The Backpacker’s Mini-Guide for Rotorua, New Zealand


Overview:

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Located a few hours’ drive out of Auckland, Rotorua is a mecca for backpackers, adventure travelers, nature lovers and luxury travelers alike. Situated in the midst of one of the most tectonically active regions in the world, Rorotua boasts thermal parks, hot springs and mud pools, many of which can be enjoyed by tourists on any budget. In recent years Rotorua has become something of a pilgrimage destination for Lord of the Rings fans, eager to see for themselves the locations that director Peter Jackson earmarked as his top choice for the backdrop of his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. Adventure junkies can explore nearby glowworm caves or go ZORBING, and in their down time rent bikes and explore the Redwood Forests, which are free and open to the public. Whether you’re interested in BEING A HOBBIT FOR A DAY IN THE SHIRE or getting a healthy dose of culture in the cradle of Maori territory, Rotorua has a little something for everyone. My guide offers advice on where to stay and what to do in the city, offering both budget activities and a few splurge activities for good measure.

Where to Stay:

Photo Credit: www.rotoruaaccommodation.co.nz
Photo Credit: http://www.rotoruaaccommodation.co.nz

Crash Palace is my go-to recommendation for backpacker’s lodging in Rotorua. Located just off the main drag, Crash Palace has the advantage of being spacious, comfy, welcoming and quiet. It’s a short five minutes’ walk from the nearest grocery store (where you can pick up ingredients to cook in one of their two fantastic kitchens) and a two minutes’ walk away from the town center, where you can catch the bus to activities located outside of town, including Zorbing and nature walks, or rent a bike so that you can go exploring without having to rent a car.

The atmosphere inside Crash Palace is great; the first floor is open and comfortably appointed, with a combined dining and movie-watching room, a smaller room with a pool table just off reception,  a kitchen, a toilet, a computer room and an outside patio with a hot tub. Guests are given a key code that they can use to get upstairs, where the rooms are located. The owner and manager of the hostel is friendly and happy to answer any questions you have about the hostel, about Rotorua and about the activities accessible from the area. Crash Palace is hooked up with loads of great deals and discounts, including a reduced rate for Hobbiton and $10 off OGO (Zorbing).

The hostel offers free wifi, which is a huge bonus for New Zealand and a major relief for backpackers who are tired of paying out the nose for internet access. I would definitely recommend having your own computer, though, as the computer in their computer room can run a little slowly if you need to back things up or upload images. The hostel also runs a nightly program for its guests, which can range from a free family dinner to pub crawls to movie nights. Pasta and rice are always available from the front desk for free, and alcohol can be purchased from the front desk bar as well.

What to Do:

Hobbiton:

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As a minor-league nerd, I have to say that my favorite paid activity in Rotorua was going to Hobbiton. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of Lord of the Rings, the Hobbiton tour is one of Rotorua’s must-dos. The tour I did picked me up right at my hostel on the way, giving us bits of information about the tour as we neared the farm on which the movie set is located. The set itself is beautiful, nestled in the rolling hills of New Zealand’s countryside, and the Hobbit holes look cozy enough to live in! Spend some time ambling around the Shire, snap a few shots of Bag End, listen to your guide’s super-informative facts about the set and the creation of the movies, then end your day with a complimentary cider, ale or ginger beer at the Green Dragon. If you’re interested in learning more about exploring Hobbiton, check out my in-depth post about it HERE.

Ogo:

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Although I loved everything that I did in Rotorua, Ogo stands out to me as something very quintessentially Rotoruan. Ogo,  better known internationally as Zorbing, was founded in our very own Rotorua, which remains one of the few places where you can actually have an authentic Zorbing experience. So what’s Zorbing, you might ask? Zorbing is essentially rolling down a hill in a giant, soft-plastic hamster ball. It’s crazy fun and a great activity to do at any age, and would be a great activity for families with hard-to-please children. If you’re interested in learning more about Ogo/Zorbing, check out my detailed blog post about it HERE.

