Tania is an adventurer at heart - she is always looking to explore new cultures (and cuisines!). She does her best to immerse herself with the locals. In addition to travelling to corners of the world, she is a believer in looking after our beautiful planet and looks for ways to reduce waste while travelling.
India’s Golden Triangle Part 3: Jaipur – The Pink City
Our next stop in India’s Golden Triangle was Jaipur. The colourful city of Jaipur is like a gem that sparkles in the mountains of Rajasthan. It is affectionately known as the Pink City due to the pink colour palette of its buildings. They were painted pink to welcome Prince Albert to the city in 1876 and have remained pink until today. Jaipur has a colourful royal heritage, and this is evident in the number of extravagant palaces and ancient forts.
Full Day Touring Jaipur
We opted to book a day guide for Jaipur, as recommended by a family member that had visited last year. Jaipur’s main sights are spread out and it made more sense to hire a driver and guide so that we could cover all of Jaipur’s wonders. We booked with Jaipur Travelling for a private day guide and driver. In total, we paid ₹3600 for an air-conditioned SUV (not including tips). Pushpendra, from Jaipur Travelling, was our main point of contact for organising and he was professional and easy to deal with. Our guide was Sanjay Sharma. He was brilliant. Sanjay took us to all the key sights and provided a great deal of background to each stop. I thoroughly enjoyed being able to connect closer to Jaipur’s history and culture. Sanjay also knew all the angles to get the best photos!
We started at 9am on our first day of Jaipur with Sanjay. Our first stop was the impressive Hawa Mahal, the Palace of Winds. Along a seemingly ordinary street is Hawa Mahal. It stands very tall, and characteristically pink, with rows of tiny windows and small screens. Hawa Mahal’s small screens and windows allowed the women of the palace to view the bustling activity of the streets below without being seen by the public. After a quick stop at Hawa Mahal, we jumped back in our car to go to Amer Fort.
Amer Fort, also known as Amber Fort, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It dates back to the 10th century and is primarily made from red sandstone and marble. Amer Fort was built and expanded by several Indian kings, or Raja, in the region. We first stopped at the foot of the hill that Amer Fort sits upon and snapped a couple of photos. On the way up the hill, Sanjay asked us if we had seen a stepwell before. We pulled over to see an incredible square well with rows of tiered steps. Stepwells are common in western India and were built to make fluctuating levels of groundwater more accessible. They are not commonly used today but were crucial many years ago.
We eventually reached Amer Fort and Palace. Tickets cost ₹500 for entry and it is worth the price. From the palace, there is a panoramic view of the fort’s wall snaking through the Aravalli mountain range.
Inside the palace, there are several courtyards, each one as beautiful as the next. Due to the history of extensions and upgrades, Amer Palace has a blend of Hindu and Muslim architectural features. Sanjay pointed out that the lotus flowers and elephants carved in the pillars are Hindu in style, while the hexagonal styles and pointed arches are Muslim in style. Every courtyard had its own purpose, whether they were for entertaining or for the queens’ quarters. One of the most memorable areas in Amer Fort is Sheesh Mahal, also known as the Mirror Palace. Every pillar, wall and ceiling has incredibly tiny inlays of precious stones and detailed mirror mosaics which glitter in the sun’s rays. The ornate beauty is somewhat overwhelming.
On the drive back to the centre of Jaipur, we briefly stopped at Jal Mahal, or the Water Palace. It is a palace with a rooftop garden that was built in the middle of Man Sagar lake.
After a quick lunch, we headed to Jantar Mantar, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Jantar Mantar is an astronomy observatory built by Raja Jai Singh II in the early 18th century. The site is large with fourteen structures in total, each capable of an astronomical function. There is a notably huge sundial which stands at 90 feet tall. Entry is ₹200. Jantar Mantar is an illustration of the influence astronomy and astrology in India. Sanjay informed us that, to this day, many Indians live by their astrology. There is belief that planets influence the key milestones in their lives, such as marriage, buying a new home and starting a new job.
The City Palace in Jaipur is located beside Jantar Mantar. Tickets for general entry (Palace Courts and Galleries) are ₹700. We opted out of going inside the City Palace but if you are curious, the ticket is ₹1400 extra. The City Palace is currently the home of the Jaipur royal family and has been since the 1700s. It has characteristically pink walls, large courtyards and a museum. The museum exhibits ancient royal clothing and Indian weapons such as talwars (curved sword). The most striking courtyard has four unique doorways, each one representing the seasons and a Hindu god.
We bid Sanjay goodbye, with many thanks, and headed back to the hotel for a rest before dinner. If you do hire a guide, don’t forget to set some cash aside for tips.
I had a hankering for a good dose of street food and hoped that the receptionist of the hotel could help. He gave us the most perfect recommendation that we went twice! I am happy to share Masala Chowk with you. Masala Chowk is an outdoor food court with several vendors selling Indian street food of their speciality. It is located right beside the Royal Albert Hall in Jaipur and costs ₹10 to enter. Masala Chowk is full of locals and is a well-maintained food court with toilets too. More importantly, the food is delicious, at street food price, and with a perfect variety of food. This includes mirchi bada, papdi chaat, bhel puri, masala dosa and tandoori chai…all yum!
The next day, we had enough time to see one sight before packing up and getting in the car for our long drive back to Delhi. After some research, we decided to visit Galtaji temple which was located just outside of the city. Galtaji, sometimes referred to as monkey temple, was a bit off the beaten path. It is a collection of Hindu temples nestled in the Aravalli Hills with sacred water that originates from a natural spring higher in the hills. The water pools, or kunds, are auspicious and many of the pilgrims bathe in the waters of Galtaji. As indicated by its alternative name, there are also many monkeys roaming and climbing the temples. We took a 20 minute Uber ride from our hotel.
