West Highland Way Afterparty in Edinburgh

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To cool off after the epic hike, we spent one more weekend in the rainy and gloomy Edinburgh. The only items on our agenda were wandering the cobbled streets and visiting a couple of obligatory sights before returning home. I’m sure there are countless Edinburgh guides that are bigger and better than this, so I think my main goal with this post is simply to dump some of our photos here for safekeeping. I do have a couple of recommendations for the best restaurant and the best tourist activity, though!

Obligatory Sight #1: Edinburgh CastleIMG_20190727_154129_01

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I don’t know if they’d even let you out of Edinburgh without having visited the famous castle on the hill. On a rainy morning, the ticket queue was not too bad, so we actually made it in and out in a reasonable amount of time. A special feature worth mentioning was the cemetery which was located in a spot with some of the best views and dedicated to soldiers’ dogs – our furry companions truly deserve nothing less than that. Nice castle, sure, but it has nothing on my beloved Turku Castle.

Click on the images to view larger versions

Obligatory Sight #2: Royal Botanic Garden EdinburghIMG_20190728_115148

The weekend-long drizzle turned into a downpour of biblical proportions as soon as we had walked over to the furthermost corner of the botanic garden. The umbrellas we had got for a tenner didn’t help much with the strong gusts of wind, so we just stood under a random tree until the rain subsided a little bit. Note to self: don’t pack sneakers for Edinburgh, they’ll just get squelchy in a second. Should have worn my hiking boots if I wanted to keep my socks dry. Worth a visit, these gardens, anyway!

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Obligatory Tourist Activity Tip: The Edinburgh Dungeon

The underground Edinburgh has been put to good use. The Edinburgh Dungeon will give full bang for your buck (or your £15): tourist groups are led through the underground maze, where they get a glimpse of Scotland’s darkest history with the gracious help of some foul-mouthed actors with an attitude. Such a hilarious tour! Not recommended for the most thin-skinned amongst us – Karens need not apply.

Restaurant Tip: MUMS Great Comfort FoodIMG_20190727_212839

While in Edinburgh, we ate a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but there was one restaurant that deserves a special mention: MUMS Great Comfort Food serves exactly what the name suggests, tasty comfort food which is excellent value for your money. We spotted the place by accident while strolling by, and on the early Saturday evening we needed to queue for about half an hour to get a table. I’m actually surprised we didn’t have to wait longer than that. We wined and dined well, and while our final check included ten items, the total only came up to sixty quid. The delicious munchies and the cozy retro decoration were great, but the true draw of the place is its amazingly friendly staff. The wait staff always had a twinkle in their eye and a smile on their face no matter how busy it got.

Unfortunately, the people seated in the table next to ours must have had escaped from some kind of a rehab centre for entitled arseholes or whatnot. I didn’t quite catch what exactly their problem with the food was, but even after the waitress had canceled the whole check for their entire group of six (!), these jerks kept berating her on their way out. That’s when we decided to pay our own check by card, gave all the paper money we had left as a tip and said it was for the excellent service. It wasn’t much, but it was meant as an encouraging gesture. The response we got still warms my heart: “I knew I was gonna cry tonight, but I didn’t expect them to be happy tears.” I may or may not have teared up, myself, as well.

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All in all, we truly had an excellent holiday in Scotland – I could even say it was perfect if only I had been able to keep my socks dry on the flooding streets of Edinburgh. But that was my own mistake.

SlovinIt19: Venice and Lido

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The final stop of our grand SlovinIt tour was Venice, mainly for the good connections. Based on my presumptions and everyone complaining about how stinky and crowded the s(t)inking city of canals is, I honestly wasn’t too excited about going there. It just seemed like a destination everyone needs to suffer through once in a lifetime.

