I grew up on an island paradise located in an archipelago of 172 named islands, as well as many others unnamed.
The community of just over 2,000 people in the winter means that you know just about everybody by name and it’s not uncommon to see the same faces at pick up soccer games as you do acting in community theater.
This island was named as one of the top 52 places in the world to visit by the New York Times in 2019 due to its amazing wildlife, sweeping ocean vistas, and welcoming population.
The location of this island may surprise you: it’s not located in French Polynesia, but rather situated a few hours off the coast of Washington State.
Orcas Island, the biggest geographical island of the San Juan Islands and my increasingly famous hometown, isn’t necessarily as difficult to reach as French Polynesia but it’s also no easy day trip from Seattle or Vancouver.
Getting to Orcas Island
To begin the journey to Orcas Island you must first arrive at the ferry terminal of Anacortes, Washington.
The Anacortes ferry terminal, as well as the 2-hour ferry boat ride, is where the Orcas Island experience truly begins so take it as an excuse to hike around the beaches and appreciate the views of Mount Baker across the water.
On the boat, the beauty is nothing short of fantastic so although some of us on the ferry on not paying attention to the views around us since it may be a monthly errand run to Costco, I highly recommend spending most of the boat ride taking in the stunning ocean vistas from the open-air decks.
From the moment you step on the island, put the phones away, take the cameras out, and start the adventure. As somebody who spent their whole life on Orcas Island, here are my favorite things to do in Orcas Island to explore while you’re there.
Visit Moran State Park
If you go to Orcas Island and don’t visit Moran State Park in any capacity, you missed a big part of the beauty that Orcas has to offer.
There truly is something here for every type of person.
Go mountain biking
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to mountain bike the West Boundary Loop (a 5.6-mile trail with 1,620 feet of elevation gain), you will not be disappointed.
This is one of the most appreciated mountain biking trails on the island and although the climbs are steep, the experience of flying through the old-growth forest with enchanting moss or simply hiking up the mountain’s northern face will definitely have you feeling fulfilled.
Go for a hike
If mountain biking or longer hiking trails isn’t something that interests you, there’s a number of mid-length trails that vary in length from 0.25 miles to 3-4 miles.
A Sunday tradition for my family growing up consisted of visiting one of our two favorite trails; Cascade Falls or the Mountain Lake Loop.
Hike to Cascade Falls
Cascade Falls is a 0.25-mile trail that leads down about 130 feet to the base of a magical 40-foot waterfall that boasts the title of the tallest waterfall in the entire San Juan Islands.
The waterfall connects with a creek that squiggles down through a jumble of logs and branches before settling into a gentle flow through the old-growth cedar trees and vibrant moss.
The combination of the waterfall and the creek make it the perfect place to hang with families and small kids as well as a place for adults to play around on the fallen logs, appreciating nature’s playground the way it’s supposed to be enjoyed.
Hike the Mountain Lake loop
Mountain Lake loop, another classic hike, is about 4 miles that’s relatively flat and has some incredible views of this dark blue lake.
There’s a number of sun-warmed vantage points and swimming opportunities throughout this loop so definitely take it slow and bring a snack so you can have a picnic on one of these amazing overlooks.
Admire the beautiful Cascade Lake
Finally, if hiking isn’t something you’re interested in, there are still activities for you to do at Moran State Park.
Cascade Lake, or “The Lake” as locals call it, has a grassy field with a designated swimming area for kids, a paddleboat rental shop, and a treat store during the summer.
During the summer, “The Lake” sometimes gets crowded but if you’re looking for tanning by a body of water, there’s no better place to do it than right here in Moran State Park.
Obviously, since you have to take a boat to Orcas Island, it’s surrounded by water.
Although this ocean isn’t necessarily one you would want to leisurely be swimming in, due to its frigid temperature, that doesn’t mean there’s not an endless amount of activities to do on or near the water.
Go sea kayaking
Sea kayaking is a popular activity here on the island, locals and visitors alike. There are a thousand spots to launch from on the island such as Westsound, Deer Harbor, or Olga.
No matter where you go you’re likely going to encounter a calm, gentle sea as well as some incredible views of the rest of the San Juan Islands from the water.
Due to Orcas Island’s geographical position in the archipelago, strong waves and wind are rare during the summer so, as long as you’re close to shore and avoid major channel crossings between islands, it’s going to feel as though you’re paddling on a lake.
If you don’t own kayaks, there’s still plenty of opportunities to rent or even hire a guide to take you around. Some of my favorite kayak rental spots on the island are located on Crescent Beach and at West Beach Resort.
Go whale watching
Sea kayaking is probably the most popular ocean activity among visitors but that’s not the only way to explore the ocean around here.
There’s a number of whale watching guide services to choose from who will bring you to spot the famous J-Pod, a group of Orca whales that reside in the waters around the San Juan Islands.
I would highly recommend Outer Island Excursions as your whale watching guide company as they have a whale sighting guarantee! If you don’t see whales on your trip, you can go out for free again until you do.
Try your hand at sailing
Sea kayaking and whale watching will definitely keep you busy during your time on Orcas, but the fun isn’t over yet.
If you’re wanting to explore the ocean on your own time and feel the breeze of the salty sea in your hair then sailing may also be an activity worth checking out on Orcas.
There are a number of sailing charter companies that will rent you a boat for the day or week if you’re looking for a true on-the-water experience out in the San Juan Islands.
A number of other islands in the area are within a few-mile radius of Orcas Island so if you want to take day trips to smaller uninhabited islands by boat to camp, hike, or explore, there’s a lot of beautiful wildlife and nature to explore there as well.
Visit the Saturday Market in Eastsound
The word “downtown” on Orcas island doesn’t describe a booming metropolitan area that one may think of when first hearing the word, but rather a small series of buildings where the community comes together.
The Orcas Island “downtown” (also referred to as Eastsound) has adorable shops, bakeries, restaurants that you must visit if taking a trip out there. Of all the things to do in Orcas Island, my absolute favorite is going to the Saturday Markets in the summer.
There’s a large grassy area called the Village Green off the side of the main road through town and it’s here where the Saturday Markets take shape. This market is a series of tents full of local business owners, artisans, restaurant owners, and community members.
You can smell the most beautiful and vibrant flowers from Mimi Anderson from Morning Star Farm or purchase thoughtfully homemade pottery from Luke Bronn Pottery.
You can taste some of the most delicious cookies from Teezer’s Bakery, an old bakery on the island that closed its business doors a few years back but continue to sell their island famous cookies at the Saturday Markets. It’s the only place in the world you can buy them and they’re well worth it.
Often, the Saturday Market will feature live music from local musicians or student bands that accompany the smell of baked goods and freshly picked flowers. It’s here where you will feel welcome into the community that is Orcas Island.
Unlike some destination vacation spots around the U.S., Orcas Island is special because you immediately feel like you’re a part of the community, even if you’re only there for a day.
People will greet you like they’ve known you your whole life because that’s just how they interact with everyone. This small-town feel makes Orcas truly special. You not only get to see the most beautiful and awe-inspiring nature while exploring all the best things to do in Orcas Island, but you get an idea of what it’s like to call this place home.
Sapa is one of the most photogenic hill station towns in northern Vietnam. It has everything you should expect for the adventure of a lifetime.
It has the highest mountain in the country, a stunning national park, beautiful rice terraces, and unique ethnic cultural experiences.
To soak up the highlights of Sapa, I would recommend the below activities as the best things to do in Sapa.
The Best Things to Do in Sapa
1. Trek along Muong Hoa Valley
Trekking is often the main draw for why people head to Sapa. With a wide range of mountain trails, Sapa has a lot to offer for any kind of hiker, from amateur to professional.
If you take a day tour from Sapa, then it’s best to start from Cat-Cat village, following the less-visited trail snaking through the local rice plantations to reach Lao Chai village.
If you’d rather combine trekking with a homestay, Ta Van is a great overnight destination. After seeing the rice terraces, uncovering the traditional life of Black Hmong people (an ethnic minority local to the area), Ta Van village offers a very serene atmosphere where you will be tempted by the hospitality of Giay people.
2. Ride the Cable Car to Fansipan Mountain
Your Sapa trip is incomplete without a visit to Fansipan mountain!
At an elevation of 3,143 meters above sea level, Fansipan is an iconic sight that you should definitely put at the top of your list of things to do in Sapa.
The easiest way to reach the top of this mountain is definitely taking a cable car ride. Over the course of 15 minutes, you’ll have the chance to enjoy a birds-eye view over the lush valley where many fascinating villages are located along the river.
The best time to take the cable car ride is in the morning or late afternoon so that you can behold the cloud covering the nearby mountains!
3. Visit Thac Bac (Silver Waterfall)
Technically, this is the highest waterfall in Sapa. The water cascades from Lo Sui Tung Peak, measuring more than 100 meters high with 3 tiers.
You may not be able to swim here, but your trip will be made well worth it by the awe-inspiring mountain panorama and falls.
There are food stalls right at the foothill so if you are curious about trying local Sapa food, this is a nice place to do it!
4. Ride a Scooter to Tram Ton Pass
Tram Ton Pass holds the record of being the highest pass in the country. Over a 15 kilometer trip, you’ll move from an elevation of 1600 meters up to 1900 meters quickly.
Undoubtedly, a motorcycle or scooter ride is the best way to experience the road. Doing so, you are free to drop by Silver Waterfall, sampling Sapa’s fruit garden, or travel further along 50 kilometers of the pass.
5. Taste Local Cuisine at Sapa Market
The food in Sapa is aromatic and distinctive from other regions of Vietnam.
Bring an adventurous spirit so you don’t regret not trying its famous salmon, horse hotpot, or seven-color sticky rice. The food in Sapa market comes from many different communities with different cooking techniques and traditions, which leads to a diverse array of foods you can sample.
For the real foodie, Sapa has some other options, from fine dining restaurants to cooking classes.
6. Learn about the Red Dzao Life in Ta Phin Village
While touring Sapa, it’s important to participate in sustainable tourism that preserves elements of local culture.
One of the most rewarding places to do that is Ta Phin Village. Here, you can see how Red Dzao women sew their colorful custom designs and create their eye-catching handicrafts.
Another well-known traditional work that happens only in Ta Phin is making herbal medicine, an interesting experience for curious travelers!
7. Find the French Colonial Relics
Sapa Town was first established by the French in 1902 as a summer escape from the humid climate in other parts of Vietnam. These days, you can still find some of the remarkable landmarks that remain from the French colonial era.
The very first piece of colonial architecture you should see is the central church. Known as the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, this church was the practicing hub for Christians in the area. There are many other sites that reflect the style of French architecture, scattered across various communities in the Sapa region.
Another faded ruin worth seeking out is Ta Phin monastery. Though it is now abandoned, it has a really beautiful structure.
8. Join a Hmong Sewing Class
Want to learn something useful while in Sapa? Sign up for a sewing class at Indigo Cat Center.
Enjoy learning about the art of batik and be impressed by the attractive traditional patterns that Hmong people have been designing as part of their culture.
To take part in this workshop, you’ll need to book directly at their shop in Sapa town before heading to the “classroom” in Ta Van village.
9. Hike Ham Rong Mountain
Although Sapa has developed very fast, there is still one place that remains unchanged: the Ham Rong mountain.
This ecotourism site recalls the legend of Sapa, where according to the lore, a dragon returned to the sky from this mountain.
You can also watch cultural performances which take place at intervals throughout the day.
10. Shop Local at a Weekly Market
The most colorful markets in the area do not happen in Sapa town. You’ll need to travel to the adjacent district of Bat Xa or the further side of Lao Cai province where Coc Ly, Lung Khau Nhin, or Bac Ha market take place.
Depending on the day of the week, certain markets operate: Cao Son Market (Wednesday), Coc Ly Market (Tuesday), Bac Ha market (Sunday), and Si Ma Cai market (Saturday).
11. Treat Yourself to a Night at Topas Ecolodge
Listed as one of the most unique lodges in the world according to National Geographic, Topas Ecolodge provides dramatic views over the Hoang Lien Son National Park from its pristine infinity pool.
Imagine waking up with the morning fog right in front of your window, like you’re floating in a cloud, and closing each night with a mesmerizing sunset while sipping a cocktail in the mountains.
12. Take a Photography Tour
Capturing the authentic charm of Sapa is the dream of many photographers.
You may not be able to do that without a local guide, who can help you find the best photo spots, translate to ask for consent for photographs and give you pointers on how to improve your craft.
About Tan Nguyen
Tan is a Sapa local and an adventure-addicted traveler who is eager to see unique places. He enjoys traveling off the beaten track and blogs about his adventures at Travel to Work.
Note: This is a guest post by Brady Trautman of SV Delos.
Sailing across an ocean is a humbling experience!
Over the past ten years, I’ve been fortunate enough to live a lifestyle that allows me to experience the world by boat, crossing vast distances by the power of the wind, and experiencing a way of traveling that in my opinion, is matched by no other.
Sharing our adventures on YouTube aboard SV Delos, a 53-foot bluewater yacht has taken our crew to some of the most remote places on earth.
Over the years we have had over 50 crew join us on our filming adventures. From tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean to far-flung anchorages in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean, we’ve visited places on earth that have inspired, exhilarated, and mystified us.
Our most recent passage saw us heading east from Bermuda, sailing 2,500 miles across the North Atlantic Ocean, arriving into the archipelago known as the Azores.
This sprinkle of land in the vast Atlantic Ocean, about 800 miles west of Portugal, offers sailors and intrepid travelers, a lush, volcanic sub-tropical wonderland, free of the many tourists, hassles and high prices found in mainland Europe. The island of Faial is the most central of the 9 islands of the Azores, offering those lucky enough to visit some truly memorable experiences.
This itinerary assumes you have rented a car in order to best explore Faial. If not, you’ll likely need to hire a taxi to take you around the island; however, it’s much cheaper to rent a car in the Azores.
Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine – it searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rental in Faial here.
Here are the best things to do in Faial, Azores!
Visit the Horta Marina
The Horta Marina is perhaps the most famous in all the Azores.
Throughout the centuries, boats making their way across the Atlantic would find refuge in her sheltered waters after many days at sea, and after encountering some pretty gnarly conditions during our passage from Bermuda, we were keen to do the same.
Stepping onto the dock, the first thing we noticed were the murals that adorn almost every surface of the marina. Hand-painted logos left by previous sailors who had made the long journey across the North Atlantic, only enriched the experience of stepping onto land after so long at sea.
It became quickly apparent that the residents of this marina were a little different from those we had seen in the Caribbean, there were no flashy charter boats, just rough and ready ocean-going vessels, salty from the thousands of miles put under their keels.
