland, and the difference in the number of tourists in the area around Reykjavik and the Westfjords was striking.

Not far from Reykjavik, I visited beautiful Hraunfossar and Barnafoss — along with what felt like several hundred tourists.

Meanwhile, the thunderous Dynjandi waterfall – easily one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls  – was surprisingly free of fellow tourists despite being the literal highlight of any Westfjords itinerary.

Just try to take a photo without tourists in it at any other waterfall in Iceland!

The Westfjords are probably the most visually dramatic part of the most aesthetically dynamic countries in the world. And yet, because they’re best seen in the short summer season and they’re on the other side of the country from some of the most iconic Icelandic sights, the Westfjords have remained wonderfully under the radar. It’s true that to properly visit the Westfjords, you need to dedicate a good chunk of your time in Iceland to exploring this region alone. Personally, I spent 5 nights in the Westfjords and felt like that was perfect. However, if you were a little more ambitious, you could certainly see the highlights in 3 days.

The Westfjords are also perfectly suited for road tripping, as the driving distance between the major sights is never that long, and you’ll find countless places to stop for photos without anyone else around. The roads are in generally quite good condition, though there are a few hair-raising gravel roads (I for one will never forget the drive to Rauðasandur, easily the most terrifying of my life and I’m not even afraid of heights). The road between Þingeyri and Hólmavík is especially well-maintained and easily one of the most beautiful roads to drive in all of Iceland.

I was road tripping around Iceland as a guest of Iceland Travel, who gives everyone who books their road trips a rental tablet with an exclusive companion app. I especially liked the itinerary feature, which suggested stops and highlights along the route, giving important historical and cultural context to each stop on the way. It’s a stress-free way to get all the freedom of a road trip without the logistics of planning. If you’re curious to follow in my Westfjords footsteps, this is pretty much the exact road trip I did with Iceland Travel.

If you need more convincing than just that to visit the Westfjords in Iceland, here’s why you really should prioritize this off the beaten path region on your next Iceland trip!

Sunny summer days in the Westfjords are the stuff of dreams

You’ll find some of the most stunningly beautiful landscapes you can imagine

The Westfjords isn’t just a clever marketing name – this region of Iceland is rife with fjords, mountains sloping down to the sea in impossibly beautiful ways. Iceland is home to whopping 109 fjords, about half of which you’ll find concentrated in the Westfjords region.

And while the Fjord Norway region is slammed with tourists in the summer, Iceland fjords slink by under the radar. While it isn’t “undiscovered” by any means, the Westfjords region of Iceland is so vast that you will barely see another tourist as you enjoy some of the island’s most dramatic and impressive scenery.

Fjords everywhere, and a fraction of the tourists

Westfjords summer days are literally never-ending

The further you go north in Iceland, the longer the days are in the summer. So much so that in Ísafjörður, there are actually two full weeks in summer where the sun doesn’t dip below the horizon. From June 20th to July 1st, you can enjoy the midnight sun.

I visited the Westfjords in the middle of August and the sun was setting at 10:30 PM and coming back around 4:30 AM, for a whopping 6 hours of ‘night’. Even then, the sky never got much darker than a deep blue. I thought this was a perfect time to visit the Westfjords – tons of photography hours while still getting dark enough to not confuse my Circadian rhythms into total sleeplessness. Luckily, all hotels in the Westfjords (and in Iceland in general) will have good blackout curtains, so sleeping through the midnight sun will not be an issue for light-sensitive travelers.

Golden light at 9 PM in Þingeyri – a late-rising photographer’s dream!

Of course, the inverse is also true as well. Life in the Westfjords is full of extremes, and winters there are not for the faint of heart. The ‘capital’ of the region, Ísafjörður, is nestled between fjords that reach so high at a latitude so north that the sun is not visible for about two months in the winter, from late November to late January. As a result, the town celebrates the sun’s first rays reaching the town each winter with a holiday called sólarkaffi, where they drink coffee and eat pancakes with rhubarb jam to welcome the return of the sun to their town.

The Westfjords is Iceland at its most off the beaten path

Thanks to airlines like WOW Air offering cheap flights to Europe that stop in Iceland, tourism in Iceland is accelerating at an insane rate, literally quintupling its tourism numbers in less than a decade. In 2017, the country saw over 2 million tourists, more than 6 times Iceland’s local population.

With numbers like these you’d begin to think that Iceland is completely overrun with tourists… but not so in the Westfjords! Only some 10-15% or so of Iceland’s 2 million tourists make it to the Westfjords, and an even smaller number of these tourists will explore the tiny towns and villages in depth, leaving them all to yourself.

“Urban sprawl” in the Westfjords most populated city, Ísafjörður

Where else will you find red sand beaches with not another soul around? Or empty spring-fed hot tubs looking out onto an impossibly beautiful fjord? Not along the South Coast, that’s for sure.

Tourism is a crucial but fickle part of the Westfjords economy

Once, the Westfjords was one of Iceland’s most prosperous regions. Settled in the 10th century, the Westfjords’ prime location on the Atlantic enriched the locals despite the obvious hardships of living in such an extreme place. But the last century has not been kind to the Westfjords. Severe avalanches, quotas put in place to avoid overfishing, and the economic crisis of the 2000s drew people away from the Westfjords, urbanizing rapidly the area around Reykjavik.

Despite all the odds stacked against them, the people of the Westfjords are resilient. Those who have chosen to make these rugged, unforgiving mountains their home will continue to do so. But as the importance of fishing and whaling has decreased in Iceland’s Westfjords, tourism has to some extent taken its place. Travelers are a critical part of the equation in preventing population drain from the Westfjords region.

Once a major fishing post, quiet Flateyri is now more dependent on tourism

Still, the majority of the Westfjords are truly open for tourism only a few months of the year, typically from mid-May to mid-September. While some parts of the Westfjords are still open for business during the harsh winter months, in general, the conditions are simply too unpredictable to welcome the few brave tourists who would even venture all the way up north. In Þingeyri, one of the owners of Simbahöllin told me that the drive we made from his coffee shop to his horse farm – which took us a mere 5 minutes on summer roads in a car – would take 1.5 hours in a tractor after a snowfall. Compare this to the rest of Iceland, where winter tourism is growing rapidly and hotels, tours, and restaurants are open year-round to meet the demand.

Tourism in Iceland tends to follow a very well-worn path, mainly along the Golden Circle, Ring Road, and South Coast. In particular, Northeast Iceland has experienced a huge drop in tourism – a decrease of some 33%, in fact. While the Westfjords haven’t experienced such a critical drop off, likely because it is better-connected to Reykjavik and thus more suited for shorter trips, it is still seeing a drop in tourism compared to the rest of Iceland. So if you’re concerned about the environmental impact of being one of the 2+ million tourists Iceland expects annually, head on up to the Westfjords, where your tourism dollars make a difference for the better.

Also, you get views like this without having to share. Win/win.

It’s heaven for spotting bird and marine life

The Westfjords region of Iceland is inhospitable to all but the most intrepid animals. Squat but strong Icelandic horses, sturdy sheep, steely people, and a few wily arctic foxes — Iceland’s only native land mammals — are the few creatures equipped to survive the harsh Icelandic winters.

But for what Iceland lacks in land animals, it makes up for with vibrant birdlife and sea life. The Látrabjarg cliffs, the westernmost point of Iceland, is one of the best places in the world for bird-spotting as the cliffs are too steep to allow the arctic fox to dine on the birds who make the cliffs their home. Just don’t visit too late in the summer season to spot puffins – I visited in early August and the puffins had already left!

Despite my lack of puffin-spotting luck at Látrabjarg, all hope wasn’t lost for me. During my time in the Westfjords, I kayaked through calm fjords with harp seals and puffins keeping me company. On my last day in Iceland, I glided in the fjords around Holmavík in a small boat, spotting humpback whales who serenely passed within feet of our boat as they dove acrobatically under the water. It was pure magic.

Our guide at Láki Tours explained that humpback whales are typically solitary creatures, so it was rather unusual and quite lucky to see these two swimming side by side for some time in the fjord waters.

Needless to say, I was floating on a cloud the entire drive back to Reykjavik.

Visiting the Westfjords feels like going back in time

In many ways, the Westfjords feel like they belong to a different time. The pace of life is undeniably slower. Aside from the odd gas station or supermarket here and there, you’ll find very few modern conveniences in the Westfjords. Even the city of Ísafjörður, which is decidedly bustling compared to the sleepy seaside towns that radiate out from it, feels like it’s from a previous decade.

While you’ll certainly enjoy the benefits of modern society – credit card readers are ubiquitous and central heating is everywhere – there’s also a strong sense of tradition that has been preserved in the Westfjords. Whether it’s the small museums that preserve the local tradition and folklore such as the Old Bookstore in Flateyri or the Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft Museum in Hólmavík, there are so many places in the Westfjords that feel unstuck in time in the best possible way.

Old-school vibes in Flateyri

There are amazing – and free – geothermal springs everywhere

Everyone knows about the Blue Lagoon (and mostly everyone know just how costly it is to visit). But there are so many amazing hot springs located all over the Westfjords in Iceland, and nearly all of them are completely free to visit.

