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Just Me Travel

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SPAIN BUCKET LIST: The 47 Incredible Things You Should Not Miss

Postcards From Spain: Your Ultimate Iberian Bucket List for Creating Unforgettable Memories in Spain.   Are you travelling to Spain? Are you looking for things to do, places to visit,…

Postcards From Spain: Your Ultimate Iberian Bucket List for Creating Unforgettable Memories in Spain.


Are you travelling to Spain? Are you looking for things to do, places to visit, sites to see in Spain? This post covers an extensive list of top places of interest and things to do in Spain to ensure your Spain bucket list is complete. 

The post is not an exhaustive list of the incredible things you should not miss while in Spain. For example, the theatre, amphitheatre, and bridge are not the only Roman sites Merida has to interest the visitor. And there is a fabulous archaeological museum worth visiting.

I have presented my Spain bucket list as postcards (often multiple postcards per destination), with each postcard an authentic personal experience. From historic landmarks and hidden gems to cultural marvels and breathtaking landscapes, my Spain Bucket List of 47 Incredible Things You Should Not Miss is designed to be your go-to resource for planning the journey of a lifetime.


About My Spain Bucket List

I have compiled my Spain bucket list from my personal experiences of spending almost three consecutive months in Spain.

Before arriving in Spain, I spent one week in France on a barge cruise travelling on the Canal du Midi.

My first 18 days in Spain were on the Spanish Heritage Tour with Insight Vacations. This tour almost internally circumnavigated Spain, helping me to familiarise myself with the country, the people, and the culture.

For the remainder of my time in Spain, I travelled solo, basing myself in Seville (three weeks), Merida (one week), Barcelona (four weeks), and Girona (one week). North, south, east, and west, I covered much of Spain in almost three months while allowing time and space to immerse myself.

When I travel, I send digital postcards of the highlights of my travel experiences to family and friends, sharing what I have seen and done. Each entry in this post includes those postcard-worthy moments that vividly capture the essence of each unmissable experience.

Spain has many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 49 to be precise. It wasn’t until I wrote this post that I realised how many of those sites I visited.

How This Post is Structured

Welcome to Spain, a land of rich history, diverse cultures, and stunning landscapes. Planning a trip to this captivating country can be overwhelming, given its wealth of experiences. Fear not, for I present you with the ultimate trip-planning resource – a comprehensive list of 47 unmissable things to see and do in Spain.

The links immediately below take you to many cities, towns, and villages (in alphabetical order) I visited in Spain. I have then made suggestions, based on my personal experience, of things to see and do within those cities, towns, and villages.

Join me as we travel through my Spain Bucket List postcard series.


  • Basilica de la Sagrada Familia
  • Casa Batlo
  • Casa Mila
  • Ciutadella Park
  • Palau de la Musica Catalana
  • Palau Guell
  • Park Guell

BESALU – Medieval Town on the Fluvia River

BILBAO – The Many Faces of the Guggenheim Museum

CANGAS DE ONIS – Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onis


  • Roman Bridge of Cordoba
  • Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba (Mezquita-Catedral of Cordoba)

COSTA BRAVA – Catalonia’s Coastline

FIGUERES – Dali Theatre-Museum


  • Jewish Girona
  • Medieval Girona
  • Painted Girona


  • The Albaicin
  • The Alhambra

MADRID – Madrid Architecture


  • A Modern Play in an Ancient Setting
  • Roman Bridge of Merida
  • Roman Merida

MONTSERRAT MONASTERY – Monastery and Hiking Experience


  • A Monument to Culture
  • Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona

PUBOL – Gala Dali Castle

QUERALBS – Ancient Village in the Pyrenees

RONDA – New Bridge

SAN SEBASTIAN – Swim, Eat, Repeat

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA – Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela


  • Alcazar of Segovia
  • Cathedral of Segovia
  • Roman Aqueduct


  • Jardines de Murillo
  • Plaza de Espana
  • Real Alcazar (Royal Palace of Seville)
  • Seville Cathedral – The Tomb of the Great Navigator
  • Triana


  • The Mirador del Valle Lookout
  • Toledo Cathedral


  • Futuristic Valencia
  • Valencia’s Old Town

VALL DE NURIA – A Beautiful Valley in the Pyrenees Mountains

VIC – The Old Town


  • Grazalema
  • Zahara de la Sierra

My Spain Bucket List isn’t just a checklist but an invitation to plan what to do and see during your visit to Spain to make the best of your trip. So, join me as I unveil the 47 incredible things that make Spain a destination like no other. Let’s go!



Barcelona is on the Mediterranean coast in the northeast of Spain and is the capital of Spain’s Catalonia region. It is known for its art and legendary architecture.

Basilica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia

Otherwise known as Sagrada Familia.

Barcelona and the Sagrada Familia are synonymous – you can’t have one without the other. It is the most-visited monument in Spain and is the only temple in the world still under construction. The Sagrada Familia has been under construction since 1882 and is estimated to be completed in 2026. However, according to my guide, this completion date is not likely to be met because of COVID-19. The building of Sagrada Familia relies heavily on tourist dollars, and none came in while the basilica was closed during the pandemic.

While I failed to see the beauty in the basilica’s exterior, Antoni Gaudi, the Sagrada Familia’s famous architect, has excelled himself with its breathtakingly beautiful interior. See my photo gallery.

A note on Antoni Gaudi (because his architecture appears multiple times on this bucket list): Antoni Gaudi is Barcelona’s most famous architect and led the way for the Modernista movement, which is best known for its architectural style. UNESCO recognised Gaudi’s exceptional creativity and contribution to architecture development by placing seven properties he built on the World Heritage List in 1984. UNESCO has collectively listed these seven properties as the “Works of Gaudi”.

In 2003, Gaudi was on the path to sainthood when the Vatican opened the beautification process for him, the first step towards declaring his sainthood. It is now 2023, and Gaudi still needs to become a saint. The Catholic Church does not rush the beautification process. And there is a question mark over what miracle Gaudi caused!

Casa Batllo

The facade of multistory house with triangle-shaped balconies and painted with flowers in pastel colours.

The beautiful facade of Casa Batllo.


The building, now known as Casa Batllo, was constructed in 1877. When Joseph Batllo purchased it in 1903, he gave Antoni Gaudi total creative freedom to complete the entire remodelling of the house, which was completed in 1906.

The interior of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a vision of wrought iron, wood, stained glass, ceramic tiles, and stone ornaments. The building is energy efficient with extensive use of natural light. Casa Batllo’s exterior was given a unique façade by Gaudi, where stone, glass, and ceramics form waves that mirror a calm sea, and the balconies are shell-shaped.

Located at number 43 on Passeig de Gracia, allow at least 1.5 hours to explore the house.

Casa Mila

Located at number 92 on Passeig de Gracia, Casa Mila was an apartment block completed in 1912, and Antoni Gaudi was the architect. It is popularly known as La Pedrera, meaning “stone quarry” in Catalan, because stone was the primary building material for the façade and balconies. A visit to Casa Mila includes (at additional cost) the apartment where the Mila family lived, still intact with antique furniture. The rooftop provides excellent views over Barcelona.

Casa Mila has two intriguing features:

  1. There is barely a straight wall in the building, and
  2. The rooftop is a sculpture park of chimneys that looks like something out of Star Wars. The Spanish poet Pere Gimferrer called it The Garden of Warriors.
Multiple rooftop chimneys have been designed to look like warriors.

“Warriors” march across Casa Mila’s rooftop.


Ciutadella Park

Go people-watching in Ciutadella Park, Barcelona’s largest landscaped park on Passeig de Picasso.

A man walks a tight rope slung between two trees while drumers play and people watch.

There is much to see and do in Ciutadella Park.


Ciutadella Park is the place to see and be seen, particularly on Sunday afternoons when people gather to play instruments, relax, take a punt on the boating lake, view the extravagant Cascada Monumental, a cascading waterfall fountain topped by a chariot-rider flanked by gryphons which Gaudi helped design, admire the sculptures scattered around the park, or visit the zoo.

Palau de la Musica Catalana

Palau de la Musica Catalana (Palace of Catalan Music) is a concert hall in the Sant Pere district of Barcelona, built between 1905 and 1908. The modernist architect Lluis Domenech i Montaner constructed Musica Catalana as a home for the Catalan Choral Society.

I went to see the Palau de la Musica Catalana because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1997), and I had seen some photos and thought, That’s pretty. “That’s pretty” was an understatement! I was in awe; it was breathtaking! Could there be anything this beautiful? The stained-glass skylight and windows flood the Concert Hall with natural light, the majestic organ has 3,700 pipes, and the 18 muses surrounding the stage, with 18 instruments from different parts of the world, represent music without frontiers.

Palau de la Musica Catalana’s main auditorium seats 1,970, with a further capacity of 600 seats in the Petit Palau (chamber music hall). Discover the secrets of this hidden gem with an in-house guided tour, which includes hearing a short piece played on the organ. Magical!

Check out my photos to see why you should visit this unique Concert Hall.

The architect was Antoni Gaudi’s teacher. I can see the influence on Gaudi.

There is a good café (Palau Café) in the Palau de la Musica Catalana foyer where you can eat inside or under the umbrellas outside.

Palau Guell (Guell Palace)

Palau Guell is a luxury mansion on Carrer Nou de la Rambla in the El Raval district of Barcelona. The famous architect Antoni Gaudi designed the palace’s seven floors for the industrial tycoon and Gaudi’s patron, Eusebi Guell, which he completed in 1890. All the palace rooms open onto the spectacular central hall, like an internal courtyard.

The building’s exterior is rather unremarkable, so the interior was a complete surprise. It was spectacular and certainly worth a visit! See for yourself.

Palau Guell was Gaudi’s first actual commission in Barcelona and has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1984.

The lobby’s beautiful staircase with its stained-glass window (also designed by Gaudi) leads up to the luxurious central hall that also serves as a source of light for the rooms leading off it over several floors. Gaudi liked to incorporate wood in his designs, and the wooden ceilings in Palau Guell are works of art.

Gaudi installed his signature chimneys on the roof in 1895. There are 20 chimneys in all, which also ventilate the house.

Cone-shaped chimneys covered in mosaics.

Antoni Gaudi’s signature chimneys on the roof of Palau Guell.


The audio guide was descriptive, informative, and easy to follow.

UNESCO placed Palau Guell on the World Heritage List in 1984. A definite must-see!

Park Guell

A guided tour of Park Guell, designed by the famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, was an optional excursion in Barcelona offered by Insight Vacations on my recent tour with them – and one I couldn’t miss.

Visiting Park Guell was on my bucket list in Barcelona, and it didn’t disappoint. Gaudi’s distinctive, imaginative, and nonconforming architectural style fascinates me and appeals to my photographic eye. Gaudi decorated most of his structures with mosaics made from broken, colourful ceramic and glass pieces.

I didn’t know about Park Guell’s original intention as a luxury residential complex (gated community), but this plan was abandoned in 1914 as it was financially unsuccessful. It was opened to the public as a municipal park in 1926.

At more than 17 hectares, the park is one of the largest green spaces in Barcelona.

The Spanish Government declared Park Guell a Monument of Cultural Interest in 1969 in recognition of its historical, architectural, and artistic uniqueness. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 and a Catalan National Cultural Interest site in 1993.

I finally learned how to pronounce ‘Guell’ – ‘Gway’, with the ‘G’ pronounced like the ‘g’ in ‘girl’.

Fun Facts:

  • Gaudi had a workman drop his pants and sit in the soft plaster for a perfect anatomical curve to ensure the stone bench was comfortable.
  • The former guard’s residence and sales office have been dubbed the Hansel and Gretel gingerbread houses by the children of Barcelona.

BESALU – Medieval Town on the Fluvia River

Founded in 878 AD, Besalu is an enchanting medieval town in the southeastern section of the Pyrenees. It is one of Spain’s best-preserved medieval towns and was declared a historic and artistic site of national importance in 1966.

Besalu is home to an 11th-century church and hospital, a 12th-century monastery, the remains of a medieval castle, and an ancient Jewish Quarter, where you will find the ruins of a medieval synagogue and a 12th-century Mikvka (Jewish ritual bathhouse). However, its most significant feature is its 12th-century Romanesque bridge over the Fluvia River with a gateway at its midpoint.

A view of a town made of stone buildings and a stone bridge built in medieval times.

The medieval town of Besalu and its Romanesque bridge.


Keep an eye out for sculptures of chairs scattered around the old town.

BILBAO – The Many Faces of the Guggenheim Museum

Bilbao is an industrial port city in northern Spain and the biggest city in Basque Country. The opening of the Guggenheim Museum in 1997 saw the revitalisation of Bilbao as it transformed from a nondescript town to one of Spain’s bucket list destinations.

The Guggenheim Bilbao is a modern and contemporary art museum in Northern Spain’s Basque Country. But before the art, it is, first and foremost, the most fantastic piece of architecture. Wow-factor architecture! Do you agree?

The best views of the Guggenheim are from Salve Bridge, from where I took the above photos. The Salve Bridge is informally known as the Guggenheim Bridge because it merges into the Guggenheim Museum. I particularly liked the spider sculpture in front of the museum.

Take the funicular to the top of Mount Artxanda for great views of Bilbao and the Guggenheim Museum.

CANGAS DE ONIS – Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onis

Cangas de Onis is a picturesque town in Spain’s northwest province of Asturias.

The five-arched Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onis spanning the Sella River is not Roman. In fact, it is medieval, possibly dating from the late 13th century.

An arched stone bridge with a metal and jewelled cross hanging from the middle arch spans a river.

Roman Bridge of Cangas de Onis.


Roman or medieval, it still makes for an interesting bridge in a picturesque landscape. It is a graceful humpback bridge with a large, pointed central arch and is one of the best-known symbols of the Principality of Asturias.

From the centre of the arch hangs a reproduction of the famous Victory Cross – the symbol of the re-conquest of Spain from the Moors. The original Victory Cross is a work of precious metal dating to the start of the 10th century. You will find the Cross in Oviedo Cathedral.


About 130 kilometres northeast of Seville, Cordoba was an important Roman city and a major Islamic centre in the Middle Ages. In Cordoba, three different cultures peacefully coexisted: Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

Roman Bridge of Cordoba

A multi-arched stone bridge with buttresses spans a river and leads to a medieval city.

Cordoba’s Roman Bridge.


The stunning Roman Bridge of Cordoba was built across the Guadalquivir River in the first century BC. It has 16 arches supported by robust spurs with semi-cylindrical buttresses and is 247 metres long. It has undergone several reconstructions over the centuries, and today, only the 14th and 15th arches at the northern end are originally Roman. However, it remains a beautiful historical bridge. Since 2004, it has been a pedestrian-only bridge.

For those familiar with the TV series “Game of Thrones”, the Roman Bridge of Cordoba doubled as the Long Bridge of Volantis spanning the Rhoyne River in Season 5.

The Roman Bridge is part of the historic centre of Cordoba, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba (Mezquita-Catedral of Cordoba)

It is also known as the Great Mosque of Cordoba.

Walking into the mosque stopped me dead in my tracks. It was one of those “Oh my goodness” moments. The main hall is a forest of pillars supporting over 850 double-arched columns – a spectacular sight that is breathtakingly beautiful and unforgettable.

Check out my photo gallery of the eclectic interior of Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral:

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is steeped in history and is a unique blend of cultures and architectural styles – Islam and Christianity.

Building commenced on the mosque in 785 and took over two centuries to complete. It was once one of the most important mosques in the Islamic Kingdom. When the Great Mosque was converted into a Christian Cathedral in 1236 after the conquest of Cordoba by Ferdinand III, he never demolished the mosque. The cathedral was built in the centre of the mosque.

The Mezquita was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

The Mosque-Cathedral is the Cathedral of Cordoba, and Muslim prayer is prohibited. However, historical beginnings linger. My guide told me that Catholic couples say they are marrying in the mosque, not the cathedral.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is one of the most unique buildings in the world, an absolute must-see when in Spain. It is easy to see why the people of Spain voted the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba number one in their list of The Twelve Treasures of Spain.

COSTA BRAVA – Catalonia’s Coastline

The Costa Brava is a coastal region of Catalonia in northeastern Spain, stretching from the town of Blanes, 60 kilometres northeast of Barcelona, to the French border.

On a day trip from Barcelona, the picturesque Costa Brava was stunningly beautiful with its white sand coves, turquoise waters, and rugged coastline.

I took the above photos of the Costa Brava from the cliff-top Marimurtra Botanical Garden near Blanes.

FIGUERES – Dali Theatre-Museum

Near the border with France and about 136 kilometres north of Barcelona, Figueres is famous for being the birthplace of the artist Salvador Dali.

The Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Catalana, is a museum solely dedicated to the Spanish artist Salvador Dali – a genius of Surrealism. The museum, built by Dali, is considered the largest surrealist object in the world and is crowded with his artworks – paintings, sculptures, photographs, and jewellery.

I have been a fan of Salvador Dali for many decades, and visiting his theatre-museum was on my bucket list as soon as I started planning my trip to Spain. And I wasn’t disappointed! Over several hours wandering through the theatre-museum, I got a glimpse into his unique world.

Dali is buried in a crypt beneath the dome of his Figueres Theatre-Museum.

Here’s some trivia for you: Dali designed the Spanish lollipop Chupa Chups logo. I never knew Chupa Chups were Spanish! I may need to attend more trivia nights because who created the Chupa Chups logo is, apparently, a frequently asked trivia question.


