The Uprising – visiting Poznan

The Uprising- Poznań, March 2013

poznan square
A guest post by Ben Gould.

Day 1 – Greeted by machines

A ticket to my weekend lodgings bought from the tourist desk for less than a quid leaves me prematurely beguiled. The number 59 to Kaponiera roundabout and I’m off. Two Frenchmen (I think) on the bus loudly converse in English about the approaching 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. An elderly woman beside me is reading a gossip rag. I can’t see anything through the fog stamped on the window save intermittent flashing light.

Poznań was a city I never envisaged seeing, and a few weeks prior didn’t know existed – an offhand remark from a chap at work informing me that it’s Poland’s fifth largest city, and formerly the nation’s capital, initiated a Ryanair bargain hunt. Krakow was tempting, and being in the throes of alcohol withdrawal syndrome the last time I was there, I subsequently longed to experience it in a different frame of mind/shape of body. When a set of return flights are a mere £40, though, a pauper opts for the cheaper option.

Roundabout: a glance at Google maps back home suggested a rudimentary, perfectly normal circle that cars go around; instead there are diggers, cranes and various other machinery ripping holes where the circle should be, and the darkness doesn’t help matters. This calls for an emergency, and I manage to rendezvous with my friend Lewis in the underpass, he having been here and checked in since the morning.

We spot an off-licence en route to the hostel, where after some deliberation I purchase a few bottles of Desperados beer and 1 litre of red vermouth, attempting in vain to converse with the proprietor concerning the awesome cheapness of his booze stock. He politely smiles, no doubt wishing I’d exit the shop and stop broadcasting the cocktail potential of my items.

I check in. The dwellings are post-modernistic, minimalist, with this silver sheen that only serves for me to draw futuristic parallels with the ‘machines’ at the roundabout – the progress of industry. James Cameron’s Terminator films are in my head with a slash of Kubrick’s 2001, and only vermouth will extinguish these thoughts. There are no souls in the hostel save us. No party music (it’s Friday evening), no mandatory screaming. This is unusual. I’m scared.

After pretty much drinking all of our bottles we order a taxi to the main square. A paradigm of the old – museums, taverns … architecture not being torn up by robots – it is a lovely sight, and immediately recalls to me squares I’ve visited from previous continental adventures. It has – much like Bruges, Tallinn and Prague’s old town centres – all the mod cons, in particular the bars that are calling our names.

The salient establishment is Medieval in interior, dimly lit, green ceilings with swords piercing out of them; it’s at least how I see it, though I am a little prone to hallucination whilst under the affluence … I mean influence (see what I did there?). It is disconcerting to not hear English voices in an alien drinking den; one feels paranoid that at any moment someone will take offence at your boorish non-indigenous ‘craic’, that you are indeed intruding. We proceed outside to track down and explore other bars, but are denied entry to their quaintly beer bosoms for I am slurring my words like a tribute to the Denzel Washington drunken couch scene in Flight (2012). No one will let us in. I think we go home at this point.

Day 2 – Museums, restaurants … bars

poland 1956 memorial poznanAfter a run – during which I get lost for 20 mins before realising I’m on an adjacent street – we eat breakfast in an exceptionally priced restaurant; even after 4 drinks with the meal it’s still under £20. There’s a film crew over the road – students most likely – filming a drama piece beneath some monuments. We edge out of the way in case we’re ruining precious tape, segueing to a museum about the 1956 uprising, a lovely little exhibit, your usual mandatory educational enclave for these kind of trips. It’s eerily bereft of humans, only a shy curator at the desk who refuses a tip, then ‘facepalms’ as I take a photo of Lewis sitting astride a plastic mock-up tank. Telling ourselves that in 1956 we’d verily be running from a batch of legit tanks instead of lusting for a decadent kamikaze of cocktails, we do feel a little bit grateful for our current modus operandi, and decide upon seeing another museum before hitting the sauce.

We arrive back in the square from the night before, via a newsagent where I buy some cigarettes and a bottle of Desperados, which I blithely drink from whilst slightly stumbling down the street. This museum is chock-full of paintings and nothing much else. The softly-spoken lady at the desk kindly asks us to remove our jackets, ominous for there are no other items on the wall hooks – without my cloak I would be lost and naked in Poland. We compare the portraitures to people we know, which is highly amusing, the staff curiously observing from a safe distance, praying we hastily depart.

We do so, venturing into a plush but tumbleweed-embracing cocktail cafe by the square, indulging in piña coladas and Mai Tais before gracing another bar, this one of the McDonald’s variety – it actually reminds me of McDonald’s. A McDonald’s in Texas. Not that I have ever been to Texas, though Tennessee is in that region. Kind of. I think. Too much bourbon in this saloon ….

On our return to the hostel we stumble across a Lidl and I’m overwhelmed with joy. I purchase some more beers and a bottle of vermouth for indoor drinking. Boozing back in the dorm, it occurs to us that we’ve not bumped into anyone who speaks native English yet, which really is a first. I’m also convinced that Poznań is an extended transit area of an airport. It’s a stopgap between more populous Polish delights. Pleasant yet not quite serene, normality approaching the perfunctory, ethanol is the crucial ingredient required to make the city that little bit transcendental.

We promptly polish off our supermarket findings, end up in a taxi, and then a series of bars, the only remaining narrative from any of them a nice relaxing tavern where we have an epic conversation about something I will one day remember, the exterior featuring a vexed local screaming “English c***s” at us. Another night for the books ….

Day 3 – The same as Day 2 but with a market

poznan market

It’s 3:00 p.m. and we’re just up. No gut-busting run – there is no energy. Even the shower is a trying test. We eventually scale the hostel walls and graduate to a stroll around the square that is now a Sunday market. We shimmy in and out of stalls looking for treats to present to loved ones, but see nothing really of interest save some very authentic-looking air rifles, the tables the most densely populated of the array.

Breakfast is eaten at about 5:00 p.m. Its denizens keep leaving the door open, the cold draught an annoyance forcing me to drink more. Yesterday’s cocktail bar really can’t be resisted after this. Sat inside, we get sniggers from the staff, surely mocking our ‘girly’ cocktail choices. The prices never cease to astonish me, to the extent that it’s the centrifugal aspect of discussion. I declare I could visit some parts of Poland every weekend instead of ‘partying’ in Edinburgh, and end up a richer man. It’s feasible.

