While in Puglia and just one day before flying back to the UK, we decided to stretch over to Basilicata to visit Matera. Just off the border with Puglia, Matera, which is thought to be the third oldest city in the world, is located 400 mt. above the sea level in a superb setting. For me it was one of those places where reality far exceeded expectations.
The road to get there is not a particularly nice one; mostly one lane only, driving through construction works and shacks with prostitutes (yes), you can’t say it’s a lovely drive but it’s totally worth it. When we were there (mid April), traffic was steady with definitely far more trucks than tourist cars and you will appreciate it even more once arrived in Matera: the old city was extremely quiet and we could wander through the Sassi almost on our own. We started our tour of the city with sunshine but by the end of the day we had some really heavy rain. Still, it was wonderful and before the rain hit we were able to enjoy a yummy outdoor quick lunch with all the local delicacies, including a incredible buttery fresh ricotta.
Not to miss:
I Sassi: Matera is known as “La citta’ dei Sassi” (the City of Stones). It’s a whole city literally carved in tuff with plenty of underground labyrinths and hidden corners that create an extremely fascinating effect. “I Sassi”, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993 (together with the Park of Rupestrian Churches – see further down), show a way to live that dates back to prehistoric times and that has lived up to our days, almost intact. Get lost in the old city, wander through the narrow alleys and enjoy the spectacular views that literally open up at every corner.
Rupestrian Churches: they are churches created in caves where you can still admire wonderful frescos. They go back to the Medieval times and, apart from their religious function, throughout the centuries they have also been used as dwellings or animal shelters. There are around 155 rupestrian churches spread all over the area around Matera. To arrange a guided tour, you can contact the CEA (Environmental Educational Centre); I haven’t tried them by myself since unfortunately we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked in Matera but apparently is an excellent option for excursions and visits in the area.
The treks. If you have got a couple of days, you could spend one day visiting Matera and the second one exploring the beautiful nearby area; there are plenty of stunning treks in the wonderful National Park of the Murgia Materana (Murge – spiky rocks – is a vast subregion encompassed between the regions of Puglia and Basilicata), dotted with plenty of Rupestrian churches. On CEA webpage they advertise different walks/treks options for all levels so it could be an excellent option to combine beautiful outdoor treks with a full explanation of the territory and the local history.
We didn’t sleep in Matera but as you will see on the web there are plenty of options. Sleeping in the Sassi is extremely charming but it can be very expensive though (have a look at Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita or Corte San Pietro to get an idea)…so if you are on a small budget but still want to fully experience this magical setting, a good option could be to use Airbnb. There are plenty of rooms from less than 40 Euro/night right in the Sassi with many excellent reviews, worth to have a look at 😉
Matera has been appointed (together with Plovdiv, Bulgaria) 2019 European Capital Culture, defeating other shortlisted stunning Italian cities, such as Lecce and Siena. But it is quite striking to think that only in recent times this same city had been defined as a “national shame” by some Italians themselves and its “Sassi” were considered a disgraceful example of deterioration; in the 1950s, funds were granted to build new housing outside the old cave-city, aiming at relocating over 15.000 people from their house-caves thus emptying the original prehistoric city. It was only in the mid-80s that a new national law started the process of recovery of the old city, after over 30 years of neglect. Still, if you visit now, you will have the feeling that a lot needs to be done as plenty of buildings are still abandoned and empty. Unfortunately, Matera (and the whole region) suffers what largely affects the beautiful South of Italy: high unemployment rates and lack of infrastructure. Not many people are interested in living here and many young people are forced to emigrate looking for better job opportunities. But this is another excellent reason to put this place on top of your list, before it gets taken over by hordes of tourists. If you are a movie fan, you might already know that plenty of blockbuster movies have been filmed here (including the massive Ben-Hur production, to be released in summer 2016), taking advantage of the breath-taking views and the unique city.
If you can’t wait and want to have a preview of how stunning Matera is, I suggest you have a look at the Episode of Italy Unpacked 2015 where English art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon and Italian chef Giorgio Locatelli discover the beauty of Matera during their tour throughout Italy.
There might be plenty of other cave dwellings in the world (Spain, Turkey to name a couple) but rarely you will stumble across something as unique as this.
Every Italian region has its own characteristic food and every Italian region is extremely proud of its local cuisine. Puglia is no exception, having some of the most delicious and mouthwatering food that I have ever tasted (I mean devoured). In a land blessed with sun and sea, you can be sure that everything you eat will be local and fresh: delicious fish and seafood, scrumptious fruits and vegetables, luscious barbecue meat and tasty cheeses, yummy home made desserts… there is a bit for everyone’s taste.
Here is a list of some of the delicacies that I still dream of…
Invented in Lecce in 1745, Pasticciotto is an Italian pastry filled with custard (depending on the region, it may be filled with ricotta instead). The description can’t render enough the soft pastry and the warm custard heart. Eat as many as you can because it’s going to be hard to find one of them back home – wherever you are from.
Taralli, Olive e Burrata
Taralli are a typical snack of Southern Italy, sort of crackers. You will find them in different flavor but the most common ones are with onion, garlic or fennel. Olives don’t need any introduction. You will find them everywhere. Burrata (pictured on the back of the plate) is a fresh cheese made from cows milk similar to a mozzarella but with a texture ten times softer and stringer than its cousin. It’s original from Andria and it looks like a small sachet (but burrata can get up to 1 Kg) with an heart of “strings” (stracciatella) and cream. To die for.
Possibly one of the yummiest quick lunch you can have. All over Puglia you wil find different types of puccia that actually look all very different (some similar to an open sandwich, other bread with olives). The one above was in a deli store in Ostuni and it was fabulous.
Also, a quick mention should be made for the rustico: unfortunately, I devoured mine too quickly before even taking a picture! 😦 it’s a rounded puff pastry of 10-15 min diameter, filled with béchamel, mozzarella and tomato, to be eaten hot. It’s original from Lecce area and locals tend to eat it as a quick snack before dinner (!). You will find it in most delis and it’s worth a try.
Ricci di mare
I first tested ricci (sea urchin) a few years ago in Malta and, since then, I am officially in love. Best with pasta, in Puglia you will see people sharing dozens of these raw delicacies and extracting the juice as if it’s the last thing they will do. Quite aphrodisiac too, so go for it! Sea urchins hunting is strictly regulated in Italy and in Puglia it’s forbidden to hunt them between April 30th and June 30th (fishermen can hunt limited quantities throughout the year) so keep that in mind if you want fresh ones.
Possibly one of the fattiest thing you can eat in Puglia, pettole are balls of deep fried dough. People from Puglia eat them like an appetizer. Basically, we nibble on crisps, they nibble on pettole. Every town in Puglia (and not only Puglia) has its own tradition as far as when to prepare them and how to eat them. The picture above was taken when I attended the Liberation Day Lunch on April 25th with my friend’s family. I am from Milan and in Puglia I am considered as foreign as you (probably more). I can’t understand their dialect so I couldn’t interact as much as I’d like but once food is on the table, everyone speaks the same language!