Girona is a city located between the Pyrenees and Costa Brava – just a short train ride from Barcelona and about 60 kilometres south of the French border. Girona is famous for preserving the medieval old city, located at the confluence of the Ter, Onyar, Galligants, and Guell rivers.

For Game of Thrones fans, you can take a tour of all the filming locations in Girona.

Jewish Girona

A Jewish Star of David i n tiles is incorporated in a tiles courtyard. Two people sit on a bench in the courtyard. There are flowers and shrubs at the end of the courtyard.

Courtyard with the Star of David in the Museum of Jewish History.


Girona has a long history of Jewish habitation, dating back to at least the 9th century AD and is one of the best-preserved Jewish Quarters in Europe. A guided walking tour of Girona’s Jewish Quarter in the old town, known as El Call, takes you on a fabulous history and architectural trip as you make your way through a labyrinth of narrow streets.

The walking tour I joined concluded with a guided tour through the Museum of Jewish History.

Girona’s last remaining synagogue is home to the Museum of Jewish History. The synagogue was in use until 1492 when the Jews were expelled from Spain. The museum aims to preserve and spread the history of the Jewish life that developed in Spain and Girona.

Medieval Girona

A walk along Girona’s three kilometres of medieval walls is a walk along the path of history and provides fantastic panoramic views of Girona and the Old Town.

View of the roof tops of an Old Town with a church and a cathedral dominating the skyline.

View of Girona’s Old Town from the medieval wall.


Initially built by the Romans, Girona’s medieval walls were rebuilt and extended in the Middle Ages. The walls surround the historic city centre and are some of the most complete walls in Spain. There are four access points to the walls, but I recommend waking the entire length for the ever-evolving views of this beautiful city. I accessed the wall at Placa Catalunya (Catalonia Square) and walked its length to the Jardins de la Francesa (French Gardens).

People walk along the stone walls with towers that surround a city.

Girona’s medieval walls.


Painted Girona

Girona is a city in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region, at the confluence of the Onyar, Ter, Galligants, and Guell Rivers. It’s known for its medieval architecture, walled Old Quarter, Barri Vell), Jewish Quarter (Call), and the Roman remains of the Forca Vella fortress.

The colourful houses on the banks of the Onyar River are perhaps the most recognised and photographed landmark of Girona.

Multi-coloured houses line a river and are reflected in the waters of the river.

The coloured houses of Girona reflected in the Onyar River.


In the late 20th century, a small group of artists and architects chose the colour palette for the houses’ facades. The best way to see them is from one of the bridges spanning the Onyar River. I took the photo above from Pont de Sant Agusti, my favourite reflection spot.

Initially built by the Romans, Girona’s medieval walls were rebuilt and extended in the Middle Ages. The walls surround the historic city centre and are some of the most complete walls in Spain. There are four access points to the walls, but I recommend waking the entire length for the ever-evolving views of this beautiful city. I accessed the wall at Placa Catalunya (Catalonia Square) and walked its length to the Jardins de la Francesa (French Gardens).


In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in southern Spain’s Andalusia region, Granada is a culturally rich city with 800 years of history as a Muslim Kingdom. Granada’s architecture strongly reflects its Muslim heritage.

The Albaicin

A stepped street with Moorish architecture (building on the left) and an Andalusian styled building on the right. A lady with a blue umbrella is walking up the stone steps.

Moorish and Andalusian architecture coexist in World Heritage Albaicin.


Walk through Granada’s ancient Arab Quarter that retains its medieval Moorish origins. Get lost in the Albaicin’s maze of narrow cobbled streets and small squares washed in white. Situated on the hill across from the Alhambra, Granada was founded in the Albaicin and was the capital of the Nasrid Kingdom in the 15th century.

The Albaicin was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its eclectic but harmonious mix of Moorish and traditional Andalusian architecture.

The Alhambra

The Alhambra is a massive palace and fortress complex located in Granada. Built by the Nasrid Dynasty – the last Muslims to rule in Spain – and commencing in 1238, the Alhambra is a beautiful testament to Islamic architecture and Moorish culture. The complex includes the Alcazaba, palaces, the Medina, gardens, cemetery, workshops, baths, etc. and is enclosed by a massive, fortified wall with towers.

The Alhambra is just one of ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Andalusia. However, many believe it to be the most spectacular.

Often referred to as the 8th wonder of the world, the Alhambra was on my must-see list of places to visit in Spain, and I wasn’t disappointed. I had a three-hour guided tour around Alhambra, but you could easily spend all day in the complex.

I crossed this one off my bucket list!

MADRID – Madrid Architecture

Madrid is the capital of Spain and sits almost exactly in the middle of the country. Most famous for the Prado Museum, it was Madrid’s eclectic architectural styles that endeared the city to me.

A large white gothis style building.

Cibeles Palace (Madrid’s City Hall)


Madrid has some of the most beautiful architecture in Spain, and Cibeles Palace (the former headquarters for the Spanish Post Office) deserves all the photographic and film attention it gets.

Now Madrid’s City Hall, the post office, I discovered when I had to post a parcel to Australia, can still be found in the building through a side entrance.

The best way to appreciate Madrid’s architecture is to walk the city.


A visit to Merida in Spain’s Extremadura region in southwest Spain is like a trip back to the Roman Empire. Founded in 25 BC (Colony of Augusta Emerita), this UNESCO World Heritage City is one of the best-preserved Roman sites in the world. The Roman theatre, amphitheatre, and bridge are unmissable stops along any tour of the ancient Roman city of Merida, and all within an easy walk of each other.

A Modern Play in an Ancient Setting

The ruins of an ancient Roman theatre with stone and modern seating.

Merida’s Roman Theatre.


The Roman Theatre, with a seating capacity of about 5,000 spectators, was built from 16 to 15 BC and is Merida’s most spectacular Roman monument. I liked that, centuries later, it is still being used for its intended purpose.

I saw a musical play in the Roman Theatre on my second night in Merida. The play, which didn’t start until 11 pm because of the heat, was entirely in Spanish. I didn’t understand a word, but seeing the play in that ancient setting was one of those once-in-lifetime experiences and was magical.

People standing and clapping the actors on the stage of a Roman theatre. The photo is taken at night with the stage lit up.

A standing ovation for the actors of the play in Merida’s Roman Theatre.


Roman Bridge of Merida

A stone arch bridge built by the ancient Romans is reflected in the river it spans.

Roman Bridge, Merida


Merida’s Roman Bridge over the Guadiana River was built in the first century BC. At a length of 792 metres and with 60 arches, it is one of the longest bridges in Spain and the longest surviving bridge from ancient times. Carrying road traffic for most of its life, it became a pedestrian-only bridge in 1991.

The Roman Bridge requires two visits – one during the daylight hours and the other at night after sunset. Why? At night, the bridge is lit in multiple colours and is best viewed from the path bordering the Guadiana River.

A stone bridge built by the ancient Romans is lit with blue, pink, and yellow lights which are reflected in the river.

The Roman bridge lit up at night.


Roman Merida

The ruins of an ancient Roman arena where gladiator games were held.

Roman amphitheatre, Merida.


Opened in 8 BC, Merida’s Roman amphitheatre was the setting for popular gladiatorial contests and beast hunts. It has been determined that the arena could seat between 15,000 and 16,000 spectators from all social standings.

Roman Merida is much more than the amphitheatre, bridge, and theatre. Don’t miss the Temple of Diana, Triumphal Arch, Roman Forum, La Cassa del Mitreon, and the Archeological area of Moreria.

MONTSERRAT MONASTERY – Monastery and Hiking Experience

Montserrat Monastery is an 11th-century Benedictine monastery on Montserrat Mountain (meaning ‘serrated mountain’), 60 kilometres northwest of Barcelona. The monastery hangs onto the side of the mountain 725 metres above sea level.

View across the valley of a monastery on the side of a mountain.

Montserrat Monastery is perched on the side of the mountain.


I took this photo of Montserrat Monastery across the valley at the Cross of St Michael. This lookout was about one and a half hours into my very steep descent down Montserrat Mountain, and I still had about 20 minutes to go before I arrived back at the monastery.

To start my hike from the top of Montserrat Mountain, I rode the Funicular de Sant Joan from the monastery to the summit, about 300 metres above the monastery. I took the path to the left of the Funicular station that wound around and down the mountain, taking in spectacular views.

A serrated mountain top with a view of farm lands and towns in the valley below.

View from Montserrat (‘serrated’) Mountain.


While the hike down the mountain was not technically demanding (it’s a paved path nearly all the way), I did find the steep descent challenging. There were times when the decline was so steep my back was almost vertical to the path. The heat was another challenging factor. I’m sure I was on that mountain on its hottest day ever recorded!

A trip to Montserrat Monastery is about more than just a starting point for hiking around the mountain (and there are several you can do). The monastery is famous for the statue of the Black Madonna housed in the basilica and for one of the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe.

A black madonna with baby Jesus sitting on her lap. She is holding a marble ball that people can rub. The figures are behind glass.

The Black Madonna inside Montserrat Basilica.


The setting alone makes Montserrat Monastery worth a visit. The hike added value!


Pamplona is best known for its legendary multiday festival, the Running of the Bulls (Feast of San Femin) in July.

A Monument to Culture

Agree with it or not, the annual running of the bulls is an integral part of Pamplona’s culture. The city even has a monument (Monumento al Encierro) dedicated to the traditional bull-running, freezing a moment in time of the race.

A metal monument of men running and lying on the ground with several bulls behind them.

Pamplona’s monument to the running of the bulls.


For those who don’t know, the running of the bulls occurs during the festivities of San Fermin, where thousands of people try to outrun stampeding fighting bulls through the streets of Pamplona.

Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona

A bronze statue of the writer Ernest Hemingway leaning against a bar, with his right arm on the bar.

Statue of Ernest Hemingway in Cafe Irina.


Ernest Hemingway props up the bar in his favourite café in Pamplona – Café Iruna on Plaza del Castillo.

Hemingway had a love affair with Pamplona, visiting the city nine times, each time for the Festival of San Fermin and the running of the bulls.

Hemingway’s first novel, “The Sun Also Rises” (1926), is set in Spain, with Pamplona and Café Iruna heavily featured. The novel portrays American and British expats who travel along the Camino de Santiago from Paris to the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona and watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights.

PUBOL – Gala Dali Castle

Pubol is a small village where Salvador Dali bought a castle for Gala, his wife. Her castle is now a museum. I recommend taking a guided tour.

A metal statue of a long legged elephant with an eagle on its back is in a garden surrounded by green shrubs and trees.

There’s an elephant in the garden.


You will find four elephant sculptures by Salvador Dali in Gala Dali’s castle garden. The castle features other artworks by Salvador Dali, and Gala’s crypt is there.

I knew Dali was a painter but was unaware his artistic talents extended to sculpturing.

Interesting fact: Dali needed Gala’s written permission to visit her at the castle.

QUERALBS – Ancient Village in the Pyrenees

Queralbs is a small village in the Pyrenees with a population of about 80. It sits at an elevation of 1,236 metres above sea level. It is the last vehicle-accessible village on the way up to Vall de Nuria (Nuria’s Valley), a beautiful valley in the eastern Pyrenees. The final six kilometres from Queralbes to Vall de Nuria must be travelled by rack railway – a 20-minute journey to an altitude of 1,964 metres. But first, there was a guided walking tour through Queralbs.

Queralbs is an ancient village dating back to 833 AD. With its traditionally built stone houses perched on the side of the mountain, it is a lovely, picture-perfect village.

The walking tour ended at the Romanesque Church of Sant Jaume (Saint James).

A stone church with an arched portico and three bells in the bell tower. Green shrubs are behind the church.

Queralbs’ Romanesque St James Church.


Time to catch the rack railway train to Vall de Nuria!

RONDA – New Bridge

Ronda is a hilltop city in the Andalusian Province of Malaga. It sits dramatically above a deep gorge that separates the city in two. It is the home of modern bullfighting, but that wasn’t why I was there. I was in Ronda to see the New Bridge.

A stone bridge spans a deep gorge.

Ronda’s New Bridge spans El Tajo Gorge.


I have seen many photos of Ronda’s New Bridge on Instagram, been amazed, and wanted to see it myself. It was on my bucket list of sites to visit when in Spain.

The New Bridge (Puente Nuevo) spans the 98-metre-deep El Tajo Gorge, separating Ronda’s old town from its new town. The New Bridge is not new; it was completed in 1793 after 40 years of construction and with the loss of 50 lives.

It wasn’t easy to get photos of the bridge from the top. Unfortunately, my visit did not take me to the valley below New Bridge, where I would have been able to view the entire bridge.

SAN SEBASTIAN – Swim, Eat, Repeat

San Sebastian (called Donostia in Basque) is a resort town on the Bay of Biscay in northern Spain’s Basque Country.

There are no Roman ruins or Moorish architecture in San Sebastian, but you will find urban beaches, eclectic architecture, and a food lover’s paradise. San Sebastian has the second most Michelin stars per capita in the world.

San Sebastian’s famous La Concha Beach is said to be the most beautiful urban beach in Europe. The beach can be busy, but it offers magnificent views of the city and Old Town. Of San Sebastian’s two other main beaches, Ondarreta Beach is a family favourite, while Zurriota Beach is popular with young people and surfers.

People relax and swim on a city beach with lifeguards keeping an eye on everyone's safety.

San Sebastian’s La Concha Beach with city views.


Strolling along the city’s promenade is a must to admire the beaches and mansions that line this iconic walk.

Conde Nast Traveller’s 2023 Readers’ Choice Award voted San Sebastian the best city to visit in Europe.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA – Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galacia, in the far northwest of Spain.

Arriving in Santiago de Compostela with Insight Vacations, I joined a small group on a guided walk through the city’s parks and old town, ending at the cathedral in Plaza del Obradoiro.

View of a cathedral that dominates the skyline, with green shrubs in the foreground.

View of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela from Alameda Park.


The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the reputed burial place of Saint James the Great, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. The cathedral fronts Plaza del Obradoiro and is the destination for pilgrims walking or cycling the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James).

Four young people with backpacks on their backs and walking poles in their hands walk away from the camera on a cobblestoned street.

Pilgrims arrive in Plaza del Obradoiro after completing the Camino.


The Cathedral and the Camino are UNESCO World Heritage-listed – 1985 and 1993, respectively.


Segovia is in central Spain, about 90 kilometres north of Madrid. It is famous for its historic buildings and a great city to visit.

Alcazar of Segovia

A castle with multiple turrets with tourists waiting to enter.

The fairy tale Segovia Alcazar.


Continuing a UNESCO World Heritage theme in Segovia, the Alcazar of Segovia (Fortress of Segovia) is a medieval castle that was home to 22 kings.

Its exterior looks like something out of a fairy story. Some say the castle inspired the design of Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World. Can you see the similarity?

Of all the Alcazars I visited in Spain, the Alcazar of Segovia was my favourite. The decorated ceilings were beautiful, and I loved the stained-glass windows.

Cathedral of Segovia

A yellow-stoned gothic cathedral.

Segovia Cathedral.


UNESCO World Heritage-listed in 1985, Segovia Cathedral was the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain.

Construction on the cathedral began in 1525, but it wasn’t consecrated until 1768. Sitting on Segovia’s highest point in Plaza Major (the city’s main square), the Cathedral of Segovia is an imposing building.

I couldn’t enter the cathedral because the Corpus Christi service was underway.

Roman Aqueduct

People are in a square that is dominated by a multi-arched, two-tiered stone aqueduct built by the ancient Romans.

Segovia Roman Aqueduct.


The Aqueduct of Segovia is a Roman aqueduct built around the first century AD to channel water from springs in the mountains 17 kilometres away to the city’s fountains, public baths, and private houses. Said to be the world’s best-preserved Roman aqueduct, it was in use until 1973.

Twenty thousand four hundred stone blocks were used to construct Segovia’s Aqueduct with no mortar or cement between them. The highest point of the aqueduct is on Plaza del Azoguejo, which stands over 28 metres high, with a total of 167 arches.

This masterpiece of engineering was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.


Seville is the capital of Andalusia and the former capital of Muslim Spain. It is a charming city that lacks the crowds of Barcelona and Madrid. Seville is a city of large open spaces, beautiful architecture, and Moorish influences. It is home to the biggest Gothic cathedral in the world, has the largest historic centre in Europe, and is famous for its flamenco dancing. It is hard not to fall in love with Seville when its people evidently take so much pride in their city.

Jardines de Murillo

Exploring the old Jewish Quarter on my own in Seville’s Old Town, I came across the pretty, landscaped, well-maintained urban Jardines de Murillo (Murillo Gardens). Its ceramic tile-covered benches provide welcome spots to relax from the heat under the shade of enormous fig trees.

The gardens border the external walls of the Real Alcazar. The gardens are filled with fountains, children’s play equipment, and a monument to Christopher Columbus.

Jardines de Murillo was my favourite garden in Seville. Its intimate atmosphere saw me returning several times. Never crowded, I would take a book to read while eating a sandwich or sit to gather my energy to continue exploring Seville.

Plaza de Espana

A circular building with towers and arched porticos. A bridge crosses a canal in front of the building.

Iconic Plaza de Espana, Seville


The semicircular Plaza de Espana (Spain Square) in Maria Luisa Park blends Renaissance and Moorish-inspired architectural styles. It was built specifically for the 1929 Ibero-American Expo, which aimed to improve Spain’s relations with its former Latin American colonies and make symbolic peace.

