Annchen

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A cool 5-hour drive to Hume Lake, a quick breeze through Yosemite, pop over to San Francisco for two days of eating fancy toast, drive down the gorgeous California central coast, one last stop in cute little Cambria, and finally back home to Ventura County…is NOT the road trip we did. We had it all planned out, though. We even had some things booked! And then Joel woke with a swollen uvula the day before we were supposed to leave. A SWOLLEN UVULA. Of all things. Ever given much thought to that tiny little tongue dangling above your actual tongue? Well, it turns out it can derail entire road trips.

And here is where I’d like to insert some really corny Western lyrics to the tune of ‘won’t do anything differently / all the mistakes led me to you’ kind of thing (you know those songs) – because  we exchanged our epic long-distance road trip to iconic San Fran and Yosemite, for a more off-the-beaten path, fly-by-the-seed-of-your-pants, short-distance-but-long-days kind of road trip. And honestly, it was probably one of my favourite road trips and long weekends ever.

The ultimate off-the-beaten-track Californian road trip

LET’S START WITH SOME VALUABLE LESSONS LEARNT

or

HOW TO HAVE A FUN ROAD TRIP

1. Go with friends. This much is obvious. But, fine print: go with friends you have fun traveling with. One of the reasons this was so much fun was because we were roadtrippin’ with two of our favourite travel buddies. 

2. Take the road less traveled (or instagrammed). An exponential part of the enjoyment came from not having these huge expectations surrounding places like Yosemite or San Francisco. We stopped over in small towns, without much expectation and very little plans, and we were able to just enjoy a place for what it is.

3. Ultimate road trip ≠ longest possible distance by car. This small, cozy central Californian road trip felt so big and so long – with unique accommodations each night, epic ocean cliff views, lazy pool lounges, and incredible food. And we didn’t even venture further than 3 hours and 16 minutes from home.

 

BEFORE YOU GO

Rent a car. You don’t have to fall victim to peer pressure and rent the biggest baddest truck or SUV you can find. A small thing with four wheels is perfectly fine.

Open up an Airbnb account if you don’t have one. Use this code for a sweet beginner’s discount on us!

Open up a booking.com account! I love using this platform to book accommodation – there’s lot’s of discounts to be had. Use JOEL2495 for a £15 discount off your first booking.

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Pin for Later: The ultimate off-the-beaten-track Californian road trip

 

THE ULTIMATE OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH CENTRAL CALIFORNIAN COAST ROAD TRIP

What then follows is a 3-night, 4-day road trip along the Central Californian coast, stopping at and exploring little towns and staying over at one of a kind motels and Airbnbs. It doesn’t take you super far up and down the coast, but it allows for a sleepy kind of exploring – the road trip version of slow traveling. Doesn’t that sound like a dream? In fact, if you could, it would be even better to do this same route over 5 days, to really slow it down.

You could start at the top, like we did, and drive down to LA. Or you can start at the bottom and work your way up and around. The stops are fairly close to each other, so the order hardly matters.

 

STOP 1: CAMBRIA

If you blink you’ll miss it, but the 6000-strong Cambria is an underrated sparkling little jewel on the central Californian coast. It’s the best of all the worlds – surrounded by those dark green Monterey Pine forests, home to the lapping waves of the Pacific ocean on Moonstone Beach, run by friendly locals, and heaving under fressshhhhh seafood. The feeling is ultra-californian – laid-back, active, eco-conscious – but with all the authenticity that the Hollywood-ridden south sometimes struggle with (sorry, honest opinion).

Central Californian road trip: LA to Cambria

DO

Gape at the Elephant Seals

We drove through Cambria in winter once, and stopped to look at the famous elephant seals. We had never seen them before and it was really cool seeing about 50 of them rolling around and being super passive aggressive. But I was shocked – SHOCKED – when we rolled up to the view point to see hundreds (the reactionary in me wants to say thousands) of elephant seals lining the coast like packed sardines.

HOW.

WHAT.

You won’t believe your eyes. Or your nose (they stink). Do yourself a favour and cruise circa 20 minutes north of Cambria on the 1 and just look at these guys. Watch them roll over each other, watch little fights break out, watch them labour in and out of the waves. And don’t be like that guy who gave it 1 star on trip advisor because ‘no sex or violence’ (LOL. IT’S A REAL REVIEW), just go knowing they don’t do much but you’ll never see so many elephant seals together ever in your life.

Plus, you’re gonna want to drive up that coast anyways (scroll down).

An unbelievable amount of elephant seals in Cambria

elephant seals in Cambria

central Californian road trip: the hidden gems version

GO FOR A COASTAL CRUISE

The highway along the central Californian coast must be one of the most beautiful drives in the world. You don’t need a plan or an itinerary to appreciate the dramatic views, so just jump in your car and cruise out. We drove up 20 minutes further from the elephant seals just past Ragged Point. The highway was closed from this point on due to construction, but if it’s past 5pm and they’re not working on it, you can park your car and go out on to the highway for a really unique coastal walk.

We didn’t because we were getting hungry, but it seems like a cool thing to do?

Coastal views at Ragged Point

TOUR THE MANSION ON THE ENCHANTED HILL: HEARST CASTLE

“Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something,” Hearst wrote to Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed female architect. Almost 30 years later that ‘little something’ turned out to be a mansion of epic proportions, decorated by the eclectic newspaperman William Hearst, who was inspired by every corner of Europe. The result is an encyclopaedic pastiche of architectural and decorative styles consisting of hundreds of rooms, multiple pools, almost 40 fireplaces, and a tennis court.

It’s the only place in between San Francisco and Los Angeles where you will see tourbuses of foreign tourists, and it makes sense: Hearst Castle is one of a kind. It mimics everything and looks like nothing else.

Hearst Castle is a must when you're making a stop along the central Californian coast

Hearst Castle is a must when you're making a stop along the central Californian coast

The views from the eclectic Hearst Castle, CA

The indoor Roman pool at Hearst Castle

It’s expensive ($25 per adult), but I definitely recommend going at least once and doing the classic ‘grand rooms’ tour. The tour itself is just over an hour, and the whole trip will cost you about 3 hours.

Find out everything you need to know before you go to Hearst Castle here. 

EAT

DINNER: THE SEA CHEST

Man, if I could teleport myself anywhere right now it would be to a table at the Sea Chest with a bottle of chilled white Californian wine and a plate of oysters on ice and horseradish sauce.

The Sea Chest came highly recommended by our Californian parents and we are SO GLAD we listened to our parents this! (Proof: moms and dads know best). It’s above-average price-wise (think 3 out of 5 dollar signs), but it is a remarkably special little place.

The restaurant was set up over 3 decades ago in a little New England type seaside cottage just across from moonstone beach, and has retained a quirky seaside-theme with locals cooking food behind the bar for other locals, exhibition-style.

The Sea Chest doesn’t accept reservations or credit cards (they have a little ATM inside), so you’ll probably have to wait for a table. You can order some drinks from the bar and play a card or board game while you wait, or sip your wine by the fire pit outside. We went for a little stroll along the board walk and returned to the bar, upon which we were immediately seated at a table. They give tables to whoever is waiting on-site.

