Country #75 - Belgium Day 1

The Chocolate

This morning we had a great breakfast at STROOM Rotterdam (I had an amazing omelette) before starting our journey to Brugge! We took the tram to Rotterdam Central Station, which is one of the coolest modern style train stations that I’ve ever seen! It was great to at least see Rotterdam in the day on the way to the station even though we wouldn’t get to spend any time enjoying the city during daylight hours. Next time, I guess!

We took a high-speed Thalys train from Rotterdam to Antwerp where we just missed out on the first connection to Brugge, Belgium, but luckily the next option was just a few minutes later. Antwerp itself is a great city (I spent a day there last year) and I definitely recommend it if you are looking for a day trip in the area. It is beautiful and there are tons of tiny museums and lots of shopping as well. If nothing else be sure to take in the train station - it is massive with platforms over at least four stories and has fantastic architectural details.

We arrived in Brugge around 1:30pm but would still have more than enough time to see the city. I also visited Brugge last year on the same trip that included Antwerp (and Amsterdam), and I was looking forward to showing my mom around the tiny, beautiful city. When we walked out of the train station there was a giant Disney setup - it was Disney ice sculptures celebrating the 25th anniversary of Disney Paris! We decided to go back later in the day on our way out of town, but being the perpetual eight-year old that I am we definitely would be going back.

Walking towards town our first stop of the day was to journey through Minnewaterpark, which I think is one of the most beautiful parts of the city. I mean, it’s all beautiful, but Minnewaterpark is more naturally beautiful, I guess. It was raining so we, unfortunately, couldn’t enjoy the park, but the good news was that the snow from that morning was still around, making for some beautiful photos! Our next stop was Church of Our Lady Bruges and the surrounding area, which is, in my opinion, the other most beautiful area. It is so picturesque and just strikingly beautiful, and really is just a great introduction to the city. The inside is cool as well but in this instance, the outside of the church definitely wins.

Our next stop was to walk to Simon Stevinplein, a small square in the middle of the city that’s now home to a lovely, small, Christmas market! We walked through on our way to the center of the city, the area surrounding the Belfry of Bruges. The large square was home to another Christmas market, and the buildings and lights were all decorated very well for the occasion. It was such a pretty setting! Past the Belfry we then visited the Basiliek van Het Heilig Bloed, an incredibly unique church located on the second story of a building next door to Stadhuis (town hall) on Burg Square. Burg Square is then, of course, another picturesque little square in the heart of the city.

After Burg Square we then walked past Jan van Eyckplein, a cool little spot on the end of a canal, to head to the most underrated chocolate shop in the city, Chocolaterie Jan De Clerck. After extensive research on my last visit, I found that this was supposedly the best bang for your buck when it comes to chocolate (and trust me, there are more options than you can possibly choose from). I brought some home last time and we had to be sure to go back so my mom could stock up on more!

After buying lots of chocolate (who knows how we are going to fit it all in our bags) we then made the long trek out to Bonne Chieremolen, but it is totally worth it. The walk was made better, though, as we ran upon a cute and tiny Christmas market on the way there. Bonne Chieremolen is a historic windmill on the outer ring of the city and is one of my favorite spots. There are actually a few windmills on this ring and we were able to see two. We also saw Kruispoort gate, one of Brugge’s original gates to the city from the fifteenth century. It was a long walk to this area in a torrential downpour but was completely worth it!

We had an equally long walk, if not longer, back into the city where we headed to The Old Chocolate House to eat. There is almost always a line but it is definitely worth it! They have fantastic Belgian waffles (of course) and the best hot chocolate! It was a very satisfying end to our long day walking all over Brugge. Before heading back to the train station we took one last walk through the center of the city to see all of the Christmas lights at night which was definitely a good idea because they were so charming.

When we arrived back at the train station we did the Disney ice sculpture exhibit which was so cool and literally freezing. It was twenty-one degrees Fahrenheit inside, but so worth it to see so many awesome ice sculptures! There was so much detail in each one and there were also so many, it was incredible! It was such a great thing to just happen upon and I really enjoyed it even though it required being colder than I had been outside which I didn’t know would be possible.

