Category: Travel Guides

This weekend a couple of friends came over to London from Finland. Some of them had been in London before, one of them hadn’t. It got me thinking. What would be the best way to spend a day in London if you’ve never seen the city before? Here is what I would do.

Morning

Start at London Bridge. Check if Borough Market is open and grab breakfast and a coffee somewhere in the bustling food market. It’s worth going early as it can get busy in the afternoon. If it’s closed go to one of the chain cafés around Hay’s Galleria.

When fed and caffeinated start strolling west, follow the Thames along the southbank. Along the way pass The Globe, Tate Modern and the London Eye.

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Eventually the Houses of Parliament will appear on the other side of the river. Cross Westminster Bridge and explore the area. If the queue isn’t too long and you have money in your pocket have a look at Westminster Abbey.

Afternoon

Walk up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square, passing 10 Downing Street on the way. Have a look at Trafalgar Square and keep heading north on to Charing Cross road. On the way there’ll be a chance to see Leicester Square and its theatres.

At Shaftesbury Avenue turn right and head towards the Seven Dials near Covent Garden. There will plenty of nice places to have lunch around there. I would go to one of the vegetarian places in or around Neal’s Yard.

There are lots of shops around the Seven Dials and Covent Garden. Many of these shops will be the same ones you’ll find on Oxford Street, but they’ll be less busy.

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Spend the afternoon exploring Covent Garden and Soho. Stop for a tea at Maison Bertaux on Greek Street in Soho. They have amazing pastries. If you fancy coffee instead go to Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street in the Seven Dials.

Evening

Take the 24 bus from Charing Cross Road to its final stop (The Royal Free Hospital in Kentish Town). From there it’s a really short walk to Hampstead Heath. The bus will go past Camden, which is great to see from a bus window, but less interesting to walk around (unless you’re a 14-year-old with stripy tights).

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Walk up to Parliament Hill at Hampstead Heath, admire the skyline, take a couple of photographs. Stroll around the park and then walk back down to Camden. If the feet feel tired stop and have a green smoothie at Inspiral or a pint at The Lock Tavern.

Take the overground from Camden Junction to Dalston, grab something to eat at The White Rabbit and then go for a drink in the nearby pub Farr’s School of Dancing. On an adventurous night take a bus to Shoreditch and sampel a few cocktails at Callooh Callay.

Top image by Alessia Clauderio all other pictures are mine.

London The moving to London collection Travel Travel Guides

In April Gerry and I travelled to Japan to take photos for his next series of prints. Our aim was to do one photo shoot per day, which took us all over Tokyo. We spent a day following the expressway criss-crossing the eastern side of town and another day hunkered underneath an umbrella in Shibuya trying to capture people rushing past us in the rain. This was our sightseeing. And it was exactly the sort of sightseeing I enjoy – exploring and walking.

I didn’t shop, I didn’t see many of those places you’re supposed to see, but I tried to get to know the city, to meet local people and to understand what it’s like to live in Tokyo.

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During our two weeks in Japan we only managed to scratch the surface, if that. But here goes. Here is my guide to Tokyo.

Neighbourhoods

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Koenji

We stayed in a small apartment in Koenji, a district west of Shinjuku, during our first week in the Tokyo. Koenji is a slightly punky part of town, with lots of rock venues, tiny bars and vintage clothing shops.

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South of the Koenji subway station there’s a shopping mall, which eventually turns into a street lined with cute second hand shops. To the north is a slightly different high street, with cozy bars and nice restaurants. That’s where we also stumbled across a busy little supermarket with great take away boxes of sashimi and sushi. Trying to navigate through the isles of supermarkets abroad is one of my favourite things. We often ended up with a random basket of stuff and sampled a lot of noodles, rice cakes and green tea flavoured cookies.

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Shimokitazawa is a bit like the Hackney or Brooklyn of Tokyo. We stayed in the area during our last two days in Tokyo. It felt a lot more affluent than Koenji and the neighbourhood definitely had an alternative vibe, but compared to other places in the city it seemed a bit expensive. A lot of the restaurants and bars served up food that reminded us of home, burgers, salads and third wave coffee.