If you book a car with Iceland Travel, they’ll point out geothermal pools not to miss along the way, which is super handy when you want to take a break from driving and go for a dip along the way t your next destination. A few of the most famous hot springs include the Hellulaug hot springs in Flókalundur, the hot springs in Krossnes (which I didn’t have time to drive to), and my personal favorite – the hot pots in Drangsnes. But part of the fun is just finding the hot springs as you discover the Westfjords at your own pace with a rental car.

A handful of fellow travelers enjoying some free hot springs

Note: Thank you to Iceland Travel for hosting me during my time in Iceland. All opinions expressed are my own.

A Spectacular Boat Tour Through the Vestmanna Bird Cliffs

The fog was so dense that driving through it almost made me queasy. I drove slowly, hugging each hairpin turn, hating that I had no idea just how far down the cliff edges went. It was like driving on top of a cloud. I’ve never had a fear of heights, but the sudden not-knowing of just how high we were was somehow terrifying.

We were quiet in the car, a little nervous about our upcoming excursion to the Vestmanna bird cliffs. Perhaps foolishly, we had scheduled it for the final day of our trip. At the time, we didn’t consider just how often fog in the Faroe Islands can offset even the best-laid plans (see: that time we camped out at the viewpoint at Lake Sørvágsvatn for two hours, only to have the fog stubbornly refuse to move, and left us unable to capture that classic “optical illusion” effect photo)

We descended from the foggy apex of the mountain pass, and in time, the colorful harbor town of Vestmanna came into focus. Clear, nearly fog-free focus.

We popped into the tourism center and sorted out our tickets for the boat tour through Vestmannabjørgini, the 700-meter high sea cliffs that are home to so many of the Faroe Islands’ bird life. The boat tour lasts two hours, traversing the rugged coast of the island of Streymoy, navigating narrow straits and sea grottos along the way.

We got on the tiny boat and began heading from the harbor towards Vestmannabjørgini, where the cliffs begin. Along the way, as we edged away from the town of Vestmanna, we passed ramshackle boathouses, errant sheep nibbling on grass, and tiny sheds perched atop impossibly steep cliffs.

As the town of Vestmanna disappeared, the water surrounding us seemed to brighten to a near-Caribbean shade of turquoise, despite the moody sky overhead.

Elsewhere, waterfalls tumbled into the sea, cutting jagged lines in a landscape straight out of Jurassic Park.

As we got out to the sea cliffs, a familiar nervousness began to gnaw at my stomach. Fun fact about me: I just basically probably shouldn’t travel. I have massive travel anxiety, which results in me showing up to airports several hours early convinced I will miss my flight and has me gripping armrests preparing my last will and testament basically every time the plane even has a slight jitter of turbulence. But worse than my anxiety is my motion sickness, which is especially bad on boats: a fact I often conveniently forget until I am actually on the boat.

Luckily, I was so gobsmacked by the scenery around me that I was able to push aside my slight seasickness and take in the beautiful scenery. The Vestmanna cliffs in the Faroe Islands are dizzyingly high, stretching over 2,000 feet into the sky: a height you can truly appreciate all the more at the choppy ocean base, surrounded by countless birds swooping above our heads.

  

For nearly an hour, I was completely able to forget the tumult in my stomach, thrilled by the birds who soared above me and the towering magnitude of the cliffs around me. For birdwatchers, Vestmanna is the stuff of dreams for birdwatchers. A few of the bird species who call these cliffs home are the razorbill, puffin, guillemot, and fulmar, among others.

Several people on our tour had thought to bring binoculars; I didn’t and resorted to looking through my zoom lens to get a better glance at the birds. I was unlucky and didn’t spot a puffin; my friend Megan got lucky (more like has better eyesight) and spotted two.

I tried to snap a few photos of the birds, but let’s just say I don’t have a career as a wildlife photographer anytime in the near future.

Eventually, my seasickness got the best of me. About an hour and fifteen minutes into our Vestmanna boat tour, I had to go sit inside, focus on my breathing and my pressure points, and try to keep my breakfast inside me.

I wasn’t the only one feeling sick – the choppiness of the water is no joke this far north in the Atlantic. I recommend bringing someseasickness bands or motion sickness pills (the non-drowsy variety unless you want to sleep all day) if you are in any way susceptible to seasickness.

Luckily, after some deep breathing and focusing on the horizon, I was able to go back out and snap a few more photos of the beautiful area around Vestmanna as we got back to the harbor.

I mean seriously – how pretty is this part of the Faroes?

How to Plan a Vestmanna Boat Tour

The Vestmanna Tourist Center organizes one or more boat trips daily during the peak season, which runs from April to September. Here are the departure times:

April: Weekdays and weekends at 10:15am

May 1st to September 30th:  Weekdays at 10:15am, 2:15pm and 4:20pm & weekends at 11:15am, 2:15pm and 4:20pm

I recommend booking in advance just in case as the boats are not very large and there is a possibility it could fill up, as seeing the Vestmanna bird cliffs is on many tourists’ wishlists for the Faroe Islands. I’d also recommend not booking it for your final day if possible, just in case a storm or foggy weather means that your boat can’t depart or that visibility will be really bad.

Show up at least 10 minutes early as the boats depart promptly on time.

Address: Fjarðarvegur 2, 350 Vestmanna, Streymoy

Phone Number: (+298) 471500

Email address: [email protected]

What to Pack for Your Vestmanna Boat Tour

If you’re planning on visiting Vestmanna to see the stunning sea cliffs during your stay, there are just a few extra things you should pack. If you get seasick I recommend bringing either these seasickness bands (which really work – I’ve used them before) or motion sickness pills. If buying a motion sickness medicine, make sure you buy a non-drowsy formulation. I accidentally took normal Dramamine once and nearly fell asleep on the boat. If you normally don’t get seasick, you won’t need any of these things – I am just awful on boats.

It can get quite cold out on the water as it is very windy and the air is both cold and high humidity, the kind of cold that really cuts through whatever you’re wearing. I recommend bringing a waterproof windbreaker at the very least – I use and love this Marmot PreCip rain jacket. I’d also recommend a hat that covers your ears, a scarf if the weather is especially chilly, and some gloves. I didn’t have gloves with me and I really regretted it, as my hands got quite cold but I wanted them out at all times so I could be taking photos. Bring a pair of lightweight, smartphone-compatible gloves.

I brought my Sony A6000 camera with its 18-105mm zoom lens. I loved having a versatile lens like this for Vestmanna, since you truly need a wide angle lens to even be able to come close to capturing the scale of the sea cliffs. However, 105mm isn’t quite enough zoom to get great photos of the birds themselves (as you’ve probably surmised from my photos). If you really want to be able to capture great photos of the birds, you should have something that is at least 200mm, but 300mm would be better.

Finally, if you’re a big birder, you’ll definitely want to bring along a pair of binoculars!

Note: I was hosted by Visit Faroe Islands on my trip to Vestmanna and the Faroe Islands. All opinions are my own. 

Suðuroy: Escaping to the Southernmost Faroe Island

When my friend Megan and I began to plan our Faroe Islands itinerary, we knew we wanted to do things a bit differently. It was my first trip to the Faroes and Megan’s second, so of course, I wanted to see some of the islands’ most famous sights: the Gásaladur waterfall, the optical illusion of Lake Sørvágsvatn, the Kalsoy lighthouse, and a few others. But we also purposely decided to skip some of the Faroes’ most famous (and therefore most negatively impacted) sights – namely, Saksun and Mykines – in lieu of getting a bit off the beaten path and encouraging future travelers to the Faroes to spread out a bit for sustainability’s sake.

Unfortunately, the nature of people making their travel plans based on Instagram means that too often, people go to the same places over and over again. In a big city or a vast countryside, perhaps that wouldn’t matter so much. But when it happens in a place like Saksun – a village of 14 inhabitants – you notice.

This is part of the reason why we decided to give ourselves an overnight in Suðuroy. While Suðoroy is the third largest of the Faroes’ 18 islands, it is one of the least discovered by tourists. This is largely because people often skip Suðuroy due to its distance from the rest of the Faroes. From Tórshavn, it’s a two-hour ferry, which is a small hurdle in and of itself as most other ferry rides in the Faroes take only 20 minutes or so.

Views leaving Tórshavn

Another stumbling block to visiting Suðuroy is that since there are only two or three ferry departures daily, you definitely have to plan it in advance. Visiting Suðuroy not something you can tack on at the last minute, unlike many places in the Faroes which are connected by an impressive network of subsea tunnels.

However, those who do opt to discover Suðoroy will be pleasantly surprised to find a stunning island of sea cliffs and black sand beaches almost all to themselves. We spent one full day with an overnight in Suðuroy, and while we got a beautiful introduction to the island, it was definitely not enough time to see it properly. Suðuroy has several excellent hiking opportunities, so it would behoove you to spend at least two nights, perhaps three on this gem of an island, especially considering that you are at the whim of the ferry schedules.

Ferry leaving to return to the capital

Where to Go in Suðuroy

With just one full day in Suðuroy, we opted not to tackle the island’s best hikes, but rather to visit its villages to get a sense of the island as a whole. While we were happy we did it that way, we wished we gave ourselves more time to explore Suðuroy at leisure. It is the third-largest of the Faroe Islands and there are several great day hikes that make Suðuroy well-worth spending several days hiking and exploring. It’s also a great place to visit during high season (June-August) as it is less popular than other places in the Faroe Islands, giving you an off-peak feel even in the highest tourism season.