As we walked the docks, the smiles and nods received from fellow sailors created an undoubted feeling of kinship, we had all arrived by sea, travelling across the globe in our tiny boats, eliciting wind from mother nature while desperately hoping we didn’t encounter her full wrath.
Have a drink at Peter’s Bar
Landfall in Horta means a visit to Peter’s Cafe Sport (bar), a famous establishment run by generations of a Portuguese family.
The atmosphere is rich, the food and drink plentiful and the service welcoming. Horta’s history as a whaling town becomes obvious in the photographs, carvings, and unforgettable scrimshaw that adorns the bar’s walls.
Scrimshaw, which is intricately carved ivory whales teeth, are truly works of art. Hauntingly beautiful pictures of tall ships, sunsets, wives, and newborn babies so delicately and painstakingly inscribed, bought, and sold in days of old as a way for the whalers to make money.
Although the whaling industry is long gone, its impact on Faial is long-lasting, and the local whaling museum found upstairs, gives a real insight into how these starving farmers could make a living. It was hard to decide what was more enjoyable, drinking beer with the Portuguese locals, swapping stories with other yachties or marveling at the bar’s paraphernalia.
Check out the vista at Capelinhos
Faial has one of the Azores’ most dramatic volcanic landscapes, located on the western peninsula, at Capelinhos. In the 1950s, volcanic eruptions created over 2km² of new land, this natural phenomenon caused massive damage to the environment and triggered a wave of emigration, as locals fled to America after losing their homes and livelihood.
The volcanic slopes can be observed from a viewing platform perched high on a cliff. Looking out at this baron otherworldly landscape, with the ocean pounding the rock face, is a reminder of nature’s power and beauty.
Observing what was probably the newest piece of the earth the Delos crew had ever seen was a reminder that Mother Nature is still doing her thing. The history of the volcano is well documented, and the Capelinhos Interpretation Centre, a building constructed entirely underground, has detailed exhibits that explain its formation, as well as how volcanoes around the world develop and the history of the lighthouse that towers over the center, which can be climbed for another viewpoint.
Join the locals at Porto do Comprido
When the sub-tropical sun is out, and the breeze is warm, the locals head to Porto do Comprido, a natural swimming pool formed in the jagged volcanic rock nearby.
This spot is a photographer’s dream, with the contrast of water, rocks, cliffs, and the lighthouse providing a perfect backdrop. Slipping into the cool Atlantic water of the pools, as the swell slowly rises and falls, gazing at the coastline before you, is truly a surreal experience — just be sure to stay clear of the phenomenally purple Portuguese Man-O-Wars that inhabit the area.
These interesting creatures float in the water, their little sail in the air, hoping the trade winds will blow them towards their next meal, or an unsuspecting swimmers leg!
Marvel at the Caldeira
Visiting the Caldeira is perhaps one of the most well-known things to do in Faial. Located in the middle of the island, it is a two-kilometer wide, 400-meter deep volcanic cone.
This nature reserve showcases the rare flora species found in the Azores, and with stunning views of not only the crater but the towering Pico island to the east, it is one of the best vantage spots in the Azores.
On a clear day, high atop the Caldeira’s rim, you will feel among the clouds, watching the mist flow in as the cool moist air blasts your face. For those who like to get down and dirty, it is possible to take a trek into the crater, however, to protect the natural plant species, the local tourism authority only allows a limited amount per day.
There is also a slightly more forgiving goat trail along the rim of the crater, where every vantage point of this incredible natural showpiece can be experienced.
Experience the countryside while horse riding
Something we rarely have a chance to do as sailors is to throw a leg over a horse and gallop through the countryside, lucky for us, Faial has some great horse riding opportunities for beginners and the experienced.
The first thing you notice when riding your horse along a trail, or any road in Faial for that matter, are the hydrangeas lining the roadside. In full bloom, it is literally impossible to take a photo anywhere on the island without a purple green and white bouquet in the background.
They cover Faial in their tens of thousands, only adding to the magic of this European wonder. The sub-tropical climate means the Azores is lush with vegetation, which keeps the local cows happy as they munch on grass in the stone-walled fields.
The views from the rugged clifftop coastline are intoxicating, the air fresh and the water blue. Our horses took us through trails we would never have known to walk down and was a great way to see the local communities and to learn about the islands day to day life.
Try your hand at surfing
The Azores Islands are well known among the surfing community for their uncrowded volcanic point breaks. Since safe anchorages or marinas are usually at the opposite end of the island than the surf breaks, you definitely have to put in the work to catch waves as a sailor in the Azores.
The time of year for surfing is from September to December, by constantly watching the weather and waiting for a low-pressure system to roll across the North Atlantic, you will have an opportunity to find the swell. The ideal time to jump in the water is just after a low swings past so the wind will switch to offshore.
Entry into the water can be tricky, having to jump off rocks and inevitably scramble back up them. There are also the ever-present Portuguese Man of Wars to be dodged!
Each surf is a challenging but rewarding mission that usually starts with walking a few hours uphill and often ends by sleeping in the rain on the beach. Anyone reading this may call us surfers crazy for going through all this trouble just to catch a wave, but for us, the challenge is all part of the adventure.
Hiking with surfboards and friends, catching rides with locals, exercising our bodies, acquiring some simple scars along the way all make for a good story. The moments when you find yourself in glassy water with chest high waves, offshore winds, and your buddies by your side makes it all worth it.
Experience shark diving
The Azores is known as Europe’s premier whale watching destination. With pristine waters that descend to the black depths of the deep, whale and dolphin sightings are common, however, we were keen to do something a little different, diving with blue sharks!
After meeting up with one of the local dive shops, we organized a crew to take us out to an area known for mako and blue shark sightings. With our guide chumming the water to get the scent of blood out there (a practice we don’t necessarily agree with) the sharks soon turned up.
Diving with these amazing creatures in the clear cool Azorean waters was phenomenal. The blue sharks looked like 6 feet long puppy dogs, playful and inquisitive, not like the hammerheads and bull sharks we had experienced in other parts of the world. Watching these sublime creatures glide through the water was a massive rush.
Go scuba diving
Faial is known for some incredible diving, and it didn’t disappoint. Another area just off the coast of Faial is the Princess Alice Bank, a spot where the ocean floor rises and the water is only 35 meters deep.
Scuba diving here has a very different feel than close to shore, with open water all around and nothing but you and a few other dive boats, it’s a rare spot.
The 45 mile trip to this location was well worth the effort, as we found ourselves diving with massive manta rays as big as a dining room table.
In 100 meters of clear blue water, among a school of thirty of these graceful creatures gliding past, seemingly unknowing of our existence and with only the sound of air bubbles rising from our scuba tanks, it was impossible to not feel totally at peace.
Take a quick visit to Pico
Although not technically on the island of Faial, it is impossible to avoid the allure of the neighboring island of Pico.
The incredibly high peak of this volcanic beauty, which rises almost 8,000 feet out of the ocean and is Portugal’s highest point, is not easily missed.
A very short ferry trip across the channel from Faial brings you to this towering beauty, which can be hiked but is not for the faint-hearted, taking 5 to 7 hours depending on your fitness level.
After registering with the authorities at the base of the mountain, and receiving our GPS trackers so they could track our whereabouts, we were free to explore the steep slopes.
It is possible to pitch a tent in the crater of the volcano and stay the night, and even though it wasn’t the most comfortable thing to do, the evening sunset and the morning sunrise were spectacular, well worth the effort of lugging a tent and filming gear to the summit.
Looking out over the clouds, a perfect view of Faial and the vast Atlantic Ocean reminded us of the reason we travel far and wide over this incredible blue planet.
The Azores is a place that has something to offer everyone, the Portuguese people are proud of their islands, their culture, and their long history. It’s obvious to anyone visiting this archipelago that the natural environment plays an important part of life here, and the people have done an amazing job of integrating society with it.
Although there are plenty of cafes, shops, and buildings, they are built in a way that ties them to the land, often created from stone and wood. The pace of life is slower, and people take the time to enjoy life’s little treats, like sharing a coffee with friends, enjoying a view or swimming in the volcanic pools.
If you decide to travel to the Azores, you will not find white sandy beaches with coconut trees, but you will find a lush, subtropical, volcanic paradise largely unspoilt by human interaction.
About the Author
Joining Delos in 2010, Brady Trautman brings an essential element to the Delos brand. With his easy-going vibe, infectious smile, and quick wit, he ensures laughter and love are felt by all those around him. Originally from Florida, Brady studied environmental engineering before making the transition to full-time sailing.
Brady’s skills in marketing, video editing and qualifications as a Dive Master, Dive Instructor and Rescue Diver have played a huge part in keeping Delos in the top echelon of YouTube sailing channels, all the while inspiring others to follow their dreams. With his charismatic personality, he is at home around people, no matter where in the world he is, he will find a way to connect with others and share the Delos love. You can follow Brady on Facebook and Instagram.
Portugal doesn’t sit in the shadows of more famous European countries anymore. The country’s beautiful cities draw millions of tourists each year.
But, you don’t have to put up with the crowds in Porto and Lisbon if you want to enjoy Portugal’s fantastic cuisine, historic architecture, and multicultural vibes.
The Portuguese countryside is a paradise dotted with quaint villages and towns. These 17 cutest Portuguese towns and villages represent the real insight into the Portuguese culture.
Up high in the Serra de São Mamede Mountains lies a small medieval village called Marvão. It is located near the Spanish border. The village has been shaped by Jewish, Moorish, and Spanish influence.
It rests on a medieval 13th-century fortress. Aside from rustic religious architecture, Marvão is adorned with immaculate, white-washed houses. It’s historic relevance and beauty have earned it a spot on the New York Times’“1,000 Places to See Before You Die” list.
Walking in the cobblestoned streets of Marvão will allow you to peek into the country’s glorious military past. If you get tired of exploring Marvão, you can always walk to one of the castle walls and enjoy the enchanting scenery and top-of-the-world view from one of Portugal’s prettiest castles.
Villagers are proud to call Monsanto “the most Portuguese village in Portugal.” It’s hard for visitors to tell whether that’s true or not, but every visitor can tell that Monsanto is without a doubt one of the most extraordinary places in the world.
The village literally lies on a huge pile of moss-covered boulders. The picturesque traditional stone and red-roofed houses nicely contrast the town’s unique bedrock.
Monsanto’s streets and houses curve around the giant rocks. Some of the behemoth boulders form parts of buildings, such as doorways, walls, and ceilings.
Getting to Monsanto from Lisbon or Porto is roughly a 3-hour drive. It’s an ideal destination for a day trip. But, having dinner on one of the scenic terraces and staying at one of the cozy bed-and-breakfasts are good enough reasons to extend your stay.
Ponte de Lima
Ponte de Lima is the oldest town in the country. It’s also home to Portugal’s oldest villa. This charming and characterful town is no ordinary tourist destination.
If you visit the town, you may encounter a wave of pilgrims headed to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain, a famous and ancient pilgrimage site. Ponte de Lima lies along one of the trails that make the Portuguese Way to Santiago de Compostela.
The pilgrimage is known as Camino de Santiago. Walking the Camino is another great way to explore the towns and villages of the Portuguese countryside, and Ponte de Lima is a great example of that.
Twice a month, the town hosts a huge market. The Monday market has been held since 1125. Walking the town’s cobblestone streets is a delight. You are sure to encounter many intriguing points of interest, such as the famous prison tower that’s been turned into a library.
Piódão looks like a village that has never come in touch with the outside world. This isolated village lies in a natural amphitheater of a terraced hillside. Its tightly-clustered houses made from schist have stood there for centuries.
Schist is a type of dark-grey stone that is typical of the Portuguese countryside. To get to this remote village, you have to travel deep into the mountains of Serra do Açor. Serra do Açor is one of the thirty protected areas in Portugal.
Up until fifty years ago, the only way to reach this isolated village was by foot or on horseback. Since then, it has become a popular tourist attraction, but stills remains an incredibly atmospheric spot.
If you grow tired of walking the streets of Lisbon, Óbidos is just an hour away. However, you can expect to encounter a fair deal of day-trippers. So, it’s best to stay a bit longer if you want to properly experience the lit-up lanes, the calm sunrise, and the magical silent nights of Óbidos.
The town is filled with quaint historic churches and sumptuous dwellings. From the 12th century until the fall of the Portuguese monarchy, generations of Portuguese royals have funded their construction. On your way to Óbidos, you can enjoy the idyllic countryside landscape comprised of vineyards and cherry orchards.
This charming place will bring you back in time. The inhabitants of Sortelha have done a great job of keeping the village’s rich historical legacy. It’s famous for granite houses built into giant boulders.
There’s also the 14th-century parish church adorned with Spanish-Arab ornaments and the age-old Gothic gateway. Like many other Portuguese towns and villages, Sortelha draws most of its charm from its medieval atmosphere.
The village is located on top of a formidable crag. Sitting at an altitude of 2500 ft, Sortelha offers a breathtaking view of chestnut groves and granite boulders. The top of the castle tower may be the best place to enjoy the mesmerizing landscape, but you’ll have to climb it at your own risk.
Elvas is a small town in Portugal that’s nestled in a star-shaped fortification. The town was once tasked with guarding an important crossroads between Spain and Portugal.
It’s unique shape allowed defenders to repel the advance of enemy attackers. Perhaps that explains why the fortification is still standing today.
The exuberant staff guarding the fortification is always happy to illustrate the town’s glorious past. If you are up for an adventure, you may get a chance to explore some of the fort’s hidden passages (make sure to check with the staff).
The inhabitants still use the town’s ancient aqueducts for freshwater. The beautiful cathedral in the Praca de Republica is another wonderful gem Elvas has to offer. But, many visitors say the best thing about this town is how quiet it is.
Not many tourists visit Elvas. If you want to avoid crowds and enjoy the city at the leisurely pace of the locals, Elvas is the place to be.
Castelo Rodrigo is another small Portuguese town that has many historic stories to tell. And, like many other Portuguese gems, the town is nestled on top of a hill.
The town castle wears many scars from countless battles that took place over the centuries. Castelo Rodrigo is a much more peaceful place now, but it has retained its medieval charm. Like Ponte de Lima, Castelo Rodrigo lies along one of the Camino de Santiago routes.
Along the main street of Monsaraz, Rua Direita, there are dozens of 16th and 17th century whitewashed houses that retain the town’s ancient atmosphere. The streets of the Monsaraz are perfect for those looking for tranquility reminiscent of days long gone.
But, if you want to enjoy a lively atmosphere, it’s best to visit in July. Then, Monsaraz becomes an open-air museum when visitors have a chance to get better acquainted with the habits and culture of the townspeople.
Lamego is a Portuguese town wreathed in maize farms and picturesque vineyards. Its fine wine and Baroque architecture won’t leave you unimpressed. Of all the riches the town has to offer, the locals will tell you that Lamego’s sparkling wine is one of its biggest points of pride.