Honestly, one of the best seafood meals we’ve ever had. Like top 3.

An unforgettable seafood dinner at the Sea Chest

Try some local seafood freshness at the Sea Chest, Cambria

Californian wine and oysters at the Sea Chest, Cambria

If you’re looking for inspiration: we had the tuna of the day, a plate of oysters, and the scallops over pasta. OMG my mouth is watering right now.

 

LUNCH: THE CAFE ON BRIDGE STREET

THIS PLACE OUTS OUT A MEANNNNNN SANDWICH! Again, and really I am not exaggerating, one of the best sandwiched we’ve ever had. (Cambria: 2; My Diet: 0).

Bridge Street is just off of Main Street, and the Cafe is just couple meters in. It’s set in a little red house, complete with a white-picket fence and it has a teeny tiny little back yard for some al fresco sandwich scoffing.

We were hungry after Hearst Castle, so we ordered the first thing our eyes met on the scribbled menu behind the counter. Hot pastrami Sandwiches. Oh man. It is GOOD. And it comes with a giant pickle, so that’s a win right there.

And, in true Cambria fashion, the locals who run this place are super friendly. This recommendation was passed on by our Airbnb host and we pass it on to you without any reservation.

Don't miss the mean sandwiches from the Café on Bridge Street!

Disclaimer: the sandwiches are HUGE and totally sharable (but you might not want to share all that flavour!).

STAY

AIRBNB: THE PUB

Staying in Amy’s garden shed, aka ‘The Pub’, was awesome.

First of all, you’re gonna want to meet Amy, who is the epitome of a great Airbnb host. She is so warm and welcoming and laid-back yet on top of it. She has long wild blonde hair, surfs in her free time, and watched nature documentaries because she cares about this world.

And then there’s The Pub. The little wooden man-cave/artist-shed/sanctuary-from-the-world in her lush back yard. Think English pub with a cozy wooden fireplace, a stack of books, and a comfy bed in the back. Add to that some breakfast bagels and coffee, and that right there is the picture of an extraordinary Airbnb experience. If you’re more concerned about the numbers: The Pub has 5 stars and over 1000 reviews. 

Find The Pub here (and remember to use the discount if you’re new to Airbnb).

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

An Airbnb like no other: The Pub in Cambria

Disclaimer: There’s no plumbing in The Pub, but you’ll feel totally at home to use the bathroom in the main house. There’s also a neat outdoor shower.

 

 

STOP 2: SAN LUIS OBISPO

Central coast Californian road trip: Cambria to San Luis Obispo

DO

Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach

There are lots of nice hikes to do in the area, but because this is the definitive lazy road trip, we opted to go check out the Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach. I found this spot just by zooming in to Google Maps and checking what’s in the area, and I was surprised to find that none of my southern Californian co-travelers knew about it! Essentially, it is a park on the coast with multiple lookout points to natural caves in the seaside buffs below, and it is GORGEOUS.

I would LOVE to tell you that they found fossilised dinosaur eggs here, but actually it got its name from some guy who decided to build a 50ft concrete dinosaur in the park, which was visible from the highway. He also kitted out some of the caves with kitschy skylights and fake gems. Everyone hated the dinosaur he was busy building, so the county made him stop. The caves collapsed and the dinosaur remained unfinished – headless – for a decade before it was destroyed…maybe by local teenagers who started a fire in its neck? Whose to say.

Anyway, this is kind of more intriguing than real fossils anyways.

Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach

Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach

Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach

Dinosaur Caves at Pismo Beach

EAT

Dinner: Novo

Novo is a really popular spot and comes recommended by everyone. They do take reservations, and I would recommend making one. We waited about 30 minutes for a table, but unlike the Sea Chest, the bar area in front is uninspiring.

BUT, this bar area gives way to a beautiful outside seating area (which is totally betrayed by the street facing bar) with soft yellow lights and climbing flora on a deck built around sprawling trees. Not all of our meals were winners in relation to the price point. BUT I did have the Lavender Lamb Chops and I couldn’t BELIEVE how good it was. It was, sincerely, some of the best meat I have ever tasted – and, as a meat-eating South African, I don’t say that lightly.

Erica also won with her order of scallops, which were soft and juicy and buttery and basically everything you want your scallops to be.

 

Coffee: Scout Coffee

We were led to Scout Coffee by Chris, who has been bragging about this place since forever. Turns out all the praising was on point, because the coffee is good and strong and it the place vibey and cool. 

If you’re looking for the best coffee in town, I’m sure you’ll have to look no further.

If you are repulsed by cool coffee shops, avoid like the plague.

 

STAY

Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn is a landmark central Californian hotel, and it is unlike any other hotel you will ever see.

That is the easy one-liner.

Describing what it is really like is a bit trickier. It is an unashamedly pink and kitschy people’s palace, which has taken lots of its inspiration from nearby Hearst Castle (not surprised). It’s a weirdly harmonious marriage of marble staircases and cherubs, pink and gold dining rooms, extravagant dark wooden detail, enormous blooming pink fake flowers (that light up and rank up the columns and onto the ceilings), pink golf carts, pink street lamps, pink glittering chandeliers, a stable full of horses, and a hot pink tennis court (with pink rackets and pink tennis balls).

And because it’s such a landmark hotel, most guests come dressed for the occasion (pink). So it feels like a sort of Barbie West World, where everyone is in on it.

Yeah, it’s unreal. Surreal. And undeniably fun.

The landmark hotel on the Californian coast: The Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn's hot pink tennis court.

The landmark hotel on the Californian coast: The Madonna Inn

It opened the day before Christmas in 1958 and offered the then 12 rooms onsite totally free to a group of travelers. It now boasts 110 rooms, and each one has a name and is decorated according to its own theme. Some of them are super extravagant, with double stories or stairs climbing into a tower, or waterfall rock showers. Others are more…plainly kitsch, and way more affordable. We stayed in Los Alamos the night before, and decided to lengthen our trip with another night. I had just learnt about the Madonna Inn and suggested it, kind of assuming it will be too expensive. But we actually found and booked a family suite for the 4 of us for something around $70-80, on the Friday that we were gonna stay there. What a deal!

So if you’ve always wanted to go to the Madonna Inn but thought it’s probably way too expensive – we got good news for ya!

We didn’t want to leave the Madonna Inn (you better believe we enquired about staying one more night only to find out is fully booked for a wedding), so instead of leaving after we checked out, we spent hours by the pool drinking, you guessed it, pink drinks.

And before you assume we are the laziest people on the planet, I’ll have you know that we spent an hour or so on the hot pink court before breakfast. How could you not???

Book a room here.

The landmark hotel on the Californian coast: The Madonna Inn

Madonna Inn: the perfect place for pink drinks by the pool

The landmark hotel on the Californian coast: The Madonna Inn

STOP 3: LOS ALAMOS

Central Californian Coast road trip: San Luis Obispo to Los Alamos, Ca.