While I definitely have to return to Suðuroy to explore it more deeply, here is a quick guide to a few of the most important villages and sights on beautiful Suðoroy, Faroe Islands.

Tvøroyri

When you arrive in Suðoroy by ferry, you will arrive across the bay from Tvøroyri, one of the larger towns on the island, with a popular of 844. Tvøroyri is located on the edge of one of the most beautiful fjords in the Faroe Islands, Trongisvágsfjørður.

Moody light on my first view of Tvøroyri

 

Boathouses in the harbor of Tvøroyri

As a small village, Tvøroyri doesn’t have a huge number of activities to offer, but you will likely pass through it due to it being so close the ferry terminal and it is well-worth a visit. The area around the harbor looking over onto the other side of the fjord is beautiful.

One of the most common reasons why people visit Tvøroyri is to complete the beautiful hike to Hvannhagi, with its interesting geological formations and stunning circular lake called Hvannavatn. We didn’t have time to make the hike when we were in Suðoroy as we were prioritizing seeing the different villages, but it’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful hikes in the Faroe Islands.

Another great thing to do in Tvøroyri is to enjoy a heimablídni, which literally means ‘home hospitality’ and refers to a meal eaten in a local’s house. We enjoyed a meal with Elin and her family (and the world’s cutest smiling dog, Bella) while in Tvøroyri.

Bella is the only dog I’ve met who literally smiles to greet people. She alone is worth the ferry ride!

 

A delicious fresh fish soup at Elin’s

It was a great opportunity to actually get to know a few locals in the Faroes, something that is often a bit difficult to do in the Faroe Islands, as tourists tend to spend a lot of time in their cars driving from place to place or looking at the world from behind the camera. We got to speak to them about their thoughts on tourism in the Faroe Islands, sustainability, misconceptions about the Faroe Islands’ whaling practices, and what it’s like to live in one of the most isolated yet beautiful places in the world. To schedule a heimablídni dinner, you’ll have to book in advance (find information here).

We stayed overnight in Tvøroyri, at a B&B run by a lovely woman named Bindi. We had the entire furnished bottom floor of the house, which had two bedrooms, a kitchen, a cozy living room, and a large bathroom. I can’t speak highly enough about our B&B – especially with its stunning fjord views and a delicious breakfast. If you’d like to book, you can contact Visit Suðuroy or check out the B&B’s Facebook page.

Froðba

Not far from Tvøroyri, Froðba is thought to be the oldest settlement on Suðuroy and in the Faroe Islands in general. To be honest, I didn’t find it particularly interesting or charming compared to other parts of Suðuroy, but since it is so close to Tvøroyri it is not a bad idea to make a short detour.

Road to nowhere

 

Fishing traps in the bay near Froðba

There are some interesting basalt columns on the road between Tvøroyri and Froðba, as well as a bench with what just may be one of the better views in the Faroes.

Hvalba

Hvalba is in the north of Suðuroy and is one of the largest villages on the island, with 626 inhabitants.

The black sand beach at Hvalba

 

Views of Litla Dimun, the smallest of the 18 Faroe Islands and the only uninhabited island

Hvalba was one of my favorite places we visited in Suðuroy, largely because of the gorgeous black sand beach with a view of the tiny uninhabited island of Lítla Dímun. The beach is in the middle of town and we really enjoyed taking a cold summer afternoon’s walk along the edge. The old harbor area of Hvalba, called Fiskieiði, is very photogenic and worth visiting when in town.

We ended up doing a short hike in Hvalba, past quiet Lake Norðbergsvatn and onwards to the sea cliffs of Norðbergseiði, where the water is far rougher and the scene more dramatic than the calm bay in Hvalba. You can park by the public restrooms and enjoy a short walk – about 30 minutes in each direction – to get to Norðbergseiði.

A small boathouse on the rough waters of Norðbergseiði

 

Hiking buddies in Hvalba

Back in the town of Hvalba, there are a few places to eat if you’re hungry – Grillbarrin (a fast food place where you can buy things such as hot dogs and burgers), Ruth’sa Café (which also works as the tourist center), and Bakkhús, where you can stop for groceries or baked goods. We just packed some sandwiches so we didn’t have a chance to try any of the places in Hvalba for lunch.

Sandvík

The northernmost town on the southernmost island, Sandvík is pretty quiet with only 161 residents, especially compared to the relatively “bustling” Hvalba and Tvøroyri. There is a lovely beach area between the town of Sandvík and the tunnel that connects it to Hvalba. There is also a small harbor area. There aren’t any shops or restaurants in the town, to my knowledge.

The photogenic but sleepy town of Sandvík

 

The harbor at Sandvík

If you have time to explore the area, the sea stacks in the area of Asmundarstakkur offer great views and birdwatching opportunities. Alas, with only one day in Suðuroy, we had limited time.

Vágur

By far the largest town in Suðuroy with a population of 1,356, Vágur is well worth a stop during your time in Suðuroy. It’s home to a beautiful church and some amazing sea cliffs just outside the city. Near the football field, you’ll find signs for Vágseiði, which you can follow for amazing views of Vágsvatn Lake and the Eggjarner cliffs, one of the most scenic places in Suðuroy.

The cliffs of Eggjarner in Vágur

Vágur has a few restaurant options. There’s a restaurant called Báran, a cute café called Hjá Jugga, a fast food restaurant called Skýlið, and finally Pizzakøkurin, a pizza restaurant. The restaurants are all along the main road that goes through Vágur, Vágsvegur, so they are hard to miss. You’ll also find a small maritime museum on this street.

A Wes Anderson-esque building in Vagur

Sumba

After crossing through the longest land tunnel in the Faroe Islands, you will reach Sumba, the southernmost town on the southernmost island in the Faroes (look at all those superlatives!).

Sumba is a cute town and well worth a visit. Just beyond Sumba, you can find Akraberg Lighthouse, which is the actual southernmost point in the Faroe Islands. This isn’t in Sumba per se, but in Akraberg about 5 kilometers outside of the town. We got a little lost looking for it as there wasn’t any clear signage – but clearly, we weren’t mad about it because we got some awesome panoramic views of the town.

Sumba, as adorable as the name sounds

 

The edge of the world (in the Faroes, at least)

Be very careful on the drive to Akraberg as the road is very narrow with ditches on either edge, and there are more cars making the drive than you’d expect. There are designated places to pull over to allow cars to pass, so it is definitely doable, but be cautious.

Getting to Suðuroy

Suðuroy is well-served by ferry, which has room for 200 cars and nearly 1,000 people on board. Unlike the ferry to, say, Kalsoy, you won’t have any issues getting a spot on board the ferry to Suðuroy so there is no need to show up that early. However, if you are in Tórshavn and planning on taking the ferry to Suðuroy later in the day, you may find it helpful to park your car in the waiting area for the ferry, as parking in Tórshavn can be a bit difficult to find.

As with all ferries in the Faroe Islands, you pay the return price on only one of the legs of the journey. On the trip to Suðuroy, you do not have to pay, but on your way back to Tórshavn you will have to pay. You can buy your ticket on board the ferry at a kiosk on Deck 5 on your way back to Tórshavn – don’t forget to hold onto your ticket as you will be asked for it when it is time to disembark the ferry.

The ferry to and from Suðuroy is very comfortable and modern, especially compared to the tiny ferry to Kalsoy, which brought out my claustrophobia hardcore. There’s a restaurant on board where you can buy drinks and snacks for the two-hour long journey. I can’t find the exact cost breakdown of the ferry, but I believe we paid roughly 300 DKK (about $45 USD) for our return ticket for two people and one car. The cost will be a lot cheaper if you are not bringing a car, but it would be quite hard to get around Suðuroy without one, so I don’t recommend it.

Where to Stay in Suðuroy

As I mentioned before, we stayed at Bindi’s B&B in the town of Tvøroyri. We absolutely loved our stay there, and it’d be perfect for a longer stay as you have access to a kitchen which is a great perk in the Faroe Islands, where eating meals out can get quite expensive. With two big bedrooms and a very spacious living room and kitchen area, it’s perfect for friends, couples, or families alike and the price is very reasonable. You have the option to rent one or both bedrooms.

To ask about availability, check out the B&B’s Facebook page.

Note: I was hosted by Visit Faroe Islands on my trip to Suðuroy. All opinions expressed are my own.

What to Wear in Winter in Europe: Packing List

I remember my first time spending the winter in Europe. The year was 2009, and my semester living in Prague was coming to a close. The Christmas markets were in full swing, the snow coating the houses of the Old Town was straight out of a fairy-tale — and I was freezing my ass off, mostly because my California-addled brain had never learned to dress properly for the winter.

If it weren’t for the many cups of piping hot cups of svařák (Czech mulled wine) I was drinking at inappropriately early hours, I likely never would have survived.

Fast forward nearly a decade and several winter trips to Europe later, and I’ve finally mastered the art of packing for Europe in winter without wanting to die.

It’s a combination of not giving a crap if you look like a fat, fluffy dumpling and layering with actual winter-specific layers rather than what I was doing… which was piling some summery clothes on top of a pair of leggings and cute pea coat and wondering why I was still cold. California, guys. Growing up there does things to you.

After all that trial and error, here’s my full winter inn Europe packing list, detailing exactly what I recommend you wear for winter in Europe.