The area is great for independent shopping and you can easily spend a day or two there exploring the shops and restaurants. Just remember it might be a bit harder on your wallet than other areas in Tokyo.

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Shibuya/Shinjuku/Harajuku/Roppongi

We only spent a bit of time in the more central parts of town. You’ll find out most of the things you need to know about these areas in any good tourist guide. They’re the sort of places where you’ll find upmarket boutiques, big fashion brands and restaurants catering to tourists.

Shibuya

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After doing our photo shoot we rushed through Shibuya in the rain and had a quick look at the famous Shibuya 109 shopping centre with its many colourful concessions of womenswear. It was interesting, but a bit manic so we escaped the crowds and ended up in a pool hall around the corner where we played pool for a couple of hours and watched the local kids and amazing Japanese grannies at the tables next to us.

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The back streets around Cat street felt like mix of Greenwich village and Camden, a mix of independent clothing shops and cheaper touristy places.

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The high point was an interesting art gallery called Design Festa, a building with lots of small cubicles where local artists can rent a space. In the courtyard there was a cafe where you could grill your own okonomiyaki on a hot plate, which we didn’t get a chance to do, but it did look very tasty.

We also visited the Ukiyo-e Ota museum and spent an hour walking around, looking at their collection of amazing woodblock prints.

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Yoyogi park in Harajuku was nice too.

Jimbocho

One of my favourite days was spent browsing through the second hand book shops in Jimbocho. Many of them had floors full of old knick-knacks, old wrapping paper and wood block prints. It felt like going through the contents of a dusty old attic. It felt quite strange walking through shops filled with these books I couldn’t read. If you love second hand book shops this is the place to go.

Akihabara

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This area gave me a bit of a cold sweat. The center of Akihabara is a big street lined with blinking signs, shouting out advertising, huge manga characters peering down from buildings and shops with floors and floors of cheap electronics.

This place is geek heaven and if you know your electronics you can definitely find a bargain there. All I managed to get was a mild attack of the panics on the top floor in one of the shops, when the random advertising tunes, the strange figurines of naked pre-pubescent girls and the weird yellow light got a bit too much and I had to get out.

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I braved the basement floor of a couple of shops as well and stumbled across a slightly weird side of Japanese society. I’m still struggling to understand how adult comics featuring very young looking girls can be sold so casually and openly.

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On a more positive note there is another good art gallery in Akihabara, in an old school tucked away on a small side street. Like at Design Festa in Harajuku, artists can rent a room in 3331 Arts Chiyoda. We walked around for a bit, slightly confused by the fact that the place still smelled exactly like a high school and that high schools therefore must smell the same the world over.

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Eating

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Even though both of us like good food Tokyo sometimes felt too big and confusing to make informed choices, often our hunger took over and we stumbled into the first decent looking restaurant.

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This meant we ate a lot of Japanese fast food, ramen and rice, which was mostly tasty and filling. We also bought plenty of stuff in the supermarkets and ate dinner in the apartment we’d rented. A cheap alternative to eating out, but often just as tasty.

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We also went to a restaurant in Shinjuku where you could grill your own food and had a lot of good sushi. Often we just chose the places randomly, but only had few disappointing meals.

Top tip

Tensuke in Koenji was recommended to us by some of the locals. There’s normally a queue outside this tiny tempura restaurant and only a handfull of seats next to the counter inside.

Because the food was so good we queued twice to eat there. The head chef speaks a bit of English and flamboyantly tosses eggs, shrimp and vegetables into a vat of hot oil. The tempura was salty and crispy and amazing. But the best thing about the whole experience was the bowl of rice with a fried egg on top. I will dream about that rice for months.

I can also recommend a cafe in Koenji called “Precious coffee moments”, not just because of the name, but because they do a sesame milk coffee with ice cream. Weird, but amazing.

Drinking

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Opposite Tensuke there is a small jazz bar, just big enough for seven people to cram around the bar disk. Jazz singer Hanako was working the shift one night when we strolled around Koenji, nervously looking for a place to stop and have a drink. These bars almost seem like living rooms and taking that step over the threshold felt a bit like intruding.

