5 Things to do in Madrid, Spain in a Day!

1. Have some churros at Chocoletaria San Gines. It’s an institution. And has been selling delicious churros for centuries. They give you a cup of warm thick chocolate to dip your churros in.

Look at that chocolate….

2. Go to the Prado Museum. I have a love hate relationship with most European museums I have been to, especially the arty ones. This is because people of colour are either completely erased or are more often than not depicted in positions of servitude. Nevertheless, the Prado is one of my fave museums and it houses the very famous Bosch triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights.

3. Visit Malasana if you like quirky, indie spaces. Also, there are quite a few vintage shops around the area.

4. Stroll down Gran Via, which is the equivalent of London’s Oxford Street or Paris’ Champ d’elysee. It’s a long blingy street full of shops. You can get some delicious ice cream along the way at Borgonesse which serves absolutely delicious ice cream!

5. Go to El Retiro Park for a run, a picnic or just a leisurely wander. It is a huge park offering a respite from city life.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Dubai is the youngest city I have ever been to and it looks like the young development that it is. The whole of Dubai sprang up only a few decades ago so everything looks new, clean and oddly perfect. It felt like walking into a new but furnished mansion that hasn’t been lived in. Dubai looks like a “show city”, the perfect city you sell to people, a dream, an aspiration.

View of Dubai from the Burj Khalifa

However, there is an area in the city called old Dubai, which I will talk about later on. Now old Dubai looks more like a well-lived in space with all the quirks, character and anomalies that emerge as things get older.

I was in Dubai for 4 and a half days in November 2019, which was a pleasant time to go as its their “winter”, meaning the sun isn’t so hot that you’re tempted to peel your own skin off. We had bearable temperatures of about 20 to 25 degrees celsius during the day which is my happy place, weather-wise.

I stayed at Five hotel. As at November, 2019, the hotel had only been open for a few months. It is cool and fresh, with interesting architecture – the whole 50 something floors of the hotel is in a cylindrical structure. Never stayed in a circular hotel before! Talk about thinking out of the box, literally! The hotel is definitely geared towards young 20 somethings (or the young at heart) as the pool side is a makeshift bar with loud music playing from afternoon till evening almost daily.

So, what did I get up to in this Emirati City?

  • Desert Experience – I had an amazing afternoon/evening organised by an experience curating company called Carlton Noble Group. We were picked up by a four by four at around 3pm. The vehicle could fit 6 people, and already had one couple in it when myself and my friend were picked up. We collected one more couple from their hotel and then headed to the desert. We went dune bashing (where the four by four takes us on a rollercoaster ride up and down the many dunes), quad biking and camel back riding. We also watched a nice show out in the desert under the night sky – there were dancers and a fire breather. The food served was simple but delicious and even had vegetarian options (Hello, I’m Sope and I’m a Vegetarian). A henna service was also part of the experience. We were delivered back to our hotel around 10pm that same day. I was pleased we went for the Carlton Noble option as it meant less crowds. As said earlier, there were 6 people in our car whom we had most of the experiences with, so no waiting around for quad bikes or anything. Also, at the location, (where we watched the night entertainment) there was only about 40 of us all together. On our way to the location, we saw other groups having similar experiences in much bigger groups. We paid a little more for our less crowded experience and it was worth every penny.