Locanda SilvaLocanda Silva:  hotel room with canal view, roof terrace view and common space

The journey between the bus station and our hotel only served to reinforce my prejudice: the profuse sweating from the heat and suffering, the cruise ship crowds steamrolling through the streets, the Google Maps walking instructions leading us to a cul-de-sac… Ugh. There were several bridges along the way without ramps, so we had to carry our heavy luggage up and down the stairs while trying to find another way to the hotel. I had already had enough by the time we finally made it to Locanda Silva, where we would be staying for the weekend. Fortunately, the hotel was very nice and clean, the staff were friendly and even the included breakfast was surprisingly good. The location also turned out to be great once we got the hang of the giant labyrinth formed by the narrow, criss-crossing streets. From there on, our general mood started to improve again.

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After a nice shower, we were refreshed enough to go out and brave the street labyrinth again, this time with a better attitude. In the historical centre of Venice, the main modes of transport are by foot and boat, as there are no cars or streets where a car would even fit. The streets are narrow and crowded. Even the canals are crowded with all the gondoliers in their striped shirts touring tourists around, all the while happily aiding them in making their wallet lighter.

IMG_20190629_170236Piazza San MarcoIMG_20190629_170649Basilica di San Marco

We had no plan for our first walking tour and were just wandering around aimlessly. All of a sudden, the shaded street opened up to St Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), and in that moment I finally understood the draw of Venice. Seeing Saint Mark’s Basilica (Basilica di San Marco) with my own eyes was so impressive that the cliché of going breathless was not far from the truth. It felt like time stopped and any words dried up in my mouth. The longer you stare at all the magnificent buildings at the square, the more dumbfounding details you find. Pictures really don’t do justice to this church or the square, they must be experienced live to really see the grandeur. And that’s how you get millions upon millions of tourists flocking in, for a very good reason. If they wanted to be left alone there, they should have built something uglier!

pulutGo on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Venice. Take pictures of pigeons.

IMG_20190630_133253No Mafia, Venezia è Sacra (No Mafia, Venice is Sacred)

“Love and a cough are something you cannot hide” –Unknown graffiti artist

IMG_20190629_173150Costa Luminosa: just a few extra tourists arriving to block the streets

Surprisingly enough, we got used to to the crowds quite fast and the herds didn’t bother us after the initial shock anymore. Apart from patience, the most important thing is to pack good shoes and be prepared to wear them out. A budget traveller should also be aware that even the shortest gondola rides cost close to a hundred euros. The good news is that there is a much more affordable way to see many of the sights from water – just take a vaporetto water bus! Actv sells single tickets as well as unlimited use tickets for 1 to 7 days, of which it makes sense to pick the latter according to the length of your own holiday. The vaporettos not only take you from one station to another along the main canal, but they also run between the centre and the nearby islands. Some do a circle route, so they can also be used as a mini cruise, especially if you luck out and manage to get a seat outside on the deck.

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The Saint Mark Bell Tower (Campanile di San Marco) at St Mark’s Square, seen in the background in the picture above, is almost 100 metres high and supposedly offers the best views over the entire city. Understandably, visiting the tower is an extremely popular tourist activity with queues and entrance fees to match. To spare your nerves and save some money, consider taking a vaporetto to the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore instead, and visit the church (Chiesa di San Giorgio Maggiore) bell tower there. Tickets are a lot cheaper and there was no queue when we dropped by in the afternoon.

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Even though the San Giorgio Maggiore bell tower isn’t quite as high as St Mark’s, you can still spy lots of interesting stuff from the heights. My favourite find was the exquisite maze behind the church. Sadly, they didn’t let any tourists in to lose their way and their life in the scorching sun, but it was still cool! I’ll get me one of those for sure, as soon as I can turn my balcony into a backyard.

Lido
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If the crowds of Venice start to stress you out, the vacation island of Lido is only a short vaporetto ride away. Crowded and narrow streets become but a faint memory as soon as you step foot on Lido – there are “normal” roads for cars and wide pavements there, and even regular buses and not only those of the water variety. Lido feels like a traditional resort with its lush flower plantings and shiny shopping streets. The atmosphere is sleepy and calm, even though you can still find a lot of people there.

IMG_20190630_180745Capanna beach huts for rent
IMG_20190630_172339The riff-raff bathes on a crowded slice of beach…IMG_20190630_173239…while money buys you some breathing spaceIMG_20190630_173117Pebble beach? Nope, just a couple of seashells!