Los Alamos is the coolest one-street town you never knew existed. If you even think about blinking, you’ll miss it. Population is shy of 2000, and the buildings along the main streets are sparsely staggered. The best part of Los Alamos (as a foreigner not used to anything)? It is an old Western town. The millennial in me wants to say it is ‘Western-themed,’ like I arrived in West World or something. But it is just a small Western town that has been standing strong since the 19th-century. Its history is steeped in what seems like Western fantasy – the hills above the Los Alamos ranch having served as a hideout to a real-life bandit leader who terrorised the new American settlers and sought justice for his people. He supposedly inspired the legend of Zorro.

If that’s not enough Western for you, just take one glance at the Union Hotel, where Johnny Cash once performed, and tell me I’m wrong.

The Union Hotel, est. 1880, in Los Alamos

The Union Hotel, est. 1880, in Los Alamos

Los Alamos: the remnants of the Wild West

Los Alamos: the remnants of the Wild West

Los Alamos: the remnants of the Wild West

DO

Go Antiquing in Town

At one end of the town there’s a big shed that is basically the antique depot. It is sectioned off in individual stalls inside, each specialising in its own version of junk and jewels. Spend some time wandering around, and see if you can find something valuable in between the decanters and dentist chairs and old poison bottles and racist posters. And when you get tired, take a seat at the working bar inside and fuel up with a cup of coffee!

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

The in-house bar at the Antique Depot in Los Alamos

Antiquing in Los Alamos is a thing!

Drink the day away

When I say ‘drink’, I obviously mean ‘wine taste’ because Municipal Winemakers has a tiny little tasting room right on the doorstep of the Alamo Motel. So taste some wines, find one you like, then drink a glass or two or three (at this point you may as well just get a bottle) on the patio chairs under the trees.

And if you want my opinion, go straight for the Grenache, because it is SOMETHING ELSE. Rich and deep and easy-drinking. Yes please.

Muni Wines in Los Alamos: some lazy afternoon wine tasting

EAT

Breakfast: Bob’s Well Bread bakery

English muffins, morning buns and coffee at Bob’s Well Bread Bakery. That’s all you need to know.

The muffins are soft, the buns are sweet, and the coffee is good. We don’t know if Bob is moody or grouchy or both, but it doesn’t matter because the focus is clearly on the quality. With an english muffin that scrumptious and a morning bun that good, we really don’t care how friendly the supplier is. Just put it in my belly.

Morning buns and coffee at Bob's

Lunch/Dinner: Full of Life Flatbread

Disclaimer: we haven’t actually been here. But…apparently this place serves incredible flat bread pizzas, so incredible that people travel all the way to Los Alamos just to stand in long lines for it. It’s famously known as a diner destination. Also the owner, Clark Staub used to be a big wig in the music industry in LA, even serving as VP of marketing for Capitol Records. He rebooted his life, moved to the middle of nowhere and opened a pizza shop. That back story right there is almost enough reason to eat at this place.

 

Lunch/Dinner: Industrial Eats

Located in a refurbished warehouse in Beullton, just a 15-minute drive from Los Alamos, is Industrial Eats. I don’t know what else is in Beullton, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this place is also a diner destination. It is a whole experience.

Go hungry – the food is insanely good. But don’t go starving – we went for Saturday lunch and had to wait for a whole while and I was on the cusp of being super hangry.

The menu is divided into pizzas, sandwiches (the wily and reuben are mouthwatering), and clipboards. The food on the clipboard list is served as small to medium plates, and the trick is to go on flavour preferences. That is, the menu lists the ingredients but little specification of whether it’s a salad, or a whole piece of meat, or something cooked, or grilled, etc. But whatever it is, it’ll be delicious. Add to that giant carafes of Californian wine and you’re good to go.

PRO TIP: wear stretchy pants or a long shirt so you can unbutton that top button without shame.

Central California food jewel: Industrial Eats in Beullton

Central California food jewel: Industrial Eats in Beullton

Drink: The Union Hotel 

Whiskey cocktails in an old Western saloon.

Do I need to say anything else?

Knock back a couple of whiskeys at the Union Hotel

STAY

THE ALAMO MOTEL

Having had an *interesting* experience staying in a motel on Fresno’s motel row, I was less than eager to try another motel.

But the Alamo Motel is cool. In every sense of the word. It is effortlessly cool, and it knows so. And it integrates seamlessly into its retro Western context. The rooms are fitted out with cow hides and and cool art, and even things like leather bags that you can buy from the front desk if you like the look of it in between all your stuff. Also, we are told that the some of the rooms have bare claw tubs. Their whole look was supposedly inspired by Georgia O’ Keeffe’s New Mexico residence.

We woke up the next morning looking to see if we can book another night, but they were booked out for a wedding. (Which is when we turned our antennas toward the Madonna Inn.)

The Alamo Motel sort of epitomises the feel of Los Alamos – authenticity and creativity abounds. The town only stretches a couples of blocks, but it has become a hub for creatives trying new things with a sort of cowboy flair.

I know I’ve convinced you, so book a room here.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.

The Alamo Motel: the coolest motel around.

 

And then you can start your short journey home. This long-weekend-cum-road-trip is slow, and satisfying and if you’re traveling from down south, you’ll barely even leave your backyard. Just follow our guide and you’ll barely even have to lift a finger.

 

Find The Pub on Airbnb and Madonna Inn and the Alamo Motel on booking.com

Any other questions? Comment below or drop us a note!

 

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Pin for Later: The Ultimate off-the-beaten-track Californian road trip

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We were shocked to find out how cheap Uber is in Russia: a thirty-minute ride literally costs €2,5; an hour not much more than €5. Even so, Russia is a train-centred society. In the major cities you can get to any part of it on the metro, and in Moscow it will be the most beautiful underground commute you’ll make anywhere in the world. And then there’s the historic national rail.

The Moscow – Saint Petersburg line was built less than 30 years after the invention of the very first horse-drawn rail in the UK. And that famous trans-Siberian railway – nearly 9,300km of rail from Russia to the far East – was already established very early in the 20th Century. And among these iconic rail lines there is the legendary Red Arrow overnight train running between Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

The Red Arrow train (or Krasnaya Strela) is a historic way to get from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, and vice versa.

Red Arrow started its daily service in 1931, and have reliably run ever since. It was only interrupted between 1941 and 1943 when Finland and the Nazis raided Saint Petersburg. During the Soviet era it was the de-facto carrier of the Communist elite, zipping the likes of Stalin and Lenin in between the two iconic Russian cities. Many luxury overnight trains have spawned from the Red Arrow, but nothing beats the original. 

So if you’re heading to Russia, which you absolutely should (try and get there before the end of the World Cup – the atmosphere is insane!), and you’re planning on visiting both these cities (again, which you absolutely should), you should absolutely forget about those crowded domestic flights and step aboard the historic Red Arrow instead.

We’ve tried it, we’ve loved it, and we want to help you with a super quick bullet guide.

