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Sri Lanka: 5 Reasons Why It's The Perfect Destination For The First-Time Backpacker

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Tipped as the top travel destination for 2019 by Lonely Planet, Sri Lanka has it all for the outdoorsy traveller. From turtle sanctuaries and stunning white sanded beaches in the south, to the world famous tea plantations sprawled across the countries mountainous centre. 


If you are into animal watching, then you can spend your days bouncing around in an open topped jeep on safari, trying to spot wild elephants, crocodiles and leopards in the lusciously green national parks.  Mountain trekkers can head to a number of well know ranges, and can hike up some of the nations favourite peaks such as the steep and sacred Adams Peak at sunrise.  Head to the bustling and rugged city of Jaffna to soak up the culture of every day Sri Lankan life.  There are ancient temples, historical sights and plenty of religious ceremonies to attend. 

A climb to the sacred Adam’s Peak is well worth the reward….

A climb to the sacred Adam’s Peak is well worth the reward….


Whatever you choose to do in this diverse country, you really won't be disappointed because the standards are high and the quality of your experience is valued and welcomed by the locals.  Tourism is integral to the country's economy and in recent years they have seen a significant boom.  So for the first time backpacker, you have the peace of mind that the route is well trodden and the Sri Lankan people will treat you like family.  

Here are 5 reasons why we think Sri Lanka should be on the top of your to-visit list for the first time backpacker....

  1. The Friendly People

Not all people you meet on your travels will greet you with open arms, but the Sri Lankan’s are some of them.  After travelling in 16 countries over 10 months, we decided that the Sri Lankan's are some of the warmest and most welcoming folk that we've ever met.  Men would buy us coffee in the street, hosts would spend hours making us the most delicious home-cooked food from scratch, people are always on hand to help you get on the right buses, locals will share their food (and seat) with you on the train, and sometimes people will even walk down the street with you just to have a chat! You can’t get much friendlier than that.

Locals on the train to Nuwara Eliya who shared their food with us

Locals on the train to Nuwara Eliya who shared their food with us


Obviously there will always be the odd few rotten apples that are trying to get something for nothing, but on the whole we found the Sri Lankan's very trustworthy and helpful.  Impressively, nearly everyone speaks English due the empire, so if you are ever in need of help then just ask the person next to you and I'm sure they will do their best.  The hospitality in hostels and guest houses is next level, and hosts will really go out of their way to make your experience the best that it can possibly be.  We really don't have a bad thing to say about anyone we met!

2. It's Just So Cheap!

Sri Lanka is very well priced to travel around and on some days we would spend around £12 per day between us, that's with eating in the 'hotels' which are actually restaurants where the locals eat.  It's possible to find accommodation for around £6 for a double room per night on booking.com, and if you are happy to eat like the locals then a couple of kottu's (a Sri Lankan street food of chopped roti bread, vegetables and meat gravy fried on a hot plate) would set you back between £1.50 to £3.00 for 2 portions. That's a whole lot of bang for your buck!  A beer at an off-licence will be around 300 rupees (£1.50) which isn’t so bad. 

Well-priced produce at a local store

Well-priced produce at a local store


Travelling by bus is very cheap indeed, ranging from about 50p to £4 per journey (the £4 journeys would be if you were travelling for 5 hours across the country), and the train can be even cheaper but slower and far more crowded.  A train ticket to Colombo from Kandy is around 100 rupees for 2nd or 3rd class, or you can travel in 1st for only 500 rupees (£2.50)!  A rickshaw in the capital is around 50 rupees per kilometre, which isn’t too shabby.  


Visits to the national parks can however be pricy (they have to make their money somewhere right?) so if you are trying to keep your costs down then just choose to visit only one or two of them on your trip.  For example, a visit to the Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari set us back £50 per person, and a trek in the knuckles mountain range with a guide and driver was £50 between us.  Compared with the costs of food, travel and accommodation, these prices seem extremely high, but if you acknowledge that you are paying for one or two people’s time and consider it a once in a lifetime experience then the costs aren't so bad after all.  I mean, you get to see elephants in the wild!  If you are happier eating in tourist restaurants for peace of mind of hygiene then there are many to choose from, and prices will be more like £3 to £6 for a main meal.  We ate at the local restaurants 3 times a day and never got sick, so if you want to taste real Sri Lankan food and pay cheap prices then find the nearest 'hotel’.

Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari!

Kaudulla National Park on an elephant safari!


