MY TOP 5: LONDON EDITION

Oh, I love London Society! It has immensely improved. It is entirely composed now of beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what Society should be.

– Oscar Wilde

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South Bank

Nothing says quintessential London like the view you get from South Bank. Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, the Thames… This is London. South Bank itself is vibrant and lively, and quite a change of pace from the northern bank of the river. We went for a walk along the bank at dusk and watched the city come alive before I very happily took my “London” shot. If there’s one photo you need to share from your visit to London, this is it.

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Shakespeare’s Globe

Ok, so this isn’t the actual Globe Theatre used by Shakespeare; that got closed down and demolished by the Puritans in 1642 because the theatre is, of course, evil. However, the theatre that has been built to replace it was made in the exact style and with the same materials that would have been used on the original, all the way up to the thatched roof. It’s incredible. I was fortunate enough to see The Changeling in the indoor playhouse (plays don’t run in the outdoor theatre in winter). The playhouse is, again, as authentic as the original indoor theatre, and lit only by candlelight. As a drama student, this was absolutely amazing. Life can only go downhill from here.

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Westminster Abbey

Although the Abbey is impressive and vast and grand and beautiful, Westminster actually made it on my list because of the southern transept, dubbed the Poet’s Corner. This is exactly what it sounds like. Here rest some of the greatest literary figures to have walked the earth: everyone from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens. Even Lawrence Olivier somehow slipped in!

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Museums

In truth, I only went to two of London’s museums, but I loved them both so much that I couldn’t leave them off the list! London’s Natural History Museum is hands-down the best natural history museum I’ve ever been to. It will take you through the earth’s 4.5 billion year history, explaining how things happen, why things happen, and what things will happen in the future. It’s got animals, it’s got ecosystems, it’s got astronomy. It’s got everything. If cultural history is more your thing, the Museum of London takes you through the city’s history, from prehistory, through Roman occupation, to the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and all the way up to modern 21st-century history. And the best thing about the museums in London: they’re free!

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Harry Potter Studio Tour

I had one of the best days of my life at the Harry Potter Studio Tour. This is where the magic happens. The sets, costumes, props, production artwork, everything that went into making the Harry Potter films – it’s all here. It’s all real. It’s right in front of you. Everything from the Great Hall, to Diagon Alley, to Dumbledore’s office, to the classrooms, to the wands, even Dobby! The tour finishes off with the Hogwarts model that was used for all the outdoor shots of the school, and it’s simply breathtaking. You can fly a broomstick on the green-screen. You can drink butter beer. You can buy wands, the Nimbus 2000 and 2001, robes, and scarves in every colour from Gryffindor to Slytherin. You go behind the scenes in a way that no DVD bonus features can take you. It’s literally the most magical place on earth.

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MY TOP 5: ROME EDITION

Ah, Rome. The Eternal City. Romanticised in art, literature, music and film. And I know why. In Rome you are able to appreciate just how small you are, as you stand amongst centuries of history. It really is eternal; the time and space we occupy is but a fraction in the life of this city.

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Roman Ruins

No where else in the world can you experience and appreciate Roman history as in its birthplace. The city is scattered with remnants from its glorious past, but the most well-known (and deservedly so) are the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Seeing these ruins for the first time is awe-inspiring. You are face-to-face with the great Roman Empire. You don’t need to have studied Roman history to appreciate that this era was one of incredible innovation. But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

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Piazza Navona

One word: carnival. Piazza Navona is one of the liveliest, most colourful places in the entire city. From the occasional ferris wheel, to street artists, to those carnival games that are impossible to win – you will wander around in awe and amazement. Or maybe I’m just a child at heart.