Plaza de Espana is a cultural icon, Instagramable, and touted by all the guidebooks as a must-see. So early one morning, on a cooler day in Seville (only 39 degrees Celsius), I played tourist and walked to the plaza.

Along the base of the building, there are 48 benches representing each of Spain’s provinces decorated with colourful ceramic tiles depicting significant historical events. Expect to find visitors and nationals alike taking photos of themselves sitting on the bench of their province or the province of their heritage. Not being of Spanish parentage, I took photos of the benches of the places I had visited.

A multi-coloured three-sided tiled bench with a tiles mural against a brick wall.

Plaza de Espana – The tiled bench representing Barcelona.


There are four bridges over the mini canal in front of the plaza. These represent the ancient kingdoms of Spain: Castile, Leon, Navarre, and Aragon.

I enjoyed my few hours at Plaza de Espana and even saw an impromptu flamenco show on the building steps.

Don’t leave Maria Luisa Park without a stroll through its tropical gardens.

A park planted with palms and green ground cover. a path leads to a multi-coloured tiled bench.

Maria Luisa Park.


Real Alcazar (Royal Alcazar of Seville)

The Alcazar of Seville is a thousand years of art and history, combining five periods: Muslim, Gothic, Mudejar, Renaissance, and Romantic.

The Moors greatly influenced southern Spain, and Real Alcazar is another example of beautiful Islamic architecture. Built in the tenth century as government premises, it became a Royal Residence in 1248 when Ferdinand lll moved into it. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Real Alcazar is the oldest Royal Palace still in use today and is used by the King of Spain and his family when in Seville.

The Alcazar’s formal gardens are worth a wander through but don’t eat at the café (unappetising fast food).

A fountain enclosed by bushes with red flowers with a tiles path leading away from the fountain. Green bushes and tress line the path.

One of the many fountains in the Alcazar’s historic gardens.


Seville’s Real Alcazar featured as a location in the Game of Thrones television series.

Seville Cathedral – The Tomb of the Great Navigator

Four knights hold aloft a casket said to contain the remains of the navigator, Christopher Columbus.

The tomb of Christopher Columbus in Seville Cathedral.


Although probably Italian by birth, Christopher Columbus (known in Spain as Cristobal Colon) completed four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean sponsored by the Spanish monarchy.

His tomb in the Cathedral of Seville is held aloft by four figures representing the four kingdoms of Spain during Columbus’s life: Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Leon.

Columbus’ body has been moved several times, and the remains in Seville Cathedral are in doubt. DNA testing in 2006 confirmed the body in Seville was either Christopher Columbus or his brother.

Seville Cathedral was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.


Triana is a charming working-class neighbourhood in Seville on the west bank of the Guadalquivir River. Puente de Isabel ll (often called Triana Bridge) is the gateway to Triana from the city. Don’t expect spectacular sights but an authentic quarter with surprisingly few tourists.

A stone and metal bridge spans a river.

Isabel ll Bridge viewed from Triana.


Traina is especially famous for:

  • The Azulejo tiles you see throughout Spain.
  • Being the birthplace of flamenco.

Azulejos are terracotta tiles covered with opaque glazing. They have been used in Spain since around the 13th century. You will see them everywhere, decorating walls (internal and external), fountains, pavements, and much more. Triana has some lovely shops where you can buy good quality Azulejo products to take home.

See an authentic flamenco show at Almoraima (Calle Pages del Corro, 70) – an intimate venue where the passion of the dance is tangible and visible.

Mercado de Triana (on your right as you leave the bridge) is a lively indoor market with fresh fruits, vegetables, meat (especially Iberian ham), herbs, and fish. You can grab lunch while in the Mercado.

Calle de San Jacinto is Trian’s pedestrian-only street. With its plethora of cafes, bars, and restaurants, you are spoilt for choices of somewhere to eat and people-watch.

People walk along a pedestrian-only street lined with small tress and buildings on both sides.

Head to Calle de San Jacinto for lunch or dinner.



While travelling with Insight Vacations through Spain, I opted for a day trip to Toledo, about 70 kilometres south of Madrid, the former capital of Spain.

The Mirador del Valle Lookout

A view of an old town on the banks of a river.

Toledo panorama.


The panoramic view of Toledo from the Mirador del Valle Lookout was breathtaking and a great introduction to this ancient city that owes its rich heritage to the Jews, Muslims, and Christians who lived there in harmony. A city of three cultures, Toledo is a melting pot of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with impressive monuments. The two large buildings on the city horizon in the photo above are the Cathedral of Toledo on the left and the Alcazar Fortress on the right.

Toledo’s historic centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 as an outstanding museum city.

Toledo Cathedral

The facade of a gothic cathedral with white and purple flowers on a pole in front of the cathedral.

Toledo Cathedral’s main facade from the Plaza del Ayuntamiento.


The magnificent Toledo Cathedral was built on the site of a former mosque and took more than 250 years to complete. It is one of Spain’s most famous and important cathedrals, with several monarchs buried in it. The cathedral is dedicated to Saint Mary and features Mudejar architecture (pointed horseshoe arches and ribbed vaults). It is considered one of Spain’s best examples of High Gothic architecture.

The famous “Transparente”, the cathedral’s altarpiece, is seen by many as Spain’s most important Baroque masterpiece. Created in 1732 by the sculptor Narciso Tome and his four sons, the altarpiece is several stories high, with fantastic figures done in marble, bronze castings, stucco, and painting.

Toledo Cathedral is a veritable art gallery with paintings by notable artists: El Greco, Caravaggio, Van Dick, Goya, and Bellini, to name a few. The Sacristy is a small art gallery with a beautiful ceiling fresco painted by Luca Giordana and El Greco’s “The Disrobing of Christ” (“El Expolio”, 1579), taking centre stage on the high altar. Don’t miss the portraits of the 12 apostles painted by El Greco in the cathedral’s Sacristy.

Religious paintings line the walls of a room that has a fresco painted on the ceiling.

The beautiful ceiling fresco and El Greco’s painting “The Disrobing of Christ”.


The Cathedral of Toledo is home to more than 100 relics, including fragments of the crown of thorns and the breast milk of the Virgin Mary. None are on public view!

My visit to Toledo was memorable, but the city deserved longer than a day trip.


Valencia is a hidden gem often overlooked by tourists. It is a city that embraces its past while acknowledging the future. It is also the home of paella (a rice dish originally from Valencia). Contrary to common belief, traditional paella is not made with seafood but is made with chicken or rabbit.

My tour with Insight Vacations included a paella cooking demonstration and tasting at la Cigrona in Valencia’s Old Town.

Futuristic Valencia

The City of Arts and Sciences (La Ciudad de y las Artes las Ciencias) is a leisure and cultural complex with its architecture taking Valencia into the 21st century. The complex includes the Science Museum, an IMAX Cinema and Planetarium, Europe’s largest aquarium, and the Palace of Arts.

Valencia’s Old Town

Founded in 130 BC, Valencia has been home to Romans, Visigoths, and Muslims, giving it a rich history. Its Old Town is one of the largest in Europe and the heart of the city.

Walking around the Old Town is like travelling back to the Middle Ages. La Plaza del Ayuntamiento is the main square and the hub of activity. It is enclosed by beautiful historic buildings featuring Gothic architecture.

I particularly enjoyed escaping the crowds and walking around the Old Town’s residential streets.

Coloured buildings with cast iron balconies front a narrow cobbled street.

A residential street in Valencia’s Old Town.


A half day exploring Valencia’s Old Town with Insight Vacations was not long enough. I want to explore more! Valencia, I will be back!

VALL DE NURIA – A Beautiful Valley in the Pyrenees Mountains

Taking the rack railway from Queralbs, travel the six kilometres to the resort in Vall de Nuria (Nuria Valley). The journey took 20 minutes, climbing from an altitude of 1,236 metres at Queralbs to 1,964 metres at Vall de Nuria.

Vall de Nuria is a valley in the eastern Pyrenees offering spectacular mountain landscapes, winter skiing, and summer hiking trails.

With two hours to explore the valley before catching the train back down the mountain, I decided to hike one of the many trails in the hills around the valley. These trails range from easy to challenging.

Given my limited time, I chose an easy trail, the Way of the Crosses. I was told it would take 50 minutes to walk, but I knew it would take longer as I would constantly stop to take photos. The trail gets its name from the Christian Way of the Cross tradition, with twelve crosses along the way. I made the hike easier on myself by walking down the mountain rather than up. I did this by taking the cable car to the summit, bringing me to an altitude of 2,170 metres. Consequently, I passed the crosses in reverse – from twelve to one.

I journeyed to Vall De Nuria on a day trip with Explore Catalunya.

VIC – The Old Town

The city of Vic (pronounced Bic) is about 69 kilometres north of Barcelona on the Meder River. It is an ancient city, dating back to the Ausetan Iberians before Roman occupation in the 1st century AD, with an interesting and picturesque Old Town.

On a guided walking tour around the Old Town, we passed through several small pretty squares with cafes preparing for the day.

I found the interior of Vic’s Sant Pere Cathedral to be unlike anything I had seen previously. Huge, almost monochromatic canvases painted by Joseph Maria Sert cover the walls, making the interior dark and gloomy – an unexpected contrast to the cathedral’s exterior. It wasn’t a place I wanted to linger! However, your reaction may be very different.

Time your visit for market day, which takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays, with stalls filling the main square.


The name White Village comes from the uniform white colour of the village houses and buildings, covered in lime to keep them cool in the hottest months as the white reflects the sun’s rays.

I visited two White Villages in the province of Cadiz – Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra.


Houses in a mountain valley are all painted white with terracotta tiled roofs.

Grazalema, White Village of Andalusia.


Grazalema, located in Sierra de Grazalema National Park, receives the highest rainfall of the entire Iberian Peninsula. However, on the day of my visit, the skies were clear blue. I had a delicious salad for lunch in Grazalema at Restaurant Cadiz el Chico – Ensalada Caprichosa (lettuce, cheese, nuts, mustard and quince jelly, yoghurt, and red berry coulis) (€12 / AU$19.74).

Grazalema is an attractive village with the tiny porches of its whitewashed houses spilling over with potted flowers.

Zahara de la Sierra

Houses on the slope of a hill are all pointed white with terracotta tiled roofs.

Zahara de la Sierra, White Village in Andalusia.


Zahara de la Sierra is also located in Sierra de Grazalema National Park and has been declared a Historic Site. Being situated on the slopes of the Sierra del Jaral forces the streets to be staggered at different levels. Luckily, the guided walking tour through the village started at the top of the village, and we walked down.

Grazalema and Zahara de la Sierra have been chosen by the Association of the Most Beautiful Villages in Spain as two of the four most beautiful villages in Cadiz Province.

Adios Espana.



The Twelve Treasures of Spain lists twelve sites of great historical and cultural value to the Kingdom of Spain. The sites were chosen via a poll by two Spanish broadcasting stations, and the results were announced on 31 December 2007.

  1. Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba
  2. Cave of Altamira (Cantabria)
  3. Seville Cathedral
  4. Alhambra (Granada)
  5. Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar (Zaragoza)
  6. Teide National Park (Tenerife, Canary Islands)
  7. Roman Theatre (Merida)
  8. Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
  9. Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia)
  10. Sagrada Familia (Barcelona)
  11. Beach of la Concha (San Sebastian)
  12. Guggenheim Museum Bilbao


Spain is a country that seamlessly weaves together a rich history, vibrant culture, breathtaking landscapes, and unforgettable experiences. In wrapping up this extensive guide to the ultimate Spain bucket list, I hope to have ignited your wanderlust and provided invaluable insights to help you plan an unforgettable trip to Spain.

From the architectural masterpieces of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona and the ancient wonders of the Alhambra and Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba to the natural beauty of the Pyrenees and the hidden gems tucked away in charming villages, this bucket list is not just a checklist but intended as a practical guide for planning your itinerary, offering something for every visitor. My 47 memorable postcards spanning the length and breadth of Spain are just a glimpse into the diverse and incredible things not to be missed when visiting the Iberian Peninsula. 

Happy planning and even happier travels!


Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2024.


Have you been able to find this Spain Bucket List a helpful resource? I love hearing from you. Please feel free to leave a comment below.

I look forward to reading and responding to your comments on where and what you might include on your trip to Spain that this post has inspired.


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Sassi di Matera: The Stone City of Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site Steeped in History and Charm.   Welcome to the mesmerising world of Sassi di Matera, a…

Sassi di Matera: The Stone City of Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site Steeped in History and Charm.


Welcome to the mesmerising world of Sassi di Matera, a unique and ancient destination. Matera, a city in Italy’s southern region of Basilicata, is renowned for its extraordinary cave dwellings and rock-cut architecture, collectively known as the Sassi. These ancient settlements, carved into limestone cliffs, have earned the Sassi di Matera a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and have captivated visitors with their rich history, unique charm, and breathtaking landscapes.

In this travel blog post, I’ll take you on a visual journey through 15 stunning photos that capture the essence and allure of the Sassi di Matera. Each image tells a story, inviting you into a world where cave dwellings, narrow winding streets and alleyways, and rock-cut architecture create an otherworldly landscape.

Whether you’re a history buff, a culture enthusiast, or simply seeking a destination off the beaten path, Sassi di Matera offers an unforgettable experience. Let these photos inspire you to pack your bags and immerse yourself in the wonders of this timeless Italian gem.


Situated in the “instep” of Italy’s “boot”, Sassi di Matera (literal translation from Italian, “Stones of Matera”) were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1993, while Matera was awarded the 2019 European Capital of Culture. However, Matera, particularly the Sassi, did not always deserve these honours. Not so many decades ago, Matera’s Sassi was a place of national humiliation dubbed the “Shame of Italy”.

The Sassi di Matera has two districts – Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano. They are ancient! – prehistoric troglodyte settlements where people have lived in cave dwellings since 7000 BC.

The Sassi have a colourful history that has seen them go from the earliest inhabited city in Italy to a place of national humiliation to Italy’s pride. This history, which is still visible today, makes Sassi di Matera a matchless tourist destination.


A brief history – from shame to honour

In his book Christ Stopped at Eboli (published in 1945), Carlo Levi put Sassi di Matera on the world map when he highlighted the poor living conditions. He painted a picture of abject poverty. Malaria, cholera and typhoid were rampant in the Sassi. Families and their animals were living together under the same roof in dwellings with no natural light or ventilation, no electricity, water or sewers, and there was a high rate of infant mortality.

The Sassi became an embarrassment to the Italian Government. So much so that in 1950, the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency and put plans in place to move the Sassi’s inhabitants out. By 1952, the Sassi were empty – abandoned through forced removal.

After sitting dormant for a few decades, the Sassi began to transform, starting in the 1970s with artists and hippies rediscovering Matera’s Sassi. This urban renewal and a younger generation expressing their desire to bring the caves back to life led the Italian Government to pass a law in 1986 to repopulate the Sassi, connecting water and electricity and subsidising restoration work to encourage the Sassi’s revival.

And the people did come – restoring caves as homes, hotels, restaurants and bars. But many are still uninhabitable.

Cave houses, many of which are abandoned, in a troglodyte settlement in Italy.

Abandoned cave dwellings in Matera’s Sassi.


Cave houses in a troglodyte settlement. Some are obviously uninhabited.

Not all the cave dwellings in the Sassi are inhabited.


Sassi di Matera’s revival was further cemented in 1993 when UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region” and being named 2019 European Capital of Culture.

Matera has reclaimed its dignity and credibility in the eyes of Italy and the world.


Discover Sassi di Matera

I travelled to Matera on a 17-day small group tour with Albatross Tours on their Italy, the Deep South & Sicily tour, staying two nights in the Sassi.

The Sassi are carved into the limestone cliffs of a deep ravine gouged out by the Gravina River. First viewed from across the ravine, the Sassi di Matera were like nothing I had seen before. I have visited Troglodyte caves in France and spent time in Cappadocia in Turkey. But the Sassi di Matera, with caves stacked on each other while clinging to the steep slope, was a stand-alone matchless sight. Then, creating a unique juxtaposition, the modern city of Matera overlooks the Sassi from its height at the top of the hill.

A mass of cave houses on a hill are viewed from across a ravine. There is a stone church bell tower on top of the hill.

Sassi di Matera viewed from across the ravine.


An abandoned troglodyte settlement (cave dwellings) sits below a modern city on the side of a hill.

The modern city of Matera sits on top of the ancient Sassi.


My first ‘taste’ of Sassi di Matera and what it must be like to live in the Sassi was my accommodation for two nights in the luxury Le Grotte della Civita – a cave hotel on the edge of the ravine in the most ancient Sassi area.

A hotel room in a cave, with a double bed, bath, and table and chairs. the cave room is lit by candles.

My hotel room – a restored cave in Le Grotte della Civita.


Le Grotte della Civita consists of 18 large ‘rooms’ with ensuites. All the rooms are individual caves that have been beautifully restored whilst retaining their original features. The furnishings were simple but tasteful, with much of the lighting provided by candles. The breakfast was served in a reclaimed cave that was once a church and was typical of southern Italy – consisting of various breads, cakes, pastries, meats, jams and cheeses. My stay at Le Grotte della Civita was truly memorable.

