Is Istanbul safe for visitors?

My parents freaked out when I said I was going to Istanbul. Hell, even I freaked out when I said I was going to Istanbul. I had paid far too much attention to news of the city’s recent terrorist attacks that, in the weeks before my trip, I was questioning my sanity even more than I was questioning “is Istanbul safe?”

Well, my friends, I’m still alive aren’t I?

Is Istanbul safe now?

It’s true that Turkey has had more than its fair share of atrocities in recent years – from an attack in a nightclub, to bombs at Ataturk Airport, and now political uncertainty in the form of President Erdogan.

To compensate for the presumed heightened risk of attack, hundreds of armed police officers are positioned all over the city. You also need to walk through metal detectors and have your bag searched at the main attractions. I’ll be honest, the extra security is a little off-putting, but it’s there for a reason: to make it as safe as possible. I would feel much more on edge without it.

It’s important to remember that there are some 15 million people in the city. The chances of being anywhere near an attack at the exact time and day it happens are incredibly slim. Just to put things in perspective, the deadliest attack in Europe was in Paris – yet no one bats an eyelid when travelling there.

Now, I’m not trying to scare you off visiting the French capital, but make you realise that Istanbul is just as safe as any big city.

How to stay safe in Istanbul

Of course, I’ll give you the same advice as I would give if you were visiting anywhere else. Be aware of your surroundings and always listen to your country’s advice. For me, that’s the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, who also say to remain alert. But guess what? They say that for France and Germany too!

Why not consider an organised tour? We did one with Daily Istanbul Tours and found it a great way to explore the city in a safe environment. Instead of looking over our shoulders the whole time, we learnt about Istanbul’s main attractions from an expert guide who would know if anything was out of the ordinary.

Is Istanbul safe for visitors?

Why you should visit Istanbul now

Not only is Istanbul safe, now is actually a really good time to visit. Long gone are the crowds, the queues and the skyrocket prices. In fact, you can get a pretty swish room in a luxury hotel for very little money.

Turkey is longing for some good fortune. Its biggest source of income, tourism, shows no sign of returning to prosperity. It’s been said that tourist numbers in Istanbul are down as much as 30%, leaving the city and its hard working locals struggling to cope with the downturn. I was truly taken aback by the warmth and resilience of the local people. You can tell they remain proud of their stunning city, even now. We were made to feel so incredibly welcome and that’s testament to the Turks’ hospitality and heritage in tourism.

One thing’s for sure – it’s a beautiful city and one worth visiting at least once in your life. Why not now? If, after reading this post, you’re convinced, read my last article on how to spend 48 hours in Istanbul.

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How do you feel about visiting Istanbul? Have recent events put you off visiting somewhere you’ve always wanted to go?

48 hours in Istanbul: Where to eat, sleep and go

Turkey’s biggest city has got a lot going for it. Stunning architecture, friendly faces and more than enough to keep you going for a long weekend. Let me share my advice on how to spend 48 hours in Istanbul.

After a quick three and a half hour hop over Europe from London, I arrived in Istanbul on a fabulously sunny Friday morning. I was excited (if a little trepidatious) as to what I might see and the people I might meet (the Turkish referendum was happening the very weekend we were there!) but as usual, I had nothing to worry about.

People seem to absolutely adore this place, so I knew that I’d have my work cut out to do it all in 48 hours. This post gives you my recommendations on how to make the most of your short trip to Istanbul.

48 hours in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia

Where to go with just 48 hours in Istanbul

Istanbul is famed for being the only city in the world that straddles two continents. Because of that, there’s a hell of a lot to see and a lot of ground to cover. 

Historical walking tour 

For that reason, we chose to do a full day walking tour with  Daily Istanbul Tours. It allowed us to take on all the main sights in the old town including the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. 

They’re all fascinating places with incredible histories that we just wouldn’t have known without a guide. As part of the tour, you have free time at each place to explore and take photos. The tour also includes a hearty lunch and entrance to each place. Even though it might seem expensive, it’s really worth it. 