Luckily Hanako is one of those people who seems to make friends wherever she goes. She waved at us and we ended up joining the group of people at the bar. If you can’t find this particular jazz bar, I would recommend looking for your own, a small place where you can drink several glasses of wine and get to know a few people. Everyone seemed happy to practise their English with us and wanted to talk about their trips to Liverpool. Since Gerry’s Scottish, they also wanted to know what he thinks about the independence debate.

Top tip

In many restaurants you can pay a set amount and then drink as much as you want for two hours. Normally it was around 2000 yen (£10) for one person, the measures were quite small, but the offer is often worth it if you want to have a couple of drinks.

Getting around

The metro/subway in Tokyo can seem overwhelming at first, especially since the lines are run by different operators. The easiest way to get around is to buy a Suica pass, which works like an Oyster card, at any of the major stations. Just top up the card when you need to. It also helps to have a downloaded metro map on your phone or tablet, as the maps in the stations can sometimes be a bit confusing. Luckily for us non-Japanese speakers all stations have signs in English.

Extra

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If you’re interested in wood block printing check out David Bull’s studio in Asakusa. We did a quick wood block printing course with David, who took us through the process and techniques. He was very generous with his time and spent a few minutes after the course talking about printing techniques and his life in Japan.

Cost

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Tokyo was cheaper than we had expected. We paid less for food and alcohol than we would have done in London and we often ended up spending less than our daily budget. Even when we thought we’d splurged on dinner, the bill landed somewhere around £30 or £40 for a dinner for two, with drinks. Although one thing to keep in mind is that the more tourist-friendly an area is, the more expensive it will be.

Transport and accommodation were probably the most costly things about the trip, as was getting to Japan in the first place. I also thought the price of clothing and electronics was about the same as in the UK, so it’s not a great place to go for a bargain, unless you know what you’re looking for and exactly where to go.

A couple of things about etiquette

I could never remember when to take my shoes off and when to wear slippers. It’s confusing, but I think the key is never to wear anything else on your feet than socks if you’re stepping onto a tatami mat, if you do the locals tell you off.

Always hand people things with both hands. It’s a really nice thing to do actually.

Never tip. No one expects you to do it.

A lot of restaurants have bell on the table, press the button or ring the bell whenever you want to catch the waiter’s attention. They might not come up to the table and “disturb” you otherwise, so it’s up to you to tell them whenever you want something.

Travel Travel Guides

I’m in the studio, wrapping up stories and wiping my nose, debating whether coffee or tea would be better for the cold I’ve managed to pick up somewhere last week. I’m taking a quick break from other work, going through some of the photos from Japan. I can’t believe we were there less than two weeks ago. Travel always seems to exist in a parallell universe.

For our second week in Japan we took the bullet train to Kyoto, not sure what to expect other than temples and tranquility. We’d done some research on Tokyo, spent a week walking around the city and being plunged into a new urban landscape felt slightly disconcerting. Suddenly there was a new bus system to learn and navigate and unfamiliar shops where we could forage for sashimi and beer late at night, a new flat to call a temporary home.

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Perhaps I was a bit tired of urban Japan, perhaps I never gave Kyoto a proper chance, because after about a day in the city I felt like I had had enough. We spent our first day walking around the temple district of Higashiyama, shuffling along amongst big groups of tourists. It felt like being pushed around by a crowd at a quite civilised music festival. Everyone was doing the same thing. Look at this, take a snap of that, have this ice cream, now move on to the next thing on the to-do-list.

After a week in Tokyo I needed some nature. The guide book we’d brought with us (Lonely Planet) had a small entry on a place where locals go to escape the madness of city life, two small towns called Kibune and Kurama high up in the hills. It was even possible to hike along a mountain ridge between the places. We didn’t need much convincing, packed some lunch and spent our second day in Kyoto escaping the city.

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We decided to take the train from Kyoto to Kibune and then hike to Kurama. It’s possible to do it the other way around, it just depends on what treat you’d like at the end of your hike. Kibune is a riverside town and in the summer all the small ryokans and restaurants build platforms on the river where you can sit and eat. We’d arrived too early in the year for this and decided to go for the other option of a post-hike treat, an onsen (hot spring bath) in Kurama.