A last joyous visit to Lidl as it’s the final night. Amaretto is purchased along with a coffee liqueur concoction. I can’t find the milk. The checkout operator is clearly exasperated with my checkout behavior (putting a carrier bag over my head), and spouts out information – perhaps vitriol – I cannot discern. I quickly move on. It’s dark now, my lovely Lidl bag masquerading as a beacon for any cowardly cyclists moonlighting on the pavement. Not that there’s anyone about; the place is a ghost town.

visiting PoznanIn our hostel dorm sits the first human we’ve come across, a Polish dentist in his 30s. He seems bemused at our chat, and then swiftly concerned as I get increasingly intoxicated with the emptying of the amaretto bottle. Lewis shows him a copy of a book I wrote; the gentleman is genuinely gobsmacked that the inebriated presence before him has ever written anything in his sordid, decadent life.

We say our goodbyes, as he’s working the next day. I’m not sure if we get a taxi or walk into town but it’s definitely cold either way, my cheeks a purple hue, hands shaking. All this research about trams and bus routes and it’s only walking or taxis we’re experiencing. It is indeed a frightfully small town, and we stick out like a sore thumb. BRITS: OVER THERE.

A very tall chap in a bar bickers with the patient member of staff pouring his pint. Aggressive, excruciatingly loud, I put ordering a drink on hold in case he overhears my accent. Sat at the table, peering out onto the deserted square, I register that all this drinking would be more logical if there was a community of travelling backpackers to legitimise the indulgence – peer pressure, I guess.

I never thought I’d be one for being successfully accosted by leafleting strip club staff but, well, it’s happened. When in Poznań. There doesn’t seem to be anything else to do so we decide to venture into this anachronistic decadence on the edge of this pious – beer excepted – old town square, and don’t emerge for 7 hours ….

Day 4 – Getting out of Dodge

poznan squareMy phone alarm clock generates a beeping noise I’ve never heard before in its existence and I try in vain to locate it. I finally do, almost tossing it across the room. It’s time to check out. A quick shower is necessary. I’m all over the place and nearly slip twice. Nothing will fit in my bag. I bequeath the hostel my underwear and some airport-purchased toiletries. That was nice of me.

We return to the restaurant we endowed our presence with on the Saturday. After that it’s the bus to the airport. Glorious duty free: Poznań-themed coffee-filtered cigars, and a cute lighter. And two miniature spirit bottles – Jack Daniel’s and Cointreau. And a bottle of Żubrówka. Yes! I have some of Poland to take home with me. We take off, departing what was essentially a three-day jaunt to an archaic multiplex of bars. It is not the milieu that remains, but the sheer temerity of the alcohol induced, and yes, it did facilitate some very gnarly chit chat. Farewell, Poznań. We may return one day, but Krakow must surely now beckon ….

by Ben Gould


This article was published in March 2013.

5 Great Places to Visit in Andalusia

5 Great Places to Visit in Andalusia

Malaga and its surrounding coastlines make for a popular destination for hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers in Europe each summer but few of them manage to get out and truly explore beautiful Andalusia. As one of the largest regions of Spain, you have to cover a fair distance to get around but with excellent cheap transport links between all the main towns, it’s not too difficult to see the best the region has to offer in a couple of weeks.

While Malaga itself is not without its hidden charms and is well worth exploring for a day or so, most travellers use the city as the transport hub which it has become thanks to what is by some distance the largest airport in the region. Flights to Malaga are plentiful and generally very cheap from cities all over Europe so it is one of the continent’s most accessible cities.

From Malaga, you are within 3 hours travel of almost everywhere in Andalusia and these are 5 of the best places to get out and visit:

1. Ronda

ronda bridge

For less than 10 Euros and typically in under 2 hours by bus from Malaga you can arrive in the stunningly set town of Ronda. It is surrounded by a deep gorge and boasts an impossibly tall bridge which offers up beautiful views of the surrounding countryside. Ronda once attracted famous writers and poets who gazed out and drew inspiration from the rolling hills while enjoying the cool air which is certainly absent on the coast. Nowadays you can pay a visit to some hugely impressive caves and take a trip to the oldest bullring in Spain. Also check out this yoga retreat if you fancy a longer stay in a beautiful part of the world.

2. Sevilla

Andalusia’s largest city and capital is one of the grandest in Spain with elegant plazas and a bustling old town. It is the heart of the Spanish Flamenco scene and hosts a week-long celebration each April when the whole city comes out to party for the Feria de Sevilla, a couple of weeks after the more somber Easter processions. There is plenty to see and do in town including the enormous Gothic cathedral and the real Alcazar, a beautiful Moorish palace. It also features on our backpacking route for Spain.

3. Cadiz


While Northern Europeans usually head to one of the plentiful resorts along the Costa del Sol, Spaniards are more likely to head to Cadiz, which is home to what many locals claim is the country’s best beach. It’s also a great place to hang around if you want more than your average beach resort as this is the oldest city in Iberia and perhaps all of Western Europe which means there is plenty of history to be found. It also hosts a wild and witty Carnival and some lively markets, while if you’re after some more typical Spanish nightlife this may also be the place for you.

4. Sierra Nevada

It’s a little known fact that Southern Spain is home to the highest mountains on the Iberian Peninsular with excellent skiing and hiking opportunities little more than an hour from the Costa del Sol. A visit to the Sierra Nevada is easily combined with a trip to Granada, as the city lies on its foothills and some of the peaks, which are upwards of 3,000km tall are easily visible from the city on a clear day.

5. Granada


The magnificent La Alhambra palace is the highlight of any trip to Granada but its winding streets and very obvious Arabic influences give it a vibe unique to almost everywhere else in Spain. Like Cadiz it has been inhabited by people for over 2,000 years and it is home to plenty of fascinating districts such as the gypsy dwellings of Sacromonte. Its altitude gives it a cooler feel than the other big cities in Andalusia and it’s easily reached from Sevilla or Malaga by bus or by using Spain’s fast and efficient train network.

Let us know your thoughts on these and other great Analusian destinations by commenting below:


This article was published in August 2015.

Discovering the Best of Cyprus

Discovering the Best of Cyprus

While Cyprus has long been a popular holiday destination for hordes of Northern Europeans, it is still relatively undiscovered by many visitors to Europe. Meanwhile adventure seeking Brits, Scandinavians and Germans are perhaps under the impression that there isn’t much more to the island other than the odd raucous beach resort.

That couldn’t be further from the truth and many people continue to have an incredibly misguided view of what Cyprus is like, what is has to offer and even where it is!


So perhaps we should start by dispelling a few myths:

First of all Cyprus is a country!

cyprus map

Unlike islands such as Crete, Corfu and Santorini which are part of Greece and very popular with travellers, Cyprus is an independent nation and although heavily Greek influenced it has its own identity and customs that are uniquely Cypriot. It is also a full member of the European Union which makes travelling there relatively easy.