3. Easy To Get Around

Transport in Sri Lanka is great for the backpacker.  You can pretty much get anywhere by bus, or if you want to travel at a slower pace then taking a train is a good option.  If you don’t want any hassle with transport and money is no option then just take a cab or tuk tuk.  Remember to negotiate hard because most likely the first price will be far too high. 

We took several local buses to get to the base of Adam’s Peak in central Sri Lanka

We took several local buses to get to the base of Adam’s Peak in central Sri Lanka


The buses are the best way to get around though, and they’re are hilarious!  Travelling on one is such an experience, and in some ways they are the funniest part of the trip.  These are the local buses where the driver blasts out Sri Lankan bhangra for 4 hours straight, everyone is stuck to the sweaty leather seats, there is a line of people standing all the way down the isle clinging on for dear life, whilst the driver over-takes at full speed like a maniac.  So obviously the speedy dangerous driving is not a plus side of travelling by bus, but you will be guaranteed to get there quickly.  We would recommend sitting towards the back for safety, and not looking out the front (for obvious reasons).  Ignorance is bliss they say.  The bus assistant will be the one taking ticket money, and will tell you where to put your oversized bags.  The benches on the buses are made for small bottoms, so you will most likely be squashed up against the person next to you.  But for a couple of pounds per journey, who really cares?!  The buses are clearly marked in English where they are headed for, and there is always an assistant on board to ask if you are unsure.  Sri Lanka is the perfect sized country, because you can pretty much travel across the whole of it within a day.  

Local kids waving the train on by…

Local kids waving the train on by…


4. Diverse

Sri Lanka is a unique country with so much to offer.  Depending on what you’re into, every traveller can have a completely different experience.  If you like tropical beach breaks, sun bathing, surfing, turtle conservations and whale watching, then head to one of the many beaches that sprawl the lengthy coastline.  Along with beachy vibes brings chill out bars with like-minded travellers, parties and fun times.  

A beautiful sunset at Negombo beach near Colombo

A beautiful sunset at Negombo beach near Colombo


Looking for more of a nature-inspired trip? Well this is the place for you.  Never have we seen so many exotic animals in one country before… elephants, eagles, monkeys, crocodiles, mongoose, leopards, giant squirrels and wild boars.  The list is literally insane.  Each national park has a different focus, some are the home to the leopard whilst others of the elephant, so choose which one you visit thoughtfully.  It’s worth noting that entry to these national parks is in the form of a jeep safari, so don’t think you will be able to trek in there to enjoy the nature! 

The middle of the country is more mountainous and hilly, so for nature lovers and those into trekking you can head to the likes of the Knuckles Range, Sigiriya, Horton Plains, Adam’s Peak, Ella, Haputale and Lipton’s Seat.  There are plenty of walks to do without paying for entry to the National Parks, and luckily there are lots of local buses to get you away from the main towns and cities to start your route from.  The tea plantations are spectacular, and are free to roam around for the enthusiastic walker.

The view from our guesthouse at Nuwara Eliya, surrounded by leafy tea plantations

The view from our guesthouse at Nuwara Eliya, surrounded by leafy tea plantations


If history, culture and religion is your thing then this a country rich in all of these areas.  With Portugese and Dutch attempted invasions, British actual invasion, and civil war between the Tamils and Sinhalese lasting several decades, it’s hard to hide the very recent wounds of history, particularly in hard-hit areas like Jaffna where bullet holes are visible in the crumbing buildings.  The majority of the Sri Lankan people are of Buddhist religion, with a small proportion of Hindu’s, Christian’s and Muslims.  There are many incredible temples and places of worship to visit along with religious sights such as the ancient Mihintale and Polonnaruwa ruins.  One of our favourite moments was experiencing a Hindu ceremony at the decorative Nallur Kovil temple where men took their shirts off with the sound of live percussion instruments playing.

Nallur Kovil Hindu temple in Jaffna

Nallur Kovil Hindu temple in Jaffna


5. The Food

If you’re a foodie like us then you will probably be salivating right now at the thought of eating delicious Sri Lankan food.  Imagine coconut milk curry with an explosion of spices, beautifully balanced with chunks of sweet butternut squash, and spicy beetroot curry with home-made coconut rotis… it’s just too delicious!  The coconut milk is freshly made and my god does it taste like it.  Rice and curry is the staple, but really when you order it you end up with about 6 components including daal and fresh vegetables too.  No one goes hungry in Sri Lanka!