Although our half-day beach visit was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the historical centre, I still think Lido is probably at its best as a playground for trust fund kids and their kind. There are some free beaches scattered around the island, but they’re also incredibly crowded, while the private beaches have more space than they know what to do with. An officious guard immediately drove us off from an open stretch of sand and back in with the rest of the riff-raff, but hardly bothered to hassle other similar rule-breakers. Redds and I probably didn’t manage to look difficult enough, so we became an easy target for bouncing around.

Venice by Night

The magic of Venice can be best seen late in the evening, when the cruise crowds have retreated back to their ships and the sun begins to set. One by one, lights are popping on at the restaurants lining the main canal and live orchestras begin to play at St Mark’s Square. The main sights are lighted in a way that brings out a whole new side to them.

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Normally, I’m not one to shop for souvenirs, but I had to make an exception in Venice. I’ve been collecting masks ever since I did an internship in Tanzania. In Venice, every tourist shop bursts with cheap, fake masks for a couple of euros, but there are still some traditional stores like Ca ‘Macana, where each mask is carefully crafted by hand. The selection is mind-boggling and ranges from the handsomely-beaked il dottore masks to imaginative steampunk versions and charming animal characters. It was almost painful to make a choice, but I ended up getting a fox mask with crooked eyes. I could imagine wearing it to a secret society meeting – now I just need to find that society. Honestly, I’d be happy to travel back to Venice just for the chance to shop for more masks!

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Prices (June-July 2019), Venice

  • Accommodation, Locanda Silva, room for two with a private bathroom and canal view, breakfast included: 100€/night + tourist tax of a couple of euros
  • Actv pass for 2 days: 30€

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

 

SlovinIt19: Ljubljana

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After our exercise-filled nature holiday in Bled and Bohinj, it was time to move on to Ljubljana, where the wild mountain scenery made way for carefully maintained parks and impressive architecture. As we were only passing through, our brief one-day visit barely allowed us to scratch the surface of this beautiful city. We were originally supposed to meet a Slovenian friend of mine while in town, but the plan fell through due to unforeseen circumstances. (Hey D, I’ll be back for those drinks later!) We ended up spending the day wandering around aimlessly and just taking in the sights.

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At the time of booking the trip, I wasn’t aware that our timing collided with the Slovenian Statehood Day on 25 June. Many shops and other establishments closed early that day and the streets were surprisingly quiet, which of course made walking around easier but also meant that the atmosphere was a bit strange – most of the locals seemed to be celebrating out of town. But hey, at least we got to admire the architecture close up without always getting blocked by other tourists. I simply adore those colourful buildings! And how about that daycare playground with its green wall and cloud ornaments? For a capital city, Ljubljana seems surprisingly clean and charming.

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We also spent a good chunk of time in the lush Tivoli Park, which offered us some much needed shade and refuge from the afternoon heat. In addition to enjoying the park’s floral splendour, we also found an outdoor art exhibition and a small botanical garden whose collection of exotic trees was grown in pots out in the yard. However, my favourite Tivoli memory is from the water lily pond, where a plump duck was straining to park its behind on a floating water lily leaf. After making considerable effort and trying many strategies from straight-up climbing to backing up rear first, the duck finally succeeded, but the leaf couldn’t support its weight and dipped underwater. The duck still kept proudly chilling out on its freshly conquered, semi-sunken leaf pontoon. Obviously, I have a soft spot for chunky animals, but I never seem to have the time to pay attention to these details in my everyday life.

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When it comes to food, I can recommend the Icy Bobo ice-cream roll stands and the restaurant Druga Violina, which employs people with special needs. Druga Violina is located in a quaint old square near the Ljubljana Castle. The portions are big, the food is tasty and the prices are very affordable. For a quick snack, it’s also easy to grab a cup of fresh berries from the riverbank market.