Where is it?

Most people’s geographical knowledge of Cyprus doesn’t stretch much past the fact that it is somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, probably close to Greece. When you tell them that it is in fact just 100km off the coast of war-torn Syria and closer to Israel, Lebanon and Iraq than the almost 1000km trip to Athens you might be greeted with the odd disbelieving look but it’s true. Look at a map!

The Cyprus Problem

This is where things get a bit confusing and there are plenty of books, movies and documentaries dedicated to it and many conflicting views so it would be impossible to go into too much detail here. The basic facts are that the island is shared between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots. In 1974 hostilities broke out between the two sides (with a fair amount of encouragement from the Greek and Turkish governments) resulting in Turkish troops arriving and taking control of the predominantly ethnically Turkish north of the island.

The United Nations intervened and put in force a de-militarised buffer zone between the two sides and 40 years later it is still there and UN peacekeepers continue to operate it although tensions are nowhere near as high as they are at the DMZ in Korea for example and there are a few official crossing points between the North and the South so travelling between the two sides is very possible.

While many people in the Northern part and in Turkey regard Northern Cyprus to be an independent state, this isn’t a view shared by the majority of the international community which still sees Cyprus as one entity albeit a divided one.

Famagusta Map

Pictured above is the once thriving tourist resort of Varosha, which was abandoned in 1974 after the Turkish invasion. It has been abandoned ever since as it happened to fall inside the UN initiated buffer zone which remains to this day. If you visit Famagusta you can see it’s crumbling hotels very clearly although armed guards will prevent you or anyone from entering it. It makes our piece on the Top 10 Ghost Towns and peering into what is effectively the 1970’s is a weirdly eerie but fascinating experience.


So what is there to see and do in Cyprus?


Lets start with the obvious one. Cyprus has some gorgeous beaches!

cyprus beach

As Europe’s Southernmost country it also has a fantastic climate with long sunny days and warm weather year-round. From March to November most days are warm enough for lazing on the beach and this alone sets it apart from pretty much everywhere else on the continent besides Spain’s Canary Islands which are also located a long way South of mainland Europe. The winter is mild and still generally pleasant although the summer can be uncomfortably hot.

By avoiding the busy Summer holidays period (late to July till early September) you can beat the crowds, get warm but slightly more bearable weather and get much better prices. Tour operators like First Choice often have good all inclusive deals throughout the year and the island is small enough to get anywhere in a day so it’s sensible to find yourself a base and explore Cyprus at your own pace.

If you want to escape the crowds, there are still many beautiful unspoilt beaches to be found especially in the North of the island which receives much less in the way of tourism but is equally enchanting.


With under 1 million people living in Cyprus, there are no major cities but Nicosia is home to a third of the island’s inhabitants and is the political and commercial centre and also lies on the frontier between the Northern and Southern parts of the island.

A visit here is a must and you can easily explore both sides of the city on the same day. In the Turkish half grab a bargain at the bustling bazaar or visit the traditional baths. Hopping back over into Southern Nicosia you can find great parks, squares and a few museums which document the troubled recent history of Cyprus in more detail.

Explore the Cypriot Countryside

If you want to experience the real Cyprus away from the hustle and bustle of Nicosia and the touristy coastal towns you have to venture into the countryside where it is surprisingly easy to get a feel for the laid back Cypriot way of life. The Troodos Mountains (pictured below) in the west of the island are incredibly beautiful and a nice place to escape the summer heat. If you’re with friends then renting a car out for a day or more can prove fairly inexpensive and you can visit sleepy villages, discover peaceful monasteries and take in some of the numerous UNESCO world heritage sites.

troodos mountains


As well as the interesting recent history, life in Cyprus dates back millennia from the New Stone Age all the way to the Roman Empire. Ownership of Cyprus changed hands many times before the country finally declared independence from Britain in 1960. The British influence means English is very widely spoken so it’s easy to find information and organise trips or do it yourself in a rental car. There are important historical sites in and around Nicosia and in the Troodos Mountains but also in the East and North of the island.

Sample the Local Cuisine

Cypriot food is very tasty and many dishes are unique to the island and while Greek food is widely served it is generally with a special local twist. Some of the better offerings include Cypriot meze which is often an enormous serving of various different meat and fish dishes. Other specialties include halloumi and tahini while local wines are also normally very good although often on the strong side!


If you need to let your hair down, then Ayia Napa is the undisputed party capital with a lively bar district that parties till dawn on a daily basis in the peak season. Truth be told you can find decent nightlife in most of the bigger coastal towns during the summer months and although there are perhaps classier places to party, most are unashamedly good fun.


This article was published in December 2014.

Music at the Mine: Colours of Ostrava

Music at the Mine: Colours of Ostrava

colours stage in ostrava

NOTE – This article was published in May 2013 for the festival that year.


In the space of little over a decade, Colours has grown into the biggest music festival in the Czech Republic and one of the highlights of the Central European summer. The event prides itself on diversity and various different genres of music are on show with everything from jazz and folk to up and coming rock and electronic stars from across the globe. It seems to get bigger and bolder every year from fairly humble origins in 2002 when only 8,000 people attended.

Last year the event was moved to a somewhat unconventional venue consisting of a former mining complex, iron and steelworks at Dolní Vítkovice in Ostrava. The new location appeared an odd choice but it has added a certain charm to the festival and gives Colours a sense of uniqueness in comparison to the hundreds of other music festivals that are crammed into the European summer. This year is the 12th time it has been held and with over 200 different acts already confirmed including bands, DJ’s, films, workshops and theatre performances.

The Festival Site

blast furnace Dolni VitkoviceThe setting is distinctly industrial and is a new experience even for regulars on the music festival scene. The giant blast furnaces tower over the festival site and have a history that goes way back into the 19th Century and the Industrial Revolution. Vítkovice used to be a town in its own right but has since been swallowed up by Ostrava, the third largest Czech city.

The area has recently been made into a European Cultural Heritage site due to its historical significance and is gradually turning into a new cultural, educational and community centre but its vast industrial history is still unmistakable. There’s plenty of greenery around too though and a large camping area is the most popular choice for accommodation during the four day event being only a few minutes walk from the site where all the stages are located. Dolni Vitkovice is just three tram stops away from the city centre so it’s very accessible and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to
explore Ostrava itself. Alternatively you can stay in one of Ostrava’s hostels but they are likely to sell out quickly for when the festival takes place.