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Vatican City

Rome has been the centre of Christendom since 323 when Emperor Constantine made it not-illegal to practice Christianity in his empire. Sure, there have been a few ups and downs, but historically the head of the Catholic Church has had his seat in St Peters, the heart of Vatican City. This is the epitomisation of Renaissance Rome. The highlight of the Vatican for me was the museums. Every historical and contemporary piece of artwork that the Papacy has ever stolen is contained here, now so graciously put on display for us laymen to admire. Everything from Greek to Roman to Medieval to Renaissance, even with some modern art thrown in. It’s art history Mecca. Except that it’s Christian.

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Castel Sant’Angelo

Originally the mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian (yes, he built things other than the wall), Castel Sant’Angelo became a papal fortress and prison during the early Renaissance. It captured my attention long ago after hearing the stories of torture and death that occurred within its walls, but it’s bloody history is a stark contrast to the lavish papal apartments contained in the upper storeys. It’s a comfortable hiding place when the plebs decide to riot.

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Piazza del Popolo

This spot made the list for two reasons. First of all, the piazza itself is always bustling with activity. At night it turns into an amazing spectacle of insanely-talented street musicians and people wandering around with gelati. Secondly, if you hike up the hill right beside it, you will get one of the best views over the city. And you know how I love climbing.

MY TOP 10: FLORENCE EDITION

Florence will forever be my favourite city in the world. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve studied here twice, or maybe it’s just that amazing, but every time I come back it feels like I’m returning home. So this list was especially hard, because trying to narrow down a city as diverse and fantastic as Florence into a “Top 10” just can’t be done. This just scratches the surface of centuries worth of history, culture, art, architecture and food.

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Piazza del Duomo

Comprised of the Duomo, Campanile, and Baptistery, the Piazza del Duomo is probably the most iconic site in Florence. For centuries, this has been the centre of Florence’s religious life, and the iconic image of Brunelleschi’s dome is what distinguishes the Florentine skyline. Climbing the Duomo and/or Giotto’s Campanile will give you a fantastic view of the city and it’s immediate layout – just maybe don’t plan to do them both on the same day like we did, unless you relish that lactic acid!

Fratellini

If there’s only one place you go in Florence, make it Fratellini’s. Best. Panini. Ever. Seriously, these guys make the best sandwiches I’ve ever tasted in my life. Just go there, it will be worth it, I promise.

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Ponte Vecchio

Another iconic Florentine symbol, the Ponte Vecchio or “Old Bridge” is another must-see tourist destination. It’s the oldest bridge in Florence, and was the only bridge along the Arno that wasn’t destroyed in WWII. Historically, it has always been home to merchants trying to sell their wares; however now the expensive gold jewellery is a little out of my price range.

The Uffizi 

One of my favourite galleries in the world. For someone who studied Renaissance art, this is Mecca. Probably the most well-known pieces to marvel at are Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and La Primavera, and my personal favourite, da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi… Which I still haven’t seen in person because for the last 3 years its been under restoration. One day…

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The Oltrarno

Many people forget that there is another side to Florence. Literally, the city continues on the opposite banks of the Arno river. Historically, this was the poorer side of town, and perhaps this is why many people skip it today. However, it’s home to some must-see sites, including Palazzo Pitti and the enormous Boboli Gardens, Piazzale Michelangelo, and my personal favourite, San Miniato al Monte.

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Santa Croce

If you’re a history nerd like myself, this will fast become one of your favourite churches. This is where anyone who was anyone in Florentine society was buried. From the likes of Michelangelo to Raphael, and Galileo to Machiavelli, this Franciscan cathedral contains all your favourite Florentines in one convenient place. No really, the fact that all these historical figures are metres away is really mind-blowing. Eerily fascinating.

The Accademia

If you only go here to see Michelangelo’s David, it will be worth it. The man is freaking perfect. Seriously, I’ve never seen such perfection in my life. It’s possible to spend hours sitting in awe of this one sculpture. The rest of the gallery isn’t bad either.

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Piazza della Repubblica 

Florentine nightlife comes alive in the Piazza della Repubblica. Ferris wheels, temporary displays and workshops, Champagne tasting, and people trying to sell you weird light-up flying mechanisms… This place has it all. It’s bright, it’s bustling, and its the gateway to some amazing restaurants.