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After dinner, we (among many others) climbed up to the Ljubljana Castle to watch the sunset. The castle hill has great views over the old town rooftops, and as an added bonus, there are mountains shimmering on the horizon. Not a bad way to finish the day.

Prices (June 2019): Ljubljana

At this point of our holiday, I had already gotten lazy about writing things down, so I’ve only got a couple notes on prices.

  • Accommodation, Guest House Stari Tisler, room for 2 with shared bathroom: 50€/room/night + tourist tax 3,13€/person
  • Three-course dinner and drinks for two at Druga Violina: 35€ in total

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

Miami Mini Vacation, the Third and Best Day: Skyporn, Everglades National Park & Sunset Sailing on Biscayne Bay

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Our third vacation day was damn near perfect. I still couldn’t sleep normally (read: enough), but at least my insomnia made it easy to get to the beach in time for sunrise. And what a colourful sunrise it was – goes easily in my top three.

It had been raining heavily all night and storm clouds were still around in the morning. The first sunrays pierced the cloud cover and coloured the sky in bright shades of yellow, orange and pink. I even spotted a full rainbow! It came as no surprise that the treasure at the end of the ‘bow was a bright green lifeguard tower.

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In addition to gawking at the sky, I also had a plenty of time to swim before I needed to head back to the hotel for breakfast. At breakfast, they served strawberries and Nutella in tiny jars. If I’m being completely honest, this fine Sunday would have been the best vacation day based on its first couple of hours alone. But there was more to come! After breakfast, Carlos picked us up again and drove us to Everglades National Park.

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As most are probably aware, Everglades is absolutely teeming with alligators, but it is also home to a variety of rare species, such as the manatee and the Florida panther. The airboats which are used to tour the area are fast and fun but they also make a deafening noise – earplugs required here! If you cannot spot a wild alligator hiding the rich vegetation, you can participate in an “alligator show” after the boat tour. Even though the name suggests some kind of a circus spectacle where the poor crocodilians must jump through flaming hoops to entertain the tourists, in reality the show is more like a brief summary of interesting alligator facts.

I, for one, learned that alligators don’t actually like the taste of humans and therefore try to avoid snacking on homo sapiens. However, they also have very bad eyesight. So, if you somehow end up falling in the water, don’t stay in an upright position where only your head pokes out above water, as the ‘gators might confuse you for a tastier meal. Instead, float on your back and spread out your limbs – the shape will help signal to the alligators that this piece of meat tastes yucky. Leave a comment below if this tip saved your life – I’ll be waitin’!

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After the park tour, we headed out for some good ol’ fashioned BBQ lunch at Shorty’s BBQ. To a European weakling such as myself, the portions seemed humongous and they could have easily fed at least three of me. Add to that the foot-long corn cobs swimming in butter, the ones that they claimed were only appetisers, and I was left completely stuffed. Apparently, you’re not even meant to finish your meal in one sitting but instead make good use of the doggy bag. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather go out to eat a smaller meal every day than keep heating up the same leftovers for days on end. Buuut, when in Rome, right? The food was okay, nothing to write home about, but the mouth-watering BBQ sauce made everything delicious.

Before our whole trip, I had been most excited about Everglades, but when Sunday’s final activity came along, it quickly became the clear winner: Caribbean Spirit took us on a two-hour sunset cruise on Biscayne Bay, and it was quite likely the best thing ever! Chilling out on the catamaran net with a glass of bubbly in one hand, surrounded by turquoise waters, feeling the captain’s playlist fill our souls with Caribbean vibes, and all this against the backdrop of the impressive Miami skyline and the setting sun in the horizon: perfection. If you’re in Miami and only have time for one activity, let this be it! Don’t even consider anything else.

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To read all my Miami trip posts in English, use the tag Miami18EN!