For the overwhelming majority of visitors, a trip to the Czech Republic starts and ends in Prague with few venturing far outside the country’s capital and rarely includes a visit to distant Ostrava, almost 400km further East close to the Polish and Slovak borders. This is a shame as the Steel City has plenty to offer visitors and its industrial background is now being cherished and adapted into what is becoming a thriving cultural centre with the Colours festival is perhaps the greatest example of this. There may not be a huge number of major sights but it’s an interesting place and stunning views of the Beskydy Mountain Range add to the overall appeal of the city.

It’s also easy to combine a visit to Ostrava with some of Central and Eastern Europe’s finest destinations. It’s only 170km to Krakow, Poland’s most attractive city meanwhile the Austrian and Slovak capitals (Vienna and Bratislava) are also reachable in just a few hours by train or bus.


Colours of Ostrava 2013

asaf avidanthe XXsigur ros
Top Left: Asaf Avidan, Top Right: The xx and Above: Sigur Rós.

Line-up includes:

Sigur Rós (Iceland), Jamie Cullum (UK), The xx (UK), The Knife (Sweden), Tomahawk (USA), Damien Rice (Ireland), Bonobo (UK), Devendra Banhart (USA), Asaf Avidan (Israel), Woodkid (France), Tiken Jah Fakoly (Côte d’Ivoire ), Dub FX (Australia), Rokia Traoré (Mali), Inspiral Carpets (UK), Jon Hassell (USA), Sara Tavares (Portugal), Submotion Orchestra (UK), Skip The Use (France), Acoustic Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Mali), Fanfara Tirana meets Transglobal Underground (UK / Albania), Botanica (USA), Girls Against Boys (USA), The Bots (USA), Maria Peszek (Poland), Ladi6 (New Zealand), Sam Lee (UK), Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa (Morocco), Savina Yannatou & Primavera en Salonic (Greece), Dhafer Youssef (Tunisia), The Kill Devil Hills (Australia), Anna Maria Jopek (Poland), Mama Marjas (Italy), Irie Révoltés (Germany), Man Man (USA), Russkaja (Austria) and many exciting Czech bands.

When: 18th-21st July
Cost: 1 day tickets from 44 Euros, 4 day tickets from 72 Euros.
More Info: colours website or facebook page.
Tickets: on sale here.

machinery in ostrava

This article was published in May 2013.

Visiting the Berlin Wall

Visiting the Berlin Wall

Berlin is a city you have to visit to truly understand the Europe of the 20th Century and the Europe of today. For so long it was the symbol of division, the only place where the Iron Curtain was a tangible divide. On the 13th August 1961, construction began on a wall that for 28 years would separate friends, break up families and completely divide a city. The Berlin Wall was the frontline of the Cold War.

berlin wall CV

Today only two small portions of the wall remain, left as permanent reminders of a barrier that brought so much pain to this city. The largest section can be found near Wasrchauer Strasse Station and runs for about 1km parallel to the river along Muhlenstasse. However today it is no longer a long bland concrete slab guarded by guns but an artistic mural known as the East Side Gallery.

Visiting the Berlin Wall is best done by a leisurely yet thought provoking stroll that will take you half an hour or considerably more depending on how long you stop to appreciate the artwork. Predictably for such an iconic political structure, much of the work is of a political nature but the range of artists that took part in creating the mural means that there are many varied themes. The underlying one is that of freedom, something the wall denied Berliners on both sides of the divide for almost three decades.

Nowadays of course the city of Berlin is totally different to what it was in 1914, 1939, 1961 or even 1989. A century on from the start of the first of two World Wars which many countries blamed almost entirely on Germany, the new Berlin is a modern liberal peace-loving city and the seat of the unified German Parliament once more. The motherly Angela Merkel is revered by many Germans and wields greater power than anyone else in the European Union.

From a travellers perspective, many come to Berlin for the brilliant nightlife which is fueled by 24 hour techno raves in industrial factories converted into giant night clubs. While it may lack the style and medieval feel, that many of Europe’s great cities possess, there are few more fascinating places anywhere in the world. The city is constantly evolving and changing but does so in such a cool uniquely German way.

But of all the things that the city has to offer, a visit to The Berlin Wall Mural has to be number one on the to-do list of anyone new to the city. It tells the tale of division better than any museum could do yet manages to maintain an upliftingly positive feel of hope and freedom.

berlin wall 2014

There are quite a few nice passages in German and English. Some feel a little bit dreamy but there’s certainly some truth in this.

berlin wall 2014

One of the more controversial features the black, red and gold of the German flag with the Star of David in the middle. Clearly not everyone is a fan of this new German-Israeli flag. Much of the mural has been covered in the kind of graffiti you might see on a wall in your local car park which is a bit of a shame but given that freedom of expression is kind of the point of this thing it’s unlikely to be removed.

berlin wall 2014

This ‘forced thumbs up’ is one of the most powerful pieces. The secrets of life behind the Iron Curtain are still being revealed and there are few fascinating spots around town where you can learn about life in East Berlin under Soviet rule.

checkpoint charlie in berlin

At the site of the infamous Checkpoint Charlie there is a somewhat comical mural which remembers it’s history as the official border crossing between East and West Berlin although in reality only a select few had access to it.

berlin wall 2014

There’s an area of grass in what used to be effectively ‘no man’s land’ in which anyone who tried to enter would have been greeted by bullets. Today it’s a nice place to sit down and reflect at what is an eerily emotional spot.

Find out more about the Berlin Wall and it’s mural on the East Side Gallery Website.

This article was published in September 2014.

Introducing Tirana- Europe’s Least Visited Capital

Tirana- Europe’s Least Visited Capital

tirana mural

by Tom Locke

TWO work colleagues were having a conversation about holidays. “Nobody” said one “goes to Albania for a holiday”. Now I know that it is rather impolite to interrupt, but it was impossible. “I did” I said. For a few moments, I was the recipient of one of those “Are you kidding?” looks. Then they realised I was being serious.

Unfortunately – and most of us are guilty at some stage – we often have preconceptions of places, people and many other things. The less we know, the more we may be tempted to imagine. Why, though, should Albania seem such a distant and mysterious country? It is, after all, closer to the UK than Greece.

Tirana is both one of the smallest and newest of European capitals. While there has been a settlement at the site for a long time, it has only been the capital since the 1920s. For a traveller, there is novelty value and a smallness of scale that makes the city easy to explore.