The same train will take you to both Kibune and Kurama, which is the end stop. We got off at Kibuneguchi and then walked about 2 kilometers to Kibune, where the mountain trail starts.

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In Japan there were vending machines everywhere! I became particularly fond of a sports drink called “pocari sweat”. The “coffee boss” coffee tins were pretty good as well.

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The temple in Kibune.

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The trail.

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It seems to me the hike from Kibune up the hill is slightly more strenuous than starting from Kurama, where you can get a cable car half-way up. We walked up a steep path, sweating and panting, trying our best to say “konnichiwa” to all the chirpy children and grannies walking the opposite way. They didn’t look too impressed by our efforts, but after many days in dusty cities it was nice to walk. Along the route were hidden temples, gnarly trees and amazing views.

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After about two hours of hiking we arrived at Kurama-dera, an old temple, where there were a lot of other tourists and a groups of Japanese men in suits and shiny shoes (I’m guessing they must have taken the cable car).

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We stopped for a bit of lunch and then walked down to Kurama town, a small place with a couple of restaurants, tourist shops and the onsen. The baths were quite busy, but soaking in the hot water after the walk was one of the high points of the trip.

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More about Kibune and Kurama

Inside Kyoto, Japan Guide, Lonely Planet and Japan Visitor.

Travel Travel Guides

wallflower

wɔːlflaʊə/
noun: wallflower; plural noun: wallflowers
informal
A shy or excluded person at a dance or party, especially a girl without a partner.
“I felt like a miserable wallflower at a boisterous party”

It’s coming up to that time of the year again. You can almost smell it in the air. There are emails going around – “get your tickets now because they will sell out by the time you’ve read this sentence”. Posters are appearing all over London with line-ups where you only recognise two of the bands.

Welcome to the festival season. An exciting time for those who enjoy hanging out in muddy feels, being too hot or too cold and drinking heavily. A slightly frightening time if you’re like me.

I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to camping, festivals and outdoorsy stuff. I’ve done five festivals in my life. Three of them in Finland. Two of those was in my teens when I’d decided to be contrary and not drink any alcohol. I didn’t have a good time. I’ve been to two festivals in the UK. One sunny Bestival with a couple of new friends during my first summer in the country. One rainy, muddy Glastonbury with Gerry and friends. I had fun, but it also felt a bit like being in one of those reality survival shows on TV.

Would I do a festival again? Probably, but I would do it differently.

Sleeping arrangements are important

Personally I’m not a big fan of sleeping in tents. I can count the nights I spent in tents on two hands and the ones where I slept well on one hand. The ground is too cold, the air somehow a bit damp and stuffy. Crawling in and out of a sleeping bag always feels a bit undignified.

But if I find myself going to a festival again I will prepare for it.

  • I’d get a good air mattress and invest in a large tent – it is worth it, plus there is a greater chance you’ll actually pack it down and take it home at the end of the festival. If it’s not too expensive I would rent a yurt or hut or look at the other posher sleeping options on offer.
  • I’d make sure I have a good supply of ear plugs.
  • If I was really fussy I would also bring a pillow, some lavender oil and an eye-mask.
  • Try not to put your tent close to puddles of water or anywhere were there might be puddles of water if it starts raining. This is a difficult one. Look for high ground. Stay away from paths where people can fall into your tent. This is one of the reasons I might look into getting a yurt or a big tent, which would possibly be sturdier and properly water tight if the weather turns out to be unfavourable. At Glastonbury I saw tents submerged in mud and water. You don’t want to be the person coming home to a tent like that.
  • Camp relatively closely to the loos, you don’t want to walk for ages in the night for a pee, but don’t camp too closely to them. I’ve heard horror stories where they’ve started overflowing in the rain. You don’t want to be too near that.

Pack light

Even though it’s important to bring with you things that will make the experience more comfortable, it’s better to pack on the light side.

You will normally have to queue before you get to the festival and you’ll have to walk for ages to get to a campsite. You’ll be tired, grumpy and hungry before it’s even time to put up the tent (or perhaps that’s just me).