  • The Burj Khalifa – Of course we went up the Burj Khalifa – but it was my least favourite experience in Dubai. You know how our desert experience was amazing because we were in a small group? Well, our Burj Khalifa experience was meh, because it was way too busy and crowded – understandably so. We got our tickets online and the ticket included a visit to the Burj and also entrance to the Dubai Mall Aquarium. We paid about $60 for both sites and I believe entry to just the Burj costs the same amount, so I am happy we found this bargain. The Burj is stunning and breathtaking – when you are looking at it from outside on the ground. The Burj becomes a gigantic screen after 6pm showing colourful graphics just as the famous Dubai Fountain displays, just beside it, begins. Experiencing the Burj Khalifa from the outside is fun and less claustrophobic. You really do appreciate human ingenuity. Inside, however, there are way too many people, so the queues are quite long, except you get some sort of queue-jumping ticket. Once up the Burj, there are people everywhere fighting for the best spots to take panoramic pictures of sprawling Dubai and the Gulf Sea below. We struggled to take good pictures with our phone cameras and finding a clear vantage spot to take a picture was next to impossible. Once you finally get a spot, you can’t comfortably stay there long enough to get a good shot as you can see others wanting to use that same spot huffing, puffing and staring at you, waiting for your exit from the prime piece of space. By the way, most tourists, like ourselves, can only get to the 124th floor of the Burj as opposed to the actual top floor which is the 163rd.
The Burj Khalifa
Selfie atop the Burj Khalifa
  • Dubai Fountain – The glorious Dubai fountain, located beside the Burj Khalifa, deserves a mention of its own. It is the world’s largest choreographed water fountain display. The display is on at certain times of the day and it is just an amazing creative spectacle. The company behind building the fountain is the same one responsible for the famous fountain in Las Vegas by the Bellagio Hotel. Apparently, the music that is played alongside the water display is tightly controlled and chosen by either the company that operate it or by EMAAR Properties, the developer.
  • Aquaventure – I LOVE water and I love slides and rollercoasters. So, for me, waterparks are the perfect combination! I recently learnt to swim (a story for another day) and going to a waterpark was a perfect way to celebrate and try out my new found confidence in water. I have been to a waterpark before in Greece, but I spent a lot of the time slightly paranoid that I may drown and latching on to my friends legs to buoy myself. This time, at Aquaventure waterpark in Dubai, I handled myself in water much better. I loved Aquaventure, it is not an overwhelming park in the sense that you can go on all the rides in a day easily and also go to the beach. However, it is overpriced as these sorts of places always are. I did cringe forking out over £70 for the experience but I REALLY wanted to go as I REALLY LOVE waterparks! Aquaventure is right beside the humoungous Atlantis hotel on the Palm. There is also a Dolphin experience next to Aquaventure, where you can watch Dolphin shows and swim with them. You need a separate ticket for that. After splashing, sliding and floating around at Aquaventure, we had a more sedate experience at Hakkasan, the famous International Chinese restaurant which is also at Atlantis, so a few mins walk from Aquaventure. I highly recommend Aquaventure. If you do go, let me know how the Leap of Faith body slide is, I did not have the courage to make that drop….
  • Old Dubai – You must visit old Dubai. Old Dubai is really nothing like the Dubai you see on TV. It is more traditional and not as perfect as “new” Dubai. It’s in old Dubai you will find the souks such as the spice and gold souks. We got to old Dubai by crossing a river on a 1AED per person boat which was a nice chill evening experience before our wander in the markets. You can also just get a cab to old Dubai if you’d rather. Old Dubai is more vibrant and less plasticy. New Dubai is like your glossy perfect over-achieving cousin and old Dubai is the spontaneous rogue cousin that doesn’t care what you think of them and their crazy hair.
  • The Dubai Mall – Now I can’t talk about Dubai and not talk about the consumerist temple that is the Dubai Mall! People actually come to Dubai solely to shop at this vast outlet which boasts thousands of stores. Apparently, in 2011, the mall attracted more visitors than the whole of New York City! The mall is so huge that it has a luxury hotel, an ice rink, an aquarium (which I visited) and many other attractions besides shops. It really is a mind boggling experience to be in a mall that huge. I usually hate malls as I prefer an outdoor shopping experience, I tend to fill jammed in inside enclosed malls but for some reason I didn’t feel as claustrophobic as I thought I would at the Dubai Mall. I would suggest that the Dubai Mall management initiates indoor scooters or motorised vehicles of some sort that people can hire, because after a while, it becomes an existential pain in the back to take even one more step.
Inside the Dubai Mall

I also visited the Dubai Mall aquarium which was a part of my Burj Khalifa package, the aquarium is much bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. On the outside, you get a sneak peek of all sorts of sea life including sharks and huge sting rays. Inside, however, there are many more creatures including two enormous crocodiles to see and birds flying around freely.

Dubai is quite an expensive place to be in but like most places in the world, you can always find restaurants and hotel options that are more pocket-friendly if you look close enough. Something else not to miss out on is the variety of cuisines available in Dubai. Dubai is made up of over 70% internationals, so local Emiratis are actually in the minority. Hence, there are restaurants offering delicacies from all over the world.

In terms of hospitality, I found the people welcoming and kind generally speaking and I also felt safe through out my stay even late at night when outside.

A note on what to wear – Although Dubai is in the UAE which of course is a conservative muslim nation, you can dress as you please there. Dress the way you’d normally dress in the summer, and for most people this includes shorts and tank tops. Don’t wear anything crazy, as I assume you won’t at home, and you’ll be fine.

I really enjoyed my final trip of the year in Dubai and if there is one place I wish I went to and didn’t, it would be the Burj al Arab, which is the iconic sail boat structure that houses a seven star hotel. They do high tea and brunches and if it wasn’t that we’d run out of time, I’d have loved to go.

Delicious Dates from Bateel

Istanbul and Cappadocia, Turkey

Turkey was my first venture into the Arab world and it was as vibrant as expected.