Riso patate e cozze
It translates: rice, potato and mussels. More typical of Bari area, to be fair I haven’t found this dish very often in any menu and I actually only ate it twice, the first one being at my friend’s house but it was delicious so if you read it on a menu, you should try it.
Home made orecchiette and cavatelli
Fresh pasta is an Italian prerogative but orecchiette (“small ear”) is the most common variety of home-made pasta in Puglia. You can bet you will find them on every menu in Puglia, the most common being with cime di rapa (broccoli) or al sugo di cavallo (horse ragu with tomato based sauce) sprinkled with a variety of strong ricotta cheese. Delicious! Cavatelli (pictured on the left side in the pictures above) is another very typical home made pasta. I took the pictures above at 5 AM in the morning at my friend’s home: we had just come back from a night out and her mum had been awake preparing fresh pasta for all the family! I felt very bad for having been out all night (and morning!!) but we felt soooo good knowing that lunch would have been heavenly!
I have been in a few Michelin restaurants in my life but none in Italy. But, to be fair, who needs a star when you have got this? If you decide to visit Puglia, stick to the simple recipes, the local products and the healthy portions and you will be in heaven.
A separate mention should be made for 2 other star products of Puglia: oil and wine.
Oil is Puglia’s gold and you will see it by yourself: acres and acres of olives dot the whole region. When the land is so dry and the water so scarce, almost nothing else grows as good as olive trees. Don’t be shy and ask a small plate to dip your bread in: from a sparkling green to a beautiful dark golden color, olive oil will always be on your table.
Some of the best Italian red and full-bodied wines come from this region: Primitivo di Manduria, Salice Salentino, Negroamaro to name a few. We had an unforgettable wine experience in a beautiful place called Cantine Menhir in Minervino di Lecce. To be fair, I didn’t have any bad wine while in Puglia so it will be very difficult for you to go wrong.
For more information on the best wines of the region, you can have a look at www.vinidipuglia.com or www.lestradedelvinopuglia.it, both very well done websites with lots of information on the local wines and an event page to see what’s on in the region.
According to a recent survey, out of 1.300.000 people living in Milan, over 180.000 come from Puglia (or Apulia, as you may know it). Quite sadly, Puglia – one of the most beautiful region in Italy – has one of the highest unemployment rates in Italy and lots of people choose to move to the Northern cities to seek better jobs opportunities. When I was living in Milan, a large group among my friends was from Puglia and that’s how I got to know this amazing corner of Italy. All of them (with no exception) were truly homesick and deep down I believe they will never settle in Milan. They will “live” in Milan, but their heart will always be 1000 km south. Once you visit Puglia, you can’t really blame them.
I first visited Puglia in April 2012; a friend of mine living in Milan was going back to see her family and she kindly invited me to stay at her family home for a few days (her mum is a great cook, reason enough to go!). My conversion was immediate: I left Milan with just over 13 degrees, and I arrived in Puglia after over 10 hours car journey, with over 20. No need to say, I celebrated Puglia with an early swim in the gorgeous sea with my friends. OK, the water was still a bit chilly but…who cares with such a beautiful crystal water?? Oh… and an empty beach.
I have been back in April 2015 – this time as an independent visitor, without any local contacts – and my experience was equally great: people from Puglia are lovely and their region simply stunning.
Again, Puglia would need a few weeks to be properly visited and discovered but if you’ve got less than a couple of weeks, it’s a great destination (and very, very cheap). First rule: never, under any circumstances, visit Puglia in peak season (July-August). The region just can’t cope with the number of tourists in these 2 months unless you are particularly fond of traffic jams, packed beaches, overcrowded restaurants and – above all – ridiculous prices…. avoid it!
Here is a tentative itinerary for less than 15 days in Puglia. I visited at the end of the Spring and the weather was gorgeous. Locals will tell you that it’s still cold and Tramuntana still blows but personally I think that it was the perfect weather to visit the towns and enjoy the coast (a swim will solely depend on your braveness).
The region is well served by 2 airports, Bari and Brindisi. I choose Bari for being a bit cheaper at the time of booking our flights and because we wanted to start our journey from North to South. Some rental car companies will not charge you the one way drop off fee if you pick up your car in Bari and return in Brindisi (and viceversa), so that’s a good option.
Day 1. Fly to Bari. A car is a must-have to tour around this region, since you can’t rely on local transport. Rent a car in the airport and start your tour. We decided to base ourselves in Castellana Grotte, less than an hour drive from the airport and with a reasonably priced accommodation option. Grab a double room at B&B Caroseno (their restaurant is amazing as well) or at Masseria Capocaccia with countryside style rooms. I have to say, Castellana Grotte is not a particularly charming town (there are far more attractive towns in the area) but it’s an excellent base to explore the nearby towns and it does offer a true image of Puglia. Any of the towns you visit on Day 2 could be a very good base for a couple of days to tour the area, being Polignano a Mare probably the one with more sleeping and eating options (and being my favorite!).
Day 2. Castellana Grotte, Polignano a Mare, Monopoli. Castellana Grotte (as the name suggests) is famous for its caves so take your time to visit them (tours are available to discover this gorgeous natural attraction; have a look a the time schedule to arrange the visit). Then drive to Polignano a Mare (less than 30 mins).
It’s a gorgeous coastal town with stunning views, lovely narrow white streets and passages and an incredible blue/green crystal water. Stop here for lunch (strozzapreti with seafood would be a good option), a glass of white wine and enjoy the blue color of the sky and the water. For a quick lunch, try Pescaria. I parked my car in front of their restaurant and it looked busy and delicious. If the weather allows it, spend a couple of hours on the pebbles beach Baia Saraceni before heading to Monopoli.
The Bellavista B&B is on the right side, above the walls.
It’s another very short drive (just over 30 min) and once again you are in one truly typical town of Puglia. White narrow streets, baby blue doors and lovely restaurants and bed and breakfasts. We didn’t sleep here but if you plan to and you are not on a tight budget, I would go for B&B Bellavista with absolutely stunning open views on the Monopoli bay.
Drive back to Castellana Grotte to rest a bit before going out for dinner. We tried Locanda Romanelli and were not disappointed; for a while we were the only table in the whole restaurant, so we got all the attention and the chat of the young owner. If you are planning a night stopover in Polignano a Mare, try these restaurants: for the best fish-based dinner in a lovely atmosphere, head to Ristorante Antiche Mure, possibly one of the best seafood meals I have ever had (their fresh sea urchins were to die for!). For a romantic dinner in a unique setting, choose Grotta Palazzese; I shouldn’t spoil the surprise but…you will have dinner by candle light in an open cave, with the sea waves breaking under you. I heard mixed opinions on this restaurant food (and I haven’t tried it myself) but as far as views and location, everyone agrees: it’s unbeatable.
Day 3.Alberobello, Locorotondo, Cisternino. Have a lay in (you are on holiday right?) and then head to Alberobello, less than 20 minutes drive from Castellana. Out of season is a quiet and unique town nestled on a hilly area with the characteristic “trulli“, a unique construction type original of the area.