48 hours in Istanbul: Hippodrome

Our guide, Oz, was fantastic. She clearly loves her city and that comes across in the anecdotes she would tell us over lunch and while walking between sights. Her knowledge of the history was unquestionable and she was honest enough to say she didn’t quite believe that is really Moses’ 3000 year old staff behind glass in the Topkapi Palace exhibition. Well, you wouldn’t really, would you? 

48 hours in Istanbul: Blue mosque

Basilica Cistern

While you’re merrily wandering the streets at ground level, you may be completely unaware of the cavernous tunnels that lay beneath you. The best way to see them? Go underground to the Basilica Cistern – a labyrinth of archways and columns, built in the 6th century to store and provide water to the surrounding buildings. 

48 hours in Istanbul: Basilica Cistern

It’s a fun place to explore and try to take non-blurry pictures (good luck with that without a tripod!) The biggest attraction has to be the two columns with Medusa heads sculpted into the base. No one really knows why they’re there or even why neither is upright, but it’s fun to come up with conspiracy theories of your own. Maybe we all used to live upside down?!

48 hours in Istanbul: Basilica Cistern

Bosphorus trip

One must do that we didn’t do (isn’t that ironic?) was a trip up the Bosphorus. It’s a body of water that effectively splits Istanbul in half across the two continents. There are loads of tour companies that will take you on a leisurely cruise along the coast of Asia and then back via Europe. Just beware,  the whole journey could take you all day if you take the wrong one – not a great way to spend your precious 48 hours in Istanbul! 

Day trips

There’s more than enough to keep you occupied in the city itself. However, if you had more than just two days here, you could consider a day trip to another part of Turkey. We met a guy that was headed to Gallipoli, but you could also explore Ephesus, Pamukkale and even Capadoccia if you really wanted (and don’t mind spending half of it on a plane!) 

Where to sleep in Istanbul

Most visitors tend to choose between the modern town and the old town when looking for somewhere to rest their heads. While the modern town is home to Taksim Square – the lively hub of the city – having just 48 hours in Istanbul meant we wanted to be as close to the main sights as possible. We opted for the neighbourhood of Sultanahmet, which was definitely the right decision. Not only could we flop out of bed and into a tourist attraction in the morning, we could also stumble back to bed after one too many rakis at night.

We slept in the Sura Design Hotel – a fabulously decorated modern hotel in the heart of the old town. Normally a place like this would be way out of our budget, but visiting in the turbulent times of 2017 meant we could take advantage of Turkey’s drop in tourism and a drop in prices along with it.

48 hours in Istanbul: Sura Design Hotel

The turquoise and gold rooms are comfortable, spotlessly clean, and smell AMAZING. It even had a little balcony overlooking the landscaped garden and (if you leaned really far over to the right) the blue mosque.

Breakfast was the usual selection of English style hot options, and continental cereals, yoghurts, pastries and fruit. If you wanted to be really Turkish, you could try salad, cheese and sickly sweet puddings. We passed.

Where to eat in Istanbul

Street food

There’s a little red cart on every corner selling roasted chestnuts (but it’s not even Christmas?!) and simit – a Turkish bread a bit like a bagel that you can either eat plain or spread with Nutella. It’s delicious and a great option for a lunch on the run (quite normal if you’re spending just 48 hours in Istanbul!)

48 hours in Istanbul: Where to eat

Sura Restaurant  

We ended up eating at the Sura Restaurant for dinner one day and lunch the next, completely by accident!

The first time, we were wandering along the street looking for somewhere to eat, when a friendly guy standing next to the menu struck up a conversation (they’re good at that). Before we knew it, we were sat inside the restaurant ordering kebabs and vegetable casseroles! It was great food, though, and the big windows looking out onto the street made it ideal for people watching. Also, the 10% discount offered to hotel guests didn’t hurt.

The second time, our tour group stopped off for lunch at the same restaurant. Our guide even said it was one of the best places to eat in the old town. Result! Our group had a set menu, so I ended up eating the same thing both times too. I didn’t mind though – I was relieved to find somewhere that meant I wouldn’t be forced to eat a kebab without the meat!

48 hours in Istanbul: Where to eat

Gulhane Sark Sofrasi

I’m usually wary of places where the ‘host’ chases you down the street to look at his menu. But Gulhane Sark Sofrasi surpassed all expectations. We were the only diners for an hour, the stark reality of Turkey’s 85% drop in tourism beginning to hit home. The restaurant host’s keenness makes sense now, doesn’t it?