The less you have to carry the happier you’ll be. Especially since you’ll have to carry everything home with you as well.

Dress for rain, scorching sun and everything else in-between

The summer weather in the UK is unpredictable. Anyone will tell you this. It is in fact a popular conversation to have with Brits in the summer. If you’re at a festival expect some rain, some sun and lots and lots of mud. So even though it’s worth not packing too much, bring some sunscreen, wellies, a warm jumper, several pairs of socks, disposable water proof ponchos and a hat.

Also remember that everything will get muddy. Everything.

You will get dirty – suck it up

Yes you’ll spend three or four days without being able to wash your hair properly. You’ll keep washing your hands with alcoholic hand-wash instead of water which will make you feel grubby and sticky. This will annoy you. There’ll be dirt underneath your fingernails. You will smell. Remember, everyone else is equally dirty and smelly so it really doesn’t matter that much.

Bring a scarf to cover your hair with. Bring wet wipes for your hands and face. Try to shower if you can. It will be one of the best showers you’ve ever had in your life.

Keep drinking – but not too much

At Glastonbury someone told me the only way to get through the whole experience was to keep downing lagers. A steady supply of beer did make the experience a lot better, but festivals aren’t the sort of places where you should get irresponsibly drunk. Stay close to your friends, look after each other, don’t do anything stupid.

Since you’re a wallflower I probably don’t have to tell you any of these things because you’ll be careful and responsible by default. So let me contradict myself and tell you this instead. Let go a little bit, have fun, get drunk, dance crazily and sing along. Lay down on the grass and try not to care about bugs crawling all over you or straw getting in your hair. Forget yourself for a little bit, that’s what festivals are for.

Stay topped up on water, vegetarian food (best not to touch the meat) and buy fresh juice if there’s a juice stall at the festival. The vitamins will do you good.

Also bring some of your own food. Noodles, nuts, porridge and other things you can prepare and eat in your tent. Bring a small camping stove and a pot. These things will keep you happy.

Bring enough cash to last you through the whole thing

It might feel slightly irresponsible to bring a couple of hundred pounds with you to a place like a festival, but you really don’t want to walk for several miles to find a cash machine only to find that they’ve all run out of money. Bring the cash you’ll need. You’ll probably only spend it on food and drinks.

Finally – go to a festival in a city, not in a field

If you really don’t enjoy the whole camping experience, but still want to go to a festival, there are plenty of festivals in cities to choose between. Lots of them are held in London every summer. There is Field Day in Victoria Park, Meltdown at the Southbank centre, Lovebox, Wireless and many more.

Another good one is electronic festival Flow, which is held in a an old power plant in Helsinki. That would be my festival of choice this year, since I can recognise more than three of the headlining acts (Yay!).

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Bonus – it’s not always what you expect

More often than not the most fun you’ll have will be totally unexpected and the best acts you’ll see will be people you’ve never heard of before. Let go and enjoy the randomness.

Image by Jay Wennington and Morgan Sessions.

London Music and stuff Travel Travel Guides

Some of you might already know Gerry and I went to the Orkney islands north of Scotland for our honeymoon. I’ve been wanting to go to Orkney since I spotted the islands on a map back in Jakobstad many, many years ago. Flying out there for two weeks was a dream come true.

A couple of weekends ago I met a nice lady who was going to Orkney for a couple of weeks and I realised I had plenty of travel tips to share.

How to get there

We flew from London to Aberdeen and then took a small Flybe flight to the Orcadian capital Kirkwall. The journey from Aberdeen to Kirkwall takes about an hour and the plane is tiiiiny. Luckily the weather was perfect on the journey there, a smooth flight and a lovely swoop over blue water and the green island before we landed. Unless you really, really enjoy flying it can be quite a tense journey in rough weather. I’m personally not a huge fan of flying (turbulence is my kryptonite) and would perhaps feel less stressed about taking one of the many ferries that go to the island.

Plenty of ferries go from the northern tip of Scotland (Scrabster/Thurso/Gills Bay) to Kirkwall, Stromness and St Margaret’s Hope. NorthLink Ferries will take you from Aberdeen to Stromness or Kirkwall. The journey takes about six hours.