THE ROUTE

Moscow – Saint Petersburg in 8 hours

23.55 – 07.55

Depart from Leningradskaya Station

NOTE: If you leave from Moscow it will say MOSKVA OKTIABRSKAIA -> SAINT PETERBURG. There is a station in Moscow with that name but that is not where your train departs from, it just indicates the direction in which the train travels. The Red Arrow always leaves from Leningradskaya station. 

 

Saint Petersburg – Moscow in 8 hours

23.55 – 07.55

Depart from Moskovskaya Station

 

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?

It depends on the class of your ticket and where you book it.

It can cost between €50 and €200 when you book on the cheapest site.

The price fluctuates with about €10 depending on the time of the year.

 

WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT CLASSES

Red Arrow is an affordable luxury train, so even if you book the lowest you’ll be comfortable. But the classes are, from worst to best:

2nd class sleeping compartment: this is a 4-berth compartment with upper and lower bunks. Upper bunks are €10 more expensive than lower bunks. WC at each end of the carriage. (ca. €50-€60)

1st class sleeping compartment: 2-berth sleeping compartments with lower bunks. The same size as the 2nd-class compartment so you get twice the space and all the privacy. WC at each end of the carriage. (ca. €90)

Deluxe: 2-berth sleeping compartments with one upper and one lower bunk, with en-suite WC and shower.

The Red Arrow has 3 classes, but all of them offer a luxury overnight experience.

A first class 2-berth compartment. The back of the seats flip down and convert into two cozy single beds.

 

BUYING TICKETS

You should buy tickets directly from the official Russian rail site: https://pass.rzd.ru/main-pass/public/en

They have an English translation and it’ve every clear. The only thing not in English is the payment gateway where you enter your credit card information. But you can just copy and paste it into google translate to know where your card number and where your name go.

There are English-language booking agencies but they charge fees on top of the train ticket price and it can end up being more than double the price.

 

DEPARTURE – WHEN TO BE AT THE STATION

You don’t have to be there hours before. We went early, to be safe, but it was totally unnecessary. The platform is only shown 20/30 minutes before departure, and there is no rush to get a good seat because it’s booked already.

Just leave enough time to get through the general station entrance security (this doesn’t take too long).

The Red Arrow always leaves from Leningradskaya Station in Moscow

Waiting for the platform information in Leningradskaya station, Moscow.

 

DEPARTURE TO ARRIVAL: WHAT TO EXPECT

  • When your platform is finally displayed, you’ll have to go through another round of security. Then, you’ll find your carriage and show your ticket and ID to the provodnik/provodnitsa (male/female carriage attendants) who will be waiting to receive you. Keep your passport at hand. 
  • Once you’re settled in, your provodnitsa will show you all the important bits in your compartment, like how to unfold your bed and where the plugs are.
  • In the carriage will be snacks like waters and fruits, bread rolls and Red Arrow branded chocolate, newspapers and travel amenities like toothbrushes and toothpastes. Pillows and a hand towel are placed on each seat in protective plastic. The bedlinen is already made, as you will see when you flip down your mattress.
  • There are two tiny very useful lights lights indicating which  WCs are occupied.
  • There’s a menu from which you can order drinks, extra meals, and souvenirs.
  • Your compartment door locks from the inside.
  • After that you can snooze through all the way to Saint Petersburg!
  • You will receive a wake-up call about an hour before your arrival with some breakfast: we had traditional pancakes with smoked salmon and cheese and meats with pre-packaged croissants on the side.

The train ride is smooth, quiet, and it feels surprisingly short – so enjoy every minute! I actually wished it was a bit longer, so we could enjoy the train a bit more – we just slept through most of it.

The historic Red Arrow

Breakfast is served on the iconic Red Arrow

 

LANGUAGE

I don’t know why I was surprised that a historically Russian train operates only in Russian. The conductor’s departure and arrival announcements, the TV channels, the provodnitsa: it is an all-Russian operation. Even so, we still felt wholly welcomed and were a hundred percent comfortable and at ease.

 

LUGGAGE STORAGE

There are lockers available at the station.

Departure and arrival times are obviously way before and after general check in/out times, so this is a good idea.

Beware: The lockers were VERY busy during the middle of the day in Moscow: long, long queues underground in a hot station. Hmmm, no thanks. We just kept our backpacks on us for the day.

However, the St Petersburg station’s luggage area was dead when we arrived at 8am, and again when we departed just before midnight.

 

HOW TO STORE YOUR LUGGAGE

Follow the luggage signage – a bag with a key – in the train stations, they will lead you downstairs.

Buy a card/token from the luggage guy.

Pay per hour up to three hours, and then a set price from 3 – 24 hours.

We paid about 300 Rubles (ca. €4) for 24 hours.

Follow the instructions on the locker.

 

The Red Arrow arrives at Moskovskaya Station in Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg’s Moskovskaya Station

 

The Red Arrow will take you right into the heart of Saint Petersburg

And just like that you’re in Saint Petersburg!

 

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A Quick Guide to the Red Arrow

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Moscow’s Metro: The People’s Underground Palace in Pictures

Imagine a grand hall with monumental chandeliers, marble columns and high ceilings – porcelain figures with gold-plated details gracing the ceilings, and bronze figures lining the columns. Imagine intricate mosaics within ornate relief frames, and illuminated stained glass. I bet you didn’t imagine any of this up to 84 meters underground, though.

What I’ve described above isn’t a palace or a castle or a cathedral. It’s Moscow’s metro system – famously the most beautiful metro system in the world, and it is nothing short of palatial. In fact, it is  even nicknamed ‘The People’s Palace.’

We arrived in Moscow about two weeks ago with the Red Square, onion-domed cathedrals, and FIFA on our mind. We had no idea of the existence of ‘the People’s Palace’ and we had no intention of spending around 2 hours in one of the world’s deepest underground systems in the middle of a summer’s day – much less paying for it. But it quickly became clear that it was one of the must-see Moscow things, and so we met up with the guys from Moscow Free Tours at 3PM to descend underground.

Having been built in the mid-20th century, the metro system is the ultimate form of propaganda, instilled with images of a contributive community, victory in war, and the idea of ‘a radiant future’ via communism. The communist party even took up residence in the Mayakovskaya station during Word War II, and since the cold war it has been fitted with technology to effectively serve as a nuclear shelters. It is lavish and rich, and more importantly super efficient. Even today, you rarely have to wait more than 90 seconds for train. 

With the historic Red Arrow between Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and the famous trans-Siberian rail, we already suspected that trains are central to life in Russia. But if you had any doubts that Russia is a train-centred society, the opulence of the underground will quickly convince you. 

The underground tour quickly became the highlight of our short stay in Moscow, even being crowded with all the FIFA fans. Sure, you could just buy a metro ticket and check it out yourself, but it really comes alive when a local who knows can tell you the stories and myths and point out the details.

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The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground transportation system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground transportation system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground transportation system

Alex from Moscow Free Tours giving a killer underground tour

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

Rub the dog’s nose for academic success? Uhm yes, I’m gonna need that.

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

An enormous intricate mosaic of Mother Russia at the end of a metro station. Casual.