It’s a dry stone hut with a conical roof, once built as temporary shelters for the farmer or used as storeroom or even as permanent dwellings. The Italian Government has tried to push the restoration of abandoned trulli giving incentives to buildings and owners and now you can even sleep in them. If the weather is good, have an ice cream at Arte Fredda: the owner is a lovely loud and smiling lady (we saw her on a BBC interview by chef Locatelli and decided to give it a go) and her ice cream (and flavours) truly unforgettable (pistacchio and mandorla are to die for!). Visit the town (you could do it in a couple of hours) and then head to Locorotondo. Again, another very small typical Puglian town to give you a good feeling of what is Puglia. If you can hang around until dinner time, go straight to Cisternino for a walk in the old town (very, very quiet) and then try their meat specialties for dinner. Cisternino is famous all over the area for barbecue meat (in huge portions) so it’s worth a food-stop.
Day 4. Castellana Grotte-Ostuni. Leave your accommodation and drive to Ostuni, the so-called white city (la citta’ bianca); white paint (lime) gave more light and brightness to the otherwise dark narrow alleys but it particularly helped to stop the spread of the plague during the XVII century. When I visited in April 2015, the streets where like you see them in the pictures below: empty. Can you imagine thousands of tourists roaming down the narrow streets, partying until late and basically trashing one of the best towns in Puglia? I can’t, so don’t make the mistake of going during peak season.
We decided to stay downtown, so I could get up early to take some nice shots. We chose a place called I 7 Archi Guest House. It was a good choice, cute and interesting accommodation on 2 levels in the very heart of Ostuni. Staying downtown gives you the opportunity to have a couple of glasses of wine without having to worry about driving back and gives you the chance to be on the street when they are still very quiet (though in April they never get busy). As far as dinner, have you ever eaten inside a cave? Well, if you haven’t yet or if you already have and want to repeat, try either Caffe’ Cavour or Osteria del Tempo Perso. We tried the first one and dinner was excellent (and reasonable) in a beautiful and enchanting setting. If fresh sea urchins are available, ask for fresh sea urchins linguine, I can still taste them now!
Day 5. The countryside near Ostuni.
Before exploring the countryside, head to New Life Caffe’ Fanelli (Piazza della Liberta’ 30) to start your day off on the right foot: best latte and pasticciotto! Even if you already had breakfast, you should make an “effort” and sit in their sunny terrace in Piazza della Liberta’ to enjoy the morning with locals.
The countryside near Ostuni deserves a day exploring. We did it and we followed an easy and beautiful drive through the countryside. Hundreds years old olive trees, dry and broken land, blood red poppy fields, blossoming cheery trees in the middle of a shining and warm spring. A blessing for the soul and the eyes.
Difficult to suggest the best route, but definitely go for the Parco degli Ulivi Secolari (Park of the secular olive trees) and try to get lost. You can get there following the provincial road Pilone/Rosa Marina – Ostuni and the provincial road Penna Grossa/Torre Guaceto – Serranova/San Vito. There are also organized cycling and walking trips in the area, worth to have a look at, if you prefer to be with a local tour guide (check if anyone speaks English, before). While you are in Ostuni, you also have the opportunity to drive down to the seaside to visit the wild and almost untouched Riserva di Torre Guaceto. Don’t expect to find any service here but if you want to see where Puglia countryside merges directly with the sea and have a good trek….it’s a good and peaceful place to do it. In the evening, have an earthy dinner at Casa San Giacomo in Ostuni (Via Bixio Continelli N. 4): friendly and homely atmosphere with all the family on show busy cooking and preparing simple and tasty dishes. With a plate of orecchiette you can’t possibly go wrong.
Day 6. Ostuni-Lecce. Just over an hour drive and you reach Lecce, the heart of Salento (the heel of Italy). We stayed downtown in a very reasonable B&B (B&B Antiche Volte, nothing exciting but it did its job). Lecce really has options for every budget and if you shop around you can easily get a very good accommodation without having to pay indecent money. Mantatelure’ has been recommended as a great accommodation but I haven’t tried it myself. Whatever you choose, make sure that the accommodation has a car park or can provide you with a pass to park freely within the city walls.
Lecce is a very young and lively town; there is a well respected University and the streets are busy with people at anytime, particularly in the evening. We really enjoyed it and after a few days in small villages/towns, we appreciated the buzz of a bigger city. For all its Baroque architecture, Lecce is often nicknamed “Florence of the South” and if you take a stroll downtown you will realize how spot on the nickname is. Don’t miss: the Santa Croce Basilica, the Duomo and its square, Piazza Sant’Oronzo and the Amphitheatre.
Day 7. Lecce. Spend a full day in Lecce. There is enough to keep you busy for a few days but I think the best you could do is probably just wander around its streets, getting lost, visit its less known churches and discover one of the cities I liked most in Italy so far.
Food wise, it’s as good as any other part of Puglia we have visited so far and you will find plenty of good (and cheap) eateries at every corner.
Day 8. Lecce – Otranto. Leave Lecce and in less than an hour you will arrive in the beautiful small harbor of Otranto.
The old historic town, protected by the walls of the Castle, is pretty small and it will not take you more than half a day to visit so take your time and once you’ve visited the most important sites (the Castello Aragonese and the Cathedral with the impressive Cappella Mortiri, where the bones of 813 Otranto martyrs are kept) just enjoy a pleasant relaxed stroll in the narrow streets.
If you have a bit more time on your side, choose the coastal road SP366 going through the Natural Reserve Le Cesine, San Foca and Torre dell’Orso. It is a slower road but definitely worth; the towns you will drive through are not particularly attractive but the scenery is stunning.
Unfortunately this was the only day we had cloudy weather but still it was absolutely worth. We happened to drive there at lunch time or let’s say at a good time to start eating 🙂 and we stopped at a place called Al Rifugio di Capitan Morgan, advertising fresh sea urchins. They haven’t got a website but their full address is Lungomare Matteotti Zona Ricci, San Foca. If you are driving the coastal road, you can’t miss it! Don’t expect fancy table cloth and posh plates but do expect excellent fresh seafood and friendly service. And delicious sea urchins…they don’t get any fresher than this!
Once near Otranto, we took the road to the B&B that we had prebooked; we stayed a bit outside town, in a tiny village called Casamassella at B&B Vigne Vecchie. While the town doesn’t offer almost any service other than the basic ones, this was undoubtedly the best value accommodation. The B&B is managed by a nice Italian lady; the rooms are spotlessly clean, the outdoor area is immaculate and breakfast is to die for. We were the only room in the whole B&B and still she laid a 2 mt. long breakfast table literally covered with everything you can possible want to start your day and more: savory homemade breads, selection of hams and cheeses, focaccia, yogurt, fresh fruit, home made cakes etc. It was enough for 10 people but we managed to eat a fair bit and breakfast kept us going for almost all day. In the evening, following the B&B owner’s recommendation, we booked a table at Cantine Menhir which was a fabulous experience, especially if you enjoy good wine!