I aim to celebrate each birthday in a different part of the world and this year was not any different – I celebrated my last year in my 20s in Turkey!

Istanbul has the buzz and hustle of most big cities across the world. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the bazaars – I love markets. I usually hate crowds but I can abide the madness of a good market, I am after all a true Lagosian. Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is apparently one of the biggest covered markets in the world. It is crammed full of stalls, merchants, their wares, shoppers and tourists. The Grand Bazaar has on offer a wide variety of things and I was especially taken over by the spices and teas! Everyauthentic market always has an abundance of merchants feverishly calling out for you, and it’s no different when at the Grand Bazaar. The only thing is the soliciting for customers turns weird when it happens to be three Black women (me and my friends) who are the buyers. The sellers, all men (I don’t recall seeing any female sellers) kept calling us various female African-American celebrities – from “Beyonce” to “Rihanna” 🥴. It’s getting old (was the same in Greece too).

 

Something I highly recommend experiencing whilst in Istanbul is to take the 45min (about, there is a fast boat and a much slower one. We took the faster option) boat ride to Buyukada Island. It is the largest of the 9 Prince’s Islands. Its a serene dream! It has no cars except working vehicles like trucks, and I only saw a couple of those. The main mode of moving around especially for tourists is by horse and carriage. The houses are huge and terraced. There is greenery everywhere. It looked like what I imagine a Caribbean Island to be. Some people find the Island depressing and indeed it is an Island that feels trapped in time but I found it to be a respite from the bustle of Istanbul main land.

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We also visited the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia started out as a Greek Orthodox cathedral AD 537 and at that time was an architectural feat! The Blue Mosque seemed to be undergoing some sort of renovation when we went in May, 2019 but I still found it worth seeing. Especially memorable was me and my friend trying to sneak in with what is considered inappropriate clothing and being caught swiftly by one of the guards who yelled “dress problem!” I suppose we wouldn’t have gotten far anyways even if we made it into the mosque. Thankfully, there is a place nearby to rent long skirts and scarves for free. A more sensible approach is to plan ahead and wear a long skirt/trousers and bring a scarf along. That way you avoid having to wear borrowed, possibly rarely washed, oversized garments 🤷🏾‍♀️.

On one of the evenings in Istanbul we went on a boat cruise. It had belly dancers and whirling dervishes and a very fun MC. My advice with this is to pay more to go on a classier cruise. Ours, though fun, was a bit over-packed and the food could have been better. We saw other nicer and quieter boats pass by and wished we’d paid a bit more to go on one of those.

Also, we had a Turkish bath at one of the oldest Hammams in the city and felt like new people afterwards! There are several things you really must do whilst in Turkey such as having delicious Turkish delights and visiting bazaars, another must-do is having a Turkish bath, it is purely mandatory. This is the one we went to, which I highly recommend.

CAPPADOCIA

The highlight of my time in Turkey was in Cappadocia. Cappadocia is a semi-arid region in Turkey which is about half an hours flight from Istanbul. It felt like being on Mars… with scores hot air balloons (instead of space ships) floating around. For most people, Cappadocia would fit on their ‘World’s Remarkable Places’ list. Jutting out of the ground all over Cappadocia are conical natural rock/sand formations. It does make you feel like you have left planet earth.

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There are various tours of Cappadocia and there is quite a lot to see from sprawling underground cities that hid thousands of refugees to churches carved into rocks. The popular tours are named after colours and I went on the Green Tour which is a day tour starting at 9am and ending at 6pm. You are picked up and dropped off at your hotel. On this tour I went to the Goreme Open Air Museum, Pigeon Valley, a Turkish Jewellery shop (featuring the most beautiful precious and semi-precious stones), a gift shop (which I am sure the tour company struck some sort of deal with which meant they dropped scores of tourists at the shop everyday as an ‘opportunity to try Turkish sweets’) and Ihlara Valley. I actually spent most of my birthday trekking though the Ihlara Valley, which is the second largest canyon in the world. The trek ended in a restaurant selling not great food, but the outdoor seating by a long stream in the depths of the valley made it bearable.

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Cappadocia is very famous for its cave hotels and we stayed in one of them. Again, it was quite the experience, being shrouded around by cool rock walls in the belly of the caves (ok, I exaggerate, not really the belly of the caves like the photo above of me in one of the many underground cities, more like at the precipice of a cave…)but I found it quite calming and grounding.

Istanbul and especially, Cappadocia were a delight and Cappadocia really did feel like an outer-worldly experience. Turkey is truly a city offering many worlds; it straddles both Asia and Europe,  Christianity and Islam. It’s spices and teas are reminiscent of the east and empires long gone. It truly is an exquisite ride on a pendulum that swings in many directions.