Hot Springs:

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If you’re lucky enough to have a car or know someone who has a car, I would highly recommend driving out to Kerosene Creek or the Hot-and-Cold thermal pools, which are located about twenty minutes outside of Rotorua Town. The hot pools are free and open 24 hours a day, which makes them great spots to lounge around on a lazy Sunday afternoon or on a romantic date night.  They can be a little bit tricky to locate and aren’t maintained to touristy standards, as some other for-profit thermal pools are, but they are absolutely worth the effort! Visiting the thermal pools was one of the highlights of my trip and, when I was there, were enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. Pro tip: if you’re visiting at night be sure to bring flashlights and candles with you, as there is no artificial lighting on-site.

Redwood Forest:

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Another free activity located just a twenty minutes’ walk from the Rotorua City Center and Crash Palace. The Redwood Forest is an absolute treat, with walking paths for varying levels of endurance and fitness (ranging from 30 minutes to 8 hours, ouch!). The forest itself is beautiful and huge, with massive Redwood trees sprouting up around aquamarine colored creeks. The Redwood Forest is truly something out of a fairy tale and makes for a great natural escape.

Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland:

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Tour busses run to the Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland several times a day, and I’d recommend going in the morning in order to catch their daily Lady Knox geyser show. The Thermal Wonderland is chock full of amazing, other-worldly geological oddities, including the toxic looking Devil’s Hole, the brilliant orange geothermal pool and the super-hot mud pools. There are three walks available to Thermal Wonderland explorers, ranging from 30 to 75 minutes.

Maori Village:

Photo Credit: www.rankers.co.nz
Photo Credit: http://www.rankers.co.nz

While I did not personally attend any of the Maori evening shows, I heard that they were absolutely incredible and offer an up-close-and-personal introduction to Maori culture. The buffet dinner is apparently to die for and the shows are said to be fantastic as well. This would be very much worth a look if you’re interested in learning more about the culture of the Maori people.

The Government Gardens:

Photo Credit: www.accoladerotorua.co.nz
Photo Credit: http://www.accoladerotorua.co.nz

The Government Garden is a gorgeous, sprawling park just outside Rotorua City Center. It’s a nice place to take a walk, featuring some of its own thermal activity, which you can view free of charge. Best when explored in the daytime, as it can be a little dangerous come nighttime.

Ending Notes:

Even though I only had five days in Rotorua, this little city absolutely won my heart. With friendly citizens, natural wonders and Hobbity delights abound, I found myself getting incredibly comfortable with Rotorua and its surrounding areas. Crash Palace is the ideal place for backpackers to stay given its proximity to attractions, its cost and its closeness to the grocery store, which is key for travelers on a budget. Overall an amazing place to spend a couple days, though I certainly could have spent a lot longer there and am dying to go back!

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City Guide: Prague


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Location & Atmosphere

A pleasant mixture between modern and medieval, Prague is full of old-world sites, packed to the brim with cultural landmarks and experiences, and home to many, many gastronomical delights, including their famous dumplings and beer, which are always best when consumed together. The atmosphere is relaxed and candid, and there’s plenty of things to do!

What to do:

Whenever I visit a new city, my favorite thing to do is just to walk around and get a feel for the layout and the landmarks in the area. One of my favorite loops circles around the city center, starting at the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, passing through the square and up through the Jewish District, across the river to look at the Charles Bridge, through the park that lines the river and then back across the Charles Bridge and back to the Astronomical Clock.

Attractions:

Old Town Square: The Old Town Square holds such attractions as the Astronomical Clock, the Old Town Hall, the St. Nicholas’ Church, the Tyn Church, Kinsky Palace and the Jan Hus Monument. You can go into some buildings for a fee, but I prefer the views from the ground. Every hour a large crowd gathers around the Astronomical Clock to see the old figurines of the Twelve Apostles on a slow, rotating display.