After a very comfortable night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast, I joined the walking tour in the morning with a local guide. Walking tours are a great way to get acquainted with a city and learn its history. The walking tour of Sassi di Matera was a fascinating history lesson while being introduced to significant sites. The tour included visiting a cave dwelling to see how families lived in their stone houses and viewing one of the ancient Rupestrian Churches with its biblical frescoes on the cave walls dating back to the Middle Ages.

By the end of the tour, I felt prepared to spend the afternoon and evening on my own, exploring and discovering the labyrinth that is Sassi di Matera. I was in my element, walking around the narrow streets and alleyways, talking to the locals, checking out their cafes, and having all the time I wanted to take photos. A word of advice: you will need comfortable shoes to walk around the Sassi as there are many steep steps to negotiate, given the Sassi are built on the side of a ravine.

An elderly lady dressed in black walks up stone steps that are under a stone arch.

There are lots of steps in Sassi di Matera.


Matera has 180 churches, 40 of which are in the Sassi, including the Cathedral and the rock-cut Church of Santa Maria di Idris.

A rock-cut church on top of a green hill with cave dwellings below it.

The Church of Santa di Idris.


My favourite church was the Church of Purgatory, constructed as a place for people to pray for the souls trapped in limbo between heaven and hell. Completed in 1747, its recurring and only theme is that of death. The baroque façade of the church and its doors are covered with carvings of skulls, skeletons, crossbones, and other death-related decor. While a church focusing on death might seem a bit Grim Reaper-ish, it was fashionable at the time of construction, as death was not seen as the end but as the beginning of a new life.

A skull and two skeletons carved into stone. One skeleton is holding an hourglass, and the other skeleton is holding a scythe.

Skulls and skeletons on the facade of the Church of Purgatory.


A wooden door carved with square panels of skulls and cross bones.

The Church go Purgatory’s carved wooden door.


Exploring the Sassi di Matera

While the Sassi may look like masses of houses, the house-like facades are only that, as the ‘houses’ are dug well into the rock, forming the cave dwellings Matera is famous for.

A photo of stone houses that are actually caves.

In the Sassi di Matera, caves look like houses.


A settlement of cave houses surrounded by purple flowers and green shrubs.

Sassi di Matera – a mass of cave dwellings that look like houses.


Houses in the Sassi are built on top of other houses, where many of the streets are built on the roofs of houses, and floors are ceilings of houses below.

Cave homes sit on top of each other, where you have roads forming roofs and floors, and the ceiling of the house below.

Sassi di Matera – roofs are streets, and floors are ceilings.


You would be forgiven for thinking the Sassi are a place of shadow and crampedness. But not so. The squares in the Sassi are sun-drenched open spaces flanked by cafes, shops, churches, and restaurants – great for people-watching.

A troglodyte settlement of cave houses built into the side of a hill.

Wander the Sassi di Matera.


Cave houses are viewed through a doorway.

View of the Sassi through a doorway.


Cave houses are built on top of each other on the side of a hill.

World Heritage Listed Sassi di Matera.

Historical and Cultural Timeline:

2019: Matera is the European Capital of Culture.

2014: Tourism starts to take off. This was most likely due to Matera being named the 2019 European Capital of Culture, and Matera began preparations for a year of events highlighting culture and the arts.

1993: UNESCO lists Sassi di Matera as a World Heritage Site.

1986: Italian law changes and people are encouraged to return to the Sassi.

1952: Abandonment of the Sassi through the Italian Government’s forced removal of its inhabitants.

Prehistory: (approximately 9,000 years ago) People first inhabited the Sassi.

Fun facts

Several Directors have used Sassi di Matera as a film location for their movies:

  • Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ, 2004;
  • Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew, 1964; and
  • King David was directed by Bruce Beresford and starred Richard Gere in 1985.

It would seem Matera’s Sassi makes for a great ancient Jerusalem.

The 2021 James Bond movie No Time to Die also used Sassi di Matera as a film location.


Sassi di Matera is not just a destination; it’s an immersive journey through time, offering a unique blend of history, culture, and natural beauty that promises to leave a lasting impression on anyone fortunate enough to explore its enchanting streets.

The Sassi beckons, inviting you to witness a living backdrop as you explore a world where tradition meets innovation. The 15 photos you’ve seen here in my blog post are mere snapshots of the unforgettable travel experience that awaits you in person. Dare to wander off the beaten path!


Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in March 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2024.


Have I aroused your curiosity about Sassi di Matera? Are you inspired to visit Italy’s unique Stone City, a valuable UNESCO World Heritage Site? I love hearing from you. Join the conversation and leave a comment below.


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The image has two photos. One photo is of an old lady walking up a flight of stone steps. The second photo shows a settlement of stone houses.


The image has two photos that show a troglodyte settlement. One photo is bathed in sunlight with purple flowers and green shrubs. The second photo shows abandoned cave homes below a modern city. The image invites you to visit Italy's Sassi di Matera.


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Unlocking the Secrets: Successfully Navigating Mongolian Beliefs, Customs, and Values.   A journey to Mongolia is about more than crossing vast landscapes and nomadic lands. It is also a deep…

Unlocking the Secrets: Successfully Navigating Mongolian Beliefs, Customs, and Values.


A journey to Mongolia is about more than crossing vast landscapes and nomadic lands. It is also a deep dive into diverse cultural norms and traditions shaped by Buddhism, Shamanism, and Animism. 

Navigating foreign customs can be challenging, especially in a country like Mongolia. In this travel blog post, I’ll guide you through the challenges, providing invaluable tips and practical advice on navigating Mongolia’s cultural environment without stumbling into unintentional faux pas. 

Please read the post to make sure your journey to Mongolia is filled with breathtaking landscapes and enriched by a profound understanding of the cultural norms and traditions that make Mongolia uniquely remarkable.


Cultural insensitivity is a sign of profound disrespect. I learned this the hard way in Varanasi (India) when I took a photo of the cremation pyres on the banks of the Ganges River. It took my guide a lot of talking, much apologising, and payment of money to appease the men who supplied wood for the pyres. In my defence (but no excuse), I had not been informed not to take photos of the cremations.

My wrongdoing mortified me. Even though this occurred many years ago, I still beat myself up about it. I have travelled extensively and would describe myself as culturally sensitive. To this day, I cannot explain what made me think it was okay to take such a photo.

So, when our guide in Mongolia advised us about local customs before our two-night stay with a nomadic family, I felt a deep appreciation and relief that I would not commit any social or cultural faux pas through ignorance. I firmly believe that knowledge is power, and I was about to meet this family in a “powerful” (culturally knowledgeable) position.

So, what lessons did I learn from my Mongolian guide?

First, our guide requested we wait to take photos of the family but get to know them a little first. This was a more than reasonable request and one I knew I would have no trouble complying with because I often feel uncomfortable photographing people. However, given this was a photography tour I was on, the family expected photos to be taken of them as they knew this was a part of our learning.

We were advised to ask whatever questions we wanted, with the guide translating for us as the family doesn’t speak English. I suspect this also allowed the guide to ‘censor’ inappropriate questions – a sound filtering system.

Our guide continued her invaluable insights on Mongolian cultural norms and traditions:

  • When you enter a ger, you must always go to the left. Don’t circle the interior of the ger. If you need to go to the right once inside the ger, return to the door and then to the right.
  • Don’t step on the threshold of the ger. You must always step over it.
  • In a group setting, always say hello to the oldest or most important person first.
  • Do not touch a person’s head or shoulder; doing so is taking that person’s luck away.
  • Touching a person’s feet (with your feet) signifies you want to challenge that person to a fight. If you unintentionally touch a person’s feet, shake hands with that person or touch their arm. By doing this, you are saying, “I didn’t mean that” (to challenge to a fight); it removes the challenge.
  • Do not throw tissues in the fire. The fire is a holy thing, and throwing tissues into the fire is contaminating the fire. It was essential to know this custom as, one by one, we were coming down with colds.
  • When Mongolians offer you food and drinks, you must accept it with your right hand, and you must taste whatever is offered or, at least, pretend to taste it by putting the food or drink to your lips. There is another alternative if offered a glass of vodka. You can dip your ring finger in the vodka, remove your finger from the vodka and flick your ring finger into the air, thereby flicking drops of vodka in the air.
  • When offered something, touch it with your right hand before taking it while supporting the elbow with the left hand. This custom is also followed when giving something. The exception to this is when offered a meal or providing a meal.
  • When exiting religious buildings, e.g. temples, step out backwards so that you do not show your back to the interior. To show your back is to show disrespect to the gods.
A brass bowl in a person's hands is presented.

Accept and taste all food and drinks that are offered.


Children in Mongolia don’t get their hair cut until they are between 2 and 5 years of age. For girls, this is usually between 2 and 4 years old. Conversely, boys will have their first haircut at 3 to 5 years of age. The reason for leaving the first cutting of children’s hair until this age is because Mongolians believe children are born with their mother’s hair. The cutting (more like shaving) of the hair signifies the child becoming their own person and is celebrated with a hair-cutting ceremony.

The khadag is a long piece of silk cloth (like a scarf). It comes in 5 different colours – blue, white, yellow, green and red – with each colour having its unique significance:

  • Blue is the most sacred colour in Mongolian culture, representing Mongolia’s eternal blue sky. The blue khadag is the most common and can be given to anyone, regardless of age, to show respect.
  • White represents milk and is the symbol of purity. It is often given to mothers.
  • Yellow represents the sun and is the symbol of wisdom. The yellow khadag is given when you greet monks.
  • Green represents the earth, being in tune with nature. It is the colour of inner peace and is only used in religious rituals.
  • Red represents fire and blood (as in circulation). It is the colour of life, of prosperity. As with the green khadag, it is not used to greet people but only in religious ceremonies.

To give or offer a khadag to someone or something is to show respect, the ultimate offering. To present a blue khadag to a person or animal is the highest form of respect. Driving through Mongolia, I often saw sheep and horses with blue khadags tied around their neck. Our guide explained that this shows respect for the animal, which can’t be killed/eaten.

A pile of rocks and stones with a pole in the middle of the mound covered in blue scarfs. Animal skulls are placed in front of the mound.

Mongolia’s cairns (shrines) are mounds of rocks and stones for offerings.


Mongolia’s cairns (stone shrines known as ovoos) are adorned with khadags, primarily blue ones. Most Mongolians are Buddhist, but Shamanism is integral to Mongolian life. Locals and travellers erect the cairns to provide offerings to the local spirits, thus showing their respect and honouring the spirits of the surrounding land. When you come across a cairn, you should always stop and show your respect by making an offering. The ritual entails walking around the cairn three times in a clockwise direction. As you do so, you make an offering while making a prayer or wish. This might be for a safe journey, good health, good fortune, or much-needed rain. The offering can be a khadag, food, money, vodka, or a small stone. If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to stop at a cairn, the driver will honk the horn three times. At one cairn, our driver offered a blue khadag. We settled for a small stone each time we stopped at a cairn – and there were many.


Unlocking the secrets of Mongolia’s rich cultural environment requires more than just travelling through its breathtaking landscapes. Understanding and respecting this remarkable country’s cultural norms and traditions is the key to a truly immersive and rewarding travel experience. Avoiding cultural errors is not just about being polite; it’s about creating authentic connections with Mongolia’s warm and hospitable people.

Start your Mongolian adventure with cultural sensitivity, and let the vibrant traditions of this enchanting land enrich your travel story.

And my final piece of practical advice – know before you go!


Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in February 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.


Have you travelled to Mongolia? What other cultural insights would you offer readers for Mongolia? I love hearing from you. Join the conversation and leave a comment below.


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A Mongolian nomadic man in tradition garb walks in front of a ger. There is a second ger behind the first and a mountain in the background.

A large pile of rocks and stones with animal skulls in front of the mound. a pole is in the middle of the mound with blue scarfs hanging from the pole.


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  Fossick for Dinosaur Bones at Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs – One of the World’s Greatest Dinosaur Fossil Sites.     Dear Pip, Deep in the heart of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert…


Fossick for Dinosaur Bones at Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs – One of the World’s Greatest Dinosaur Fossil Sites.


A person stands on the top of a cliff that is part of red sandstone cliff formations known as the Flaming Cliffs. Flat plains surround the cliffs.

Mongolia’s Flaming Cliffs are in the heart of the Gobi Desert.


Dear Pip,

Deep in the heart of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert are the Flaming Cliffs. They are utterly remote at approximately 100 kms northwest of Dalanzadgad and nine hours from Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, in the Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park.

I don’t know how our driver found his way through the desert because there were no signs or landmarks I could discern to guide the way. When I asked (as translated by our guide) how he knows the way, he shrugged his shoulders, saying (as translated) he just knows. Beats me! However, find the way he did.

The Flaming Cliffs, so named because of their ochre and red-coloured sandstone cliffs and canyons, are an ancient formation of 71 to 75 million years old. They are famous for the first discovery of dinosaur eggs by the American palaeontologist Roy Chapman Andrews in 1923. According to our guide, the eggs were discovered when one of Andrews’ crew fell down the cliff into a nest full of dinosaur eggs.

The Flaming Cliffs are known as one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites, with more and more bones exposed through erosion. The first dinosaur fossil, a Protoceratops, was discovered in 1922, and in the 1970s, a fossil was unearthed of two dinosaurs locked in a fight. Being a well-known site for dinosaur fossil hunters excited Meg, who scrambled over the cliffs (in thongs!), fossicking for dinosaur bones.

Nearing the end of our cliff walk and exploration, we came across an object sticking out of the cliff face that could be a large bone – possibly a dinosaur thigh bone. Our guide suggested licking the ‘bone’ to test if it is bone or stone. Because bones are more porous than stones, your tongue sticks to it when you lick bone, but it won’t stick to stone. Of course, Meg had to have a lick. Her tongue stuck to it – bone!

A bit of trivia for you:

Roy Chapman Andrews was a bit of a daredevil, a swashbuckler, and he was the inspiration behind the Indiana Jones film character.



A woman licks a dinosaur bone sticking out of a cliff face.

Bone or stone? The lick test!


Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in February 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.


Would you seek out this type of experience when travelling? I love hearing from you. Leave a comment below.


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A woman fossicks for dinosaur fossils on red sandstone cliffs. The cliffs are the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.



A woman stands on top of a cliff in Mongolia's Gobi Desert looking out to the flat plain in the distance.


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Experience Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier on a Helicopter Flight – The Most Accessible Rivers of Ice in the World.   New Zealand’s Southern Alps are breathtaking and home…

Experience Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier on a Helicopter Flight – The Most Accessible Rivers of Ice in the World.


New Zealand’s Southern Alps are breathtaking and home to several glaciers. Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier are the most accessible. And what better way to experience their natural beauty than with a helicopter flight over the glaciers and landing on the top of one for a walk around? 

When touring New Zealand’s South Island, I climbed aboard a helicopter for a scenic flight and snow landing. I have mixed feelings about this flight, which become evident in my review below.


I was so excited about taking a helicopter flight with Glacier Helicopters over New Zealand’s Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers – an optional extra with Grand Pacific Tours and my New Year present to myself. I will always jump at the option of a helicopter or small plane scenic flight and have taken several now around the world. They provide a unique perspective of an area or site you visit, and I feel a sense of adventure with helicopter flights.

Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are in New Zealand’s Southern Alps on the South Island’s west coast, in Glacier Country. They are temperate maritime glaciers that extend well below the snow line. Franz Josef Glacier’s terminal face is 500 metres above sea level, while Fox Glacier terminates at 250 metres above sea level. Though still flowing, both glaciers, unfortunately, are retreating, with Franz Josef vanishing at a phenomenal rate.

Franz Josef Glacier is 12 kilometres long and lies 20 kilometres south of Fox Glacier. Franz Josef Glacier was named after the Austrian emperor but is better known by its Māori name, Kā Roimata o Hine Hukatere. The glacier is five kilometres from the town of the same name.

At 13 kilometres long, Fox Glacier (Te Moeka o Tuawe) is longer and faster moving than Franz Josef Glacier and is New Zealand’s longest glacier. Fox Glacier is just five kilometres from the village of the same name. I stayed in Fox Glacier village.

View of a glacier wedged between two mountains. An open plain with several trees is in the foreground of the photo.

View of Fox Glacier taken from State Highway 6 near Fox Glacier village.


Grand Pacific Tours had organised the 40-minute ‘Mountain Scenic Spectacular’ helicopter flight with Helicopter Line in Franz Josef village. However, when we arrived, Helicopter Line advised us to fly the next morning because of the current poor visibility. For some reason I never understood, we booked in the following day with Glacier Helicopters for our scenic flight over Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, with a snow landing on Franz Josef Glacier and departing from Fox Glacier village. Unfortunately, because of a strong wind, we couldn’t fly around Mount Cook (Aoraki), New Zealand’s highest mountain (3,724 metres), as per the scheduled flight path. Consequently, Glacier Helicopters reduced our helicopter flight plus snow landing to 30 minutes, and we did receive a small discount.

A snow capped mountain rises above a mountain range devoid of snow.

Mount Cook dominates New Zealand’s Southern Alps.


I was disappointed with Glacier Helicopter’s scenic flight. The cabin was cramped inside, and the other passengers obstructed my view. There were three of us in the back, two in the front, and the pilot. Sitting in the middle of the back seat, I found the cramped conditions restricted my arm movements, making taking photos while flying difficult.

I could tolerate being sandwiched between two passengers, but having my views of the landscape we were passing over severely obstructed was upsetting. While flying, the passengers on either side of me continually blocked my sight as they leaned into their respective windows to see the landscape below and take photos. Looking out the front of the helicopter was no better as the heads of the two front passengers were prominent in many of my photos.