One advantage of taking the ferry is that you can bring your own car. The journey up to north Scotland will be long and tiring (especially if you start somewhere in the south). But on Orkney you will need a car. There are buses, but they wont go everywhere and a car (or bike) will give you the freedom to explore the place fully. If you google Orkney car hire there are plenty of places that will offer you a good deal on a car. We rented a small Ford for around £400 for two weeks.

Where to stay?

First you have to choose between staying in a town or on the countryside. We chose to live in Stromness, because we wanted to go out for a pint and not have to worry about one of us being able to drive. A rural location might be great if you’re looking for a quiet retreat, but it’s so easy to get away from the towns and nature is everywhere around you anyway. I was super happy with our choice, because there were cats everywhere in Stromness.

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Stromness (from norse Straumsnes) is a small town with a population of around 2000, it’s been around since the late 17th century. If someone had to create a quaint seaside town for a role-playing game about pirates they would totally model it on Stromness.

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We stayed in a self-catering apartment on Dundas Street, which is the main street down by the harbour. From our bedroom window we could see ships coming in to dock, we saw seals bobbing around and more seabirds than I could identify.

The scent of the sea was everywhere. As you walked along the narrow streets it followed you around in gusts.

There are plenty of cute small shops in Stromness, a good number of artists and a few restaurants (and a great chippy).

The other main town on mainland Orkney is the capital Kirkwall, which feels a lot more like your average small town. I could have written an average British small town, except that’s not really true. It felt like a Nordic small town. There were as many Norwegian flags as the yellow, red and blue Orcadian flags flying over the houses.

Kirkwall is a place where things happen on Orkney, where we could glimpse a bit of everyday city life, where the big shops were and you weren’t totally stunned by the amazing scenery wherever you turned. And here I feel like I need to add a tiny warning, the scenery on Orkney is exhausting. The first few days the beauty of the place was almost too much. The clean air, the wind, the bright, bright blue sea. It almost hurt. Take it all in in small doses, you don’t have to try to see all the amazing sea cliffs at once like we did.

What to do?

Archeology and historic stuff

Orkney is a great place for anyone interested in archeology and history. There are plenty of neolithic settlements, a stone circle that you can walk up to, old viking villages, tombs filled with runes and abandoned naval bases from WW2.

Stromness Museum

This is a museum director Wes Anderson would turn into a film set. It’s dusty and small with rooms stuck together like a maze. There are displays of whale hunters, of Orcadian adventurers (there were many of them), plenty of displays of stuffed birds and other animals. It’s hands down one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. It’s not pretending to be anything it isn’t.

Skara Brae

Skara Brae is one of the best preserved neolithic villages in Europe. It sits in the grounds of The House of Skaill, a mansion (which you can also visit) where the local Laird used to live. During a bad storm in the winter of 1850 the winds blew in from the sea with such a force that the sand dunes along the coast, down from the mansion shifted to reveal eight stone houses.

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Skara Brae is a settlement that dates from roughly 3180 BCE–2500 BCE. When you walk around it you really get a feel for how people lived during that time. It’s amazing thinking about what they had to do to survive and how ill prepared any of us would be to a live like that today.

Skara Brae is older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, it has been called the “Scottish Pompeii” because it’s so well-preserved. Outside the village the museum has built a replica of the stone houses so visitors can get a feel for what it is like stepping inside an actual neolithic house. The walls are thick and the houses themselves seem really cozy.

Maeshowe

Maeshowe is one of the many neolithic tombs, or chambered cairns as they are called, in Orkney. It’s one of the more famous ones and plenty of visitors cram into the tiny cavern every day. It was probably built in around 2800 BC and looks like a hill from the outside. It’s aligned so that the rear wall of its central chamber is lit up by the winter solstice (which you can see on a video the visitor centre puts up online every year).

We went to Maeshowe on a dark evening when the rain was pouring down. A group of around twenty tourists in damp rain coats squeezed through the tiny opening. We had to crouch down to crawl through a narrow corridor and finally ended up in a dark dome-like space.