But, most visitors come to see the breathtaking Sanctuary of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios. And, to get to the church, you need to climb the 700-step centuries-old Baroque staircase. So, it may be best to save the wine tasting for later. Aside from its world-famous wine, the town is known for its rustic and meaty cuisine.
Castelo de Vide
Castelo de Vide home to one of the best-preserved and most important Jewish Quarters in the whole of Portugal. Since the town is located near the Spanish border, many Jews fleeing persecution found refuge in Castelo de Vide.
The town is also famous for its archeological treasures and hot springs with reputed healing powers. Many of its antique buildings date back to the 13th century. Its cobblestone streets are packed with red-roofed and white-walled dwellings. Lovers of the Portuguese countryside are sure to have a field day in this charming town.
Azenhas do Mar
Perched on the rugged Atlantic coastline, this clifftop village in Portugal is perfect for a beach getaway. Aside from swimming and enjoying the lovely view from one of Azenhas’s terraces, there is not much to do in the village itself.
However, the surrounding region of Sintra has plenty to offer. One can spend days exploring the fantastic castles and astonishing buildings in the neighborhood.
The intricate architecture of Quinta de Regalia, Monserrate Palace, and Pena Palace is sure to leave a long-lasting impression on every visitor. Europe’s westernmost point, Cabo da Roca, is just a stone’s throw away from Azenhas.
Ferragudo used to be a quiet fishing village in Portugal. While it’s not so quiet anymore, it’s still a great place for those who’d like to take a relaxing walk along the mesmerizing bayside dotted with Portuguese fisherman’s cottages. Even though the town has shifted its focus from fishing to accommodating visitors, it still hasn’t seen the worst part of tourism.
You won’t see any high-rise or neon hotels in Ferragudo. Instead, you’ll see a handful of local restaurants, cute cafés, and an ice-cream parlor. Most are located near the town square, Praça Rainha Dona Leonor, which is the liveliest part of Ferragudo.
By now, you’re probably thinking that every Portuguese village is packed with white-washed houses with red-tiled roofs. But, this quaint little town on the coast of Madeira Island offers something different.
The traditional architecture of Santana is represented by the village’s triangular-shaped houses with thatched roofs. Almost all of them look exactly the same, almost every house has a front door surrounded by three tiny windows.
Each traditional house is painted with blue or red trim on the windows and doors. Tourists are free to visit most of them. If you want to get better acquainted with the culture and history of the island, you can also visit the Madeira Theme Park.
This coastal town on the Atlantic has the best beaches in Portugal, according to the locals. If you have your doubts, do know that many surfers and spectators from all over the globe agree with them.
This little fishermen’s town has become famous for the gigantic waves that hit the coast every winter. In summer, the place is packed with beach-goers. But, in spring and fall, Nazaré becomes a quiet fishing village where time stands still.
Nazaré is halfway between Porto and Lisbon. The main town is located on top of the clip. When the beach is crowded in summer, this is where locals spend most of their time. So, even if you visit in summer, you’ll be able to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee or glass of Vinho Verde.
Almeida and Elvas have many things in common. This extraordinary example of a frontier town is located 10 miles from the Spanish border. And, similarly to Elvas, it sits in a monumental, star-shaped fortress. This tiny settlement is home to about 2,000 villagers.
The whole place is classified as a national monument. An underground labyrinth sprawls underneath the fortress. The villagers have turned it into a nice historic museum. But, even above ground, there’s enough history in the air to make you feel like you have traveled back in time a few centuries in this scenic small town in Portugal.
Cerdeira is an isolated art village located in the heart of Portugal. This tiny remote village had been completely abandoned for decades. In 1988, It was rediscovered by a hiker. Soon after, Kerstin Thomas, the hiker that stumbled upon Cerdeira, spearheaded efforts to bring the village back to life.
Today, this cute Portuguese village has a small number of permanent inhabitants. It’s a great place for those who want to unleash their creativity far away from smartphones, computers, and other gadgets. Cerdeira has just 9 guesthouses and one art and crafts center, Casa das Artes, where you can try your hand at ceramics or wood-carving in an authentic schist house.
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About the Author
Anna loves hiking during the weekend and has completed a few long multi-day hikes, including twice on the Camino de Santiago for 4 weeks and then a Camino route in France for 2 weeks. She also had the pleasure of hiking up Ben Nevis, all over Ireland, and her favorite hike was 3 weeks in the Canadian Rockies.
Trying to pick out where to stay in Puglia? If you’ve settled on Monopoli, I think you’ve made a fantastic choice.
I may be a bit biased — when deciding on where to base ourselves in Puglia for our honeymoon, we ended up choosing to stay in Monopoli, a beautiful seaside city with both a historic old town and a vibrant new town.
I think Monopoli is one of the best places to base yourselves on a Puglia road trip – not far from anything, not too touristic, and with plenty of great places to stay in Monopoli for a variety of budgets.
Where to Stay in Monopoli
Best Budget Hotels in Monopoli
For the purposes of this post, I’ve defined ‘budget’ in Monopoli as being under $100 USD a night in the peak season.
We visited Monopoli in November, so it was low-season — so low season, in fact, that many hotels and restaurants were already closed until the following year.
If you choose to stay in Monopoli during this time of year, be aware that a lot of places will be closed, especially in the old town which is the more touristic part of town — but on the other hand, hotels will be a fraction of their normal price!
However, this post assumes you’ll probably want to visit Puglia in the summer, when everyone else is traveling there, so I’ve created the budget categories accordingly. Here are my top picks for budget hotels in Monopoli.
Barbacana46 Guest House
This guest house has gorgeous cobblestone walls, and if they could talk, they would tell you the history about the house! The recent renovations done on the property have helped highlight the old architecture’s beautiful bones and show you a glimpse of what it was like in the past.
Barbacana has a few different options for Monopoli accommodations, to suit a variety of budgets and group sizes. The apartment with the balcony gives you both budget-friendly and cozy place to stay in Monopoli Centro Storico.
Everything is provided to you for a comfortable and convenient stay. It has a dining area and a bedroom, plus a fully equipped kitchen where you can try cooking some of your own Italian dishes (though frankly it’d be hard to get sick of the delicious Monopoli restaurants there are to choose from!).
The private balcony is quite small, though it is fitted with two wooden chairs – great for a morning coffee! There’s also a huge shared terrace if you prefer a larger space to relax, but it is communal.
Each unit also has an ensuite bathroom with tiled floors, complete with all the shower amenities you need. The apartment room type has a modern and contemporary vibe, but if you want something more traditional but luxurious, then you can opt for their suite with a spa bath!
Villa Enea is perfect for those who have rented a car but want to stay near Monopoli; parking is free, and this villa’s location will give you the best countryside ambiance in a charming house tucked in a peaceful and nature-rich location, just a few kilometers outside of Monopoli.
You will also love the front yard, which has some trees and plants that give shade and a fresh breeze as you sit on the wicker chairs outdoors. The interiors and tiles on the floors are all embellished with mandala-like designs that make it look stylish and comfortable. Most of the wooden furniture is simple and has that rustic look to complement the countryside charm it has.
All of their rooms are perfect for couples, and prices during high season are around $77 USD per night, including a free breakfast. If you don’t mind staying outside Monopoli center, it’s a great choice.
The location of Borgo San Martino is on a quiet street inside the historic old town, a wonderful place to stay in Monopoli’s center. There’s also a big square nearby.
The property is also run by amazing and kind ladies that will be there if you need anything. They have kept the original furniture that helps add an old-world charm to the interiors. Everything is also neatly arranged and organized.
They have three options for their rooms – single, double and quadruple. The single room is located in the attic, and just note, it can present a problem for tall people due to its low ceiling. Regardless of its size, it has the same amenities you will find in all their rooms, so it’s great for a shorter single traveler.
In all their rooms, they still have the cobblestone walls, and the lighting is strategically placed inside making everything look magical. The style of their furniture is very unique, giving a vintage charm to everything. The ceilings are arched to provide added space.
A bigger group or family can get their quad rooms, and it’s amazing how it somehow looks a little bit like a Moroccan riad due to the arches that seem a bit like caves where the beds are placed, making good use of the limited space.
You also have the option to include breakfast in your booking online to save time. They have a partner space where you can park your car, and it is not located far from the property. This house is very beautiful, and you still get to enjoy staying inside the old town with a touch of rustic style combined with its historic beauty.
Couples and solo travelers can enjoy this remarkably clean and easily accessible accommodation in one of the main streets of the old town of Monopoli. It is also very easy to check out some of the attractions nearby without the need to ride public transportation, and if you have a car with you, you can park in one of their affiliate spaces.
Wooden floors complement the crisp and neat white furniture they use – it makes the rooms look bigger despite their small size. A small dining area with a kitchenette will help you save some money if you can cook, but if not, then there are several restaurants (and also bars) outside to help you.
You don’t have to worry about breakfast, as they’ll give you delicious Italian breakfast included per stay – I would recommend bringing it to the rooftop terrace so you can breathe in some fresh air while you adore the lovely city views!
The private bathroom is extremely clean, and you will love how they used white tiles with subtle patterns. The shower area has a glass wall to keep the water from getting into the dry area.
The entire property is covered with WiFi, but some areas that are quite far from the main source can have sluggish connection. You can actually go near the corridor and everything is good, but you can always get a local SIM or enable roaming for a smoother way to go online.
Villa Maria Pia is one of the most modern accommodations in Monopoli, with touches of rustic charm that make each area of the property something close to home.
The rooms offer white-washed walls with country-chic styles plus elegant balconies with comfortable outdoor furniture. You also get a spacious wardrobe to organize your clothes and keep them wrinkle-free. The rates of the rooms are somehow on the upper budget price range, but you’re truly getting something worth every penny here!
Toiletries and towels can be found in your private bathroom and the toilet has a bidet (fancy!). Their facilities are also friendly to guests with disabilities, and their comfort has also been carefully thought of by the owners of the property.
Breakfast in the morning has plenty of American and Italian choices – all are delicious, as we all know that Italians know how to eat!
These hotels in Monopoli represent the middle tier of Monopoli accommodations — not too cheap, not too fussy and expensive (there are some real luxury hotels in Monopoli, which I’ll get to at the end of this article!).
We’re talking around $100-250 USD per night in peak season, though you can definitely get things on the lower end of the spectrum if you visit slightly off-season.
Albergo Diffuso Monopoli
This is where we stayed during our honeymoon and we loved it. We stayed in a two-floor apartment with a spacious one-bedroom on the lower floor with a gorgeous modern en-suite bathroom with rain shower.
The room colors were crisp and white, with a few colorful accents, and had ample wardrobe space for hanging up your clothing. Our room overlooked a quiet courtyard, where we could enjoy a delicious breakfast each morning.
The top floor was a kitchen with ample utensils and cooking equipment provided.. however, we ate out at restaurants every night during our trip to Italy (the food is too good not to!) that we never made much use of our kitchenette. What we did appreciate, however, was the complimentary bottle of wine they gave us as a congratulations (a very thoughtful touch) and the gorgeous balcony with beautiful views over the old town attached to the kitchen.
Some of the rooms have spa bath tubs and even larger balcony features, great for if you want to amp up the fanciness on your stay in Monopoli.
While this property is small and intimate, it is fully equipped with facilities and a balcony that will give you breathtaking views of the town. A fragrant scent also welcomes you the moment you step inside this hotel!
Most of the features are rather new (although you will see some old world inspirations that are typically Pugliese) because this is a newly renovated hotel.
You can choose from a deluxe or superior triple room and all of their rooms showcase a more modern contemporary style with some added unique décor (like metal flamingos and floral mandalas) plus indoor plants.
The private bathroom looks spacious because of the whitewashed walls and the use of minimalist mirrors and bathroom décors. A tiring day deserves a relaxing shower with their powerful rain shower heads — great to soothe aching muscles after a long day of sightseeing or road tripping.
They have a good selection for the free breakfast, which is served on the rooftop of the property. Right on the rooftop, you can also have a nice warm soak in the jacuzzi as well!
Dimora nel Benessere is set on the upper mid-range price because it offers a boutique-like accommodation that has unique artsy styles for every room, which sets itself apart from the standard scene you find in most hotels.
Many of the rooms are mostly booked by couples, some here on their honeymoon, the staff will often provide petals sprinkled in the room to provide a romantic atmosphere. You can also avail yourself of their massages and treatments – they also have ones specially made for couples!
The private bathrooms have glazed iron racks and organizers that make things look a little rustic, and the gorgeous bath tub will let you soak all your worries away after a long day.
And with the price they offer, you actually have a private sauna in your apartment – isn’t that awesome?
Offering double rooms (with a deluxe option), suites and apartments, Borgo Cozzana is a newly opened hotel outside of Monopoli that has the typical authentic provincial Italian feel. It has an outdoor pool for guests to swim in, and it has sun loungers and umbrellas to keep you shaded when it’s too sunny
Their rooms are well equipped with all of the things you will need to keep your trip hassle-free. It has arched ceilings and rugged walls that will transport you to another time, perfect for setting a romantic rural Italian atmosphere. They also used wooden furniture and metal décor to keep the countryside vibe going.
The private bathroom has complete amenities and you will love that they have an area where you can sit and do your make up or fix your hair. Natural lighting also enters the bathroom as well as the entire room itself – you may use the blackout curtains if you are someone who prefers to sleep in late.
There are plenty of wellness amenities like spas, hot tubs, an outdoor pool, a fitness center, personal training sessions, massages, etc. — all that you need for the ultimate relaxing place to stay near Monopoli.
If you love the beach and plan to end the day with the relaxing sea breeze from your accommodation, this beachfront hotel right in front of one of the prettiest beaches in Puglia should be the first choice you should have.
They offer apartments with a living room and bedroom that will allow you to spoil yourself with views of the sea and the port nearby. If you think those dreamy views are perfect to give you the best vacation, you can surely enjoy it with a nice glass of free Prosecco wine they’ll leave for you in your mini-fridge!
This hotel incorporates the traditional architecture together with the shabby chic style, using motifs of fishes and sea creatures in the décor. It also has a balcony that gives you a nice place to check out the views exclusively.
There is a mini-kitchen, and a complimentary continental breakfast is available for all guests. The place is also perfect for those who plan to stay for longer periods of time because they have a washing machine on-site – but if you don’t feel like doing it yourself, you can also avail their laundry service.
Past guests got a lot of insider tips from the owner, and she is very attentive to any needs all guests may have. You will love how the service makes the entire experience more special!
A group of travelers or a family of up to four can have a spacious and comfortable stay at Terradamare. It offers apartments with 2-bedrooms plus a balcony with outdoor furniture that leads you to a dreamy view of the sea. The interiors have a perfectly rustic appeal.