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Prague Castle: The Castle Hill offers great views, but the actual layout of the castle can be a little bit confusing. Make sure you get in line for an audio guide and ticket instead of just a standard ticket, otherwise you might get lost and miss something great! The cathedral is the most glamorous building in the compound and well worth a look.

Jewish District: The Jewish District of Prague is located close to the Old Town Square, and can be reached within five minutes on foot.  The district was beautifully maintained during WWII by Hitler, who intended to turn the entire area into a “museum of an extinct race.” The buildings here are classic and very well-kept, and currently house a variety of luxury brands, if you’re interested in doing some shopping. There are a number of old synagogues in the area, which have all been turned into museums commemorating Jewish life, culture, the Jewish experience under Naziism, and the persistent memory of all those who lost their lives during the Holocaust at the hands of the Germans and the Czechs. Far and away one of the most meaningful and memorable things to do in Prague.

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Botanic Garden: Small but free of charge, its nice to get a break from the city while staying within the city. Full of big trees, winding paths and gardens, its a nice way to kill a few hours. There are also a number of greenhouses on site, some of which hold paid exhibitions.

Charles Bridge: Dating back from the 13th Century, the Charles Bridge has long been a part of Czech History and the landscape of Prague. I would recommend walking it twice; once during the daytime and once at night. Its full of art, buskers, statues and beautiful views, but beware: its also full of beggars, tourists and pickpockets. Keep an eye on your belongings while you’re here and you won’t have any problems, but it can be quite congested, day or night!

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Visit a local brewery: Prague is home to hundreds, if not thousands, of little breweries, and the beer that comes from them is cheap, interesting and delicious! Pivovarsky Dum, a restaurant that I’ve recommended in my “where to eat” section, has a 12-beer sampler set, with interesting beers such as nettle and cherry flavored. Unfortunately I’m gluten-free and couldn’t sample any of them, I have it on good authority that they’re worth a try!

Day Trips:

Karlstejn Castle: A quick 45-minute train ride out of the city, a day trip to Karlstejn Castle will transport you to the countryside of the Czech Republic. The town itself can be a little kitschy, but is full of restaurants and some cool little shops, selling a variety of things, from local foods and produce to marionettes and war memorabilia. The castle is beautiful and looks strikingly different from most other castles I’ve seen before. They only do guided tours of the castles, which are offered in several different languages so that everyone can enjoy them. I loved the aesthetics of Karlstejn Castle, and would highly recommend it for a day trip.

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Cesky Krumlov: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cesky Krumlov is a 13th century town and castle complex. The castle is remarkable for its size in comparison to the town it stands over, with the majority of its architectural structures dating from the 14th to the 17th centuries. It is one of the most popular day trips from Prague, though you have to leave the city early and prepare to return late-ish, as it’s 2.5 hours away form Prague by train.

Kutna Hora: Kutna Hora is famous for its Bone Church, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located only an hour away from the city, its easily accessed by train. The town is small and scenic, and a pleasant place to explore away from the crowds of Prague. The bone church is referred to as the Sedlec Ossuary, and from the outside looks more or less unremarkable, though when you get inside its a whole different story! Its small, but the interior is packed to the brim with bones, all artistically placed and serving as the primary means of decoration of the church.

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Where I stay:

For backpackers: I stayed at the St. Christopher’s Prague hostel last time I was in Prague, and it was a pretty stellar place to be. The room I had was big and held a lot of people, but had a beautiful, newly-done ensuite bathroom that made it feel more like a hotel than a hostel. The bar upstairs can be a little noisy, but I found that it didn’t bother me too much. Also, the bar upstairs is a pretty cheap place to get some drinks and food, so have at it!

For non-backpackers: Hotel 16 is an absolute gem. The location is a short walk out of the city center, which I personally enjoyed, and the staff really make the place what it is. They are friendly, eager to chat, like to offer help and will answer any and every question you might have. The included breakfast is out of this world, too! Try a ham and cheese omelette, cooked to order, or any of the a la carte buffet-style options, including a variety of meats, cheeses, breads and yogurts.