These circumstances negatively impacted my overall experience. As a travel blogger and photographer (I rarely disclose my tradecraft), getting good photographs is crucial for my posts. I understand weight distribution is imperative for helicopter flights, but is there no way to guarantee a window seat?

Had I not been seated in the back row’s middle seat, I believe my helicopter flight experience would have been very different – far more positive.

After flying up the ice river that is Franz Josef Glacier, we landed on the top of the glacier to spend 15 wondrous minutes walking on the snow and ice, examining the ice architecture, enjoying the views, and taking photos. The adventure of a lifetime! The landing on Franz Josef Glacier was magical. Who needs a flight around a snow-capped mountain when you can walk on a glacier?

The ice river of the Franz Josef Glacier is view from a helicopter.

Franz Josef Glacier – climbing the ice river


New Zealand's Southern Alps at the top of Franz Josef Glacier, viewed from inside a helicopter.

Landing on Franz Josef Glacier.


While on Franz Josef Glacier, the pilot took photos of the passengers. He had a printer in the helicopter’s tail, and we could purchase a photograph after landing back at Fox Glacier Heliport.

A red and white helicopter sits on the snow with mountains behind it. The name, Glacier Helicopters is printer on the helicopter's tail. The pilot is looking into the helicopter through an open door in the tail section.

There’s a printer in the helicopter’s tail!


I would have loved more time on Franz Josef Glacier to walk further afield than just the top of the glacier, exploring its features in detail. But that’s what the Heli Hikes entail. Next time!

Being in the middle seat behind the pilot and two other passengers on Glacier Helicopter’s small, five-passenger helicopter was not value for money. I had no choice as to which company I took the helicopter flight with, as Grand Pacific Tours organised it. I recommend exploring other glacier helicopter flight companies to avoid disappointment.


My helicopter flight over New Zealand’s Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers was a mixed experience. The obstruction of my views during the flight by other passengers was undeniably disappointing. However, the magic truly began when we landed on Franz Josef Glacier. The opportunity to step out on this pristine glacier and explore its breathtaking beauty up close gave me a real sense of adventure. While the flight had drawbacks, the glacier landing left an indelible mark on my memory.


Snow covered mountains are viewed from inside a helicopter.

Fox Glacier – on top of the mountains.


Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.


My favourite helicopter flights are in small three-passenger helicopters with removed doors. I experienced three such helicopter flights when in The Kimberley, Western Australia. What has been your experience of scenic helicopter flights? I love hearing from you. Please leave a comment below.


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The image features two photos. One shows a red and white helicopter sitting on snow with mountains behind it. The other photo is a section of a snow covered mountain range.


The image features two photos: a glacier wedged between two mountains with a grass plain in the foreground, and a view of an ice river (glacier) running down a mountain crevice.


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  No Trip to Mongolia is Complete Without Having Attended a Local Horse Festival and Witnessed Extraordinary Horseback Skills.   Dear Pip, Our trip to Mongolia is turning out to…


No Trip to Mongolia is Complete Without Having Attended a Local Horse Festival and Witnessed Extraordinary Horseback Skills.

Several me in colourful robes line up on their horses for the start of competition. They are carrying long poles with lassos on the end.

Mongolian nomads ready for competition with their uurgas (lasso poles) at a horse festival.


Dear Pip,

Our trip to Mongolia is turning out to be one unique cultural highlight after another. We spent the day sharing the excitement of a local horse festival in the Orkhon Valley, organised by Tsaidam Ger Camp, where we stayed for the night. The festival aims to preserve nomadic tradition and promote the talent and capabilities of Mongolia’s nomadic herders.

The Orkhon Valley is in Central Mongolia, about 360 kilometres southwest of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The Orkhon Valley, a cultural landscape comprising 1,220 square kilometres, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

Mongolia’s history, culture, and people are intimately linked with horses, with children learning to ride almost from the day they can walk. In a country with 13 times more horses than people, I can understand how Mongolia has become known as the land of horses. Throughout the day, I came to appreciate Mongolian nomads’ strong bond with their horses and to understand how Mongolians have long been considered some of the best horse riders in the world.

After Meg shared snuff with some local elders and our guide explained what the horse festival entailed, we found a spot amongst the locals to watch and photograph the men, dressed in traditional costume, compete in several events, including horse lassoing, grabbing a lasso pole from the ground, and riding a wild, bucking horse. These events are designed to show off the Mongolian nomads’ unique horsemanship skills and the strength of their horses.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the lassoing of stampeding wild horses. However, I learned it is an essential skill as nomadic households have many horses ridden infrequently and need to be re-broken in because they have been left to roam at will, becoming semi-wild. I needed to remind myself that this is their way of life and culture.

Being able to ride a bucking horse is par for the course with breaking-in horses, and this competition elicited shouts of encouragement from the crowd and laughter when horse and rider parted ways. One man who managed to stay on his horse delighted the crowd as he and his horse disappeared into the distance.

I particularly enjoyed watching the men grabbing an uurga (long pole with a lasso on the end) off the ground from a galloping horse. I was left in awe as to how they stayed on their horse because they would be well down the side of the horse, around its fast-moving legs. Their core strength must be remarkable! With all the rider’s weight on one side, how did the horse not topple over?

Some of the younger men had a competition on the side, grabbing a cigarette lighter off the ground from their galloping horse – some more successful than others. The control these young men and all other competitors had over their horses was genuinely impressive.

It was a most enjoyable, exciting day; I will take home unforgettable memories.



Riders on horses with lassos on long poles rope stampeding horses.

Lassoing wild, stampeding horses at the Mongolian Horse Festival.


People stand around in front of a tent while watching a man fall to the ground off a bucking horse.

I bet that hurt! A competitor falls off a bucking wild horse.


A man in a colourful robe hangs on the side of his galloping horse as he picks up a stick off the ground.

Picking up an uurga (lasso on a pole) off the ground from a galloping horse.


A young man hangs on the side of his galloping horse as he picks up a cigarette lighter off the ground.

A young man picks up a cigarette lighter off the ground from a galloping horse.


Editor’s Note: I originally published this blog post in February 2019 and have updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.


Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.


Would you seek out this type of experience when travelling? I love hearing from you. Leave a comment below.


Like this post? Save it for later!

Men in colourful robes sit on a fence railing with their saddled horses behind them.


A man dressed in a colourful robe hangs on the side of his galloping horse as he picks up a pole off the ground.


Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.


Sign up to receive the latest in travel destinations, topics, resources and guides.


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A person is fossicking for dinosaur fossils along an escarpment of the Flaming Cliffs in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.DINOSAUR FOSSIL HUNTING IN MONGOLIA’S GOBI DESERT AT THE FLAMING CLIFFS (2023 Updated)

The Flaming Cliffs are famous for the discovery of dinosaur eggs in 1923 and is one of the world’s greatest dinosaur fossil sites. Go fossicking!


A nomad and his ger


Cultural sensitivity when travelling is a sign of deep respect. Prevent social and cultural faux pas through ignorance. Know before you go!





Embark on an Unforgettable Journey on France’s Canal du Midi and Experience Extraordinary Engineering Feats That Are Works of Art.   What do you know about the Canal du Midi? …

Embark on an Unforgettable Journey on France’s Canal du Midi and Experience Extraordinary Engineering Feats That Are Works of Art.


What do you know about the Canal du Midi? 

Set against the picturesque landscape of southern France, the Canal du Midi is a serene waterway and a testament to human creativity and engineering brilliance. Prepare to be awe-struck by three engineering marvels that have stood the test of time and captivated all who encounter them.

In this travel blog post, I invite you to join me on a journey uncovering the stories behind the three remarkable wonders of human ingenuity I discovered when sailing from Marseillan to Salleles d’Aude on a hotel barge on the historic Canal du Midi: the masterfully constructed Orb Aqueduct that defies gravity, the intricately designed seven-step Fonserannes Locks that challenge navigation skills, and the mystical Malpas Tunnel that channels the canal through a hill.

I am not an engineering expert, but crossing the Orb Aqueduct, climbing the Fonserannes Locks, and traversing the Malpas Tunnel were extraordinary experiences and unforgettable highlights of my barge cruise on the Canal du Midi with European Waterways. They have left a lasting impression on me that I want to share with you, and I hope you get to experience them for yourself.


The Canal du Midi

A boat sails along a tree-lined canal.

Cruising the Canal du Midi


The Canal du Midi in southern France was constructed between 1666 and 1681 by the 17th-century canal engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet. It is considered one of the most significant construction works of the 17th century and is one of the oldest canals still in use in Europe. The Canal du Midi was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

The Canal du Midi runs for 240 kilometres from the Etang de Thau, a sheltered lagoon behind the Mediterranean port of Sete, to Toulouse, where it joins the Canal de Garonne – connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The Etang de Thau at Marseillan was the starting point for my barge cruise on the Canal du Midi with European Waterways.

I cruised the Canal du Midi on European Waterway’s first-class, eight-passenger hotel barge, the Adjodi. The section of the Canal du Midi we cruised included three impressive 17th-century engineering feats – the Orb Aqueduct, Fonserannes Locks, and Malpas Tunnel. But you don’t need to be an engineer to appreciate, enjoy, and be thrilled by these wonders of the Canal du Midi.

A sunset is reflected in the waters of a tree-lined canal.

The sun sets on another day on the Cana du Midi.


Orb Aqueduct

A boat sails through aqueduct - a water bridge.

Our barge navigates the Canal du Midi along the Orb Aqueduct at Beziers.


A photo of a barge navigating the Orb Aqueduct (Pont-Canal de l’Orbat) at Beziers in southern France has always been my ‘vision’ of the Canal du Midi and one of the reasons I wanted to do a barge cruise on the canal. No other image of the Canal du Midi was more iconic than the Orb Aqueduct.

The Orb Aqueduct is a one-lane bridge carrying the Canal du Midi over the Orb River. At 240 metres long, 28 metres wide, 12 metres high, and with seven arches, the Orb Aqueduct is one of the largest aqueducts in France and the largest on the Canal du Midi. Prior to the opening of the Orb Aqueduct in 1858, the Canal du Midi traversed a short, treacherous section of the Orb River that would sink boats or leave them stranded for weeks due to its unpredictable flow. Building the aqueduct allowed boats to bypass the dangerous Orb River safely.

The aqueduct carries the canal in a masonry trough sealed with a layer of concrete. The concrete seal was replaced in 1951; otherwise, the original structure still exists. You can walk the length of Orb Aqueduct as there is a towpath on both sides.

The Orb Aqueduct was classified as a National Historical Monument in 1962 and was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.

A water bridge carrying the Canal du Midi over the river below.

Six of the Orb Aqueduct’s seven arches.


A bridge carrying water over a river below.

The Orb Aqueduct carries the Canal du Midi over the River Orb.


Fonserannes Locks

The image shows the mechanisms on top of seven lock gates that climb up a hill.

The seven-rise lock staircase or Fonserannes.


Locks are an integral part of any barge cruise, and on the Canal du Midi, I got my gratifying fill of them. However, none would raise my excitement or sense of adventure as much as the seven-rise lock staircase of Fonserannes (also known as the Fonserannes Locks or the Fonserannes Staircase) near the town of Beziers.

When the Canal du Midi was constructed in the 17th century, Pierre-Paul Riquet had to overcome the problem of crossing the Orb River, which was 48 metres higher than the natural course of the canal waterway. The answer was the Fonserannes Lock Staircase, a staggering feat of engineering and very impressive, even to my untrained eye. It is one of the features that led to the Canal du Midi being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Fonserannes Lock Staircase is a 312-metre-long water staircase, allowing boats and barges to negotiate a 25-metre gradient by passing through seven oval-shaped lock chambers and eight gates. There is an eighth chamber, but it is no longer in use. Boats are raised (or lowered) 21.5 metres over a distance of 300 metres, with the deepest rise (or drop) over six metres.

A boat is in a lock chamber on the Canal du Midi. This is a staircase lock system of which there are seven ovoid chambers and eight gates.

A boat climbs the Fonserannes Staircase Locks.


We approached the Fonserannes seven-rise lock staircase from the Orb Aqueduct and travelled up the lock staircase. Our barge captain took over 30 minutes to negotiate the boat’s climb through the seven chambers. The force and speed at which the water rushes into the chamber when a gate opens is astounding.

A boat moves into the rushing waters of a filling lock chamber.

Our barge navigates through Fonserannes Locks.


One lock chamber must have been particularly challenging because going under the bridge that spanned the gate dislodged the height indicator pole (a red flag on a pole on the boat’s bow). As I understand it, the lockkeeper allowed too much water to enter the lock, making the water in the chamber higher than it should have been. Our captain had to duck very low to ensure his head didn’t connect with the bridge.

A boat travels under a low bridge as it enters a lock chamber with water starting to rush through the opening gate into the next lock chamber.

A low bridge knocked over the red-flagged height indicator pole.


We stopped for the night at the top of Fonserannes Staircase Locks. So, I took the opportunity to walk the towpath back to the Orb Aqueduct, an easy, flat 20-minute walk.

Malpas Tunnel

A boat approaches a tunnel in a hill with the canal passing through the tunnel.

Our barge approaches the Malpas Tunnel on the Canal du Midi.


The Malpas Tunnel, between Bezier and Capstang on the Canal du Midi, was the first tunnel ever dug for a canal. The tunnel was excavated in 1679 in secret by the canal’s chief engineer, Pierre-Paul Riquet, as the Prime Minister had stopped the plan to dig a canal tunnel through Enserune Hill because initial excavations revealed the tunnel was liable to collapse due to the hill being brittle sandstone. Over 300 years later, the Malpas Tunnel is still navigable! And there is now even a railway tunnel ten metres below the canal tunnel, built nearly 200 years later!

Local folklore has it that after the completion of the Malpas Tunnel, one of the workers built a small nook inside the tunnel’s ceiling and lived there as a hermit. When barges passed through the tunnel, the crew threw bread into the opening for the hermit. Barge crews still sometimes throw a piece of bread into the opening of the nook as a “gift for the hermit”.

Our captain did not throw bread into the opening in the ceiling, but he did play the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (at least, I think that was what it was). I did not fathom the relevance of this, but the music sounded incredible and very dramatic as it echoed off the tunnel walls.

A boat exits a tunnel that carries the Canal du Midi through the hill. A man is steering the boat.

The hermit nook in the ceiling of Malpas Tunnel.


Canal de Jonction

I want to leave you with my favourite photo I took on the Canal du Midi barge cruise. It is not the Canal du Midi per se but taken when we stopped for the night at Salleles d’Aude on the Canal de Jonction. The Canal de Jonction is a shortcut from the Canal du Midi to the Canal de la Robine. It was early morning, the water was milk-pond still, and the reflections of our barge and the trees lining the canal created an unforgettable image.

A blue and white barge is tied up to the bank of a tree-lined canal. The barge and trees are reflected in the still waters of the canal. A lock can be seen in the distance.

The Adjodi reflected in the still waters at Salleles d’Aude on the Canal de Jonction.


Reflecting on my journey along the Canal du Midi, I am in awe of the ingenuity and determination that brought these three remarkable engineering marvels to life. The Orb Aqueduct is a testament to the courage of human vision, carrying the canal over the valley below. The Fonserannes Locks remind us of our ability to conquer and harness the raw forces of nature. And then there is the Malpas Tunnel, a hidden passage shrouded in history and mystery carved through solid rock.

As you traverse the tranquil waters of the Canal du Midi, it’s impossible not to be humbled by the visionaries who conceived these extraordinary structures. Their dedication to crafting a passage that conquered natural obstacles while blending with the landscape continues to inspire admiration centuries later.

Whether you’re a history buff, an engineering enthusiast, or a traveller searching for unique experiences, the Canal du Midi’s engineering marvels promise an unforgettable journey.


Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.


Leave a comment below. I look forward to reading and responding to your comments on the Canal du Midi and its engineering marvels.


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The image shows two photos. One photo is of a boat reflected in the waters of a tree-lined canal. The other photo is a boat sailing on an aqueduct (a water bridge). These are engineering marvels on the Canal du Midi.

The image is two photos - a boat entering the swirling waters of a lock chamber and the other is a boat, steered by a man, exiting a tunnel.


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An image of a castle within a medieval citadel.
CARCASSONNE CITADEL – The Best-Preserved Medieval Town in France
Carcassonne Citadel is a medieval treasure in Southern France. It is the most complete medieval town in existence today and is worth two to three days to explore.




CARCASSONNE CITADEL – The Best-Preserved Medieval Town in France

Carcassonne Citadel is a Medieval Treasure in Southern France.   Dear Ryan, One of the highlights of my Canal du Midi cruise with European Waterways was a morning in the…

Carcassonne Citadel is a Medieval Treasure in Southern France.

A medieval fortified town

Carcassonne Citadel entrance gate


Dear Ryan,

One of the highlights of my Canal du Midi cruise with European Waterways was a morning in the Citadel of Carcassonne. The barge captain was surprised I had not heard of Carcassonne Citadel as it is one of France’s premier tourist attractions. But, as you know, I have only been to France once before, and that was to a different region.