La Spada

So I’ve eaten here each time I’ve been in Florence because the food is so delicious, and this time was no different. La Spada is home to the best waiter in the world, Ivan, who will go above and beyond to make sure you have the best culinary experience ever. And we did. So we went back twice more! Best service I’ve ever had. However much Ivan is being paid, it isn’t enough! I seriously cannot recommend this place highly enough.

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San Miniato al Monte

This spot is on the list not so much for the 11th-century church, but for its panoramic views over the city. However, if you’ve made the trek, you might as well see the Romanesque church too – it’s beautiful. Hike up here at sunset, the lighting is perfect. And if you feel like braving the cold, staying after the sun goes down and the lights come out is definitely worth it. This will forever be one of my favourite spots in the world.

IN FAIR VERONA

I’ve had a love affair with Verona from about the age of 11, when I first discovered the glorious specimen that is Leonardo DiCaprio. Though I didn’t understand a word of Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation at that time, the appeal of the star-crossed lovers was enough to romanticise fair Verona.

Fast-forward three years and I was studying Shakespeare’s tragedy at school. I still question the judgement of whoever thought it was a good idea to give 14-year-olds a story about kids falling in love after an hour, getting married the next day, and killing themselves after a series of extremely frustrating twists of fate. Not to mention our school’s attempted censorship of the sex scene in Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation starring Olivia Hussey and the Zac Efron lookalike.

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If I had to pick one word to describe Verona it would be magical. The city still carries it’s Shakespearian charm, and tributes to Romeo and Juliet are everywhere. The old city walls bear a plaque famously quoting that “There is no world without Verona walls, but purgatory, torture, hell itself”. And busts of Shakespeare. Everywhere.

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Although I’m about as far away from the lovelorn tourist as you can get, you absolutely cannot go to Verona and not go to Juliet’s house, Casa di Giulietta. Let me preface this by saying that Juliet probably didn’t live here; yes, the Shakespearian tragedy is fictional. However, the house did belong to the Cappelletti family, whom the story is likely to have been based upon. Despite the extremely distant connections, tourists flock here to post their letters to Juliet on the walls in the courtyard, and to stand on her balcony and await their Romeo. So we did. When in Verona, right?

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But Verona isn’t just a pilgrimage site for romantics. Any history nerd will feel right at home, with remnants dating back to the Roman Empire. The Veronese Arena is at the centre of the city, and still hosts entertainment for its citizens. Sure, it’s not the bloodbaths of ancient Rome, but if you don’t mind more sedated events like live music… If not, you can tour around the arena by day like we did, all the way from being spectator in the top tier to walking through the archway to begin a glorious and bloody fight to the death.

And just a side note on why Verona will forever by one of my favourite cities: vegetarian heaven. I’ve never seen so much vegetarian and vegan food in my life! As a vegetarian in Italy, I’m usually limited to pastas and pizzas (not complaining), but it to have vegan food that was based solely on vegetables and legumes… Freaking amazing. And you know how everything tastes better in Italy? Vegan food does too.

MY TOP 5: VENICE EDITION

Venice has always held a magical allure for me, and my second visit to the city was just as incredible as the first. There is no place like it. It’s the place where east meets west, and where the land meets the sea. It’s an amazing little piece of Byzantium in Italy. I hate choosing favourites, and my list was endless, but I’ve managed to narrow a busy itinerary down to my five top picks.

(These are all fairly touristy, and to get a real feel for the city you actually need to get lost in it’s maze of alleyways, but this will inevitably happen anyway!)

Piazza San Marco

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No visit to Venice would be complete without a visit to the tourist destination of Piazza San Marco. The square itself is the ideal place to sit and eat and people-watch. San Marco would have to be my favourite Italian church, possibly because it’s unlike any other Italian basilica I’ve ever seen. Inside it is a golden mosaic masterpiece, more Byzantine than Italian. Next door is Palazzo Ducale, the palace of the Doge. If you enjoy art, or if you simply want to step into the shoes of the uppermost echelon of Venetian society, the Palazzo is not to be missed.