The bathroom showerhead gives you several options and the best part would be the rain shower built into the ceiling, just like a rain bath! You are also provided with a smart TV that you can connect to the internet from your phone.
Croissants and coffee will help you start your day and a coupon will be provided by the owner so you can use it at the neighboring café.
If you want some relaxing massages, you can try some of their wellness offerings. Though it is set a bit in a quiet and secluded area, you can actually walk to the center of Monopoli in around 10 minutes.
For couples who want to make the most of their stay in Monopoli, Dimora Pirelli has one of the best features and a quiet location that’s still very central.
All of their suites have divisions inside to keep the areas exclusive. The private bathroom have cobblestone walls and bathtub/shower combinations. Elegant retro prints are seen on the bed covers and curtains – they give life to the basic colors of the furnishings.
With the name “Suites and Spa” attached to it, there’s definitely a relaxing adventure awaiting you here. There’s a hot tub, solarium, sauna and a fitness center for all guests to use.
If you just want some personal time, but not really wanting something from their spa, then you can just have a nice glass of wine and maybe a good book while checking out the views at their shared terrace.
These gorgeous luxe hotels in Monopoli can be found for around $250+ a night in peak season.
Though if you visit in the shoulder season, note that you will likely be able to find these in the mid-range price tier!
This property not only offers a stylish accommodation but also a very accessible and convenient location close to the bars and restaurants of Monopoli (and it also has its own on-site restaurant).
While all of their suites have a spa bath inside, if you wish to have a private pool as well, then you may opt for their luxury suite. They use mostly white furniture and décor – turning all their suites into something minimalistic and relaxing. You will also have a huge wardrobe in your spacious bathroom, aside from the tub. A huge bed with memory foam mattress goes alongside a work desk great if you need to work on your travels.
The stone walls have been there since the 16th century, and they’re also in the rooms that are fully decorated with refined classic furniture making each room look chic and refined.
All of their suites have different tiers that cater to different types of guests’ needs. Some added features are a barrel vault, hydromassage and chromotheraphy showers, and terrace with spa – those are really luxurious features that would be hard to find in an old town! This is truly perfect for someone who wants to take the spa features in their room without the need to go out to an actual spa.
Attico sul Porto Antico gives couples an escape from the usual Monopoli hotels and gives them a traditional and somewhat romantic accommodation with all the luxurious amenities.
It has the typical arched ceilings and cobblestone walls plus fancy furniture and modern features like a rain shower with some beautiful colorful lights. It also has an indoor tub. Most of the features will make a great accommodation choice for honeymooners and couples!
The moment you step into your room, you will notice an antique feel with the stone walls and dramatic lamps which add emphasis to the beauty of the room.
They even have their own fireplace to keep you warm during the colder months. Someone who’s a true old soul will love how the entire place takes you back to a time that will truly give you one of the best traditional accommodations inside the old town.
A well-executed interior with matching traditional exterior is offered in this luxurious property that will truly teleport you to a time perfectly set between the past and future.
It has truly charming views from the open terrace that has lush vines creeping to create a rustic look with the layered rugged wood used as a shade. Sleek iron chairs and comfortable sofas are available in the living and dining area – they have an open plan style which is actually very modern. Plenty of natural lighting goes into the room giving it a brightness that highlights the best parts of the rooms.
They have many room types that guests can choose from – some are even in a separate building to give you that holiday home vibe (though getting these rooms would require you to splurge). For specific views, you should request it early, as some of these rooms can be booked quite fast, especially during the high season. There’s parking available near the property, but it can be a hassle in high season as it can get crowded.
Different events and even weddings can be held in their restaurant, Locanda Don Ferrante. It also offers all-white furnishing on their rooftop terrace and you may try some of their Italian dishes that are perfectly paired with some of the wines in their menu.
This beachfront hotel has a tropical-inspired outdoor relaxation area, with lush plants and cacti plus outdoor décor and furniture that’s all painted white. The best place to chill out in this hotel is the sun terrace where you will find a hot tub with some outdoor furniture, perfect for relaxing in the sun.
All rooms have a good view of the garden or the sea and are fully equipped with all-white painted furniture and décor, even the chandelier. The beds are extra-large, and they use really nice fabric for the pillows and cases!
The bathrooms are spacious and the shower area has either neutral colored or vibrant bold mosaic tiles. All of their suites have a private tub inside that will be perfect for honeymooners!
Bicycle and car rentals are also available at their front
desk, which can be helpful to easily reach the old town – if you decide to
walk, anyway it’s only 10 minutes by foot. You can also inquire about their VIP
room facilities and wedding suite if you plan on getting married or having your
There is something magical about the South of France.
From Nice and the French Riviera to the lavender fields and hillside villages in the Luberon Valley of Provence, there’s nowhere quite like it. Somehow, the best villages in Provence manage to feel untouched and undiscovered – despite Provence being a major tourist hotspot.
Maybe it’s how the buildings don’t change; how the businesses don’t cater to the whims of tourists; how the Provencal attitude towards fresh, accessible food means that despite being in the most beautiful place in the world, you can still eat a wheel of fresh cheese for under two euros and a baguette for 75 centimes. Ahh, Southern France. You just get me.
I traveled around the villages of Provence for a week, basing myself in the Luberon Valley. Provence is a surprisingly large region of France, and distances between villages can exceed two hours. All these first 6 towns in Provence are within a short drive of each other, so it’s ideal for a short trip, whether it is a few days, a week, or longer.
Provence is a place where time just melts, and the days stick together and drag out in the most delightful way. So no matter how long you think you need to discover the best towns in Provence, I recommend you double it.
I’ll start with my favorite 6 places to visit in Provence, then I’ll share some of my fellow travel writers’ favorite places, spanning from the Lower Rhone to the Mediterranean Sea.
My Favorite 6 Villages to Stay in Provence
Below is a list of 6 of my favorite villages in Provence — and the last is my absolute #1. I’ve listed what the best villages to stay in Provence are for each type of traveler and their priorities, and I’m also listing a few hotels I recommend in the area, though I haven’t stayed at any personally (we had three people so we opted for an Airbnb).
You could also visit these cities as day trips from Nice if you have less time to spend in Provence.
One of the most beautiful villages in Provence, this town is set aside gorgeous ochre cliffs, and when the sun sets, it sets the cliffs gloriously ablaze.
The architecture matches this intense hue with buildings to match. The orange facades of the buildings look as if the paint was taken straight from the cliffs themselves — because it was!
Roussillon is definitely one of the livelier of the villages in Provence in terms of nightlife. When we went, there was a massive assembly of people assembled watching a soccer game, with pop and dance music blaring loudly. There were plenty of restaurants and shopping opportunities.
Overall, though, this town seemed to lack some of the charms of the other Provence villages, despite the gorgeous setting and the lovely red brick.
Where to Stay in Roussillon
For a mid-range hotel, check out Les Passiflores, which get rave reviews for its delicious dining and French wines, and has affordable yet tastefully decorated rooms.
If you are looking for luxury, I can think of no more luxurious place to stay in Roussillon than Le Clos de La Glycine with their duplex suites, stunning valley views, and beautiful flower-covered terrace.
This hilltop Provence village is worth visiting for the stunning vista alone, which looks out over the amazing Luberon Valley.
On your way up the mountain up to Gordes, you get the most beautiful view of the entire town built on the hillside. It’s like something out of a fairy tale (except that most fairy tales don’t include selfie-stick wielding tourists). Still, everyone flocks there for a reason, and despite being filled with tourists, this Provencal village is chock full of charm.
Gordes also has one of the more charming centers, with alleyways that are easy to get lost in, and a beautiful 12th-century church. It also has the added benefit of being close to the iconic Abbaye de Senanque, with its gorgeous lavender fields that are on everyone’s European bucket list.
Where to Stay in Gordes
As one of the more touristic villages in Provence, there are plentiful accommodation options, but the prices are a little higher than other towns in Provence. True budget seekers should always check Airbnb for the best options.
But if you prefer a hotel or B&B, I have a few recommendations. Domaine de L’Enclos is the highest-rated B&B in town — guests love the stunning garden, the private terraces in many rooms, private parking, and ability to rent bikes. The price is on the affordable side for pricy Gordes. Another good mid-range option isB&B La Burliere, loved for its traditional Provencal stone house architecture, family-owned feel, and freebies like bike rental, breakfast, and parking.
For those seeking a more luxurious experience, see if there’s availability at the exquisite Hotel Le Jas, with a pool in a beautiful garden to keep you cool during those hot Provencal summers, and the most postcard-perfect view of Gordes.
Like Gordes, Bonnieux is considered one of the most beautiful villages in Provence, though this time the view you get is best upon leaving the city headed towards Buoux.
In fact, if you drive towards Buoux, you’ll encounter one of the most beautiful open lavender fields that all of Provence has to offer — at least, it was the prettiest we found in our week of road-tripping around the French countryside.
There’s also a 12th-century church up at the top of Bonnieux, which you usually can’t enter – but it’s worth a walk up to the top to get these views of the Luberon Valley spread out below you.
Just look at how much wide open space there is, and those red-tiled roofs! Swoon.
However, Bonnieux is definitely a little more upscale than some of the other quaint villages in Provence, with expensive shopping and pricier restaurants to boot.
Where to Stay in Bonnieux
While Bonnieux is pricier than some of the other villages in Provence, there are some mid-range options that offer better value than most (and, as always, Airbnb is an option).
The stunning yet affordably mid-range Les Clos Les Eydinsis one of the highest-rated hotels in all of Bonnieux, a beautifully renovated farmhouse with a pool for hot summer days.Le Mas Del Sol also has a pool, a garden, and a terrace with lovely Provence views.
Meanwhile, if you’re seeking luxury, you’ll find it in spades at Le Domaine de Capelongue, which is a 4-star hotel with fully equipped apartments, air conditioning (perfect for those hot summer days), and assistance with booking all sorts of memorable activities like hot air ballooning. The rooms are impeccably furnished, making it ideal for a special occasion or vacation.
Fontaine de Vaucluse
Of all the villages in Provence, this one has perhaps the most natural beauty. This cute little town is set on the beautiful Sorgue River, which must be seen to be believed.
It almost looks as if a jungle has been permanently flooded with the clearest water you’ve ever seen. So much plant life grows at the bottom of the river that it is a vibrant shade of green, both alien and wholly natural. Where the river gets deep, there are spots of brilliant blue turquoise.
This small town is best known its most famous resident: the Marquis de Sade, the man who gave his name to sadism by garnering a reputation for his… strange sexual habits. His history lives on in the remnants of his burned down castle at the top of this quaint little hilltop village in Provence.
Unsavory history aside, this is a beautiful little town, with a few cafés and not much else. It is also home to an art school, so there are quite a few American and other foreign exchange students.
Because of this, it has a younger vibe than the rest of the towns, which skew older. The Café de Sade is a great place to lunch, with gorgeous views looking over the Luberon Valley.
Where to Stay in Lacoste
For those who prefer quaint B&Bs at affordable prices, Lacoste is perfect, as there are no large hotels in town that I’m aware of.
I’m going to say something kind of controversial: this may well be one of the most beautiful villages in France. This small Provencal village lacks the big draws of the other – and therein lies its appeal. It doesn’t have the gorgeous mountainside views of Gordes or Bonnieux, nor the stunning ochre cliffs of Roussillon. So why, then, is this my favorite of all the Provence towns?
It has a sense of peace and quiet that other hill towns don’t have, which is why I think it’s one of the best villages to stay in Provence. Like all of Provence, there are plenty of tourists; you’re just as likely to hear English or German as French. Still, the day-trippers with their selfie sticks seem to have not descended on Goult – at least yet.
It has both everything you need – a boucherie, a boulangerie/patisserie, a fruitier, a café, and plenty of restaurants.It has an amazing épicerie, which is basically a New York bodega, except you can buy duck a l’orange terrine for 4 euros there (so I guess not like a bodega at all).
The architecture is also some of the most beautiful, in its understated way. The facades of the buildings are either limestone brick or pale hues of salmon. The potential monotony of this palette is dispersed with doors and shutters in vibrant pastels, so photogenic that I couldn’t stop snapping away every few minutes.
Definitely one of the prettiest villages in France.
Goult’s Thursday market is unreal, a hedonistic celebration of the senses: lavender sachets and spices, crisp soft linens, the ripest strawberries, the softest cheeses….
Had I not been limited by my backpack, half the town would have been coming home with me.
There are so many quiet places to take in the sunset, without anyone else around. It’s really a magical place, and one I’ll be back to time and time again.
Goult is just one of the most special places I’ve been.
Where to Stay in Goult
Goult isn’t that popular with tourists yet, so there aren’t as many accommodation options as in some of the larger Provence villages. I’d recommend the stuning Hotellerie Notre Dames Des Lumieres, a former 17th-century convent that’s been transformed into a modern hotel with a pool to cool off in.
Another fantastic choice isVilla Lumieres, also with a pool for those hot summer days. As you might have been able to tell — a pool is pretty much a must if you stay in Provence in the summer!
Travel Writers’ 15 Favorite Places to Visit in Provence
However, the above villages in Provence only cover one small section of Provence, the Luberon Valley. Provence is a far larger region, which stretches to the beautiful coastline and French Riviera as well as further inward to where you’ll find delicious Rhône Valley wines.
Since I’m only one person and covered only a small section of Provence, I asked other travel writers where they thought the best places to stay in Provence were — here are their answers!
Often used as a base in Provence to visit smaller villages, Aix en Provence is considered the Paris of the South with well-dressed locals to boot. In fact, it’s often called a suburb of Paris or even “Little Paris!” It even has its own grand shopping street, but instead of Champs-Elysées, it is called Cours Mirabeau.
However, this city is much smaller and more manageable than the large city of Paris. For this reason, it feels less overwhelming and more quaint while having an urban feel with fantastic shopping.
While Marseille is really focused on traditional Provencal food, like bouillabaisse, you won’t find the same approach here.
Some of the best restaurants in Aix en Provence serve typical Provencal food and classic pastries but you’ll also find international food and modern options. There’s really something for everyone here.
As a cultural hub for the region, there is plenty to see simply by walking around. The artist Paul Cézanne was from here, so if you can, visit museums featuring his work. For a more quirky adventure, seek out the many fountains in town as its known as the “city of 1000 fountains.” While some mark the center of major squares, others are tucked away in alleys throughout Aix en Provence.
Where to Stay in Aix en Provence
Aix en Provence is an extremely walkable city. You want to stay in the city center so you can just explore by foot. Hôtel de France is a great option as most sights that you’d want to see are only 10-15 minutes away by foot.