So, here is what I learned about Carcassonne Citadel…

  • It is the most complete medieval fortified town in existence today and the largest in Europe.
  • It has about 2,500 years of history and was occupied by the Romans, Visigoths, and Crusaders at different periods.
  • Three kilometres of double walls interspersed with 52 watchtowers surround the citadel.
  • It is a lived-in citadel with houses, schools, shops, restaurants, hotels, basilica, and museums.
  • The citadel is open 24/7 and is free to enter. However, there is an admission fee to visit Carcassonne Castle and its ramparts.
  • Carcassonne Citadel was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

European Waterways took us on a two-hour guided walking tour around the walls, through the citadel, and into the Basilica Saint Nazaire. We were given admission tickets for the castle and ramparts, but I didn’t see them. After going to the toilet and watching the visual display at the entrance, I had to leave the castle as it was time to meet our guide to leave Carcassonne.

A gothic church facade with shrubs and flowers in front of it.

Basilica Saint Nazaire


Our visit to Carcassonne Citadel was too rushed and deserved so much more time. I could have spent 2-3 days there instead of the few hours allocated to the visit.

  • I would stay within the citadel. From my view of its exterior, the Hotel de la Cite next to the basilica appealed to me. That it is a 5-star hotel probably added to that appeal, even if it is beyond my budget.
  • Exploring the castle beyond the toilet block would be a bonus. And I am told the views from the ramparts are stunning. But I would want to walk them to see for myself.
  • I would like to eat at the many restaurants, buy lots of nougat, and shop until I drop. The clothes and leather goods shops were of particular interest.
  • Three days would give me time to visit some of the museums within the citadel and Carcassonne city, for example, the School Museum, the Museum of the Inquisition, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Perhaps I need four days!

Did you know there is a Carcassonne board game? Apparently, it is one of the most beloved and well-known board games in the world. I have never heard of it. Just something else to add to my ignorance about Carcassonne!

Next stop, Spain.




Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2023.


Have you been to Carcassonne Citadel? What would you recommend I include on my next, more in-depth visit? Leave a comment below.


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A photo of an entrance gate to a medieval fortified citadel.

An image of a medieval castle in a fortified citadel.


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The image shows three photos of engineering marvels on the Canal du Midi - a boat crossing the Orb Aqueduct, a boat approaching a canal tunnel, and a seven-rise lock staircase.


Prepare to be awe-struck by three extraordinary engineering marvels on the Canal du Midi that are works of art – the Orb Aqueduct, Fonserannes Staircase Locks, and Malpas Tunnel.



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Join Me on a Visual Journey Through the Awe-Inspiring Sounds of Fiordland National Park, a Place Where Nature’s Grandeur and Serenity Intertwine.   On two recent trips to New Zealand…

Join Me on a Visual Journey Through the Awe-Inspiring Sounds of Fiordland National Park, a Place Where Nature’s Grandeur and Serenity Intertwine.


On two recent trips to New Zealand (Aotearoa), one by land and one by sea, I was fortunate to have cruised three spectacular sounds (fiords) in Fiordland National Park – Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound. New Zealand is one of only a few places where you can see the spectacular sight of glacial-fed fiords.

My land trip involved a convoluted journey to the included overnight, scenic cruise on Doubtful Sound. But my sea trip was a cruise on a large ship, where we sailed in and out of Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound from the Tasman Sea.

In this post, I focus on my photographs of the three sounds because, as the saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. I feel no amount of words will do justice to the breathtaking natural beauty I experienced of Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound.


Fiordland National Park

The Māori name for Fiordland is Te Rua-o-Te-Moko.

A partial map of New Zealand's South Island showing the fiords in Fiordland National Park

Map of the sounds in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park (


Fiordland National Park is located in the southwestern corner of New Zealand’s South Island. At over 1.2 million hectares and covering nearly 13,000 square kilometres, it is New Zealand’s largest national park.

Fiordland National Park is a place of extraordinary beauty, and it is home to glaciers, majestic alpine ranges, lakes, rainforests, unique flora and fauna, and 14 sounds (fiords). Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound are three of the park’s most significant fiords.

You will have noticed I jump between ‘sound’ and ‘fiord’, and both terms are correct. However, Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound, and Milford Sound are actually fiords as they are glacier-carved valleys filled by the sea rather than river valleys flooded by the sea. British explorers misnamed them as sounds, and the name has stuck!

Dusky Sound

The Māori name for Dusky Sound is Tamatea.

A photo of rays of light, clouds, mountains, and a body of water.

Rays of light stream through the clouds over Dusky Sound


Dusky Sound is remote and accessible by air and sea only. It is the largest of Fiordland’s 14 sounds at 40 kilometres long and eight kilometres wide at its widest. Several islands lie in the sound.

Dusky Sound is an area of stunning landscapes, with craggy mountains and hundreds of waterfalls cascading into the sound during winter (June-August) when there are higher rainfalls. It is a wildlife wonderland with seals and dolphins often sighted in the sound.

We sailed into Dusky Sound at 8.30 in the morning, with the clouds still rising above the mountains. Dusky Sound was my favourite of the three sounds as I found it to be the more dramatic. That it revealed itself only slowly added to the drama.

A visual journey through Dusky Sound

Tall peaks with low cloud cover reach a body of water

Low clouds drape the mountains of Dusky Sound.


A body of water surrounded by mountains and low cloud cover.

Dusky Sound, Fiordland National Park


Mountains line a body of water with small islands

Dusky Sound – mountains and islands


Doubtful Sound

The Māori name for Doubtful Sound is Patea, meaning “the place of silence”.

Mountains surround a body of water with small islands in the still morning

Untouched Doubtful Sound, Fiordland National Park


Doubtful Sound is the deepest (421 metres) and one of the longest (40 kilometres) of South Island’s fiords and has three arms. Doubtful Sound is a pretty waterway with its rugged landscape, verdant rainforest, and cascading waterfalls. Wildlife includes fur seals and penguins, and it is home to a permanent pod of about 70 bottlenose dolphins.

Doubtful Sound is remote, and there is no direct road access. Your only way of getting to Doubtful Sound is a bit of a journey but an adventure in itself. Starting at Pearl Harbour wharf in Manapouri, you take a cruise across Lake Manapouri to West Arm (about 50 minutes), then travel by coach over Wilmot Pass (671-metre-high) to Deep Cove in Doubtful Sound, where you board your scenic day or night boat cruise. On the drive over Wilmot Pass, the coach stops at a vantage point for a magnificent view of Doubtful Sound below. The total time travelled from Manapouri to Deep Cove is nearly two hours. There is no settlement at Deep Cove, but it is home to a small fishing fleet.

View from above of a fiord with mountains on both sides.

Looking down on Doubtful Sound from Wilmot Pass


I first experienced the remote wilderness of Doubtful Sound on an overnight cruise on the three-masted Fiordland Navigator, taking the journey described above to get to the ship. On our second day, the ship stopped the engines for 10 minutes of silence to honour Doubtful Sound’s Māori name and listen to nature.

A three-mast passenger ship docked at a wharf, with mountains in the background.

The Fiordland Navigator docked at Deep Cove Wharf in Doubtful Sound.


My second trip along Doubtful Sound was aboard a cruise ship, entering the fiord from the Tasman Sea.

A visual journey through Doubtful Sound

Mountain peaks tinged blue in the early morning light surround a body of water.

The blue tinge of early morning light on Doubtful Sound


Mountain peaks rise above a body of water

The shadows and light of Doubtful Sound


A body of water surrounded by mountains and wake in the water created by an unseen boat.

The ship’s wake creates a path through Doubtful Sound.


Milford Sound

The Māori name for Milford Sound is Piopiotahi.

Tall mountain peaks surround a body of water

Milford Sound, Fiordland National Park


Milford Sound is 16 kilometres long, with sheer cliffs and waterfalls to rival some of the world’s tallest. It is the only fiord accessible by road (around 5-6 hours from Queenstown and about three hours from Te Anau) and the most popular. You can stay in Milford Sound, with accommodation options ranging from Airbnb to a public lodge.

Milford Sound is known for the towering Mitre Peak, so called because it resembles a bishop’s mitre. The fiord is home to dolphins, fur seals, and penguins.

The naturalist onboard the Fiordland Navigator commented that Milford Sound is the most touristy of Fiordland National Park’s fiords but the most beautiful. You be the judge! Perhaps the lack of tourists in Dusky Sound and Doubtful Sound appealed to me the most. Somehow, they felt more untouched. But who am I to say? The British writer Rudyard Kipling visited Milford Sound in the 1890s and declared it ‘the eighth wonder of the world’.

A visual journey through Milford Sound

A small boat cruises through water surrounded by tall cliffs.

The cliffs of Milford Sound dwarf a boat.


Sheer mountains dwarf a waterfall and boat.

Milford Sound has many waterfalls.


A photo of a mountain shaped like a Bishop's mitre

Mitre Peak, Milford Sound


No trip to New Zealand is complete without exploring Fiordland National Park and the spectacular sight of glacial-carved fiords.

I hope these photographs have transported you to a land of untamed beauty, leaving an indelible imprint on your senses with a desire to discover for yourself. Fiordland’s sounds are a testament to the power and harmony of the natural world.


Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2022.


If you could only visit one of New Zealand’s sounds (fiords) in Fiordland National Park and getting there was no barrier, which sound would you choose and why? Leave a comment below.


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A collage of two photos of mountains reaching down to a body of water. One photo shows a mountain shaped like a Bishop's mitre. The other photo shows the wake of an unseen boat.

A collage of two photos. One photo shows a river-like body of water with mountains on both sides, looking from above. The other photo shows a mountain reflected in the water.


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A view of New Zealand's snow covered Southern Alps, with Mount Cook in the background.HOW TO LAND ON A GLACIER IN NEW ZEALAND’S STUNNING SOUTHERN ALPS. Climb aboard a helicopter for a scenic flight over Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers and experience a snow landing on Franz Josef Glacier.


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ULTIMATE SRI LANKA ITINERARY – The Best of Sri Lanka in 20 Days

Use This Comprehensive Trip Planner To Create Your Sri Lanka Itinerary.   Sri Lanka is a land where history and culture are inseparable, with breathtaking landscapes from the beaches to…

Use This Comprehensive Trip Planner To Create Your Sri Lanka Itinerary.


Sri Lanka is a land where history and culture are inseparable, with breathtaking landscapes from the beaches to the hills and wildlife said to rival Africa. Discover the best sights and things to do in Sri Lanka with my comprehensive 20-day travel itinerary. Encounter the wildlife found in its national parks and wetlands, discover the natural beauty of the Hill Country, explore six UNESCO World Heritage Sites, wander through untamed gardens, and so much more.


About Sri Lanka

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka for short, and formerly called Ceylon – is that teardrop-shaped nation lying at the bottom of India in the Indian Ocean and is often referred to as the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

For a small country, Sri Lanka packs a mighty punch for the traveller with a fantastic combination of diverse landscapes, pristine beaches, ancient culture, historical and religious temples and buildings, and unique experiences.

“Within a mere area of 65,610 kilometers lie 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, 1,330 kilometers of coastline – much of it pristine beaches – 15 national parks showcasing an abundance of wildlife, nearly 500,000 acres of lush tea estates, 250 acres of botanical gardens, 350 waterfalls, 25,000 water bodies, to a culture that extends back to over 2,500 years.”

Sri Lanka offers something for every type of traveller, no matter what your desired adventure or experience. There is no shortage of things to do in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka has a long history of colonisation by the Portuguese, Dutch, and British. These external influences have left their mark on Sri Lanka, building a country with many ethnic groups, languages, and religions. Buddhism is the main religion of Sri Lanka (70.2% of the population), followed by Hinduism (12.6% of the population). Muslims (9.7%) and Christians (7.4%) comprise the last two major religious groups.


I toured Sri Lanka in 2017 with my sister and brother-in-law. Our 20 days in Sri Lanka were on a private tour, with a customised itinerary we developed in conjunction with Insider Journeys, an Australian-based specialist tour operator. Coordinating it all was our travel consultant at Helloworld Travel Professionals in Albury.

Insider Journeys organised our accommodation, vehicle and driver-guide, and additional guides, such as the Naturalist in Bundala National Park.

In Sri Lanka, you must pay for the driver-guide’s accommodation on a private tour.

Much of what we did and saw resulted from our pre-tour research when developing our itinerary. Once in Sri Lanka, we included additional activities based on further research and suggestions from our driver-guide.

Note: From here on in, for convenience and reading ease, I will refer to our driver-guide simply as our guide.

Our itinerary covered Sri Lanka’s Hill Country, Cultural Triangle, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, national parks, magnificent gardens (formal and wild), and beautiful coastlines.

Twenty days in Sri Lanka gave us a comprehensive tour at a relaxed pace.

A map showing a road route taken around Sri Lanka on a 20-day itinerary

Sri Lanka Itinerary route map (Google Maps)

List of places to see in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka itinerary overview


Detailed Sri Lanka trip itinerary

The itinerary starts with an international flight into Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, and ends with the flight home (Australia) from Colombo.

The itinerary focuses on our personalised trip and is written from my perspective as I experienced it. While based on having a private guide for the duration of the journey, the itinerary is adaptable and works just as well for travellers using trains, buses, and taxis, which are available throughout Sri Lanka.

As well as being there for us on pre-determined trips, excursions, and activities, our vehicle and guide were also available for 80 kilometres per day for anything else we wanted to include at the last minute.

The reviews of the hotels listed in this itinerary are my opinions as written in 2017. If I was to stay at the hotels today, my thoughts might be different.

Sri Lanka is one of those countries where foreigners pay a higher entrance fee to sites and museums than that paid by Sri Lankan residents.

Day 1: Arrive in Colombo

Day 1 was purely an arrival day for us. Our flight arrived in Colombo just before midnight.

Our guide met us at the airport and drove us to our accommodation, where we stayed for the next two nights – Galle Face Hotel (see review, Day 2).

Day 2: Colombo

  • Discover the city of Colombo

Colombo is a new capital city, having only been Sri Lanka’s capital since 1815. It is a dynamic city with a multicultural community encompassing the past, present, and future. Colombo is known for being one of the best places in Sri Lanka to splurge in fashionable boutiques, sample a wide range of cuisines, and enjoy its vibrant nightlife.

Our day began after a leisurely breakfast, with our guide taking us on a one-hour orientation drive around Colombo. Returning to the hotel, we left our guide for the day and immediately headed out again to explore Colombo in more detail on foot. Colombo is flat and easy to walk around, but the heat and humidity can be tiring. We covered two districts: the historic Fort district, where modern office blocks rub shoulders with Colonial-era buildings, and the Pettah, the bustling bazaar district and home to Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque.

We let our feet provide the direction, starting at our hotel, which fronted onto Galle Face Green, past Old Parliament Building and Old Colombo Lighthouse in Fort, and into the Pettah, where shops are organised in a bazaar-style layout, with each street dedicated to a particular trade. On Sea Street, you will find gold jewellery shops.

The bustling Pettah district is a chaotic, vibrant melting pot of different ethnicities and religions. Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque opened in 1909 and is known locally as the Red Mosque due to its distinctive red and white exterior. Located on Second Cross Street in Pettah, it is one of the oldest mosques in Colombo and a popular tourist attraction. Non-Muslims are allowed in the mosque, and women may also enter to look around, but you must cover your hair, arms, and legs.

A multi-storied red and whit brick building

Jami Ul-Afar Mosque


A cityscape of old and modern buildings in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Colombo is an intermingling of modern and colonial buildings


Old Colombo Lighthouse (featured in the photo above) is a clock tower and was a lighthouse. Initially built as a clock tower in 1860, the lighthouse was added in 1865. The lighthouse was deactivated in 1952. However, it is a functioning clock tower and is the only lighthouse in the world that doubles as a clock tower.

A colonial building with columns has a highrise modern building with rows of windows behind it.

Old Parliament Building with Hilton Hotel as a backdrop


The modern Hilton Hotel forms a backdrop for the neo-baroque-styled Old Parliament Building, which houses the offices of Sri Lanka’s President.

In the early evening, stroll along Galle Face Green to view the sunset over the Laccadive Sea and mingle with the locals. Galle Face Green is a large grassy area with the Indian Ocean on one side and the busy Galle Face Centre Road on the other, and a promenade stretching along the ocean side. Laid out in 1859 by the then governor of British Ceylon for horse racing, nowadays, it is a gathering place for locals to meet, eat, fly kites, stroll along the promenade, and just enjoy themselves when the heat of the day has faded.

Where we stayed

Galle Face Hotel > 2 Galle Road, Colombo 3

Galle Face Hotel is colonial grace and luxury. Situated right on the seafront and bordering Galle Face Green, the hotel is a lovely old colonial building, beautifully restored with an aura of elegance. It has well-appointed, comfortable rooms, and the service was excellent. Buffet-style breakfast and lunch on the long wide veranda were enjoyable and relaxing. I recommend a hopper for breakfast, and you can’t go past the chocolate croissants.

Hoppers are traditional Sri Lankan food and are generally served at breakfast. They are typically bowl-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice flour and coconut milk filled with egg, vegetables, curry, or whatever your tastebuds desire. They are delicious.

Day 3: Colombo to Galle

  • Visit traditional mask makers in Ambalangoda (83 kilometres south of Colombo).

The drive from Colombo to Galle, where we stayed the next three nights, took about four hours. We took the coast road rather than the expressway because we wanted to stop in Ambalangoda to visit the traditional mask makers, Ariyapala & Sons, whose museum, showroom, and workshop came recommended by Insight Guides Sri Lanka:

“The town of Ambalangoda … is most famous as the centre of the island’s mask carvers … Two mask museums stand opposite one another at the northern end of town. The larger and more interesting of the two is the Ariyapala and Sons Mask Museum.”