Skanderbeg Square, Tirana

There is plenty of accommodation for visitors and it is not difficult to find small and cheap hotels that offer good facilities. The Tafaj Hotel is a fine example. It is a rather splendid Ottoman villa with a delightful courtyard and is a short walk from the central Skanderbeg Square. There are numerous guesthouses for the budget traveller as well as the usual suspects at the more expensive end of the market.

A three or four day visit is ample. There may be no immediately obvious tourist attractions, but the fact that the city appears to be so little visited adds to its appeal. It is also an architecturally unusual place, with some decaying, but still stylish, old Ottoman-style buildings and a substantial number of more modern and decidedly Communist edifices, particularly in the centre near Skanderbeg Square. The style is a mixture of Chinese and Soviet. Albania and the Soviet Union had a decidedly uneasy relationship and the former had much closer ties with China.

hoxha pyramid

Not too far away from the square is an even odder sight. The daughter of the dictator Enver Hoxha commissioned an extraordinary (and extraordinarily tasteless) building to serve as a mausoleum and monument to her father. Known as the Pyramid (pictured above), this abomination now serves as a cultural centre. There is an ongoing debate about the future of the building and it is possible that it may be pulled down.

One lingering hint of the days of dictatorship is that the visitor must be a little careful when taking photographs. The villa of Hoxha is in a central street that appears, at first glance, perfectly normal, filled as it is with shops and cafes. It soon becomes obvious, though, that the area is patrolled by rather sinister-looking men in black clothing, who give the distinct impression that any attempt to take photographs could have uncomfortable consequences. The railway station, despite being very small and having the appearance of being little bigger than that of a small market town, is another place to avoid waving a camera around. Otherwise, though, taking photos seems to be perfectly acceptable.

The National Art Gallery (on Skanderbeg Square) is a genuine treat. A highlight is the collection of Socialist Realist art, much of it in the style of Communist propaganda posters, all handsome, smiling and muscular working men and women. The gallery also features the art that failed the test by displaying people who simply did not look happy or optimistic. The unfortunate artists responsible were promptly flung into prison for the purposes of re-education.

national history museum in tirana

Also on the square – one can hardly miss it – is the vast National History Museum with its truly weird mosaic on the façade. The museum is well laid out and offers a comprehensive traipse through Albania’s history, from ancient archaeological finds to the modern post-Communist era. Both the art gallery and museum charge small admission fees, though there are other, smaller museums that offer free entry.

Nothing is radically expensive in Tirana; indeed, much is very cheap. Traditional Albanian food tends to be quite a meaty affair, but for vegetarians, there are plenty of pizzas and salads (try one with some Albanian olives, as these are excellent). Despite being a largely Muslim country, it’s easy enough to buy a drink and there is, in fact, a local brewery that produces the imaginatively-titled Tirana Beer, a Pilsener-style lager that is refreshing on a hot summer’s day and can be reasonably safely quaffed as it is a sensible 4.0% ABV.

tirana railway station

The city is small enough to walk around without needing to resort to public transport, and even when it’s hot (and summer is very hot) there are lots of places to stop for an iced tea. There’s no harm in buying a coffee on a hot day as you always get a glass of iced water to go with it. The best coffee is at the Opera House on Skanderbeg Square and it’s also a great place to sit and watch what’s going on.

Everything revolves around Skanderbeg Square and after a day or two, the visitor will be familiar with every inch of it. This is also the place to catch the bus to the airport (where the largest of Tirana’s many Mother Teresa statues stands). The bus service is efficient and a great deal cheaper than a taxi, a couple of pounds covering the cost of a ticket.

opera house tirana

Tirana has some pleasant green spaces, the largest being the Grand Park. This has some lovely, shaded walks and there is a sizeable artificial lake, though sadly this seems to be entirely devoid of birdlife. Those who need to shop are well catered for, with some surprisingly trendy malls and streets as well as old-fashioned markets. Among the latter is a fish market, though disappointingly nobody has taken the opportunity to use the name Tirana Fish.

Albania has a Mediterranean coastline and for those with an adventurous spirit and strong leg muscles, mountains and spectacular countryside. Tirana is well worth seeing, however, with its curious mix of the old, the new and the downright weird. You won’t be trampled in the rush.


For more on the region check out our Balkans backpacking route.

This article was published in October 2013.

Kyiv: a study in quirkiness

Kyiv: a study in quirkiness

kiev square

by Tom Locke

People often ask me why I like travelling to Eastern Europe. Thus far, I have managed to avoid the answer ‘Because it’s there’ in favour of a more considered response that involves three parts.

Firstly, if one considers Europe to the west of Russia, there are many places that can be reached in about three hours or less from the UK. Secondly, few parts of Eastern Europe are particularly expensive for the westerner. Thirdly, while many cities are becoming increasingly westernised, there is a distinctly different culture. All of these factors make this part of the continent appealing.

One such place is Kyiv. It could, even, be described as a bit odd, certainly to western eyes. This is intended as a compliment rather than an insult. It assuredly fits all three of the criteria invoked above, being a three-hour flight from Gatwick, inexpensive and with a style of its own.

The fact that Ukraine uses the Cyrillic alphabet helps the western visitor to feel that they are somewhere different. It’s useful to learn the letters, as street signs and directions are all shown in Cyrillic. In fact, it’s better to use a Cyrillic map rather than one printed in Latin script as the latter will often show a translated version and it’s all too easy to be fooled. The Cyrillic alphabet is similar to the Greek and might look a little intimidating at first, but really, it’s quite easy.

If the Cyrillic alphabet is easy enough to comprehend, the same cannot be said for Soviet-style architecture. Perhaps architects were only allowed to design buildings after they had imbibed a certain quota of vodka. In the case of the Hotel Turist, the quota seems to have been almost as high as the hotel itself, which climbs to twenty-seven storeys. One should not be deterred by appearances, as the interior is far more attractive, the rooms are comfortable enough and the staff are helpful. One pleasing quirk – Kyiv has many – is that there are four lifts, two of which carry you to odd-numbered floors while the other two deal with the even numbers. Convention is also defied by having staff on each floor to hold room keys, rather than the main reception. The guest is left hoping that the person responsible for keys on their floor has not wandered away for a chat or an extensive toilet break.

A slight drawback is that the hotel is situated on the other side of the Dnepr river from the city centre. Another Kyiv oddity; there are no footbridges. This is not a problem, however, as the hotel is next to Livoberezhna metro station and metro journeys cost a few pence. Having a splendid view of both the city and the metro station from a twenty-third floor room, it was quickly possible to discern that metro trains run approximately every ninety seconds. Even with such incredibly frequent services, finding a seat on a metro train is a rare luxury, a testament to its popularity.

motherland monument kievA journey from Livoberezhna to the city centre only takes a few minutes, though one should be prepared to double the journey time because the stations in the centre are so far underground. Reaching the top of the first escalator for the first time, you feel a sense of relief at having made it to what you assume is the summit, only to realise that there is now a second escalator of exactly the same proportion to negotiate.