Miami Mini Vacation, Day 2: Biking & Basketball

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There’s something quite exotic about sunrises. In my everyday life, I see them about as often as I see unicorns, but when travelling, the sloth-like part of my personality makes way for some highly uncharacteristic behaviour: on holiday, my favourites are the tranquil moments before the rest of the city wakes up. On the second morning of our vacation, my internal clock was still so messed up that I woke up painlessly after just four hours of sleep, well before my alarm. My coworker, with whom I was sharing a room, joined me and together we took a half-hour stroll to watch the sunrise from the South Pointe Park Pier.IMG_20181110_064845

Seagulls screeched, frothy waves washed over the sand and the salty scent of the ocean hung in the air as the first rays of sun gently began to warm up our skin. A handful of enthusiastic joggers were already up and about before the heat would make exercise too draining. I wish I could always begin my mornings like this. On our way back to the hotel, we walked along the beach, took a couple of dips in the ocean, and also got to check out many of the famous lifeguard towers. Miami sure is a colour lover’s paradise – I was about to burst with excitement about all those rainbow explosions!IMG_20181110_063312IMG_20181110_065105IMG_20181110_071721

After breakfast, we went on a guided bike tour around Miami Beach, arranged by Bike and Roll. We biked at a slow pace around the island and admired all the colourful art deco buildings. Along the way, we also stopped by the Holocaust Memorial and the botanical gardens. I don’t normally go on guided tours, but I warmly recommend spending a couple hours on this bike tour. In a relatively short time, we got to see and experience many things we would have missed otherwise. (The last two pictures were taken on a different day, but I thought they fit here best. That should explain the wet asphalt. :))IMG_20181110_102733 IMG_20181110_110907
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After the bike tour, we headed out to the Ocean’s Ten restaurant located on Ocean Drive for lunch, which quickly became of the boozy variety. If they know anything in Miami, it’s how to mix drinks properly! Half of our group stayed behind to order more rounds while the other half went to the beach for a couple of hours. I joined the beach posse.IMG_20181110_072644

After a few hours of worshipping the sun, it was time for a meal again, this time at the Forrest Gump themed restaurant Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Downtown Miami. The Jenny’s Catch fish portion was swimming in butter, which I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I’m trying to launch a new idiom, “rolls like a greased sloth”. The best part of this three-course meal were still the deceptively tasty cocktails, which was the case in many of the other restaurants we sampled, as well.IMG_20181110_173909

We ended the evening with some NBA and went to see the game between Miami Heat and Washington Wizards. Unfortunately, American Airlines Arena wasn’t anywhere near full capacity, which put a bit of a damper on the general atmosphere. However, this was still pretty good for my first experience with basketball. Starting with the players’ introductions, everything was just so grand: the bombastic commentary combined with the Rammstein-style pyrotechnics didn’t leave me cold. Feuer frei! I did find it strange how they played music even when the game was on, and not only on breaks – don’t the constant sound effects disturb the players’ concentration at all? Our waiter at Bubba Gump had taught us the proper chant, Let’s go Heat!, but no amount of chanting could prevent the Wizards from winning in the fourth quarter. I guess I bought the wrong team’s snapback.IMG_20181110_213507

To read all my Miami trip posts in English, use the tag Miami18EN!

Miami Mini Vacation, Day 1: Jet Lag, Miami City Tour & Wynwood Walls

IMG_20181109_134222Travel to Miami, leave your sunglasses at home!

I still find it hard to believe this actually happened. Earlier this year my team at work won a sales contest, which meant that last month I got to go on an all-expenses-paid reward trip to Miami, FL. The trip was sponsored by a large Finnish manufacturer of sweets. Slothie and the Chocolate Factory, anyone? I was joined by the candy company’s representative (our host, a.k.a. Mr. Picks-Up-The-Tab), one of my workmates, a buyer from our company, as well as four other victorious sellers from our other branches.

Before this trip, I had never been to the other side of the pond. In all honesty, if I had been planning a self-funded trip to the States, Florida wouldn’t have been my first pick. The stereotypical image of retirees flocking to the state to heal their aching bones occupied my mind. However, Miami was a hugely positive surprise, and it surely didn’t hurt to get a little break from the greyness and misery also known as November in Finland. The biggest downside was that the long flights ate up nearly two days out of my one-week holiday. I would have loved to stay longer, but this time it wasn’t possible to move the return flight to a later date since the eight of us were travelling as one group. It turned out to be ok, though – had I skipped any more classes, I really would have struggled to catch up with my studies. As evidenced by my more-than-lax blogging schedule, this Autumn has been an incredibly busy time for me.

