Prepare to have your mind totally blown not only by the wildlife and diversity of the Amazon jungle but also by the incredible skills and knowledge of the locals and guides.
The Amazon jungle is one of those few times where I will recommend a tour guide. In other words, don’t just go wander into the rainforest on your own mmkay!? Otorongo Expeditions is one of the best in the business. The company is run by Anthony and Yvonne; Anthony is a New York native and Yvonne is an Iquitos local so pretty much they’re the Jay-Z and Beyonce of the Peruvian jungle. Deal with it!
When booking through Otorongo Expeditions your experience is totally customizable and based on your interests. If you want to fish, bird watch, camp or search for jaguars you absolutely can. Below are the activities we did (and therefore the best ones) but this list is not exclusive.
Sugar Cane Distillery
The boat ride to the Otorongo Amazon lodge takes 2 hours from Iquitos along the Amazon River. You will have the option of stopping at a local sugar cane distillery half way through your ride. The “distillery” is literally 2 huts on the side of the river, one of the huts is a home and the other houses the distillery equipment. Similar to old movies, a horse walks in a circle to power the machine that crushes sugar cane to extract its juice. The cane juice is then fermented for 4-5 days. Flavors like honey, molasses, bark and ginger are added to make flavored alcohol or the juice is boiled for 12 hours in the largest copper pot you will ever see to create molasses.
After seeing how everything is made you will be allowed to taste test all of the products. Although you are not “pressured” to buy anything it is expected that you do. Frankly, if you decide to go to the distillery making a purchase is the right thing to do. You can buy a small bottle of the alcohol in your favorite flavor, a whopping 20% ABV, for 20 soles or about $6. They will tell you the bottle is sealed and you can travel with it but our booze soaked backpack claims otherwise.
Searching For Wildlife
Your tour guide will probably be one of the most impressive people you have ever met in life and you will be constantly amazed by their abilities to find any and all wildlife. They are able to see wildlife that is completely camouflaged to us city folks. Whether on foot or by boat the guide was focused on spotting animals constantly. You will likely see sloths, toucans, pygmy monkeys, dolphins, tarantulas, poison dart frogs, tree frogs, monkeys and too many other things to name.
Spotting wildlife is less an activity you have to book and more a benefit of booking with a legitimate and trained organization. If you want to see the awesome stuff then book a good guide, bring binoculars and watch the Amazon Rainforest come out to play.
Swimming with Dolphins in the Amazon River
Did you know that there are 2 types of dolphins that inhabit the Amazon River? Gray dolphins are very similar to the ocean dolphins most people are familiar with. They are small, travel in pods and can be seen jumping out of the water. The rare pink dolphins are the true Amazon gem. They are solitary and much larger so they do not jump out of the water. Although this makes them much harder to spot you can find them popping their heads out of the water and blowing air through their blowholes.
Now this activities name is a little misleading, you will not actually be swimming WITH dolphins as much as swimming in the Amazon River where dolphins happen to reside. The dolphins never got within 100 feet of us. Nonetheless, it is a very cool experience to jump into the Amazon River. I expected it to be scary like dodging huge fish, piranhas or anacondas while trying to stay afloat. In reality it is just nice cool water to wash off the dirt of the day.
Watch the Sunset over the Amazon Jungle
Depending on if you travel during rainy or dry season this might play out a bit differently. During dry season you can walk along a sand bar as you watch the sunset behind the massive trees that create the canopy of the rainforest. During rainy season the sandbar is nowhere to be found so you can watch the same incredible event from you boat or a nice spot along the riverbank. Either way, it is awesome to be able to say “I saw the sunset over the Amazon Rainforest”
Night hiking kind of sounds like a bad idea when you think about how dense the rainforest is and how many creepy crawlies occupy it. Not the case! Although you definitely will see creepy crawlies there are also other cool things like frogs and also more frogs…there were a lot of frogs. Just like most things, the rainforest has a totally different feeling at night than during the day. The sounds of the critters after dark is deafening but calming. It is the original “white noise” machine so sleep tight!
This hike turned out to be one of our favorites! It was right behind the jungle lodge and it was only maybe an hour in duration but the feeling of pushing through the trees with only a tiny flashlight to guide your way is unlike anything else.
Fishing for Piranhas
Even if fishing is not something you are normally interested in, fishing for piranhas in the Amazon River is awesome. I was reluctant at first because I normally think fishing is boring but this was not boring. The guide led us through 15 minutes of mud to get to a very cool fishing hole. On arrival, there was a huge tree toppled over creating the perfect sitting spot right above the middle of the water. Using a nice, simple stick, fishing line and some raw beef the fishing expedition began.