Something else that can be seen from the hotel room, and indeed from most places in the city, is the Motherland Monument (right), a very large stainless steel woman wielding a sword and a shield. At over a hundred metres tall, the monument is not subtle. The statue is located in the modestly-named Park of Eternal Glory, amid a museum complex and as one approaches, there are strains of Soviet military music, interspersed with typical Ukrainian folk music, which has its own stirring qualities, dipping into a slow, mournful pace and suddenly bursting into vibrant life. As you progress through this area, you pass tanks, other military hardware and sculptures in Soviet-realist style. It’s all just another example of the sometimes surreal experience of Kyiv.

Kyiv, like many cities in Eastern Europe, has myriad green spaces and a stroll to the Motherland Monument can be incorporated into a full day of interesting exploration in and around the park. The park is the setting for Pechersk Lavra, Kyiv’s famous Monastery of the Caves, first settled in the eleventh century. A typical Orthodox church, with its golden onion-domes, stands above the site. The Botanic Garden is also nearby and a simple walk in the park is pleasant enough, with abundant birdlife to be seen. Woodpeckers and jays can be seen in the wooded parts, seemingly determined to live up to a Kyiv-style zaniness by chattering and screeching loudly in the case of the jays and battering manically on tree trunks in the case of the woodpeckers.

Football aficionados should pay a visit to the Dynamo Stadium, home of Dynamo Kyiv. Even if there is no match on during your visit, it’s worth seeing for the museum and the statue of the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskiy, native of Kyiv, coach of Dynamo and three-times coach of the Soviet Union team. If there is a game, prices will vary depending upon the opposition, but even the more expensive tickets will appear astonishingly cheap, certainly for those used to English Premier League prices. Any Arsenal supporters are also advised to take the metro to Arsenalna station, which is a ten-minute walk from the ground. A small cannon sculpture outside the station is a perfect replica of the London club’s crest. Visitors to Arsenalna can also claim that they have been to Europe’s deepest underground station.

Lobanovskiy statue in Kiev

Overall, Kyiv’s quirks, oddities and strangeness are endearing qualities. The city, for westerners, is very cheap and a good meal with a few drinks should be easily obtainable for ten pounds or less. You also stand a good chance of being presented with a free glass of vodka at the end of a meal and it is most impolite to refuse the offering. Beer drinkers will find a good range of beer styles, but should remember that beer tends to be quite strong in many countries in Eastern Europe. A ‘low-strength’ beer means that the beer is less than around 5% ABV, so a ‘light’ beer can, in fact, be something considerably stronger than a British best bitter.

There are certain foods in any country that everybody should try once. For example, it feels almost obligatory to taste burek in Balkan countries and in Ukraine, the dish to sample is borsch. Many people – mistakenly – think of this as merely beetroot soup. Borsch is soup that contains beetroot, an important difference. The beetroot is added towards the end of the cooking process to enhance flavour and colouring, but is not the basis for the soup. The ingredients can vary considerably and it is perfectly possible for vegetarians to enjoy a meat-free version. A small test to see if your borsch is of the right thickness is to place a spoon on top of the soup. If the spoon remains resting on top, then you have the good stuff.

Kyiv has some excellent museums and galleries to suit all kinds of cultural interest, but naturally comes up with something unusual. There are museums dedicated to water, bread, toilets and trolleybus tickets, although the last-named is actually a pub with a collection of trolley-related photos, tickets and posters around the walls. Disappointingly, however, the Museum of Bee Breeding appears to have closed down.

Finally, a question: Kyiv or Kiev? I have used the former throughout this article for the simple reason that it is the preferred Ukrainian version. This is the spelling that you see throughout the city, or at least the way it translates from Cyrillic. Kiev is the Russian version and it seems much more respectful to use the Ukrainian spelling. Ensuring that you emphasise the –iv in the second syllable should bring the reward of a smile and even, perhaps, another glass of vodka.

war memorial in kiev

This article was published in September 2013.

Backpackers Guide to Poland

Backpackers Guide to Poland

Poland backpackers guide

Warsaw Old Town, CC BY 2.0

NOTE – This article is over 5 years old and may contain some inaccurate info.

Basic Shizzle

Population: 38 million
Size: 310,000 km ² …Poland is pretty big, bigger than Britain and Italy for example and only slightly smaller than neighbours Germany.
Weather: Summers are decently warm (70-85°F), with the southern part of the country leaning towards the warmer side. Winters are cold (0-35°F), with temperatures dropping below that in the mountains.
Law: Unlike some European countries, drinking in public isn’t legal, however you will see many people doing so. The Poles like a drink and drink driving is a problem here despite the zero tolerance approach of the police. Most laws are pretty comparable to those in Western countries such as the US or UK.
Exchange Rate: As of Sep 2010, the Polish Zloty trades at £1=4.8PLN €1=3.96PLN $1=3.1PLN
Time: GMT+1 (Central European Time) same as most of continental Europe including Germany, France and Czech Rep.
Religion: Poland is a staunchly Catholic country and the previous pope John Paul II is a source of great national pride. Younger generations tend to be slightly less devout.


No vaccinations are strongly encouraged for Poland. However, for any traveler, Hepatitis A and B vaccinations are good to have. You can also ask your doctor to prescribe you some antibiotics to bring along just in case you get traveler’s diarrhea but you are no more likely to get ill in Poland than back home.

Getting In

There are loads of cheap flights to all around Poland from the UK. Fares can be as low as £5 with Ryanair when they have flight sales on (which is pretty much always). Coming from further afield it may be cheaper to fly into a major European hub and then catch a budget flight to your destination in Poland. Direct trains and buses link Poland to the neighbouring countries. If you’re coming from the Belarus or Ukraine the journey might be a slow one, but there are modern and fairly quick links to the other countries.

Border Crossings

Poland Ukraine border crossingPoland borders seven countries, the four in the EU (Germany, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Lithuania) are easy to travel to and from. The situation is a little more complicated for Ukraine and Belarus which are worth visiting if you want to get a better feel of what Communist Eastern Europe was like. Travelling into Ukraine (left:border crossing) is smoother than coming back due to the large numbers of people who smuggle cheap Cigarettes from Ukraine into the EU where their value increases tenfold. You don’t need a visa for Ukraine but you do for Belarus and Kaliningrad (a Russian outpost between Poland and Lithuania).