What to Pack for Europe in Winter

What to Pack Everything In

If you’re visiting Europe in winter, my number one recommendation is to travel with a backpack rather than a suitcase. While it is definitely possible to travel with a suitcase, and there are times when it is more convenient – I can also assure you that there will be times when you regret it hard, such as when you’re trying to lug your bag across snowy cobblestones and cursing your life. Take it from an idiot who brought a rolling suitcase to Finland in November.

I prefer to travel light with a backpack that fits carry-on restrictions because I hate paying for baggage fees and waiting at the airport. Even traveling Europe in winter, I’ve found that having a 44L backpack is perfectly fine, and there’s no need for a massive backpacker-style backpack unless you truly love clothes and want a jillion options. I’ve used and sworn by Tortuga Backpacks for the last three years – this is the one I’m carrying now. I’ve traveled around Europe in winter for the last few years and never truly needed a larger bag.

One thing that makes packing for winter in Europe so much easier is using packing cubes – having an organized system, especially with all the layers you need for winter travel – makes your life a lot easier, especially if you are traveling to more than one city or country. This packing list for Europe in winter includes a few of the things that I swear by all year round, not just winter, for helping me organize my clothes and belongings when I travel.

Abisko train station
How I packed vs. how my friend packed for winter in Europe. Trust  me – leave the rolling suitcase behind. She ended it dragging it more than rolling it!

Travel backpack (carry on size or check-in size)

While rolling suitcases can be great for in summer and fall weather, they aren’t a great idea for winter travel. For one, there will likely be snow or ice on the ground – meaning that you will have to drag, not roll, your suitcase… which kind of defeats the purpose of having a rolling suitcase.

Trust me, you’re way better off with a travel backpack that you can easily carry across snow, cobblestones, and other various obstacles that are the hallmarks of traveling Europe in winter. I am a light packer, so the Tortuga Backpack is the main backpack I need. I’ve spent two 5 month trips through Europe with it, including winter months, plus I take it on all my short term travels.

Why do I recommend Tortuga so much? Here’s why: this bag is 45L and has got three main compartments: one for a laptop and other flat objects, one giant rectangular compartment perfect for packing cubes stuffed with clothing, and one smaller compartment with pockets for passports, pens, odds and ends, etc. that I stash all my extras in – plus one small outer zipper pocket for anything you want quick access to.

It also has a water bottle holder on the outside as well as buckles so that you can strap something like a yoga mat to the outside. Plus, it’s quite comfortable to wear, with a padded hip belt and comfort-molding shoulder straps complete with a chest strap so that you can distribute weight perfectly across your body in the event that you need to wear your backpack for longer than usual. Check out more specs and details here.

Does it pass European budget airline requirements? I’ve never once had to check it in on a budget airline flight, and I’ve taken probably 50+ Ryanair and Wizzair flights at this point. I just buy priority boarding so that I have a guaranteed spot on board for my bag (plus a second personal item bag), which adds about $5 onto my total flight cost instead of the $20-40 or so that a heavy checked suitcase or backpack would. This adds up massively over time – with a bigger bag, I would have paid $1,000+ extra in baggage fees over the past few years. That’s massive savings.

Need a bigger backpack? Despite these long term trips, I haven’t personally used a bigger backpack (mostly because I have the back of a 90 year old woman). That said, I’ve heard great things about the Osprey system. If I ever were to upgrade my backpack capacity, that’s what I would choose. But I’m cheap and hate paying baggage fees, even at the expense of having less clothing options, which is why I prefer Tortuga. When flying budget airlines, I never check the bag, but I just purchase priority boarding for a few dollars (usually around $5) so I can have this bag on board with me, plus another personal item.

Packing cubes

Packing cubes will save your travel sanity. These easily zippable bags are wonderful when it comes time to pack and organize your clothing.  It keeps everything contained when you open your backpack, so if luggage clothing explosions drive you half as crazy as they drive me, investing in packing cubes will save you some serious therapy costs down the line.

I use these packing cubes and love them more than a logical person should love a simple zippable bag. Especially when packing for Europe in winter, when you have tons of accessories and layers to organize, this becomes extra essential.

Laundry bag

If you are traveling Europe in winter, your clothing will take a beating. Wet, dirty, covered in snow – basically, prepare to change your clothes at least once a day. I love having a laundry bag with me in addition to my packing cubes so I can keep dirty stuff separate and ready to go on laundry day.

You don’t need anything fancy – any bag will do – but I like having a cute one like this one from Kikkerland though, because I’m impractical and easily won over by a cute design. In a pinch, some plastic grocery bags will do as well.

Hanging toiletry bag

Packing for Europe in winter means you’ll need a few special toiletries (hint: bring ALL the moisturizer). After struggling to find a good way to organize my toiletries, I stumbled across this  hanging toiletry bag and purchased it on a whim to give it a try… and I promptly became a product evangelist.

It’s perfect for organizing your travel toiletries like shampoo, moisturizer, make-up, hairbrushes, tweezers, etc. It has a lot of organizers and seperators so you can really maximize your organization without taking up much excess space. It fits quite a bit – it’s like the Mary Poppins bag you always needed but never knew existed. It’s wonderful for girly girl travelers like myself who have a hard time leaving make-up behind when they travel.

It comes in a large size – I do just fine with the regular size, but those with lots of toiletries and odds and ends to organize will probably want to size up.

Cute travel daypack

I always use a daypack rather than a purse when I travel because it’s so much more comfortable, especially because I often carry lots of camera equipment with me. That said, I don’t want to look like an American bum (though I often do anyway) so I splurged on this adorable PacSafe Citysafe backpack

This bag is so amazing that I basically wrote a love letter to it here. My favorite feature about this travel backpack is that it has tons of awesome security features (locking zippers, slash-proof mesh on the inside of the bag, RFID blockers, etc.) but it looks adorable and not at all horrendous.

I use it pretty much every single day whether I am traveling or not. It’s one of the crucial things I bring with me on every trip, and it’s key when packing for a trip to Europe in winter because it’s the perfect size for squeezing in layer upon layer of cozy winter clothing.

5 Most Essential Things to Pack for Europe in Winter

When it comes to what to pack for winter in Europe, it’s best to bring all your essentials from home and try to minimize what you need to buy abroad. Most of the time, you won’t save any money by shopping in Europe. Prices tend to be a little higher than in, say, North America because 20% VAT is often rolled into the prices.

Also, depending on where you travel, in many countries the currency is currently quite strong compared to the US/Canada/Aussie dollar, so you won’t be at an advantage when it comes to shopping. For that reason, I recommend planning your winter in Europe packing list beforehand, and buying all your winter travel necessities before arriving in Europe.

A good, waterproof parka

While Europe’s weather can vary dramatically in the winter, it’s best to prepare for the worst and risk being overdressed than the alternative. I am a huge fan of The North Face because they guarantee all their products for life and will fix or replace literally anything you send to them — which I’ve tested by sending in a much used-and-abused down jacket that was returned looking like new.

Their jackets aren’t exactly budget-friendly, but they’re a great investment if you’re looking for a winter coat that will last a lifetime. This is the parka I own and I’ll use it for life (unless North Face cuts me off for how badly I abuse my clothing). If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on a new jacket but still want to ensure warmth in the winter, try buying a down jacket liner like this one and layer it between your warmest coat and winter layers.

Thermal layers

A good winter parka goes a long way, but unless you’re matching that down jacket with proper layers underneath, you won’t be maximizing your potential warmth. Everyone raves about wool’s warmth-retaining properties but I can’t tolerate it – it makes me so itchy that I want to tear off all my skin. If you can stand wool, something like these merino wool leggings paired with a cashmere sweater layer will serve you very well. Personally, I constantly wear these 32 Degrees thermal layers during European winters — I have about 5 tops that I rotate during the winter between laundry days. On bottom, I wear these fleece-lined leggings. I bring about 2-3 pairs of fleece-lined leggings on a winter trip since I can wear them several times before they start to feel gross. You’ll definitely want at least 2 pairs so you can change them out if they get wet from snow or bad weather. With thermal layers and a parka, you’re nearly set for any kind of weather in Europe.

Waterproof boots and warm socks

I’ve never really felt like snow boots are entirely necessary unless you really are planning on spending a lot of time in deep snow, like if you’re staying in a cabin in the woods or spending a significant amount of time in Lapland or ski resorts around Europe.

When it comes to packing for winter in Europe, if your trip is mostly in the cities, you just need two things in your boots: they need to be waterproof and have good traction. I first bought a pair of Blondo waterproof leather boots in 2008…  making this my longest-term relationship ever, eek, and one of my favorite travel shoes ever.

Despite many years of abuse and New York winters, I only had to get them resoled once in the last nearly 10 years. I’ve worn these in every European winter and they’ve always held up great – even in the Arctic Circle of Sweden.

If you plan on doing a lot of hiking in the snow, you may want a proper snow boot. The Elsa snow boot by KEEN is waterproof, insulated, and looks super cozy, and comes highly recommended as one of my friend’s favorite hiking boot brands.

Finally, no matter how insulated your boots are, you need proper socks to match –  sad, thin cotton socks won’t do the trick. I bought these excellent Smartwool socks after hesitating because of the price, but I’m glad I did. Although I generally hate wool, the skin on my feet is thick enough that I don’t mind wearing wool socks at all and can get all the lovely warm wool benefits without the itchiness. You don’t need that many pairs – two or three will do – because wool is really odor-absorbent and dry really fast, you can stretch out a few pairs whereas you’d need a fresh pair of cotton socks for each day.