Fresh fruits at a homestay in Kandy

Fresh fruits at a homestay in Kandy

The kottu is incredible, it’s a street food of fried roti bread, vegetables and sometimes egg covered in meat gravy.  It’s one of the cheapest dishes you can get and it’s probably the tastiest because it’s so god damn naughty.  One of the funnest things is choosing between the surplus of fried street snacks, the Sri Lankan’s do love a deep fried snack!  Nearly anywhere, you can pick up vegetable rotis (that look like a vegetable samosa), dosa (fermented pancake), egg hoppers (crunchy pancake in the shape of a bowl), string hoppers (well-seasoned stringy noodles you eat for breakfast with your fingers), jackfruit balls… the list is endless.  And then there’s all the sweet stuff too… coconut pancakes, buffalo curd with plant nectar (like honey), and all the fresh fruits.  It’s worth going to Sri Lanka just for the food alone, we were so excited to be eating it every day that sometimes we just worked our schedule around the food!

The legendary Kottu street food. We had definitely put on a few pounds after 4 weeks of eating this bad boy.

The legendary Kottu street food. We had definitely put on a few pounds after 4 weeks of eating this bad boy.


We Dig It!

I feel like I could go on and on about all the great things that Sri Lanka has to offer, but really it would be better for you to just go and experience it for yourself.  For the first-time backpacker, this really is a fantastic country to visit because as far as travelling goes; it is relatively easy, the people are lovely, it’s got so much to offer and it’s cheap.  I would say that 2 weeks is probably the minimum amount of time to spend there, we went for 4 weeks and in that time we only went to 2 beaches!  So if you do want to visit then I would strongly suggest not trying to cram everything in and rushing around to much.  It’s a relaxed country to be in, and it’s all the small moments that make this place so special; like sharing a dinner of home-cooked food, or watching the sunrise up on Pidurangala Rock. 

For the first-time backpacker, you really won’t regret a trip to the incredible Sri Lanka….

A tranquil sunrise on the top of Pidurangala Rock, just watch out for the sneaky monkeys!

A tranquil sunrise on the top of Pidurangala Rock, just watch out for the sneaky monkeys!



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China: Top Things To Do In Beijing

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Beijing is a place of many contrasts; modern yet traditional, politically charged yet relaxed and slow paced. Visitors must visit the sardine packed sights of Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City, but must not forget to wonder the quiet ‘hutong’ for street food and traditional culture. Be prepared for friendly locals who want to chat and photograph you, in between their shopping and selfies! Beijing is full of surprises, an epic place to introduce yourself to Chinese culture and their delicious noodles…

 

Find (Some) Peace At The Temple of Heaven

South of the Forbidden City sits the Temple of Heaven, a series of temples originally built in the early 1400's during the Ming and Qing emperors reign as a place to pray for good harvests, along with its surrounding green spaces.  Elders come here to play games together, sing Chinese songs in unison, to dance, and to practice the art of tai chi amongst the leafy pockets within the park. The trees are hilariously ordered in neat rows, although many are 800 year old cypresses which are desperately trying to twist and turn out of their regimented spots.  The temples are very pleasing on the eye to walk around, they follow many rules of feng shui and so are beautifully symmetrical with odd lucky numbers being the focus.  Unfortunately the number of Chinese tourists does continually make it difficult to enjoy the tranquility of the space, so we would strongly recommend getting there at 8am on a weekday to peacefully watch the locals going around their business.  Entry is 35 yuan for a combination ticket which allows access to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, the Circular Mound Alter, the Echo Wall and all the surrounding parks. Nearest tube stop is Tiantandongmen.

 
Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven park

Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven park

 

 

Admire The National Centre Of The Performing Arts

The huge half-dome silver structure has caused a bit of a stir in the historic city of Beijing.  Many have shunned it as the shiny egg on the cityscape whilst others have marvelled at its modernist aesthetic.  To us it resembles a Chinese lantern and it’s contemporary style helps to bring Beijing in line with the modern world.  The building is nestled in between the Hall of the People in Tian’nammen Square and Nanhai lake which makes it a perfect location for visiting whilst at other attractions.  Surrounded by a large square of water, the rounded lantern appears to be half submerged, floating like a scoop of ice cream in a cola.  The inside is also worth a visit with a notable deco-style curved roof in the entrance stairwell and a chunky metal pronged structure in the centre, guarded by 3 symmetrically placed security guards.  Sometimes it is possible to visit the exhibition halls inside, but when we visited these weren’t open.  Of course if your budget allows then the best way to experience this modernist building would be to see a show, whether it be an internationally renowned dance or theatre.  The closest tube stop is Tian’anmen Xi and check the below link for opening times and schedule. 

http://en.chncpa.org

 
The National Centre Of Performing Arts

The National Centre Of Performing Arts

 

 