Although Galtaji Temple is somewhat off the beaten path, you will find vendors selling peanuts and fruit to feed the monkeys. In fact, it is considered good luck to feed them. There is no admission fee but a man at the entrance of the site asked for ₹50 for a camera fee. It was very bizarre, and seemingly unofficial. Not in the mood for quarrelling, we shrugged and handed over the fee and received a slip of paper in return. There are also male and female toilets just outside the entrance.
As we entered the site, we saw rows of ancient temples sitting in the crevice of the hills, and a set of steps leading up to the other holy water ponds. The temples were most certainly not in prestine condition, but there was an untamed beauty about them. Galtaji is dirty and could do with a good litter clean up. In case you are wondering, the monkeys were not aggressive and did not approach us unless we waved a peanut in front of them. It was peacefully quiet, and there were a few locals who had come to the temples to bathe in the holy water. The women were dressed in the brightest coloured saris, contrasting against the muted stones of the temples. We saw only a couple of tourists on our way out. I’d highly recommend Galtaji Temple if you’re looking for something different and have already covered the main sites of Jaipur. It is picturesque as a postcard and wildly different to what we had seen in India so far.
On our way out, we tried to call several Uber cars but they all cancelled. We ended up choosing from a long line of rickshaws parked outside of the temple for a bumpy and memorable ride back to the city. Remember to haggle the price!
Jaipur concluded our travels around the Golden Triangle in India. It was brilliant.
If you missed the other articles on India’s Golden Triangle, you can find them below. Each report has reviews of the main sights in India’s Golden Triangle and shares the usual tips & tricks!
India’s Golden Triangle Part 2: Agra – Home of the Taj Mahal
Arrival in Agra
Our second stop in India’s Golden Triangle was Agra, most famous for the Taj Mahal. When we exited the train station in Agra (Agra Cantt station), we were met with an extremely boisterous crowd of drivers volunteering to take us to our destination. There is an official system, however. At the end of the crowd toward the right-hand side, there is a small box hut. Here, we stated our destination and the gentleman handed us a carbon copy of a paper ticket with our hotel name and a fixed fee. The paper ticket was given to a driver and we followed him to the car. Seemingly, there was order to this chaos. Even though there will be many drivers offering you a discount or cheap fare, I recommend following the system. We drove to our hotel, the Radisson Blu, which was located a mere 20 minute walk from the East Gate of the Taj Mahal.
Other than the Taj Mahal, Agra was mostly filled with wedding festivities and catching up with old friends from university. Our first day was relatively relaxed. The evening was wedding night #1. It was filled with lots of music, dancing, colours, food, lavishly dressed guests, and an even more lavishly dressed bride and groom. Festivities finished at around 1am.
The Taj Mahal
The next morning, five of us set out to visit the Taj Mahal. Closer to the Taj Mahal, the road becomes pedestrian only, except for a buggy that can take you the remainder of the way for a small fare. There will be several people trying to sell you shoe covers. Don’t fall for it! Shoe covers are included in the foreigner ticket. The foreigner ticket is ₹1300 and you can get a small discount if you pay by card. The ticket includes shoe covers (for the main mausoleum) and a water bottle.
There are also many guides outside the entrance who will offer their tour services for the Taj Mahal. Try to hire a guide that has an identity card as they will be approved. There is no way to be 100% sure so we used our instinct and common sense. It also helped that some of my friends could speak Hindi! Don’t fall for the trick where the guide offers his services for free. After the guided tour, he would bring you to the shops and apply pressure for you to buy the goods.
We entered from the East Gate of the Taj Mahal. Our guide provided a brief history to the Taj Mahal and its grounds. He explained that the Arabic inscriptions on each side of the East Gate were an optical illusion. As you view the inscriptions, they appear to be the same size from top to bottom. However, the lettering at the top is slightly bigger than the bottom to appear a uniform size. We snapped a few pics and walked through the East Gate. The Taj Mahal immediately came into view. It’s perfect symmetry and grandeur is hard to miss.
The Taj Mahal stands at the end of path of water and gardens. The photos don’t do it justice. It is slightly yellowed due to pollution, but the white marble still appears brilliant in the noon sunlight. The Taj Mahal changes colour in appearance depending on the time of day. It has pinkish hues in the morning, transitioning to warm white in the day and to an iridescent glowing white in moonlight.
Our guide took us around detailing the history of the Taj Mahal’s architecture. He also doubled as our photographer and knew the best spots for a snap. We spent approximately three full hours walking around before heading back to the hotel.
Our last night in Agra was the night of the wedding. The groom’s party knows how to make an entrance. Our friend rode in on a horse with friends and family dancing around him. As we entered the wedding venue, it felt as though we had walked onto a Bollywood movie set. A long night of eating, drinking and laughing with friends was the perfect ending to our two days in Agra.
Next stop – the beautiful city of Jaipur, nestled in the mountains of Rajasthan.
If you missed the other articles on India’s Golden Triangle, you can find them below. Each report has reviews of the main sights in India’s Golden Triangle and shares the usual tips & tricks!
India’s Golden Triangle Part 1: Delhi – India’s Historical Capital
Arrival in Delhi
Our first stop in India’s Golden Triangle was Delhi. We touched down in Delhi at 9am. Many friends advised that Uber and Ola, India’s equivalent of Uber, is abundant and very economical. We ordered our Uber while waiting for our bags using the Wi-Fi in the terminal. Armed with our luggage, we exited the airport. An intense smell of smoke which originated from the thick smog that hugged Delhi immediately hit us. I should note that the Uber pick-up location was not as straight forward as the directions from the app. When exiting arrivals from the international terminal, cross the road and turn right. You’ll have a 7-minute walk to a multi-storey car park to the pick up point. After a little dithering, we finally found our Uber driver and rode to our hotel located in Connaught Place (~15km). All for just ₹498, or roughly £5.