As soon as you put the bait in the water the fish eat it right off. It was really more like feeding the fish than actually fishing for them. It takes a little time but you will figure out how to get them before they steal your bait and the first time you nab a piranha is so awesome! Be careful getting the hook out or they will get your fingers! This is a seriously cool experience.
Poison Dart Frog & Medicinal Plants Hike
Did you know that poison dart frogs are very, VERY small? They could easily sit atop a nickel or a quarter and are therefore incredibly cute. This makes them hard to find despite being brightly colored. Because you have done your homework and booked an excellent guide they will know exactly where to find them. It is very impressive to watch someone spot a tiny poison dart frog and their vibrant colors and bold patterns are incredible!
The poison from the skin of the frogs was used by tribes to add poison to the tips of their darts for hunting. There are tons of other plants and animals that also had, and still have, medicinal uses today. On the way to finding the frogs you can take a forest tour of the medicinal plants. There are tons to learn about such as the rubber tree, termite nest as insect repellent, natural vines you can a drink fresh water from, fruits with red seeds in them used as dye and face paint and a seed that produce a cotton-like substance.
Night Boat Ride to Find Caiman
Head out after dark on a boat with only your guide and boat man to look for caiman! Push through lily-pad filled waterways and marshes using flashlights to search for the glow off a caiman’s eyes. You’ll know if you got the “cream of the crop” guide if they hang off the front of the boat to nab the small caiman right out of the water. If so you will get to touch and hold a certified Amazon caiman!
Giant Tree and Local Village Tour
Take a tour of local village San Gregorio, a nearby community of 16-20 families. They are used to having visitors and the village children make jewelry and crafts using natural things they find in the rainforest to sell as souvenirs. If you are looking for something very authentic and 100% made in the Rainforest then this is the place to go. San Gregorio struggles with poverty so it is good to support them. You can see the children are not completely healthy which can be a rough experience but it is also a real life experience.
Before checking out the village there is a giant tree you can go see…It is giant and it is a tree but it is also a long trip on the boat and we got eaten alive by mosquitos. In hindsight we would have skipped this activity for something else.
Ask your guide how long it will take to get here though. If the water is low you have to go the long way and it can take hours. Although it is a cool experience and an informative one, I would not say it was worth spending several hours on a boat each way.
The Amazon and Zombies aka Conclusion
Experiencing and touring the Amazon Rainforest is definitely one of those bucket list experiences that is unmatched anywhere else. For that reason, it is absolutely worth taking the time to book a high quality tour company. With an incredible guide you will see things that other people are unable to and will absolutely get the most bang for your buck.
As a side note, if there is ever a zombie apocalypse everyone should seriously consider heading to the rainforest to live with the locals. They already know how to live “off the grid” and rely on mother-nature for everything! I might be on to something here…
Iquitos is the gateway to a truly authentic Peruvian Amazon Rainforest experience. Porto Maldonado is a more popular choice because it is closer to the other common tourist sites. But you don’t travel to be common do you? You travel to explore and learn and have REAL experiences. Glad we are on the same page, and in that case you need to book your ticket to Iquitos and tell Puerto Maldonado to bounce. Iquitos is an easy 2-hour flight from Lima followed by a 2+ hour boat ride depending on where you stay in the Amazon.
All About Iquitos
Iquitos is a small community reachable only by air or boat. The infrastructure is not nearly as advanced as Lima or other larger towns in Peru. It is very reminiscent to other developing countries such as Cambodia and rural Thailand.
The only real reason you might come here is on your way to and from the rainforest so you will likely only spend 1 day or less here. That being said, Iquitos must be some kind of HUGE backpacker hub because there are TONS of backpackers here selling art, jewelry, paintings and inhabiting every bar, restaurant and coffee shop. So even though Iquitos definitely has a small city vibe it doesn’t seem to have a vibe all its own. It has been totally taken over by tourists, which is really unfortunate. I also have no idea why Iquitos is the chosen location for all these folks…I couldn’t quite figure out what it really has to offer that would be drawing them here for the long term.