Ponte Rialto

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The Rialto bridge is a Venetian icon. It’s the main causeway connecting the two islands that comprise the city, and has arguably the best vantage point from which to view the Canale Grande in it’s romantic glory. Although the boutique shops along the bridge are a tad pricey, wandering the streets around it you will find some incredible examples of Venetian craftsmanship – from iconic Murino glass, to eccentric Venetian masks.

Ice Skating

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When people ask me why I travel to Europe in winter, I usually cite the reduced prices and smaller number of tourists. But perhaps the best part of Europe in winter are the outdoor ice skating rinks! There’s something magical about ice skating in winter. Maybe it’s because we have nothing like it in Australia. At any rate, when we stumbled across the rink in Campo San Polo, we knew we had to go for it. Despite being double the age of everyone else there, this was definitely one of my highlights in Venice.

Gondolas

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What epitomises Venice better than the gondola? The romanticism of the city surely lies in the icon of the long boat, commandeered by a serenading gondolier. It’s something you have to do at least once in your life. Seeing the city from the canals gives you a completely different perspective, and watching the gondoliers expertly navigate the narrow causeways is captivating. It’s a side of Venice that you’re unable to see from the land.

The Ghetto

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Venice is home to the first ever Ghetto. It dates to 1516, when the Doge of Venice so graciously allowed the Jews to continue living in Venice, so long as they were quarantined in their own tiny enclave. Wandering through the ghetto, which is still home to some of the Venetian Jewish population, it is the only place that actually feels lived-in. In a city that feels extremely touristy, it’s a welcome escape.

CREATING A TRAVEL MEMOIR

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I have a great memory. I remember faces, places, images, buildings, maps… Anything visual is imprinted in my mind. I wouldn’t call it a photographic memory – that implies some sort of superhuman remembering capability that I’m fairly certain I do not possess. But visually, my memory is 97% spot-on.

When it comes to anything aural, descriptive, numeric, or emotional… Well that’s a different story. I’ll remember a person’s face for years, but forget their name less than a minute after we’re introduced. I’ll remember a building’s location and façade, but have no idea of its name or function. I’ll remember how to navigate a maze of foreign streets to find my way back to my hotel, but I have no idea what the street next mine at home is called. In these respects, I have the memory of a goldfish.

This makes travelling both exciting and fairly natural for me, but it can also leave me feeling a little unfulfilled. Being a dominantly visual person, I always come home with thousands and thousands of photographs to sort through. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This is a lie. A picture can’t tell you specifics – the name, place, date, function and history of a place. A picture also can’t relay the emotions that being in that particular location made you feel. It can’t remind you of the kind African man you met on the train and of the extremely sad and deeply touching conversation you had about his life. It can’t remind you of the woman feeding the cats behind you and your lens, nor of the charismatic old Italian tour guide who serenaded you with broken English love songs. These are the experiences that become the highlights of my travels, and never would have been if I hadn’t written them down.

This is why I journal. It doesn’t have to be long and boring, just a few sentences about what happened that day, the people you met, and the conversations you had. Some days you’ll be able to write pages; others you’ll have merely a sentence or two. Length isn’t important. But you’ll thank yourself six months down the track when you’re reading through, nostalgic about the experiences you had.

Journaling takes discipline. I can’t tell you how many trips I have taken and only made it a couple days in before giving up on my journal. In fact, it’s something I’ve only mastered in the last few years. I’ll let you in on my secret: routine. It’s so important to develop a journaling routine, and to stick to it! For me, I set aside some time before bed – sometimes only five minutes, but I’ll take however long I need to adequately describe the day I’ve experienced. Sometimes I miss days – sometimes I’m just too tired, or I’m out, or I’ve had a little too much vino – but the important thing is to pick up the pen on the next day and continue where you left off. The hard work is worth it, I promise!