Although we arrived in the morning to our hotel, Le Meridien had our room ready upon arrival. Feeling grateful and incredibly jet lagged, we snuck in a couple of hours of sleep before freshening up and heading out to explore Delhi.
Two Days in Delhi
First stop – Old Delhi. We flagged down a rickshaw outside of our hotel to take us to the nearest metro station. Getting metro tickets was a bit of a struggle as we only had rupee in large denominations. In the end, we used a bank card to buy our tickets from the machine. The Delhi metro is modern, clean and air conditioned. It is also simple to navigate, and we reached Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi in under 20 minutes.
Old Delhi was once a walled city and the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1648 to 1857. Following this, the British Raj (British Rule) took power over in India for just under a century until 1947, when India gained independence. We walked down the main Chandni Chowk street which leads to the Red Fort. This was where the Indian flag was raised on the first, and each subsequent, India Independence Day. Prior to that, the Red Fort was residence to the Mughal emperors.
Along Chandni Chowk, we were on the hunt for some food. We came across what appeared to be an extremely popular jalebi corner stall – Old Famous Jalebi Wala. Hot, sticky and sweet – it was the jalebi that dreams are made of. Moving on, we stumbled into another enticing looking place to eat. It was perfectly undone. The pink paint was peeling off the walls and the tile floor was slightly grimy and cracked. We couldn’t resist the aromas of cumin and coriander. The menu was in Hindi with randomly translated broken English. We pointed to something that we thought was a dosa (crispy pancake made from a rice and lentil batter) and we were not disappointed. Two piping hot dosas arrived, stuffed with paneer and a side of dahl. I’m not usually a fan of paneer but this dosa turned me! We happily gorged our food with two perfectly spiced and milky chai. Leaving very content and only a few rupees out of pocket, we continued down towards the Red Fort.
Unfortunately, as it was a Monday, the Red Fort was closed so we could only view it from the fence, a distance away. On the way down to Jama Masjid, we walked past all sorts of markets that seamlessly blended from one to another – fabrics to bicycles to barbers to produce and butcher stalls. Jama Masjid was built in the 1600s by a Mughal emperor is one of the largest mosques in India. It was a very congested and loud area with so many rickshaws and cars that it was difficult to cross the street. We arrived at prayer time, so we opted out of entering the mosque out of respect.
On the way back to the hotel, we took a rickshaw to India Gate. India Gate is a war memorial to the soldiers that died during the First World War. On the other end of the boulevard from India Gate is the president’s official place of residence. We reached the monument just as the sun was setting. Although there were crowds, the glowing red stone was peaceful. On that note, we headed back near the hotel for a bite to eat and some rest for the evening.
On our second day, we planned to visit Swaminarayan Akshardham in the morning, meet up with another wedding guest’s friend in Karol Bagh and then head down to Humayun’s Tomb in the afternoon.
We had breakfast at the hotel before ordering an Uber to Akshardham (roughly ₹150 from Connaught Place). Swaminarayan Akshardham is a Hindu complex located east of the Yamuna River that runs through Delhi. It is stunning. The complex is extremely vast with gardens, courtyards, exhibitions and water features. At the heart of Swaminarayan Akshardham is the Akshardham Mandir. This Hindu temple is made entirely from marble and Rajasthani pink sandstone. Intricate carvings of elephants, lotus flowers and deities fill every pillar, wall, dome and ceiling. Only the floor remains uncarved and is welcomingly cool to touch on a hot day. As you walk through the mandir, the story of Bhagwan Swaminaryan’s life unfolds on the walls and his teachings of prayer, compassion and non-violence are echoed. On the outside of the mandir, the elaborate stone carvings are paralleled to the interior. Almost true sized, lifelike stone elephants hold up the base of the temple – traditionally and symbolically, a mandir stands on the shoulders of elephants.
Swaminarayan Akshardham is well worth a visit and I recommend anyone travelling to Delhi to visit. Some logistical points, however! You may be wondering why I haven’t shared any photos. Unfortunately, no electronics are allowed in the complex, so I hope my description does justice to the temple. There is a free cloak room and a mandatory security check before entering Swaminarayan Akshardham. The tightened security is most likely due to an incident on another Akshardham temple in another Indian state. There was no point at which I was worried or felt unsafe. The complex is open to all, regardless of your religion. There are also toilets and a food court. In case you’re still curious, pictures and information can be found here at their official website.
At around noon, we headed off for some shopping in the neighbourhood of Karol Bagh. The metro is easily walkable from Swaminarayan Akshardham. With smaller change this time, we rode the metro from Akshardham station to Karol Bagh station. I was on the search for some authentic pashmina shawls and stoles. After some research and validation from a local, we walked down to Ahujasons. We were not disappointed. We were greeted by every colour, design and quality imaginable. Ahujasons sells premium shawls, which can be worn on occasions such as weddings, to shawls for everyday use. After talking to the gentleman behind the counter, I ascertained that a stole (smaller in sizer to a shawl) was more to my liking. I joined the rest of the women and combed through all the colours and designs. An hour and a half later, I finally settled on five (!) stoles for myself and family.
We met our friend shortly after and settled our grumbling stomachs with some momo. Momo is a steamed dumpling with some form of filling. Ours were veggie and served with a side of chilli sauce. Yum!
Hailing a rickshaw, we rode down to Humayun tomb. A rickshaw for three adults is a tight fit but we can’t complain when you see seven locals squeeze into one! Note that rickshaw prices will fluctuate based on the number of people. As a rule of thumb, a reliable local told us that a rickshaw journey should be ~10x less than that quoted for Uber.
Humayun tomb is the tomb of the Mughal Emperor Humayun and dates back to 1570. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage site and there are several other tombs along the path to the Humayun tomb. It has been said that the Humayun tomb inspired the architecture of the Taj Mahal. Humayun tomb is distinctly Mughal architecture in style. This style incorporates Indian elements with Islamic and Persian architecture and was developed over the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. When we approached the site, there was a very long queue for Indian nationals and one for foreigners with no people. The fee for foreigners is ₹500 where as Indian nationals pay ₹35. This is common for most of the sites that we visited with an entry fee.
As the sun began to set, we were in search for food again. We wandered back to Connaught Place and found a restaurant in the inner circle. We ordered platters and curries with naan bread. The naan bread was fluffy and fresh. Other than that, it wasn’t much to shout about but maybe we walked into the wrong restaurant. Or, perhaps I’m more fond of street food.
After walking through more markets, my friend mentioned that we were very close to a famous Sikh gurdwara, or temple. Gurdwara Bangla Sahib is one of the most prominent gurdwaras in Delhi, built in 1783. It has a distinctive golden dome, pole and a holy pond within the complex. The water is believed to have healing properties and is often taken by Sikhs back to their homes. On the inside of the gurdwara, the holy book resides in the centre of the room, surrounded by plush carpet and almost everything is gilded in gold. Note that before entering, you must remove your shoes and cover your head. There is also a kitchen, known as a langar hall, where all people, regardless of race, religion, gender, status or age, may eat a vegetarian meal for free.
This brought our two wonderful days in Delhi to an end. We headed back to our hotel as we had to catch an early train the next morning to Agra.
Delhi to Agra – The Gatimaan Express
The train journey from Delhi to Agra might have been one of the highlights of my trip. We caught the 08:10 Gatimaan Express from Nizamuddin train station. Nizamuddin train station is extremely polluted and grimy but I felt a buzz of energy in the air. It was an especially smoggy morning in Delhi. Locals were dashing about from one platform to another with unbelievably large bags filled to the brim with their belongings. When my friend finally arrived (late, as usual), we headed down to our platform. The clunk of metal that was the Gatimaan Express greeted us.
In my mind, I envisioned having to cling onto the side of the train, or worse, the roof of the train. Although I found this somewhat exciting, we booked executive class tickets to avoid any mishaps. The carriage was air-conditioned with large seats and a pull-down table. Mostly foreigners resided in this carriage. As we drew closer to our departure time, my friend and I quickly popped out onto the platform to buy some local snacks. As we were paying, the train started to move. Finally – the moderate excitement I was looking for! We quickly hopped onto the slowly moving train, armed with some local snacks and waved goodbye to Delhi.
You may be wondering why the train journey was one of the highlights of my trip. I think it was the food. I was warned countless times to *never* eat the food on the trains. However, knowing my love for food and trying everything once, we ordered a vegetarian meal each. It was so delicious that I wished I never ate breakfast at the hotel. We were given the Hindustan Times newspaper and a cup of chai to start. Another trolley came through and provided some western food items (bread slices and jam). This was followed by a tin foil container of parantha bhaji, an Indian flatbread with vegetables. It was amazing.
Onto our next destination – Agra!
If you missed the other articles on India’s Golden Triangle, you can find them below. Each report has reviews of the main sights in India’s Golden Triangle and shares the usual tips & tricks!
You may be wondering “What’s the Golden Triangle?”. The Golden Triangle is a popular tourist route in northern India that takes you through three of India’s historical cities – Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Delhi is best known for its blended history as the capital of India. Agra is home to the world-famous Taj Mahal – one of the seven wonders of the world. Lastly, Jaipur is a city that sits in the mountains of Rajasthan with a rich history and colourful architecture.
Our adventure began in mid-January. We spent six nights and seven days travelling the Golden Triangle – two in Delhi, two in Agra and two in Jaipur. A friend’s wedding in Agra brought us to India. Most of those two days were dedicated to wedding festivities. I have split this trip report into 3 parts due to its length. Feel free to read these in any order that you wish. Part 1 includes a section on the train that we took to get to Agra. Each report has reviews of the main sights in India’s Golden Triangle and shares the usual tips & tricks!
This is not something that I would usually write about, but I thought it may be of use to those preparing to embark on a similar journey. It was our first trip to India and we had heard one too many jokes (or horror stories) about Delhi Belly to not be prepared. Disclaimer: To our pleasant surprise, we were not affected by the infamous Delhi Belly! And, this was despite eating our way through all the Indian street food stalls in the Golden Triangle.
The list below contains all the items that we had packed particularly for India with a brief description.
Imodium (aka anti-diarrhoea tablets) – Getting the awkward one out of the way for obvious reasons. Afterall, we were attending a wedding and spending hours travelling between cities. These were very easy to find, and we picked some up from our local pharmacy. Side note – the packet is still untouched!
Dioralyte – Sachet powder packets for a replacement of essential body and water salts. Use this when you’re feeling extremely dehydrated and also, post-diarrhoea.
Snacks – In case Delhi Belly struck, we brought some dependable snacks from the UK such as granola bars, nuts and crisps (potato chips).
Anti-bacterial gel – Funnily enough, we didn’t use this too much as there was little need. Sometimes we would squirt a blob before eating with our hands.
Wet wipes – We used these more frequently than our anti-bacterial gel before eating with our hands. There can be a lot of dust in India, especially Delhi.
Scarf / Shawl – This one is for the females. I brought a thin scarf for modesty and to keep me warm in the cool mornings and evenings.