Where I eat:

U Kroka:

A casual, comfy restaurant, U Kroka offers amazing food at pretty cheap prices. After eating heavy Czech food for a few days, the opportunity to have salads and lighter fares was a welcome break. I personally loved the warm goat cheese and walnut salad, and my parents were fond of the chicken schnitzel and the duck with cherry glaze and mashed potatoes. Everything was great, and we went back more than once! They’re almost always fully booked, though, so be sure to make a reservation before you go.

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M Emy Destinnove

This was one of the best restaurants located within short walking distance of our hotel, and we ate there twice. Owned by an American chef, the restaurant offers both Czech and other international cuisines. Their wild boar tenderloin is to die for! The prices are a little steeper than other places, but not as expensive as prices are in the city center.

Lokal:

Located near the Charles Bridge, Lokal is a small restaurant with a focus on healthy, sustainable and local ingredients. The food was primarily Czech, and heavy on meat and potatoes. All and all made for a very satisfying lunch.

Pork belly at Lokal
Pork belly at Lokal

Pivovarsky Dum

Also located in the vicinity of our hotel, Pivovarsky Dum offers Czech foods almost exclusively. They’re also a brewery, and offer some great local beers! They also have a beer tasting tray, which includes interesting brews that include nettle and fruity beers.

Getting around:

Taking the trams and the metros is the easiest way to get around Prague. Our hotel had tickets available for purchase and that could be sold back if they weren’t used, which meant that we were never without one when we needed them. You can also buy tickets at the metro stations.

You can also take taxis if you need to, but taxi drivers will usually try and rip you off. Generally speaking, a taxi trip should not cost you more than 170-200 koruna, though most drivers will tell you its 300-500, especially if you’re near a train station. Don’t be afraid to haggle, but know that some drivers will not be talked down. Your best bet is to have someone call a cab for you, as they’ll usually give you a fair price, or to hail a cab that’s driving around looking for customers instead of parked near an attraction.

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Prague is a great introduction to Eastern Europe, full of medieval wonders, beautiful architecture, a lovely city center and close in proximity to numerous interesting and rewarding day trips. Be sure to leave yourself enough time to explore and enjoy all that Prague and its surroundings has to offer, as the best parts are often located off the beaten path.

City Guide: Budapest!


City Guide: Budapest

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Overview:

Its no secret that Budapest is my favorite city in the entire world. Brimming with trendy, tasty restaurants, great cultural and historical landmarks and tours, amazing bars and clubs, and a very picturesque downtown area, Budapest really gives the traveler the whole package. Its also extremely affordable, and you get a lot for your money! Whether you’d rather spend the day touring museums, eating your way through the city or relaxing at one of the many beautiful thermal spas, Budapest always has something great on offer, and you’ll find yourself wanting to come back again and again.

What to do:

Tours:

Budapest offers a lot of free walking tours, hosted by the Free Walking Tour company (no surprise there). These tours are super high-value, and last for 2.5-3 hours each. They offer a city walking tour, a communism walking tour, a Jewish Quarter tour, a pub tour (which is apparently different from a pub crawl), and a variety of private paid tours as well. These tour guides work for tips only, so make sure to toss them a few thousand forint for their effort (1,000-2,000 ft or US$4-8 is an average tip, and a good bargain to boot). The guides are friendly, funny and extremely knowledgable, and their tours are both educational and interesting. The free tours start at Vorosmarty Ter, which is near the Jewish Quarter and the river and marks the end of the Yellow Line of the Metro. 

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Activities:

Szechenyi Baths and Spa and City Park:

Going to the baths is an amazing way to spend a day. The baths offer a ft 4,000 (~US$16) day pass to go into the spas, though they will try and get you to take a tour for a much, much higher price (~US$40/day and upwards). These baths are beautiful, relaxing and you can choose whether you want to experience the outdoor baths, the indoor baths or both! You can also choose to add on massages or other services while you’re there, and its a great way to spend the day. Pair it with a nice walk around the surrounding park and you’ve got your morning/day sorted!