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

Mayakovskaya Station sports 34 mosaics depicting 24 hours in the Soviet skies, and it’s gorgeous and nuanced art. Just remember to look up!

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

Stalin and his party took up semi-permanent residence in Mayakovskaya station during the siege of Moscow.

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

The Moscow Metro: the world's most beautiful underground metro system

 

Take a tour everyday with Moscow Free Tours at 3PM. €31, includes the metro tickets.

We also took their actual free tour, which is every day at 10.45AM and it was awesome!

 

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MOSCOW METRO: The World's most beautiful Metro

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Why You Shouldn’t Travel to Russia During The FIFA World Cup

Traveling, and life in general, seems to be far more enjoyable to those who have managed to master that illusive superpower called flexibility. Now, Joel and I are pretty flexible and relatively low-maintenance, so I feel like I’ve come to the above conclusion by observation. But last week I had to re-learn that lesson all over, first-hand.

I have always, since forever, wanted to go to Russia. It may or may not have something (or everything) to do with 20th Century Fox’s 1997 hit animation Anastasia that came out when I was an impressionable six years old. So yes, for the next 20+ years I’ve dreamt about Russia.

Joel has never really wanted to go, so for the last 3 years since we’ve lived in Europe, we’ve settled on places we actually both wanted to go to (seems fair?).

That is until:

FIFA.

Finally I had my in; the World Cup was just the push Joel needed and before you could say ‘Together in Paris’ (fan girl reference) we booked our tickets to Moscow, and our train ride to Saint Petersburg.

We jumped on our red-eye from Berlin to Moscow, arrived at 3.30am (in full sunrise), and enjoyed an early check in to our Airbnb. I allowed us a decent 4/5 hour nap (I’m the sleep police when we are traveling) before setting off for…THE RED SQUARE.

Except we arrived to packed sidewalks and squares, 4 hours before the first kick off, and the red square: closed off.

The next morning I read there was a concert there. Okay, so it’s probably open now. We try again: closed off.

Okay fine, I’ll go see Lenin’s embalmed body in the Mausoleum: Nope, closed.

Then we learn that the Red Square will be closed until we leave Moscow.

UGH, I HATE SPORTS!

I immediately get in my head about how much this sucks; about how much I hate planning my trip around football games; about how I’d probably never come back to this country and this is it, my Russia trip is ruined; I hate FIFA, I hate sports, I hate life, I’m gonna hate this town; I’ll lay my Russian dreams down to die slowly.

I sulked HARD.

Moscow was packed with tourists before the kick off of the first FIFA game.

Our first look at a packed Moscow 4 hours before kick off.

But then the summer sun and the festive crowds, the cheers and chants and spontaneous rival camaraderie, the realisation that I am in Russia, and the sweet, sweet pre-packaged ice cream in wafer cones for 1EUR melted my cold heart and I made a decision that would change everything for me:

Just enjoy FIFA-crazed Russia for what it is, let go of your expectations, stop kicking against the celebrations, allow yourself to be infected by other people’s joy.

Just. Be. Flexible.

And with a cool attitude shift, our week in Russia turned out to be so much more incredible than I could ever anticipate. And after I let myself be charged by the jubilation instead of being drained by it, I have a new understanding for extroverts!

So yes, you get it – it was a bit of a click-baity title, and I am not ashamed! So here are the main (ironic) reasons you should avoid FIFA cities like the plague (not really [ok, you get it.]): 

IT IS REALLY BORING

Sports, sports, sports – yawn, amiright?

Wrong!
I was hesitant about the crowds. I was afraid it’ll be too busy, and just sour my perfect sightseeing plans. But after embracing the spirit of the moment, the crowds added to why we liked Moscow so much. Now, it was really busy. Really, really busy. But imagine people from all over the world coming together, dressing up, dancing in the streets, taking photos together, singing songs, embracing each other, sharing food and drink, from sunrise to sunset.

For example,

We just sat down at a table to watch the Portugal Spain game, when we saw a guy with a big South Africa flag draped around his back. We yelled to him and he came over, we chatted away, and before you knew it we were sharing a table, food and drinks with a group of awesome people who we initially just yelled ‘Hey! South Africa!’ at. Where else in the world does that happen??

It’s a celebration of ourselves and each other, and I can totally behind that.

FIFA at its best: when you can grab someone with your flag off the street and spend the next few hours drinking and celebrating over a World Cup game. Moscow.

Joel in his element: talking to strangers and making new friends.

Getting excited for the first FIFA game at the Moscow Fan Park

Getting into the swing of things at the Moscow Fan Park for the first game of the World Cup.

IT’S DANGEROUS.

Hmmm, no.

Russia is currently essentially a platform for a bunch of crazy fans who have traveled 1000s of miles to see their teams go head to head and battle it out on the football field. Fifa countered this with a #WeAreRivals campaign – showing a short video at the fan parks in front of each game, encouraging fans to hug their rivals, post it to social media accounts, and win tickets to the final. (See the results at #rivalhug). Pretty cool! And this is really what we experienced in Russia – fans from different teams were constantly posing for photos with each other, celebrating together, congratulating each other, or offering their condolences.

FIFA's #WeAreRivals encouraged fans to celebrate their rivalry with photos and hugs

Some Russians and Egyptians rival hugging before the game.

It seems like a recipe for disaster, but what we witnessed was actually quite inspirational, and critically so in the combative political climate of the day. There was not an ounce of animosity, just a celebration of difference and camaraderie from thousands of people so vastly diverse – it is enough to make you believe in all the good in the world. 

And also, Moscow and Saint Petersburg are both lovely cities and not at all scary places. I am not sure why people think Russia is scary, but I am guessing the negative portrayal in the media and all those American movies don’t help.

 

MY TEAM ISN’T PLAYING

Nope, not a thing either.

Yes, half of Mexico and the entire Iceland showed up to support their teams, but you don’t have to have a team to get invested or benefit from the spirit of those who are. There were tons of people walking around with flags that were nowhere near competing (like, read above, our South African friends), rooting for the underdogs, or whichever country is closest, or just for Mexico (the fan favourites).

Of course we had to root for the African teams, and we were pumped to have tickets to the Egypt Russia game, but we were really disappointed that we didn’t have any Egyptian paraphernalia – we wanted to show our support! Some face paint, a flag, a knock-off jersey, a hat, anything. And then right in front of the stadium entrance the heavens answered our prayers and an Egyptian flag flew right into my hands from the sky. FOR REALLLLL.

So no, you don’t need to have a team – Mother Russia will provide.

Can you believe this Egypt flag fell into my hands right before we walked into the Russia Egypt game at the stadium???

Best. Souvenir. Ever.

Celebrations before FIFA Russia Egypt showdown.

The Egyptian flag gave us all the confidence we needed to take photos with random fans.

Celebrations before FIFA Russia Egypt showdown.