 IMG_20181109_062717Pool area at sunrise, Washington Park Hotel South Beach

As a little addition to my reward package, I also got my first taste of debilitating jet lag. During the 11-hour outbound flight, I didn’t sleep a wink. Instead, I tried to finish a huge backlog of coursework at the mercy of Finnair’s spotty in-flight wifi. We finally made it to our hotel late on Thursday evening in the local time. The first night, I managed to get exactly two hours of sleep before waking up to a feeling of heavy nausea. I suffered through the rest of the night all curled up, just waiting for the morning, waiting to feel better. At the break of dawn, I dragged myself to the beach while the rest of the group remained in their comfy beds. It’s really quite miraculous how easy it was to forget how sick I really felt – all it took was the chance to dig my toes in the warm sand and watch the colourful sunset above the surging turquoise waves.

Now, two hours would make for a perfectly acceptable nap time, but it isn’t nearly enough to sustain a sloth for an entire day. But this was not the time nor place for tiredness, as our days were packed with activities. Our first full vacation day started with a three-hour Miami City Tour on a minibus. We were accompanied by a Finnish guide, who told us about the sights and local culture. We made a quick pit stop at a cigar shop in Little Havana and then proceeded to have lunch in the Wynwood Art District.

IMG_20181109_121019Wynwood Kitchen and BarIMG_20181109_123810Octo a la Plancha

Wynwood Kitchen and Bar served us a wide selection of drinks and tapas, of which my favourite was the deliciously tentacled portion pictured above. I normally travel on a budget, so this “order whatever you want on the company Visa” type of wining and dining felt almost awkward at first. I mean, how many tapas can I order before feeling like a complete mooch? Well, I quickly got over it, and so did the others. The final bill was a sight to behold. At least nobody was left hungry!

While our driver Carlos took everyone else back to South Beach right after lunch, my workmate and I decided to stay behind to tour the Art District and admire the endless graffiti and colourful buildings. I took so many photos that I had to make a separate gallery out of them. Click on any picture below to browse their bigger versions.

 

I’ve never seen such a delightful hotchpotch of colours and patterns as I did in Wynwood – ¡me encanta! From Wynwood, we still continued our tour by walking a couple kilometres to the city centre, because there would have been no more time for such things later. Sure, we could have caught the bus, but who has the patience to wait for those?

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As the temperature remained at around 29–32 °C for the duration of our holiday, our short walk across the concrete jungle quickly became sweaty business. On the way, we popped into a Burger King to get some refreshments, and that way also caught an authentic glimpse of the everyday life of the eighteenth most obese nation in the world (WHO 2017). If these buckets o’ diabetes above are only “medium” in size, then I’m pretty sure the largest cups would be big enough to swim in.

The vibe in downtown Miami was strangely retro-futuristic: steel, glass, tall-ass skyscrapers, surprising colours and shapes, slip roads going in every direction, expensive cars, commuters on the elevated Metromover snaking its way across town, high above the streets. It was like a trip to the future – not my future, but future as imagined in the 80s. I could have spent days just exploring the architecture in the city. This is something not to be missed, even if you’re in Miami primarily for a beach holiday! Here’s another gallery of my skyscraper snaps:

 

We finally reached our daily walking limit and caught a bus back to South Beach. We made it back just in time before sunset, and managed to get in a quick dip in the warm waves of the Atlantic before darkness fell.

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In the evening, the whole group gathered together again for dinner. This time, we chose the Brazilian restaurant Boteco Copacabana on Española Way. I think our most important criterion this time was the ability to get a table for eight without a reservation on a Friday night, but the food was good enough and the drinks even better. Seated outside on the street, we even got to sneak a peek of two flamenco dancers hired by the restaurant next to us. The street really lived up to its name there.

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To read all my Miami trip posts in English, use the tag Miami18EN!