Travelling the coast road was a pretty drive as it hugged the coast, passing through village after village. According to our guide, a much more interesting route than the expressway.

The Ariyapala & Sons Mask Museum provides an insight into the history of masks in Sri Lanka and their role in storytelling and medicine. Traditionally, the masks, made from balsa wood, were used in Kolan dances performing folk stories and exorcism ceremonies to frighten off evil deities (bad spirits). The Sanni masks, of which there are 18, are distorted and disturbing. These masks are used in exorcism rituals, each representing a disease or ailment caused by yakkas (devils), such as vomiting, insanity, nightmares, and stomach diseases. Unfortunately, these traditions are being lost to modernisation.

Connected to the museum is the workshop where you can watch several artisans carving and painting masks. Above the museum is the showroom, where you can buy every mask imaginable at reasonable prices.

A wall of masks with googly eyes, open moths with large teeth, and big noses

Ariyapala Mask Museum


Ariyapala & Sons Mask Museum > 426 Main Street, Ambalangoda

Open 9.30 am to 5.00 pm daily.

Entrance to the museum is free.

Leaving the mask museum, we completed our journey to Galle – the most important town on Sri Lanka’s south coast. Galle comprises the old Dutch quarter – enclosed within the Fort – and the sprawling New Town outside the Fort’s walls. We stayed inside Galle Fort, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Where we stayed

Fort Bazaar > 26 Church Street, Galle Fort

You can read my review of Fort Bazaar in my blog post on 24 Hours in Galle Fort.

Day 4: Galle

  • Explore Galle Fort

The Portuguese built Galle Fort in 1589. In 1640, the Dutch seized the Fort and extended its fortifications, which survive to this day. The British modified the Fort after Galle was handed over to them in 1796. The fortifications run for three kilometres, and the walls are over one metre thick.

Galle Fort is small (0.52 kilometres square), relatively flat, and easy to walk around. We spent the morning and early afternoon on a self-guided walk around Galle Fort. Walking around the Fort is an excellent way to take in the many sites of interest Galle Fort has to offer.

The Fort’s bastions allow views of the lighthouse, clock tower, mosque, and main gate, and you pass many wonderful colonial buildings and cafes. Our walk took longer than the 90 minutes suggested by guidebooks because we walked at a leisurely pace so we wouldn’t miss anything, and we kept stopping to take photos on our way around.

Rather than spell out the route here and all that we saw and did, I recommend you read my blog post on 24 Hours in Galle Fort. In the post, you will find the following:

  • Why you should visit Galle Fort;
  • How to get from Colombo to Galle Fort and our experience of how scary driving in Sri Lanka can be;
  • A detailed tourist map of Galle Fort highlighting places of interest;
  • A detailed description, with photos, of the route we took on our self-guided walk around Galle Fort;
  • A review of Fort Bazaar, where we stayed for three nights in Galle Fort;
  • Reviews of where we ate in Galle Fort; and
  • Information on the weather we experienced and its impact on me and our camera equipment.

A white house with a white church beside it

Library and Dutch Reform Church in Galle Fort


Day 5: Galle

  • Visit the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum in Koggala (16 kilometres from Galle Fort).
  • Discover the Kataluwa Temple in Ahangama (2.7 kilometres from MW Museum).
  • Watch the fishermen haul in their boats at Weligama (Weligama is 13 kilometres from Kataluwa Temple).
  • See the Peace Pagoda (25 kilometres from Weligama on the way back to Galle Fort).

With Galle as your base, spend the day exploring outside the walls of Galle Fort along Sri Lanka’s south coast to discover places and sites off the beaten path. Our route was a round trip of 65 kilometres over five hours.

Our first stop was the Martin Wickramasinghe Museum in Koggala, 16 kilometres from Galle Fort – an excellent museum that sees few tourists.

Martin Wickramasinghe (1890 to 1976) was one of Sri Lanka’s greatest authors and intellectuals. The central theme of his writings was that of the culture and life of the people of Sri Lanka. His books are still required reading for Sri Lankan school children.

Set in seven acres of gardens in the small town of Koggala, the Martin Wickramasinghe complex comprises the Folk Museum and the home where Martin was born and grew up. Part of his home is over 200 years old and survived being destroyed by the army in the Second World War because a female Royal Airforce officer fell in love with it and decided to live in it. Martin’s home was not handed back to the Wickramasinghe family until after Martin’s death, and Martin’s ashes are buried next to the house.

The Folk Museum, which opened in 1981, is a repository of artefacts depicting the history of Sri Lankan folk culture from ancient to modern times. The museum is home to a fantastic collection of masks and puppets. In the gardens, you will find exhibitions of traditional modes of transport.

Traditional Sri Lankan wooden fishing boats in a museum

Traditional fishing boats, Matin Wickramasinghe Museum


I recommend you take a guided tour, finishing in the museum shop where you can buy books by Martin Wickramasinghe.

Martin Wickramasinghe House and Folk Museum > Matara Road, Koggala

Open 9.00 am to 5.00 pm daily.

The ticket price is 200 LKR (Sri Lankan rupee) (US$0.58).

A short distance from the Martin Wickramasinghe, at just 2.7 kilometres, you will find the 13th-century Buddhist temple, Kataluwa Purwarama Temple, in Ahangama. Fantastic murals cover the temple’s walls, many of which are thought to date from the 19th century. The murals include several unusual paintings of Kaffringha dancers with a troupe of Western musicians. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit in 2017, they were in the process of painting over the murals, which is probably why we couldn’t find the portrait of a lopsided Queen Victoria.

A painting of a man beating a drum while two bare-chested men leap in the air. A woman watches on.

Kataluwa Temple mural of dancers


A painting of Sri Lankan and Western musicians and two Western women

Mural of Western musicians in Kataluwa Temple


From Kataluwa Temple, drive 13 kilometres further along the coast to the village of Weligama, described as a sleepy fishing village. We had planned to walk around Weligama and find somewhere for lunch, but it looked so uninviting we passed straight through. Instead, take a walk along the beach, paddle or swim in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and watch the local fishermen haul their boats up onto the beach. This latter appeared to be no easy task. The progress was laborious, even with four to six men on either side of the boat.

Several men push their large fishing boat out of the water and onto the beach.

Fishermen hauling their boat up onto the beach at Wiligama


Before leaving the beach at Weligama, take some photos of Sri Lanka’s renowned stilt fisherman. The fishermen balance themselves on a crossbar on the stilt or pole as they fish and can usually be seen early morning or at dusk. But be warned! Those sitting on stilts later in the day are not fishermen but local people posing on the stilts for tourists and expecting payment for photos taken.

The best place to see the stilt fishermen is along the south coast from Midigama to Koggala.

Seven wooden poles with traingle-shaped sitting platforms stand in the surf

Fishing stilts (poles) at Weligama


Heading back to Galle Fort, stop at the Peace Pagoda, built by the Japanese as a monument to the victims of the 2004 tsunami. Perched on the side of a hill, the Peace Pagoda offers fantastic views of Galle Fort.

View of a town on a peninsula with colonial buildings and surrounded by ocean

View of Galle Fort from the Peace Pagoda


From the Peace Pagoda, it was 8.1 kilometres back to our hotel in Galle Fort.

Day 6: Galle to Yala National Park

  • Tour Geoffrey Bawa’s Lunuganga garden in Bentota with lunch on the veranda (56 kilometres north of Galle Fort).

Finding things to do in Sri Lanka away from the crowds is an excellent reason to visit Geoffrey Bawa’s garden, as it is largely undiscovered by tourists.

Geoffrey Bawa (1919-2003) was Sri Lanka’s most well-known architect and is deemed the most influential Asian architect of the 20th century. On Lunuganga Estate, Geoffrey’s country home, he spent 50 years creating a garden described as a controlled landscape of untamed wilderness.

The garden is spread over 23 acres and is cared for by 18 gardeners. Time your visit for a guided tour and lunch on the veranda of Geoffrey’s former home. Read my updated blog post for details, photos, and descriptions of Geoffrey Bawa’s garden.

A wall with a window and roof surrounded by green plants

Geoffrey Bawa’s garden


I recommend visiting Geoffrey Bawa’s Lunuganga garden on the way from Colombo to Galle rather than backtracking like we did, making the trip to Yala National Park much longer than had we travelled to the park directly from Galle. We could not do this more direct route as Lunuganga Estate was closed for the Sri Lankan New Year when we drove from Colombo to Galle.

The drive from Geoffrey Bawa’s garden to Yala National Park took five hours. We had a two-night stay in Yala National Park.

Where we stayed

Cinnamon Wild Yala > Palatupana, Kirinda

Located at the periphery of Yala National Park, Cinnamon Wild Yala is a large commercial hotel lacking character. We stayed in Jungle Chalets, which were spacious, clean, and well-appointed. The chalets are individually situated but spread out over a large area. While this allows privacy between chalets, you could be up for a long walk to the main lodge for meals, a swim, or to meet your driver.

There was a focus on guest safety, with an escort required for people moving around the compound between 7.00 pm and 6.00 am.

The buffet dining area could do with ceiling fans to move the humid air, and the staff could show greater efficiency.

Day 7: Yala National Park

  • Look for wildlife on safari in Yala National Park.

Yala National Park is situated at the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka and is Sri Lanka’s most famous national park. It was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and a national park in 1938. It is best known for its variety of wild animals, especially for its large population of leopards, said to be the highest leopard density in the world.

The best activity in Yala National Park is a 3-hour safari drive around the park to spot wildlife. The safari drives are available morning and afternoon. But be warned! Yala National Park does not limit the number of vehicles entering the park or the route taken through the park. As such, your safari drive will end up in convoy with at least a dozen other vehicles.

We took a morning and afternoon safari drive and saw very few animals. We did spot two leopards on the afternoon safari drive, but it was difficult to make them out as they were well concealed by bushes. Other animals you may spot on your safari drive include sloth bears, jungle cats, mongoose, wild boar, deer, buffalo, and elephants.

On the morning safari drive, we saw a baby elephant concealed in the bush, a couple of mongooses, a few lone elephants, spotted deer, water buffalo, many birds, and a crocodile. The animals just didn’t seem to be out there. Disappointing! Our afternoon safari drive was no more productive than the morning.

A mongoose sits in the scrub

Mongoose in Yala National Park


Yala National Park is open from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm, year-round. The average park fee per adult foreigner is between US$31-36, depending on the number of people in a jeep.

Sri Lanka is supposedly the best safari destination outside of Africa. The three of us (my sister, brother-in-law, and me) agreed that if you have been on safari in Africa (which we have), where wildlife is diverse and bountiful, you will be disappointed with Yala National Park.

In truth, we cannot recommend Yala National Park. Don’t waste your time and money, as there is a better park – Udawalawe National Park (see Days 9 and 10).

Day 8: Yala National Park to Bundala National Park

  • Take a morning safari drive through Yala National Park.
  • Check out the birdlife in Bundala National Park.

There was the opportunity for a final safari drive in Yala National Park before travelling to Bundala National Park, about a one-hour drive along the coast west of Yala, where we stayed for one night.

Bundala National Park is a 62-square-kilometre ecotourism haven and birdwatchers’ paradise. It was first named a wildlife sanctuary in 1969, became Sri Lanka’s first Ramsar site (significant international wetland) in 1990, was redesignated as a National Park in 1993, and named a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 2005.

  • Bundala National Park has over 200 endemic and migratory bird species, from the tiny bee-eaters to the painted stork.
  • The park is also home to 32 species of mammals, including elephants, spotted deer, water buffalo, wild boars, mongooses, monkeys, jackals, crocodiles, land monitors (they look like goannas), and fishing cats.
  • The park is the habitat of the endangered Star Tortoise.
  • The park’s coastal area is a breeding ground for five species of endangered sea turtles.

A tortoise with star markings on its shell drinks from a mud puddle

An endangered Star Tortoise in Bundala National Park


A crocodile approaches three birds on an island of reeds

A crocodile looking for dinner in Bundala National Park


Arranged by Insider Journeys, Bundala National Park’s resident Naturalist accompanied us on our afternoon safari drive. Having an expert point out the different birds (and the odd animal), provide detailed information about the birds being seen, and explain the link between the environment and birds and animals in the park made a huge (positive) difference to the safari experience – and one you should experience for yourself.

The sheer volume and variety of birds seen on our safari drive were staggering. My sister, an amateur bird watcher, was in raptures. The painted stork was my favourite.

Two birds with long pink legs, long orange beaks, and white, black, pink, and green feathers drink from a mud pool.

Painted Storks


Bundala National Park is open from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm, year-round. We stayed the night inside the park. The park entrance fee is US$10 per adult foreigner, plus a vehicle fee and VAT.

Where we stayed

Mahoora Luxury Camping > Bundala National Park

Mahoora Luxury Camping had set up our tents on the edge of where the sand meets the scrub vegetation, opposite salt pans where salt is mined. The setting was unspoilt, and the atmosphere was one of quiet solitude. To describe the tents as luxury camping required a massive stretch of the imagination. The tents were army tents. My tent came with a bed that was so narrow I feared falling off it should I turn over in my sleep. There was also a table and enough room to move around. At the back of the tent was an attached ‘bathroom’ with a shower (cold water only, but it came out hot because of the heat), toilet, and hand basin. My sister and brother-in-law’s tent was identically furnished, except they had two beds. Electricity only came on after dinner and went off when we went to bed. It was unbearably hot inside our tents.

What the tents lacked in luxury, the service, food, and safari drives with the Naturalist more than made up for it.

There is no permanent accommodation in Bundala National Park. But Mahoora Luxury Camping staff assured us they maintain an eco-friendly campsite, removing all evidence of our presence once we leave, leaving no footprint.

We were served lunch on the beach shortly after we arrived in Bundala National Park, consisting of a tasty noodle, vegetable, and egg soup was first up, followed by rice and various curries. The dessert was curd and treacle (a national dish) and was delicious.

Dinner that night was a bar-b-que on the beach. We could not fault the food and service provided by Mahoora Luxury Camping.

Before heading for bed, the staff told us there would be a wake-up call for our last safari drive at 5.30 in the morning. A 5.30 am wake-up call caused some concern for me because the tent was too hot to wear anything in bed. I overcame this concern by setting my alarm for 5.20 am to have some clothing on before a staff member appeared to wake me.

Day 9: Bundala National Park to Udawalawe National Park

  • Take a morning safari drive through Bundala National Park.
  • Look for wild elephants in Udawalawe National Park.

Our morning safari drive around Bundala National Park before heading to Udawalawe National Park proved just as fruitful as yesterday afternoon’s – seeing lots of birds, crocodiles, water buffalo, monkeys, and a lone elephant.

A brown and white eagle sits on a tree stump

Changeable Hawk-Eagle in Bundala National Park


After a leisurely breakfast, we left Bundala National Park, driving about 70 kilometres northwest to Udawalawe National Park, where we stayed one night.

Udawalawe National Park, covering almost 31,000 hectares, was established as a national park in 1972 to provide a sanctuary for wild animals displaced by the construction of the Udawalawe Reservoir on the Walawe River. The park’s most common type of vegetation is dry grassland, peppered with light scrub, making game viewing easy here.

Being best known for its large elephant population (about 600) – our reason for visiting the park – Udawalawe is the best place in Sri Lanka to observe wild elephants in their natural environment. However, do expect to see other wildlife, such as water buffalo and sambar deer, to the more rarely sighted leopard and sloth bear. The park also supports a thriving population of water birds and birds of prey.

The afternoon game drive saw me in elephant heaven!

A group of five elephants of varying sizes

Elephant family in Udawalawe National Park


If you only have time to visit one national park in Sri Lanka, I recommend Udawalawe National Park over the more popular Yala National Park. The game viewing is better, more interesting, and more diverse. It’s a smaller park; therefore, you are not driving long distances before seeing wildlife. There are also fewer visitors, so you are not travelling in a convoy of dozens of vehicles all on top of each other but have a more personal experience.

Udawalawe National Park is open from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm, year-round. The park entrance fee is US$25.00 per adult foreigner.

Where we stayed

Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort > Udawalawe National Park

The Grand Udawalawe Safari Resort is a large, impersonal hotel with incompetent reception staff who move at a snail’s pace (things may have improved in the ensuing years).

My room was spacious, with a huge bed. It was clean, had all the necessary amenities, and there was a lovely private balcony off the room. In comparison to room size, the bathroom was relatively small but sufficient.

The food was ordinary but edible.

My preference would be for a much smaller boutique hotel.

Day 10: Udawalawe National Park to Ella

  • Take a morning safari drive through Udawalawe National Park.

Two water buffalos head but each other on a grassy stretch of land beside the water.

Male water buffalos vying for dominance in Udawalawe National Park


Make time for a morning game drive in Udawalawe National Park before travelling to Ella, 90 kilometres (about two hours) north of Udawalawe. However, the trip took us three hours as we stopped about six kilometres before reaching Ella to take photos of the 90-metre-high Rawana Falls. It is one of the widest waterfalls in Sri Lanka, where the water glides down the mountain over many ledges before bending into a stream that flows through the valley. At one point, the waterfall formed a natural pool that appeared to be a favourite swimming spot.

A waterfall cascades down the rocks. People are sitting on the rocks and swimming in a pool created by the rocks.