Watch Over The Forbidden City In Jingshan Park 

Directly north of the Forbidden City sits the lusciously green Jingshan Park, it’s the protector from bad karma in Feng Shui alignment to the ancient city.  Make your way up the hill via one of the many staircases and you will discover 7 temples all propped up on the steep slope with the largest Buddhist temple being at the top.  From here you can see spectacular views across the city, the Beijing smog only adding to the mysterious aesthetic, and the Asian glazed tiles on the rooftops below of the Forbidden City.  The park makes a welcoming escape from the busy streets and being up high in an otherwise flat Beijing is a nice change.  The locals gather in the lower parts of the park to dance, practice their tai chi and chat amongst friends, creating a warming atmosphere for others visiting.  On our trip, we were lucky to see over 100 locals singing together at the tops of their voices to some traditional Chinese music, we thought it was a really loud speaker at first!  The people are so friendly in Beijing’s green spaces, trying to involve you in their games and always greeting you with a big grin on their faces.  The closest tube stops are Nanluoguxiang and Beihai North and entrance fee is an affordable 20 yuan. 

 
The view over the Forbidden City in Jingshan Park

The view over the Forbidden City in Jingshan Park

 

 

Stroll Around The Lakes

Enjoy Beijing’s slower pace of life and take an afternoon stroll around one of the many beautiful lakes.  Serine and tranquil, the lakes cover a relatively large area in the city centre, and are surrounded by cafes, bars, restaurants and small independent shops selling anything from groceries to notebooks. Watch the locals swim in their speedos, play ping pong, exercise on the outdoor gym machines, play mahjong and watch the world go by.  It is possible to ride in a rickshaw around Houhai lake and the surrounding Hutong (traditional alleyways), or to explore by bike or by foot for a more relaxing experience.  On the lakes sit the occasional pagoda framed by willows, oriental in style and reflecting in the jade water, the sight is like a typical scene from a Chinese painting.  The lakes make a wonderful break from the hustle and bustle of city life in Beijing and so we would strongly recommend spending some time here.  The lakes are called Xihai Sea, Houhai Lake and Northern Sea, and the closest tube stops are Jishuitan, Shishiahai and Beihai North. 

 
Dusk at Houhai Lake

Dusk at Houhai Lake

 

 

Explore The Trendy Nanluogu Xiang Alley 

Once a rundown old alley without a single Belgium waffle in sight, this commercialised shopping street is a haven for young snap happy Chinese tourists willing to splash out a few yuan on some tasty grub and quirky merchandise.  You can buy pretty much anything on a stick..... chicken, sweet waffles, a spiralised potato, the popular sugar-coated fruit, or perhaps if food isn’t you bag then what about an actual bag, or some cool postcards, or a piece of hand-engraved jewellery or some ceramics.  You can hear the chinking of metal from the engravers at one of the front windows, and the musical toot of the ocarina from another.  Around this area are now many courtyard hotels that you can stay in.  What we love about this place is that drinking alcohol isn’t really a thing, yes there are a few nice bars that specialise in craft beers (at a very steep price mind you), but the Chinese are happy to be out wondering around at 10pm on a Sunday night just enjoying the food and soaking up the atmosphere.  Make sure you explore some of the many Hutong, side alleys, off this street as they have a wonderful historic feeling to them taking you back in time to the old Peking days. Closest tube stop is Nanluoguxiang.

 
Waffle on a stick at Nanluogu Xiang

Waffle on a stick at Nanluogu Xiang

 

 

Get Arty In The 798 Area

With numerous art galleries, cool design shops, graffitied walls and too many cafes to choose from, the 798 art district is well worth a visit in the North East corner of Beijing.  One of the most renowned art spaces is the UCCA gallery, where many international artists have showcased their work including Olafur Eliasson, the Danish light and space artist.  At a 60 yuan entrance fee it’s probably worth checking that you’re interested in what’s on beforehand because the space is quite small.  Nearly all of the other galleries are free to enter, and it makes for a nice afternoon dipping in and out of art spaces, searching for interesting pieces and exploring the tiny alleyways.  If you enjoy conceptual and political art then this is the place for you, but if you are looking for world renowned artworks then it’s probably best to go elsewhere.  We are recommending this more as a cool area to explore rather than solely for the artworks, so grab a coffee, take a wander and soak up the atmosphere.  Closest tube stop is Gaojiayuan.

www.798district.com

 
Graffiti and scooters in the 798 Art area

Graffiti and scooters in the 798 Art area

 

 

