Happy belated new year! Here’s my equally belated 2019 travel roundup. Yes, it’s the post no one has been waiting for.
Every January since I started blogging here on Pack The Suitcases, I’ve dished out the ‘best of’ and ‘worst of’ for all the previous year’s travel, to serve as a kind of personal reminder and a bit of amusement (usually failing at the latter) for my readers.
Only about three people read these roundups, they earn me £0, and they die a death after a day, never to be seen again. No one is ever going to Google ‘I wonder what countries that blogger went to in 2019 and her banal thoughts on them’. But I’ve got myself into doing these posts as a tradition now. I can’t stop. Soz.
So here’s the 2019 one. To be fair, it might give you some ideas about where to go (and where to avoid?) for 2020…
Places visited in 2019
Well, this is going to show up how few places I’ve actually managed to blog about throughout the year…
- January – Japan: Tokyo, Kochi, Okayama, Miyajima, Iya Valley
- March – Italy: Florence, Venice, Burano, Siena, Lucca
- June – Russia: Moscow, St Petersburg
- September – Greece: Santorini, Naxos, Mykonos
- December – two UK ‘staycations’: Manchester, Liverpool.
Oh good. I’m now feeling even more guilt about all the blog posts I’m yet to finish (or even start, in some cases). Excellent.
Let’s get stuck into ranking them here, then.
Best travel experience of 2019
Going to Russia for the first time (Moscow and St Petersburg)
You need a tourist visa to visit Russia from the UK for a holiday. It’s not cheap (around £100 per person for a 30-day one) and it’s bureaucratic, which I think combine to put a lot of people off visiting. As such, I didn’t know many people who’d been. And there are not that many travel blogs on Russia out there by UK bloggers at all, which of course left a nice gap for me. I was keen to go, and my partner had assured me that Russia was 100% for me. But wasn’t expecting to love the trip so much.
What made it so good?
There were so many things about Russia I fell in love with, other than the fact that it was so ME. I could finally not be the only person in the room who’d matched their skirt and nail varnish just to leave the house.
Russia is so refreshingly different. So, so different, yet only 3-ish hours away! Normally you’d be travelling long haul to Asia or something for such a cultural shock. Once you’ve got your head round the language barrier and the mysteries of the Cyrillic alphabet, you really start noticing the deeper differences and it’s all very interesting (more on that in my upcoming Russia post).
Also, Russian food was the best I’ve had outside of Japan. As well as native Russian cuisine (which is GORGEOUS), you get to experience loads of other interesting ones because the Russians like to eat like we do in the UK: proper varied. It’s not like going to an Italian town where 90% of the restaurants are Italian, for example. Every street has a great selection of options we don’t tend to see in most of Europe like Israeli, Cuban, Georgian, and Ukranian food.
A brief note on safety
Quite a few people have asked me about safety in Russia. As already mentioned, I’m doing a big Russia post about general Russia travel tips so I’ll cover that properly in there. But I should say a little something here too.
On my trip, I felt incredibly safe the whole time (apart from when crossing roads – the driving was borderline psychotic) and the people we met were all lovely. But, and this is a big but, my feeling safe in Russia is based on my experience as a privileged, white, cis woman. If you’re LGBTQ+ and/or any ethnicity other than Caucasian, it may not be so smooth sailing. Clearly, we’re all aware that Russia has serious problems with equality. But that doesn’t mean that the majority of people do. There are plenty of other countries too with horrendous laws/attitudes that tourists go to all the time. So don’t write Russia off without further research and thinking. Look at Hungary, Egypt, China, Turkey, Morocco, or Latvia… I think you have to do your own specialist research and reading up to decide whether Russia is right for you to visit.
For me, it was one of the best experiences of my life and definitely the best of 2019.
Worst travel experience of 2019
A short stay on the Greek island of Mykonos
After gushing about Russia for far too long there, the less said about Mykonos the better.