Like most of France, rooms are not as spacious as what we could expect in North America. However, the rooms are modern and clean and the staff are extremely helpful to English speaking guests. Don’t miss the breakfast as it’s fantastic.
When we were on our Southern France road trip, we visited the markets in Aix-en-Provence and were not ready to leave town without seeing some lavender.
The problem was that it was past lavender season and most were already harvested. One of the vendors mentioned that there might be some fields near Sault that still had lavender. We decided to extend our stay in Aix-en-Provence and drove to Sault the next day looking for lavender fields.
Sault located in Vaucluse is an old fortified village perched on the top of a high ridge overlooking a wide valley, with large lavender fields spread out below to the south and west. During peak season you can see immense blue fields along with fields of wheat for as far as you can see!
All the houses have pretty Provencal blue shutters that are so photogenic. The town was not crowded like most other European cities during summer. The village of Sault is open and relaxed, with wide squares and a good selection of cafés where you can get some yummy crepes, macarons, and coffee. We saw many sunflower fields and a few lavender fields a bit beyond their time on the drive back to Aix-en-Provence, where we spent the night.
Where to Stay in Sault
There are a number of places to stay in Sault, although most people visit on a day trip from Aix en Provence or other small villages in Provence nearby.
For a luxurious stay in Sault, the best option is La Bastide des Bourguets, a beautiful guesthouse with a pool (great as Provence summers are hot), hot tub, and stunning countryside setting. Though set in a traditional Provence house, the interior is extremely modern and bright, making ample use of natural light, natural textures, and pops of color.
Those on a budget should look to the quaint yet affordable Hotel D’Albion, which offers economical rooms, a property with a terrace and lovely views of the city, and clean, comfortable rooms in the heart of Sault.
Moustiers Sainte Marie
Moustiers Sainte Marie is one of the most unique villages in Provence. It is situated up high on the side of a mountain. There is a small river that flows down from the mountain to create a little waterfall in the village, and a stream that splits the town in two. There is a lovely bridge that crosses over this stream and houses built overhanging the river.
It is a very small village, but has some beautiful buildings and colourful shop fronts. The best things to do here is wander around this pretty village and take photos. There are also lots of great cafes to stop for a French pastry and enjoy the views.
There isn’t a sunrise here, as the sun rises from behind the mountain. However, I would recommend coming here early to see the village at it’s most peaceful and this is the best time for photos. For those who like hiking, there is a small chapel right at the top of the mountain behind Moustiers Sainte Marie village. This is an incredible viewpoint and a lovely little chapel called Notre Dame de Beauvoir. The best time to visit this village is on Friday morning, as this is the market day! Head here for great organic produce, cheese, and homemade soap!
Where to Stay in Moustiers Sainte Maire
With a lush countryside setting, hot tub, tennis court, and pool, the three-star Hôtel Le Colombier is a fantastic choice for where to stay in Provence. It’s a kilometer outside of the town, so you get the feeling of escaping from it all (though do note that the walk is up and down a hill!), and just five kilometers from Sainte-Croix Lake. The interior features traditional Provencal furniture.
Another fantastic choice is La Ferme Rose-Hôtel de Charme, with its large collection of paintings by the artist Maurice Vagh-Weinmann and objects from the 1950s which give it an air of retro glamor. It features A/C, soundproofing, a plunge pool, and views over the valley or garden, and some of the rooms have a balcony to relax on.
Saint Tropez is a famous resort seaside town for jet setters. But there’s more to the place than parties and luxurious yachts.
You just need to walk a few meters away from the port and its lively bars to find a different atmosphere. The old village has lovely narrow streets and fine food stores for visitors to enjoy. The village even has its own pastry, the “tarte tropezienne.”
As in all villages in Provence, you’ll find pétanque (boules) players on the central square, Place des Lices. But if you’re there on a market day (every Tuesday and Saturday mornings), it will be packed with stalls, tourists, and locals. An excellent opportunity to taste local food and buy souvenirs.
In the 17th century, a fortress was built at the top of the nearby hill to defend the town. There’s no other building like it on the coast of Provence. It’s worth going even if you don’t intend to visit the museum. From the ramparts, the view of Saint Tropez village, the port, the bay and the mountains in the faraway background are stunning.
If you have time, don’t miss the beautiful villages near St Tropez, up in the hills. It’s where the inhabitants would flee to escape from the pirates. The Provencal villages of Gassin and Ramatuelle, for example, offer splendid views of the St Tropez Bay.
Where to Stay in Saint Tropez
To stay like the stars, check out the marvelous Hôtel La Tartane Saint Amour. This 5-star hotel is nestled between the beach area and the city center. It has both rooms and suites with private terraces, a lovely outdoor swimming pool complete with sunbeds and loungers, a spa with steam room and beauty treatments, and two different restaurants serving Mediterranean and Asian cuisines.
For a more affordable option (though still a tad on the pricy end of the spectrum – this is Saint Tropez after all – La Bastide Saint Anne is a fantastic choice just 3 kilometers from the town center. Complete with a pool, A/C, traditional rooms in the Provencal style, it’s a fantastic choice to stay in Saint Tropez.
Sometimes considered Avignon’s more “rough and tumble” cousin, beautiful little Arles is a gem of a city in Provence at the edge of the coastal Carmague region.
Arles is perhaps best known as home to Vincent van Gogh and one of his most productive artistic periods. In fact, he produced more than 300 paintings during a single year here near the end of the 19th century!
It was also here that he famously cut off his ear and was admitted to the hospital. After several more psychotic episodes, van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to a psychiatric institution in nearby Saint Rémy.
You can re-trace van Gogh’s route through Arles yourself with stops at the yellow house that appeared in one of his paintings, Restaurant-Hotel Carrel where he lived and ate, and a walk across the Langlois Bridge, which has also appeared in several of his paintings. Don’t miss the Museé Réattu and Montmajour Abbey here!
But Arles was famous well before van Gogh’s arrival. In 800 BC, the Ligurians lived here. It was also a critical trading port before the Romans built it into a major city. Visiting Roman ruins and monuments is a wonderful way to feel a part of this history. Worthy UNESCO World Heritage Sites to visit include the Arles Amphitheater, a Roman theater, and Roman forum, and the Church of St. Trophime, among others. Parking is easy here in the center of Arles making it a convenient stop for road trippers traveling through.
Where to Stay in Arles
Those looking for a chic yet affordable luxury stay should look to Maison Volver, a chic boutique guesthouse with an eye for design, attention to detail, marvelous breakfasts, and a central location in Arles.
Those traveling on more of a budget, but who still want to. stay in the heart of Arles should look to Logis de la Muette, which offers economical double rooms in a house which dates back to the 12th century that has been modernized yet true to the Provencal style. It’s located only 100 meters from the arenas.
Perched on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Luberon valley,
Menerbes is one of the prettiest villages in Provence. As a member of the esteemed ‘Les Plus Beaux
Villages de France’ (Most Beautiful Villages
of France) association, Menerbes has high standards to
uphold and it does so with ease.
Honey-colored stone buildings line the narrow, cobblestone streets that wind their way up through the village. In the summertime, flower boxes overflowing with a riot of color add to the town’s beauty.
Aside from the few shops and restaurants that are dotted throughout, Menerbes is also home to a citadel, a chateau and a church dating back to the 12th century, and you’ll discover these as you wander through the village with the fortified walls by your side.
A small open square, about halfway through the village, is home to the Town Hall, an interesting clock tower and a stone archway which opens to reveal one of the best views of the valley below.
With most of the buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, you can be forgiven when you visit Menerbes for believing you have stepped back in time. This car-free village has been beautifully preserved and just oozes tranquility and charm.
Where to Stay in Menerbes
For an affordably luxurious B&B stay, check out Nulle Parte Ailleurs just outside of the village, about 600 meters walk from the town center. Offering a countryside setting, outdoor pool, terrace, shared kitchen, and spacious rooms, it’s a fantastic choice for those who want a splash of luxury without breaking the bank.
An even more luxurious choice is La Bastide de Marie, with quaintly chic Provencal interiors with stone walls straight out of a French fairytale, a stunning pool, vineyards on the property which you can look out onto while enjoying a drink or meal, as well as an on-site spa for a little TLC.
Cassis is a seaside gem located east of Marseille, mostly known for its picturesque port aligned with pastel-colored houses. This lovely French Riviera retreat offers tranquility and conviviality. Get lost in the charming alleys, enjoy the postcard views from one of the terraces, look up at the Carolingian Château de Cassis or soak up the atmosphere at the enchanting Provencal market on the Place Baragnon.
Since the town is a gateway to the Calanques National Park, you’ll find plenty of active things to do in Cassis as well. Several hiking and mountain biking trails lead to the cliffs’ rocky inlets with their aquamarine waters while kayak tours allow coastal access to the most scenic pebble beaches.
East of Cassis, you can explore the Cap Canaille mountain with its ochre cliffs and sweeping views over the French Riviera coastline. Cassis offers the perfect blend of a classic Provencal vacation with an adventurous touch.
Where to Stay in Cassis
If it’s luxury you’re after, it doesn’t get any better than Hotel Les Roches Blanches. With a stunning Mediterranean sea view, an infinity pool that disappears into the sea, gorgeously decorated interiors with impeccable views from the windows, and chic rooms with balconies, this is as good as it gets in Cassis.
If you’re more concerned with budget, check out the marvelous Le Clos des Aromes, which offers an economical place to stay in Cassis that is cheap, cheerful, and conveniently located.
With its colorful streets, artistic feel, and prime location in the heart of the Alpilles, it’s no surprise that St. Remy (technically named St-Remy-de-Provence) is among the most popular places to visit in the south of France.
While you’re there, be sure to enjoy a few leisurely Provencal meals, tour Roman ruins at Glanum, walk in the footsteps of Van Gogh and tour the Saint Paul Monastery where he received care during his life, and take plenty of day trips to the nearby villages and countryside.
Nearby Les-Baux-de-Provence is among the most popular day trips from St. Remy, and outdoor lovers will be thrilled with the number of biking and walking trails available in Alpilles.
As St. Remy is a Provencal town, of course no visit there could be complete without exploring its gorgeous weekly market.
Each Wednesday, the streets of central St. Remy and the ring road surrounding it fill with vendors selling everything from vegetables to lavender to crafts, and there’s no better place to pick up some Provencal souvenirs… and lunch!
Where to Stay in St. Remy
For a 5-star stay, check out Le Saint Remy, a beautifully designed and artsy, airy hotel in the heart of town. Offering a stunning spa with indoor pool and relaxation chairs, an outdoor pool, spacious and airy rooms with white walls and wooden accents, garden, and air conditioning in every room, it’s the best choice for where to stay in St Remy if the budget permits.
For a more wallet-friendly stay, look to Hotel du Soleil et Spa – yes, a spa hotel is actually a rather budget-friendly option! This quaint hotel in a traditional stone Provencal house features a garden, a small indoor spa, an outdoor pool and. sun loungers, and small but chic rooms.
Les Baux de Provence
Les Baux de Provence is one of the most beautiful and
most visited villages in France. This medieval village is a fortified city on
atop of a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles in Provence. The city is only 22 km
from Avignon and 15 km from Arles so it can easily be done as a day trip from
one of those cities.
Due to its strategic location, this village had an important political role in the middle ages. Hidden in the mountains it had a good defense system against the invaders. The village is surrounded by a fort and has a ruined castle, le Chateaux of Baux de Provence. The village’s streets are filled with old medieval houses and small chapels from the 12-13th century. There are plenty of cute traditional shops and restaurants to grab a bite. Cars aren’t allowed inside the city, so you can explore the city without restrictions and have an idea of how people lived in the medieval ages.
One of the highlights of the village is to visit the ruined castle. The entrance ticket to the castle is 10 €, witch includes an audioguide. Although the castle is in ruins you will learn about life in the castle, the defense system and the history of the region. The visit is very interactive, there are displays of medieval weapons like the catapult, the battering ram, which they do recreations of attacks and you can participate. From the castle, you will also catch a fantastic view of Provence and its vineries.
Where to Stay in Les Baux de Provence
Luxury options abound in Les Baux de Provence. One fantastic choice is Domaine de Manville, with its stunning glass gazebo for enjoying drinks, outdoor pool and terrace, luxurious spa, and chicly decorated rooms with stunning views. Another one, equally good but a matter of taste and preference, is Baumanière, with an exquisite in-house restaurant, large outdoor pool, sleek and modern spa, and cozy Provencal rooms.
For people looking for a budget option, Le Fabian des Baux offers comfort without the hefty price tag. It has a pool, sun loungers, and spacious rooms with countryside views.
Avignon makes a great base for exploring the villages of Provence. It’s one of the main centers in the region and is easily accessible by train. You can visit places such as St. Remy by car or bus and the village of Rognonas is only a short drive away. You can also visit other places of interest such as Isle Sur la Sorgue and nearby Villeneuve-les-Avignon.
Before you set out on a day trip, however, take some time to get to know historic Avignon. To explore Avignon, start with a walk through the Old Town and don’t miss the Palace of the Popes, the Palais des Papes, an awe-inspiring palace of magnificent proportions, built to reflect the might and power of the early French popes. Other top sights include Notre-Dame des Doms, Avignon’s cathedral, which dates back to the early 12th century. Also not to be missed is the famous Pont d’Avignon, which inspired the well-known nursery song Sur la Pont d’Avignon. The bridge, which was built between 1177 and 1185, is only a fragment of its former self, but its appeal, like Avignon’s, lives on.
Where to Stay in Avignon
If you’re looking for a place to stay, La Mirande is one of Avignon’s most deluxe options. Dating back to 1309, it’s a historic hotel with a central location.
Located less than 20 kilometers (12 miles) from
Avignon, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is best-known for its remarkable wines. Made from
a blend of up to 13
approved grapes, just 7% of local production is white
wine, with reds accounting for 93% of the output of this protected appellation.
As one might expect, wine tourism is a major component of the region. Many
wineries have tasting rooms open to the public, and the village of
Chateauneuf-du-Pape is filled with wine cellars where visitors can step in,
sample a producer’s offerings, and purchase bottles to take home.
As the village itself is quite small, Chateauneuf-du-Pape is highly walkable and there’s truly no such thing as a “bad” location for an overnight stay. There are a handful of boutique hotels to choose from, but holiday homes are perhaps the best way to immerse oneself in local charms. The streets are narrow, lined with honey-colored buildings adorned with flowerboxes and rustic wooden doors, and vineyards extend in every direction. The best views are to be had from the chateau ruins that overlook the tiny town from atop a hill. The two walls that stand today were once a part of the 14th-century papal residence that served as a summer getaway from the activity in Avignon, and from here one can gaze over the valley to the Rhone River flowing nearby.
With the promise of beautiful landscapes and excellent wine, Chateauneuf-du-Pape should certainly be on the must-see list of anyone looking to experience a quiet slice of Provence.
Where to Stay in Chateauneuf-du-Pape
For a truly luxury experience, it doesn’t get much better than staying in a French chateau – and you can do just that Hostellerie du Château des Fines Roches for a surprising price. The chateau was turned into a hotel in 1974 and features a fine dining restaurant, terrace, panoramic vineyard views, outdoor pool, and gorgeous Provencal decor.
For a more budget-friendly stay, look to the bright and airy La Pergola B&B. It has a charming terrace and garden area, light-filled rooms with high ceilings, and tasty breakfasts with homemade jam.
Despite being named one of France’s most beautiful villages, Ansouis remains somewhat of an outsider on the Luberon valley route. Its privileged position tucked away from the main tourist trail, yet tantalizingly close to the region’s top attractions, means it’s also a brilliant place to stay in Provence.
Ansouis is a typical Provençal hilltop village, and as you approach, you’ll be enchanted by the sight of the village houses cascading down from the castle at the top. The château is privately owned, but members of the public are permitted to visit from April – October, and it’d be remiss to pass up the opportunity! The decadent interior has been lovingly restored and kitted out with only the most worthy furnishings and artworks. The exterior is just as impressive and offers spectacular views over the surrounding countryside.
Nearby, you’ll find the Eglise Saint-Martin whose angular exterior belies the rustic interior within. Pop into the Musee Extraordinaire to browse an eclectic mix of curiosities, or quench your thirst and sample the local Provence wine at Château Turcan nearby.
Where to Stay in Ansouis
The only B&B in the village is nonetheless a gorgeous one: Un Patio en Luberon. This B&B was converted from a 16th-century inn, and has typical exposed stone walls, a terrace, rooms with private baths, and daily breakfasts with homemade cakes. Provencal home cooking is available upon request should you want to dine in-house, either al fresco on the patio or in the gorgeous dining room with an antique table sourced from a monastery.
Antibes for the most part is considered part of the Cote d’Azur, and this is true. However, it’s also in Provence. Which is the reason we found it to be our favorite destination in the region. It’s got the markets and the squares one finds in quintessential cities such as Aix en Provence or Arles; but it’s the sea that sets it apart from the rest.
Unlike Cannes, the beach here is smaller in size and more about family than ritz. The water is as blue here as anywhere in the Cote’ D’Azur and as opposed to fighting with those rocks under your feet, as it is in most beaches along the coast, the seaside here is powdery sand.
At one end of the beach, there’s a food truck run by a family for years, where one can get anything from a bagnat (typical provencal tuna sandwich which tastes like a salad nicoise between good bread) to wine to ice cream. No need to pack a picnic!
At night, the main market, which during the day is filled with vendors selling anywhere from flowers to livestock and everything in between, turns into a large outdoor eatery. It’s in the same vein as going to a food truck park in Los Angeles or a hawker market in Bangkok, but in this case, it’s restaurants that line the square that take your orders and you choose to eat and sit where you want. It makes for a convivial night.
No visit to Antibes, however, is complete without a visit to the Picasso Museum, where one can view some of his great works and also take in the view of the coast line from one of the large terraces of the former Château Grimaldi. Right outside this museum, are plenty of little bars and eateries where an afternoon can be ended with a glass of Pastis or Rose: de rigueur in these parts.
Where to Stay in Antibes
For a luxury stay, look to Royal Antibes. This gorgeous resort has a spa complete with steam bath, fitness center, and sauna, and a. strip of private use available to guests only at a surcharge. It’s also home to two restaurants, both with a view of the stunning L’Ilette Bay, and it’s just a 3 minute walk to the old town of Antibes. City view and sea view rooms are available, and the resort has apartments, suites, and rooms.
For budget-friendly comfort, check out La Garoupe-Gardiole, set in a beautiful location 600 meters from Gardiole Beach. It has a heated outdoor pool, fitness area, a shaded terrace, and daily breakfast served. It’s a little outside of Antibes town, but it can be reached in 30 minutes by foot or 5 minutes by car.
L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a cute market town in Provence, a 25-minute direct train ride from Avignon — perfect for a day trip if you’re in the area. It’s a charming town by the Sorgue river.
Its historic center is surrounded by a moat of canals, bridges and traditional wooden waterwheels, covered with bright green moss. The old town is all cobbled streets, leafy squares, stone buildings, and antiques shops. There’s also a food market here on Sunday, where you can pick up French cheeses, baked goods, and charcuterie. The riverside is lined with a handful of restaurants and bistros by the water.
All of this is reason enough to visit, but in addition, L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue is famous for its weekly Sunday antiques market. The market is huge, featuring a vast array of quirky retro finds. It also draws in the crowds and a festival atmosphere. If you’re not a fan of hordes of people, you may actually prefer to visit on another day of the week!
Where to Stay in L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue
For a luxury stay, La Maison Sur La Sorgue is a fantastic choice. Set in a 17th century home, it features a stunning garden, several terraces to relax on, and a swimming pool located right on the river! There’s also a glass-roofed courtyard where you can relax and read a book, an on-site art gallery, and a lounge with a fireplace.
Another option is the budget-friendly 4-star Domaine de la Petite Isle. This hotel features an outdoor pool, gardens, a restaurant, large rooms with A/C, and a prime location right on the banks of the Sorgue River.
Marseille, in Provence, is a very cool city to explore. Many people go through Marseille on their way to Corsica Island or other places in the French Riviera but Marseille is an interesting destination by itself with many things to see and do. Also, direct trains Paris – Marseille make of this city an easy weekend trip from Paris by train.
There’s the colorful Old Port and the historic neighborhood of Le Panier but there’s also an interesting cultural life with museums like the MuCEM or the Beaux-Arts Museum. Other places of interest include the Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde and Palais Longchamp but this is only a taste of what Marseille has to offer.
Additionally, Marseille is an excellent base camp for exploring the region of Provence. Just in front of Marseille, there’s If Island. It’s in the famous Château d”If where the Count of Montecristo was kept prisoner during the first chapters of Dumas’ novel.
Marseille is also the starting point of beautiful hikes along the Calanques de Marseille – Cassis which can also be explored by boat.
Other beautiful places easy to visit from Marseille on a day trip are Aix-en-Provence or La Camargue. Why are you waiting to visit Marseille?
Where to Stay in Marseille
As a large city, Marseille has countless options. Many big-name branded 5-star hotels are here, such as the Sofitel and the Intercontinental, both in the Vieux Port with all the amenities you’d expect from a hotel of their stature.
For budget-seekers, check out the Staycity Aparthotel located near the Vieux Port in Marseille, which features modernly designed studio and one-bedroom apartments with kitchenettes in the heart of the city.
If Lahti was in any other part of the Nordics, it’d surely get a lot more attention, but Finnish cities with the exception of the capital seem to coast under the radar. It’s as if most people’s knowledge of the country stops after Helsinki and Lapland.
But in between those two extremes, there are countless unique cities, literal hundreds of thousands of lakes, and thousands of kilometers of boreal forests to explore — and hardly any tourists to share these endlessly beautiful landscapes and buzzy cities with.
Lahti is where green forests and ever-changing blue lakes meet friendly urban planning seamlessly: where the border between city and nature blurs beautifully.
It’s a place where you can eat and drink hyper-locally, meeting the farmers, brewers, distillers, and baristas who are passionate about bringing high-quality ingredients to your everyday table.
It’s hard to believe that this beautiful city on the cusp of Finnish Lakeland is a mere 90-minute drive from Helsinki, but here it is.
If you’re planning to visit Lahti, you may find yourself without too much information on the city, as it’s still emerging as a tourism destination. But it’s on its way to making a bigger splash in Finnish tourism, and I’m here to share with you all the best things to do in Lahti so that you can have as fantastic as a trip as we did!
Our trip was organized by Visit Lahti, who hosted my friend Megan and I during our stay; however, I’ve ensured that every activity on this post is something that independent travelers can do when visiting Lahti. While this post focuses on the city of Lahti, I will also cover the larger Lahti region which includes Vääksy, Päijänne National Park, and Asikkala.
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13 Best Things to Do When You Visit Lahti, Finland
Explore the renovated harbor area
Lahti’s history, compared to other Finnish cities like Turku and Helsinki, is rather brief. Development of Lahti began in 1870, when it became an integral part of the railway connection with St. Petersburg (as Lahti, and the rest of Finland, were part of the Russian empire from 1809 to 1917).
This railway connection spurred the development of Lahti, and the harbor area was the birthplace of Lahti’s booming industry for a hundred years, primarily for its gorgeous woodwork and wooden furniture.
However, as the manufacturing era waned, Lahti’s once-thriving industry fell into decline. In 1985, Lahti politicians decided that the harbor area should be converted in dual recreation and living space and given back to the people of Lahti.
The harbor area is now considered Lahti’s “summer living room” for the plethora of bars, cafés, restaurants, and free public areas where you can simply sit and enjoy the gorgeous views of the lake.
Gaze out on one of Finland’s 187,888 lakes
I truly pity the person who had to do the counting on this one, but Finland is home to nearly 200,000 lakes.
The lake near Lahti is called Vesijärvi (a truly redundant name, as in Finnish, it means “The Water Lake”). It covers 111 square kilometers and spans 25 kilometers at its widest point. Two major towns and cities are based on the banks of this lake: Lahti and Asikkala (which we’ll explore later in this article).
No matter where you go in Lahti region – a beautiful lake will never be far away (this is Finnish Lakeland, after all!).
Have a fantastic meal at the harborside restaurant Ravintola Casseli
One of the first things we did when we arrived in Lahti was checking out the beautiful harborside area, which has been transformed from an industrial wasteland to a utopic cityscape over the past few decades due to the determination of Lahti’s politicans and citizens.
There are countless places to eat in Lahti’s harbor area, but we ended up at the delicious Ravintola Casseli, which was a wonderful way to start our visit to Lahti.
We enjoyed a fantastic meal of reindeer with tart lingonberry jam and roasted carrots. I mean, when in Finland, right?
Address: Borupinraitti 4, 15140 Lahti
Marvel at the stunning Sibelius Hall
Sibelius Hall (Sibeliustalo in Finnish) is the heart of Lahti’s harbor area, and one look inside should tell you why. It’s named for the most famous Finnish composer of all time, Jean Sibelius — you’ll also find memorials to him in Helsinki as well as the Sibelius Museum in Turku.
While from the outside, Sibelius Hall looks like a simple modernist glass building, it’s a more complex structure than that. The main wooden concert hall is encased in glass, and it’s merged with brick architecture which pre-dated the construction of the hall and forms the main entrance to the building. The interior is a whole different story, mimicking Finnish Lakeland’s beautiful natural surroundings. The building as a whole combines brick, glass, and wood in a way that works beautifully.
Sibelius Hall was completed in 2000, and it was the biggest wooden public building built in Finland for more than a century, and the first in independent Finland. It’s the permanent home of the Lahti Symphony Orchestra, but it also plays host to various musicians throughout the year as well. Classical music critics have declared Sibelius Hall to be one of the best in the world for its acoustics, which
While you can only go inside the concert hall proper if you have a ticket to see a show, which unfortunately we were unable to do during our stay, it’s still worth a visit when in Lahti, as it’s the city’s most famous landmark. The interior public area of Sibelius Hall is extremely impressive and photogenic.
The so-called “canopy” room is especially gorgeous, inspired by the forests which make up 70% of Finland, pillars forming “trees” which branch into the ceiling.
We didn’t get to see this because it was midsummer when we visited and bright all day, but during the darker hours, there are cut-out, lit-up star constellations in the ceiling to complete the forest in the middle of nature effect.
Address: Sibeliustalo, Ankkurinkatu 7, 15140 Lahti
Make a loop at the Lanu Sculpture Park
Olavi Lanu was one of the most famous Finnish sculptors, who exhibited at the Venice Biennale and won prizes for his work.
He spent most of his life living in Lahti, which is why the sculpture park dedicated to his work is set in Lahti.
Lanu Park (also known as Kariniemi Park) features an easy-to-walk loop of 12 sculptures in Olavi Lanu’s signature style, which uses materials like concrete to mimic forms found in nature such as wood, moss, and grass.
The setting of them in the forest park is intentional, as Lanu’s desire is for nature to overtake and change the look of the art over time, merging once again with the nature the art is mimicking.
Address: Kariniemen Puistotie, 15140 Lahti
Have a fantastic cup of coffee and pick up some beans at Kahiwa Coffee Roastery
One of the best things to do in Lahti is visit the Kahiwa Coffee Roastery just a bit outside of town. While this is primarily a coffee roastery, you can buy a cup of coffee prepared however you like it and chat with the friendly founder, Joonas, about the coffee you’re consuming.
The philosophy of Kahiwa is that “every coffee has a story.” Joonas has been importing coffee for the past five years, starting in Kenya where his grandparents have been living for the past 60 years. He noticed that their neighbors, who were coffee farmers, were struggling to make ends meet due to the lack of transparency and huge number of middlemen in the coffee industry.
By simplifying the supply chain and working directly with farmers he had personal relationships with, he was able to ensure a fair livelihood for his farmers and a stellar product for his customers in Finland. Joonas personally sources all the coffee from Kenya and Colombia and maintains relationships with the family-run farms he sources his beans from.
He works in collaboration with a fellow coffee wholesaler based in the Netherlands with a similar business ethos of cutting out middlemen and providing fair trade prices for the beans they source. Due to this partnership, Kahiwa also roasts beans from Nicaragua, Brazil, Peru, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. In total, Kahiwa offers single-origin coffee from seven different countries.
We were able to try three different delicious coffees: a light-roast Nicaraguan, a medium-roast Guatemalan, and a dark-roast Brazilian. We tried each brewed in a Chemex so we could best appreciate the differences between each of these beans. All were fantastic, but I couldn’t help leaving with both a bag of Brazilian coffee and another one of Nicaraguan coffee!
While at present, Kahiwa is primarily a coffee roaster, you can grab a cup of coffee and hear his story during its public hours, Monday through Friday from 10 AM to 4 PM.
However, Joonas is in the process of opening up a specialty coffee shop in the center of Lahti and anticipates it will be open as early as January or March of 2020!
Address: Telakkakatu 4, 15140 Lahti
Explore the Wood Architecture Park
Lahti has long been famous for its woodwork, and while the cultural and economic landscape of Lahti has shifted dramatically over the past century and a half, the city still pays homage to its roots.
The Wood Architecture Park is composed of several pieces which have been commissioned to be built in public areas around Sibelius Hall.
Address: Several throughout the city – this is just one of them!
Check out Lahti’s first whisky distillery
Your mind probably doesn’t go to whisky when you think of Finland, but you’d be ignoring some of the fantastic work that local distillers are doing behind the scenes!