The restaurant is a lovely little family run thing with delicious food and BIG portions. We were treated to an appetiser of ‘balloon bread’ (the most sought after prize in Turkey seems to be how big your bread gets rather than anything else) that we scoffed down with yoghurt and tomato dips, halloumi and hummus.

For our main, there was the usual selection of kebabs (not your greasy, hangover style kebabs – the real ones). The waiter seemed very keen for us to peruse the fish menu too. I took the hint and ordered the fish, but was very glad I did. It was a piece of salmon cooked in a very tasty but spicy vegetable sauce, served on a sizzling plate. It was fantastic and so so yummy.

They’re clearly feeders at this place. They wouldn’t let us leave without trying their baklava and offering up a glass of raki and water. Raki is a Turkish spirit with a distinct aniseed and liquorice taste. They mix it with water to dilute it, and it turns the whole thing a cloudy white colour. You’ve got to try it – just once – and let me know what you think.

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If you’ve got 48 hours to spare, you won’t go wrong with a trip to Istanbul. Just three and a half hour flight from London, it’s perfect for a long weekend away. As a melting pot of identities and cultures, you’ll feel like you’ve travelled to more than just one city. 

Disclaimer: I wasn’t paid to write this post, so you can be sure that everything is my own humble opinion. Everywhere on this list was chosen through my own research. 

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48 hours in Istanbul

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian

Vienna is a meat lover’s paradise. After all, the city is known for the bratwurst (a giant sausage) and the Wiener schnitzel (a fried piece of hammered out veal). Now to me, they just don’t seem all that appetising. I honestly thought I would struggle uncovering where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian, but there are a surprising number of places that do cater; you just have to know where to look.

With Tim being an out-and-out carnivore, we couldn’t go to a vegetarian restaurant in Vienna. We needed to compromise.

Here’s our pick of places in Vienna to eat vegetarian food, whilst also keeping your meat eating travel buddy happy.

Naschmarkt

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: Naschmarkt

The Naschmarkt is one of my favourite places to eat in Vienna, as it had something for everyone. While Tim tucked into his bratwurst, I had my pick of food stalls serving some of the best vegetarian food in Vienna. I chose a spicy falafel wrap from one of the vendors on the main street, and we were both happy.

If Viennese street food doesn’t take your fancy, most of the restaurants are quite highly rated for a sit-down meal. You could try some of the best seafood in Vienna, Turkish or Asian cuisine, and some good old Viennese cuisine too.

Pürstner

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: Purstner

I loved Pürstner! This primarily carnivorous tavern was an absolute gem. While there are limited vegetarian options (choose between a pasta, a salad or a cheese and vegetable gratin), the atmosphere of this place is so special. As soon as you walk in, you feel as though you’ve entered your Austrian grandma’s front room, even if you don’t have an Austrian grandma.

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: Purstner

The walls are covered with plates and little Austrian momentos, there are loads of different rooms, each with their own quirky style, it’s warm, its friendly, and it’s incredibly popular. The waiters even wear chequered shirts and lederhosen – yes you may call it gimmicky, but I loved it. On our first night in Austria, it was exactly the welcome we needed. I would definitely go back here every time we are looking for good vegetarian food in Vienna.

7 Stern Brau

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: 7 Stern Brau

7 Stern Brau is better known for its home-brewed beer than its vegetarian food. I still recommend you try it. It’s a little out of the centre, but still only a ten minute walk from our hotel. The tavern is incredibly popular so you might need to take seats at the bar, like we did.

I ordered a spinach strudel, which was incredibly spinachy. I’d recommend you only order it if you really like spinach. There are lots of other vegetarian options on the menu, so you will find something you enjoy. If not, you will definitely like the beer. It’s very good.

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: 7 Stern Brau

Many little cafes

Cafe culture is absolutely everywhere in Vienna. The Viennese love their hot drinks and cake, which is great because I do too.

Apfelstrudel and Sachertorte could have a fist fight for the city’s best known dessert. And guess what, they’re both delicious, and veggie friendly! Most cafes in Vienna serve both, but our favourites included Cafe Residenz on the Schonnbrun complex, and Cafe Museum just a few steps from our hotel.