Munch On A Scorpion At Wangfujing Dajie

On the south end of Wangfujing Dajie shopping street sits a bustling food market packed with hungry shoppers and some seriously tasty treats.  You could compare this to the Borough market of Beijing but with smaller bites rather than full meals.  You can pretty much buy anything on a stick from battered squid to live scorpions (they get cooked once you order them), marinated chicken to crunchy crickets, and hundreds of brilliant red berries (tanghulu) glazed in sugar are sold by the plenty.  Picky street food is such a big thing in Beijing, everyone walks and eats, takes loads of photos of themselves eating, and eats some more.  There are tens of stalls at this market all selling different bites, and each stall has a huddle of people outside munching away on their recent purchase.  If you are around this area and looking for somewhere quick to grab some tasty grub then this market is for you!  Many items can be bought for around 10 yuan (£1.15) a piece, and if you feel like splashing out then a large battered squid is 35 yuan (£4.25) and was pretty tasty.  Closest tube stop is Wangfujing.

 
Street food at Wangfujing Dajie

Street food at Wangfujing Dajie

 

 

Eat Like A Local On Andingmenei Dajie

Just north east of the trendy street Nanluogu Xiang sits the more local and cheaper Andingmenei Dajie.  This main road is packed with good quality Chinese restaurants and street vendors with a local price tag to go with it.  Just head to one of the busy ones and you can’t go wrong. You can pick up almost anything here, including some very acquired dishes of which penis and brain were on the menu, but putting that to one side there is a wonderful array of foods including hotpots, BBQ meats, noodle dishes, vegetables, Peking duck, and soups to name a few.  We would thoroughly recommend the Beijing noodles which is noodles cooked in broth with freshly cut carrot and cucumber, beans, peanuts, oil and black bean and meat paste, and also the world renowned crispy Peking duck.  To get the full local price tag you need to be ordering from one of the smaller restaurants where the menu isn’t in English, so perhaps try to get someone to order it for you if you don’t speak Chinese.  We ordered 4 great dishes in one restaurant with a beer and the bill came to 75 yuan (£8.50)! Bargain.  Also it’s worth noting that the portions are normally massive so make sure you don’t go overboard.  Closest tube stop is Andingmen and walk Southward’s from there.

 
Four delicious plates for 75 yuan!

Four delicious plates for 75 yuan!

 

 

Feel The Buzz At The Qianmen Dajie Shopping Area

Packed full of Chinese tourists, the busy streets of Qianmen Dajie and Dashilan Commercial Street are a shoppers paradise and an interesting place for those wanting to soak up some bustling Chinese street culture. You can buy anything here from Chinese medicine to speciality sweets, cheap knock offs of traditional Chinese clothing to Tibetan hippy lanterns.  Bright red Chinese symbols illuminate the stores and everyone is busy selling from their shop fronts, rounding up customers with their cheap prices and loud voices.  It makes for a fun afternoon wandering up and down the surrounding streets, some are no more than a meter wide, and there are some great food places for a spot of lunch if you’re hungry.  Head over to the lanes on the West side of Meishi Street to explore the slightly quieter and less developed shopping streets (Dashilan West and Yangmeizhu Byway in particular). Here you can find cool design shops, yoga studios, fancy coffee places and a few courtyard hostels all mixed in amongst local houses with old men playing majong. It’s best to explore these streets by foot or by bike if you want to cover a bit more ground. Definitely try one of the traditional Chinese pastry sweets, it’s always fun trying to figure out what the flavour is! Closest tube stop is Zhushiko.

 
The Quianmen shopping area

The Quianmen shopping area

 

 

See The Infamous Forbidden City 

A trip to Beijing isn’t complete without a visit to China’s number one attraction, the Forbidden City. Built in 1400s during the Ming dynasty, this collection of ancient buildings and temples is the largest of its kind in China and is in immaculate condition considering the millions of people that have traipsed through it in its lifetime.  The Forbidden City got its name because it was off-limits to all, unless you were important enough to be invited to visit by the emperor, and it remained that way for 500 years.  Wander along the north-south central axis to view the largest of temples, impressive in their scale and acute attention to detail, and scattered either side is a collection of smaller buildings that used to be living quarters now used as museum spaces. Visiting the city as early as possible is the best idea to avoid the thousands of selfie loving tourists waving their sticks around.  If you are expecting a peaceful stroll around the complex then think again, all the points of interest are crazy busy and it’s difficult to see inside any of the temples.  Having said that, it is the world famous Forbidden City and so it’s worth seeing it once in a lifetime, especially if you are already in Beijing.  Entrance fee is a steep 120 yuan per person and audio guide is 40 yuan (not sure that it was all that helpful though). Closest tube stops are Tian’anmen West and Tian’anmen East and access to the site is on the south side. 