Interested in learning more about Peru? Check out my other Peru Travel Tips & Tricks
Where To Stay
A decent hotel is a little tough to come by so it is a good idea to ask your Rainforest tour company for recommendations if they have one. We stayed at the MDA Marfils del Amazon hotel, which looks questionable on the outside but was decent on the inside. Just don’t get a ground floor room near the courtyard or you will have ants crawling on your bed. you also might have to spray the last of your Amazon bug spray around all the room openings and stuff towels under the doors to keep the ants out. Apparently my standards for “decent on the inside” or pretty low.
What To Do
There is a large Plaza de Armas with a fountain and a huge church. This area sometimes has street food vendors but the real place to be is near the water. Keep walking east to Boulevard Joaquin Abensur for the real action at night and especially on weekends. The whole walkway is lined with street food vendors, artists and gambling games. This will likely be the most interesting place in town any night or weekend. There are also tons of great restaurants along this walkway.
Honestly, that is about all Iquitos has to offer itself. For me, it mainly was the stepping off point for an Amazon Rainforest tour. I would not plan to spend any more time here than necessary just simply because there are more things to see in Peru and no time to waste!
There is TOO MUCH information about Machu Picchu! There I said it. I love scanning through blogs to find the best, most unique tidbits to craft a one-of-a-kind itinerary. This is how authentic trips are made and how you don’t miss out on seeing something important. That whole lovely experience was ruined for me by Machu Picchu; talk about information overload! Here is ONLY the need-to-know information about how to get to Machu Picchu, no excessive details or fluff necessary.
1) When To Go
June through August is busy and dry season. That makes April, May, September and October shoulder season when the weather is still mostly dry. November through March will be rainy, hot and just generally less than ideal.
2) How To Get To Machu Picchu:
Although you could find a dozen options, there are really only two, hiking or taking a train.
- Hiking can take anywhere from 1-8 days depending on your starting point. The average is 3-5 days, be prepared to camp!
- Make your way to Ollantaytambo where you will board a train to Aguas Caliente. From there, a bus will take you to Machu Picchu. Although it is possible to do all of this in the same day you should definitely spending a night in Aguas Caliente.
3) Do I Need A Guide?
Yes. Hiking the Inca trail without a guide has been prohibited since 2001. Since July, 2018 you need a guide inside Machu Picchu although it isn’t enforced yet. Regardless, unless you are a seasoned traveler, purchasing train, bus and Machu Picchu tickets is a lot to navigate on your own.
There are tons of rules for Machu Picchu and if something goes wrong in your travel plans a good guide will be the difference in seeing Machu Picchu and being stranded. We had a good experience with Sam Travel Peru.
4) Do I need to wake up at 3am to wait in line for buses at Aguas Caliente?
Nope and I am unsure how this ridiculous rumor started. In early August (busy season) we stood in line beginning at 5am and were gazing at the glory of Machu Picchu by 6:15am. At 5:30am there are 6-8 buses lined up waiting to open their doors so the line moves quickly. The only reason you would need to get up at 3am is if you want to be on bus #1 to see the sunrise.
5) What to Wear
You should wear hiking clothes that are appropriate for the season you are traveling in. Duh. Tennis shoes are fine even for the hikes but hiking boots would be a better choice. You will want a light jacket while you wait in line at 5am but will probably layer down to a t-shirt as it heats up. As innovative as they were the Inca’s did not conquer the mosquito problem so wear repellent. Sunscreen is always a good life choice.
Interested in learning more about Peru? Check out my other Peru Travel Tips & Tricks
6) What To Bring
As little as possible! There are rules against large backpacks so daypacks only. Pack your layers and plenty of water (especially for hikers). Skip the snacks as they are not allowed inside (sneak in a power bar if you are going on a hike but don’t tell anyone you heard that here. Just don’t be dick and leave your trash somewhere). You cannot buy food or water inside the park and you cannot leave to get it and come back so eat a good breakfast and pack what you need. You also cannot leave to use the restroom so definitely use the bathrooms before you enter. Don’t forget your camera!
7) Will the hiking be hard?
Walking around the ruins is not hard. The ground is uneven and there are stairs but it is not challenging. If you are hiking to the sun gate there are stairs and a steady incline. Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu are challenging especially at altitude. You will sweat, you will take a lot of breaks and you will probably be exhausted. It’s a good thing the view is incredible!
8) Will I get altitude sickness?
Maybe. Cusco is actually higher in altitude than Machu Picchu so if you are affected it will likely be after landing in Cusco. If you feel sick be sure to drink water and the coco leaf tea. The tea leaves are everywhere and normally free. If you are really worried bring altitude sickness medication with you. If you get drug tested at work then skip the coco leaf tea within 72 hours of being back at work. Otherwise you might text positive for cocaine. And now that’s a thing you know so don’t go leaving nasty comments on my page after you lose your job, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.