When planning some Greek island hopping for summer 2019, I stuck Mykonos on the list. I knew it would be touristy as it’s such a cliché, but I thought that its prettiness may make up for it. It didn’t for me. I’d probably only recommend it if you want to do a very expensive holiday with friends to go #outout a lot. I think Mykonos is trying to do upmarket clubbing tourism and offering a swanky place to drink for the uber-rich. Nothing wrong with that, and of course I love a bit of #outout myself, but for £20 for a G&T and rubbing shoulders with morons, it isn’t worth it for me and I’d pick other Greek islands every time.
Here’s why it wasn’t my cup of tea.
Don’t let Instagram fool you
First off. Mykonos may look nice on photos, but it’s SO busy that you can’t actually look at its prettiness very easily. It didn’t feel at all like the other Greek islands we did, where you could escape the masses and get lost in beautiful winding backstreets. I went in September, which was rammed. This was more so than other massively touristy areas I’ve done (Paris, Rome, Prague etc).
And Mykonos just isn’t built for it. The volume of people crammed into its little streets made for slow going. You couldn’t just walk somewhere, but ended up in a perpetual queue.
It didn’t help that it just felt like a film set, too. Loads of designer shops, loads of tat, and loads of people posing with both. We must have walked past at least 5 full-on photo shoots an hour, all of them on ‘pause’ until another crowd passed so they could get the shot. One girl had a Hermes bag balanced on her head for some reason. Her boyfriend was lying across the floor to get the angles right. Send help.
With great Instafame comes great damage to the bank balance
Second off (is that a phrase?), Mykonos accommodation was SO expensive. After loads of research, I ended up paying over £100 per night to stay in a room that only just fitted a double bed in. It was more expensive than Scandinavia, and we all know that gets a bad rep for costs (although to be fair is totally worth it, especially Copenhagen). Spending loads on somewhere to sleep and get ready is not my vibe, but I’d have sucked it up for somewhere I really loved, which I think we’ve established was not the case.
Weirdly, restaurants and cafés that I’d researched well before we went weren’t a rip off at all. So that’s a plus point. But I think you do have to research. Wandering in somewhere random without looking at the price could well be a recipe for bankruptcy.
Soz Mykonos. You did have nice sunsets though.
Best new destination of 2019
I can’t rave about Moscow enough. But I think I may have raved about Russia a bit too much in the first section of this post.
So I’m going to keep this simple and tell you that Moscow is one of my new favourite cities. It is unreal. Everything is on another level in terms of scale (MASSIVE EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE) and impressiveness (so much stuff you’ll have never heard of that in any other country would be world-famous).
For more info, go and read my two Moscow posts:
I’ll shut up and won’t bang on about Russia again for this entire post. I promise.
Moscow is so good though.
Best revisited destination of 2019
Venice is obviously one of the most popular destinations in the world, on everyone’s bucket list. It’s easy to be tempted to skip it thinking it’ll be disappointing or overrated. I think this is especially the case if you’re a seasoned traveller and prefer going to more unusual locations. However, Venice is like nowhere else on earth. Yes, it’s busy and popular. But it’s so worth it. I mean, it’s a floating city made up of islands in a lagoon, full of grand history and a unique way of life. What could be more intriguing than that? There are no roads, only canals and footpaths, so you get a lovely break from dodging traffic like on other city trips. And everywhere you look is the original ‘shabby chic’ style of architecture. It’s stunning and photos don’t do it justice. You have to go there.
I’d not been to Venice since a studenty holiday in 2007, which was also my first proper holiday abroad as an adult. I was worried that my memories of Venice being good were just wrapped up in halcyon student days of alcohol, freedom and and being in awe of a new country. But I found Venice was actually better visited as an older person, knowing much more about travel (without sounding like I’m 90…). I had stuff to compare it with. Despite seeing cities all over the world, there really is nowhere else quite like it.
I visited Venice in April and it wasn’t crowded. In my full post on Venice, I talk a bit about when to visit and ethical issues.
Best island of 2019 (yes that’s a thing now)
I’m reaching a bit for a category here but I didn’t want to do a whole roundup of 2019 without mentioning Naxos.