Day 9. Coastal drive. The Salento coast from Otranto going South is stunning and it’s a lovely drive on a hilly coastline that stretches all the way down to Santa Maria di Leuca, where you can see both sunrise and sunset. You can’t go any further south than Santa Maria but before reaching it, take your time and enjoy the drive down. Start with a visit to the town of PortoBadisco. It’s a small and humble town so it will not take you long to have a walk around, follow the coastline and just prepared to be amazed.
Keep driving south and you will drive through Santa Cesarea Terme, possibly one of the ghostest town I have ever visited. Apart from a bus of older German people, we were the only people around. Not a soul was wandering in this town. Santa Cesarea must have had golden time, when the royalties in Lecce and Ostuni starting to convert it in a resort town, exploiting the therapeutic effect of the nearby springs but now it seemed irreversibly sad and abandoned. And it is a true shame because the location and the architecture of the town deserves a lot better.
On a side note, the Thermal Baths are open and they have got a webpage so I suppose that someone actually comes here. Follow the road south and before heading to the village of Castro and the Zinzulusa Cave, make a quick stop at Porto Miggiano. In summer it gets hard to find a spot on the rocks but if you have come out of season you’ll have the whole place to yourself.
Keep driving and a few minutes from Porto Miggiano, you will arrive in Castro, another lovely coastal town overlooking an emerald green bay.
We didn’t reach Santa Maria di Leuca since apparently there is not much there but if time is on your side, it could be worth the drive – now that you have arrived this far south.
Day 10. Otranto – Gallipoli. Head on the east side of Puglia, where the well renowned town of Gallipoli is located(less than an hour drive from Otranto). Hopefully you have chosen to not visit during peak season when moving around town is a true nightmare. I haven’t heard of anyone being in this area in July/August and enjoying it. Last summer, such was the number of people in town, the sewage system collapsed. Out of season is a charming quiet town absolutely worth a day visit (or more).
Day 11. If the weather is sunny and warm enough, I would just spend one day chilling out on the beach, having a drink in one of the Lidos (if they are open) enjoying the emerald water and the blue sky and getting ready to (sadly) go back home. We didn’t mind driving again from Casamassella to Gallipoli area and spend a day on the beach but another option is to sleep in Gallipoli for a night.
Day 12. Bari / Brindisi (depending on where you return the car). We didn’t stop in any of these two cities because we had run out of days but they could both be a good overnight stop with plenty of things to do and visit.
I’ve tried to suggest a few sleeping options but if you are looking for more detailed information on the accommodation in Puglia (apart from the usual booking.com, tripadvisor etc), have a look at Charming Puglia as well, to get some interesting and unusual sleeping options.
Food wise, Puglia variety of food is sooo delicious that I have listed my favorite food memories in a separate post. Don’t read if you are hungry!
I read somewhere that “for the Italians Puglia is like Cornwall for the English”. A lot could be said on this sentence. I love England but let’s be fair: you wouldn’t exchange Puglia with Cornwall in a million years!
As with anything: the more the better… Andalucía would probably need at least a good month touring around but if you have got just a week off and you are prepared to do a bit of driving, it’s still a great destination, especially in early Autumn or Spring when the weather is still warm and you can enjoy the main cities avoiding the massive summer crowds and the unbearable heat. Andalucía gets truly hot in the central summer months, making it almost impossible to walk around cities like Sevilla or Cordoba so I wouldn’t advise to visit in summer (unless you plan to stay on the coast for the majority of your trip). March, April and May in Spring and September and October in Autumn are – in my opinion – the best months to visit this region.
May deserves a separate note since 3 different celebrations are held in this month: May Crosses Festival, Patio Festival and Cordoba Fair and this obviously has an impact on the amount of tourists visiting the town. If you decide to visit in this month you will have great photo opportunities but, as always, prices will be higher than normal and you will need to book well in advance.
If you only have 8 days/7 nights and want to get a good glimpse of Andalucía, be prepared to having to drive a fair bit. The good thing is that, as all over Spain, Andalucía lives until late: shops and museums stay open until late, restaurants serve food until gone midnight so if you live like a Spaniard for a few days you can actually make your day last a lot longer.
Here is a tentative itinerary:
Day 1. Málaga-Granada (130 km). Land in Málaga and hire a car from the airport. Roads are pretty good and it’s very easy to get out from the airport and start your journey into Andalucia. If it’s only the two of you for a 1 week on-the-road-trip, pack light and rent a small size car (it will be cheaper and a lot more practical to move around in the narrow town streets). We used Sixth Car and we were happy with them, particularly because they didn’t charge the drop off fee for picking up in Málaga and returning in Barcelona (very useful if you plan to land/depart from different airports). In Granada, I stayed at Párraga Siete, a nice and very reasonable hotel downtown, a quick walk from the main sites. Just for being nosy, after eating in their restaurant, I had a look at the rooms of AC Palacio de Santa Paulaand they were really nice and very well appointed; replacing an old convent, the setting is gorgeous with a beautiful courtyard where you can dine (during the warm season). Unfortunately when we visited it was raining so we couldn’t take advantage of the outdoor area but the meal and the service were spot on. Spend the afternoon walking Granada, visiting the historical centre with the majestic Cathedral, the Albaicín (declared World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1994) and the Sacromonte neighbourhoods.
Day 2. Visit La Alhambra.
I have been to this UNESCO heritage site 3 times in my life and every time it has been absolutely stunning, even when it was pouring with rain :-(. Don’t rush and take your time to visit the magnificent palaces and the gorgeous Generalife gardens. Book well ahead and remember: no matter what time of the year you book, La Alhambra will always be busy. Spring is probably the best time of the year to visit with the blossoming gardens. Even though Granada is only 1 hour drive to the coast, because of its proximity to the Sierra Nevada mountain and its height (738 metres above the sea level), it does get cool and breezy so come prepared.
Day 3. Granada-Cordoba (200 Km). A bit of a drive but Cordoba deserves of course a stopover. Spend the day visiting the stunning Mosque/Cathedral of Cordoba (access is free early in the morning)
and its Patio de los Naranjos (Oranges Courtyard) and get lost in the beautiful white narrow streets of the historic town dotted with blossoming flower pots (Calleja de Las Flores).
Walk over the Roman Bridge to get a good glimpse of the city. Cordoba is a mix of Arab, Christian and Jewish culture and it’s all reflected in its architecture, its people and its varied food. After a long day driving and visiting, treat yourself to a late Arab bath at Hammam Al Andalus. Your body will thank you! You can find this Arab bath in Granada as well, in case it can fit better with your journey plan (maybe after the visit to La Alhambra?). I tried the Granada one and it was excellent.
Day 4. Cordoba-Sevilla (140 km). Sevilla is a true gem so be prepared to be gobsmacked. Too hot in summer to be enjoyed (it’s the hottest major metropolitan area in Europe), it is a its best in Spring and Autumn.
The Expo ’92 gave Sevilla a massive tourist push, making the city one of the most visited in Spain. Sevilla would probably need a full week to be appreciated and to enjoy its exciting night life but if you’ve just got a day and half, concentrate yourself on the main sites. The Cathedral with the Giralda, the Alcazar and its gardens, Plaza de España, Metropol Parasol etc. You might be knackered by the afternoon, so get back to your hotel for an hour of proper siesta and go out to eat not early than 10 PM. It may sound far too late (especially for an English or an American) but if you want to get the atmosphere and the andaluz vibe, you have to make an effort and try to get used to their lifestyle.
