Nice, Côte d’Azur and Monaco

After six weeks of traveling typically cooler places, with the exception of Barcelona, the next part of my trip began with a group tour with a company called Contiki. The specific trip I selected was Mediterranean Quest, which took us from Barcelona, through the south of France and throughout Italy.

Nice was our first stop on this tour. I had heard it was beautiful, but I really didn’t know what to expect. It was a beautiful smaller french city, with lovely architecture, a great tram system and stunning views of the coast and the ocean.

Views from outside of Nice:

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In Nice, we visited a french perfumery, and then had an afternoon to explore. We went off to find possibly the most beautiful beach I have seen in Villefranche-sur-mer. It was a stunning coastal town, complete with shops and restaurants, all on a large hill leading down to the ocean. The water was perfectly blue and the perfect temperature to swim. Many of the beaches in the area are rock beaches, not sand like we’re used to in North America, but this one had small pebbles.

Beach at Villefranche-sur-mer:

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Villefranche-sur-mer:

This area was absolutely a highlight of my trip! Next time before booking a trip to the Caribbean, I would definitely consider the French coast.

Our evening just continued the wonderful day we were having with an excursion to Monaco. Our tour group was lucky enough to be there during the Monaco Grand Prix weekend. Our evening was a dinner, with free time to explore Monaco and the Monte Carlo casino. Think tons of fancy Ferraris and Lamborghinis and people dressed in outfits you thought only existed on runways. Yachts + rich people = Monaco.

Princess Palace in Monaco:

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Monte Carlo Casino and the yachts at night:

Overall, seeing this region was absolutely amazing. I would absolutely go back and could happily spend a week or two, enjoying the beaches, seeing the sights and pretending to be rich and famous!

Amsterdam

Amsterdam was definitely one of the coolest and most unique cities I have visited on this trip. The city has beautiful architecture, a lovely canal system, and overall a very cool vibe. 

I spent 3 days in Amsterdam which I found to be a good amount of time. 

We were lucky enough to be visiting during the last weekend of the tulip festival at Keukenhof Tulip Festival. This is where the massive tulip fields and gardens are located about 30 minutes outside of Amsterdam. It was absolutely beautiful to see all of the different colours and types of flowers and different types of gardens and even a petting zoo. We walked around for about half a day here because there was so much to see. Earlier in the season (April), the fields are still filled with tulips so I hope to have the chance to go back then!


The city is also full of local flower markets which are lovely to see. The local markets in general are very nice to visit and offer lots of good food options for snacks, lunch and groceries! We ended up grabbing everything we needed for a picnic lunch from one of these markets.

A flower market in Amsterdam:


Amsterdam is well known for its night life, specifically the Red Light District. It’s definitely one of the most unusual things to see that is unique to the City. 

The city has absolutely beautiful architecture with buildings dating back hundreds of years. We learned on a tour that the city was built on a swamp and that’s why the canals were built. Some of the buildings are even slanting forward because of the uneven soft foundation.


Amsterdam is very well known for its bicycle culture. Everyone is on bikes all the time, they are definitely more prominent than cars or even pedestrians. We did a 3 hour bike tour which was by far the best way to see the city and learn about the history of the city. As a planner it was amazing to see a place where cyclists are the priority on the streets. Think bike lanes on steroids, with cyclist signals and bike racks everywhere! No one even wears helmets when cycling because it’s so safe, and people carry all kinds of things while biking including their children in baskets on the front of their bikes! 

It’s also worth noting that the city also has a great metro and tram system. We bought two day passes when we were there and got a lot of use out of them! 

Bikes:

We decided when we were in Amsterdam that we wanted to do a Canal tour. Luckily after some research we realized we could actually rent our own boat! We rented a boat for two hours which was surprisingly affordable for a group of five. This was a great way to explore the canals on our own, have a “picnic”, and learn how to drive a boat! 


The food in Amsterdam was really unique! From stuffed jacket potatoes, frites and Dutch pancakes think carbs, potatoes and cheese. We also had some great fish and of course lots of sweets! 

Amsterdam has a ton of museums as well, which I will definitely check out on my next visit! The Van Gogh museum would be first on my list! 


From a city with lots to see and do, to neat food and beautiful scenery, Amsterdam is a must see on any European adventure! 

Oxford

Imagine a beautiful English city mixed with the Harry Potter movie set and loads of college campuses and students and you get Oxford. 

I was lucky enough to call this beautiful city home for 3 weeks while I was taking a course at Oxford Brooke’s University. 


Our first day there was May Day, where the tradition is to participate in May Morning. Complete with a 6:00 am start, singers on the church towers and Morse dancers, it was a neat experience. Al the students and locals were out, there were thousands of people in total. 

The best part of Oxford in my opinion is the mix of beautiful buildings and gardens and nature. Everywhere you look, buildings have unique features and amazing details. The narrow streets and loads of pedestrians and cyclists, mixed with gardens and green spaces make the town very picturesque. 

The Radcliffe camera is one of the most significant buildings to see in Oxford:


The Oxford Brooke’s Headington campus where I studied was very modern compared to many of the Oxford schools and campuses. The facilities were excellent and the campus was just a short walk away. 