After finishing at Disney we took an hour-long train to Brussels and then took the tram from Brussels Centraal to our hotel for the next two nights, ibis Styles Hotel Centre Stephanie. We were both exhausted and so excited to see our great room! It was giant with a cosy bed as well as a great fold out extra bed. We had a giant balcony with an amazing view of the city as well! I cannot thank ibis Styles Hotel Centre Stephanie enough for sponsoring this night of my trip and helping to make for an incredible stay in the heart of Brussels. It was a very long day, but I’m really excited to get some sleep and explore Brussels for the first time tomorrow!

75 countries down, 122 to go.

For more information on Belgium click here to read my guide.

To learn more about ibis Styles Brussels Centre Stephanie click here.

Country #71 - Netherlands Day 3

The Design City

Our flight from Copenhagen to Amsterdam was really short and simple and upon landing, we then took a train directly from Amsterdam’s airport (AMS) to Rotterdam, Netherlands. It took thirty minutes at most and was really simple to do. When we arrived in Rotterdam we bought a one day transit pass and then took the tram from Rotterdam Central Station to our hotel, STROOM Rotterdam. Rotterdam is known for it’s cool and modern design, and Central Station was our first taste of this - it was such a unique train station with a really cool design!

We were greeted very warmly at STROOM Rotterdam and given a great room for the night! It was one of the most unique rooms I have had so far and was very appropriately such a cool design. It was a two story room with the bathroom and giant bathtub on the bottom floor. The top floor had the bed and the desk, so it was basically a loft layout. The most unique part of the room, though, was definitely the shower. It was on the first floor but had a glass ceiling leading to the second. It was crazy but really cool! Thank you again so much to STROOM Rotterdam for sponsoring this night of my trip.

After checking in we walked almost right next door to visit Euromast, a tower that overlooks all of Rotterdam! We took an elevator up to the top where we had a great 360-degree view out over the whole city. It was freezing on top but so worth it! Euromast also has a really nice restaurant on the top as well as two hotel rooms that you can stay in - it would have quite the view for sure. I want to thank Euromast for sponsoring our visit - we had an incredible time taking in Rotterdam from up in the air.

After our excellent Euromast visit we walked for a bit before taking public transit to the Cube Houses. Once again showcasing design in Rotterdam, the Cube Houses are a must see. I wish we had been in Rotterdam in the daytime so we could have visited the inside, but they were super cool from the outside as well! Our next stop, Markthal, was just across the street. Markthal is a market and restaurant set up in a super unique building. The building is made of glass and has artwork lining the inside. Unfortunately, the market aspect was closed by the time we got there, but we ate at a really great burger spot called Firma Pickles. By the time we left it was now snowing in full force outside (it had only been lightly raining earlier), but we walked over to see Oudehaven anyways. It is the old harbour of the city and has a lot of old boats in the city. It sits right on the other side of the Cube Houses so we were able to see those again as well!

We were now literally freezing but we made our way back to the metro which we took to a tram stop which we then took back to our hotel. I was very impressed with the extensive public transit in Rotterdam! When we arrived back we were pretty exhausted after so much travel. Luckily the bed was so cosy and it was a very easy night’s sleep! We start our travels through Belgium in the morning, and I’m really looking forward to it!

74 countries down, 123 to go.

For more information on the Netherlands click here to read my guide.

To learn more about STROOM Rotterdam click here.

Country #74 - Denmark

The Copenhagen Sprint

Our boat arrived in Helsinki around 8am after a pretty uneventful night, though it was a little more bumpy of a ride than the outward trip had been. We were quick off the boat to make sure that we would be through immigration quickly (we were) and that we would easily catch a tram to the central station to catch a train to the airport (we did). When we got to the airport it was almost eerily empty for a major airport, but we weren’t complaining. We breezed through to our gate and ended up having over an hour to relax in an empty airport. Other than being empty, Helsinki airport (HEL) was pretty great thanks to its awesome wifi and really relaxing terminal. Who knew that was even possible?

Our flight was to Copenhagen, Denmark where we would be connecting four hours later back through to Amsterdam. The flight was relatively quick and when we arrived in Copenhagen we headed to put our luggage in the airport lockers to go into the city for two hours. Lucky us, though, the lockers would not work with our credit cards. We tried everything! Visa, Mastercard, debit, credit, pin, no pin, everything. And it wouldn’t accept cash. Other people were able to use the lockers no problem - it was so frustrating! After wasting probably twenty minutes, if not more, of our time in Copenhagen on the unsuccessful locker situation we ended up just taking our bags with us. We hopped on the metro and were in Copenhagen within fifteen minutes.

We walked out straight into a Christmas market - it was quite the welcome! We walked through with our annoying bags in tow and then made our way just down the street to Nyhavn. Nyhavn is the colorful, waterfront canal area that you might picture when you think of Copenhagen. I really wanted my mom to see it, and I’m so glad that we were able to make the quick stop into the city work! We then walked down towards the water where we were able to look out and see the Skuespilhuset theater, Copenhagen Opera House, and Copenhagen Street Food (PapirØen). After doing so and taking in the area for a bit we then made our way back to the metro to head back to the airport.

It was definitely sad to just pass through Denmark so quickly. I had an amazing few days in Copenhagen last year while visiting my friend Sydney when we were both studying abroad. Some of my favorite things were Tivoli Gardens amusement park, Louisiana art museum, and just walking around the city. Tivoli is an amazing old amusement park that is so charming and so much fun. Louisiana is one of my favorite art museums ever. I highly recommend them both and, obviously, recommend that you spend more than two hours in such an incredible city!

When we got back to the airport I found my witness signatures and then we passed through security and actually ending up with time to spare before our flight. I had a tasty pizza ciabatta and sausage roll to hold me over until our next stop. We are headed to Rotterdam for the night!

74 countries down, 123 to go.

For more information on Denmark click here to read my guide.

Country #73 - Russia Day 2

The Hermitage

My mom and I both got a great night’s sleep at M-Hotel before our second day in St. Petersburg! We started off the day visiting Savior on the Spilled Blood. This famous church deserves all of the recognition that it receives, because it truly was spectacular. Unfortunately there was scaffolding on the outside, but the inside was incredible because it was entirely a mosaic! It was just amazing to think how much work must have gone into it. After Savior on the Spilled Blood we walked over to The Hermitage, where we would be spending the majority of our day.

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The Hermitage is the second largest museum in the world and was established in 1764. It is absolutely massive. Like three buildings, multiple floors, and more art and artifacts than you can imagine. It reminds me a bit of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam if I had to make a comparison, but it really is on a whole other level of its own. We went through every room in the museum over the span of between three and four hours, with only a small break in the middle to grab a quick snack. In many instances the rooms themselves were just as spectacular, if not more so, than what they were displaying. It is definitely obvious that the building used to be a palace, and it was just an incredible experience to walk through and see all of the rooms. Pretty exhausting, though!

After we finished up we walked about ten minutes to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. During the walk, it was now a downpour of snow. We were literally covered in snow by the time we finished the ten-minute walk, but walking was definitely worth it because we were able to hear the really cool church bells playing at St. Isaac’s – they were like nothing else I’ve ever heard, almost like it was playing a song for a few minutes! The inside was very beautiful as well, and after we finished there we took an Uber to the mall type store next to M-Hotel, called Bol'shoy Gostinyy Dvor. We shopped around for souvenirs for about thirty minutes before grabbing our bags and taking an Uber back to the ferry terminal to head back to Helsinki, Finland. It took about an hour to get there as traffic was pretty bad around rush hour, but we ended up making it in time as there was a delay anyways to go through customs and immigration.

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The boat actually ended up being delayed by an hour so everyone could board, but we were on pretty early in that process and were able to eat dinner (a very meh burger) before the ship even departed. We called a few family members before heading back to our room and going to sleep pretty early once again. The boat seemed to be moving around a bit more this time, but I still slept pretty solidly through it. Tomorrow will be a busy travel day as well, as we have a quick stop in Copenhagen before ending in Rotterdam for the night. I had a really great time in St. Petersburg and am really glad I was able to experience Russia for a few days. It might have been freezing, but there were very few tourists or lines everywhere that we went, and it was totally worth going in the winter as a result! Added bonus: the snow made everything so beautiful!

73 countries down, 124 to go.

For more information on Russia click here to read my guide.

To learn more about M-Hotel click here.

Country #73 - Russia Day 1

The Palaces

I slept pretty well on the ferry from Helsinki, Finland to St. Petersburg, Russia last night, other than when I woke up in the middle of the night to pay for slow wifi to attempt to buy tickets in the Taylor Swift presale. It was a definite struggle on the $5 an hour incredibly slow wifi situation. I fell back asleep pretty quickly, though, at least, and got some okay tickets though not great. When we arrived in Russia we went through immigration quickly which was quite surprising as I had read it can take a while. I think it’s probably likely that it was not busy as it was a mid-week boat and also because it is freezing and snowy in both Helsinki and St. Petersburg so not exactly the best time for sightseeing.

It wasn’t a problem for us, though! We were really cold, of course, but came prepared with lots of layers and so far, we're doing okay with the cold. However, Russia was going to be a whole other level of freezing. After clearing immigration we took the free shuttle from the ferry terminal to the center of town, and from there took an Uber to our hotel, M-Hotel. It was a bit difficult to find at first, but once we did we found a charming little spot in the very heart of the city. We had a nice room with our own beds and it was a nice spot to rest for a bit after a crazy journey into town. Thank you so much to M-Hotel for sponsoring this night of my trip!

We ate lunch very close to our hotel at a spot called Cafe Brynza, where we were able to eat traditional Russian cheburek. They were so yummy! A bit like a crepe would probably be the best comparison. We also had cheesy potatoes which were great as well. After lunch, we stopped by an ATM to get some rubbles and then called an Uber to head out to Catherine’s Palace. Uber was truly a lifesaver in Russia – it was so cheap and with the freezing cold it was so much easier to do than public transit, and helped us to fit in more sights. It took about an hour with traffic to get from St. Petersburg to Catherine’s Palace, but it was definitely worth it. It was my grandmother’s favorite stop when she visited Russia so we knew we had to go!

When we arrived we first saw the beautiful grounds and the magnificent palace. It was very blue and beautiful all at once! The tour itself through the palace was very quick as there was very little to read and the audio guide was only in Russian. It was magnificent, though, both inside and out. We finished much quicker than expected and spent time walking around the gardens and other buildings outside before heading to our next stop, Peterhof. I loved playing in the fresh snow outside at both Places because it is something I never get to do. It was so light and fluffy and I had a lot of fun with it! I’m basically a child, I know.

Peterhof took about another hour to reach by Uber, but I’m so glad we were able to visit both iconic St. Petersburg spots on our first day. Peterhof was even bigger and grander than Catherine’s Palace! The fountains outside were, of course, turned off, but we could easily imagine how impressive they would be in the summer as they were pretty great without the water flowing through. I found it interesting that all of the sculptures, not just at Peterhof but throughout Russia, were enclosed in boxes during the wintertime, I presume to help with the snow. After marvelling at the main fountain outside and out back of Peterhof we then proceeded to take the tour. It was, again, beautiful and a magnificent palace. There were more helpful guides to read here than at Catherine’s Palace, but the audio guide was again in Russian only.

By the time we finished the tour through Peterhof we were back outside and it was now entirely dark. We walked around the front of the palace and were able to get some great pictures of Peterhof and its Christmas decorations. Similar to Helsinki, St. Petersburg has done great on the Christmas decorations! Our last stop after Peterhof was Peter and Paul Cathedral, which was across the street. Peter and Paul Cathedral is a Russian Orthodox church, and it was so interesting because a service was going on while we were there. After a bit of taking in the church (it was small but spectacular, especially with the service going on) we then took an Uber back into the heart of St. Petersburg.

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Before heading in for the night we decided to have a really nice dinner and treat ourselves – thanks, Russian exchange rate! We had what would be at least a $100 meal at home for around $40 at an incredible restaurant called Gras. Everything that we ordered was amazing, and if you ever find yourself in St. Petersburg I highly recommend this place. To start we had Sourdough bread with seasonal butter along with Sainte-Maure, Camembert, and Solide de Village cheeses, followed by Top Blade steak with glazed beets and red onion puree and Trout fillet with spelt porridge and cranberry sauce for our main courses, with cheesecake for dessert and a shared white glogg to drink. It was so yummy and such a great way to end our first day in Russia! We were able to then walk back to M-Hotel from there where we were so exhausted it was not hard at all to fall asleep. I’m looking forward to a great day two in St. Petersburg tomorrow!

73 countries down, 124 to go.

For more information on Russia click here to read my guide.

To learn more about M-Hotel click here.