Day 5. On your 5th day, have a bit of a lay in and don’t hit the streets too early. Visit whatever you have left to do in Seville and then make sure you have a seat booked at La Casa de La Memoria for a flamenco show.
The last time I visited Sevilla was in 2013 and I still remember how this show impressed me (I was literally in tears and goosebumps). Make sure to get there early, so you can get a good spot.
Day 6. Whatever you do next, it will depend on whether you are happy to do a bit more sightseeing or just want to relax for a couple of days on a beach before flying back. I choose the latter (since I had already visited Andalucía extensively and I needed to warm my bones a bit!) so I decided to head to a place called Caños de Meca. On our way down (it’s just over 2 hours from Sevilla), we stopped at El Puerto de Santa Maria, where we actually spent one night. Spain doesn’t get more Spanish then this…you will see. Though I personally think it doesn’t require a 1 night stopover (especially if you have only 7 nights available), it’s particularly interesting for those Sherry lovers to visit the Osborne cellar and to get excellent fried fish (and more).
We had a quick lunch at Romerijo and unfortunately we couldn’t eat in one of the restaurant that I had bookmarked, El Faro del Puerto. It is supposed to be truly excellent so if you can book a table, do it! And then let me know how it was 😉
Caños de Meca is probably one of the strangest seaside locations that I have visited. Once land of big investments, it got stuck with the economic crisis that hit the world (and severely injured Spain… which has not recovered yet): plenty of buildings would need refurbishing, a lot of them looking abandoned, streets were not particularly clean when we visited…so, why going there?
Because – out of season – it is an amazingly peaceful place with gorgeous long sandy beaches (don’t expect any sunbeds, as far as I remember), gorgeous views and a stunning coastline rich in vegetation (the Breña and Marismas del Barbate Park is the second largest coastal reserve in Andalucía). The water is amazingly clear, the beach was surprisingly empty (end of April) and the water was not too cold to allow us a couple of (brave!) good dips. When we got there, it truly felt like what Formentera used to be (see my full post on this amazing island): wild and peaceful. If you decide to visit Caños de Meca, be prepared to change your mindset (even though by now it should already be adjusted to the andaluz style!) 🙂 because you have just arrived in a very laid-back and easy-going town: here nobody will rush. Why rushing? Accommodation in town was generally quite basic; since it was a special occasion, we decided to stay at a place called La Breña, a few steps from the beach in a loft room with views of the Mediterranean sea. Their restaurant was very good as well (a kind of variation on the typical Spanish menus, still being very local) so I would recommend both the hotel and the restaurant. We were surprised by the lack of tourists (and very happy for that!) but the locals confirmed us that Caños de Meca does get jam-packed in summer and services that can’t cope with the amount of visitors. Therefore, I would strongly recommend to visit before/after peak season.
Day 7. Spend your full day on the beach. No need to give you any tips here, just chill out, enjoy the views, have a walk up to Trafalgar Lighthouse and then get back just on time for a drink watching the sunset.
Day 8. If you are flying out from Málaga, allow plenty of time to get to the airport (at least 3 hours). Our sat nav didn’t work (or I didn’t put the destination properly… more likely) and we ended up racing like maniac down the country lanes (it felt wrong but we kept going until we realized it was very wrong). And we almost missed the flight…
Don’t fancy driving? You can do almost everything of the above (except Caños de Meca) using Spanish trains (Renfe) or buses. Spanish trains are reliable, relatively modern and save you the hassle (and the cost) of the car but of course you loose a bit in flexibility. From Málaga, you can reach by fast train Sevilla (2,30 h) and Córdoba (1 h) and Granada by bus in 1,30 h. Málaga is also 2,45 h from Madrid, therefore flying to Madrid and catching a train connecting to Málaga is an option too.
Of course you will have left Andalucía without seeing plenty of wonderful town and villages but you have got the excuse to come back. Málaga, Ronda, Antequera, Estepona, Cádiz, Baza caves…there is plenty more to come back and plenty more to write on!
Not far from the French border, Girona (in Catalán and Gerona in Spanish) is less than 100 km from Barcelona. Ryanair planes fly here so it could be a great destination for a short and not too expensive getaway. I have been here a few times, the last one being April 2015 and once again I find myself in a pretty city with nice architecture, away from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona, with a lot of character and just a short drive to one of the most gorgeous coastline of Spain.
Girona is not a big city, you could easily explore it in less than a couple of days (depending how much time you want to dedicate to museums etc). It’s very pleasant to walk around since plenty of areas in the historic district are car-free. There is plenty to see in the old town: the Cathedral, Sant Pere de Calligants, the Jewish quarter, Plaça de la Indipendencia.
If you’ve got a car and a spare day, go and visit the former Benedictine Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes (almost an hour from downtown Girona).
When we visited Girona we based ourselves in a budget hotel just outside the old town, Hotel Margarit: very reasonable room rate, super clean room and walking distance from the centre. For lunch, we had a quick and reasonable menu del dia (daily menu)in one of the many restaurants in Plaça de la Indipendencia and then we started exploring. In the evening, we treated ourselves to a nice meal out in Placa del Vi, 7 in the namesake square. Despite reading some negative reviews on Trip Advisor, we personally had a very good meal with great choice of wines by the glass (I particularly enjoyed the Riversaltes dessert one). Unfortunately (as sometimes happens in Catalunya), despite noticing that we were foreigners (I can speak Spanish but not Catalán) the staff didn’t make a lot of effort to try to communicate with us other than in Catalán. Not a problem of this particular restaurant, since it has happened to me on more than one occasion in this region so I suggest you don’t get put off by this and just enjoy the nice food and lovely atmosphere.
If you are not here on a budget and you are prepared to pay some serious money to taste some amazing food, don’t forget that Catalunya region has got plenty of Michelin starred restaurants (53 as of Autumn 2015), including El Celler Can Roca (3 Michelin stars).
Not far from Girona there is another small town well worth a visit: Figueres, the birthplace of Salvador Dalí, one of my favorite artist. Figueres is twined with St. Petersburg, FL, another great city where for Dalí’s fans. It was an absolute genius and his Teatro Museu is true testament of that.
He once said: “I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream”. Once you are in you will soon understand that he has fully achieved his purpose.
Figueres is a relatively small town so you could easily spent just half a day here and combine it with a visit in the nearby Cadaqués or Port Lligat, another one of Salvador Dalí hot spot.
The last time I had been here was during an incredibly hot summer, back when I was 16 I think. I remember the heat because it was almost impossible to walk around before the sunset. I wasn’t driving at that time – of course – and I didn’t remember the road to get here.
