During the end of April and the beginning of May, I went on an epic journey around Europe with three friends. After cultivating the art of solo travelling over the past three years in London, Paris, and Italy, I was curious to experience the travel life with a group of other worldly-curious and like-minded ladies.
Our travel troupe, Vodka Joyride (don’t worry, no alcohol was consumed during the road trip portion of our adventure) departed from Vancouver to explore Iceland, Barcelona, Edinburgh, and London over the course of two action-packed weeks.
Here are some of the many highlights from our travels…
An Icelandic Road Trip
Our first destination was the Nordic nation of Iceland, an island full of plentiful natural wonders that can only be seen to be truly believed.
After picking up our rental car—our means of transportation for the next five days—we began our early morning at the breathtaking Blue Lagoon Spa in Grindavik, just a fifteen minute drive from Keflavik Airport. We spent a solid six hours bathing, relaxing, cleansing (with the silica masks provided by the spa), and taking Insta-worthy photos within the shimmering milky blue waters of the renowned geothermal pool. Before leaving, we indulged in our first Icelandic seafood meal at the Spa’s LAVA Restaurant.
Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, is equal measures lively and quaint, with its small coastal town vibe amidst colourful buildings and outrageous street art. Along the Old Harbour, we tried out an assortment of Iceland delicacies, with the highlights being the “world’s best” lobster soup and smoked trout at Saegreifinn, the world famous Icelandic-style hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (a favourite of Bill Clinton’s #funfacts), the traditional homemade plates at Cafe Loki, and the coffee at Cafe Haiti. The architecture of the city is also a standout, including city landmarks like the Harpa Concert Hall, Hallgrimskirkja Church, and the Sun Voyager viking boat sculpture along the pier.
From Reykjavik, we started our road trip by driving the Golden Circle, a popular route which consists of three of Iceland’s most popular sights. The star attraction of Thingvellir National Park is the man-made Oxararfoss waterfall, a stunning introduction to the striking sights we would see throughout the rest of our journey. The powerful Gullfoss waterfall has enough force to blow you up and away over the cliff into the cascading waters. The Geysir hot spring area contains two active geysers, Strokkur and Geysir, which bubbles, steams, and blasts high bursts of water every few minutes. A worthwhile bonus along the Golden Circle trail is Kerid, a volcanic crater lake visually intriguing with its milky blue lake surrounded by black and red slopes, looking rather Mars-like in appearance. From Day 1 of our road trip, it was clear that Iceland is unlike any other place in the world.
We continued along the south coast of Iceland for the remainder of our trip. As we became one with nature, we took the time to enjoy the cozy comfort and warm hygge of Icelandic hospitality and homesteads in between. From the middle of nowhere cabin in Hella to the farm in Hvolsvollur (in the company of Icelandic animals, from sheepdogs and cats, to horses and sheep), we were in awe of the kind hospitality of the people of Iceland. It’s no wonder the Nords are always hailed as the happiest and friendliest people in all the world.
When in Iceland, do go chasing waterfalls and do go hiking to get to those fantastic places. Oxararfoss and Gullfoss were just the first of many waterfalls to witness in Iceland. At Katla Geopark, you can walk around and behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and you can climb into the canyon cave to pose underneath the falls of the hidden gem Gljufrafoss. Situated at Skoga River is the remarkable Skogafoss waterfall, where you can often see a rainbow magically appearing. Also, be sure to climb the steps to the top of the falls and complete the hike at the top for even more amazing views of the raging river. Surrounded by geometric dark lava columns, the dramatic Svartifoss of Skaftafell in Vatnajokull National Park is truly unreal.
Iceland is commonly referred to as “the land of fire and ice” with its abundance of visually thrilling landscapes that look straight out of an episode of Game of Thrones. We took a half-day trip to the Westman Islands, or Vestmannaeyjar, to explore the island famous for the historic Eldfell volcanic eruption in the 1970s that gave the island its descriptor, “the Pompeii of the North”. Westman Islands is also a prime spot for puffin watching. Alternatively, you can make a stop over at island’s Saeheimar Aquarium, where they have rehabilitated a pair of two adorable puffins, Toti and Hafdis, to meet and greet with the centre’s visitors. With it’s moody atmosphere and unique rock formations, the black sand beach of Reynisfjara is not to be missed (but be careful not to stand too close to the crashing waves). True to its name, Iceland would be incomplete without has its share of icy formations. At Jokulsarlon, you can see the country’s crown jewels, the floating icebergs in the glacier lagoon, and you can take an unforgettable guided hike at one of the regions many glacier mountains, such as Falljokull, for your very own Mount Everest-esque adventure.
Barcelona went off to a rocky start as we dealt with an Airbnb nightmare. Long story short, our accommodation fell through, leaving us stranded in the middle of the night without a place to stay. Thanks to the assistance of a helpful local, we ended up finding a place to stay for the duration of our time in Barcelona at the Generator Hostel. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, we were determined to have a good time.
As one must do in Barcelona, we took in all of the one-of-a-kind modern architectural wonders of the visionary Antoni Gaudi. We toured the dreamy apartments of Casa Batllo and Casa Mila, strolled through Park Guell in the rain, and of course, visited the iconic La Sagrada Familia cathedral in its unfinished (yet marvelous) state. Another iconic Spanish figure who has left his mark on Barcelona is Pablo Picasso, is one of the great artists of our modern time. The Picasso Museum showcases his works from the early years of his career, and it’s a must see.
You don’t know the depth of sports culture until you go to Barcelona and experience football fever, which is at its high at Camp Nou, the home of FC Barcelona. I may not be an avid sports fan, but even I was filled with pride as I saw the famous football field in all of its green turf glory.