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Budapest, Hungary – The City of Baths

Budapest is definitely the most unlikely city I have visited so far. By unlikely, I mean it was never on my “top ten” list of places to go and it seems not to be on the list of many people as my sister’s exclamation of “what are you doing in Budapest??”when I sent pictures to my siblings whatsapp group, shows.

The Danube

In short, Budapest was not planned. My friend and I had some other destination we wanted to visit, but the cost of accommodation and flights put us off. Just when we were about to pause on travelling at all, Budapest happened.

Heroes Square (Hosok Tere)

Kossuth Lajos ter


We were in Budapest in the middle of June – the heat was debilitating. However, thanks to the many baths and spas that Budapest is famous for – cooling off was never far away.

The first thing that struck me about Budapest was how manageable the crowd was. For a capital city, it didn’t feel as overwhelming as London but still managed to feel exciting. The people were also very polite, from strangers on the road to hotel staff.

Budapest isn’t the cheapest city I have been to but it is definitely not expensive either. It took me a while to get used to the conversion rate, for some reason, and truly understand the value of things but I can say it was a moderately affordable city. For me, Bogota, is the cheapest city I’ve been to where I would go on a 45mins Uber ride and pay less than £10!

Baths

Gellerts


We had the opportunity to visit 2 thermal baths whilst in Budapest – Gellerts and Szechenyi. Gellerts bath is elegant whilst Szechenyi is hip. Szechenyi was full of young people in their early twenties whilst Gellerts was more family friendly. Szechenyi was bigger and had glum, wet changing stalls that seemed to go on forever, my friend likened it them to prison cells and I don’t disagree, Gellerts, on the other hand is smaller and it’s changing stalls bore little similarities to a penitentiary. I won’t suggest one over the other as they were both fun and relaxing just with different vibes. Szechenyi’ yellow buldings is especially picturesque.
Jewish District

Budapest’s Jewish district is the soul of the city and you immediately feel a shift in vibe when you get there. The second biggest synagogue in the world, and the largest in Europe, is located here and so are several boutique restaurants and street art. Where the street art is, is usually where the most passion in a city lies – at least this is what I believe.

Cuisine

In relation to cuisine, I will say as a legit foodie, who has eaten food from different cultures, that the Hungarian delicacies did not disappoint. My favourite was this pancake stuffed with chicken soaked in a paprika stew. Typical of how I relate to international foods, I do not remember the name but I hope the description is crisp enough to help you find it if you ever go to Hungary. Goulash was also a staple in most restaurants we went to and is definitely something to eat in Hungary.

I can recommend 3 restaurants in order of amazingness which must not be missed if you’re in Budapest:

Bobyglar – this restaurant fell into our laps as we wondered away from Hosok Tere, a square with statues of important figures in Hungary’s history. It’s similar in structure, and its location centrally at a big crossroads, to Trafalgar Square in London. Of course, it was nowhere near as chaotic as Trafalgar Square but it was still beautiful and full of history.

Anyways, we wandered away from this monument and staggered hungrily into the hobbit-home-looking building to find a nicely furnished restaurant which had an outside seating area that we immediately settled into. The staff were top-notch and I will give not just the delicious food 5 stars, but also the service we received.

Cafe New York – Tagged the most beautiful cafe in the world, this is an absolute must-visit. I have never been to a restaurant that opulent and extravagant, let alone a cafe that exquisite. You might actually be intimidated by the setting and assume your pocket won’t survive the visit. For a place as beautiful as a palace, the Cafe is unbelievably affordable. It’s also a great place for taking unrivalled photos.

Mazel Tov – Tucked in the Jewish district is this Israeli restaurant which has sections outdoors whilst their indoor area is covered with clear canopies. It is teeming with greenery so that even when you are inside, you feel like you are outside. The food was was delightful – I had a sharwama that tasted authentic, fresh and delicious. To make the already charming atmosphere more special, there was live music by this guy with a guitar who sang heart-wrenching love songs all night.

Budapest is a truly beautiful city! The wide streets, yellow trams, Jewish district and Moorish architecture made Budapest feel idyllic and like a cross breed between Portugal, San Francisco and Tel Aviv (none of which I’ve been to, but Pinterest pictures tell you a lot).

Budapest is not very diverse, in the sense that non-White people are a rarity, so my friend and I were stared at quite a bit, but we have become used to this as we often find ourselves in situations where we stand out. If you’ve travelled through most countries in Europe as a Black person, you won’t find the stares in Budapest shocking. In fact, the stares were milder than I have experienced in other countries such as in areas of Greece or the South of Italy were I almost stopped traffic.
Budapest was an unexpected trip that has now become an unforgettable experience.