From Barcelona it’s just over 2 hours (and that makes it a hot spot for weekenders); the last length of the journey is a pretty high and winding road (especially if your driving boyfriend suffers vertigo!), before you start your descend to the bay. Once at the bottom, you get rewarded with one of the most charming white fishing villages of Costa Brava, in the Alt Empordá region: Cadaqués. Whilst a lot of the Costa Brava villages/towns have been taken over by mass tourism, Cadaqués still retains its old charm: white steep and narrow alleys, lovely bars and restaurants set in the most scenic corners, beautiful views of the crystal blue water, picture-framed water front in a stunning location. An overall sense of tranquility and mellowness pervades this pocket-sized town and you will get it as soon as you step in.
In the past, Cadaqués had been frequently chosen by many writes, painters, poets and artists in general as a holiday spot or as a place to have a second home. Dalí, Picasso, Miro’, Magritte, Lorca and Breton just to name a few. And you can’t really blame them. Dalí is particularly celebrated in the area (his former house in Port Lligat – not far from Cadaqués – deserves a visit) so keep you eyes open to spot his face around town.
I was there last April, long before the crowds started to take over – as every summer – this tiny village of just over 2,500 people, with prices sky-rocketing and making it a mission impossible to find a not overpriced accommodation. But in April (still with a strong Tramuntana wind), it was perfect as it was: a quiet fishing village with few people around enjoying the serenity of such a gorgeous place. Spend a few hours wandering its narrow streets, walking the sea promenade and nosing in the few open shops.
Weather was still far too cold for a swim (unless you are used to swim in the North Sea, I suppose) but if you are happy with walking and enjoying a clara in an outdoor sun-soaked terrace facing the sea… well, then come in April (or at least no later than June)! 🙂 You will beat the crowds and once there you will soon understand how nice is to be almost on your own in such a magical town.
I can’t recommend any place to eat because we chose to have a jamón y queso sandwich-to-go and sit by the sea to enjoy the awesome scenery… can’t really blame me!
If you have come to Cadaqués, you may have already stopped at Figueres, a nice town home to the stunning and unique Salvador Dali Theatre Museum. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth a trip on his own, so have a look at my post on Girona & Figueres!
I left Cadaqués with true beauty in my eyes: the white fishing village, set amidst the darkness of the surrounding mountains in the cerulean of a Spring windy day soaking up in the blue-green water is possibly the best postcard to bring back home.
NOLA was a 580 miles detour from our planned trip. It was absolutely worth the long drive from St. Augustine, FL all the way through Alabama, Mississippi to Louisiana. Some will tell you that there is only one place in the States that has got the same vibe and soul of NOLA, being Key West. Although I do not fully agree, NOLA is without any doubt a unique place and possibly one of the best cities I’ve visited in America so far.
Before you head here, keep in mind a few things about this city:
Music. You don’t need to be a Jazz expert to love this city and discretely approach jazz if you are not a fan yet. Music is everywhere, at every corner, in every bar, in every square, in every restaurant. It brings people together and it brings happiness and joy at any time. If you can, go and listen to this guy….Kermit Ruffins, an amazing Jazz trumpeter and singer: amazing music and great fun!
We saw him performing with his band at the Little Gem Saloon and absolute loved them. In all honesty anywhere you go, you will have a good chance to listen to great music: any of the clubs on Frenchmen Street (lots of them have amazing jam sessions) will be great fun and most of them are free entry. We tried the Bamboula’s and their live music was great too; informal atmosphere, great tip-tap dancer and excellent music.
Café Negril is lots of fun too; free entry and with great jamming sessions to keep you going all night long.
Even during day time music will be literally everywhere; just take a stroll in Jackson Square and get some great live music in the open air.
Food. Eat everything you can, because everything is terribly rich and too delicious to leave NOLA without tasting it. New Orleans cuisine is exactly like its people: a mix West European, African, Caribbean and Native American influences. Gumbo, Jambalaya, Muffuletta, Po-Boys, Oysters Rockfeller, Beignets just to name some of the most famous delicacies.
Don’t be afraid of your scales back home: you can burn a lot of calories with long dancing sessions at any of the clubs on Frenchmen Street or listening to any street performer and shaking your hips 🙂 If you are planning to spend the night going from one jazz club to another, have a bite at The Three Muses on Frenchmen St. They are right in the middle of the action surrounded by plenty of other jazz clubs, they offer great food perfect for sharing and, of course, great live jazz music. Book in advance!
We also tried the Market Caféfor lunch and were not disappointed. The portions are massive so we chose to have a big lunch sharing different platters and skipped dinner. A separate note should be made for their Bloody Mary, one of the best I have ever had (except probably the one at Key West Hot Tin Roof). Head there at lunch time to grab a table in the sun and sit back: it might have been the sun, the live jazz music or whatever but to me this was truly delicious!
During our wandering around the city we tried also Joey K’s on Magazine St., an very reasonable restaurant busy with locals serving generous and yummy local food. Food was so rich that we had to skip dinner once again!
Following everyone’s advice, we were almost forced to try the famous beignets at the Café du Monde but as my mum always says “I prefer to get fat with something else”. Nice but nothing overwhelming and terribly terribly fattening.
I suppose it is a sort of tradition and to be fair is not such a bad plan to pick up some beignets and enjoy some street performers on the opposite side of Jackson Square in a warm January sunny day.
Architecture. As far as architecture goes, you can easily spend a week touring around NOLA and never get bored. Its buildings are, exactly like its cuisine, a mix of several styles and epoques: creole cottages, shotgun houses, double gallery houses, American townhouses, modern skyscrapers. There is a style and a color for everyone.
As many, I truly loved the French Quarter (with the exception of Bourbon Street) and the Garden District, where unbelievable huge mansions dot the lush tree-lined boulevards. We took the St. Charles street car from Canal St. all the way to the Uptown/Carrollton Area, stopping at the beautiful Garden District, visiting the Lafayette Cemetery, taking a long walk in the Audubon Park and wandering on the grounds of the Loyola University.
Apparently the area around Maple St. is very busy and lively but we got there too early and it was still pretty quiet and a bit uninspiring.
Accommodation. It’s hard to choose where to stay in NOLA, since there are plenty of options for any budget. Personally, I would stick to the area of the French Quarter where a lot of the action is. In the Garden District there are very nice accomodation options (particularly B&B) but it’s too far out from where you want to be. There are plenty of hotels and B&Bs on both Royal and Chartres St. between Canal and St. Ann St. and the area is always quite busy. Don’t choose an hotel a couple of blocks away from the busy area thinking that “it’s just a couple of blocks” because that does not apply to NOLA. Taking advantage of a bid on Priceline, we ended up for 1 night at Springhill Suites on 301 St. Joseph St. Not a bad spot and very good value. We then moved to the New Orleans Jazz Quarters, just off N Rampart Street in the Tremé neighbourhood. Nothing to say about the accommodation (we had the cheapest room but still good size with a very big and newly refurbished bathroom) and the breakfast. Despite the excellent reviews on TA, I wouldn’t probably choose it again since it was just a bit further out in a mainly residential area with few people about during the day and absolutely no-one during the night. The owners said it was absolutely safe….just wondering why you need a 2,5 m. iron gate to protect your B&B then! Although it was a pleasant walk during the day, I didn’t feel particularly safe in coming back at late afternoon/evening. I would rather stay in the very heart of the French Quarter (avoiding of course Bourbon St.). If you are visiting NOLA with a car (like we did), try to find a B&B or hotel with a gated car park; if not, the best option would be to leave your car in a guarded car park. It was not unusual to find car windows smashed in many street car parks around NOLA. It comes without saying: don’t leave anything valuable in the car.