I’ve actually not even blogged about lovely Naxos yet but it was one of my favourites of the year. In total contrast to Mykonos, it felt very authentic, very Greek, and very relaxing. It was also miles more affordable than both Mykonos and Santorini, but had the exact same beautiful aesthetic of white buildings, blue rooftops and winding streets lined with colourful flowers. Oh and it was easy to get away from people! It was bustling and a nice level of busy, but not once did I feel like I was on a conveyor belt of tourists roaming the streets. Naxos was really lovely and unspoiled.
Naxos is next on my list to write a blog post on, so I won’t shed my load here. But if you’re interested in the Cyclades islands, I’d say this should be on your list above the more obvious and overdone ones. Keep your beadiest eye out for a post on it soon. [edit: now posted about Naxos here].
Best local destination of 2019
It’s been a while since I spent much time in the city I grew up in so I was chuffed when Visit Liverpool asked me to work with them in the run-up to Christmas. Look at me getting tourist board deals; who do I think I am?!
Although my trip to Liverpool was very much festive-themed (you can read about it here), it gave me loads of inspiration for visits to Liverpool at any time of year. I’m definitely going to do one of my big ’50 things to do in…’ posts about the city once I’ve been back to get more photos that don’t include tinsel and Christmas trees.
I often find that UK city breaks revolve around eating and drinking. Although I enjoy both of these activities as much as (okay more than) the next person, I love it when there’s actual stuff to do in a place as well. This is what sets Liverpool apart from other UK cities. It’s absolutely full of (mostly free) art galleries and museums, unique architecture and independent shops that you won’t get anywhere else.
It has the most galleries and museums outside of London, and of course has the benefit of being in the north and being a proper place. If you’re planning a weekend away in early 2020 and don’t want it to revolve around stuffing your face (appropriate at this time of year, right?) but still want the option of eating at some of the country’s best restaurants and cutest cafés, Liverpool is the one.
Best travel moment of 2019
Drinking yuzu beer with locals in Kochi, Japan
Seeing as I’ve banned myself from mentioning
Russia again I’m going with a particularly idyllic moment in the relatively unknown city of Kochi, Japan. This is another city that I loved but embarrassingly haven’t blogged about yet.
Kochi is known for its sunshine, palm trees, and laid-back surfing lifestyle. Not things you really associate with Japan, I know, but there you go. There’s a lot more to Japan than the media feeds us.
I’ll fill you in on Kochi more in a proper post at some point, but my highlight of my time there was in its indoor food market. You know the drill with food halls/markets in every European city? Well Japan was onto it before us. Kochi’s is very old and features a ridiculous number of tiny stalls serving up local dishes.
The regional speciality
Kochi is all about flavouring things with yuzu.
For those of you not regularly shopping in the cook’s ingredients aisle of Waitrose for your organise yuzu sauce (what is wrong with you?), let me enlighten you. Yuzu is a delicious citrus fruit; the lovechild of a lime and a grapefruit. It’s used in loads of Asian cooking, but in Kochi they’ve found a much better use for it: beer. It makes a kind of refreshing pint that’s far too drinkable, as I discovered after four.
While waiting for our friend Tom to join us, we ended up deep in conversation with two locals on our table in the market while drinking this delight. Well, as deep in conversation as you can get without a shared language and communicating only with hand gestures and lots of Google Translate on our phones. The two locals were very amused by the fact two British people were in Kochi of all places and that a third British person was coming to join us. Cue lots of laughing and going ‘uhhh?!’ (a distinctly Japanese noise that’s very hard to explain but translates as ‘I’m listening intently’ or something along those lines).
Like everyone in Japan, they were absolutely lovely and very polite when I forced Pack The Suitcases business cards onto them.
This is always my favourite thing about travel (the chatting with locals bit, not forcing the blog onto people… honestly).
Best accommodation of 2019
An apartment in St Petersburg, Russia, featuring a real Russian stove
Okay, after promising not to mention Russia again, I’m having to do it. Sorry. I can’t recommend where we stayed in St Petersburg enough.
