A Travellerspoint blog

Sepang, Malaysia

sunny 34 °C
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My last stop before returning was in Kuala Lumpur, partly because it was the cheapest way to get back but also because the Formula 1 Grand Prix was in town. I caught a late flight from Manila and ended up staying in a capsule container hotel at the Kuala Lumpur airport terminal. These capsule hotels are popular in Japan and Korea but I've never stayed in one and it was just ideal. After walking off the plane and through customs I walked around the corner and straight into the hotel - without even going outside. The capsules are setup using small shipping containers stacked upon each other on two to three and four levels meaning you climb a ladder to reach your cubicle and slide on in. There's not enough room to stand up but you have a shelf, a light and a power point, so it's comfortable. Plus you keep your luggage in a locker, it's all you really need. After pulling down the blind (no door) I quickly fell asleep.

After an early rise the next morning, I grabbed some food from the supermarket in the airport, jumped on the shuttle bus and went to the Sepang racing circuit - which was only about 15 minutes away. I'd seen the Formula 1 cars in action Albert Park in Melbourne quite a few times however it was great to see them on this purpose built circuit with a huge grandstand. I was even lucky enough to be able to join the pit lane walk meaning I could see the cars and mechanics up close. A 15 or 20 minute ride back and I was in the airport collecting my backpack in jumping on a plane back to Melbourne.

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Gyeongju, South Korea

overcast 25 °C
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Gyeongju is often referred as a museum without walls, which is certainly apparent when you get out of the bustling centre. Gyeongju and its surrounding sites seem to be the cultural heart of South Korea. I stayed at Guesthouse Momojein which was great. Plus it's conveniently located south of the river and not far from the regions cultural gems.

Sights in Gyeongju

Cheomseongdae - One of the world’s oldest astronomical observatories, constructed in the 7th century.
Daereungwon Royal Tomb - A large grass covered mount that is an ancient burial tomb of a king where 11,000 artefacts were uncovered.
Gyerim - A woodland area right next to the site of the Silla kingdom palace.
Donggung Palace & Wolji Pond - Built in 674, this area contains ruins of a palace and fortress, along with gardens and a man-made pond.
Bulguksa - Built in 528, it's a stunning UNESCO World Heritage listed temple in among mountains. This is a bus ride away from Gyeongju.
Seokguram - Part of the Bulguksa complex (a 4km bus ride away at Mt. Tohamsan), Seokguram is one of Korea's national treasures. It's a temple that houses a Buddhist sculpture, regarded as one of the best in the world.

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Yangdong Folk Village

On my last day in South Korea I went to a small village, north of Gyeongju called Yangdong Folk Village. It's a 700 year old village which amazingly has been almost preserved throughout that entire period. There was a lot of destruction to many areas and buildings in South Korea during the Japanese invasion, however they didn't touch Yangdong Village. It's a living and breathing village with a few hundred houses that date back to the 1300's, with stone walls and thatched roofs. What made it even more special, was the fact that each house has its own little veggie patch. People in each home grow all sorts of fruit and vegetables meaning that everyone is living off the land. There are no shops or advertising and the entire town is UNESCO World Heritage listed, so thanks to their funding it should remain this way. It's a fascinating place and feels like you're walking through a Zelda game.

After exploring a village for a few hours I had some food, jumped on the bus back to Gyeongju and then caught another bus on to Busan for the next flight!

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Busan, South Korea

overcast 27 °C
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After a fantastic time in Seoul, Byeongsu and I took the fast train south east of the country to the second biggest city - Busan. It's a 325 kilometre trip but only takes 2-2.5 hours if you take the KTX train. Busan has a more laid back feel to it compared with Seoul however it's still a big city with over 3.6 million people spread over a huge area due to the various mountains that are dotted around. It's known for nice beaches, hot springs, nature reserves and seasonal events.

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We stayed at Blue Backpackers Hostel in the centre of Busan which was clean, had good facilities and was only 25,000 won (~AUD$27). From there we spent the weekend exploring the city, local attractions & eating good food!

Sights in Busan
Haeundae Beach - A nationally renowned beach, that Korean's flock to in the warmer months.
Haedong Yonggungsa - An impressive buddhist temple in Gijang-gun built in 1376 during the Goryeo Dynasty, right by the seaside.
Gwangalli Beach - At 1.4km stretch of beach flanked by great cafes, restaurants and views of Gwangandaegyo or Diamond Bridge.
Jalgachi Market - A fantastic market full of all kinds of fresh seafood. A must see.
Taejongdae - A scenic natural park with rugged cliffs facing the open sea on the southernmost tip of the island - Yeongdo-gu.

Late Sunday evening Byeongsu caught the train back to Seoul to go to work whilst I went to the bus station and caught the 50 minute bus to the next destination - Gyeongju.

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Seoul, South Korea

overcast 28 °C
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South Korea has been on the bucket list for number of years thanks to stories from other travellers, what I've read and interest in the North and South Korean situation. I flew from Taipei into Seoul pretty late and was immediately impressed with the airport and subway system which took me right into the city centre. Seoul, the countries capital is huge and it's difficult to comprehend the sheer size of this place. There are 10 million people yet the efficiency of the subway system and the fact that there a multiple business districts means connecting Seoul over such a large area means you don't notice it as much as say Hong Kong. It's a fascinating and buzzing metropolis with modern skyscrapers, pop culture, along with historic Buddhist temples, palaces and traditional street markets.

It was great to catch up with a good mate Byeongsu, a Seoul local that we lived with in Canada and who visited us in Australia only a month or so before. He took me too some cool parts of Seoul including Gwangjang Market, Gyeongbokgung Palace, Cheonggyecheon, a light show at the Han River and more. We ate raw beef, had a traditional Korean BBQ and generally a fantastic time in such a bustling city.

Like anywhere in the world that you travel to, you can either go on your own or as part of a tour but nothing beats being able to really understand a place through chatting to a local. Having someone to ask loads of questions to and finding out all you can about a place in terms of what they do and the way they live allows you to really understand more about their culture.

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Sights in Seoul

Cheonggyecheon - a 10+km long stream and recreation space in downtown Seoul
Gyeongbokgung Palace & Museum - Impressive palace built in 1395
Myeong-dong - Seoul's shopping capital with cathedrals and markets.
N Seoul Tower - The best way to get a grasp of the sheer size of Seoul.
Changdeokgung - World Heritage listed palace and one of the 5 grand palaces build during the Joseon dynasty.
Deoksugung Palace - with a regular Royal Guard ceremony.
Jogyesa - Impressive Buddhist temple & grand main hall.
Heunginjimun - One of the 8 historic gates of the original Fortress Wall.
Changgyeonggung - Another one of the 15th century royal palaces.
National Folk Museum of Korea - Interesting museum for Korean customs & culture
Namdaemun Market - Good for shopping.
Banpo Bridge - A two-level bridge over the Han river with a rainbow water show.
Kukkiwon - The Taekwondo World Headquarters, great place to check out a demonstration.
Bukchon Hanok Village - A traditional Korean village.

South of the river 'Gangnam' was also well worth checking out. It's where the wealthy live, so modern buildings, fancy cars and exclusive shopping is everywhere.

Similar to Taipei, I stayed in two different parts of the city. First in a hostel in the shopping area of Myeong-dong and then in Bukchon, a traditional Hanok Village. The Airbnb guest house in Bukchon was fantastic thanks to the nice couple I stayed with. They cooked up some delicious dinner, breakfast and took me on a walking tour around the local area.

Even though the city is huge, it's scenic as it's set among mountains that surround it's core. Going up into Seoul Tower allows you to see just how beautiful this part of the world it is. However there is a mountain range that eclipses the beauty of the mountains surrounding Seoul and it's called Seoraksan. It's about 2 1/2 hours on the bus east of Seoul.

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Seoraksan National Park, South Korea

overcast 25 °C
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After getting some snacks in the local 7-Eleven, I jumped on the bus and got dropped off at Sokcho which is the nearest city to the Seoraksan National Park. Sokcho is located on South Korea's north east coast and following a quick look at the beach I got myself a couple of huge sushi rolls and took the local bus in towards Seoraksan National Park, just as the sun was setting. I stayed in a hotel called Norumok which was a budget hotel however it had everything I needed. There was a little kitchenette, ensuite, TV and the best part was that it was only about two kilometres from the National Parks entry. This meant I could walk there each day or catch a local bus, compared with the 35 to 40 minute bus ride you would need to take if you stayed in a hostel in Sokcho.

Similar to Taroko National Park in Taiwan, you can spend days exploring the Seoraksan, with load of trails and many multi-day hiking options. However due to time constraints I selected 3 of the trails I thought would be the best and most convenient.

It certainly didn't disappoint. The first trial I went on followed the river to Biseondae and then up Geumganggui Cave. I had no idea what to expect, but after two hours and a climb up the side of a cliff, it lead to a very cool cave which was literally a hold in the cliff. The cave contains a small temple and offers some spectacular mountainous views across the national park. The rain, low cloud and lack of any other hikers just added to the atmosphere. It was certainly a great place to eat lunch and soak up the scenery. I then walked further on towards Yangpok Shelter along crashing rivers and through lush greenery.

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The next day I went to the top of Ulsanbawi, a one way hike that takes around 2.20 hrs one way. The distance is not that far but the climb is pretty steep. You do have railings and steps all the way so technically it's fine. The 360 degree views at the top are incredible it's a properly special place. After returning ,I jumped on the cable car and went up to Gwongeumseong, a different mountaintop that offers even more incredible views from a different perspective.

Seoraksan is a special place and I recommend going there mid week to avoid the crowds. It's one of those places and times that you just want to bottle. After returning to Norumok, I picked up my luggage, caught a local bus back to Sokcho and then caught one of the frequent buses back to Seoul.

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Taipei, Taiwan

overcast 28 °C
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Taiwan was a bit of an unknown destination, I knew about Taipei and had read that there were some good national parks but other than that, I wasn't really sure what to expect. They are a manufacturing giant just off the coast of China with 23.5 million people with a relatively small land mass. One of the first interesting things to understand was the fact that they aren't officially classified as their own country (despite having their own government and military). It's a little confusing however it turns out that when China had a civil war last century, the communist party won and the opposing party sought retreat on the island of Taiwan, claiming to be the real 'China'. Over time this claim dissipated with the rest of the world, who now acknowledge mainland China with Taiwan being left in a peculiar situation.

I flew into Taipei and quickly realised there was loads to see and do. It's a bustling large city with a super efficient subway system. Neon signs, tall buildings, endless shopping areas combined with great street food and a traditional culture that seemed to be a fusion of Chinese, Japanese and other Asian influences.

For the first few days, I stayed at JV's Hostel right next to a night market on Tongua St, not far from Taipei 101 and returned to stay at 3SS not far from Taipei Main train station. Both were great - small rooms but had everything you'd need.

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Sights in Taipei

There were some really great highlights including:

- Taipei 101 - Formerly the tallest building in the world (currently 4th), at 509m with 101 floors and pagoda design, it dwarfs every other building in Taipei.
- Elephant Mountain - A walk up Elephant Mountain is an ideal way to get a view back over the city and see it's scale.
- Memorial Hall / Liberty Square / the City Gate - Are architectural show pieces.
- Temples - Longshan Temple, Boan Temple & Xingtian temple are very popular with worshipers and look fantastic.
- Shopping Next to Ximen Station - Is bustling with neon signs, people shopping and eating into the night.
- Presidential Office - You wont be able to get too close but it's an impressive 100 year old baroque-style building.
- 1914 Creative Park - Home to all sorts of creative talents and buildings including an upside down house! The park is used to showcase the talents of theater groups, painters, wood sculptors, writers, movie producers and more.
- Shilin Night Market - Taipei's largest night market with a huge range of culinary options.
- National Palace Museum - Not far from Shilin Night Market, the palace has a huge collection of nearly 700,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks which is one of the largest collections of its type in the world.
- Maokong Gondola - South east of the city is a very scenic gondola that climbs up for 20 minutes into lush mountains where tea is grown, produced and tasted.

It's a city that you certainly need at least 5-7 days for. The subway is great but like any city, it's always good to walk from place to place and dodge the endless stream of scooters!

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Jiufen, Taiwan

rain 25 °C
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After a slow yet scenic train trip I arrived in Ruifang and then jumped on a local bus to go to the small town of Jiufen. It was a old gold mining town up until the 1950's and has since become a popular tourist town following the release of the movie 'City of Sadness'. The movie was a hit and since it came out in 1989, people from Taipei and abroad have been flocking to the city.

It's a small town with great views over mountains and the ocean with narrow winding streets and traditional building scattered on the mountain side. The 'old street' is full of local eateries where you can sample loads of Taiwanese food from a peanut ice cream wrap to stinky tofu (smells terrible, tastes a little better) and everything in between. It's a great place to wander and sample the food and admire the views.

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I stayed at the Flip Flop hostel which is fantastic. The guy working there takes people on nightly walking tours, giving guests some pretty cool insights into the town including it's history and it's local artists. One day was enough but it would have been great to stay longer to just relax and soak up the culture.

The next day the owner of the guest house told me that typhoon Meranti was due to hit Taipei on Friday, the day I was due to fly out. Taiwan is used to typhoons however Meranti was classified as the worlds largest of the year and was almost guaranteeing the fact that I was not going to catch my flight out of Taiwan. Luckily the typhoon ended up going west towards China and not up towards Taipei however I still felt the edge of the typhoon which had incredibly ferocious winds.

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Hualien & Toroko National Park, Taiwan

overcast 30 °C
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I was really looking forward to the next part of the trip. After jumping on a train in Tapei's central station, I headed east and then south down Taiwan's east coast toward Taroko National Park. The nearest town to access the national park is Hualien. A small yet vibrant town with great food, weather and a really cool night market. I stayed at the very nice Sleeping Boot Backpacker Hostel which is right in the centre of town.

Taroko national park is big and you could send many days exploring the various trails from short hikes to multi-day treks. With limited time, there are basically 3 options: jump on a day tour from Hualien, utilise a hop-on hop-off bus service or rent a scooter and have full freedom flexibility.

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Of course I rented the scooter (after checking my travel insurance). It cost 500 Taiwanese dollars and after signing a the written contract (all in Chinese) off I went for the day. The ride up to the park was around 30 minutes away and one great thing that I had was a map of Taiwan download to my phone with the app 'Here Maps'. With headphones in, it allowed me to have full offline voice navigation which directed me to Taroko National Park. Much easier than having to stop all the time to check a paper map and try to work out what the street signs said. I just enjoyed the ride.

I first went and checked out Quizing Beach which is about 7 kilometres north of Hualien and then went on to Chingshui Cliffs which is where the ocean meets 800 metre mountains. It's these cliffs that form the entry into Taroko National Park. Following a river into the national park, you're suddenly dwarfed by these huge sheer cliffs either side as the road winds through a gorge. Along the way there are trails, rivers, temples and another buildings to check out. It was fantastic. The further you go, the more the road climbs, up to 1,000 metres in altitude and well beyond that.

Some must see highlights of Taroko National Park include:
- Shakadang Trail
- Changchun (Eternal Spring) Shrine
- Yanzikou (Swallow Grotto) Trail
- Jiuqudong (Tunnel of Nine Turns) Trail
- Cimu Bridge
- Lushui Trail
- Xiangde Temple Trail

After the last stop, I kept riding and as the road climbs, you have amazing views back towards the ocean. Daylight and rain was the only issue, so I quickly got back on the bike and rode back towards Hualien. I was back in time to go to see the night market again enjoy some more food before dropping the scooter back at around 9:30pm. It was one of those great days, where you find yourself enjoying every minute.

I did plan to spend another day in Hualien but decided to go back to Taipei via a one night stopover in Jiufen, a place that had marked before the start of the trip but didn't think I'd have time to visit.

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Singapore

sunny 32 °C
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Last time I travelled to Singapore was in 2008, right at Chinese New Year. What I now realise is that the city certainly has a different feel to it the rest of the year. I recall a lot of the areas such as Little India, downtown and even China Town being quite empty with many of the businesses closed. The waterfront on the other hand was teaming with people, festivities and all sorts of celebrations.

It was quite different this time around. Singapore is a true modern metropolis with 5.4 million people within the relatively small area of 719.1 km². With low taxes, this country is has the presence of many of the worlds largest companies. It's well run, modern, has great infrastructure and you get a real sense that a good portion of the people here are wealthy.

After an overnight flight via Kuala Lumpur, I arrived in Singapore and stayed at the very convenient 5footway.inn Project located at Boat Quay, right in the heart of the city. Small but comfortable, modern and affordable accommodation. China Town was this time bustling, as was downtown and after exploring the city on foot, I caught up with a good pal from home and we went and tried the local specialty - Singapore Chilli Crab. Pricey, but very tasty.

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Another difference this time around was Marina Bay Sands and Gardens By The Bay. Almost unbelievably, this entire area did not exist in 2008. Marina Bay Sands is an architectural marvel, both inside and out. It's well worth going to the observation deck, however you can avoid the official S$23 ticket and request to go to up to the bar instead. The views are basically the same and it's free - although you should get yourself a drink and enjoy the view. Gardens by the bay is also a great place to walk around and explore if you have a few hours to spare.

The other area I explored was the famed Sentosa Island. It's an island resort accessible by foot, bus or cable car that attracts 20 million visitors per year! There's plenty to do and see including Universal Studios, golf courses, beaches, a bird park and more.

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Serbia - Belgrade

overcast 13 °C

Our stay in Belgrade was just not long enough. We arrived after dark in the evening and had to catch a morning flight out the next day. We made the most of it however, thanks to some helpful advice from our host at Hostel Revolution.

We walked most of the major areas within the city, first stopping at Skadarlija street which is full of very nice restaurants. We indulged and ate a delicious casserole at a restaurant called Tpu Wewupt. After checking out Knez Mihailova street, another pedestrian area, we ended up at the Belgrade Fortress! This place is open 24/7 and seems to be the place for young people to hangout.

We returned the next morning to get beautiful views over the Danube and Sava rivers. The other side of the river has actually never been developed, which is in stark contrast to most other cities of the world. People here must not have valued river views! It won't stay like this for long however as there is a $3 billion plan underway to redevelop the whole area.

A bus to the airport and the European leg of our adventure had come to an end! The time to return to Australia had arrived.

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Albania - Tirana

sunny 16 °C

Tirana is the capital of Albania, 2 hours south of Shkodër. It's a busy bustling metropolis and unfortunately for us we could only experience it for 1 night. We stayed at the very comfortable Tirana Backpacker hostel with a great outdoor area. Loads of oranges were also perfectly ripe on their orange tree, so we weren't lacking in vitamin C after our visit.

The Scanderbeg square is home to the National Historical Museum, National Theater of Opera and Dance, and the Ethem'Beu Mosque. It was busy with traffic and people mingling, in fact the whole city seemed to be. The International Centre of Culture pyramid was build by the Russians in 1988 and is now used as broadcasting center by Albanian TV channel Top Channel. At night it's a pretty eerie sight. The Blloku district was once home to the elite Albanian politburo during the communist era. The area was gated just for them and therefore it is full of impressive old architecture. It's now an up-market shoppng and restaurant district.

We had some very tasty Albanian style doner kebabs, which were delicious and got an early night before an early bus to the airport the following day.

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Albania - Shkodër

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After a 1.5 hour bus ride we landed in the heart of Shkodër, a city located in northern Albania. We stayed at the centrally located 'Mi Casa es Tu Casa' hostel, a quirky and very welcoming place to chill out for a few days.

We didn't have any expectations for the city as it was predominantly a stop-over to get to Tirana. Apart from Rozafa castle, there aren't too many major sights for a traveller however we really enjoyed unique Albanian culture. There are coffee houses everywhere and they are all full of guys drinking espresso. It seems coffee is the drink of choice and most often it's guys hanging out with guys - not sure where the girls were!

You do notice some economic differences with other European countries, since the Socialist Republic was dissolved in 1991 and the Republic of Albania was established. The last 24 years has seen political unrest including a financial collapse and also affects from the Kosovo War. There seems to be less wealth in general and an ageing infrastructure.

The people are friendly and vibrant, which was noticeable as we walked along the Bojana river, and as we ate some tasty Albanian food at a restaurant called Peja. This was just one of the many local restaurants, which cook up local specialties each day and offer a menu that is based on what food is freshly available. They keep the food warm in a bain marie and you just select what you feel like. No listed menu with prices was a good change! We had pasta, potatoes, a range of veg and some Albanian sausages.

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Montenegro - Ulcinj

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Our next stop was just one night in Ulcinj, southern Montenegro. We booked an apartment at 'Apartments Adriatic' which had great view over the town and ocean. After a tasty dinner at Pizze Bife we walked the bustling waterfront, followed by another walk in the morning throughout the old town. It was nice but also felt a little sketchy in the area between the town centre and the bus station.

It was a short stay, next up - Albania!

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Montenegro - Kotor

overcast 22 °C

From Dubrovnik, we headed south into Montenegro en-route to our fly out destination in Albania. Kotor had been recommended to us and we completely forward on that recommendation! It's a wonderfully preserved walled in town set on among mountains and the Adriatic sea. It dates back to the 7th century. The town wall climbs up the mountain side to the Castle Of San Giovanni which gives you a stunning view. Inside the old town you can get lost in the labyrinth of lane-ways which were purposely designed that way to confuse potential invaders.

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We took a day trip to the nearby town of Perast. Perast is a small town with two unique islands, one of which is home to R.K.C. Gospa od Škrpjela cathedral, which you can take a small boat out to.

Our hostel called 'Old Town Hostel East Wing' was just about as good as it gets, set inside a 500 year old building with great amenities and a good group of travellers at the time we stayed. Great price too, only 12 euro's per per person with an en-suite. Our favourite place to eat was Mesara Tanjga, with loads of fresh salads and veg but also all kinds of raw meat. You just choose your type and cut, and they cook it up! All for about 4 euros.

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Croatia - Dubrovnik

We flew out of England with Monarch Arilines on one of the strangest flights we've been on - there were a total of 16 passengers. Let's just say, we could easily stretch out!

Dubrovnik is a popular tourist destination for all Europeans and it's clear to see why, the people are friendly, it's affordable and the old town completely stunning. It's located in southern Croatia right on the Adriatic sea with the old town dramatically clinging to the cliff edge.

We stayed at the 'Rock Palace Apartment Midnight Lady', via Airbnb and were given a great introduction of the area by our great host, Zlatan Muslic. The location was good and we had a full kitchen, bathroom and outdoor area to relax in. November was an ideal time to come, the weather was still good and the crowds were minimal (apart from when the large cruise ships came in for a few hours).

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We made the most of our few days in Dubrovnik, there is plenty to see and do. The old town was a great place to explore, with endless winding laneways, impressive cathedrals and loads of restaurant options. The best way to grasp it all is walking around the old town wall, especially at sunset.

There are plenty of islands you can get a boat to, we went out to Kolocep, Lopud and Sipan which was a good day trip albeit quiet as the summer crowds are gone!

Fort Imperial is also well worth a look which documents the defense of Dubrovnik from the Serbian and Montenegrin armies in 1991. It also provides a great view of the city and beyond. In terms of food, Bistro & Wine Bar Gusti was tasty.

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