Punting was one of the many popular activities in Oxford. It involved a group of people taking a long wooden boat out on the river with a large pole to push the boat along in the shallow water. Sounds crazy, and it’s definitely more challenging than it looks but it’s also a lot of fun! You can pack a picnic and some champagne and have a great afternoon. 

The Botanic Gardens are located right along High street near the river. These gardens are absolutely beautiful and offer a lovely area to spend time next to the water.

Oxford Botanic Gardens:


The Oxford High street offered lots of shops and restaurants. The best part of the city is that with all of the students, many places are very affordable or offer student discounts.

View of High Street:


Going for a tea was a classic English affair that we did in Oxford. Cream tea and scones became a favourite! My favourite spot was The Vault, which was right across from the Radcliffe Camera. 

A typical afternoon tea and scones:


Overall, Oxford was a lovely city and I was very lucky to spend three weeks here. I will definitely go back to visit! 

Barcelona

Barcelona is one of those places you always hear about, and I was so lucky to have the opportunity to finally see what it was all about. From sangria to beaches and stunning architecture, there was a lot to see and do in just a couple of days.

Gaudi:

Antoni Gaudí is a famous architect, very well known for what he designed and built in Barcelona. He was a practitioner of Catalan Modernism. While he is probably most well known for the amazing feat that is La Sagrada Familia, we also visited Park Güell and Casa Battlo. All of his works are very intriguing, especially because even though they were designed in the 1800s and early 1900s, they are some of the most modern designs in Barcelona.

Gaudi’s Casa Battlo:

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Park Güell:

Park Güell was probably my favourite spot to visit in Barcelona. As an urban planner, it was amazing to learn about a planned space that started to be built in 1900.

The site was originally designed as a housing site that was financially unsuccessful. It then transformed to be a public park space. It is also a UNESCO heritage site.

The architecture was very unique and modern and full of detail. From the beautiful columns and stunning mosaic tiles, it is definitely something worth seeing, just be sure to buy tickets online in advance!

Park Güell:

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La Sagrada Familia:

La Sagrada Familia is one of the most amazing architectural stories. Another Gaudi feat, the massive church started being constructed in 1882 and is still not finished! The anticipated date to finish completion is 2026 at the earliest. It is estimated to be about 70-75% complete, depending on various sources. The Basilica is absolutely massive in size and visible from many parts of the city. It dominates the City’s skyline.

While we did not choose to go in, if you do go it costs about 15 euros and be sure to buy your tickets in advance!

La Sagrada Familia:

Montjuic:

Montjuic was another interesting spot to visit. It is a prominent hill with a historic castle. It is essentially the “top” of Barcelona, overlooking the City’s harbour. It historically served as both a castle and a prison. From Montjuic, you get breath taking views of the entire City and the harbour. You can travel to Montjuic by public bus or also by Funicular.

View from the Funicular from Montjuic:

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Probably one of the most touristy areas, the Gothic Quarter offers stunning architecture and history. There are nearby markets, La Boqueria, being the most prominent, is a great spot to check out to see how locals live and also get some fresh fruit and seafood for lunch. La Rambla is a massive pedestrian street offering a lot of restaurants and shopping. It is definitely a tourist hotspot but still a great place that eventually leads right to the Port.

Food:

The food was definitely one of the highlights of Barcelona. We had amazing Tapas – think patatas bravas and seafood croquettes, which was one of my favourite meals of my trip. A must try is definitely the Paella (choose the seafood if you like it!). And of course, the sangria is available everywhere and is wonderful. I don’t know how they make it differently, but it’s the best!

Beaches:

One of the reasons I was most excited for Barcelona was the beaches. What I quickly learned is that they are very touristy, and you should always seek out the smaller, more local beaches. But be warned, they are packed with vendors and people trying to sell you everything from mojitos to massages and it can make for an annoying and not so relaxing experience. But, if you stick to the smaller spots, it is better.

Overall, Barcelona was one of the most unique places I visited in Europe and it had a very distinct, Spanish feeling to it. The city is loaded with history, unique architecture and great food. Next time, I would definitely take advantage of doing some day trips outside of the City to smaller coastal towns.

 

Paris

Paris was one of the few places I visited on this trip that I had visited before. I was there four years ago, but it is a beautiful city that deserves more than one visit. 

The architecture is obviously beautiful, there are numerous famous landmarks to see and the Parisian culture is unmatched anywhere. Baguettes, wine and accordions… need I say more? 

One stop I made on this trip was to the area of Montmartre. It’s located on a giant hill and offers spectacular views of the city. The best part was how close this was to the Gare du Nord so perfect to visit if you’re traveling to or from Paris by train. 

The area is also home to the Sacre Coeur Basilica:



The Eiffel Tower is obviously a must and it’s hard to miss from many areas of the city. Sometimes, the best views are from further away or other vantage points such as Trocadero. If nothing else, grab a bottle of wine and have a picnic near the Eiffel Tower. 