Reusable water bottle

 The tap water in Europe is drinkable almost everywhere so make sure you bring a reusable water bottle. I’ve been to nearly every country in Europe and it’s super rare that I can’t drink the water, even in the Balkans. The only major city I can think of where I wasn’t able to drink the tap water was Kiev, Ukraine.

If you don’t already have one, try one from Klean Kanteen. If you drink a lot of hot beverages like tea or coffee, I recommend bringing a Thermos that will keep your drinks (and hands!) warm during the cold.

Moisturizer with SPF

If there’s one thing you don’t forget to pack for Europe in winter, let it be this. The cold in Europe is brutal on your skin, especially when combined with super-drying heating systems. Make sure you fight back with a heavy duty moisturizer. For the daytime, I use Aveeno moisturizer as I have sensitive skin but also want SPF protection.

Remember you need to use SPF even – if not especially – only cloudy days as UV rays are always lurking, even in the winter, ready to prematurely age your skin. (I’m super melanin-challenged, so perhaps I’m a bit paranoid). I don’t want to wear SPF at night, so I have a thick Olay night cream that I use while I sleep to put some moisture back into my dry skin.

Finally, travel insurance

Yes, I know this isn’t something that you physically pack for Europe – but it is just as essential to consider during the packing process.

Personally, I think it’s extra important to have travel insurance in winter. European winter weather is hard to predict, so it is best to be prepared and protected in case of trip cancellation/delays, lost luggage, illnesses, or accidents. I recommend buying travel insurance as far in advance as you can, as I’ve found it’s always cheaper that way than booking shortly before departure.

I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for years and use them to cover me when I travel. The contract is very clear as to what it covers, the prices are affordable, the excess/deductible is very low, and if you find yourself extending your trip it’s very easy to modify your insurance on the go.

What to Wear in Europe in Winter (Quick Checklist)

In a word (well, three): Layer, layer, layer!

I went into more detail above, but basically, here’s how I dress for winter in Europe. I start with a base layer – for me, that’s my fleece-lined leggings and thermal top, but many people prefer wool base layers. On top of my thermal layers, I usually wear just a simple acrylic sweater and jeans.

To seal in all the warmth, I add wool socks, waterproof leather boots, a scarf, a hat that covers my ears, gloves, and of course – my ridiculously warm parka. That will usually keep me warm enough for just about any winter situation in Europe.

Here’s a quick packing list plus a few product recommendations for what to wear for winter in Europe:

2-3 thermal tops

I use these 32 Degrees thermal layers  – I recommend having a few to swap between as they tend to get kind of sweaty during the day.

3 warm sweaters to layer on top

I love H&M for their non-itchy acrylic sweaters, but wool/wool blends also work great

2 pairs fleece-lined leggings

I am obsessed with my favorite fleece leggings – they are insanely warm!

2 pairs jeans

I wear these as an extra layer over my leggings. You can skip the leggings if it’s not that cold.

1 heavy jacket

Above, I recommended my North Face parka. While that’s my favorite, any warm jacket will do. What to look for: down or synthetic down lining, hood, waterproof, and windproof.

2 bras

 Or however many you want, you do you.

7+ pairs of underwear

This depends on how long your trip is, but I prefer to have a week’s worth of underwear and do laundry on the road.

Bathing suit

 If you plan to go to any thermal baths or saunas or the like while in Europe. If not, skip.

Flip flops

For walking around in your hotel/hostel when you don’t want to put on your boots.

1 or 2 knit hats

Since I’m addicted to fleece in the winter, this fleece-lined knit hats is a favorite

1 pair of gloves

I recommend a pair of touchscreen-friendly gloves so you don’t have to constantly take off your gloves to use your phone.

1 super-warm infinity scarf

I love infinity scarves like this one that you can wrap super close to your face and not have to worry about the wind with.

What to Pack for Backpacking Europe in Winter

There are a few special things you should bring if you are staying in a hostel or dorm in Europe in winter, which you can find below.

1 pair flip flops

I mentioned it above, but it goes double if you staying in a hostel!

1 travel towel

Most hostels in Europe don’t provide towels to guests and charge you to rent one. This can add up quickly if you are staying in multiple cities throughout Europe, so I recommend just bringing your own. Make sure you get the largest size or risk flashing everyone!

1 eye mask

I lived in hostels for the better part of a year and I swear by this contoured eye mask- it completely blocks out light, without putting annoying pressure on your eyes.

Some earplugs or good noise-canceling headphones

I love Hearos — they’re the gold standard for ear plugs. Alternately, if you listen to music to help you sleep, noise-canceling headphones can work wonders at drowning out inconsiderate roommates

Travel-sized toiletries

Most hostels don’t provide shampoo, body wash, etc. so make sure you bring your own. Instead of buying travel-sized toiletries, I recommend buying reusable GoToobs so you can pack your favorites from home.

Combination locks

I always check reviews of hostels to ensure that they have lockers available, as the risk of theft from fellow travelers is not something to take lightly. It’s really easy to just travel with a combination lock in case your hostel doesn’t offer their own locks so you can keep your valuables safe at all times.

Toiletries to Pack for Europe in Winter

Even though it is generally pretty easy for me to find all of my preferred brands in Europe, I do recommend bringing them from home if you can. For one, it’ll likely be cheaper. For another, it’s good to continue using the same products as back home as I find that travel and cold weather really stresses my skin and it’s nice to have continuity in the products that I use.

Here is a basic list of toiletries I typically pack:

When not seeing the Northern lights, dogsledding is a fun way to pass the time
Don’t forget the moisturizer!

ALL THE MOISTURIZER

 Again, winter in Europe will destroy your skin. Even if you think you have oily skin, you will want moisturizer – the cold plus the overzealous heating in many cities means dryness, dryness, dryness. For daytime, I use Aveeno with SPF on my sensitive skin and Olay night cream for replenishing moisture overnight.

Kleenex packets

 I seem to always get a cold when doing winter travel so it’s nice to have these on hand

LUSH solid shampoo

Great at reducing your liquid load when you travel and makes my hair feel amazing – just trust me. Buy online or in store from LUSH and you’ll save serious money over Amazon. As a bonus, it’s totally packaging free, so you reduce your plastic waste.

Menstrual cup or your favorite tampon/pad brand, if applicable

If you have a specific brand allegiance, you may not find it. I switched to a Diva Cup for travel and now I never have to think about stocking up on tampons, which is awesome.

Deodorant

I am not a huge fan of European deodorant. The options have gotten slightly better in the last decade, but I love Secret Clinical Strength and stash up on it every time I’m home… but then again, I am sweatier than most people are. Even in winter.

Basic medicine

You will be able to find all this in Europe, but trust me — you want to have the basics on hand in case you need them on the road.

I carry Pepto-Bismol for standard stomach troubles, Imodium as a nuclear option (i.e. riding the bus when I am sick), some sort of painkiller like ibuprofen for headaches and minor pains, and some sort of motion sickness tablets.

Cold medicine

If you’re prone to getting sick in the winter. be sure to buy some cough or cold medicine – especially if you are traveling to Scandinavia or Germany. I’ve found out firsthand that they are really stingy with some of the ingredients over the counter in Northern Europe. You’ll want to have some as backup if you are used to being able to take cold medicine, as that is not necessarily the case in, say, Germany.

Electronics to Pack for Europe in Winter

The most important thing to remember about traveling in winter is that batteries drain extra quickly. You will want to bring extra batteries for everything — especially your camera — and a portable battery charger for your phone and other electronics. Trust me on this!

If you are serious about your photography, I recommend bringing a tripod as well. Since there are fewer daylight hours in Europe in winter, you’ll likely want to do a bit of night photography (especially if you are visiting around Christmas-time and are around a lot of photogenic Christmas markets!). I travel with a cheap tripod and find it works well enough for most situations.

sweden in winter

Where it not for my tripod, I wouldn’t have been able to capture this!

Laptop, if necessary

I bring my 13″ MacBook Air everywhere but other people may prefer a tablet or an inexpensive netbook. I work on the road so a user-friendly, lightweight laptop is a must.

Kindle Paperwhite

In general, I’ve found that it’s not too hard to find English-langage bookstores in Europe (or at least an English-langauge section), but still – I love having a Kindle so that I can buy any book there is just via WiFi.

Travel camera

For all my photos when I travel, I use a Sony A6000 because it’s lightweight for a professional caliber camera, inexpensive, and a HUGE step up from a smartphone. I’m hoping to upgrade to the Sony A7 III soon, but it’s outrageously expensive so I am struggling with making the plunge. But a few of my friends have this camera and their photos are nothing short of magical!

Travel tripod

There are a few reasons why you might need a tripod for traveling in Europe in winter – if you are going somewhere where you may see the Northern lights or want to do night photography, such as lit-up Christmas decorations. I use a simple, cheap 50″ Amazon tripod and it works just fine and fits in my carry-on sized bag. If you plan to just take daytime photos, there’s no need for a travel tripod.

Portable charger

Your camera and phone lose battery like crazy when in the cold, so be sure you don’t forget a portable charger when you travel in winter.  Anker is a reliable brand and what I personally use. I make sure I buy something that can hold multiple charges, so that if I forget to charge it one night it won’t be a big deal.