So write your travel memoir – you’ll thank yourself for it later.

MAXIMISE YOUR TRAVEL EXPERIENCE

When travelling, it is sometimes way too easy to become caught up in the excitement and chaos of exploring new cities and cultures. When this happens, you run the risk of becoming overwhelmed and exhausted, and your trip turns out to be one of rushing from one monument to the next, meeting deadlines and adhering to strict schedules. And this is NOT what travel is about! Here are my tips on how to maximise your travel experience – to get the most out of your journey, while also taking time to smell the roses.

(Although these tips are travel-based, you don’t have to be travelling to try them out. If you apply them to everyday life, I promise you will gain so much appreciation for every moment!)

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Explore the road less-travelled

While there is no particular order to what I’m about to present, this would definitely be my number one priority. I cannot stress enough how much more enriching your journey will be if you wander off the beaten track. Get away from the crowds, the tourists, the monuments, and explore the parts of a city that aren’t filled with obnoxious jean-and-runner clad tourists sporting fanny packs and neon caps. It is in the alley ways, in the local restaurants, that a city hides its charm. Don’t be afraid to explore.

Get away

Inevitably, there will be times of exhaustion and homesickness. The best cure is to escape – leave the city you’re in, and take to the countryside, the forest, the beach, the bush – somewhere where there are no people and no distractions. Climb a mountain, and take in the view. Swim in the ocean. Go hiking in a forest. Connect with Mother Nature, and you will come away feeling so rejuvenated and alive. A little break from playing tourist is not only good for you, but essential to ensure that you don’t become burned out.

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Eat like a local

Food is one of my favourite things about travelling. There are so many exciting and exotic cuisines around the world, and you are really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t try them all! Suss out where the locals eat, and you’ll avoid the nasty, overpriced tourist food that masquerades as authentic local cuisine. Try new things – you’ll be surprised! As a vegetarian, there are some things I will obviously never try. But experiment within your own beliefs and boundaries, and you won’t even care about the weight you’ll gain!

Document

The worst thing is to come home and not remember every single experience you had while away. Forgetting is inevitable, but it’s not unavoidable. The key is to document everything – photos, videos, journals. As an avid photographer, I’m never short on visual reminders about my experiences. A picture tells a thousand words, but it can’t tell you everything. It can’t always remind you how you were feeling, the story behind it, or the connections you made because of it. This is why I journal. It doesn’t have to be long and boring, just a few sentences about what happened that day, the people you met, and the conversations you had. Some days you’ll be able to write pages; others you’ll have merely a sentence or two. Length isn’t important. But you’ll thank yourself six months down the track when you’re reading through, nostalgic about the experiences you had.

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Be open to new experiences

It’s amazing how much more open to things you’ll become when you’re on the road. And this is a good thing! It’s so rewarding to force yourself out of your comfort zone. If you approach everything with an open mind, you’ll get so much more out of your travels. Eat new food, meet new people, ride a donkey, jump out of a plane, climb a mountain… Just do it. Conquer your fears, and live on the edge!

Connect with people

Meeting new people is one of the scariest but most rewarding things you can do. Make friends with locals, other travellers, Giuseppe the old pizza man… Listen to their stories, learn about their culture, and take an interest in their lives. Travel is meaningless if you don’t make these connections – it becomes a selfish, inwardly-focused act instead of a way to connect with and explore the world. Of course, you do have to use discretion – the man with the gun in the alleyway at night is probably not looking to make friends. But overwhelmingly, people are nice. People are interesting. Don’t judge people based on how they look, or what they’re doing. The people who don’t conform to the status quo often have the most exciting and unique lives and stories to tell!

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Connect with yourself

Travelling will tell you more about yourself than anything else in the world. It’s the only thing in the world that you can spend money on and actually come out richer. Learn about who you are, what makes you happy, what makes your heart break, and what makes you unique. Everyone has a story. Write yours.