RUSSIA IS A COLD AND DARK PLACE

I think my first real, non-animated impression of Russia came from a picture I saw in an Afrikaans magazine when I was little. It was of a bunch of old people standing outside in the snow half-naked to get some sun. Dang Russia must be depressing, I thought. Fur hats, Siberian huskies, drinking vodka to stay warm, vast snowy deserts, solitary trains chuffing in the darkness – let’s be honest, these are the things we imagine when we think of Russia.

Though I can’t speak to the climate for the biggest country in world with…are you sitting down…ELEVEN time zones, I can say that summer in Moscow and Saint Petersburg is AWESOME. The days are long and hot, but not humid, and in Saint Petersburg it never gets dark.

Saint Petersburg's White Nights

Saint Petersburg at around 1am.

WHITE NIGHTS IN SAINT PETERSBURG

It’s called the White Nights and it occurs for two to three weeks around the longest day of the year – 21 June, the summer solstice. The sun sets around midnight, and then it goes from dusk to dawn in no time at all until the sun starts rising at 3am. Experiencing these monolithic long days is truly bizarre; dinner at 11pm or even midnight, everyone out on the streets all through the night, seeing night on your left and day on your right, and not actually being able to tell whether it’s getting lighter or darker.

Then the Saint Petersburg bridges draw through the night, a historic nightly necessity that turned into tradition. Palace Bridge, right behind the State Hermitage, draws first at 01.25 to music and fanfare. Hundreds of people watch from the shore, and some hop onto bridge tour boats and chase all the bridges as they open (remember to check the updated schedule!). I’ve never thought that watching bridges draw could feel so magical, but when hundreds of people are out in the barely-there night, the excitement is infectious.

Of course it helps that Russia had just won a World Cup game in the city’s stadium.

The drawing of Palace Bridge, Saint Petersburg

The State Hermitage, Saint Petersburg around 1.30am

White Nights in Saint Petersburg

THE POWER OF FLEXIBILITY

In the end, both of us loved our week in Russia way more because we embraced each other’s interests, budged on our own agendas, and reassessed our expectations. Joel let me make him do the Moscow Underground Metro Tour (the world’s most impressive metro – it’s absolutely incredible), and stand in line for the Hermitage museum. I let myself be swept up by soccer, and it’s made our week in Russia so much fun, and wholly unforgettable.

When I changed my attitude (it’s so simple!) and forced myself to be flexible, what I at first perceived as hysteria and frenzy, I instead experienced as joy and elation. We were sad to leave all the craziness behind, but you better believe we will return to Russia asap, and we are watching every game in the meantime.

 

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The joys of ticking of bucket list items: Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

The grandeur of Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg must be the dreamiest city in Europe.

The joys of ticking of bucket list items: Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

The joys of ticking of bucket list items: Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow

In the end, all my Russian dreams came true.

 

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Sometimes it’s daunting going to that bucket list destination you’ve always dreamed of! Where should you go, what should you do, or what should you not do!? Well, consider this your ultimate list of do’s and don’ts for Cappadocia, Turkey.

 

Do forego the fancy ‘cave hotel’ and opt for prime location in a real cave house.

The reason we love Cappadocia has a lot to do with with where we stayed. Sure, the incredible scenery, delectable Turkish food, and those hot air balloon rides all help, but staying out of town in this dirt cheap Airbnb really contextualised our experience as calming, unforgettable, unique, relaxing.

The first time we visited was in winter, and we were the only guests. The owner of the property waited up for us until 1am when we checked in, he roasted us chestnuts, he serenaded us on the sitar, we talked about and listened to music on Turkey’s independent radio station. We felt like we were visiting an old friend rather than being hosted by an airbnb stranger. 

The next time we stayed was in summer, and the mood was different. All the rooms (3 or 4) were booked out and there was staff to help run the place. And even though the old man, sadly, didn’t recognise us (I don’t know why we expected to be welcomed like lost children 3 years later..that’s on us), we still felt like we were returning somewhere warm and familiar.

Here’s why you should stay at Natureland Cave Hotel:

  1. You’ll be sleeping in the rooms of a 6th-century wine cellar. So that’s a casual THOUSANDS OF YEARS OLD.
  2. It’s a real cave. A lot of the fancy cave hotels in Göreme have rooms built out of the rock formations, i.e. the room is not necessarily a cave. Plus, Cappadocia was only declared a world heritage site in the 1980s, so people having been carving out homes up until then. Most of those hotels are modern carvings and adaptations of cave dwellings.
  3. It’s out of town. So you feel like you’re alone in the Cappadocian landscape, whilst being only a 15-minute walk from the town and a 5-minute walk from the Open Air Museum. Win-win!
  4. THIS IS THE VIEW  (scroll down) when you step out of your door. See that open space? That’s where the balloons take off every morning.

We’ve stayed at one of the nicer hotels in town once, and…it was nice. But there is no amount of amenities, or comfort, or breakfast spreads that will ever make up for the authenticity of the experience at Natureland, the quiet calm of the location, of waking up and hearing the horses run to the ranch below you, or having the hot air balloons take flight from what is basically your backyard.

You can book a room through booking.com, or airbnb (use this code for a £25 discount if you haven’t signed up for airbnb yet – which will go quite a long way at Natureland Cave Hotel).

Cappadocia views from Natureland Cave Hotel

This is what you’ll see when you step out your door at Natureland Cave Hotel. Not bad?

Cappadocia views at the Natureland Cave Hotel

Authentic cave hotel experience at Natureland Cave Hotel

Extensions to the cave has been kept to a minimum

The best location in Cappadocia: Natureland Cave Hotel

The viewing deck of Natureland Cave Hotel in Cappadocia

Natureland Cave Hotel has to be the most authentic cave hotel in cappadocia

Natureland Cave Hotel: like the Turkish cave version of a hobbit house. This is the real deal, y’all.

Cappadocia views from Natureland Cave Hotel

DON’T SLEEP IN!

This is probably the most important and well-known rule when it comes to getting the most out of Cappadocia. No matter where you’re staying or what you’re plans are, you have to get up at the crack of dawn to see the hundreds of balloons rise to the sky before sunrise. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before, and no, you will not get used to it.

There are viewing decks everywhere – but the best location is from just outside your door because I’ve convinced you to stay at Natureland Cave Hotel. But Cappadocia is kind of the wild west. You can pretty much go anywhere you want, and it’s all good views.

The #1 rule in cappadocia: get up early to watch the balloons!

The #1 rule in cappadocia: get up early to watch the balloons!

The #1 rule in cappadocia: get up early to watch the balloons!

The #1 rule in cappadocia: get up early to watch the balloons!

The #1 rule in cappadocia: get up early to watch the balloons!

 

DON’T UNDERRATE SUNSETS

With that said, one of the don’ts that people seem to do the most is to underrate sunsets. Sunsets change the Rose Valley from pink to orange to red, casting long shadows behind the alien rock formations. And then you must remember to turn around and see the silver moon cast its light.

There are two ways to do sunset.