It was hot and sweaty and after the first five minutes I felt a panic attack surfacing. Standing in a space like this with around twenty other people is not great if you’re slightly claustrophobic. Unfortunately I spent most of my time in Maeshowe focusing on my breathing and wasn’t able to pay much attention to the guide. But I did pick up that at some point in the 12th century vikings broke into the tomb, perhaps sheltering from bad weather, and everywhere around you there are runes, ancient graffiti.

Cuweens Cairn

Even though I found Maeshow slightly panicky both Gerry and I wanted to explore more cairns. Someone somewhere told us about a “secret one”, Cuweens Cairn which is slightly more difficult to find. It’s not marked on the map and there aren’t many signs to tell you where it is.

The best way of finding it is to go to Finstown and then drive up to the parking lot at Cuween hill. After that you have to start walking. At the top of the hill is a stile and behind it the entrance to the cairn. There is a post box with a flashlight (which luckily had working batteries). You’re pretty much able to do as much exploring as you want on your own.

We crawled into this cairn, which is a lot smaller than Maeshowe. But the absence of other people made the whole experience a lot easier. The space inside really does feel like a tomb, it’s dark and dry. If you’ve ever read Ursula Le Guin’s “Tombs of Atuan”, Cuween cairn is pretty much how I imagined them to be.

The Ring of Brodgar

The Ring of Brodgar is another Orkney site you don’t have to pay to enter. The stones greet you as you drive between the lochs of Stenness and Harray. According to Wikipedia the site hasn’t been dated. It is generally thought to have been built between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. As with Stonehenge and similar monuments the experts are still debating what it was used for.

Now I’ve written about being slightly hippie-ish before on the blog. When I was fifteen and visited Stonehenge for the first (and only) time I was expecting it to be some kind of amazing spiritual experience, I thought the place itself would have some sort of strange atmosphere (the way old churches have) just because it might have been an important religious site all those years ago. But Stonehenge felt dead, killed by the thousands and thousands of tourists who come there every year. I was just another one.

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The Ring of Brodgar is different. Not only can you walk up to the stones and trace your fingers along the graffiti that have been carved into the rock over the centuries. Because the site is almost empty, surrounded by fields and lakes, it’s easier to get a feel for what it might have been like when it was being used.

Gerry and I went back several times, one of them at four in the morning to catch the sunrise at the stone circle. It was pretty amazing.

Abandoned naval bases

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There are several abandoned World War II naval bases on Orkney and I can’t for my life remember which one it was we went to. Only that it was somewhere on the west side of the main island. The most famous sites are of course in and around Scapa Flow, a bay surrounded by the main island and the island of Hoy. It was the UK’s chief naval base during World War I and II. In the bay itself there are several sunken ships, rusty metal wrecks poking up from the water when the tide is low.

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Across it the Churchill barriers connect the mainland to a couple of islands that used to only be accessible by boat or ferry. During the war Italian prisoners of war were set the task to build the causeways to defend Scapa Flow, but the structures of course worked really well as a road.

The naval base we visited was like something out of a post-apocalyptic movie. Several empty metal huts with puddles of water on the floor, a fireplace randomly surviving among the weeds, with half a chimney still attached. There were concrete structures that once held cannons and along the sea cliffs there were many look out towers, which we carefully climbed into, trying to not think too much about the cliffs and sea below.

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The Italian Chapel

One of perhaps the more surprising things to come out of the war on Orkney is the Italian Chapel. The same Italian prisoners of war that built the Churchill barriers also built their own chapel. They used the materials at hand and transformed two Nissen huts (a prefabricated steel structure) into quite a moving chapel.

St Magnus Cathedral

Another, but quite different, religious building is St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. It’s the most northerly cathedral in the British Isles and the construction started way back in 1137 and the cathedral was added to over the next 300 years. I have a thing for British cathedrals and this is definitely one of the finest I’ve been to. Perhaps because it’s a cathedral that connects the UK with the Nordic countries. Magnus was one of the Norse rulers of Orkney. The islands belonged to Norway between 875 and 1472.