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Click through for source of image.

Cruise along the Danube:

Tons of boat companies offer cruises and tours along the river. My personal favorites are the night cruises, where you can see Parliament and Buda Castle lit up at night. Most tours include a free drink. During the day time you can take a trip to the Margit Island, where you can go walking or biking. Your boat should come back to pick you up around an hour to an hour and a half later.

Castle Hill:

Take an afternoon to go explore Castle Hill and the surrounding areas and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the city. There’s also an open-air exhibit about what Castle Hill looked like after the bombings during WWII, which you can take a casual stroll through free of cost. There’s a funicular that can take you up and down the hill, but there are also stairs, which are free and only take seven or so minutes to climb up.You can also take a look at Matthias Church, which has some pretty cool features and might be worth the entry fee. Hint: the views of Budapest from the pavilion by Matthias Church can’t be beaten, and you can see them for free!

Hero Square:

Free and open-air Heroes Square is one of Budapest’s must-see sites. It sits at the end of Andrassy Boulevard, and can be seen on the way to the spas and the park.

House of Terror:

A moving museum about the history of Hungary during and after Nazi and Soviet occupation. Sobering and well worth the look, but sometimes a little bit difficult to follow for English speakers.

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 Caving under Budapest:

A good activity for those who like caving, but not great if you’re claustrophobic or afraid of the dark.

Seeing an Opera:

In Budapest, you can get Opera tickets for as little as $3, which is great if you’re on a budget but interested in getting a bit of culture. Other tickets can be more expensive, and if you really want a comfortable seat and a good view, its worth it to pay a little more for your ticket.

Zoo and Botanic Garden:

The Budapest Zoo and Botanic Garden are a single item that are definitely worth a look if you have an extra morning or afternoon. It costs 2500 HUF, or US$10. There’s a lot of cool species in there, some of which I’d never even heard of before! Bonus feature: they have an Australian-themed petting zoo with wallabies and emus.

Holocaust Memorial Center:

The name of this site is essentially what it is, but the museum itself offers an in-depth look at what happened to Hungary’s Jewish population during the second world war and the Holocaust. Its a little far out on the Buda side of town, but worth a look if you’re interested.

Where to eat:

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Eating in Budapest is always a treat, with hundreds of fantastic restaurants, food stalls and pubs to eat at. The city itself is multi-cultural and enjoys the gastronomical rewards. Authentic Hungarian food cooked in lard, The following are a few of my tried-and-true favorites, and will accommodate most tastes and dietary restrictions.

KisParázs:

KisParazs is a Hungarian-run Thai food restaurant with some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had, superseding even a good amount of the food I had while actually in Thailand. Fresh, flavorful and cheap, this is one of my favorite restaurants in the entire world. I recommend the Tom Kha Gai soup, which my dad claims is the “best he ever had,” as a starter, followed by any one of the curries. If you like spice, I’d recommend the Lap Gai (minced chicken salad). My go-to dish there is their rice-noodle soup with chicken or pork, and their peanut sauce for chicken sate is out of this world as well.

Köleves Vendéglö Stonesoup Restaurant:

Located in the Jewish District on Kazinczy Utca, this restaurant was an absolute gem! The interior sports a cozy vintage look, and the menu is smallish but jam-packed with gluten free, vegetarian and kosher-friendly options. The food itself is fantastic, starting with a complimentary basket of homemade bread with a garlicky spread. I can personally and wholeheartedly recommend the farm chicken with fresh sheep cheese and roast pepper salad, which also comes with potatoes (but I’d order the mashed potatoes instead, which are out of this world!). The portions are good-sized and I even had some to take home with me for lunch the next day.

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Arriba Taqueria:

Another great choice, especially for lunch. Arriba has a variety of Chipotle-esque Mexican dishes, including taquitos, burritos, chips and salsa and quesadillas. They also have a margarita happy hour, which accompanies the food fabulously.