Clothing (for females) – I was sensible with the rest of my clothing choices and ensured that my clothes were not too revealing. I felt the most comfortable in loose fitting clothing that was past my knees. Think maxi dresses, skirts and boyfriend jeans!
What we learnt on our first day
Try breaking your Indian rupee at your hotel or in a shop. Smaller denominations are needed for street food, rickshaw journeys and metro tickets!
Most rickshaw drivers are extremely friendly when they’re trying to wheeler dealer you. Be wary of rickshaw drivers offering to take you to an “official tourist centre”. Turns out you’ll be sent to a tour guide centre.
Delhi is very dusty and we’re thankful we brought old runners. This was true for all the cities we visited.
There is an air quality problem in India’s main cities and the smog does prevent you from seeing things afar. Delhi was by far the worst.
In regards to street food, we luckily didn’t have any issues. We made sure to only eat street food that was cooked fresh in front of us. Beware of food that may be sitting out for ages! We also only drank from sealed water bottles. Unfortunately, it was difficult to avoid drinking from single use plastic bottles.
I would also recommend sticking to Uber (or Ola, the Indian version of Uber) to avoid getting scammed by taxis. Uber worked very well for us when we had wifi or data. All of our Uber cars also had seatbelts. Most of the taxis in India have back seat covers that cover the seatbelts, rendering them unusable!
Try everything! Keep an open mind while travelling in India and have respect for the many cultures.
Weather: End of January
During January, it gets pretty cold in northern India. It was much colder than we expected! I thought that we were escaping the cold winters in England but I was mistaken. Delhi was the coldest city, dropping to around 5°C in the early mornings and evenings. The sun also struggled to peer through the thick smog. Agra and Jaipur were warmer overall, especially in the day! No jacket or scarf required during the day. Peak temperatures peaked at around 18°C to 23°C. As it was not monsoon season, it did not rain during the whole duration of our trip.
India feels like a different world and travelling India’s Golden Triangle is a great introduction to the country. It has left me wanting to explore more. I would recommend the Golden Triangle route as it gives you the opportunity to see some main sites of India in a fairly well travelled route. There is a bit of culture shock when landing but it is all part of the adventure.
The best advice I would give is to embrace the culture and ways of India. It can be overwhelming and confusing at times but embracing (and laughing at) all the nuances and minor inconveniences allowed us to really enjoy ourselves. See you again soon, India!
Sicily is located in the central Mediterranean Sea. It is an autonomous region of Italy and has a rich and unique culture. Its winters are warm and summers are hot.
Arrival in Sicily We touched down in Palermo on the sunny island of Sicily one Friday afternoon in October 2018. With a small Renault Twingo rental car, we were ready to set off for our adventures around the island. I couldn’t wait to discover the blend of civilisations that once conquered and lived on this island. And of course, Sicilian food!
In case you’re counting on it, we could not find an ATM in the arrival area of Palermo Airport. In fact, the arrival area is quite limited in amenities other than a small café, toilets and a surprising number of rental car counters. Another tip – if you’re planning on exploring several Sicilian towns, I would recommend renting a car. You can get by using bus and train but a car is much easier and convenient.
Our first stop was Selinunte, mainly known for its archaeological site and small harbour by the sea. It was a smooth and easy drive down to the south of the island. The main roads in Sicily are very well maintained and relatively empty too. We passed plentiful olive groves that wove into the mountainous landscape. Lunch was a Sicilian delight. We stayed in Momentum Wellness Bio Resort and ordered a desgustazione platter to share. It was filled with local meats and cheeses, and Sicilian specialities including ‘panelle’ (chickpea fritters) and ‘croques’ (fried potato dumplings). We washed down our platter with a glass of lovely light red wine from Mount Etna. This was my favourite wine from the trip! Admittedly, Selinunte was a little boring but we chose this town to be an immediate oasis from our bustling home city in London. It also served as our base from which we discovered the surrounding sights to the East, in Agrigento, and to the West, in Marsala.
Valley of the Temples & The Turkish Steps
The next morning, we set off early to drive down to Agrigento to visit the Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi). As we were leaving the hotel, our concierge recommended that we should visit a famous natural attraction on the way – Scala dei Turchi, or the Turkish Steps. We decided to go to the Valley of the Temples first in order to beat the crowds. Given that it was late October, we learned that the ‘crowds’ were very small and we didn’t have any issues with tickets, lines or taking photos! This rang true for our whole trip.
The Valley of the Temples was the first instance where we experienced one of the many civilisations that settled in Sicily. The Greeks ruled Sicily before the Roman Empire. The site is roughly three kilometres of Greek ancient ruins dating back to 6th century AD – over 2,000 years ago! We didn’t get an audio guide as we thought the information boards within the site would be sufficient. Although this didn’t bother us, we noticed that around a third of the boards are written in Italian only. This might disappoint some of you history buffs but let’s say that this gave us an opportunity to use our imagination.
Around the halfway mark, we came across the most impressive and incredibly well preserved Greek Temple of Concordia. We also passed burial holes dating from Roman and Byzantine eras. At the end of the site, the Temple of Juno stood tall. Both of these well preserved temples are from the Greek rule and of doric style. There are taxi services available that can drive you the length of the park for a price of €2. This avoids you walking the return journey but we were happy to stroll back downhill to the entrance. Also, a note for those with small bladders, there are no toilets within the site except those inside a café at the midway point. However, there are toilets at the entrance where we bought tickets.