Where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian: Cafe Museum

Trzesniewski

Despite being a meat eater himself, celebrity chef Rick Stein shared his own opinion on where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian in his latest TV show. He chose Trzesniewski – a fancy open sandwich shop that is full of locals and tourists throughout the day. I wish I had known about it before I went because I know I would have loved it.

You can try meat-free sandwiches with cheese and vegetables, sandwiches with fish and others with Vienna’s famous meat. Someone please go and tell me what it’s like!

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Despite what you may think, it’s actually quite easy to find some where to eat in Vienna as a vegetarian. You have your pick of restaurants, street food and little cafes to feast at – you just need to know where to look.

Where do you like to eat in Vienna? Share your favourite places in the comments below!

A Viennese Whirl-wind trip: Things to do in Vienna

Back in October, Tim and I spent 48 hours in Vienna: the beautiful capital city of Austria. It’s a place I had been to before with my parents, but going back, I was surprised by how little I remembered and how much more I loved it as an adult. The best things to do in Vienna range from wandering through parks and visiting museums to taking tours of the cathedral.

To save money and effort we invested in the Vienna Pass, which gets you free or discounted entrance into all the main things to do in Vienna. But watch out, they are only valid for calendar days meaning you can only use a 1 day card up until midnight. We didn’t realise this until we picked up our 2 day passes at 2pm and were told we only had 34 hours to cram as much of Vienna in as possible! Challenge accepted.

Let me share our list of things to do in Vienna:

Sightseeing bus
The Vienna hop on and hop off bus is the perfect way to get around and learn about the city at the same time. I know people will probably mock a traveller wannabe that goes on the buses – I can imagine them saying “dude, you have to find your own way”, but all lines of the sightseeing bus are included in the Vienna Pass and they teach you far more than you’d ever care to read about in a guidebook. What’s not to love?
More info…

Schonbrunn
Like something out of Versailles, Schonbrunn is a huge and wide summer palace built for the Hapsburg monarchs over 300 years ago. I’ll be honest, the outside is much more impressive than its 1,441 indoor rooms. They won’t let you in to half of them anyway. We whizzed around the bits you can get into in about 20 minutes, and most of that was spent waiting for fascinated tourists to get out of our way. Every room is impressive, granted. But they’re all similarly impressive and it’s not good to drool over other peoples’ wealth. So we didn’t. The gardens, however, were fantastic. Pristine lawns and hedgerows, with an enormous fountain and (other building) out the back. We could have stayed there for hours.
More info…

Things to do in Vienna: Schonbrunn

Apfelstrudel show
Also on the Schonnbrun site is Café Residenz – said to be home of the apfelstrudel. Every day, almost by the hour, an apfelstrudel genius shows hungry visitors how to make the famous Viennese dish in a kitchen auditorium. While the baker is stretching the dough with their elbows (yes, really), everyone is given a piece to try. You could tell it had been sitting out for a while but it was still good. They give you a recipe and sell ingredients in the kitchen shop if you wanted to give it a try at home.
More info…

Stephansdom
This huge cathedral looms over Vienna and is one of my favourite religious buildings in the world. Its roof is covered with yellow, green and black tiles making it much more interesting than your usual cathedral stone. As well as the grand statues and porticos in the main part of the building, you can visit the towers and look out over the city and the roof in more detail. If you’re not scared of heights, it’s definitely something for the list.
More info…

Things to do in Vienna: Stephansdom

Catacombs tour
Also in the cathedral, you can visit the underground crypts and tombs. The main tomb is reserved for bishops and other significant figures from Vienna’s past, but there are smaller rooms dotted about for storing the bones of victims from the Black Plague. It’s pretty harrowing but fascinating to see. I couldn’t look at everything and the frequent reminder from the guide not to get left behind otherwise he’d lock us down there forever made it seem even scarier. Go if you dare… it ended up being one of my favourite things to do in Vienna!

State Opera House
The Staatsoper is a pretty iconic building in Vienna, one that you’ll walk past even if you didn’t mean to as it’s considered the hub of tourist activity in the city. The Pass doesn’t get you access to a show, but you can wander inside for a quick look around the foyer if you don’t look too shifty. Of course, don’t try going to a show without a ticket!