Whisky & other alcohol

Highland Park

Highland Park is the most well-known whisky distillery on Orkney. It’s in Kirkwall and is well worth a visit. If you go on a tour they can even arrange a driver to pick you up and take you home, so you can sample as much of the produce as you like.

We went along for a tour one morning. A couple of blocks from the distillery the air turns slightly yeasty and smokey. I really like Highland Park whisky, it’s salty, which is something I enjoy in a drink. Visiting a distillery is also pretty much a must if you’re in Scotland. But if you want to go slightly off-road, then there is…

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Scapa, the second northernmost distillery in Scotland (Highland Park being half a mile up the road).

The Orkney brewery

And if you’re not a big fan of whisky there is the new and shiny Orkney brewery, which prides itself on making ye olde style beer with names like Northern Lights and Skull Splitter. You can find their bottles in most of the larger shops on the mainland and the beer is very tasty.

Nature stuff!

The islands

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You can’t go to Orkney and just visit the mainland. Or I guess you can, but why would you want to when there are 70 different islands to choose between (20 if you just count the inhabited ones). There are daily ferries from Kirkwall to the larger islands, check out Orkney Ferries for timetables and more info.

We only had time to go to one other island and chose Westray, because the ferry timetable worked with the rest of our schedule. In order to get a feel for life on Orkney it’s definitely worth venturing out from the mainland. These small islands are so far removed from the rest of the UK it almost feels like stepping back in time. Westray has a population of around 550. There are more sea birds on the island than people. But it seemed like a thriving community. Everyone we met was welcoming and friendly.

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The scenery on this island was perhaps the most stunning on our whole trip. There were wild beaches, seals, strange rock formations where the cliffs had been pounded by the sea, basking sharks and amazing sea cliffs, among other Noup Head which is home to thousands of sea birds.

Don’t let the confusing dirt track up to the cliffs (or the sheep on the road) scare you off, NoupHhead is really one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited. (Yes, enough with the hyperbole you might say. Sorry. I really liked the place).

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The shortest scheduled flight in the world goes between Westray and Papa Westray and takes about two minutes.

Yesnaby

Talking about sea cliffs, Yesnaby was one of our favourite places on the mainland and we went there several times. These sea cliffs are only a short drive from Stromness, there is a pretty impressive sea stack and several quite easy walks around the area.

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Brough of Birsay

The Brough of Birsay looks like a huge crab rising up from the sea. It’s a small tidal island on the north-west coast of the mainland and it’s only accessible by a causeway during low tide. If you want to visit it’s worth checking the tidal schedule because you don’t want to get stuck on the island waiting for the tide to go out again. There are plenty of interesting norse settlements to look at, including the remains of an old sauna.

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Marwick head

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Not far from the Brough of Birsay is Marwick head, another set of stunning sea cliffs.

Food

Our main source of sustenance on Orkney was sandwiches, Tunnock’s caramel wafers and lukewarm coffee out of a thermos flask. We spent most of our time driving and walking around the island and made sure to make a packed lunch every morning. However when we did go to a restaurant we ate well.

The Creel

The Creel is a great restaurant in the tiny town of St Margaret’s Hope south of Kirkwall. It’s also a hotel and since we aimed to go all in and have wine and stuff with our dinner we decided to stay over (which was a good choice as the breakfast is excellent).

The dinner was everything we had hoped for. The restaurant is highly rated in most tourist guides and gets a mention in the Michelin guide. The food is local, seasonal and not that expensive if you compare it to similar places in bigger cities.

It’s one of my top food experiences ever. As I’m editing this post three years later I can still remember the lobster bisque starter and the excellent wine. It might be worth travelling to Orkney just to eat here.

Hamnavoe

Hamnavoe is a small and cozy restaurant in Stromness. The menu keeps changing and is pretty inventive. For my main course I had a cantaloupe stuffed with lamb stew. For about thirty minutes it was too hot to eat, but when it had cooled off slightly it was very tasty. A really good choice if you’re in Stromness and want to eat out.

Well, if you’ve read this far it’s pretty obvious that I loved Orkney. If I could go back tomorrow I would do it in a heartbeat.

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