Best Places to Visit

Kraków is without doubt one of the finest cities in Central Europe and a fitting rival to Prague. What was once Poland’s capital, this Renaissance city is now left as one of the most enchanting cities in the world. Start your time there by exploring the Rynek Glówny (market square). This is the heart of the city. Go into the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) in the middle of the square and look at all the beautiful jewelry, furs, and trinkets the vendors in it have to offer. Then go to Kośćiół Mariacki (St. Mary’s Basilica) and check out its beautiful Gothic design. However, the main attraction of the church is the trumpet player that plays a historical tune atop the tower every hour of every day. Notice that the tune cuts off midway. Legend has it that the trumpet player in the 13th century was shot in the throat by attackers of the city.

Afterwards, go to the large statue of Adam Mickiewicz and sit down to enjoy some people and pigeon watching. This is the spot to feed pigeons and watch the excitement of everyone around. It’s very similar to what you may see at St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Enjoy the rest of the day by exploring all the little shops and cafes of the artery streets of the Rynek. At the end of Floriańska street, you’ll see a wall/gate. It was made in the 14th century to protect the city from attacks. And behind it you will see a barbican, which was also a part of the fortifications of the city.


Enjoy another day in Kraków exploring the Wawel Castle. Make sure that when you get to the top of the Wawel cathedral’s tower, you place your hand on Zygmunt’s Bell and make a wish. Two more legends fill the castle: that the castle is one of the seven chakras in the world and that a giant dragon once inhabited a cave by the castle. Finish off your day at the Kazimierz district of Kraków. This is the Jewish district and is filled with intriguing cafes, clubs, two synagogues, a beautiful church, an eerie cemetery, and the best zapiekanki in the city (located in the new square of Kaziemierz). Another day go take a tour of the Collegium Maius of the Jagiellonian University. It’s beautiful inside and exciting to see where Nicolaus Copernicus went to school. End the day on top of the Kościuszko Mound to get an amazing view of the city.

There are three places to visit not too far from Kraków. One is the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps (Oświęcim and Brzezinka in Polish). Located about an hour and a half outside of the city, it is an eerie and surreal experience. You can still see the famous ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign and the massive amounts of clothes, shoes, hair from all the people of the camps, along with the barracks and the train tracks that brought the people out there. Buses go from the main train station of Kraków very often and a shuttle runs between the two camps.

polish mountainThe second place outside of Kraków to visit is Zakopane, a mountain town. Again buses go from the main train station and it’s about a two hour ride. Enjoy good food and bargaining for fur, cheese, and much more on the street of Krupowki. Spend whole days in the mountain hiking. For those who enjoy mountains without hiking go up to Gubałówka to Kasprowy Wierch by funicular. Make sure to bring a light jacket when you go to Kasprowy Wierch as it gets cold up there. For a pleasant hike, go to Morskie Oko. A small bus will take you to the starting point of this hike. Finally, the last city outside of Kraków to visit is Wieliczka. The thing to see here is the huge salt mine. This is a quick day trip from Kraków, but it is definitely worth seeing.

If you are looking for a more metropolitan city, you must visit Warsaw, the nation’s capital. The city is rather new, because the majority of it was completely destroyed during WWII. It’s “Old Town” was carefully reproduced after its destruction and still offers an old charm to it. Look for the mermaid in the center of the Old Town. She is the symbol of Warszawa. Enjoy some greenery by visiting both the Wilanów Palace and Łazienki. Learn some history by visiting the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising and then enjoy the architecture of the city, such as the Opera House. Finish off your trip to the capital with a day at one of the malls, particularly Złote Tarasy.

If you have time there is plenty more to see. Gdansk on the north coast like Warsaw was completely destroyed in WW2 but has been restored to some of its old charm and is a nice stopping point if your heading across the Baltic Sea. Finally if Krakow is getting too touristy for you then you should definitely head to Wroclaw (which people are starting to call the new Krakow!). The city has alot to offer built on islands much like Venice or Amsterdam, it has a ridiculous amount of bridges and boasts buzzing nightlife every night of the week to please the enormous student population.

Getting Around

Trains and buses run between cities. To find your route use this website. You can also always go to any train and bust station and get information there. Most stations have at least one attendant that speaks English (usually someone younger). In Kraków, you get around everywhere either by walking or taking a tram. In Warszawa, you will find a plethora of buses and the Metro. Avoid cabs in Warszawa as the traffic is extremely awful and you’ll more likely get somewhere faster by taking the Metro. In Zakopane, you’ll be walking everywhere. However, there are small buses going from the main station that will take you to hiking starting points. At certain spots you will also see horse and carriage to take you up and down mountains.


If you are looking for the best nightlife, head to Kraków. This party city has more bars/clubs per square metre than any other city in the entire world. Most of the nightlife occurs underground below the architecture of the city. A great place to visit for a chill night is C.K. Browar, which is a local brewery on Krupnicza Street just outside of the Market Square. There you can get table tappers for a decent price. Some of the best clubs within the Market Square are Frantic, Prozak, MusicBox, Cień, Carpe Diem I and II, and Ministerstwo. If you really want to hang with the locals, visit Pod Jaszczurami in the Square. Finally, some of the most interesting and exciting nightlife exists in Kazimierz (theJewish district). If you are looking for a few drinks with a great atmosphere, visit Alchemia in the New Square of Kazimierz. If you are looking for some great all night dancing, head over to Łubu-Dubu and Kitsch (in the same building). Kazimierz also has a great Hookah bar called Flower Power. And every night in the Market Square stand attractive guys and gals with discount cards for their bars and clubs. Grab one and see where the night leads you. It saves you money and opens up the doors to new clubs.

Warsaw also has a great nightlife. The Old Town offers some cozy pubs but you’ll also find some great places down Nowy Swiat street. Platinum is a hot club with great music. Piekarnia is a hot spot and then party into the after-hours at Luzztro. If you are looking for a chill night, head over to Browarmia, a brew pub with a great crowd.

Outside of these cities, university towns tend to have an array of nightlife to choose from. Nightlife in cities such as Katowice can get a little rough at times and despite it’s history Poland has it’s fair share of right-wing white supremist skinheads who often go out looking for a fight so stear clear of bars that look a bit dodgy.

For an idea of what going out in one of the less-visited cities is like, see Ben Gould’s account of an alcohol-fuelled weekend in Poznan.