  1. Relax at a viewing deck

The best sunset spot in Göreme is just above the Rose Valley, looking out over it. On google maps  – and it’s mapped fairly accurately – it comes up as Panoramic View Point. This the perfect spot – there are a few little stalls where you can buy dried and candied fruit, lots of tables and benches, some sofas, and throw cushions packed along the ridge where you can lounge and sunset (yes, that’s a verb now). There’s also a little kiosk called ‘Crazy Ali’ where you can order beer, freshly pressed juices and nargile. Bring your friends, some snacks, order an Efes, watch the sky go yellow and pink and blue.

Sunset as seen from the Panoramic View Point, Cappadocia

Panoramic View Point is kitted out in sofas and cushions for optimal sunsetting

Panoramic View Point is kitted out in sofas and cushions for optimal sunsetting

Sunsetting at Panoramic View Point, cappadocia

Sunsetting at Panoramic View Point, cappadocia

Sunset in the Rose Valley

Sunsetting at the Panoramic View Point, Cappadocia.

 

2. Go on a Quadbike sunset drive

This is a far less relaxing, far more adventurous way to experience sunsets in Cappadocia. The viewing point will be somewhere in the valley, so instead of an umbrella vantage point like above, you’ll get to see sunset through the caves and spires of the rose valley. 

Personally I like to lounge and drink when I sunset (there’s that verb again), so if you have to choose – I’d say do a quadbike adventure during the day, and head to Panoramic View Point for the views.

Sunset in the Rose Valley, Cappadocia.

 

DON’T GO TO THE OPEN AIR MUSEUM IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY

This rule depends on the time of year you are visiting, but if you go in peak season – abide by this rule! Disregard if you’re visiting in or near winter.

By all means, you have to go to this museum! Think of it less as a museum and more of a condensed version of the sprawling landscape of Cappadocia presented in a bit-sized chunk. So if you’re only in town for a few nights, you absolutely should go.

But avoid mid-day if possible. We arrived around 11am to throngs of tourists crowding the security gate and ticket offices. Knowing that all the entrances to the caves inside are narrow, single-lane kind of situations, we stayed away and headed back to our accommodation, which is just a 5/6-minute walk down the hill, because, you know, we are staying at the best-located hotel in the area.

So after zipping around in quadbikes, we went back at 4pm and the difference was remarkable. Way, way less people. 

The Göreme Open Air Museum just after sunrise: we dipped in with our hot air balloon and got a view without any tourists.

The Göreme Open Air Museum just after sunrise: we dipped in with our hot air balloon and got a view without any tourists.

The Göreme Open Air Museum: Go when it's quiet so you can enjoy the narrow passages.

You’ll want to go when it’s quiet in order to enjoy narrow passages.

 

DO GET THE LAY OF THE LAND ON QUADBIKES OR HORSEBACK.

Speaking of quadbikes, this is another thing we would very highly recommend if you’re in Cappadocia for only a few nights. You’ll be able to see much more, must faster and get a better appreciation for the area on the whole.

You can go horseback riding during sunsets too, if you prefer a slower, quieter experience. The region of Cappadocia has historically been well-known for its horses, many even claiming that ‘Cappadocia’ derives from a Hittite word that means ‘Land of the Beautiful Horses.’ I would’ve loved to ride horses during our second visit, but when a horse bit my hand I took at as a message from the universe and back away slowly.

So we’ve went quadbiking twice, and we’ll go again! Besides ‘fun’ – here’s what else you should know:

Quadbiking in Cappadocia: What to Expect

  1. DUST. If you go in summer. You’ll be given a mouth mask and sunglasses. WEAR THEM.
  2. It’ll run you around 60 – 100 TL for your own bike, depending on the season.
  3. The guide is there only to guide you quadbike-wise. Do not expect any information. 
  4. You’ll make 4 or 5 photo stops, each for about 15 minutes;
  5. An hour tour might last more like 90 minutes. 

The famous cappadocia steeds

Cappadocia is historically famed for its beautiful horses

Cappadocia: quadbike tours will let you access out-of-town locations

Going on quadbike tours will take you to out-of-town locations in Cappadocia

Going on quadbike tours will take you to out-of-town locations like the shell of the ruins of this abandoned village built in caves.

Quadbiking in Cappadocia

Quadbiking in Cappadocia will afford you with quiet views

DO GO FOR A WALK IN ROSE VALLEY

Horseback riding and quad biking may allow you to see Cappadocia much faster, but still better is to go for a walk. Cappadocia is any hiker’s dream destination! There are so many different valleys to be explored, with very little (if any!?) rules about where you are and aren’t allowed to go.

If you’re short on time and have to choose one, go walk in the rose valley. One of the best things about hiking around Cappadocia is getting to see how the locals still make use of caves carved hundreds, even thousands of years ago: as homes, as stables, as cattle ranches, as garages. Cappadocia is also largely a self-sustaining community, so you’ll see tons of small orchards, vegetable patches and vineyards. 

Besides a deeper look at contemporary Cappadocian life, the landscape is also littered with ancient cave homes and churches, complete with fading murals – all unmarked, and all just free to be explored.

Self-sustained farming in the Rose Valley, cappadocia

Discover abandoned cave homes in the Rose valley

Contemporary and ancient life in cappadocia

Explore the pre-modern Cappadocia caves in the Rose Valley

Go for hikes and see how the locals make use of the landscape in cappadocia

Go for hikes and see how the locals make use of the landscape in cappadocia

Go for hikes and see how the locals make use of the landscape in cappadocia

 

DO TREAT YO SELF!

One of the most magical, unforgettable, surreal, inspiring things we’ve ever done, ever. Besides these adjectives, hot air balloon riding in Cappadocia is mostly indescribable, so check out our photo posts to see what I mean. If you’re going to spend money on any excursion-type thing in your life, ever – this should be in the top three of your list.

A 60-minute ride (60 minutes spent in the air), will cost in between 100EUR (in winter) and 170EUR per person (in season).

A Cappadocia Must: Splurging on a hot air balloon ride

 

DO GET OUT OF Göreme (AND DO RENT THAT CAR)

First of all, I wouldn’t go to Cappadocia without a car. Sure, you could. There is enough to see within walking distance in Göreme, and there are organised tours, and taxis. But renting a car is cheap! And so convenient. There is no traffic in Cappadocia and there’s usually a parking spot nearby. I can think of so many cons with not having a car, and non with having one. So.

Then, when you have that car, drive to the Ihlara Valley. It’s an hour and 20 minutes away, and it is where the 8th-century Selime Monastery is – an entire religious community’s dwelling, including the chapel, the church, the school, and the winery, carved into a the rock. We loved Selime Monastery. In fact, we enjoyed it way more than the Open Air Museum. It’s cheaper, quieter, calmer, and offers incredible views over the valley. 

The Selime Monastery is out of town, but worth the drive.

Cappadocia: Selime Monastery carved into rocks

Cappadocia: Ancient murals of the Selime Monastery carved into rocks

Cappadocia: Selime Monastery can make you feel a bit like Indiana Jones or something!