On the sole sunny day we had in Barcelona, we walked around Ciutadella Park, the districts of Las Ramblas and Gothic Quarter, and Barceloneta Beach, soaking up as much of the Mediterranean heat as we could amongst the cobblestoned streets and palm tree-lined pathways. In the evening, we watched a fascinating flamenco dance performance at the beautiful Palau de la Musica Catalana.
A highly recommended half-day trip from Barcelona is Tibidabo, a majestic mountain overlooking Barcelona, Catalonia, and beyond. The mountain is accessible via public transit and the funicular, which takes you right to the top of the hill. The Sagrat Cor Cathedral is smaller in size to the Sagrada Familia but offers amazing views of the city and of the surrounding mountains. For even more incredible views, take a ride around the colourful carousel at the Tibidabo amusement park.
One cannot say they’ve been to Barcelona without experiencing the dining culture! We gorged on endless tapas and sangria at Tapas de Taller, Tapa Tapa, and Txapela. Also noteworthy were the paella at Los Bellota, the bread at La Torna in Santa Caterina Market, and the spanish coffee and pastries at Sempre Obert and La Denesa.
After several days in Iceland and Barcelona, we decided to go to the United Kingdom for some short yet sweet day trips. I was most excited to experience Edinburgh for the first time, and the city did not disappoint.
Shortly after our arrival at the Edinburgh Waverly train station (and being serenaded by bagpipers), we quickly learned how compact and walkable the city is. The Royal Mile in Old Town connects the two iconic royal monuments, the Edinburgh Castle on Castle Rock and Holyroodhouse Palace by Arthur’s Seat. Our hostel, the High Street Hostel, was found along this route. Other close by and noteworthy stops include the St. Giles Cathedral and Princes Street Gardens, which divides Old Town from New Town.
The royal history buff in me was stoked to check out Edinburgh Castle and Holyroodhouse Palace. At Edinburgh Castle, we saw the Scotland crown jewels, the longstanding St. Margaret’s Chapel, and views of the city from the fortress walls. At Holyroodhouse Palace, the current residence of the Queen when she stays in Edinburgh, we walked along the footsteps of Mary Queen of Spot and saw the ruins of the abbey.
Edinburgh is a writer’s paradise. From the Writers Museum, which pays tribute to the life and works of legendary Scottish writers Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Burns, to the towering Sir Walter Scott Monument, the largest monument to a writer in the world, the love of literature is found everywhere.
Edinburgh is perhaps best known for being the birthplace of Harry Potter, as it was in this city where J.K. Rowling wrote the first few books of the magical book series. The Potter influence is everywhere in the city, and not just in the touristy shops – there’s Balmoral Hotel (with the unmistakable clock tower) where Rowling stayed, the Elephant Room cafe, where Rowling wrote, Greyfriars Kirkyard, the graveyard where Rowling gathered inspiration for various character names, and Victoria Street, what Rowling based Dialog Alley off of.
The Scots know how to eat and drink the night away. The pub culture is a unique experience, where one must sip on whisky, try haggis, and enjoy live entertainment from local folk artists. Among some of the nighttime spots we visited were the Whiski Bar and the World’s End. During the daytime, I highly recommend Social Bite, a sandwich shop and cafe that donates all of its proceeds to projects dedicated to eradicating homelessness in Edinburgh, Oink for their pulled pork sandwiches, and Clarinda’s Tearoom for their high tea offerings (the Bakewell Tart is delightful!)
Calton Hill at sunset offers the greatest skyline views of Edinburgh, from Arthur’s Seat to Castle Rock.
Three years ago, during my first ever solo travel adventure, I left my heart in London. Three years later, I returned back and had my soul taken too.
After a four hour train ride across the English countryside, we arrived at King’s Cross Station. I attempted to get a photo at Platform 9 3/4 but settled for taking a photo of it after seeing the long lines. After checking into our room at the Generator Hostel in the Bloomsbury district, we took the Tube over to Regent Street for dinner at Gordon Ramsey’s Heddon Street Kitchen, where we splurged on the famous Beef Wellington. My credit card cried a little, but it was so worth it.
After two weeks of travelling around together, the Vodka Joyride four split up to explore our 24 hours in London on our own terms. Since I had skipped out on the free museums during my first trip to London, I made museum hopping was my priority. First on my list was the British Library, where I wandered into the Sir John Ritblat Gallery to peruse through the collection of items from Jane Austen, The Beatles, and Shakespeare, along with the notable Magna Carta. I perused through the Egyptian Room of the massive British Museum and stood in front of the Rosetta Stone for a good ten minutes before before shoved aside by tourists. Finally, I marvelled over the artwork of Monet, Van Gogh, and Botticelli at the National Gallery.
Once I had taken in my fair share of art, I went back to some of my favourite spots in central London. During a walk around Westminster, I passed along famous spots such as 10 Downing Street, Churchill’s War Room, the Big Ben (currently under renovation), Buckingham Palace, St. James Park, St. James Palace, and Green Park. I also explored one of my favourite London neighbourhoods, the charming Covent Garden, where I tried a French Kiss crepe from the market’s Creme de la Crepe, got some teatime goods from Whittards, and did some shopping at Sass & Belle, Cath Kidston, and Lulu Guinness.
To end off my final night in London and the final night of this trip, I saw the incredible Kinky Boots at the Adelphi Theatre.
I’m so glad I decided to do something different this year and indulge my wanderlust with wonderful people. There’s nothing quite like hiking a glacier, getting lost in a foreign city, doing shots while waiting for the Northern Lights to maybe appear, sprinting across airport terminals, and other travel shenanigans to bond you with friends for life. From this Euro trip adventure, we’ll have stories and memories to last a lifetime.