Local Lingo

English is fairfly widely spoken amongst the younger generation but most people over 40 will speak little if any English so it is necessary to learn a little Polish and it will definitely earn you a bit of respect of the locals.

Good morning/hello: Dzień dobry
Good evening: Dobry wieczór
Please: Proszę
Thank you: Dziękuję
Good-bye: Dowidzenia
Yes: Tak
No: Nie
How much does this cost?: Ile to kosztuję?
What time is the bus at?: O której jest autobus?
At what time is the train to ___ departing?: O której odjeżdża poćiąg do ____
Where is ……?: Gdzie jest…?
Chicken: Kurczak
Pork: Wiepszowina
Fish: Ryba
Bread: Chleb
Salad: Salata
Soup: Zupa
Milk: Mleko
Beer: Piwo
Water: Woda
Toilet: toaleta or WC (pronounced voo ceh)

Typical Backpacker Budget

As always the budget depends on you. Poland is cheaper than all of Western Europe but the gap is narrowing and fairly quickly so expect to see it moving down our world budget travel table.

You can take advantage of midweek discounts in Krakow especially which is full of weekend vistors from across Europe. Roughly 7 Euros should get you a bed for the night in any of the major towns.

Food/Drink: There’s some groovy cheap Polish restaurants to be found serving up pirogi among other local favourites. Polish beer and vodka is exported all over the world and it is as you would expect cheap and of high quality in Poland. There’s a good mix of bars and clubs and the ones at the bottom end of the scale are dirt cheap by anyones standards.

Transport: Single tickets on the metro/trams are about a Euro and if you’re staying anywhere for a while then a month pass is excellent value. The express trains between Krakow and Warsaw and also Katowice and Warsaw (there’s not alot to see in Katowice!) are very quick, much quicker than any of the trains in Britain for example and cost about 90PLN with discounts for students/under 26’s. There are also slower trains and buses that link these cities and the rest of the country at a much cheaper rate. Poland is a major crossroads between East and West on the European rail map and there are sleeper trains you can catch to pretty much anywhere from Berlin to Kiev or Bucharest. It’s cheaper going east and it might be worthwhile getting an Interail pass if you intend to travel around alot.

Thanks to Ann Opalka for writing the main part and supplying pictures for this guide. If you enjoyed reading it then you can also check out her travel blog!


This article was published way back in October 2010.

Therefore some info may be out-of-date.


Getting Around Europe on a budget

Getting Around Europe on a budget

getting around europe

Catching the train in Finland: Head north to Lapland, to see the Northern Lights and Santa Claus!

Getting around Europe is relatively hassle-free and things generally run on time. If you know what you’re doing you can find some reasonably decent prices. The following two pages offer general global advice for finding cheap transport and it includes some specific tips for Europe:

How to find Cheap Flights | How to find Cheap Buses and Trains

OPTION 1) Flying around Europe

Europe is the budget airline capital of the world and you can get almost anywhere in the continent for under 100 Euros, often much less if you book at least a few weeks in advance and are flexible on days. If you are canny this can work out to be the cheapest option, although unless you have a very small backpack, you will be forking out 20 Euros or so every time just to check in your luggage (sometimes this can even be more expensive than the flight itself)

The biggest budget airlines in Europe include:

Ryanair | Easyjet | Vuelling | Wizzair | German Wings | Flybe

Use skyscanner to compare them all and find the best prices.

OPTION 2) Travel over Land

Flying is certainly the quickest way to cover longer distances but for trips within the same country or between neighbours it is often quicker to travel overland. Europe has an extensive rail network and plenty of High Speed trains which offer rapid travel between the centre of two cities. Travelling overland also means you will see much more and probably meet more locals along the way adding to the overall experience.

DB Bahn – To check times of all trains in Europe.

Eurolines – The biggest international coach company in Europe.

Interrail – Sort yourself out with a European Railpass that will allow you explore the continent by train.

This page was published in January 2014.

Money, Vaccinations & Entry Requirements for Europe

Money, Vaccinations & Entry Requirements for Europe


NOTE – This info is accurate as of January 2014!


EU countriesIf you are from the European Union

If you are from an EU country (see map on right) or have a passport for one then you can travel freely between any of the member states and stay as long as you like. Should you wish you can also get a job without any form of visa and minimal fuss.

In addition, Swiss and Norwegian passport holders typically have exactly the same rights even though they are Non-EU members.

If you wish to visit a Non-EU country then check with the relevant embassy but very few require you to have a visa although your passport will be stamped and you will only be allowed to stay in the country for a certain time period.

If you are from outside the European Union

The term Schengen Zone may not be too familiar with you but it is important you understand it before embarking on a European backpacking trip. Basically it is treated as one big country and once you have entered you don’t have to show your passport again until you leave the zone, no matter how many borders you cross within it.

The Schengen Zone is not the same as the European Union but is very similar. The UK and Ireland are the only members of the EU to not be part of the Schengen Zone or legally obliged to join it (as is the case with Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria which will join the zone in the near future).

Current Schengen Zone Countries:

Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland

schengen zone

Anyone from countries in blue above such as USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Brazil can enter the Schengen Zone visa-free and stay in the zone for upto 90 days. You could in theory visit all 26 members without having to show your passport once in this period except to gain entry to the first country you visit and to leave your final destination. Ensure you are given a stamp on your initial entry as border guards can be a bit dopey and forget.

That is all good but crucially once those 90 days are up and you have left the zone you cannot re-enter a Schengen member (visa free) for another 90 days. i.e. in every 6 months you can only spend a maximum of 3 months within the Schengen area.

US citizens may find this page useful.

When visiting European countries outside the zone, there are separate entry requirements and you may well require a visa. See our How to Guide for Sorting out Visas for more info on how you can find out.

A few countries, most notably Russia require you to sort out a visa several weeks in advance of your trip so it’s a good idea to plan ahead if you are planning on visiting countries outside the Schengen Zone.


Euros have since the turn of the millennium been the principal currency in the European Union but several countries have opted to retain their old currency. Even in these ones however it is often possible to pay in Euros although generally it works out better for you to pay in the local currency.

EU countries that don’t use the Euro:

Britain, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Lithuania (joins in 2015), Poland, Romania, Sweden

Expect to be charged a small fee every time you use your debit or credit card in any European country. That said, it is of negligible difference to the fees you will be charged for exchanging money.


None really required. To our knowledge there are no countries that require any form of medical certificate or proof of vaccinations for entry into their country. It might be a good idea to check you are upto date with common vaccinations like hepatitis if you are visiting one of the less developed countries but most travellers go without.

This article was published in January 2014.