The Central Market:  The ground floor of the market has a variety of sausages, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, spices and sweets, and the top part has knick-knacks and some really tasty prepared food stalls. A good place to pick up ingredients for a picnic lunch!

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Terminal:

Located in Elizabeth Square/Park, Terminal now stands where a communist-era bus station once stood. The food is a little pricy, but was some of the best food we ate on our whole trip! I had the duck breast with quinoa and pomegranate beetroot, which I’d highly recommend, and had their sparkling rose wine as well, which was equally fantastic. They even had a gluten-free raspberry cake for dessert, which was right up my alley!

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Decor inside Terminal.

Where to stay:

For backpackers: I will always and forever recommend the Budapest Party Hostels. When I first came to Budapest in 2013, I’d booked four nights in at Retox Party Hostel and made myself at home. Two weeks later I was still there, and two months later I came back for more. The staff at the hostels are amazing, inclusive, informative and most definitely know how to have a good time. The hostels run events nightly, including pub crawls, party boats down the Danube, and spa parties at the beautiful Szechenyi Baths. Retox itself can be a little rough around the edges and very full-on when it comes to partying, but there are other hostels in the chain, including Grandio and Vitae, that may offer tamer experiences. If you’re not looking to go out at all, I’d suggest Wombats or somewhere a little more low-key.

For non-backpackers: The 7Seasons apartments are a great choice for a stay in Budapest. The apartments are fairly spacious, and include full kitchens with dishwashers, ensuite bathrooms, an in-room washing machine, large, plush beds, fast and free wifi, and televisions, though we weren’t able to figure out how to get them to be dubbed into English instead of Hungarian. The apartments are conveniently located in the Jewish Quarter, a five minute walk from Erzsebet Ter, a 0-10 minute walk away from some amazing restaurants (including Köleves Vendéglö, which I talk about in more detail below), a 10 minute walk from the river and Chain Bridge, and short walks to many other attractions. Relatively inexpensive and a great value.

Nightlife & Going Out:

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There are literally hundreds or thousands of places to go out in Budapest, so I’ll just name a few of my favorites. Most of my going-out experiences were with Retox Party Hostel, and they definitely did things right!

Ruin Bars: Szimpla is one of the bigger and better-known ruin bars in Budapest, but there are apparently more than 50 in total. You can do a ruin bar pub crawl with a group or simply create your own. Another one of my favorite ruin bars is Instant, which is decorated with some out-there, funky art installations.

Morrison’s 2: One of a series of bars that does brutally strong cocktails and

Akvarium Club: Located near Terminal in Elizabeth Ter (metro stop Deak Ter), this is a nice, retro-themed place to get a drink. You can sit outside on the stairs or inside if its cold, but its definitely a nice place to hang out.

Retox Bar: Probably an obvious recommendation, but Retox has a nice bar, English-speaking bar staff, yummy cocktails and good prices.

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Corvin Tetö: A kind of generic club that usually does some pretty decent music. All in all not a bad night out, especially as it gets later!

Vak Egar: A fun little bar/mini-club in the Jewish District.

Budapest’s Special Nights Out:

SPArty: The Szechneyi Baths host a spa party on Saturday nights in warm weather. Its like a massive pool party rave and its pretty unreal, definitely recommended for backpackers and young people!

Party Boat: Cruise down the Danube with a bottle of champagne! Its a good time and an absolutely beautiful boat ride.

Going out tip: this tip is probably more pertinent to men than woman, but I don’t judge! Strip clubs in Budapest are a massive scam; the girls will try to get you to buy them drinks, then will essentially have bouncers trap you in there until you pay them upwards of 50,000 HUF (US$200). Hungarian bouncers are not people to f**k with, so just stay away!

Going out tip #2: On a similar theme, don’t be an a**hole. As I said before, Hungarian bouncers are not people you want to mess around with, and they will be firm with you if you’re being problematic.

Going out tip #3: Be sure you know how to get home before you go out! Budapest can e a confusing city, so keep your wits about you enough to get home. Also, refrain from taking your valuables with you, as you likely won’t have them any more by the time you stumble home.