 
Inside the Forbidden City

Inside the Forbidden City

 

 

Explore Beijing By Bike

Beijing is a huge city with a population of 22 million people, and as you can probably imagine it takes a long while to travel by foot.  The best way to see all of the sights in a day is to grab a bike and get cycling!  Amazingly all the main roads have wide cycle lanes so you are away from busy traffic, because as little as 4 years ago everyone travelled by bike rather than car.  It is possible to cycle past Tian’anmen Square, the moat around the Forbidden City, around the outskirts of the hilly Jingshan Park, through the bustling Qianmen Dajie shopping area, through the trendy alley Nanluogu Xiang, around The National Centre Of The Performing Arts, past the built up Xidan Bei Dajie and around Hou Hai lake all in a day if you are feeling energetic, and there are plenty of other places to explore off the beaten track. Make sure you explore the many Hutong, alleyways, that run from east to west all across the city.  Bike rental is 40 yuan from Downtown Backpackers Hostel and their bikes make for a super smooth ride.

 
Exploring the many hutong (alleyways) by bike

Exploring the many hutong (alleyways) by bike

 

 

Stand in Tian’anmen Square 

Surrounded by huge soviet-style blocky buildings, the famous Tian’anmen Square sits as the worlds largest public square and has a significant place in Chinese history.  The square was built by Mao to display the strength of the Communist Party, and if size represents strength then they definitely got their point across.  Standing in the middle, you really get a sense of the vastness of the space and even with a few thousand tourists present there is still enough room to run around.  Impressively, up to a million people have gathered here during the cultural revolution and to pay their last respects to Mao.  It’s a strange visit, all goers are ID and security checked in long queues beforehand, and once in you are surrounded by fences, soldiers, cctv cameras and undercover police officers! The overall feeling is very repressive and perhaps un-fun, step out of line and you could imagine being taken down in a second!  That said, it’s worth going just to see these things for yourself and to get a glimpse into what Chinese life is really like, mouth schtum. Closest tube stops are Tian’anmen East and Tian’anmen West and Quinmen.

 
In the huge Tian'anmen Square

In the huge Tian'anmen Square

 

 

Trek On The Great Wall

Only a couple of hours from Beijing centre sits the legendary Great Wall.  Every year millions of tourists flock to see a bit of ancient history, and to walk on the two thousand year old structure that runs 21,196km from Dandong in the east to Top Lake in the west.  Many stretches of the wall have now been restored and replaced by new stones, creating busy tourist hotspots with numerous selfie sticks and tour guide flags, but there are some sections that remain left untouched, crumbling in their fragility and beauty.  Jiankou is one of these sections, not technically legal to trek on, but worth every risk once you see the splendour of the wall epically snaking around the mountain tops. Highlights include the Sky Stairs, a near vertical staircase that has since crumbled to a few pieces of jutting out rock (you have to have nerves of steel to think about tackling this one) and the Ox Horn which is two incredibly steep watchtowers perched on the mountain tops.  It is possible to trek large sections of the wall in a day, basing yourself in one of the small villages below, or camping out with only a sleeping bag in one of the watchtowers. Jainkou is a photographers delight as the wall is the most dramatic here, climbing high and low winding over the hills, and surrounded by mountains as far as the eye can see.  The experience is exhilarating, to be trekking on the Great Wall with only a handful of people is possibly one of the most memorable things you could do in a lifetime.  We would thoroughly recommend it!  All information about getting to and from the Jiankou section of the wall can be found here:

Trek And Wild Camp On The Great Wall Of China

 
Trekking the Jiankou section of The Great Wall

Trekking the Jiankou section of The Great Wall

 

Beijing is a fantastic city to visit, we loved our time there and 5 days was the perfect amount of time to explore what it has to offer.  If you have been to Beijing and have any other recommendations then we would love to hear them!

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Germany: Top Things To Do In Berlin

We spent a week staying in the heart of 'trendy' Kreuzberg with a great Airbnb host, luckily arriving at start of a much needed sunny spell. Berlin has so much to offer we couldn't possibly list all the many things to do,  especially as the capitals nightlife rarely sleeps.  Here are a few of our favourite things; some that we stumbled onto, others came as recommendations and some pure classic touristic activities that must be witnessed. Introducing, our Berlin top picks....