 I personally find the Eiffel Tower most beautiful at night. We decided to go up at night and it was definitely worth it and only €8 for students. 

We took advantage of Sandemans free walking tour which offered a great summary of the city’s history. We saw key spots like the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Latin Quarter. 

Notre Dame:

The Louvre at Sunset:

Picnics all over Paris are definitely the best part! Enjoy the beautiful buildings, architecture, and food! 

Parisian picnics: 

Portsmouth

Portsmouth is located on the southern coast of England. It was historically a naval base, and tourist hot spot and has a population of about 200 000. 

The city has beautiful views of the sea, beaches and lots of history. 

Lighthouse by the Sea:


Beaches with the historic walls:

An old building left as a monument:

Portsmouth has two piers, similar to many other cities by the sea. One is home to a small amusement park. 

One of the piers in Portsmouth: 

Portsmouth has recently struggled economically. Commuting out of Portsmouth, less tourism and less industry are contributing factors. One key redevelopment is GunWharf Quays, a shopping and restaurants on the water, complete with an observation deck. The development is very well designed and an inviting place to visit. 

An example of the boardwalks and patios along Gunwharf Quays:

Portsmouth is a lovely English city along the sea, and parts of it even feel tropical. I would definitely recommend it for a visit! 

London 

Over the course of my trip I have been lucky enough to visit London on a couple of occasions. London is a wonderful city that offers a lot of culture, and history but also feels a bit more contemporary than some other large European cities. It has a lot of important tourist sights such as Big Ben, the London Eye and Buckingham Palace and even just the red telephone booths. 

The London Eye:

Big Ben:

This will be one of my longer posts because I have gained a couple of different perspective, both as a planner and as a tourist. To make it easier I have separated this into two sections, so read whatever interests you! 

AS A PLANNER…

Like many large cities, London is currently facing a housing affordability crisis. As part of my program at Oxford Brooke’s, I was lucky enough to spend a day in London with a focus on planning and architecture. 
We started with a tour of St. Pancras International Station. Here we learned about the design of the station. We also learned about the history of the station, which was nearly torn down. An original hotel that was connected to the station has now been converted to a restaurant that contains a lot of the original building design. The station was designed as a Terminus station so that trains would end here and not travel through the City of London. Kings Cross is the connected adjacent station with Underground service for the rest of London. 

The station now services several British Railway lines as well as the Eurostar which travels to Paris and Brussels. It’s a great example of a station that could have been destroyed but instead due to vision an design was converted into something wonderful. The redevelopment and the connections the station offers also served as a catalyst for a hub of new development and redevelopment including world renowned destinations such as Central St. Martens, part of the University of Arts London, and Google offices. 

St. Pancras International:

The Kings Cross area redevelopment comprises an area of 67 acres of land and a rich industrial history. The area requires a mix of presevation, and new development. The area is anticipated to have 2000 new housing units. It will also offer shops, restaurants and even 40% of the area will be developed as open space. The area includes schools and spaces for children as well,  making it also an ideal area for families. 

Kings Cross Redeveloment Area:


Kings Cross is one area of London currently undergoing substantial redevelopment. Because the city is surrounded by a Greenbelt, development is limited to within the city, making brownfield sites very important. 

We were lucky enough to visit New London Architecture (NLA) which offers a giant model of the City of London:


The model showed all existing buildings as well as any proposed developments to show where growth and change is occurring. The model is accompanied by a lighting system which can highlight features such as parks, museums and underground lines. The company has also put together videos that work together with the model to explain current development in London.

A presentation from Transport for London concluded our tours. We learned about the management of the Underground (Tube) and commuter rail outside of the city. TFL is also investing heavily in cycling infrastructure to create cycling “super highways” and the new Crossline 1 and 2 – new rail services through London. Housing is not the only challenge London is facing, moving 8.5 million people around in their daily lives is not an easy task. 


This likely explains what I noticed to be very expensive transit. If I have any advice in London about transit is that it is great and easy to use, but buy an Oyster card because it will save you money! 

AS A TOURIST…  

I was lucky enough to see many of the popular sites in London. 

Step One is get an Oyster card because it will save you money on transit! 

Big Ben:

For anyone interested in seeing a great view of London, the Shard offers a viewing deck. It also offers a restaurant, the Aquashard, which is free to visit and you can treat yourself to a nice drink or meal with a  beautiful view.

The Shard:

Views from the Aquashard:

SOHO, The Convent Garden and Neal’s Yard are all great suggestions to visit that are more local spots. The Covent Garden offers a lovely market, with vendors as well as many stores. 

The Covent Garden:

Neal’s Yard is a hidden gem of Covent Garden. It can be found through several alleys and is full of lovely buildings, plants, lights and cute bars and restaurants. We went to Homeslice for dinner for the best pizza ever! 

The Tower of London is one of the most unique tourist spots in a London. It’s a great way to learn about the city’s history. While you could spend hours, even a couple hours is enough with all the tourists. Remember your student cards to save a lot here. 

Make sure you check out the Thames and all the awesome bridges and boardwalks it offers, 

Tower Bridge from the Boardwalk: