7 things you need to know when moving to Germany

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These tips are for those who are moving, or just have moved, to Germany. Turns out most of them are about German bureaucracy and avoiding fines. But what can I say, they’re the things you need to know most urgently – even before finding where the closest Biergarten is. So let’s start getting used to the German dos and don’ts:

1. You have to register your address at the citizen’s office

Once you have your fixed address in your new German home, you have to get an appointment (Termin) at a citizen’s office (Bürgeramt) of the city where you’ve started to live to make the registration (Anmeldung) of your address. Take your passport and your rental contract with you. This way, the German government knows where you and all the other citizens live. The registration is free of charge, and failure or delay to do it might get you fined. Officially, it should be done in your first couple of weeks in Germany.

If you move to a new address, you have to re-register (Ummeldung) and if you move out of Germany, you have to unregister (Abmeldung).

Just type in on Google: Anmeldung + name of the German city where you now live, and you will find the official website to get the appointment and further information.

2. Health insurance is mandatory

Meaning: even if it’s expensive, there’s no way around it. You will need to present your health insurance number to be able to sign a job contract, for example. The good news is that by law the employer pays half of the cost. There are two types of health insurance in Germany: public and private. And there are several companies which offer different deals at different prices. The vast majority of Germans have a public insurance which covers everything. Some foreigners prefer having a private insurance if they are not staying for a long period of time, as these can sometimes be cheaper. Search online, talk to people and compare the different options to make the best choice for you. You can find more details about health insurance in Germany here.

3. Having a German bank account is not officially mandatory, but in practice it is

You will need a German bank account to pay for your rent and health insurance, to receive your salary or any kind of payments, to get a German phone plan or internet for your home. So even if there is no law saying that everyone who lives in Germany needs to have a German bank account, chances are you won’t be able to manage without one.

4. You must stamp your ticket when using the public transport

This sounds obvious to most people who are used to European culture, but it might be confusing for people coming to Germany from further away. Contrary to other countries in Europe, the public transport in German cities usually doesn’t have turnstiles where you clearly have to insert your ticket to be able to enter. It’s all based on trust. You should always carry a valid, stamped ticket when riding the subway, trains, trams or buses in Germany. Ticket controllers might appear anytime (undercover, wearing no special uniforms) and ask you to present your ticket. If it’s not stamped and valid, you will get a fine (currently €60 in Berlin).

5.  Downloading pirate music and media will get you fined

Whatever you do, DO NOT download songs, movies or TV shows from the internet. That includes torrent: never use torrent in Germany. Better to even delete any torrent programs you might have on your computer. They know how to find you (remember the Anmeldung?) even through your computer ID, and people, usually foreigners, get fined quite frequently for this reason. I’ve heard real-life examples of foreigners who didn’t know about this rule and received an over €800 fine. So better not risk it. The solution: online streaming won’t get you into trouble, or actually paying for the media you are getting (through Netflix, Apple store, Spotify, etc).

6. There is a tax for TV and radio

Every German home pays a tax for the use of TV and radio (Rundfunkbeitrag) – even if you don’t own any TV or radio. It’s a fixed rate of €17.50 per month – per household, not per person. This money goes to support the public broadcasting channels in Germany. After registering your address (see #1), you’ll get a letter asking you to pay the compulsory monthly fee.

To me as a foreigner, this rule doesn’t make much sense, as TV and radio channels still run commercials – which in theory exist to support the channels financially. But all expats agree that there is no way around it, and even if you try to ignore the tax, the system will win in the end and you will just have to pay an even higher amount.

7. You can get some tax money back

Let’s end this list with some good news: if you’re staying in Germany for a while, you might be eligible to get tax refund (Steuererklärung) once a year. If your income comes from a scholarship, it’s tax-free, so you will probably not be entitled to receive it. But if you’re working under a job contract, you can apply for it. You can either search online and figure out all the documents you need for it by yourself (although that might be tricky for non-Germans), or hire a consultant (Steuerberater) who will advise you what to do to get the highest amount possible.

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I hope these tips will clarify some doubts and make your new life in Germany a little bit easier. After the initial settling-in phase, everything becomes lighter. Willkommen! 🙂

The islands in the Venice lagoon: Murano, Burano, Torcello

Venice is a beautiful destination that attracts thousands of tourists every day. Before visiting it for the first time, I was aware of the risk of it being overrated, but personally found it to meet the expectations. Maybe a key decision was to follow the tip of visiting it during autumn, when the weather is still nice but the crowds are a lot smaller.

The main island of Venice is rather small and can be well explored in 1-2 days. It’s only 4 km long and 1 km wide. So if you have an extra day there, you can go island-hopping in the large Venetian lagoon.

Boats (or vaporettos) are really the main type of public transport in Venice – just like buses or subway trains in any other city. There are 24-, 48- and 72-hour tickets valid for unlimited boats trips, which are usually worth the money (plus, there’s a big discount on the 72-hour ticket for people under 29 years of age!). For more information, check here under “public transport”.

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Burano

This was my favorite island in the lagoon, after Venice. The bright colorful houses along the canals heading towards the lagoon compose an extremely photogenic scenery. The island is known for its lace, which is sold in shops on the small streets. It’s a 30-minute ride from Murano and 40-minute from Venice.

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Torcello

Honestly, this island is better known for its history than for its attractions. It’s quite small and there is not much to see. There are a couple of churches you must pay to visit and a small museum. We decided to check it out since it’s so close to Burano – so if you’re feeling “why not?”, then do it. But know that – at least compared to the other islands in the Venice lagoon – it’s not so charming.

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Murano

While Burano and Torcello are near each other and further away from Venice’s main island, Murano is quite close by (about a 10-minute ride). And just like Burano is known for its lace, Murano is famous for its glass products, hand-made on the island. You can watch artists in action making the small glass figures inside shops.

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Sant’Erasmo

The calm and peaceful island of Sant’Erasmo is not a tourist must-see – BUT it’s a great option to stay overnight while visiting Venice. We found the cute Hotel Il Lato Azzurro to have excellent reviews on Booking.com and a ridiculously better price than hotels on the main island of Venice. I was a bit worried that it might be too far (location is a priority for me when booking accommodation), but the 25-minute boat ride from Venice didn’t feel very long (plus, we had a ticket for unlimited trips). The charming hotel compensates for the distance with balcony rooms overlooking the lake, nice breakfast, friendly staff and free bikes for guests to borrow whenever they want. Note: I was not sponsored by the hotel in any way to recommend it. 🙂

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Other islands

We also walked through Mazzorbo, a residential island attached to Burano – very quiet and not exactly a place that can’t be skipped.

San Michele is a small cemetery island located between Venice and Murano.

We did not visit Lido, on the southeast side of the lagoon, but it’s also an island where some tourists head to when visiting Venice.


So there is clearly more to Venice than just its main island. But one thing is a constant: water transportation, being it by gondola or vaporettos. You can’t (and shouldn’t) miss it.

Berlin travel itinerary

Most of Berlin’s main tourist attractions are located in the central region, Mitte. Here, I put together an itinerary to see all of them in an efficient order and on foot. It’s doable to visit all the tourist spots in Mitte in 1 day, but it can be tiring. Depending on your pace, this itinerary can simply be paused and resumed the following day. Let’s begin:

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Attractions in the city center (Mitte):

Start at Alexanderplatz (1), with the TV Tower (Fernsehturm) and the world clock. There are many stores around – including the bargain ones, Primark, Decathlon and TK Maxx – and the Alexa shopping mall near by.

Walk by the Rotes Rathaus (2) until you reach Unter den Linden – the long central avenue.

Keep on Unter den Linden: right after the river on the right is the Cathedral (Berliner Dom) (3) and the Museum Island (5 museums, one next to the other).

Continue on Unter den Linden; see the ‘Neue Wache’ memorial, walk by the main building of the Humboldt Universität (4) and keep on the avenue until reaching the Brandenburg Gate (5), one of the main landmarks of Berlin.

Walking through the gate: there is a long avenue ahead with the Victory Column at the end and a large park, Tiergarten, around.

Proceed to the right towards the German Parliament building (Bundestag or Reichstag) (6). You can visit the terrace of the parliament and have an audio-guide completely for free. But you have to book a time slot in advance through this website (‘Visit to the dome’). The building and the view are beautiful. Highly recommended!

Going back towards the Brandenburg Gate and walking straight ahead, you will find the Holocaust Memorial (7), a labyrinth of concrete that looks like a cemetery, with a very striking effect. Walk through it showing respect. There is also a free exhibition underground.

Walking towards the same direction as before, you will arrive at Potsdamer Platz, with the Sony Center (8), a giant and modern dome with restaurants and a cinema inside. Close by is the Mall of Berlin shopping center.

Go on to the Topography of Terror (9), another memorial about nazism, and then to Checkpoint Charlie (10) – a spot that symbolizes one of the former checkpoints between East and West Berlin while it was divided by the wall. But be aware that the checkpoint is not located on the exact spot where it used to be and today is only a tourist attraction.

Finish the route at Gendarmenmarkt (11), a lovely square right in the center of Berlin.


Outside the city center:

The East Side Gallery – the part that is left of the Berlin Wall, covered in colorful graffiti, is a must-see. Get off at the S-Ostbahnhof station and walk by the wall until its end, arriving at the Oberbaumbrücke bridge. It’s also worth it to explore at night the cool / alternative / hipster districts of Berlin, Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, which are connected by this bridge.

Other tips:

In Berlin on a Sunday with good weather? Don’t miss Mauerpark! And check out the memorial about the wall, on the same street.

Staying 3 or more days in Berlin? Consider going a bit outside the city to visit the Sanssouci Palace and its gardens, in Potsdam (about 1 hour southwest of Berlin), and/or the museum of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, in Oranienburg (about 1 hour north).

Want to go shopping? Besides the shopping malls in the city center already mentioned (Alexa and Mall of Berlin), a great option are the Tauentzienstraße and Kurfürstendamm (also known as Kudamm) streets, in the district of Charlottenburg. There, one can also visit the main zoo of Berlin and the Gedächtniskirche: the ruins of a church that was bombed during WWII and whose main tower is broken in half until today.

Going to be in Berlin during spring or summer? Here is a list of the coolest things to do around here in the best time of the year!

Want tips on what and where to eat in Berlin? Check out this post.

Interested in staying longer? Here’s an insider’s view on what it is like to live in Berlin.


I hope you will love Berlin as much as I do! 🙂

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10 things you can’t miss in Berlin in the summer

There’s nothing like spring and summer in Berlin. The city completely transforms itself. As the leaves turn green, people get especially cheerful and make an effort to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Open-air festivals and events start popping up in the calendar like crazy. It is definitely the best time to visit the German capital.

There are a lot of cool things to do in the Berliner summer. Here is a list of my favorite ones:

1) Going swimming in a lake

Believe it or not, Berlin can get quite warm. The temperature reaches around 37 degrees on some summer days. And with the lack of air-conditioned places, nothing beats dipping yourself in water to cool off. Although the city is not by the sea and therefore has no beaches, it luckily has MANY lakes. Most of them have a Freibad, an area you can access for around 3-5 euros, with sand to lay down on, toilet facilities and food kiosks. Some even offer the possibility of renting paddle or rowing boats, kayaks or stand-up paddles. Definitely a must-do in Berlin in the summer!

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Müggelsee lake

2) Open-air cinemas

In the warm months, the city offers several open-air cinemas (in German, Freiluftkino). There is practically one in every neighborhood. Movies displayed include both old classics and recent ones straight out of Hollywood. But if you’re not used to it, beware: popcorn in German cinemas is usually sweet.

3) Rooftop bars

There is a number of different bars on top of malls or buildings in Berlin, where you can have a drink outdoors while enjoying the view and the sunset. Probably the most famous one is Klunkerkranisch in Neukölln, followed by Deck 5 in Schönhauserallee and House of Weekend in Alexanderplatz (which is also a club).

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View from Klunkerkranisch

4) Thai Park

If you’re up for some nice, authentic Thai food, you should definitely head to the Preußenpark, also known as Thai Park. Everything you need to know about the Thai Park is in this post about the top places to eat in Berlin.

5) Badeschiff

Badeschiff is literally a swimming pool inside the river Spree! For a small fee you can get inside the beach bar area, which also has lockers and bathrooms. From inside the pool, you get a great view to the Oberbaumbrücke bridge linking Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, the big metal sculpture Molecule Man on the river, and to the people passing close by on stand-up paddles or boats. One of the coolest and most different things you can do in the summer in Berlin.

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Badeschiff

6) Having some beer at a Biergarten

Drinking beer is a must in Germany, and in the summer this is done outdoors. Meaning: Biergarten season! There are dozens of options around the city, some near green areas such as parks, and some at actual breweries, offering amazing locally-brewed tap beer.

7) Going strawberry picking

This is quite a different activity you can do as a day trip from Berlin. There are different fields in the outskirts of the city, about 1 hour away, where you can pick strawberries, raspberries and blueberries. In some of them there is a small entrance fee, and in others you can enter for free, pick the fruits and only pay if you want to take some home. Check the calendar of the appropriate season to visit and how to get to some of the fields on this website (only in German).

8) Monbijoupark

This is an area near Hackescher Markt where people sit on the lawn by the river Spree while having a beer and overlooking the cathedral (Berliner Dom). It’s a great place to chill outdoors and also a nice photo spot. Around the corner following the river on the opposite direction to the cathedral there is a bar where you can dance salsa or tango outdoors in the evenings of warm months.

9) Having a barbecue with friends

A common passion that Germans share with Brazilians – besides football – is having barbecues. As soon as the sun starts coming out, you can see grills and smoke everywhere around the city. Having a nice barbecue is something quite typical in Berlin, and can be done in someone’s yard (or even balcony), or in one of the several public parks, which usually have designated areas for grilling.

10) Mauerpark

You will find this tip in every guide to Berlin – and that’s because it is a must. If you’re in town on a Sunday during spring or summer, you need to go to Mauerpark, the hipster epicenter of Berlin. There, you’ll find a famous flea market, food stands, several street artists and musicians from all over the world surrounded by a crowd of cheerful young people enjoying the sound, and lots of people chilling on the grass at the small hill overlooking the park. Also, my favorite part: the open-air karaoke. The park has a small stage with stands around it, where, on warm Sundays, an open-mic karaoke session takes place. Whoever wants to sing gets the microphone, while the crowd and passers-by watch and cheer. There’s just something special about the vibe in Mauerpark.

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Mauerpark karaoke

Hope you enjoy the summer in Berlin!

The Obersee (Königssee) lake at the Berchtesgaden National Park

Most of the scenic locations that are tourist destinations look quite nicer in the Google images than in reality. There you can see the best pictures, by the best photographers, on the prettiest days, and sometimes also with a little help of Photoshop. So I try not to expect too much when I go visit one of those places. However… the Obersee lake was an exception. Surprisingly, it somehow managed to look even nicer live than in the photos I had seen.

It is a crystal clear mirror lake surrounded by the Alps which makes the water reflect the image of the mountains and the sky. Sounds like paradise? And it is.

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Lake Obersee can be found at the end of the Königssee lake, in the Berchtesgaden National Park, in the extreme southeast of Germany, literally at the border with Austria. The Alps mountains that surround the lake delimit the border. Despite being located in German territory, the closest city (and airport) to the park is Salzburg which is also gorgeous! Therefore, I would recommend visiting Salzburg for a weekend (long or not) and go on a day trip from there to Berchtesgaden quite easy to do, even by public transport.

The Berchtesgaden National Park also offers many other activities, such as several trails for trekking and viewpoints. One of them is where the Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus) is a house that was given to Adolf Hitler for his 50th birthday as a teahouse for diplomats. Berchtesgaden, by the way, was a place Hitler really enjoyed visiting. But don’t let this discourage you! The sense of peace that nature provides in this park really doesn’t deserve to be associated to that gloomy figure of the past.

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How to get there

Take the bus number 840 in Salzburg to the final stop (Berchtesgaden Hbf, the train station). The journey takes only 45 minutes (same by car). From there, take another bus that goes to Königssee. Everything is quite easy to find, also because several other people will be going along the same route. To go back, you just need to take the same buses in the opposite direction.

From Munich, you can reach Berchtesgaden by train with a change in Freilassing, but each journey leg takes around 3 hours (around 2 hours by car).

Arriving at the entrance to Königssee, walk to the ferry dock and get a ticket for the boat ride that goes across Königssee all the way to Obersee. On the way, a guide will explain a bit about the park, indicate a few beautiful waterfalls, and show the echo effect on the lake. The boat first stops at the St. Bartholomä station, where you can get off to visit the chapel and then take another boat (included in the ticket) to the Salet station. From there, a short path of a 5 to 10-minute walk leads to the Obersee lake.

On the other side of the Obersee there is a little house and you can walk there, around the lake along a path on the right (quite easy to walk), and then back. The view from the other side is also amazing! And this house is actually a small restaurant, where you can also find toilets.

Swimming in the lake is not allowed (although some people can be seen stepping in the water by the shore).

When to go

I believe the lake and its reflexions look especially stunning during the summer, on a sunny day. I went in June 2015 and it was a beautiful day, and not very crowded.

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St. Bartholomä chapel by the Königssee
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Obersee seen from the opposite side to the entrance path

For more photos of this destination, click here.

I hope you enjoy this delightful visit to the Berchtesgaden park and its lakes, Königssee and Obersee! 🙂

Looking back: my trips in 2016

2016 wasn’t exactly the best year ever for many people – including me. The bright side were the fantastic trips that I took. While in 2015 I managed to travel every single month of the year, in 2016 I almost made it (only February got away, meeh). But I did visit 3 new countries (Sweden, Malta and Bulgaria), the latter being my first country whose language uses a different alphabet.

Last year I made a summary of my trips in 2015, and in the blink of an eye it’s time to do the same for 2016.

JANUARY: Rio de Janeiro + Angra dos Reis / Ilha Grande + Arraial do Cabo (Brazil)
My year starts in my hometown, Rio de Janeiro, beautiful as always. And that month I also went to other cities within the state, with gorgeous beaches (including my first time in Angra dos Reis and Ilha Grande – finally!)

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Ilha Grande, Rio de Janeiro

MARCH: Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Tübingen, Heidelberg + Castles of the region (Baden-Württemberg, Germany)
Easter holiday with two dear friends. We went on a road trip across the state of Baden-Württemberg, in southwestern Germany, going through several cities and at least 5 different castles.

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View to the Hohenzollern Castle, Germany

APRIL: Leipzig (Germany)
My second time in Leipzig, very close to Berlin. This time it was a business trip: my lab colleagues and I went to participate in a scientific conference.

MAY: Stockholm + Uppsala (Sweden)
A long weekend trip when I stayed with a dear friend and her family and visited two important Swedish cities. I’m usually lucky with the weather while traveling, but this time it was really impressive: very sunny and warm over there still at the beginning of May!

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Stockholm, Sweden

JUNE: Malta
The most anticipated and planned trip of the year, which managed to exceed my expectations (which were pretty high!). I’ve written two posts about Malta: one on general information and one full itinerary. There is not much left to say – it was probably my best trip in 2016.

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Blue Lagoon, Malta

JULY: Budapest + Szentendre (Hungary) / Rio de Janeiro + Búzios (Brazil)
My second visit to Budapest, this time on a business trip and at the peak of summer, surrounded by beloved colleagues. I was even able to go visit the charming nearby town of Szentendre.
After that I spent a short, but very important, week in Brazil. I had the honor to be bridesmaid at the wedding of two close friends in Búzios, a beach town near Rio. It was hands down one of the best weekends of the year!

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Wedding in Búzios, Brazil

AUGUST: Saxon Switzerland (Germany)
A weekend touring the national park near Dresden and its surroundings, with relatives from Brazil. There is a post here telling everything about this destination.

SEPTEMBER: Sofia + Plovdiv (Bulgaria)
Another weekend trip, this time to a destination that is a bit out of the ordinary. I’ve shared everything about this visit to Bulgaria in this post.

OCTOBER: Poznan + Wroclaw (Poland)
Not even the lack of company stops me from traveling on a long weekend. 😛 So me, myself and I went to visit Poznan and Wroclaw, two Polish cities that are relatively close to the border with Germany.

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Poznan, Poland

NOVEMBER: Stettin (Poland)
Poland, we meet again! This time it was just a day trip from Berlin. There’s nothing like doing something different with dear friends on a Saturday, even in chilly (but sunny) weather.

DECEMBER: Göttingen (Germany) + Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
Opening homecoming season, I went to visit the town that was my first home in Europe: Göttingen. It was wonderful to see my friends there again, and to be back in my favorite Christmas market.
And of course, in December I fly to Rio, my first home ever, hehe. What amazing holidays these few weeks were!

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Christmas market in Göttingen, Germany

Thinking about it, the general balance of 2016 was pretty positive! Last year many bank holidays happened to be on weekends, but 2017 looks promising, with several long weekends!

Have great trips this year, everyone! 🙂

Weekend trip to Bulgaria

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St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

As you might know, I have the habit of looking for cheap flights to travel from Berlin, where I live. In one of these ‘treasure hunts’, I found flights that were not only super cheap, but also for the perfect times: leaving Friday night and returning Sunday night. Exactly for the weekend. A rare finding.

The trip was to Bulgaria, for 43 euros round trip with Ryanair. To give you an idea of how cheap it was: this is the usual price for a train ride in Germany (round trip) that takes about two hours each way, if you have the card that gives 50% discount, because the normal price is double. In other words, flying for this price is not bad at all. I called a dear friend of mine who always joins me in these adventures and we got the tickets.

Two colleagues of ours who are from Bulgaria had told us that one day is enough to see the capital, Sofia, where we flew to. And several websites with traveler reviews also suggested visiting the second largest city in Bulgaria, Plovdiv, which is 2 hours from Sofia. So, that’s what we did: we spent the Saturday in Plovdiv (day trip) and the Sunday in Sofia.

Bulgaria was the first country I visited whose language has another script (they use the cyrillic alphabet). Besides this, almost no one speaks English there. One thing that really helped was having written down the names of the cities we were going to visit in their alphabet, so we would be able to recognize them on signs.

It was a slight adventure – but I wanted to visit Bulgaria precisely for being a country that is a bit different from what I was used to.


Sofia (София)

You can go from the airport to the center of Sofia by bus or subway. We found it easier to take the subway, but it’s good to know that the station is in terminal 2, and the low-cost airlines (like Ryanair) use terminal 3, which is apart from the main airport building. There is a van that transports passengers between terminals 2 and 3 for free, but it’s not available all the time.

In Sofia we did the free walking tour, which was excellent, covered the main landmarks and told us a lot about the history of Bulgaria. The tour departs daily at 11 am and 6 pm from the Palace of Justice and lasts 2 hours.

POINTS OF INTEREST:
St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (the main landmark of the city), Sofia Public Mineral Baths, Russian Church, National Palace of Culture (NDK), Ivan Vazov National Theatre (and the park around), Royal Palace, Vitosha mountain (a huge mountain very close to the city center), Vitosha Boulevard: the main pedestrian street, full of restaurants and shops (and tourists).

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Vitosha Boulevard and Vitosha mountain in the background

Plovdiv (Пловдив)

HOW TO GET THERE:
It is better to go by bus – the journey takes 2 hours while by train it takes 3 hours. The ticket costs 14 leva (7 euros) each way and can be purchased right before the trip at the bus station, which is right next to the train station. The buses usually leave every hour. To guarantee our return  tickets, we bought them as soon as we arrived in Plovdiv. We stayed in this city from 11 am to 6 pm and it was enough. The bus is quite simple, but it takes you there.

You can find the website for the trains here (available also in English) and for the buses here (only in Bulgarian! This is when you compare the scripts to find the city you want, or use an online translator).

POINTS OF INTEREST:
Plovdiv is full of Roman ruins scattered throughout the city. The most impressive one is the ancient Roman Amphitheater – a huge auditorium built some time B.C., and that is still used until to host concerts and events. There is also the Roman Stadium (underneath the main street in the city center) and the Roman Forum.
Walk through the old town exploring its buildings (such as the Ethnographic Museum) and views to the city center. Near the train and bus stations, there is the Tsar Simeon Park, where a show of the ‘singing fountains’ occurs at night.

In Plovdiv there is also a free walking tour starting at 11 am daily in front of the city hall, in the main street.

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Ancient Roman Amphitheatre in Plovdid

Bulgaria may not be one of the first destinations that come to mind when thinking about Europe, but it’s certainly worth the visit. Most of its streets and buildings have a very simple and humble appearance, but there are several points of interest for tourists. It’s a country where you spend very little, and it’s possible to visit the two largest cities during a weekend.

For more photos of Bulgaria, click here.

The Bastei and the Saxon Switzerland National Park

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The Bastei bridge and the Lilienstein mountain in the background

Saxon Switzerland (in German, Sächsische Schweiz) is a region and national park located 43 km southeast of Dresden. It got this name because the landscape full of mountains may resemble Switzerland – but it’s actually Eastern Germany, almost at the border with Czech Republic.

The most popular attraction of the national park is the Bastei – a sandstone rock formation formed during the Cretaceous period (100 million years ago). There, one can see the famous Bastei bridge (Basteibrücke), 194 meters above the Elbe river. There are a few viewpoints at the Bastei that allow a nice outlook of the bridge and the mountains around.

On one end of the bridge is the Felsenburg Neurathen – the ruins of an old rock castle. Admission is only 2 euros. It is an open-air museum with beautiful views to the region in suspended bridges.

The access to the Bastei is easy and no real hiking is needed to get there – only climbing stairs, if you don’t go by car. But those who want to go hiking or trekking have several options throughout the national park. Besides the Bastei, another popular landmark of the region is the Königstein fortress. We prefered to visit the small town of Pirna by the river instead.

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Entrance to Felsenburg Neurathen

How long to stay:
One day was enough for us to visit the Bastei and Pirna. If you want to see other spots or go trekking, add more days.

How to get there:

By car: drive towards the Bastei Berghotel, where the entrance to the Bastei is. Since only guests staying at the hotel can park their cars there, leave your car in the parking lot of the national park, 3 km before getting to the hotel. From there, a bus can take you to the entrance of the Bastei (and the Berghotel) for 2 euros (return ticket).

By train: take the S1 in Dresden direction Bad Schandau (it takes 30 minutes), get off at Kurort Rathen and take a ferry to cross the river. From there, climb the stairs up until you reach the Bastei.

We went by car and the access was quite easy (we rented a car in Dresden for 22 euros per day). But we saw many people climbing the stairs up to the Bastei. It looks tiring, but it’s doable. The stairs are wide and relatively new.

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Entrance to the Bastei bridge
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View to the Elbe river

Saxon Switzerland is an area where one can wander around nature and admire the views to impressive rock formations. Dresden is 2h30 away from Berlin, and there are quite cheap buses doing this route. So it’s a very feasible option for a weekend trip from Berlin – or a day trip from Dresden or Leipzig.

Malta travel itinerary

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Valetta seen from Sliema

As said in the previous post, Malta was a special trip. And, as my travel planning is usually proportional to my excitement, you can imagine that I did quite some preparation for this trip. Summing everything I learned by researching and visiting this destination, I put together a time-efficient itinerary with the best points of interest in Malta.

This guide is ideal for 6 days – but, if your stay is shorter than this, you can simply prioritize the places you want to see the most.


  • Day 1: Valetta + Sliema + St. Julian’s + Paceville

Valetta
Malta’s capital city – the smallest capital in the European Union.
Upper & Lower Barrakka Gardens, with views to the Grand Harbor and the Three Cities on the other side. At the Upper Barrakka Garden, a cannon is fired daily at noon and at 4pm by the saluting battery.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Republic Street: main shopping street
Explore the deserted old town side streets

Sliema
Promenade along the coast with great views of Valetta, several restaurants and swimming spots, going all the way to St. Julian’s

St. Julian’s
A big ‘love’ sculpture at the entrance
Many restaurants and bars
St. George’s Bay (beach): easy to reach, therefore usually crowded with tourists
Paceville: the youth party zone

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Blue Lagoon
  •  Day 2: Blue Lagoon + Millieha or Golden Bay

Blue Lagoon
Probably the biggest must-see in Malta!
This natural pool with transparent waters is located on the island of Comino. How to get there: drive or take a bus to Cirkewwa, and from there take a boat to the Blue Lagoon. All the boats make a few stops on the way back, showing the local caves. It’s recommended to go in the morning, when it’s less crowded.
There, you can rent a chair and umbrella to sit on the small sandy area, or simply take a seat on the rocks. We chose the second option because (a) it was free; (b) it was still easy to get in the water; and (c) we even had a great view to the Blue Lagoon from above.

If spending half a day in Blue Lagoon is sufficient for you (it was for us), you can still go relax on another beach on the main island for the rest of the day. But, of course, compared to the Blue Lagoon, they are not as impressive.
Some options near the disembark area in Malta are the Milleha Bay or the Golden Bay. In the Golden Bay, there are 3 beaches next to one another to choose from: Golden Bay per se (most easily reachable and most crowded), Gnejna and Ghajn Tuffieha (a bit more hidden and less populated).

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Azure Window, Gozo
  •  Day 3: Gozo

The neighboring island deserves a full-day visit.
How to get there: take a ferry that leaves from Cirkewwa. The ride takes about 25 minutes and there is no need to buy a ticket before boarding – you only pay on the way back. (More information and fares here).
Board with your car if you have one. If you’re using the public transport, it might be worth it to get one of the hop-on hop-off buses to visit the points of interest on the island.

Citadel: located in the capital city of Gozo – Rabat, or Victoria (many cities in Malta have two names). A medieval fortress, with a cathedral and a view to the surroundings.
Azure Window and Fungus Rock in Dwejra Bay: the famous and imposing rocky arch, where Game of Thrones filmed the scene where Daenerys gets married to Khal Drogo. As the rock is still under erosion, it is believed that the arch will disappear in a few decades.
UPDATE: in March 2017, after a period of heavy storms, the Azure Window unfortunately collapsed and disappeared 😦 We had heard that would happen, but we didn’t expect it to be within less than a year after we visited it…
Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary: a large church, where many believers have left messages being thankful for the cure of their illnesses.
Ramla Bay: a cozy beach with reddish sand. The Calypso Cave viewpoint has a beautiful view to the Ramla Bay.
Xlendi Bay: another beach, with several restaurants around it (including a great ice cream shop). Ideal for a pit-stop to eat.
Ggantija Temples: Gozo’s megalithic temples. If you already plan to visit the other temples on the island of Malta, maybe you can skip this one.

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Marsaxlokk
  • Day 4: The Three Cities + Marsaxlokk + St. Peter’s Pool

The Three Cities
Birgu (or Vittoriosa), Bormla (or Cospicua) and Isla (or Senglea) – (remember that in Malta many cities have two different names?)
Take a boat from Valetta to the entrance of the cities (the crossing is already a pleasant ride on its own) and explore their streets and waterfront views. If time is short: Vittoriosa is considered the nicest one.

Marsaxlokk
A quite lovable fishing village, with dozens of small colorful fishing boats by the bay. On Sundays, there is a fish market.

St. Peter’s Pool
A big natural pool, amazing to swim and jump into the water. It’s very close to Marsaxlokk, but the walk all the way up probably takes about 1 hour. So it is better to go by car or taxi.

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Entrance of Mdina (or should I say King’s Landing?)
  • Day 5: Mosta + Mdina + Rabat + Dingli Cliffs

Mosta
Rotunda of Mosta: the third largest church in Europe, with a big dome. During the second world war, a 50 kg bomb fell inside the church but did not explode – which was considered a miracle.

Mdina
Known as the ‘silent city’, it’s a medieval town surrounded by walls. The entrance of Mdina was shown in Game of Thrones as the gateway to King’s Landing.
Fontanella Tea Gardens: a tea house offering a famous chocolate cake and a view to the surroundings (including the Rotunda of Mosta).

Rabat
A charming town across from Mdina.
Roman Villa
Church of St. Paul
St. Dominic Convent (was also a Game of Thrones filming location)

Dingli Cliffs
The highest point in Malta (253 meters) and considered the best spot in the island to watch the sunset.

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Blue Grotto seen from above
  • Day 6: Blue Grotto + Hagar Qim & Mnajdra

Blue Grotto
Boat ride through a few grottos and caves, including the Blue Grotto, with bright blue waters. The ideal is to go in the morning to capture the most impressive shade of blue of the sea. The ride is beautiful, but we found it quite short (about 20 minutes) and felt that the boat driver, although very nice, rushed through the stops (maybe because there is a line of boats behind him).
It’s also possible to see the Blue Grotto from above, from a viewpoint next to a bus stop called Panorama.

Hagar Qim & Mnajdra
Near the Blue Grotto, you can find the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, some of the oldest standing monuments in the world (around 3000 BC). The ticket allows visiting both temples, which are next to each other.


For more photos of Malta, click here.

And this was the first trip where I not only took pictures, but also made a video record! (I said Malta was special…). Most places mentioned in the itinerary are shown in the video below: 🙂

Traveling to Malta: general information

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I’ve traveled quite a few times in my life, but this trip to Malta at the end of June was one of my most desired and anticipated trips so far. I did a lot of research on this destination before going, and had the opportunity to get to know the country with a group of 4 friends that included a Maltese, besides being hosted by a Maltese lady (my first time on Airbnb). For this reason, I had the privilege to dive into the local culture and live experiences beyond tourist guide books.

Malta is one of the smallest countries in Europe (and in the world), with 316 km2 and a bit over 400,000 inhabitants. It’s an archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, between Italy and the north of Africa. The biggest and main island is called Malta; the neighboring island is Gozo; and the tiny island between both – too small to be populated – is Comino.

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There are flights from several European countries to Malta International Airport (MLA), also by the low-cost airline Ryanair. Almost all locals speak English (the official languages are Maltese and English), and the local currency is the euro – which makes it very convenient for tourists.

What to expect from Malta
Malta is a destination both for beaches and for sightseeing in historical places. Everywhere you can see stone houses with their beige color, typical of the Mediterranean and Middle East. There are several paradise beaches with crystal clear water. But, contrary to what one might imagine, it’s not a very green country, especially in the summer – the landscape is sandy and dry, full of cactus, almost like a desert. Some regions are fancier, but in general the atmosphere is quite simple and casual. The nightlife is concentrated in Paceville, an area in St. Julian’s, mostly attended by very young folks (~15-20 year-olds) and/or tourists. The traffic is sometimes slow, as there are not many options of roads from one place to the other. Despite being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, it’s common not to see so many people on the streets in some cities. By the way, they are in fact cities, but with the size of neighborhoods. The Maltese people are extremely friendly and welcoming, and many times I felt as if I were back home in Brazil.

When to go
Malta has mild temperatures and is generally sunny all year long, but between October and May it might not be warm enough to enjoy the beaches. Therefore, it would be ideal to visit between June and September. July and August are always the most crowded months, as it’s the tourist peak season. We went at the end of June and it was already quite warm (over 30°C during the day and around 25°C in the evening).

How to get around in Malta
You must decide between renting a car or taking the public transport.
Having a car available is, without a doubt, more advantageous, both for the freedom and the convenience. But keep in mind that Malta uses the British driving system, as it used to be a UK colony. The driver sits on the right in the car and drives along the left lane. If that is not an issue, renting a car is the most recommended option, as you will be able to visit more places during the time you have there.
But it’s also possible to get to know Malta only by using its public transport system, and sometimes cabs. The problem is that some buses don’t come by very often and, for many routes, you need to change buses and wait for the next one, even if it’s not the most direct way to your destination. So the ride certainly takes longer than by car, and more planning and time management is needed, but you will also reach your destination.
Each bus ticket can be used for up to 2 hours and costs 2 euros in the summer or 1.50 euros in the winter during the day, and 3 euros at night. If you’re staying for around 5 days or more, it’s probably worth buying the Tallinja Card ‘Explore’, which costs 21 euros and allows unlimited trips for 7 days. More information on the official website of the Maltese public transport.

How long to stay
I’m the type of tourist who doesn’t like to waste time, and my suggestion is to spend at least 5 full days there. We saw everything we wanted to see in 6 full days, plus an arrival evening and a morning to leave (so 7 nights). But this was because we were spoiled by our Maltese friend, who took us to most places by car. So, in case you have a car: 7 nights or 6 full days are enough to see all the points of interest in Malta. If you are using the public transport system, you should add about 2 more days to that – or, instead, leave out a few tourist spots for a future visit.

Where to find accommodation
The cities with the best location for tourists are: St. Julian’s, Sliema and Valetta. If you’re counting on public transport to get around, I would recommend staying in Valetta because, for many routes, you need to change buses there anyway.


The second semester of 2016 is just beginning but I already think that Malta will be my favorite trip of the year! Highly recommended! 🙂

Check out here the full itinerary of what to see and do in Malta!


Watch below the video of our trip to Malta: 🙂