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Decoration at Instant Ruin Pub.

Tips & things to be aware of:

1. Budapest is a very safe city. All the same, it’s always a good idea to be aware of yourself and of your surroundings, so stay alert and you should be fine! As always, don’t keep phones or wallets in your back pocket and count your change carefully.

2.  Taking public transport in Budapest makes traveling in the city a breeze, but it takes a little getting used to! If you have a big day planned, its best to buy a day pass instead of single tickets. A day pass (and the single tickets) are appropriate for any of the city’s public transportation units, including the metro, trams and busses. If using a single ticket, you will need a new ticket for every stop you make, and will need to validate a new ticket every time you make a stop or change trains/trams/busses. If you get a day pass you only need to validate it once, but be sure to keep it on you the entire time you’re traveling. You can get fined for not having a valid ticket, and it’s not a scam!

3. Watch your zeros! Any time you get a bill, make sure there’s the proper number of zeros at the end of the prices listed for your purchases. Adding zeros is a super sneaky way to get a lot more money out of you, and its an easy way to prevent being scammed.

4. Check your restaurant bills to see if service has been added. Customary tipping in Budapest is about 10%, and a lot of the time it will be added to the bill in advance. If it has, you do not need to tip extra.

5. Do the free walking tours! They’re super informative and the guides are all great. Just be sure to tip your guides at the end!

6. Eat in the Jewish Quarter. The food there is amazing and a little bit cheaper than some other more touristed areas.

7. Don’t cross the street on a red light! Always wait for the little green walker dude, he’ll save you from getting any pesky USD$50 fines.

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Hopefully this guide gave you some good basic information about what’s what in Budapest! These are obviously just recommendations, but I think they’re all pretty solid. I can personally attest to the awesomeness of all these things, and if you have any questions please fire away in the comments section! I’d be happy to help you out and hope that someday soon you’ll be enjoying Budapest, too!

City Guide: Luang Prabang, Laos


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Full disclosure, everyone: I absolutely love Laos! After coming away from the very beautiful but also very loud, dirty and crowded country of Vietnam, Laos was a complete breath of fresh air. My first stop was in Luang Prabang, which is well-serviced by an international airport and is also located along several bus and ferry routes. I got a very last-minute flight here from Vietnam for under $200, and was able to take a tuk-tuk to my hostel for $3.50 ($7 flat fee from the airport, which can be split between a maximum of 4 people).

Location & atmosphere:

Luang Prabang is a small, wide-open city located in northern Laos, a former French colony. Situated along the banks of the Mekong River, this UNESCO World Heritage city offers a beautiful mixture of natural and man-made attractions, including waterfalls, river cruises, temples and markets. Compared to other major Southeast Asian cities, Luang Prabang has long, wide streets that are generally sparsely trafficked and are perfect for walking, biking and motorbiking.

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What to do:

I only had two days in Luang Prabang, and although I saw most of the things I wanted to see, I definitely could have spent more time there. In the rainy season, note that you will probably only get a half-day of decent weather per day, so plan accordingly and expect to have a lot of time to relax! During the rainy times you can go to one of the many spas, enjoy a long meal in the pop-up restaurants along the riverside, or have a smoothie or drink at Utopia bar, which offers sun-beds and good views of the river from above.

Sunbeds on the river at Utopia.
Sunbeds on the river at Utopia.

If the weather is permitting, take a half-day to go see the Kung Si waterfalls outside of the city. A tuk-tuk roundtrip costs about $5, or 40,000 kip. Entry to the waterfalls is not included, and costs about $2.50 extra (20,000 kip). I would suggest leaving on one of the 1:30 pm tuk-tuks, then taking the return at 4:30. This is plenty of time to see the falls, with an included trip to a bear sanctuary on the way up to the falls. You can spend the day hiking up the waterfall, which is steep but provides decent views, or simply swimming in some of the lower pools, which I would recommend for those who are less fit or who have leg/foot/knee injuries. The best view of the falls is located just before the ascent to the top, where you can take pictures from the bridge.IMG_8854