Teerenpeli is a small but fantastic whisky distillery operating since 2002 out of the basement of the restaurant Taivaanranta. They host distillery tours – with tastings, naturally! – for 25 euros per person (minimum group size of four) which you can book online here.
It’s incredible what they are able to produce in such a small space: 160,000 liters a year of single malt whisky. The whisky is all local ingredients: the barley they source for their whisky comes from less than 100 kilometers away, and they use local fresh groundwater which is as pure as can be.
It was fascinating to tour the facilities and learn about how whisky is produced. I know a bit about the fermentation process from winery and brewery tours, but whisky was a new one for me!
I got a kick out of learning that the whisky is aged mostly in old sherry barrels from Spain, which give it an extra layer of oaky flavor that just adds to the complexity of the whisky.
Oh, and they make gin and craft beer as well!
Teerenpeli isn’t only about whisky and distillates — they also produce a delicious selection of craft beers, which you can enjoy in the restaurant or bar.
Teerenpeli actually has several bars throughout Finland which distribute their beers: Helsinki, Jyväskylä, Lahti, Lappeenranta, Tampere, Turku, and one coming up in Oulu. So keep an eye out for their name if you are taking a larger trip throughout Finland!
Address: Rautatienkatu 13, 15110 Lahti
Have a phenomenal meal at Taivaanranta
The restaurant in which the Teerenpeli is based out of is actually a fantastic place to have a meal in Lahti’s center.
I had a delicious leek and potato vichyssoise with truffle cheese toast as my starter and an even more fantastic risotto with duck and rhubarb jam as my main. I’m drooling remembering that risotto as I type this!
Address: Rautatienkatu 13, 15110 Lahti
Eat strawberries & drink berry wine at Pihaama Estate
My friend Megan always raved about how delicious strawberries are in the Nordics — and I never really got it. How could a summer strawberry up North taste that much better than a summer strawberry anywhere else?
But oh. my. god. I don’t know if I can ever appreciate another strawberry again, because these ones are delicious
We also got to sample some of their phenomenal berry wines and ciders, for which they are widely known.
I was obsessed with their cloudberry wine, which tastes just as magical as you’d imagine. We also got to try some of their fruit ciders — I loved the strawberry cider, naturally, but the raspberry cider was also a treat. I strongly recommend picking up a six-pack of them when visiting Lahti region!
Don’t drink alcohol? Their fruit lemonades are a fantastic summer treat, as well.
Address: Siltatie 12, 17240 Kalkkinen
Opening Hours: 10 AM to 6 PM, seasonally
Try the award-winning sours and goses at Kanavan Panimo
Checking out the local food and beverage scene was one of the themes of our trip to the Lahti region, and everywhere we turned we were more and more impressed!
Kanavan Panimo is quite unique as they are best-known for their sour beers and goses, which are unusual for Finnish craft beer which tends more towards porters, ales, and lagers. We tried a few that were brewed with different local flavorings and they were all so tasty, but my favorite had to be the raspberry (vadelma) gose!
It’s a rather new brewery – only opened in 2016 – but they have big ambition and a ton of creativity.
Address: Meijeritie 1, 17200 Vääksy
Rest and recharge at Lehmonkärki Resort
Lehmonkärki Resort is up there as one of the best places I’ve ever stayed in my travels. The facilities in our cabin, Villa Tuuletar, were just marvelous – I mean, who can complain about an 8-person cabin with its own lake-facing hot tub, fireplace, the kitchen of my dreams, and a personal sauna?
We were just a five-minute walk to the best place to catch the sunset over Lake Päijänne, which was so calm and peaceful at that hour it seemed nearly impossibly perfect, like an oil painting.
But what stood out above all was the level of personalized service at Lehmonkärki. Our hosts, Ari and Marjo, went above and beyond to ensure we had a fantastic trip and anticipate our needs before we even knew we had them… whether that was pre-stocking our fridge with a selection of beer and cider, packing a delicious picnic lunch complete with donuts and coffee on our boat trip to the lake, or delivering our final meal with them to our cabin (talk about room service!).
I loved my stay at Lehmonkärki so much that I’m already plotting to get a group of friends together to rent out a cabin sometime in the future and staying for longer – two nights was fabulous, but I could have very easily stayed an entire week.
Lake Päijänne and Päijänne National Park are a must when you visit Lahti. The best way to explore, of course, is via boat, as the national park is mostly made up of lakes and small forest islands.
We organized a boat tour via Lehmonkärki and had a fantastic time, and if you are staying with Lehmonkärki, that’s what I would recommend you do.
There are some other ways to get there, such as water taxi, boat excursions, or boat cruises. The best place to find all the different companies offering these excursions and transfers is via the National Park’s website, which you can find here. The best options are via Lehmonkärki, Lakeland Outdoors, and Kiuasniemi.
Note: A huge thanks to the team at Visit Lahti for arranging a fantastic media trip, as well as all of the wonderful small businesses who partnered with them to make our trip to Lahti region a memorable one. That said, all opinions expressed (and beer/strawberry cider weight gained) are entirely my own.
With thousands of islands in
the Turku archipelago alone, picking just one to visit is an overwhelming
prospect. Luckily, on my visit to Turku in partnership with Visit Turku, they
were able to point me in the right direction: I found myself on the island of
Seili, a beautiful island with an intriguing and complex past.
About two hours away from
Turku via the M/S Norrskär, you’ll find Seili island. This island is also
called Själo in Swedish, as many people in this part of Finland have Swedish as
a mother tongue. Many people originally thought the name came from Swedish, “the
island of souls” – in actuality, its name is more close to “the island of seals,”
as it probably was an important place for seal hunting many centuries ago.
Seili is located in Nagu, part of the southern Airisto Sea, a quiet part of the Turku Archipelago. With a population of only 50 summer residents and less than a dozen in the winter, visiting Seili is enchantingly peaceful. There’s one main road, a handful of historic houses and buildings (many of which have been turned into accommodations), a few dozen cows, and some sheep.
Despite how small it is, Seili
welcomes a fair number of tourists each summer. It’s part of the Short
Archipelago Trail which connects a number of islands via trail, bridge, and
ferry throughout a hundred kilometers of the Turku Archipelago. As a result,
many cyclists pass through Seili for a half day or so on their way to complete
the loop, though there are several places to stay on the island in case you get
enchanted into a longer stay.
Yet while a visit to Seili is a beautiful way to while away a few hours on a midsummer day, many decades ago, being sent here was effectively a death sentence.
The History of Seili Island
The island of Seili is actually
rather new, geologically speaking: emerging from the Ice Age a mere 5,000 years
ago. It was used as an anchor spot by the Vikings, and archaeological evidence
suggests that the island was first settled during the Iron age.
The island makes its first appearance in historical texts in 1540, as a small island with one village numbering five houses. But by the 1600s, the island would become inhabited by quite a few unfortunate souls: lepers who were sent to Seili to finish out their lives outside of the public eye.
Seili became a convenient
place to ship people with leprosy, who were shunned not only because of the
contagiousness of their diseases but also the perceived sinfulness of those
afflicted with it. Leprosy was often viewed as a punishment from God for having
committed some offense or the other: as a result, those who had it were often
shipped away from the cities, so as not to corrupt the rest.
A small farm and several
buildings cropped up during the 17th century to feed and home the
patients and staff. Many of those buildings no longer remain, and the oldest is
the so-called “White House” which now hosts students and tourist guides in the
summer and dates back to the 1800s.
Actually, the island of Seili used to be two distinct islands: “the island of the sick” being where they sent the lepers, basically left to their own devices without much in the way of medical care. Occasionally, unlucky elderly people, poor people, and the mentally ill would be sent to this island as well.
Interestingly, the primary
treatment for ill people back in the days of Seili’s leprosy colony days was
alcohol. Patients were treated with booze until 1730, when it started to cause
a lot of problems and it was forbidden. Funny enough, there’s a Finnish
expression that refers to this bit of sordid history: “to be in full Seili” in
Finnish means to get blackout drunk.
But the reality is that life
expectancy was incredibly poor for people who got sent to Seili: typically,
only 1-3 years. The situation was so dire that people who were sent to Seili
were asked to bring their own coffins – not a great prognosis. All in all, some
663 lepers died here; the burial site still remains unknown on the island.
The last leper died on the island in 1785, but the island had already transitioned to a new kind of outcast: the mentally ill. The island became the first mental hospital in all of Finland. The mental hospital here was for women – men were sent to Karelia. It was meant to be a one-way ticket here: once you arrived on Seili, you’d likely die there.
Treatment of the mentally ill
was pretty harsh, as was common for this time period. Electroconvulsive therapy,
medically-induced comas, and “hot/cold” therapy were used, where they’d fill a
helmet with alternatingly hot and cold water, to supposedly “cool down” the temperament.
While lobotomy was never performed in the mental hospitals of Seili, they often
received lobotomy patients from other parts of Finland who were no longer able
to care for themselves.
In the 1960s, the mental
hospital closed abruptly, and the 41 patients remaining on Seili were sent to
various hospitals around Finland.
The Present of Seili Island
Today, you can visit Seili with a local guide who will tell you the history of all the buildings you pass. While there is some signage explaining the history of the island, I don’t think I would have learned a fraction as much of what I did about Seili without a local guide. The history of the island is its most interesting part, so I strongly recommend contacting Visit Seili and arranging for a guide to give you a walking tour and explain the island’s history to you.
One of the most interesting
parts was visiting a treatment room from when the main building used to be a
mental hospital, left basically as-is so you could get a sense of what the
people who used to live here experienced. The room is strangely decorated with
earthy tones and geometric squares on the walls, as both were thought to bring
peace to troubled minds. A straightjacket laying on the bed reminds you of the ugly
reality of this place’s history.
The island of Seili is now
one main “village” area, which used to house the mental hospital and the
caretakers for the mentally ill. There’s also a restaurant which serves a
delicious lunch buffet and an a-la-carte dinner menu. There’s an inside part of
the restaurant and also tables in the courtyard where you can enjoy your lunch in
Some of the buildings today were designed by the famous Finnish architect C.L. Engel, including this beautiful red building which was used as a residence for maids and nurses.
wooden church on the former “island of the sick” is one of the most interesting
places to visit on the island, and I recommend visiting the sparse but
beautiful wooden interior (this’ll be included if you do a guided tour,
otherwise there is a small admission fee).
Seili is now primarily
inhabited by a few local residents and a rotating student population, mostly
students of geology and biology who spend a few weeks at a time living on Seili
and studying its unique flora and fauna. Many of the old buildings have also
been converted into accommodations and guesthouses where tourists can stay when
they are doing the Short Archipelago Trail or just want an escape from the
bustle of city life.
Should You Visit Seili?
Admittedly, Seili is quiet. There’s not a lot going on in terms of activities, besides learning the dark history of this beautiful place, going for a walk amidst the beautiful nature, admiring the church and buildings, and saying hello to the friendly resident cows if you can spot them while they’re out to pasture.
For a short day trip from Turku, it’s a perfect way to spend a few hours. The boat leaves at 10 AM, drops you off right before noon, and picks you up again around 4:30 PM, returning by 6:15 PM.
That’s just about the right amount of time to explore Seili on foot with a guided tour, see the church, have a long lunch and cup of coffee, and walk back to the port at a leisurely pace.
It’s also right along the Short Archipelago Trail, a 100-kilometer loop connected by bridge and ferry throughout the Turku archipelago. If you’re doing that trail, visiting Seili is a perfect way to break up the journey and get a good night’s rest before continuing onwards on your trip.
If you’re a fan of peace, beauty,
isolation, and a hint of dark tourism: Seili is the perfect island to visit in
the Turku Archipelago for you.
One of the most memorable places I’ve ever visited in my 60-something countries of travel was my trip to Abisko in the winter of 2016.
It was before I was even blogging, but visiting Swedish Lapland in winter all covered in snow still remains one of the top travel highlights of the last decade or so I’ve been traveling.
While I’m sure Abisko, Sweden is a lovely place to visit at any time of year, it truly shines in winter.
I visited in mid-February and found the weather to be perfect: the days were getting long enough to ensure plenty of sunshine hours (okay, like six or seven) but the nights were early and dark enough that I got to see the Northern lights dancing overhead literally every night.
The Most Magical Things to Do in Abisko in Winter
Take advantage of the “Blue Hole” and go Northern lights spotting
The thing about seeing the Northern lights in Scandinavia is that often, the lights will be roaring overhead, but clouds will get in the way.
The geomagnetic activity that creates the bands of the aurora is way above the cloud cover, and therefore, if there are clouds in the sky on the night you’re attempting to see the Northern lights you’re unlikely to have much success.
So while many people choose to go to Norway or Iceland in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights, the fact that most of the places you’d visit in these countries are coastal doesn’t do you any favors. Coastal climates are more temperamental with more frequent cloud cover in winter, decreasing your chances of seeing the Northern lights dramatically.
Abisko, on the other hand, has a microclimate that’s been blessed with clearer weather than other places in the Arctic, thanks to the so-called “Blue Hole” effect that the lake and surrounding mountains have. That’s why Northern lights spotting is one of the top things to do in Abisko in winter.
The exact physics behind this meteorological phenomenon is a mystery to me, but all I can say is that the odds proved in my favor. The statistics say that if you stay in Abisko for three nights, you have an 80% chance of seeing the Northern lights in Abisko.
Anecdotally, I stayed for three nights and saw them every night of my stay to some degree or another, the most spectacular show on my final night.
In contrast, I spent 7 days in Tromso and saw the Northern lights only twice in the city itself, and I had to take a pricy Northern lights tour leaving Tromso to see even a fraction of the spectacle I saw in Abisko.
When planning a trip to Sweden for the Northern lights, keep a few things in mind. One: the aurora is generally not as vivid and green as you see in photos. That’s not photoshop but rather a trick of long exposure, as the camera is able to take in light for seconds at a time where your eye can only take in light at, well, the speed of light, creating a much different effect.
While you’ll definitely notice bands and colors moving across the sky, expect paler colors with your naked eye and much more vividness on camera. Two: no matter what you do, you’re at the mercy of the weather, and no amount of planning or preparation can guarantee you seeing the lights.
I can only speak about my experience, which was that I saw some variation of the Northern lights in one way or another each night. My first night, I just saw a small band appear low on the horizon, one that I could barely tell was an aurora with my eye but appeared bright and green on the camera.
My second night was similar, with some aurora activity that I glimpsed through some cloud cover. But my final night was truly incredible and I was able to see the whole aurora show through the famed “Blue Hole” effect.
Even with Abisko’s odds, I struggled a bit to find the Northern lights on my first two nights despite there being plenty of solar activity. Had I gone on a guided excursion for the Northern lights, I undoubtedly would have had a different experience those first two nights and gotten to see more.