Things to do in Vienna: Staatsoper

Art History Museum & Natural History Museum
These two buildings stand opposite each other in perfect symmetry – but because of the sheer magnificence of the exterior, you’d expect them to house royalty rather than pieces of art and dinosaur bone. I’ll tell you a secret – we didn’t actually go inside because the outside architecture and gardens were good enough for us. Grecian style statues and fountains stand in very neat patterns in the central courtyard.
More info…

Things to do in Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum

Stadtpark & Burggarten
We couldn’t miss the opportunity to visit the many famous parks in Vienna. Stadtpark is home to Johann Strauss and is always full of tourists trying to emulate his pose. Not that Vienna is particularly busy, but the park still came as a welcome relief from central crowds. Burggarten’s most visited sight is the famous Mozart statue, complete with a treble clef made entirely from bright red flowers. It’s one of the most iconic images of Vienna and you can see why!

Things to do in Vienna: Burggarten

Naschmarkt
The Naschmarkt mainly sells frankfurters or other sausages served in bread roll coats and bread roll hats (see photo). I managed to find plenty of falafel stalls to keep me happy. There are also a few restaurants and souvenir stands too. It’s where the locals go to enjoy a stein of beer or twelve. If I lived there, that’s absolutely where I would be.

Things to do in Vienna: Naschmarkt

Overall, we had a great time on our long weekend in Vienna. I would certainly recommend it as a city to explore if you’ve got a weekend free. Keep this list of things to do in Vienna close, and you’ll never be stuck for somewhere to go or see.

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What have I missed? What would you do with 48 hours in Vienna? Share your ideas in the comments below! 

A cosy weekend in Berkhamsted

When was the last time you had a holiday close to home? If you live in the UK, you’re blessed with little towns dotted about the place, all offering somewhere to go and something to see; just without the cost of flights or the need to change your currency. Hey, did that rhyme?

Over the summer, our mini break of choice was Berkhamsted (Berko to the locals): a gorgeous little town less than an hour away from the capital. If you’re looking for places to visit outside of London where you can experience ‘Little England’, Berkhamsted is a great choice.

Here’s what a weekend in Berkhamsted has got to offer (spoiler alert: it’s a lot for such a little town).

A lovely little log cabin
Dear Airbnb. Oh how I love you. Not only have you given me a home from home in Valencia, and a fabulous city centre apartment in Cambridge, but now you have given me the most interesting and beautiful place I have ever stayed.

Weekend in a log cabin, Berkhamsted

This log cabin was built from scratch by a carpenter in his back garden, but it’s secluded from the main family house by a well-positioned hedge. Walk out the back and you’re in a forest; Walk through the door and you’re in your own little paradise.

Woodland walk in Berkhamsted

Weekend in a log cabin, Berkhamsted

It’s got everything you need: bed, mini kitchen, bathroom and shower, living room with plush sofas and blankets, TV, a great DVD collection and a log fire that you can’t actually use, but that makes you feel all warm and cosy just by looking at it. We had to drag ourselves out each day (which is very unusual for us) and thus the sign of a good place. Check out the Airbnb website for more info.

The Rex Cinema
The Rex is a glorious Art Deco cinema converted from a theatre. It’s only got one screen cinema and therein lays its charm. Downstairs in the ‘VIP’ area, you can slurp wine, eat cheese and lay back in luxurious seats around romantic tables that seat four – it feels a bit like a cabaret. Upstairs, you’re in a more traditional cinema setting with rows of seats pitched behind a balcony overlooking the stage and screen. No matter where you sit, you’ll feel as though you’re somewhere special. The owner even gives a speech before every screening as a quirky little intro to the film.

Long weekend in Berkhamsted, Rex Cinema

The Rex shows its fair share of blockbusters (Finding Dory was on when we were there) but also prides itself on its offering of classics and films you just wouldn’t see anywhere else. With only two showings a day, the choice can be limited and tickets sell out quickly with bookings available the month before on The Rex Cinema website.