During the second day I would highly recommend renting a bike, which costs about $2.50 for the day (20,000 kip). Riding the bikes is a great way to see the town itself, even if you don’t have a destination in mind. This is also one of the best ways to see all the temples in the area, including the majestic Golden City Temple (Wat Xieng Thong) and the elevated Wat Pa Phon Phao. The views from the top of Wat Pa Phon Phao are stunning and highly recommended. You can also easily see the National Museum and the Handicraft Village, which I unfortunately didn’t make it to as it started to rain. IMG_8946

My favorite thing to do was the Night Market, which offers some of the standard touristy souvenirs and also some amazing food.  I ate there every night and always had something new and different for pennies, and also took home some amazing teas, a tote bag and a scarf. Its very easy to haggle the vendors down, and I’d suggest asking for multiples for a much cheaper price or asking for a single item for about 75% of the original price. Usually you’ll end up somewhere around half or less of the original price offered. This rule generally does not apply for food.

Getting around:

Getting around Luang Prabang is super easy as the town isn’t very big. You could walk to most places within an hour, but renting a bike can be much faster and more fun. As stated above, bike rentals cost about $2.50 per day (plus a deposit). You could also get a tuk-tuk to take you around, for whatever price you can haggle! If it seems too high and your driver won’t budge, just say no thanks and try walking away. Usually you will get the price you ask for.

Where I stayed:

As a budget traveler, I stayed in a hostel called the Khammany Inn Hostel, which cost about $5.50 per night for a dorm, $7.50 for a private room. The rooms were decent, but less nice than some other hostels I’ve stayed in. All the same, they had aircon, free breakfast and an adorable puppy running around, so it was a pretty decent stay. On the downside, I had my laundry done there and all of my underwear and several of my tops went missing, so don’t do your laundry through the service offered there! Its also much cheaper to get it done elsewhere, and if you look around you should find a place that will do it for 8,000 kip, or about $1.

Where to eat:

Always and forever eat dinner at the Night Market. There are a few quick options right from the start, but if you walk down half of a block to a small alleyway you’ll see long rows of food vendors. Go there and check out the buffets– for 10,000 kip (~$1.25) you’ll get an all-you-can-eat plate full of local foods. You can also get freshly grilled meat for an extra 10,000 kip (~$1.25), which I’d definitely recommend. Once you’ve finished your main meal, head back up toward the market, but stop to sample some of the barbecued dried pork (5,000 kip (~$.75) per full serving, which I guarantee you’ll want!) and their coconut discs, which are made with rice flour and coconut for dessert.

Photo credit goes to seeyousoon.ca! Check out her blog, its amazing!
Photo credit: seeyousoon.ca! Check out her blog, its amazing!

During the day time you can also get quick bites to eat on the same street, with the fruit shake/crepe/sandwich vendors standing permanently in the same place as they do at night. Most shakes are 10,000 kip ($1.25), sandwiches and crepes may be slightly more.

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Utopia also serves some pretty decent foods of local and Western varieties, but their service was definitely more than a little lacking in this department, so I’d suggest trying to find a little local pop-up restaurant instead.

Nightlife/Where to drink:

Utopia is really the only good place for young backpackers to go and drink, and you’ll see most everyone from your hostel there. Earlier in the evening, Utopia has a very relaxed vibe, with sun-beds and shisha available, while later in the evening it gets a little rowdy. Utopia does close at 11 pm, though, so its important to get there a little bit on the early side. After Utopia, some people go bowling (tuk-tuk drivers are happy to take you there), but you can opt to go home and drink there instead.

Lounge room at Utopia.
Lounge room at Utopia.

Overall, Luang Prabang was an awesome hit for me. I loved every second of being there, and could not get enough of the relaxed, unpretentious atmosphere. Take it at your own time and remember the popular pidgin’d acronym for the country’s name: Lao P.D.R- Please Don’t Rush!

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