The great thing about doing a Northern lights tour is that your guides will do their best to find cloud-free skies and take you to places where you can get better compositions for your photos.
The company with the best reputation is Lights Over Lapland, which you can book online here. This tour is slightly more expensive than other options because it is a photography tour in which you are given a high-quality Nikon DSLR with an 18-50mm lens plus a sturdy tripod to use (all you have to bring camera-wise is your own memory card, which costs about $20). Of course, if you have your own photography gear, you can use that instead.
The tour also includes a snowmobile ride, and there’s a cozy wilderness camp to retreat to when the Arctic temperatures dip too low and you’re not seeing any aurora – plus a piping hot mug of lingonberry juice and snack to warm up while you wait for the lights to do their thing! The tours are restricted to 10 people per group (with two professional guides/photographers to assist you in setting up your shots), so you’ll want to save your spot in advance. Check for availability here.
However, since these tours come with a lot of inclusions and are the name with the highest profile, they do come at a steeper cost. If budget is a concern, I recommend this similar Northern lights chasing tour which lasts for 4 hours and takes you to various places where you can get stellar compositions for your photos. However, keep in mind that this does not include any photography equipment, so if you don’t have a DSLR or mirrorless camera plus tripod setup capable of setting up long exposure photos, it’s not the ideal tour for you.
Alternately, you can do what I did and just hope for luck with the lights – it worked for me one night out of three, and maybe it’ll work for you too, and it won’t cost you a cent.
Go dog sledding and cuddle some husky pups
While seeing the Northern lights was incredible, it wasn’t my favorite of all the things to do in Abisko. That honor belongs to the incredible dog-sledding trip (and subsequent puppy-cuddling) I took with Abisko Fjällturer.
Dog-sledding is so much more interesting and involved (and difficult!) than you’d imagine.
I think I pictured a leisurely ride through the snow, but I opted for the drive-your-own-dogsled option where you had to man your sled, steer, brake, and help your dogs up hills in the snow.
It was one hell of a workout and an incredibly thrilling day out. Working as a team with your dogs, looking out on the vast Arctic landscape, was truly a life-changing experience and the best money I spent on my Sweden trip. Especially since it came with a side of husky pup cuddles (obviously there won’t always be puppies, but we got lucky when we visited!)
While I’m generally quite wary of animal activities in tourism, this is one I can make an exception for, as huskies have been domesticated for exactly this kind of life for thousands of years: it’s literally what they were born to do. The dogs live in great conditions and are given tons of love and rest time, as there’s only one two-hour run per day.
Their individual personalities are known and respected; for example, the staff knows exactly which dogs to pair up based on their personalities, and they also know what order to place the dogsled teams in, as some teams prefer to be leaders and some have their own rivalries!
As for the huskies, they truly seem to love what they do. They actually get so excited as they’re being harnessed up that they start howling in anticipation!
Keep in mind that driving your own dogsled is way more difficult than it looks and requires a good deal of physical strength. Because of that, it’s not really suitable for kids – on this tour, you have to be 16 or older to drive your own sled – or people with limited mobility or injuries.
But if you can handle it, this is my #1 thing to do in Abisko, so I recommend booking it online in advance because as far as I know, they’re the only husky sledding tour operator in Abisko.
If you’re traveling with kids or people with limited mobility, a better option is to sit back and enjoy dog-sledding on a sled, getting driven through the snow by a team of huskies. Personally, I think getting to drive your own sled is a lot more fun (though a lot more work), but this isn’t a half-bad option if you can’t man your own sled. Check out more info and book online here.
Chase (frozen) waterfalls in Abisko National Park
Abisko National Park was one of the first national parks in all of Europe – and when you visit for yourself, you’ll see why.
It’s a truly breathtaking place and in winter Abisko National Park becomes utterly magical under a dusting of snow. But what’s most impressive are the impressive waterfalls you’ll find just a short but snowy hike from STF Abisko Turiststation (the front desk staff there can help draw you a map).
It took us about 15-minutes trudging through Abisko’s winter wonderland to come across these beautiful waterfalls, and boy was it worth the cold!
If you’re feeling exceptionally brave, we saw people ice climbing up the waterfalls, using a harness-pulley set-up with pickaxes and crampons. If this is up your alley, you can book at the front desk of STF Turiststation or get more information online here.
Learn about the indigenous Sámi culture
One thing I’ve been trying to do more as part of being a responsible traveler is to educate myself about the indigenous people of the lands I’m visiting.
The Sámi people are the indigenous people of the Sápmi region which encompasses northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola peninsula in Russia. The Sámi have stewarded the land in these regions for over 5,000 years.
They’ve preserved their traditions, language, and culture despite the harsh Arctic climates, attempts to force assimilation through political and “educational” means, and the division of their ancestral lands into four distinct modern-day nations.
Reindeer have historically held an important role in Sámi life and industry. Historically, the Sámi would hunt reindeer, but since the 1500s the Sámi began herding reindeer and domesticating them in a manner similar to cattle.
While this is still part of the Sámi economy, the focus of reindeer herding has shifted in recent years towards tourism rather than animal agriculture. Visits to Sámi villages often include visiting reindeer farms and getting a chance to feed reindeer or go reindeer sledding.
To be honest, having not experienced a reindeer camp firsthand, I’m not sure of how I feel about reindeer sledding.
While it doesn’t seem like animal abuse, as it’s pretty similar to a horse pulling a cart, it also doesn’t seem innately enjoyable for them the way that dog-sledding is for its enthusiastic team of huskies.
Vanessa of Nordic Wanders does a great job at breaking down the ethics of animal tourism in the Arctic here, so read up on it so you can make an informed decision for yourself.
Personally, I think it’s also important to consider how to balance the benefit of uplifting local indigenous communities with the need to make informed decisions around animal tourism.
Tourism is an important facet of the modern-day Sámi economy, and so long as the animals are well-fed and taken care of, I think you can ethically visit a reindeer farm if it’s in line with other animal activities you would do, such as riding a horse or a camel.
The 7-hour tour consists of a visit to a reindeer farm in Rávttas, a small Sámi village 45 minutes away from Abisko.
The tour includes roundtrip transportation, meeting and feeding the reindeer, learning about Sámi culture from an English-speaking Sámi tour guide, a short reindeer sled ride, and lunch in a traditional Arctic teepee (word of warning: your lunch may include reindeer – get in touch with them if you have dietary restrictions). It’s a popular option for things to do in Abisko during the day, so book this tour in advance if meeting reindeer is a must on your Sweden bucket list.
Visit the incredible ICEHOTEL
One of the most famous places in Sweden, a visit to the famous ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi is likely one of the top things to do on your Abisko itinerary. I. love ice hotels — I’ve visited the Tromso Ice Domes and adored it — and this Swedish ice hotel is no exception!
Getting there from Abisko can be a bit of a pain, as it’s closer to Kiruna than Abisko. There is no direct public transportation to the ICEHOTEL from Abisko, so you would have to transit via Kiruna, and I’m not even sure how you’d do that. It’s far easier to go on a guided day trip like this one and not much more expensive.
Visiting the hotel for the day independently will cost you 325 SEK (~$35 USD) plus all your transportation costs from Abisko to Kiruna by train, then to Jukkasjärvi by bus, then back to Kiruna and then taking the train to Abisko again – easily another $35 USD.
That’s not without counting the significant headache of the limited public transportation up north, as I found out from my disastrous experience trying to navigate Kiruna’s public transportation which ended up with me dragging myself and my backpack through a snowdrift running to the train station… but I digress. Just book yourself the day trip and save yourself the stress.
The ICEHOTEL is an incredible feat of engineering, which mashes up a hotel with an art exhibition — all of this 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The original ICEHOTEL was created in 1989 and the ice structure is completely redone each year (hence the serious price tag on the cold rooms).
Incredibly, in 2016 they created a whole new hotel: a permanent structure with ice rooms that you can even visit (and stay in!) in the summer month, called ICEHOTEL 365.
Before you go worrying about the carbon footprint of such an undertaking — it’s completely cooled by solar panels so it’s eco-friendly! While temperature is not a concern if you’re visiting Abisko in winter, it’s pretty amazing to think that this structure still exists in the summer when temperatures can reach 17 °C/63 °F.
Keep in mind that the winter ICEHOTEL is constructed at the start of winter each year, so if you visit before the middle of December, it’s not likely to be finished.
It takes a team of 40 artists each year several weeks – not to mention months of planning – to create the ICEHOTEL completely from scratch each year, which is truly incredible. If the seasonal ICEHOTEL not yet open, however, you can check out the ICEHOTEL 365 which is open all year round.
This structure has luxury suites you can stay in, and if no one is in the rooms you can take a peek inside. Even better, it also has an ice bar serving up chilled champagne (what else?) to curious visitors and day-trippers, and there’s also an ice gallery you can visit no matter the time of year.
The day tour consists of a guided tour of the art suites, ice bar, and ice church – yes, you can actually get married here! – plus leisure time to explore the hotel, take photos, or even dine or drink there (not included)
Explore the cute, curious town of Kiruna
Kiruna is an easy day trip from Abisko, or if you fly into Kiruna in the morning you can explore the city before your afternoon train to Abisko.
Kiruna is a mining town, and herein lies the curiosity of this city: it’s actually in the process of being moved two miles away from its current center. There is a giant crack in the earth progressing towards Kiruna at a slow but steady rate, at which point, at some time in the future, will swallow up Kiruna as it currently exists. Check out this fascinating article which explains the situation far better than I ever could.
The town is in the process of slowly being moved bit by bit – annoyingly, the first bit to move was the train station, which is why it’s so inconveniently far out of town. Taking a taxi or hitching a ride into town is recommended in winter, as the path into town is basically a highway and is extremely icy – we were lucky that when we tried to walk it, a local picked us up and gave us a ride in.
There’s actually quite a lot to see in this charming Arctic city, so let me break down a few of my favorite sights.
First, you can’t miss the wooden church of Kiruna – one of the largest wooden structures in all of Sweden! The church is unique for having a Gothic Revival style with an Art Nouveau interior and is more than 100 years old. (It, too, will eventually be deconstructed and moved two miles away).
The town center is quite cute, and there’s lots of great shopping to be had for a town of its size. I really loved popping into the local design shop, Kvadrat, which had great mugs, textiles, text art, and other unique souvenirs.
Don’t miss a buffet lunch at SPiS Mat & Dryck, which offers a fantastic spread for an affordable price. There’s a wide variety of salads, soups, and cold and hot dishes, plus all you can drink coffee!
Unfortunately, it can be hard to DIY a day trip to Kiruna from Abisko, since the first train of the day leaves Abisko Östra at 12:30 PM and arrives in Kiruna at 1:30 PM. That would be fine… if the final train didn’t leave at 2:49 PM! Since the station isn’t that close to the center you would barely have any time in the city.
Therefore, it’s best to visit either on your way in or out of Kiruna airport (we did it after arriving on a morning flight and taking the 2:49 PM train to Abisko). Alternately, as a day trip, you can book a shared shuttle that stops in Kiruna’s town center from Abisko on the way in and then take the train back to Abisko at the end of your day trip.
Take a day trip to Norway
This is not as ambitious of an undertaking as it sounds, as Narvik, Norway is just two hours away by train.
It’s quite possible to do this trip independently, but you will have limited time in Narvik if you do.
The trains aren’t exactly set up for day-trippers, so the first train leaves at 11 AM and arrives just before 1 PM, but you’d have to leave on the last train of the day at 3:15 PM, which gives you just about two hours to explore (double check timetables here, as they may change in the future). Still, you can do a day trip independently for less than $16 USD roundtrip for two hours of exploring Narvik, which may be worth it.
When I went to Abisko in winter 2016, while I was itching to scratch Norway off my map, ultimately I felt like it wasn’t worth it to spend 4 hours in transit to spend 2 hours in Narvik, just to say I’ve been to Norway.
In the end, I didn’t do the trip – but I didn’t know that there was a guided day tour option that gave you more time in Narvik. It’s definitely pricier (check current rates and discounts here), but you get a lot more time to explore the beautiful fjord city of Narvik as a result.
On this comfortable shuttle tour, you’ll get to see a wide variety of Arctic landscapes, including the second deepest lake in Sweden at Lake Torneträsk, frozen waterfalls, stunning Norwegian mountains like Björnfell, and the fjord beaches of Narvik.
It also includes lunch (not a minimal expense when we’re talking Norway prices) and a visit to the Narvik War Museum, which explores battles the Norwegian Army faced during WWII.
Where to Stay in Abisko
Abisko is a rustic village of 85 people, and therefore, there’s not a ton in the way of guesthouse and hotel options. Most of the places to stay veer towards the budget end of the spectrum, with a number of hostels and affordable guesthouses, as well as one traditional mountain lodge. You can spend anywhere from around $35 USD for a bunk in a dorm to around $250 for a cabin sleeping 4-6 people.
Budget: The owners of the dog sledding tour included above, Abisko Hostel & Huskies is a fantastic place to stay in Abisko if you are traveling on a budget. This is actually where I had booked to stay in Abisko in 2016; unfortunately, the hostel ended up having an unforeseen issue and wasn’t able to host me, so it rebooked me at STF Turiststation (below), a more expensive place, in a better room at no extra cost to me. That sort of above and beyond mentality was really encouraging, and while I didn’t get to see their facilities firsthand, I loved the dog-sledding tour I did with them. With seriously affordable dorms and doubles and perks like a free sauna and shared kitchen, I can definitely recommend this hostel to budget and/or solo travelers in Sweden! Check out photos, reviews, and prices here.
Mid-Range: I personally stayed at STF Turiststation and can highly recommend it – it was literally the best hostel I’ve ever stayed at, hands down, with not one but two incredible kitchens, a free sauna, and an incredible restaurant. The breakfast and lunch buffets offer a great value in pricy Sweden, and while the dinner is definitely more expensive, it’s also incredibly delicious and well worth shelling out for on a special occasion. Plus, you’re literally in Abisko National Park, just a 10-minute walk from the lake or frozen waterfalls: how much better can a location get? Check out photos, reviews, and prices here.
Luxury: I’d recommend Abisko Mountain Lodge for a low-key but luxe stay in Abisko. There aren’t a ton of luxury offerings in Abisko, so this is the closest option I could find. While STF Turiststation is great, it is more a traditional hostel in that it’s mostly bunk bed rooms, with limited twin room options. Abisko Mountain Lodge, on the other hand, is definitely more of a traditional hotel. They have a variety of rooms from singles to doubles and even full cottages that sleep four. There’s a sauna, restaurant, lounge area, and breakfast is included with most rooms! Check out photos, reviews, and prices here.