Adaptor, if necessary

 The UK, Ireland, and Malta use a different plug than the rest of continental Europe, and Switzerland’s plug is slightly different than the standard European plug. So do a bit of research about where you are going before you get there. I recommend buying it in advance because while adaptors are easy to find everywhere, it can be annoying to try to find one on your first day.

Headphones

I use simple iPhone headphones typically but you may want noise-canceling headphones if you are noise-sensitive.

***

While this sounds like a lot of things on your winter in Europe packing list – and it is – I am typically able to fit it all in a carry-on sized bag by choosing thinner but warmer materials, wearing my heaviest stuff on the plane, and picking my daypack and backpack for travel carefully!

Is there anything I’ve forgotten to pack for Europe in winter? Is there anything else you’re wondering if you should bring? Let me know in the comments!

Chisinau to Kiev by Train: Well, That Was a Trip

Note: Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine I don’t think this train journey is possible any longer; and if it is, I wouldn’t recommend it. However, in the spirit of honoring of this memorable trip that I took in 2018, I’ll keep this post as-is in hopes that, in the future, travelers can make this journey safely once again. All my hope and love goes out to the innocent people caught up in this senseless war. 

Despite being separated by a mere 500 kilometers of distance between the two points, taking the Soviet-era sleeper train from Chisinau to Kiev took a whopping 18 hours.  And would I recommend it? Yes, yes, and yes again.

Taking an ancient, glacially-paced train — a train older than either of the two countries it was going between — was probably one of my highlights of visiting Chisinau.

Though to be fair, that’s because the majority of my time in Chisinau was spent navigating the hospital system attempting to get a rabies vaccination after a cat bite incident in Odessa… but that’s a story for another day, and it’s most certainly not Chisinau’s fault that I didn’t get around to doing most of the best things to do in Chisinau.

Nor is it Chisinau’s fault that I didn’t take out my proper camera and took only crappy cell phone shots the entire 3 days I was there… but I digress again.

Sadly, this is the ‘best’ photo I have of Chisinau

Not a ton of travelers opt for this train due to time and budget concerns and a lack of information out there, so I’ve broken down the information that was missing on the internet here  to help people who plan to make this journey between Chisinau and Kiev by train in the future.

Bus vs. Train? Breaking Down Getting from Chisinau to Kiev

Upon arrival at my hostel in Chisinau, I was given a map with the arrival and departure times of buses. Traveling by bus from Chisinau to Kiev is by far the more popular option. But after a memorable #Experience in Romania and the marshrutka from hell from Ganja to Sheki in Azerbaijan, I’m a bit allergic to bus travel.

So when given the option between a 10 hour overnight marshrutka to Kiev and a sleeper train of indeterminate length and roughly twice the price… I opted for the train in a heartbeat, not even thinking about the price.

The train station in Chisinau is a happening place

The train journey is not the popular choice because it is both a longer journey (in my case, nearly by twice the time) and it’s more expensive. I paid 650 lei for my bed in an open sleeper car, whereas a bus ticket will cost around 300 lei. A bus takes approximately 10 hours between the two cities, and my train took 18 hours.

I’ll Take the 21:19 Train to Moscow

Attempting to purchase a train ticket between Chisinau and Kiev is a little intimidating because the people at the train station ticket counter don’t speak English. Knowing a tiny bit of Russian will help. I speak Russian with the complexity of an early toddler and through that and some gesturing I was able to get a ticket for the train to Kiev.

If you don’t speak Russian, I recommend asking your hotel or hostel receptionist to write down what you want in Russian or Romanian. Barring that, you could always use Google Translate if you have a SIM card or the language file already downloaded on your phone to use offline (guide how to do that here). This is highly useful for traveling through Russian-speaking parts of the former USSR. This tip also came in handy in Taiwan when I had to translate Chinese as the camera can automatically ‘translate’ things, making you feel like you’re from the future.

The departure times between Chisinau and Moscow as of July 2018.

However, in my bumbling Russian, I was able to get what I wanted across. There were three departures on the day that I booked my ticket, all heading towards Moscow and making stops in Kiev along the way. Despite the ongoing war in Donbass between Russian and Ukrainian forces, trains are traveling between the two countries as scheduled.

The woman at the ticket counter told me my train was due to arrive the next day at around 15:00. I’m not sure when the other two trains would arrive in Kiev. Theoretically, according to an out of date blog post, the morning train would arrive somewhere around 2 in the morning, whereas the 23:00 train arrives past noon the next day.

Comparing those times to my experience, I’d say those times are off, though. Unless it follows a very different route or I accidentally took a train with countless local stops and the other train is an express train, I have a hard time buying that. I’ll leave that gap for other intrepid travelers to fill in – if you find out, comment below and I’ll update this post accordingly.

When at the train station, be sure to check out the Monument to the Victims of Stalinist Repression in front

All Aboard the Slowest Train of Your Life

From start to finish, it took a whopping 18 hours to span 500 kilometers, including a perplexing 9 hours to traverse Moldova… which, given the size of this tiny landlocked country, practically defies physics.

On Soviet train, Moldova leaves you!

The train departed at 21:19 exactly on schedule and chugged along through Moldova making countless stops, finally reaching the border with Ukraine around 6 AM. Luckily, unlike the night train to Istanbul, all the passport-checking takes place on board the train.

The train itself is spartan but functional, as befits a Soviet-era train. The train has bunk beds, where the bottom level has a luggage compartment underneath it that can be lifted up. The top bunks can be folded away and typically are, as it’s rare for the train to hit capacity (no need to buy tickets in advance save for the fact that the ticket line moves quite slowly). There are also bed/seat combinations on the side, so that each “section” can fit 6 people.

You’re given two sheets, a mattress pad that is actually quite comfortable, a pillow and pillowcase, and a towel if you’d like to wash your face or something on the train. There is hot water available and you can borrow glasses to drink tea or coffee out of (I assume you have to bring it yourself — my nice seat mate kindly shared his coffee with me in the morning, because people are angels). There was a restaurant car on my train in theory, but I didn’t check it out personally. The bathroom was actually one of the cleanest I’ve seen on a train, though of course, it’s strictly a BYO TP and hand sanitizer kind of affair.

One of the few photos I took on the train.

I wish I had taken better pictures but I am a shitty wannabe train blogger. I blame the combination of boarding a pitch black train, drugging myself in order to sleep, and then having a series of weird encounters with border officials and random people as soon as I woke up.

I arrived in Kiev around 3:10 PM the following day, pretty much exactly on schedule – if not a few minutes early.

Crossing Between Moldova and Ukraine

I exited Moldova with only a slight hitch. My border stamp, which I got at the Palanca border crossing commonly used between buses between Odessa and Chisinau, was so faded it almost looked as if it weren’t there.

I heard a flurry of a language I couldn’t understand with the words “Tiraspol” being bandied about — evidently, they thought that given the lack of entry stamp, I had entered via Transnistria. Eventually, they were able to detect the tiny hint of a Moldovan entry stamp (side note: I really hate it when this happens) and I was given my exit stamp.

After a quick and awkward pause for customs entering Ukraine (in which I thought I was being asked to get off the train because, again, toddler-level Russian, and began to change out of my sleeping shorts in front of a border guard), they quickly checked my baggage and ascertained that I hadn’t brought in too much alcohol in from Moldova.

I then waited for the Ukrainian passport control to come and stamp me in. The guards made some awkward comments on my appearance (oh, the joys of traveling while female) and then proceeded to ask me if I was sure if I didn’t need a visa to enter Ukraine (despite the fact that my entry stamp into Odessa a few days back was staring them right in the face).

This is the happy face of someone who didn’t take a bus.

All in all, it was a less pleasant experience than the super-smooth Palanca border crossing from Odessa, which had free Wi-Fi as well as the only land border Duty Free shop I’ve ever seen, but it was nothing crazy.

Just be aware that they don’t see a ton of people who are not Moldovan, Ukrainian, or Russian nationals doing this route so you may have to answer questions about visas that should seem obvious.

Welcome to Ukraine

Not long (I think – I was still blinking off the effects of my sleeping pills) after crossing the border into Ukraine, we pulled into a small city and instantly a flurry of activity began. People began boarding the train, selling kielbasa, soda, and SIM cards — ah, the trifecta of life’s necessities.

But here’s where the story takes an interesting turn.

I met a mysterious man in all yellow who addressed me in Russian. I repeat: all yellow, shirt, jeans, and all. Upon finding out I was foreign, his demeanor changed into something extremely exuberant. When I answered that I was American, he grew even more animated, and began shuffling through his briefcase through a series of tattily-laminated documents translated into several languages, the text of which read quite a bit like a standard spam e-mail and had a bunch of American-sounding names in it that, of course, meant nothing to me.

He began reading out the text of this spam-like document to me in English at full volume for the entire train to hear, flourishing his hands and shouting “your excellency,” trying to shake my hand with a suspicious forcefulness (which held what looked like a deck of laminated Tarot cards but were probably cards of Orthodox saints).

I was confused and still slightly drugged so I began yelling what I thought was “no, goodbye” in Russian over and over again… before realizing that I was babbling in Bulgarian. Whoops.

My seatmate — a young Russian backpacker about my age — looked on, bemused but looking prepared to intervene if necessary. When the man left, he cracked a smile.