Berkhamsted Castle
Though certainly not the most well-kept or beautiful castle in England, Berkhamsted’s Norman example has one of the most interesting stories. After being passed between and confiscated by various kings, the castle fell into the possession of Ranulf, King Henry I’s Chancellor. On his way to visit the castle for the first time, Ranulf got too excited at the view of his castle, fell off his horse and died. It’s hard to believe when you look at it now though – there’s not much left.

Long weekend in Berkhamsted

The majority of its walls are in ruins, so it does take some imagination to see the king entertaining his guests. You can take a wander around the bailey and then climb the mott to be treated with great views out over the town. After becoming highly unfashionable, it fell into ruin with parts of the walls distributed and stolen by residents to make their own houses. It was almost completely destroyed with the construction of the railway, and every now and then, a train will rocket past to remind you. Visit the English Heritage website for more information about the castle and how to get there yourself.

The food scene in Berko
Unlike our home town of Reading (where TripAdvisor’s top restaurant is an ice cream parlour), Berkhamsted is home to a huge number of boutique, independent and multi-national places to eat. We were determined to try a few out while we were there:

  • The Olive Tree – As the name suggests, this restaurant is typically Greek. We were given the most wonderful welcome – the Australian/Greek owner grabbed us in for a kiss even though we’d never met her! The food was a-mazing – my tummy is grumbling at the thought of the must-try feta in filo with honey, but you can give the house white wine a miss. The restaurant itself is warm, cosy and very very loud, but in a good way.
    Olive Tree, Berkhamsted
  • Fat Buddha – This restaurant serves up traditional Indian fair where the portion sizes are huge and the taste divine. We opted for takeaway to enjoy back at our cabin but it looks just as good as a sit down restaurant. My tummy has just started rumbling again…
  • Here – Here is a great place for breakfast or lunch or brunch or drunch(?) in the the town centre. It’s one of those modern hipster type places, serving sour dough bread and falafel as part of a Full (veggie) English. There aren’t that many tables, but it’s worth the wait if you can bear it. The sausage sandwich also comes highly recommended, says Tim
    Long weekend in Berkhamsted, Here cafe

Getting there
Berko is a quick zip up the A41 from London if you’re driving, or half an hour on the train from London Euston for £15 return. It really couldn’t be easier to get to, and because you’re outside the M25, you’re treated to slightly lower prices than in the big smoke. A quick Google will tell you how to get to the town from wherever you are.

Other things to see and do in the area
Don’t feel you need to be confined to Berkhamsted. It’s a great base from which to explore Hertfordshire and many other tourist attractions while you’re in the area. Now, I have to admit I haven’t been to all of these places, so I can’t vouch for whether they’re any good. If you go, you’ll have to tell me what they’re like in the comments!

  • Warner Bros. Studio Tour: the making of Harry Potter – I’m told this is a must visit for muggle fans of the Harry Potter franchise (sorry I’m just not one of them!) Its only 20 minutes away for visitors to Berko
  • Bletchley Park – the WW2 Allied code breaking HQ and birthplace of the computer (thanks Tim) is 20 miles away from Berkhamsted in nearby Milton Keynes. If you like historical sights and learning about our past, you’d enjoy the short hop up the motorway to visit.
  • ZSL Whipsnade – Sister zoo to ZSL London zoo, Whipsnade claims to be the UK’s biggest zoo. How many times can I say zoo? I haven’t been, so you’ll have to tell me if that’s true. It’s home to lions, tigers, lemurs, sea lions, elephants, and quite a few other species too. If animals are your thing, you’re in for a treat at Whipsnade.
  • Woburn Safari Park – they seem to like animals in this part of the world, and this is a place I have been to. It’s your typical British safari park where you drive past slightly cold looking lions and walk past slightly warm looking penguins. Of course it’s much better to see animals in the wild, but when Safari Parks like Woburn are doing so much for conservation and endangered population growth, they’re alright by me. I’ve got a separate post coming soon about my day trip here.

I found Berko to be a lovely little town that I can see myself returning to again and again, if only to tick off the things on this list! I’d thoroughly recommend at least spending a weekend here if you want somewhere that’s easy to get to from London, but feels a million miles away.

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Have you ever been to Berkhamsted? Where do you like to go that’s close to home or outside of London?