Grey House is a gorgeous set of apartments on Rubinshteyna street, which is dead central. Ours was the red apartment and it had a traditional Russian stove, a huge bed, big en suite and a huge fitted wardrobe for all our crap. It was decorated in a sort of modern take on traditional Russian and I LOVED it. We had a superior double room because we were feeling extra fancy (only about £75 per night) but you can do a normal double for £57 per night.
I very rarely rave about places to stay but this one and where we stayed in Moscow were both great, so I was really happy with Russian accommodation overall.
Shall I say the words Russia/Russian some more times?! You’ve not read them enough in here.
Other good hotels/apartments in 2019
You’ve got me thinking about everywhere I stayed this year now and I feel obliged to share some tips.
Runners up for the grand prize of absolutely nothing would probably be:
- Venice, Italy: Ca’ San Rocco. This is a gorgeous old hotel in San Polo, only five minutes from the train/bus stations but in a beautifully quiet area of the city. The room was big, which I imagine would please any angry American reviewers on TripAdvisor. I paid around £73 a night. So it’s not ridiculously cheap in the grand scheme of the world, but an absolute steal for Venice.
- Moscow, Russia: Azimut Smolenskaya. With incredible views over the city for about £40ish a night, you can’t go wrong.
- Tokyo, Japan: The Knot Tokyo Shinjuku. My new favourite hipster hotel complete with bakery on site, for only about £90 a night at the time of writing – an absolute bargain for Tokyo and for how good it was.
- Naxos, Greece: Naxos Evilion Luxury Apartments & Suites. For about £60 a night, this apartment was really swanky. Bear in mind we paid more than double that price on other Greek islands for half the space and definitely less than half the quality (Santorini was a particular rip off).
- Okayama, Japan: Okayama Koraku Hotel. There was a really good shower IN A PROPER BATHROOM (i.e. not a pre-fab like in most Japanese hotels). It was around £78 a night.
Travel blogging overall in 2019
This was a big year for Pack The Suitcases as it began paying its way when I joined MediaVine, the scheme that puts adverts into blog posts to generate revenue when people read your stuff. Although I write for fun and have a full-time day job, the blog was costing me money and taking up a significant amount of my time to run. Now I’m earning a bit of £ from it, it’s a lot easier to justify spending so much time on! I never thought I’d be making much of an income from it, but this year Pack The Suitcases covered its running costs and paid for my travel. And I’m still loving writing it.
My number of readers also went up massively in 2019. I averaged 33,000 readers a month, which is just mental. It would have been even more if it wasn’t for Google doing some crazy stuff in December with search results and booting me off the top spots for a few very popular searches I used to get lots of readers/traffic from.
While I’m at it, I just wanted to say a proper massive THANK YOU to everyone who read and supported the blog in 2019. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without you lovely lot, so thank you. You’re all legends. Especially those of you who send me really weird fan-mail. If you don’t already follow me on the Pack The Suitcases page on Facebook, please do – it’s where I tend to put my more personal ramblings and where I promote any new blog posts as they go live. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter.
What’s next for 2020?
I’m looking forward to photographing and writing about some exciting new places in 2020. I may possibly even catching up on the gigantic backlog I have to write about from 2019…
Although it’s only mid-January, I’ve gone wild in the aisles and already done my first trip of the year. I got back last night from a gorgeous week in my favourite Madeira again.
Next up is a cruise (shocking I know! It’s for my dad’s 70th) in spring. Then I have a BIG train-based summer trip around central Europe after that. It’s going to involve a train from here down to London and across to Colmar, France > Freiburg, Germany > Lucerne, Switzerland > Emilia Romagna, Italy > ending with meeting a friend in Rome). Later in the year, I’m off to Helsinki in Finland using flights that I won in a competition with Manchester Airport. How exciting is that?!
So almost all my annual leave from work is spoken for. I’ll have a week of leave left for a UK-based break at some point, but that’s probably it for foreign shores.
Any tips for the new places I’ll be heading to? I’m especially interested in Helsinki. Answers on a postcard or, you know, in the comments. And let me know where you’re off to in 2020.