Mardi Gras. If you intend to visit NOLA during the Mardi Gras celebrations, be prepared to pay a significant premium for your accommodation and to be surrounded by thousands of people partying (NOLA population almost doubles during the celebrations). Even though the celebration falls any Tuesday between Feb. 3rd and March 7th (depending on the date of Easter), the Carnival season starts after the Twelfth Night (Epiphany) so you can get a good glimpse of the Mardi Gras colors (purple, green and gold that stand for Justice, Faith and Power) long before.
Safety. This should be a priority when visiting NOLA, particularly if you are a woman on your own. Even in the extremely touristy French Quarter, it’s not unusual to read about bag snatches and robberies, some of them affecting tourists as well. Bourbon Street itself is pretty safe during day time (busy with tourists, Police and cleaning teams to wash out the party of the previous night!) but it can get less pleasant in the evening after midnight (particularly the last quiet blocks towards Esplanade). From our hotel walking down St. Philip St. we saw plenty of these signs.
Just to give you some numbers: as of July 2015, the New Orleans Police Department had 1,106 officers. Before hurricane Katrina, the NOPD had 1,742 police officers. And crime is not decreasing, consequence also of the terrible effects of the hurricane that hit the city in 2005, one of the deadliest in American history when, due to the levee system failure, at least 1,400 people died and hundreds of thousands suffered the aftermaths, loosing their homes and jobs (particularly African American living in low-lying locations). This doesn’t mean that you can’t visit New Orleans and enjoy yourself, the opposite. It just means that you should use common sense (getting a cab back at late hours is always a good idea) and exercise more precaution than usual (particularly during Mardi Gras celebrations and especially if you are a group of only girls).
I loved New Orleans but I left with a kind of bitter taste in my mouth. The fact that I can’t walk on my own everywhere at anytime of the day is a big restriction for someone used to walk almost everywhere; but I am aware that this problem does affect plenty of American cities. Poverty and homelessness is unfortunately a tangible trait of New Orleans and the luxurious mansions in the Garden District (almost untouched by Katrina) or the impeccable townhouses in the French Quarter are only one side of the coin; despite the amazing efforts of some non-profit organizations like Unity in providing housing and support to the homeless, plenty of people still live on the streets or in abandoned houses without the most basic services.
Less than an hour from Jacksonville and very close to the border with Georgia, lies one of the top 10 U.S. island, at least according to Condé Nast Reader’s Choice Award. It’s a lovely small island with beautiful powdery sand dunes and a lovely Historic District (Fernandina Beach) busy with charming bed and breakfasts and yummy restaurants. It’s one of the few old towns in Florida that still retain its old charm (even though a bit touristy). Once arrived, it will not be difficult to find a nice Victorian Bed and Breakfast to spend a few days and feel like you are back in time. It gets very busy during weekends so if you are looking to stay in a particular B&B book well ahead to not be disappointed.
For a while, we were even considering moving here and it’s not too difficult to imagine why: a short cycle from downtown Fernandina and you’ve reached a huge and vast beach, with soft white sand and beautiful properties facing the sea. Not a bad spot to live. There are plenty of accommodation options in the Historic District, most of them in a wonderfully kept Victorian style. If you are looking for something different (still Victorian but with a touch of modern) and wish to open your window to the ocean breeze, head to Elizabeth Point Lodge.
The place is absolutely gorgeous and has got some stunning views of the beach and the ocean. We didn’t stay here but we went in to see the rooms; in my view, the rooms facing the back of the property and the car park are nothing special but the ones with ocean view (for a premium, of course) could be well worth the investment.
Bear in mind that the great majority of restaurants are located in the Historic District so if you decide to stay on the beach you will have to drive or get a cab there. Food-wise, we decided to try España Restaurant and Tapas and were not disappointed: lovely outdoor garden, nice service and good food. If you have got a sweet tooth, have a look at Nana Teresa’s Bake Shop: their cakes and pies are absolutely D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S and I bet you will not leave empty-handed!
Amelia Island is generally considered an upmarket destination (more than its neighbour St. Augustine) and that is reflected in the average night rate of the many B&Bs (and the 2 big resorts: Omni Plantation and Ritz-Carlton): you will struggle to find anything below 150/200$. For a cheaper accommodation, right in the heart of the “action” (bear in mind that Fernandina Beach is not a party town, though), try Florida House Inn: some of their rooms are quite small but definitely cheaper than many other B&Bs in town and they offer a very good and generous breakfast. It’s next door to The Green Turtle Tavern, which is a good spot for a few drinks and live music.
There is only one thing that may spoil this idyllic place: 2 big paper mills, and that’s exactly the reason why we decided against moving there. They will not have an impact on your stay though, since you will probably not even notice them. As for anything else in this world, plenty of people will say that there is no issue at all with them (plus, they give work to a lot of local people) but having to choose where to relocate, the last decision is mine, I suppose.
Having said this, Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach Historic town are a beautiful part of Florida, definitely worth a visit.
I have to admit that I had been a bit of a pain with my boyfriend begging him to come here (making a big detour) to see the manatees but I really wanted to see them. I had a brief and unintentional encounter in Belize, near Caye Caulkner island, but at that time I was so excited for all the other marine life that I had seen on that day that I didn’t realize I had just met a beautiful example of an endangered specie. The Florida manatee is the largest of all living sirenians. Sadly, they have been hunted for hundreds of years (and still are, in some part of the world); vessels pose a huge threat to this specie as well and boaters are always reminded to exercise extreme caution (you will see plenty of signs in any marina). Since 1966 Florida Manatee has been listed as an endangered specie and a big conservation program has ensured that the Florida manatee population (that some thought was going to be extinct) accounts now for around 6,000.
Wakulla Spring State Park is an astonishing State Park in Florida, not far from Tallahassee. The flowing Spanish Moss gives drama to an unforgettable kind of Gothic scenario. For as little as 8$ (on top of the entrance park fee), you get on a boat that takes you slowly and quietly down the river Wakulla where plenty of gators, turtles and amazing bird species (including bald eagle, herons and egrets) live, and of course, manatees. As with all American tours, a friendly chap will give you a good introduction of the area and point you all the variety of animals that you will encounter during your tour.
The park gets very busy during spring/summer with a lot of visitors enjoying the spring waters. I visited the park in January 2015 (too cold to swim in the spring) and we saw several manatees during our boat tour. You can spot manatees all year round on Florida coastlines but during the winter months manatees head for warmer waters, such as springs and shallow rivers so you know where to go if you want to see them.
I visited the Everglades on 2 occasions and I was disappointed twice. Hundreds of tourist on dozens of buses driving down to Miami, boarding a noisy airboat and then quickly back on the bus. Wakulla Spring is completely different and well worth the detour. If travelling with kids, they would love it too!