 

Spend A Sunny Sunday In Mauerpark

This really does have to be top of our list of fun things to do in Berlin.  Every Sunday people of all ages and cultures come together to celebrate the joys of Summer with an eclectic afternoon of live music, market stalls, dancing, drinking and relaxation on the grassy mounds.  The festival-like atmosphere is incredibly fun, there is so much energy, creativity and freedom from the crowd that you just can't help leaving feeling inspired.  People come here to chill with friends and to hang out with strangers in a carefree and open Berlin kind-of-way.  Expect to see people jamming to the beat of a drum, others dancing however feels good.  We were lucky enough to see an amazing Latin funk band all the way from Chile perform on our visit to Mauerpark.  One of the highlights though has to be Bearpit Karaoke, which consists of a hilarious Irish guy orchastrating an afternoon of karaoke of anyone willing to sing to a very large cheering crowd.  It really is entertainment at its best, you get to see such a diverse mix of people performing their favour songs, and the crowd go really wild! Mauerpark is free to enter every Sunday, either bring drinks with you or pay an extra Euro and get a cold one there.

Bearpit karaoke in the Mauerpark 

Bearpit karaoke in the Mauerpark 

 

Soak Up Kreuzberg

Kreuzberg has exploded over the last few years and now nearly every space is a bar, restaurant or corner shop selling food and booze.  The cafe culture is huge, and there really are hundreds of people lining the streets with a tinny in hand chatting to friends and enjoying the moment.  The atmosphere is free and easy, super fun but relaxed.  No one is rushing here, clubs open all night and some all weekend so people are chilling on the streets till late and then head out even later. Görlitzer park is a great place to hang out on a sunny evening or weekend, and on Tuesday nights the locals come together to make music and jam in the park.  Pick up a delicious donner kebab for 3 euro or a famous Berlin currywurst, you really can't get more taste for your buck.  Burgermeister constantly has a queue of about 20 people snaking down the street, or if you are more into Mexican, Indian, Italian, vegan or ramen then it's all there for you too. Wondering around Kreuzberg at night is like feeling the energy of the earth.  Nothing else matters except that you are there and you are with like-minded people.

The infamous donner kebab at a bargain 3 euros!

The infamous donner kebab at a bargain 3 euros!

 

Admire The Murals At East Side gallery

There are many places to see the Berlin Wall across the city, but the East Side Gallery is a must-go for all travellers.  A long section of wall has become an outdoor canvas and mural for artists new and old. The gallery has two functions these days; one as showpiece for graffiti, an art form that can be found across the capital.  The second, a reminder of Berlin's divisive history. Much famed is the piece 'Fraternal Kiss' between two politicians from the 70s, this kiss actually happened, around much fanfare. Situated near Oberbaumbrücke station is the Wall Museum that does a fantastic job of taking the viewer through the journey of the lives either side of the wall. All the way through to the triumphant dismantling of wall, with a whole room devoted to Pink Floyd's landmark gig 1990, an absolute must see! 

 
Murals on the East Side Gallery

Murals on the East Side Gallery

 

 

Party Like A Berliner

You can't visit Berlin without hearing talk of it's infamous party scene. Standard clubbing this is not. Think of it more as experiential process! The mystery surrounding Berlin clubs has gathered over many years where promoter, bouncers and psychologists (apparently) curate the evening dependant on music, vibe and crowd. Clubbers shouldn't feel disheartened if they don't get in. It's normally that some has decided your look, vibe, whatever doesn't fit the night. That said not all clubs attest to these strict principles. We had a tip off from a local that Kater Blau is great spot for a good night and the staff are not allergic to foreigners. Set up by the folks who ran the legendary Bar 25, Kater Blau looks to continue the vibe on a bigger scale by creating a playground for grown ups, fun woody outdoor hangouts in the layout of a ship, foil curtains, coloured lighting, lots of pockets to hang out and chat, dark and light techno, balconies, club all night long till the next day, and unlike other cities, the bouncers just leave you be to chat and make new friends in an open and inclusive haven.

Nightlife in Kreuzberg

Nightlife in Kreuzberg

 

Watch The Sunset at Templehof

The story behind Templehof park starts in an interesting way, if you don't already know the history. Once a commercial airport in its beginnings, later a airforce base in the war, then an airport to the stars, later becoming a US airbase; finally being given back to the people in 2008 to become one of the largest green spaces in the capital. I mean its huge, its an airport right! Given its size there's an array of activities to do around the park; one could rent bikes and cycle, others were blading, few were even windsurfing or those less adventurous just fly a kite. There are two large BBQ areas where Berliners convene in great numbers to drink and dine. One of the most original aspects of this park is the social projects that run through it. Every decision on upgrades or new areas of the park are decided on by the people. One of the most recent additions is the beautiful growing area that is open for visitors to wonder through, sit, read, and admire the foliage. Surrounded of course by fruit, vegetables, wild flowers and bee friendly flora that sit into Heath Robinson style grow boxes, platforms and seating.