After the Valley of the Temples, we hopped back in our Twingo and set off to Scala dei Turchi. Even though it was off peak season, we knew we had reached the sight from the number of cars parked on the side of the road. We did the same to avoid the unnecessary parking fee of €5. Can’t imagine that this would have been possible during peak season! It was a steep incline down to reach a beach which stretched to the Turkish Steps. From afar, it was obvious how the natural attraction has earned its name. The white cliffs had eroded to form the shape of steps going down into the sea.
Due to a recent landslide, the shore route to reach the steps was closed. There was only one way to get onto the rock – the sea! Without hesitation, we took off our shoes, tied them to our backpacks and hiked up our shorts. Following a somewhat invisible path in the sea guided by a makeshift rope, we made it to the Turkish Steps. It was worth every dodgy step! The weathered, eroded white rock was smooth to walk on and our unexpected path to the Turkish Steps turned out to be the highlight of the day.
If you’re like me, you may be wondering about the name of the landmark. The name comes from a local legend where, pirates (allegedly from Turkey) would dock their ships by the cliffs, climb the “scala” to reach the top of the cliff and raid the local villages.
Marsala & The Salt Pans
After an indulgent breakfast which included cannoli, we checked out of our hotel in Selinunte to begin the next part of our adventure. Today, our final destination was in the sunny town of Scopello. Our route included exploring Marsala and the Salt Pans before continuing to Scopello. Marsala is the furthest town west in Sicily and the closest to Northern Africa. The origin of the town’s name comes from Arabic “Marsa Allah” which translates as “God’s harbour”. The magic of the ancient civilisations is very much alive in this town. Many of the streets are cobbled and the land is relatively flat compared to the north.
After walking through the streets and a second breakfast of lemone granita, we visited a museum most famous for being home to the ruins of a Punic warship. The museum is known as Museo Archeologico Baglio Anselmi. We’re not huge museum buffs but we had a few hours before restaurants opened for lunch and the entry fee was a bargain at €3. The Punic warship was destroyed in the Battle of the Egadi Islands in 241 BC. What amazed me about this wreck was that the archaeologists used the same lettering that was etched onto the planks by the Punics to assemble the ship!
Through to the back of the museum, there is a large archaeological site featuring ruins and baths from the Roman period. Walking through the site was another step back into history. I was impressed by the detail of the mosaics in the Roman baths and the fact that they were still intact. Beware of mosquitoes in the archaeological park though! They took a fair share of my blood.
After lunch in Marsala, we drove north along the coast to Trapani to find the Salt Pans. The shallow water, intense summer heat and hot winds from Africa are perfect for sea salt harvesting. The sea salt here is harvested using the same traditional and labour intensive method as the Phoenicians used around 2,700 years ago. In ancient times, salt played a critical role in the preservation of food. This salt is entirely natural and untreated. It has a much higher concentration in minerals such as magnesium and potassium compared to common table salt. Like the rest of our trip, there were no crowds and we were the only people for the self-guided tour. The tickets were €12, a bit steep in my opinion but the opportunity to visit Salt Pans doesn’t come about every day. Especially those that look over the Egadi Islands and have such a rich history. After getting seasoned on some salt knowledge, we hopped back in the car to Scopello.
Scopello & Lo Zingaro Natural Reserve
Scopello is a beautiful little town in the mountains of North Western Sicily with cobbled roads, a small courtyard and unmarked trails leading to the Mediterranean Sea. We stayed in a charming B&B called Pensione Tranchina. I highly recommend staying in this B&B. The hostess is very welcoming and the homemade breakfasts and dinners at Pensione were some of the best meals from the trip!
Early the next morning, we packed our day bags with beach towels, extra clothes and some snacks before setting off for a hike in Lo Zingaro Natural Reserve. It was only a five minute drive away from Scopello. The most popular trail is a 7 km cliff trail that runs along the coast to San Vito Lo Capo. The park is full of life with lush flora and fauna, contrasting against the backdrop of the turquoise sea. Due to another landside, we could only go half the length of the park, but this meant more time to explore the hidden coves and pebble beaches. After exploring a few beaches, we laid down our towels on the mostly empty beach of Cala Disa. A few swims, snacks and snaps later, we packed up in search of some granita in Scopello. We recommend that you invest in a pair of water shoes as the pebbles are coarse; weathered rock can be quite painful to stand on!
After sneaking in a late afternoon nap like the locals, we made our way down to dinner at Pensione Tranchina. The three course meal was a homemade delight. It included a fresh, grilled local fish called “spigola”, pasta alla norma (traditional Sicilian pasta with aubergines and tomatoes) and a divine dolce! I still dream about the pasta alla norma. In the morning, we tucked into tomatoes topped on fresh ricotta, home baked bread and generously drizzled with olive oil. If you’re looking for something sweet in the middle of the day in Scopello, you’ll find a café in a corner of the square (Made ‘n Sicilia) that serves the most perfect, tart and sweet lemon granita, and a certifiably mouth-watering pistachio tiramisu. Still drooling…I mean dreaming.
In addition to Lo Zingaro Natural Reserve, there are many coves and beaches to discover along the coast near Scopello. Be warned, some aren’t as easy to find as they seem. We spent almost three hours off-roading in our Twingo in search for Fossa Dello Stinco. All part of the adventure! In the end, we never found Fossa Dello Stinco but stumbled upon another completely deserted cove, Cala Bianca. We reached it just before sunset and had a quick dip. Fossa Dello Stinco, I’ll be back.
Top tip! On the last morning in Scopello, I discovered that the fountain in the town is safe for drinking. I used this to refill the last big bottle we had, instead of buying another. Less plastic consumption.