If I had to choose an Highway to get stuck in traffic, I would definitely pick US Highway 1, the so called “Overseas Highway” that links the Keys to the mainland. You will easily understand why. It’s without any doubt one of the most scenic roads I have driven on. Miles of tarmac stretch from the Upper Keys to Key West, including the impressive Seven Mile Bridge. You can’t go any further at the end of your drive cause that’s where US 1 ends (actually, it starts here). You’ve reached Key West, the Southernmost point of Continental U.S.A. and you are officially in the so-called Conch Republic (that actually encompasses all the Florida Keys). Following a United States Border Patrol roadblock on the US 1 that isolated the Florida Keys residents, on April 23, 1982 Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow proclaimed that the Conch Republic was an independent state from the U.S.
You can even apply to get your own Conch Republic passport if you wish!
I had a great time in the Keys and here are my suggestions to ensure you have a blast too, if you are planning to go.
First of all, everything depends on the length of your stay and on what you want to do. When I visited the Keys for the first time, I thought it would have been pretty quick to get to Key West from Miami but it’s not. Miami-Key West is almost 160 miles, that’s to say over 3 h 30 journey (you don’t want to speed…plenty of patrols!). For this reason, in order to avoid unnecessary driving up and down the Keys (and spend more time doing what you want), choose carefully the Key you want to stay in, especially if you are planning to do any specific activity (diving, fishing, partying or just beach bum). In this sense, Fodor’s Travel Florida (which I didn’t particularly like on other topics) has a really extensive and accurate section dedicated to the Keys and the different activities for each of them. You could easily spend weeks on the Keys but a week in my opinion is enough to get a good feel and get back home with a good tan, your heart full of great memories and your liver intact!
Which Key to choose? The Keys are divided in Upper Keys (including Key Largo and Islamorada), Middle Keys (including Marathon), Lower Keys (including Big Pine Key) and, of course, Key West. Every Key has got more than a good reason to stay but, if I have to choose a couple, bear in mind:
Key Largo for diving, snorkelling, snuba.
Islamorada for good fishing.
Big Pine Key for being close to one of the best beaches I’ve ever seen (Bahia Honda State Park)
Key West: for partying.
I will focus more on Key West because it’s where we spent more time and because it’s a place like nowhere else I’ve been before (even though some things reminded me of Caye Caulkner, Belize).
Where to stay? Again, Fodor’s Florida guide details many sleeping options for every Key. If you are staying in Key West, I’d suggest a couple of places. Key West Bed and Breakfast offer very tastefully decorated rooms (the owner is an artist) with private or shared bathroom and nice common spaces and outdoor verandas. The B&B is close to the action but far enough to enjoy a relaxing and quiet sleep. They haven’t got a pool (only downside) but they have got a nice tub with jets in their backgarden. Another good option that we tried is The Conch House. They do have a big pool that enjoys sunshine until late afternoon, big well appointed rooms and very nice and friendly staff. Breakfast was excellent and the afternoon margaritas were a very nice bonus! My boyfriend says that the fact that the owner was particularly handsome may have helped to make my stay more enjoyable…. I am not made of wood. A rented apartment could be a good option to share the cost and have your own kitchen (and most of them come with a communal pool).
Where to eat? If you are travelling from Miami straight to Key West, break the journey with a quick lunch stop at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, a nice and informal eatery on Key Largo, you can’t miss it and it’s well worth the stop.
In general food on the Keys is quite pricey, even more on Key West. If you are staying in a rented apartment, you can buy your own food at Publix just outside the centre. Still pricey but definitely cheaper than anywhere downtown. Plenty of food options downtown Key West. For cheap and filling options, try Havana Restaurant on Duval Street: huge portions and great Cuban sandwiches! Alonzo’s Oyster Baris a safe bet too, especially during happy hour time where part of the menu is half price (from 4 to 6!). On Sundays, do not miss a brunch at Hot Tin Roof: they have an incredible Bloody Mary bar (with unlimited Bloody Mary, btw…) that alone is worth the visit! Again, it requires a few more bucks but you will eat so much that you will not eat anything else throughout the day. If you came to Key West with your partner, head to Louise’s back gardento impress her/him. Nice outdoor bar to get some good cocktails and stunning restaurant location. It’s not cheap but if you have got something to celebrate, that’s a great choice. Food was excellent and staff very competent. Oh, and do not leave the Keys without trying conch fritters and the amazing Key Lime Pie…the original and still the best!
What to do? Plenty of activities on all the Keys. I used Islamorada as a base for fishing and Key Largo for snorkelling (diving is supposed to be truly excellent but I am not very keen, despite having tried it). You will find hundreds of operators that offer fishing charters and diving/snorkelling boats; shop around and always ask how many parties will have the boat since there is nothing worse that being packed on a boat with dozens of other tourists. As far as snorkelling is concerned, it was good but nothing mind-blowing (unlike in Belize or Mexico).
If laying on the beach is your favorite activity, then you want to be close to Bahia Honda State Park. Bear in mind that the Keys in general are not famous for their beaches (so don’t be disappointed about the beaches on Key West) but BHSP tick all the boxes, and more. I’ve been to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and this is without any doubt one of the best. There are not many services on the main beach (Sandspur) except for a small bar/restaurant and toilets, so come well stocked and get ready to enjoy one of the best coastline of Florida with shallow and clear water and baby-powder sand.
But the truth is that 99% of the people that drive down (or fly), come here for a reason: KEY WEST. Located just over 150 miles from Miami and 90 to Cuba, this place is unlike anywhere else. It’s a mix of several cultures: Conchs, freshwater Conchs, Hispanics among others, together with a good number of vagabonds & hippies and an abundance of stray dogs, cats, iguanas and chickens roaming freely around town.
It is also a gay vacation hot spot (and some of the B&Bs gay-friendly are absolutely stunning) but the truth is that (almost) everyone loves Key West. I could spent (and I actually did) days just walking around town and the back streets. Forget Duval St. for a second and just get lost in the hidden back roads, far away from the crowd and the excess. Gorgeous and beautifully kept Victorian properties (most of them turned into bed and breakfast and boutique hotels…have a look at Alexandra B&B), lush and tropical gardens, trees in blossom everywhere….Key West is definitely a pleasure for the eyes.
People watching is also one of the best activity you can possibly do on the island while sipping your favorite cocktail. If you are an Ernst Hemingway lover, don’t forget that he lived here for many years and you can still visit his house but be prepared because it’s a major tourist attraction.
Don’t waste all your energy during the daytime….save some for the evening because the party scene deserves it, as well. Live music of all sorts is almost everywhere, bars are packed at any hour and night clubs offer great entertainment…
Key West is loud, excessive and sometimes can be a bit trashy too but everyone is here for the same reason: have an amazing time so just join the party!
What I didn’t like? Sometimes Key Westerns hold an unjustified sense of superiority. Their place is beautiful, no doubt, but a lot of it is also built to the mere use and consume of tourists so sometimes it feels too artificial (sunset shows in Mallory square are an example). Some of the people that live here haven’t left the islands in ages and that obviously keep them completely outside from the “real world”.
But in the end, I suppose this man is absolutely right….