Beautiful sunset at Templehof

Beautiful sunset at Templehof

 

Feel The Divide At Treptower Park

Treptower park is where East meets West; a huge park that can be walked through for hours.  Before entering the greener parts you must witness the huge soviet memorial.  The structure really stands out from more conventional western public art.  Upon entry you are met by two huge arching stone gates, very minimal, very dramatic, very soviet!  This park is the largest landmark left by the soviet empire in Berlin leaving the viewer with powerful communist visuals to contemplate. If that was not memorable enough, you can keep walking down the river to find a disused fairground. As legend has it the fairground was built by local man, a local drug dealer, who used his profits to build this fairground for the local children. When he was jailed the fairground went into disrepair, the remnants can be view through a fence, very mysterious! if you do need somewhere to take the kinder there some fun wooden play areas littered in the forest.

The Treptower Memorial

The Treptower Memorial

 

Re-live History at Checkpoint Charlie

It's impossible to visit Berlin and not see the influence of the wall. The divide that split the capital, and to some extent the country, is one of the most important historical events to shape Europe and the world. There is only one place to learn about all the details of the wall and that is to visit Checkpoint Charlie, USA's and USSR's infamous border crossing point. A place that symbolised many of the cold war divides. Visitors can discover stories of escape plans, some that succeeded some that didn't, potential war starting events of the 60s, and the design and engineering that USSR put into the wall development, all totally fascinating. We learnt so much, for example, who new Berlin was actually split into 4 quarters with France and Britain also administrating parts of the capital! And that it was Russias GDP that eventually brought the collapse of the soviet empire. There is so much information to take in you may wish to split your visits across a couple of days. From the checkpoint one can read the timeline of events for free on the large boards running up to the checkpoint. Then a more detailed exhibition can be found inside the boarded area for €4, finally a visit the to the checkpoint Charlie museum. Not forgetting the East Side Gallery for the best graffiti and detailed accounts of life either side of the wall.

 
Remains of the wall at Checkpoint Charlie

Remains of the wall at Checkpoint Charlie

 

 

Promote Plant Power

If you're one of those people who enjoy their time in nature, Berlin has many outdoor spaces, one in particular is the Prinzess Innen Garten (eco garden) found in Kreuzberg. An impressive wooden structure that caught our eye, inside we discovered a huge tree house made from recycled woods with seats aplenty, the perfect spot to enjoy a couple of drinks. As you wonder through the rest of the garden it's clear this plays a big social role for the area as they include many ideas that bring people together including a 'free box' where clothes can be swapped, cooking and gardening workshops that were happening, a bar and food stalls. All these parts came together to form a great atmosphere. Lest we forget, many beautiful growing spaces of organic fruit and veg which visitors can purchase and an impressive recycling area. People can bring unwanted metals and woods to the garden safe in the knowledge they will be used for grow boxes on site.

The Prinzess Innen Garten

The Prinzess Innen Garten

 

Chill Like a Local on the Canal

Berliners make fantastic use of their open spaces, these places are shared and navigated with a sense of openness. As long as there is mutual respect people can live however they like. As a result spaces like canals, parks and streets become melting pots for social get-to-togethers. Especially the canal which offers many spots to eat, drink and be merry. We would recommend wondering the Landwehr Canal in Kreuzberg on sunny evenings and you are likely to hear live music, or you could grab a takeaway and devour it on the bank of the canal. Or purely walk the paths soaking up the lovely multicultural-ness of the area. If your visit falls on a weekend be sure to attend the locals market around Hobrechtbruche on a Sunday, where second hand wares are all the rage, vegan food is rife and coffee is freshly ground.

Chilling with locals on the Landwehr canal

Chilling with locals on the Landwehr canal

 

Warehouse Haven

Mark first visited the RAW bar area, unknowingly, i 2008 when it was just a few connected warehouses crumbling and derelict with industrial charm. Any soul was free to roam this playground of old buildings. Fast forward 9 years and this space has been transformed into a vast district of bars, cinemas, gig venues, restaurants, climbing wall and art spaces while maintaining the industrial aesthetic that made it so special in the first place. You can wonder the RAW bar area on any day or night of week and find something to do, or just sit back and chill in one of the many bars it is so well known for. You can get to the area from nearest tube stop Warschauer Straße. Just go explore it and have some fun.

 
Raw Bar Area

Raw Bar Area

 

We hope you like our top things to do in Berlin, if there is anything we can help you with then let us know in the comments box below.

 

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