“Welcome to Ukraine.”

A Comprehensive Cuba Packing List: What to Bring to Cuba

Packing for a trip to Cuba can be a bit of a challenge.

For one, you have to be more thorough in deciding what to bring to Cuba than in other countries.

Unlike other countries where you can simply pop into a CVS/Target/DM and grab what you need, it is a bit more difficult to buy certain items in Cuba due to sanctions and economic conditions.

For this reason, I really recommend you follow this Cuba packing list and consider your needs carefully. Cuba is one of those rare countries where it is better to overpack than underpack.

In terms of clothing, Cuba is easier to pack for. Cuba has a subtropical climate, with a yearly average temperature of 26°C/ 79°F, and tolerable humidity levels.

From November to April, it is generally quite sunny, whereas in May through October it can be quite stormy and even have hurricanes.

I visited Cuba for the first time in February and thought it was the perfect time to go – we had maybe one or two rainy days in two weeks, and the weather was hot but never intolerable.

With the Atlantic experiencing more severe hurricanes each year and Cuba being squarely in the crossfires, I probably personally wouldn’t visit Cuba in hurricane/rainy season, but if you do travel during the off-season you will get great deals so it’s up to you.

One thing that is often mentioning when discussing what to pack for Cuba is gifts or supplies for Cuban locals.

I wasn’t sure what the proper etiquette with respect to this was when I visited Cuba and opted not to bring in things as I wasn’t sure what people actually needed and I didn’t want to offend anyone by assuming they didn’t have basic necessities or by acting like a savior.

I later asked my friend, Dr. Kiona, who is an experienced Cuba traveler who also runs educational tours in Cuba, about this.

She says “It’s better not to come in with a savior attitude but to keep in mind there is an embargo so offering to bring something like you’re going to someone’s house is appropriate.”

She recommended asking your casa particular (a Cuban guesthouse) host if there is anything in particular that their community needs or is having trouble getting in local stores.

In the past, supplies that Cubans have asked for have included vitamins, tampons, condoms, deodorant, school supplies, toothbrushes and toothpaste, towels, and shampoo.

So basically, feel free to offer to bring something, but if you feel uncomfortable asking or don’t have travel plans locked down in advance, it’s in no way mandatory to bring things for your hosts except a friendly, laid-back attitude.

Remember that when you stay in casa particulares you are a guest in someone’s home, so behave like one.

What to Pack for Cuba

What to Pack Everything In

I’ve been traveling for a while and my packing gear is always the same – a backpack organized with packing cubes as well as a daypack with all my electronics and smaller items.

That said, if you prefer a suitcase, you could certainly swap out a backpack for a suitcase. You do you!

Generally, as I was traveling in a group of 3-4 travelers, we ended up organizing taxis between cities as the tourist bus was almost always sold out.

Since you too likely will be traveling between cities by car or organized bus rather than public transport, it doesn’t really matter if you bring a backpack or suitcase, I just happen to prefer backpacks.

Whether you bring a suitcase or backpack, packing cubes are a life-saver for either, especially if you are visiting multiple places in Cuba and plan to be traveling every few days.

You don’t need anything fancy (even Ziploc bags will do in a pinch) but separating your clothes into packing cubes will make your Cuba packing process much more streamlined and organized.

Travel Backpack (carry on size or check-in size): I am a light packer, so my Tortuga Setout Backpack is perfect for my travel needs, since I try to avoid checking my bag as much as possible.

Why do I recommend Tortuga so much? Here’s why: this bag is 45L and has got three main compartments: one for a laptop and other flat objects, one giant rectangular compartment perfect for packing cubes stuffed with clothing, and one smaller compartment with pockets for passports, pens, odds and ends, etc. that I stash all my extras in – plus one small outer zipper pocket for anything you want quick access to. It also has a water bottle holder on the outside as well as buckles so that you can strap something like a yoga mat to the outside. Plus, it’s quite comfortable to wear, with a padded hip belt and comfort-molding shoulder straps complete with a chest strap so that you can distribute weight perfectly across your body in the event that you need to wear your backpack for longer than usual. Check out more specs and details here.

However, if you want a bigger backpack, I’ve heard good things about the Osprey system and that’s the brand I would go with if I were to upgrade my packing capacity to something larger. Of course, you could always just bring a suitcase as well. I don’t travel with a suitcase anymore but I prefer hard-sided luggage if made to choose!

Packing Cubes: Whereas I’m a bit apathetic on whether you need a suitcase or backpack for your Cuba packing needs, I do feel strongly about packing cubes! No need to be picky with your packing cubes — anything rectangular and zippable will do. I use these packing cubes and love them. But really, anything works!

Laundry bag: In addition to packing cubes, I also like to bring a laundry bag to separate out my dirty clothing from my clean. While you could certainly just reuse a plastic bag for this purpose, I do like having a cute one like this travel-themed one from Kikkerland though, because I’m impractical. This makes it easy if you need to ask your casa owner if they can provide laundry services.

Hanging Toiletry Bag: I tend to pack a lot of toiletries with me and I use a hanging toiletry bag to pack them in an organized way that takes up minimal space. It has the perfect number of separators, organizers, and pockets without taking up any excess space. It’s kind of a magical Mary Poppins bag – you’d be amazed at how many travel-sized toiletries you can fit in there before you run out of room.

Backpack with locking zippers : While Cuba is safe, it’s not completely free from petty crime. While wearing a shoulder bag is generally more secure than a backpack because you can keep it closer to your body tucked underneath your car, I find that shoulder bags just are not comfortable if you carry a lot of stuff with you during the day. I swear by PacSafe for the combination of functionality and aesthetics, and I love their PacSafe Citysafe backpack. It’s actually cute, but it also has excellent security features like locking zippers, an interlocking clasp, and slash-proof mesh embedded in the fabric. If you’re curious to learn more, I have a full review here – not sponsored, just irrationally obsessed.

Essential Things to Pack for Cuba

Honestly, so many things on this list are essentials for Cuba because it is so hard to ensure you’ll get exactly what you need in Cuba if you forget it.

However, I tried to pick the things that I thought were the most essential, that would have the worst impact on your trip if you forgot it.

Since it can be hard to access certain toiletries in Cuba, those feature highly on the list.

Euros, if you’re American: While 1 CUC (the tourist currency) is equal to 1 USD, you won’t want to bring USDs with you to Cuba as you will get hit with a 10% conversion fee. Unfortunately I had to absorb this when I was traveling to Cuba as I was in Costa Rica before flying to Cuba and it ended up being cheaper to convert my USDs than to accept the horrible rate that the Costa Rican bank was giving me to convert their currency into euros. However, if you are in the U.S. before your trip, convert some USD to Euros. This is important: you’ll want to convert ALL THE CASH you’ll need into euros beforehand. American debit cards do not work in Cuba, full stop. Estimate all the cash you’ll need, an then add a 30% buffer on top of that. Luckily, I was traveling with two Irish girls so I was able to borrow money from one of them and reimburse them when we got to Mexico, but most Americans won’t be so lucky! If you are from anywhere else but the U.S., you have less to worry about in terms of money because your ATM card should work fine (just notify your bank you are traveling).

Travel insurance: It is mandatory to purchase travel insurance while traveling in Cuba, and you will likely be asked to show proof of insurance when entering the country. I actually don’t recall if I was or not — but I was sure that I had my policy information pulled up and saved as a PDF on my phone, and I’d actually recommend printing it just to be safe. I used World Nomads when I was in Cuba and highly recommend them to other travelers. You can get a free quote here.

Lonely Planet Cuba (2017 edition): I don’t always travel with a guidebook, as I generally just do internet research on the ground. However, with internet access being both expensive and not always accessible in Cuba, a guidebook here is truly indispensable. I would say that we used our guidebook literally every single day while in Cuba. It was also good fun to read at night before bed since we weren’t able to get our usual internet fix. Make sure you buy the most recent version as the information gets dated quickly. The most recent version is the 2017 Lonely Planet but I’m sure there will be a 2019 or 2020 version soon.

Kindle loaded with e-books: Since you won’t have WiFi often in Cuba, you’ll find yourself with a lot of free time that you have no idea how to use up, if you’re an internet-addicted millennial like myself.  While in Cuba, my Kindle Paperwhite was my best friend. Buy several books before you go so that you won’t run out of things to read and get bored! It’s not easy to pick up new English-language books in Cuba.

Spanish-English phrasebook or download Google Translate offline: I speak fluent Spanish and it’s lucky I do as it was pretty much indispensable in Cuba. English language knowledge is not that widespread even in people who work in tourism. I would recommend having a Spanish-English phrasebook in paper form or downloading Google translate offline. Here’s how you do it. On that note, it’s also helpful to download the maps of Cuban cities on your phone beforehand, as you won’t have WiFi when you touch down in Cuba. Especially if you travel to parts of Cuba outside of Havana, like Santiago de Cuba, you should have basic Spanish knowledge.

Contact lenses and solution, if necessary: It is not common to find contacts or contact lens solution in Cuba so I recommend bringing more than you need for your stay. I’d also bring glasses as back-up.