Favignana – One of the Egadi Islands
We decided to visit one of the Egadi Islands, just off the coast of Sicily. The Egadi Islands consists of three islands – Favignana (the largest and most populated), Marettimo (the most isolated) and Levanzo (the smallest). These islands are famous for their stunning beauty, sparkling blue waters and ancient history. This cluster of islands is where the First Punic War ended and it is the same war that sunk the warship that lies in a museum in Marsala. We boarded a small boat in Trapani and propelled our way to Favignana. Our plan was to rent a couple of bikes to travel to the hidden coves and beaches.
The small harbour of Favignana is like from an old Italian movie. Small blue fishing boats rock in the water with an old tonnara (tuna factory) in the distance. A grand mansion, or palazzo, overlooks the harbour. All the streets in the town are cobbled and mostly pedestrianised with little cafes and artisan shops. When you arrive in the harbour, you’ll find a few bicycle rental shops. My tourist instinct told me that these shops were trying to rent for a price far higher than appropriate. I couldn’t have been more wrong! We rented a couple of electric bikes to whizz around the island for the day at a price of only €8 each. The roads were empty with very few cars and occasionally, another cyclist.
Our first stop was Cala Rossa. This is one of the most famous bays in Favignana, renowned for its crystalline waters. The name of the bay originated from one of the bloody naval battles from the First Punic War which turned the water red. Hard to imagine when you’re looking at electric blue water. As we cycled through the island, we passed quarries of tuff stone. Some homeowners have used these angular caves as their own secret gardens or extensions of their homes. After spending a few hours diving into the waters of Cala Rossa, we explored a few of the manmade caves surrounding the bay and continued our cycle around the coast. Be warned that mosquitoes are out and about in true form, so bring repellent.
Two days in Palermo
That evening, we made our way to the city of Palermo. We dropped off our rental Twingo off at the airport beforehand as we had heard that parking and driving in Palermo can be a nightmare. We wished farewell to our steed and took an easy airport bus to Palermo city for €11 round ticket. The bus stop is just a one minute walk from the arrivals hall (turn right) – simple!
Our first night was at a unique Airbnb – a beautiful 50ft sailing boat known as “Janabel” in the “La Cala” of Palermo Harbour. In the morning, we were able to see Janabel’s fine workmanship and finishing in full light. After hanging around the deck, we set off to do some sightseeing in Palermo. We discovered Palermo entirely on foot and came across a few treasures along the way. Palermo is another unique city in Sicily that many ancient civilisations have conquered and settled. The city was founded by the Phoenicians in 734 BC and since then has been under the rule of the ancient Catharginian civilisation, the Roman Empire and the Arabs. It is over 2,700 years old and teeming with history, culture and architecture.
We walked up Via Vittorio Emanuele II to reach Mercato Ballaro, Palermo’s oldest market known for its fresh produce, fish and all sorts. Via Vittorio Emanuele II is one of the most ancient streets in Palermo where the Phoenicians rooted their civilisation. It leads to several iconic sights including the Royal (or Norman) Palace (Palazzo dei Normanni) and the Palermo Cathedral. On the way, we stumbled across a local pasticceria and my love for the Sicilian ricotta croissant was born. Drawing closer to our destination, we made sure we stopped at Quattro Canti and Fontana Pretoria. Quatto Canti is a crossroads with large statues of four kings and patrons of Sicily in each corner. Fontana Pretoria is a monumental fountain around the corner full of statues of Greek deities and mythological creatures. Interestingly enough, it was actually built in Florence and then relocated to Palermo in the 16th century.
After admiring the fountain, we found ourselves in need of a break from the heat and dipped into Concattedrale Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio, a Norman-era cathedral church known for its Byzantine mosaics. The entry fee was a small €3 per person. On the outside, the influence of Islamic architecture is evident on Norman Sicily. Entering the church, we were stunned by the unbelievable level of detail. 12th century mosaics of iconography can be found in every corner as you gaze up and down. After our impromptu stop, we headed to Mercato Ballaro.
The sounds and smells of Mercato Ballaro are unforgettable – noisy, strong, animated, and unapologetically Sicilian. The market is vibrant, colourful and full of the sound of merchants flocking their goods to passersby in their native tongue. We passed tables and piles of fresh vegetables, fruit, olives, herbs, cheese and seafood – even catching a glimpse of a swordfish head. Swordfish is a popular fish in Sicily and often served in pasta dishes. We continued past Mercato Ballaro up towards a pasticceria that I had bookmarked earlier. Another smaller market unexpectedly emerged a few streets around the corner. Old computers, hairdryers, children’s toys, keyboards, jewellery, mobile phones and clothes were sprawled on the pavements by the peddlers. I found the knick-knacks amusing and some of the items brought me back to my childhood. This area was a little less travelled though so we kept our momentum. After filling up on some cannoli, we made our way to the Palermo Cathedral. We ambled through tiny cobbled passage ways and worn down buildings in residential areas. Palermo is a fascinating, grungy and dynamic city. Areas that are more run down are a reminder of the Mafia’s influence in the region.
Palermo Cathedral is another incredible mixture of architecture from different cultures that resulted from the restorations, additions and alterations to the cathedral. From one perspective, the cathedral appears almost completely traditionally Roman Catholic. Walking around to the side of the cathedral, there is an unmistakable impression of Norman style architecture and design. We found this mix of cultures and civilisations time and time again in Palermo and it is what makes this city so unique to me. This cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and free to enter. It contains the tombs of emperors and royal figures around the aisles. The figurine of Santa Rosalia captured my attention with its ornamental bronze gate and extremely detailed painting gilded in gold. Santa Rosalia is the patron saint of Palermo and she can be found depicted in many cathedrals and the Royal Palace. Legend says that she appeared to a sick woman, then to a hunter. She told the hunter where her remains could be found and instructed him to carry her bones throughout the city to end one of the most devastating plagues in Palermo in 1624.