Cappadocia: Selime Monastery is a out of town gem

When you follow the road to Ihlara village and cross a little bridge, you will soon see an unassuming lookout point on your left. Stop the car and take in the enormous Ihlara gorge:

Cappadocia: The incredible Ihlara gorge

 

DO NOT SIT DOWN AT THAT FIRST TOURISTY RESTAURANT YOU SEE

We were pretty hungry by the time we had seen and done Selime Monastery and the Ihlara gorge. And we almost made a huge mistake. There is one big restaurant in Ihlara village right on the river, right by the bridge, called ‘STAR’. We were so hungry we almost stayed here, but after seeing tour guide after tour guide leading busloads of people in, we backed away slowly. Which worked out perfectly, because we found this gem. 

Now, imagine this: a bubbling creek, dappled sunshine, lush green overhanging trees, and, if you can, a litter of puppies. No, seriously (to be fair, there are Anatolian Sheepdog puppies EVERYWHERE in Anatolia, so not really the restaurant’s doing).

And along and over the river, wooden decks serve as individual seating areas, decked out with Turkish carpets and cushions.

This is where we spent a long lazy lunch along with other local tourists and families, before a dark cloud rolled in and we quickly paid our bill to seek cover, after kicking ourselves for not choosing a deck with a roof.

How to get there:

There are two or three restaurants that are doing the same thing – the most popular being Aslan. It’s pretty simple getting there.

  • Head back towards Selime/Göreme/Aksaray the way you came
  • When you’re out of Ihlara village (it’s so small it’ll be seconds), take the first right
  • This will take you down the valley via two/three switchbacks
  • At the bottom of the road you’ll reach a teeny tiny parking lot; it was super busy when we got there!
  • If you make a sharp left, there are more spots to park along the river. Just beware! It can be really frustrating getting back out again – it’s a single lane and parked cars cause quite a bit of congestion. But it’s so worth it! 
  • Skip the first one or two restaurants – hold out until you see those wooden decks!

Hold out for the hidden gems where the locals go!

Take a lazy floating lunch at Aslan restaurant

Take a lazy floating lunch at Aslan restaurant

Cappadocia: The perfect lunch setting!

Cappadocia is in the Turkish region of Anatolia, so expect lots of Anatolian sheepdog puppies!

 

DON’T FORGET TO EAT MANTI

Speaking about eating, Manti is an Anatolian specialty, and it is one of my favourite meals ever. Sure, you can get in Istanbul or Ankara or Antalya, but it is especially delicious in Cappadocia. Think of Manti as Turkish ravioli traditionally stuffed with spiced meat and topped with a spicy yogurt sauce.

Our favourite plate of Manti (yes, ever) is served by Anatolian Kitchen Restoran in Göreme.

Manti is a regional specialty in central Turkey

 

DO VEER OFF THE MAIN DRAG FOR FOOD

Turkish food is incredible – every single time. And the great thing about it is that it’s delicious everywhere! So while we do have our favourite places for certain dishes, it’s pretty much safe to say you’re gonna have a great plate of food wherever you go.

But veer off the main drag in Göreme and go to Omurca Art Cave Café if you want a unique experience. Stepping into the restaurant will make you feel like you’re stepping into an Aladdin’s cave, filled with rugs and pillows and mismatched chairs and swings and lanterns and all kinds of interesting, colourful things. Oh, and cats. There are tons of cats – like, an unusual amount, even for Turkey.

The menu is super simple. It reads something like: ‘chicken, köfte, pork, chicken, chicken, manti’ – basically a list of just the main ingredients. The owner/chef will go through the menu with you and then he and his friend make sure you have enough wine or tea before he goes and cooks it. It’s a two-man operation, so the food takes a while, but it’s worth the wait! 

Omurca Art Cave Café in Cappadocia

Omurca Art Cave Café in Cappadocia is a two-man operation and it's well worth the wait!

My mom got cozy and got snuggled by a cat and tucked in by the owner! Now, that’s service. 

 

DO NOT GO INTO THE UNDERGROUND CITIES IF YOU’RE CLAUSTROPHOBIC

Visiting any of the underground cities is actually mind-blowing. We went to the Kaymaklı underground city with four or five accessible underground floors, all connected with tiny little tunnels. We were going to just head in ourselves, but a guide convinced us to hire him (of course he did), and the experience was better because of it (there is no information down there). He was also the shortest little man ever, which served him well, because the tunnels are long, narrow, dark and the ceilings are very, very low. I am of average height (ca. 170cm) and half-squatted in most of the rooms and all of the tunnels. If you had any anxiety about enclosed spaces, I would give this one a skip.

We also went in winter, meaning that besides ourselves, there were maybe 12 other tourists there. I really wouldn’t want to be down there in peak season with a ton of tour groups. Because it’s narrow in there, it’s also a one-way kind of deal – backtracking is strongly discouraged when there are crowds.

The Kaymaklı underground city in Cappadocia should be avoided if you're claustrophobic.

 

DO EXPLORE ON THE ROADS LESS TRAVELED

While we strongly recommend staying just outside of the town centre at the most authentic cave home ever, you definitely should take some morning walks in town. But don’t stay in the main drag where all the shop and restaurants are! Work them calves a bit and up the hills and down the winding little roads; this is where you’ll see how people have transformed these rock formations into their urban cave dwellings. If you want to take photos, go in the early morning. This is when the locals are still snoozing or very slowly setting up shop, and all the tourists who woke up for the sunrise balloon show have gone back to bed or to breakfast.

Cappadocia: the charming cave town of Göreme

Cappadocia: the charming cave town of Göreme

Cappadocia: the charming cave town of Göreme

AND FINALLY

DO GO BACK IN DIFFERENT SEASONS

DO NOT make the mistake and think Cappadocia is fit for one season only. The peak season is generally spring (end of April to June) and end of summer/early autumn (September and November). The temperature is warm, but not too hot, the nights are still cool, very little to no rain, and it is very rarely windy at dawn, which is of course a major factor when you’re planning on treating yo self to that hot air balloon ride.

We’ve gone in the spring, and it is gorgeous: sprawling green hills, flowers in bloom, stunning weather, lively atmosphere. It was perfect.

We’ve also gone in winter (end of November), and we absolutely LOVED it. The first of the snows had brushed the strange valley in a light dusting of snow, even when some trees were still wearing their autumn colours; the restaurants and caves were glowing with the warmth of their coal-stoves; and best of all, we were the only tourists around and sunrise was way, way later so we didn’t have to get up at 4am to get to our balloon like we had to in spring. It was cold and cosy and quiet and wonderful.

Cappadocia changes drastically between seasons; I almost didn’t recognise it with all the budding trees and green plantations when we came back the second time! And the whole experience is something else too. So if you’ve been in winter, come back to see how lush and lively it can be. If you’ve been in spring, come back to experience the utter calm of this bizarre landscape without people.

 

Cappadocia is a different experience in each season

Cappadocia changes a lot between season. These two places are just a few metres away from each other, taken early winter and early spring.

Cappadocia in springtime

Cappadocia in wintertime

 

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CAPPADOCIA: The ultimate list of do's and don'ts when you're traveling to Cappadocia for the first time

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