All your toiletries and cosmetics: It is really unpredictable what international brands you will be able to find in Cuba so I just say assume you won’t be able to find anything you need and bring all you need from home. While you  can find things like sunscreen, shampoo, etc. if you are in any way particular about what you like to use I’d bring it from home as due to the embargo it is not always easy to find your first choice, especially outside of Havana and Varadero, the two most touristic places in the country.

Sunscreen: While you can find sunscreen in Cuba, it is overpriced and not always easy to find outside of beach locations. The sun is no joke in Cuba so I highly recommend packing sunscreen before you go. I also like having this solid sunscreen stick from Neutrogena which is great if you are maxed out on your liquid toiletries and are trying to travel light, but also need SPF 70 like a ghost like I do.

Mosquito repellent: As a subtropical country, Cuba has lots of pesky mosquitos, especially in the rainy season. With the prevalence of mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika and dengue, I am really vigilant about applying and re-applying mosquito repellent, especially after coming out of the water or  I usually carry a bottle and also some repellent wipes with me if I need to reapply on the go. I also highly recommend bringing some After Bite mosquito bite treatment since it’s inevitable some of those buggers will get you at one point and this will take some of the sting out of the itch.

Water bottle with built-in filter: Cuba’s tap water is generally not considered to be drinkable, so if you are concerned about plastic consumption – I recommend purchasing a Lifestraw water bottle with a filtration system inside of it that gets rid of 99.9% of nasty bacteria and viruses. Another option is the Steripen, which uses UV light to purify water while traveling. The bonus of a Steripen is that you can also use it in juices or smoothies that you aren’t sure are made with safe water.

Bandana or face mask: I once got extremely ill from diesel fumes while traveling in a colectivo from Santa Maria to Varadero. I wish I had a face mask, Japanese-subway-style, to wear when traveling in Cuban cars because the fumes are really strong. A bandana would have come in handy as well.

Basic medicine: While Cuba’s health care system is quite functional (just ask my friend who fell and tore a ligament in her ankle on the beach and had to visit a Cuban hospital), it is still better to bring your own medicine from home. There are some international pharmacies (12 of them in Havana and another 30 or so scattered around the island) but trust me, the last thing you want to do if you get sick in Cuba is try to track down one of the few farmacías and discuss your bowel movements with a pharmacist. Here’s what’s in my arsenal for every trip and what I brought to Cuba:  Pepto-Bismol tablets for standard stomach troubles, Imodium as a nuclear option for diarrhea, some sort of painkiller like ibuprofen for headaches and minor pains, and some sort of motion sickness tablets. Of course, if you have any specific medical needs, you will want to bring that as well, especially anything that may require a prescription.

What to Wear in Cuba (For Women)

This part of my Cuba packing list is specific to women, so men, feel free to skip this part.

One thing I have to say here when it comes to deciding what to wear in Cuba: catcalling in Cuba is incredibly common and rather annoying.

Wear clothes you feel comfortable in, but be aware that if you look nice (and in my experience, even if you don’t) men will most likely make sure you know it. Over and over again.

While I did feel safe in Cuba, I did also often feel annoyed by the male attention.

Still, I didn’t let this impact how I dressed, but I do recommend you wear clothes you feel comfortable in and to be prepared for catcalling and comments to occur pretty much daily.

3-5 lightweight summer dresses: Dresses are great for Cuban weather, plus they pack up small, so bring as many as you can get away with. If you plan to hit some salsa spots, bring something you enjoy dancing in.

5+ tees & tanks: You will sweat a lot, so opt for black, navy, and other dark colors. Yes, they attract heat, but they also avoid the telltale yellow pit stains that seem to be my constant vibe whenever I attempt to wear white.

1 pair jeans: While during the day I felt too hot in jeans, I did occasionally wear my pair of jeans at night or when I was

2-3 pairs shorts: I usually have at least one pair of cuffed denim shorts and one pair of linen or silk-ish material for shorts.

2-3 skirts: I suggest bringing one black skirt and one printed skirt for flexibility. I especially love having midi or maxi length skirts, which feel great and coincidentally look nice photos. As a bonus, the extra fabric around your legs traps some cool air, making you feel less hot, and I liked the additional coverage it gave me

1 pair sneakers: Cuban streets are generally quite dusty so I found that I liked having a pair of lightweight closed-toe shoes that were comfortable to wear for long stretches. I usually wear a pair of black Nikes as I find they look cute even worn with my dresses and I’m all about having options.

1-2 pairs sandals: I suggest bringing one pair of rubber flip flops like these Havaianas and another pair of more stylish or dressy sandals. I’m obsessed with my Birkenstocks and will never go back.

1 pair heels, optional: I don’t like to dance but I know many travelers plan for a night out in Cuba dancing the night away. If you enjoy dancing in heels (and salsa does look best danced in heels) then I’d bring a comfortable pair with you. If you don’t plan to go dancing, then leave these at home – I did.

1 rain jacket: Even if you don’t plan on traveling in the rainy season, sometimes the weather has other plans. I love my Marmot rain jacket.

1 cardigan: Just in case you get cold at night or want a little extra coverage, a cardigan is good to have. You likely won’t need it in Cuba but it’s good for the plane.

1-2 bras: I personally brought 1 regular bra and 1 sports bra and switched between the two.

7+ pairs of underwear: You can easily arrange laundry with the owner of your casa particular but if you want to avoid laundry, just bring enough underwear for the duration of your trip.

Bathing suit: Cuba’s beaches are legendary, from Varadero to Holguin. Unless you’re planning strictly a city trip to Havana, you are likely going to want to take a dip in that beautiful Caribbean, especially if you’re staying in the resorts in Varadero! Bring your favorite bathing suit (I recommend bringing two, so that they have time to dry overnight).

What to Wear in Cuba (For Men)

Full disclosure, I am not a dude. But if I was, this is what I would bring, I guess.

  • 5-7 T-shirts
  • 1 pair jeans
  • 2-3 pairs shorts
  • 7+ pairs underwear
  • flip flops
  • comfortable walking sandals
  • sneakers
  • rain jacket
  • swim trunks

What to Pack for a Hostel in Cuba

Cuba really doesn’t have many hostels, although I did stay at one in Havana.

They function just like a casa particular only that there are dorms instead of regular rooms.

Still, some of these things may be useful if you stay at casa particulares, like I did during my time in Cuba.

1 pair flip flops: While the hostel I stayed at in Cuba was very clean, I still recommend wearing flip flops in any sort of communal bathroom.

1 travel towelMy hostel provided a towel, but I like having my own anyway.

1 eye mask: Great for when you want to sleep but your roommates don’t.

Some earplugs or good noise-canceling headphones: Cuba is a LOUD country, even – especially – in the mornings. I remember my street in Trinidad being one of the loudest I could imagine starting from around 6 in the morning. I love Hearos — they’re the gold standard for ear plugs.

What Toiletries to Pack for Cuba

Basically, anything you use on a daily/weekly basis you will need to bring with you. I went into a little more detail above in the “essentials section,” but here are a few more ideas.

Hand sanitizer: Just in case a public restroom or restaurant bathroom doesn’t have hand sanitizer,  I prefer carrying my own in case of emergencies.

Kleenex packets: Like above — public restrooms may be lacking in the toilet paper department, so having some Kleenex in a portable sleeve is always a good move. I don’t just do this for Cuba but for all my trips.

LUSH solid shampoo: Life-changing. Just trust me.

Sunscreen: Cuba is sunny AF and sunscreen can be hard to find. My skin is really sensitive on my face, so I use this fancy Japanese sunscreen to prevent acne, and a general sunscreen for my body. Remember to use reef-safe sunscreen if traveling to beach destinations like Cayo Largo!

Travel medications: I listed them above, but just to reiterate — stomach medicine, motion sickness pills, and some sort of painkiller are my standards.

Electronics to Pack for Cuba

There are really no special considerations when it comes to packing for Cuba, except that you should leave your drone at home as there are absolutely no drones allowed into the country. Also, you may not want to bring your laptop if you are just visiting Cuba, as you likely won’t have enough WiFi access to justify the weight.

Laptop, if necessary: I bring my Macbook Air everywhere but other people may prefer a tablet or an inexpensive netbook. I work on the road so a user-friendly, lightweight laptop is a must.

Kindle Paperwhite: Books are heavy and often hard to find exactly what you want on the road. I love the Kindle Paperwhite because the screen is glare-free, making it easy to read at the beach or in direct sunlight.

Travel camera: I use a Sony A6000 because it’s lightweight for a professional caliber camera, inexpensive, and a HUGE step up from a smartphone. You may want to replace this or add a GoPro too, especially good for adventure activities like kitesurfing and diving (just check to see if you also need an underwater house for your GoPro if you dive, as many of the newer models are only good to 10m — not nearly enough for divers)

Portable charger: I like to carry a portable charger even in Cuba just in case I forget to charge my phone fully. You’ll use up a lot less batttery in Cuba than other places you travel to because of the lack of WiFi, but still, it can come in handy at times!

Adaptor, if necessary: Cuba uses the same plugs as America and Canada, so if you’re coming from Europe or the UK, you will need an adaptor.

***

Well, nearly 3,000 words later, I think I’ve finally exhausted all the things you need to bring for Cuba. While this sounds like a lot, I was able to fit it all into a 44L backpack (carry-on size) and daypack because I chose lightweight fabrics and packed carefully.

Is there anything I’ve forgotten? Is there anything else you’re wondering if you should bring to Cuba? Let me know in the comments!