By mid-afternoon, we headed back to the boat with pistachio gelatos in hand to rest for a few hours before dinner. After a few hours lounging in the shade, we got ready to head back out for dinner at a restaurant recommended by our Airbnb host. It did not disappoint. The restaurant is called Buatta and is located near the bottom of Vittorio Emanuele. We tucked into a pasta dish each – my favourite, Pasta Alla Norma, and Pasta Alla Trapanese. Pasta Alla Trapanese is a traditionally Sicilian pasta dish with ancient roots. The sailors of Trapani adapted the traditional pesto base to use their local products. It typically has tomato, garlic and almonds. As this was our last night, we indulged in a second course each, both divine! Grilled catch of the day and Cinisara cow meatballs (Cinisara are a breed of cattle from Palermo province). For the quality of our meal and the service, the price was very fair. We highly suggest booking if you are looking to come for dinner as the restaurant is buzzing with a mix of locals and visitors!
The next morning, we packed our bags and organised them for our flight that evening. We spent our last hours in Palermo strolling down Vittorio Emanule to visit Palazzo dei Normanni, the Royal (or Norman) Palace of Palermo, and Cappella Palatina, Palatine Chapel. The Royal Palace was constructed at the highest point of Palermo and it is a result of additions and reconstruction dating back to the 9th century. After the crowning of the first Norman king of Sicily in 1130, the Palatine Chapel was constructed. The chapel is another example of the coexistence of cultures and religions in Palermo. It was designed and constructed by Byzantine, Muslim and Latin handcraft masters.
We debated going in as the tickets were notably more expensive than the other attractions that we visited and there were mixed reviews. However, as it was our last day and the chapel was renowned, we cashed out for our tickets at €16 each. I must add, the toilets are plush inside but you have to pay 50 cents for use! Although the Royal Palace itself did not impress us much, the Palatine Chapel stood out. It was similar to the chapel near Fontana Pretoria but even further adorned with gold paint and mosaics. No corner of the chapel has been forgotten. Other than the chapel, I was not sure if it warranted the €16 ticket.
We took a long walk through Palermo before it was time to pick up our bags and head to the airport. After sneaking in some panelle and soaking up the last of the Sicilian sun, we took the bus to the airport using the return portion of the bus ticket. Palermo is an energetic city with a unique blend of ancient civilisations and perfectly Sicilian cuisine. I would highly recommend a visit it if the opportunity arises!
It was late October, so we did not have high expectations for the weather. As my Italian friend insisted, the south Mediterranean climate pulled through, however. We comfortably enjoyed our Sicilian adventure in a temperate average of 25 °C. With the exception of one torrential downpour, we had sunny breaks throughout our week and the sea was just warm enough to dip into!
Overall, Sicily is a beautiful and historic holiday destination. There are a multitude of sights to see, places to eat and no shortage of areas to relax and enjoy the quietness. For most of our trip, there was no sign of nightlife but we visited the island late, after the end of peak season, and that wasn’t our main reason for being there.
As a value-for-money destination, Sicily doesn’t do so well. Many of the accommodation and activity prices reflect those you would expect in more upmarket areas of Italy. Throughout most of the trip, we couldn’t get away from the feeling that we were paying over the odds for many things. The only exception was, surprisingly, Palermo. Prices in Palermo were altogether more reasonable than in other areas and we received a warmer reception from the local people too. Not normally what you would expect from the most built up area around.
The Hilton Tokyo Shinjuku met the expected Hilton five-star standard from the get go. The rooms were equipped with the customary five-star luxuries such as plush bedding, a granite adorned bathroom and all the expected amenities. The room size was also enormous by Tokyo standards which was quite a pleasant surprise. I had heard that all hotel rooms in Tokyo would be the size of a shoe box! The staff are friendly and can converse easily in English which is a bonus for a tourist looking for tips on where the locals eat.
As a Hilton Honors Gold member…
As a Hilton Honors Gold member, I was lucky to be upgraded to an Executive room and subsequently had access to the Executive Lounge floor. This is where I caught my first glimpse of Mount Fuji while enjoying my refreshments and nibbles. Unfortunately, after a long day out, I was disappointed to discover that the lounge stopped serving drinks at 8pm.
I was also entitled to free breakfast as a gold HH member. Breakfast was served on the ground floor and was enough to set me up for the day. It was a mix of continental and Asian options, such as croissants and congee, and had a range of juices and smoothies. One point to note is that the lobby was often slightly overcrowded with very limited seating. The noise from the busy lobby was also amplified due to the low ceilings.
Location, location, location
The Hilton Tokyo wins full points for its prime location in one of the busiest and liveliest districts in Tokyo. The transport links from the hotel are excellent. There are two metro lines within 3 minutes walking to the hotel, one of which is connected to the basement of the hotel itself! (Nishi-Shinjuku Station is connected to the basement of the hotel and Tocho-mae Station is a 3 minute walk away). In addition to this transport link, the Hilton Shinjuku also offers a free shuttle bus to the west exit of Shinjuku Station, one of Tokyo’s main connecting hub for rail traffic.
Room rates and extras
Although I booked the Hilton Tokyo during a flash sale, the Hilton Tokyo was not a cheap hotel, especially due to the service charge and tax add on. This is standard for all hotels in Tokyo. Service charge was 13% of the room rate and taxes amounted to 8% per room per night and an additional ¥200 per person per night. Although the base room rate was ¥249,000 per night (£166), all in all, the price per night for my two night stay amounted to ¥30,787 per night (equivalent to £205.36 per night) with service charge and taxes.
Despite the high price, the convenient location of the Hilton Tokyo somewhat offset the pinch to my wallet and allowed me to make the most of my Tokyo adventure.