Rawana Falls near Ella


Ella is a small village on the southern edge of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. It is famed for its mountainous beauty, scenic landscapes, waterfalls, tea plantations, and lush vegetation. At an elevation of 1041 metres above sea level, Ella has a cooler climate than the surrounding lowlands. We stayed three nights in Ella.

Where we stayed

Mountain Heavens > Kitalella, Ella

Mountain Heavens is not centrally located and is inconveniently situated for getting to and from the village (Ella). While it is only 600 metres to the centre of Ella (where it is all happening), it is all hill and a very steep hill at that.

The rooms were spacious and well-appointed, with almost everything you needed. Glaringly missing was a means to communicate with Reception from your room, and the only option was to go up and down the stairs to speak to Reception face-to-face.

Breakfast was monotonous, and the evening meal (which had to be ordered by 4.30 pm) was ordinary. However, the view from the hotel was to die for, as its location meant you looked straight down Ella Gap (the valley between the mountains).

Mountains with houses on the slopes and covered in green vegetation

Ella Gap


Day 11: Ella

  • Walk the railway line from Ella to Demodara.
  • See the rock-cut figures at Buduruwagala (37 kilometres southeast of Ella).

In the morning, we decided to do something different and off the beaten track – to walk the railway line from Ella Station to Demodara Station. This is an easy 6.5-kilometre walk that takes you through the breathtaking scenery of mountains carpeted with tea plantations and over the famous, iconic Nine Arch Bridge. When you get to Demodara Station, catch the train back to Ella. For a complete description of this unique, fun walk, read my blog post on Walking the Railway Line From Ella to Demodara. Do as the locals do; walk the line!

Two people walk across a stone railway bridge with nine arches.

Crossing Nine Arch Bridge on our railway line walk


In the afternoon, we grabbed our guide for a drive to Buduruwagala Archeological Site to see the seven colossal 10th-century rock-cut figures carved in bas-relief in a rock that is said to look like a kneeling elephant with its trunk in its mouth. The shape of an elephant alluded me!

An image of Buddha and six other figures are carved into the rock face.

The seven rock-carved figures at Buduruwagala


The figures belong to the Mahayana school of Buddhism, which enjoyed royal patronage between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD, but no one knows why they were carved. The impressive 16-metre-high standing Buddha (the tallest in Sri Lanka) is flanked on either side by three smaller figures. The white central figure to Buddha’s right is thought to represent the Buddhist mythological figure, Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. To the right of this white figure, in the thrice-bent posture, is believed to be Avalokitesvara’s consort, the goddess Tara. The third figure is said to represent Prince Sudhana.

The crowned figure in the centre of the group on Buddha’s left is thought to be Maitreya, the future Buddha. The figure to the left of Maitreya is Vajrapani, holding a thunderbolt symbol. The third figure is said to be Vishnu.

The site is open 24 hours. And tourist-free!

Day 12: Ella

  • Climb Little Adam’s Peak.
  • Have lunch at Bandarawela Hotel (15 kilometres southwest of Ella).
  • Discover Dowa Rock Temple (5.8 kilometres from Bandarawela).

We walked to the summit of Little Adam’s Peak in Ella this morning. The little sister of Adam’s Peak (in Dalhousie village), Little Adam’s Peak sits at 1,141 metres above sea level.

From my ascent of Little Adam’s Peak, I learnt not to believe anything I read in guidebooks. Described as a fairly gentle, mostly flat, easy walk, I found it anything but. To learn how my experience differed from that described in various guidebooks, read my blog post, What is the Missing Truth About Climbing Sri Lanka’s Little Adam’s Peak?

A path winds around and up mountains covered in green vegetation.

Climbing Little Adam’s Peak


After climbing Little Adam’s Peak, I deserved a special lunch, and this is what I got at Bandarawela Hotel, a short drive from Ella.

Nestled in the mountains at over 1,230 metres above sea level, Bandarawela Hotel, built in 1893, was a tea planter’s clubhouse. Having stopped updating the furniture some 80 years ago, the hotel is caught in a time warp.

My sister’s research had recommended lunch in Bandarawela Hotel’s Planter’s Bar, and we were not disappointed. We enjoyed a fusion of traditional classic and colonial Eastern and Western flavours while taking in the surrounding mountains’ panoramic view. A great atmosphere!

Before returning to Ella, at our guide’s suggestion, we drove to Dowa Rock Temple, about six kilometres from Bandarawela on the Bandarawela-Badulla Road. The site is open from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm, and entry is free.

Dowa Rock Temple is a heritage-listed temple famous for its partially finished 11-metre-high standing Buddha cut into the rock face of a granite boulder – the tallest rock-hewn Buddha statue in Sri Lanka’s hill country.

Be prepared to climb up a section of the boulder to get a good view of the Buddha.

An 11-metre image of Buddha is carved into the rock.

The 11-metre rock-carved standing Buddha at Dowa Rock Temple


Dowa Rock Temple was built by Great King Walagamba in the first century BC while taking refuge after an enemy invasion. The temple consists of several chambers carved into the rock. Inside, you will discover a couple of reclining Buddhas, many seated Buddhas, and walls covered with colourful Buddhist murals. At the rear of Dowa Rock Temple is a secret tunnel supposed to have been used by King Walagamba for his escape. The tunnel is said to extend from the temple to Kandy, but the entrance inside The Dowa Rock Temple has been cemented to stop intruders.

A cave with alow painted ceiling and a reclining Buddha behind glass.

Dowa Rock Temple


Day 13: Ella to Nuwara Eliya

  • Enjoy high tea at Heritance Tea Factory

The drive from Ella to Nuwara Eliya (where we stayed one night) took approximately two and a half hours, past tea plantations and breathtaking landscapes.

Nuwara Eliya is in a valley shadowed by Sri Lanka’s tallest mountain (Mount Pedro). The town and surrounding countryside have a definite European feel. Having been established by the British in the 19th century most likely accounts for this. In fact, Nuwara Eliya is often referred to as “Little England”.

Where we stayed

Heritance Tea Factory > Tea Factory Road, Kandapola, Nuwara Eliya

Nestled amongst tea estates, Heritance Tea Factory is a converted abandoned tea factory (hence its name) on the former Hethersett Estate. The hotel has kept the original exterior intact.

As our rooms weren’t ready when we arrived, we took a walk through the beautiful rose garden and visited the miniature tea factory where organic tea is produced.

High Tea at Heritance Tea Factory was an amazing, bountiful spread of savoury and sweet treats – an enjoyable, relaxing experience and a great way to fill the afternoon.

The reception staff were excellent, but some restaurant staff were slow to attend to us. After an exceptional High Tea, we found the buffet dinner disappointing.

My room was very comfortable but looked a little tired, and I showered with three cockroaches.

What has been achieved from an abandoned tea factory is impressive and a tribute to the hotel’s vision. It has been beautifully restored and converted. The hotel exudes an atmosphere of luxurious elegance and relaxation. I recommend staying here if money is no object or as a special treat.

Day 14: Nuwara Eliya to Kandy

  • Learn about tea production at the Ceylon Tea Museum in Kandy

Kandy, located in the Central Highlands, is the second-largest city in Sri Lanka. Our sole purpose for staying a night in Kandy (a 91-kilometre, three-hour drive from Nuwara Ellya) was to visit the famous Temple of the Tooth, which is said to house Sri Lanka’s most important sacred relic – Buddha’s tooth.

While my sister and brother-in-law visited the Temple of the Tooth with our guide, I took myself off to the Ceylon Tea Museum as I was keen to buy some quality teas.

The Ceylon Tea Museum occupies a former four-story tea factory. The ground floor exhibits include machinery from the 19th century used in tea production, which a guide explains in detail. The first floor was dedicated to two of Sri Lanka’s greatest tea pioneers – Thomas Lipton and James Taylor – and displayed other tea-related paraphernalia. On the third floor, eight shops sold fine Sri Lankan teas, each representing a different plantation (estate). And I got a free cup of tea on the fourth floor while taking in the views.

Allow a couple of hours for the Ceylon Tea Museum.

Ceylon Tea Museum > Hantana Road, Hantane, Kandy

Opening Times:

Tuesday to Saturday, 8.30 am to 3.45 pm

Sunday 8.30 am to 3.00 pm

(Closed Mondays and Poya Day falling on weekdays)

Ticket price: 1000 LKR (adult foreigner) (about US$3.00).

Unfortunately, visitors can’t see the sacred relic (Buddha’s tooth), only the gold casket which protects the tooth.

Where we stayed

Theva Residency > Theva Residency Road, Kandy

Overlooking Kandy from the slopes of the Hantana mountain range, Theva Residency is a lovely small boutique hotel with friendly, attentive staff.

My deluxe room was huge, clean, and modern, with a large terrace. While the terrace had a table and chairs, the room would have benefited from somewhere to sit other than the enormous bed.

The food in the hotel’s restaurant was excellent, with a menu that fused East and West. The staff were efficient and attentive, making our meal an enjoyable experience.

My only negative is that the hotel is a long way from anywhere.

Day 15: Kandy to Sigiriya

  • Explore the Dambulla Cave Temples (74 kilometres north of Kandy).
  • Learn Sri Lanka’s history through paintings.

Dambulla Cave Temples is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. The site consists of five caves converted into temples dating back to the 1st century BC. Caves two and three are the largest and the most impressive, as they are full of Buddha statues of numerous sizes with different gestures or postures. The walls and ceilings in these two caves (temples) are entirely covered in paintings. The reclining Buddha in cave three is carved out of rock, as is the 14-metre-long reclining Buddha in cave one.

Opening hours are daily from 7.00 am to 7.00 pm, and admission is 1500 LKR (US$4.38).

A long white building is built into a rock, and people are walking around a paved area in front of the building.

Dambulla Cave Temples


A partial view of a reclining Buddha and sitting Buddha with frescos on the wall behind them.

Dambulla Cave Temples – Buddhas and frescos


Large stone feet that have been painted in multi-colours

The painted feet of a reclining Buddha in Dambulla Cave Temples


Please note: There are 364 steps to climb to reach the temple complex. Your knees and shoulders should be covered, and shoes must be removed before entering the temples. Beware, the rock can get very hot.

You can’t leave Dambulla without visiting the Painting Museum – formally called The Painting Conservation & Research Center. Located 100 metres from the Dambulla Cave Temples, the Painting Museum is a hidden gem. The paintings on display trace the history of Sri Lankan art from pre-historic cave paintings to the colonial era. The number of sites where frescoes and murals can be found all over Sri Lanka is staggering. The paintings are displayed in chronological order and excellently described. The last images depicting Buddhism hell came as a bit of a surprise.

The museum is open from 8.00 am to 4.00 pm daily. The entrance fee is US$2.00.

It was just 20 kilometres from Dambulla to Sigiriya, our base for the next four nights.

Where we stayed

Hotel Sigiriya > Sigiriya

Under no circumstances would I recommend staying at Hotel Sigiriya. My booking was for a superior room, but I was given a single room, which was tiny, dingy, dirty, smelt bad, and the air conditioner and house phone did not work. When I complained, I was ‘upgraded’ to a double room. This room was infested with ants, including in the bed, and the room safe was broken. When I rang for ant spray, it took 25 minutes for the spray to arrive and 30 minutes for staff to attend to the room safe. The first morning, I woke up with ants crawling through my hair!

I did go online to find alternative accommodation in Sigiriya. However, there were none with availability. Most unfortunate!

The staff were slow, inefficient, and incompetent, and their English was very poor.

The meals were buffet-style, and the food was ordinary at best.

Even our guide complained about the guides’ accommodation at Hotel Sigiriya.

Day 16: Sigiriya

  • Take a walk around the Royal Gardens at Sigiriya Rock.

We had every intention of climbing Sigiriya Rock, an ancient rock fortress and, today, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the heat, high humidity, and 200-metre-climb (about 1,200 steps) put us off. Instead, we walked around the Royal Gardens surrounding Sigiriya Rock.

The beautifully landscaped Royal Gardens are divided into three sections – water, boulder, and terrace – and protected by inner and outer moats. The water gardens form an avenue leading to Sigiriya Rock, while the boulder and terrace gardens lie at the base of the rock.

In the boulder gardens, you can see the step-like depressions in the boulders where bricks once fitted to provide the foundations of buildings. Keep an eye out for Cobra Head Cave – so named because the overhang resembles a fully open cobra’s head.

A large rock with trees and lawns in the foreground

Sigiriya Rock and Gardens


Sigiriya is open from 6.30 am to 5.30 pm daily. The foreign tourist entrance ticket is US$30.00, which covers climbing the rock, the gardens, and the museum.

Day 17: Sigiriya

  • Tour the Sacred City of Anuradhapura (74 kilometres northwest of Sigiriya).

With Sigiriya as your base, take a day trip to Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Sacred City of Anuradhapura was the ancient capital of Sri Lanka from the 4th century BC to the 11th century AD, and it is Sri Lanka’s best-known ancient city. It is famous for its well-preserved ruins of ancient palaces, gigantic stupas, monuments, complex irrigation systems, and the Sacred Bo tree (Sri Maha Bodhi), said to be the oldest documented tree on earth.

A tree partly hides a large stone stupa.

The Sacred City of Anuradhapura


All foreign travellers must buy a ticket to Anuradhapura Sacred City at US$25.00 per adult. Opening times are 7.00 am to 7.30 pm.

Day 18: Sigiriya

  • Discover the ruins of Polonnaruwa (57 kilometres east of Sigiriya).

Staying in Sigiriya, take a day trip to Polonnaruwa, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 under the name of the Ancient City of Polonnaruwa. It remains one of the best-planned archeological relic sites in Sri Lanka.

Polonnaruwa was the second capital of Sri Lanka between the 11th and 13th centuries after the destruction of the Anuradhapura Kingdom. Its ruins are clustered together in various groups:

  • The Royal Palace Group is south of the entrance.
  • The Quadrangle (Terrace of the Tooth Relic) is north of the entrance and home to Polonnaruwa’s most important religious shrines.
  • Gal Vihara (the northern temple) with its four stone statues of Buddha carved out of the stone cliff face.
  • The Island Garden is close to the Polonnaruwa Museum.

The ruins of an ancient round building made of stone and brick.

The Sacred City of Polonnaruwa


Open 7.00 am to 5.00 pm daily, the entrance fee for Polonnaruwa’s museum and cultural sites is US$25.00 per person for adult foreigners.

Day 19: Sigiriya to Seeduwa

  • Relax by the pool at Wallawwa Boutique Hotel.

Leaving Sigiriya, we returned to Colombo for our last night in Sri Lanka at Wallawwa, a boutique hotel. Here we relaxed by the pool set in beautiful tropical gardens and were pampered by bar staff who responded to a buzzer in the pool’s gazebo for drinks orders.

Where we stayed

Wallawwa > Minuwangoda-Gampaha-Miriswatta Road, Kotugoda

Wallawwa is a luxury boutique hotel in an oasis of tranquillity, just 15 minutes from Colombo International Airport. Read my updated review of Wallawwa. After my experience with Hotel Sigiriya, my stay at Wallawwa enabled me to leave Sri Lanka on a high note.

Day 20: Depart Colombo

  • Depart Sri Lanka from Colombo

And so, the curtain falls on Sri Lanka as it is time to depart for home – in our case, Australia.

My top five highlights from our Sri Lankan trip were:

  • Exploring Galle Fort on foot.
  • Walking the railway line from Ella to Demodara.
  • The safari drive through Udawalawe National Park.
  • Discovering Geoffrey Bawa’s garden on Lake Dedduwa, Bentota.
  • Viewing Dambulla Cave Temples

When to visit Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka experiences two monsoon periods affecting different parts of the island at different times of the year. The southwest monsoon season is typically from May to September, and the northeast monsoon is from December to February. The split monsoon seasons make deciding the best time to travel around Sri Lanka tricky. I suggest checking the World Weather Information Service for the average daily temperature (high and low) monthly, the average total rainfall, and the number of rain days.

We travelled around Sri Lanka from mid-April to early May, at the end of what is classified as an inter-monsoon season, continuing into the southwest monsoon season. The country was hot and humid, but we got some reprieve, with cooler temperatures and lower humidity in the hill country. We only encountered one burst of rain on the whole trip – in Udawalawe National Park.


The itinerary for our Sri Lanka trip is a compilation of places to visit and activities to do in 20 days. The itinerary is based on pre-travel research and my experiences during our trip. 

A 20-day itinerary for Sri Lanka offers a unique opportunity to discover the island’s diverse culture, rich history, stunning natural beauty, and warm hospitality. Whether you’re a nature lover, a history buff, or just looking for a relaxing vacation, Sri Lanka is sure to leave you with unforgettable memories.

The itinerary does not cover all tourist locations and every activity Sri Lanka offers. Still, it will be a good starting point for people who want to visit Sri Lanka and don’t know how to start or are looking for different ideas.


Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. Stated opening hours and prices are correct at the time of publication. All photos are my own and remain the copyright of Just Me Travel.

© Just Me Travel 2018-2022.


Do you have any questions about this itinerary? Is there anything else you want to know or can I help you with? Leave a comment, and I will respond. Alternatively, contact me at


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An image of a mother and baby elephant and an image of blue and yellow fishing boats on a beach.


One image is of a wall of masks with googly eyes, a long nose, and an open mouth with huge teeth. The other image shows two people walking on a nine-arch railway bridge.


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WALLAWWA – a tranquil boutique hotel in Colombo City


Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and follow government advice.


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