9) How much time should I plan for?
Touring just the Machu Picchu ruins will take most people 2-3 hours. If you’re an incredibly slow walker or you literally want to look at every fricken rock then obviously plan for more time. Your ticket will have a time limit of either 5:30am-12:00 or 12:00-5:30pm. You are supposed to stay in Machu Picchu only during your ticketed time. However, like any recess attendant, they don’t have a good way to enforce getting morning people out by noon. You also get additional time if you do the Huayna Picchu (2 hours) or Machu Picchu Mountain (3 hours) hikes.
Here is a fun fact that no one ever mentions. There is a “one-way” rule in effect for all of Machu Picchu, you can only travel through the ruins in one direction. This info is not posted well AT ALL and I also never read about it prior to our trip (what the hell other blogs!?!?!). In addition, all tickets are 1 entry only so you cannot go out and back in.This means that if you forget to look at something you cannot go back and look again. The rule is STRICTLY enforced so take your time and don’t miss a thing!
If you do Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain you can enter the ruins a second time by showing your hiking ticket at this sketchy side entrance that is located before the official exit and that you are not very likely to ever find on your own without a guide. It is not labeled at all and there is nothing saying you can have an additional entry on your ticket. If you pass this tiny, unlabeled entrance and accidentally exit you are shit outta luck. Machu Picchu employees are stone cold and don’t care if you’re sad because they deal with crazy tourists all day asking for favors.
*Hint: if you want pix of llamas at Machu Picchu, get them first thing upon entering the park, that is when the best view is and likely the only time you will be able to get the shot.
10) Will it be worth it?
Yup and also this is kind of a dumb question. Although the planning process can seem daunting, all your effort will absolutely be worth it. The ingenuity of the Inca’s and the expanse of these ruins are astonishing. The view of the most famous Incan ruins set against the stunning cloud covered Andes is incomparable. Perhaps there is a reason it is one of the 7 wonders of the world (DUH!) and now you can say you have been to Machu Picchu!
Need more precise details for your Machu Picchu trip? Check out my more detailed post here.
Things to do in Lima, Peru: 1 Day Walking Tour
Lima will likely be your entry into the country of Peru. Cities aren’t usually the most unique places but there are some things to do in Lima, Peru that will help get your trip started on the right foot. Luckily most international flights arrive into the airport in the middle of the night. I say luckily because the traffic here, especially around the airport is a fricken nightmare!
Combined with jet lag, taking a red eye can add a lot of exhaustion early on in your trip. Unfortunately in Lima, landing at a more normal time can cause you to sit in traffic for hours trying to get to your hotel. Pick your battle I guess but remember that landing at night and then being able to go right to bed can also help with jet lag.
Where to Stay and What To Do:
Miraflores is one of the most common places for tourists to stay in Lima. It is a “higher end” neighborhood and therefore considered to be safer. Not that Lime is very dangerous on it’s own but if you’re a nervous or solo traveler then I guess it can provide comfort. The best reason to stay in Miraflores is its location to the coast and the main city center. We chose the Hotel Stefanos, which is a no-frills option but very clean.
One full day in Lima was more than enough to see the sites around the city center and the impressive coastal cliffs. If you love exploring big cities or museums, you might consider adding another day here. Otherwise, there are so many other unique experiences elsewhere in Peru that are begging to be explored…I hate museums so I never add them to my itineraries.
Below you will find a good walking tour of the Miraflores neighborhood of Lima. Use the map to help navigate!
1) Ovalo Miraflores, Parque Central and Parque Kennedy
This series of 2 parks and a roundabout are considered to be one of the central areas of Miraflores. If you stay at or near Hotel Stefanos it will be just a quick 5 min walk away.
There is not much going on in this area early in the morning. Even around 11am things seem to still just be waking up. The Ovalo Miraflores is nothing special, literally just a roundabout with a statue in the middle. The Parque Central is beautifully landscaped and well maintained. It is also filled to the brim with stray cats. The cats are clean, well taken care of and clearly used to being gawked at by tourists all day. So I guess come for the cats….
Later in the afternoon around 5pm some food trucks and an artisan market set up in Parque Central. Otherwise, this is the part of town where you will find the KFC, Starbucks and Subway restaurants and therefore the area that most travelers roll their eyes at and walk sharply in the opposite direction.
2) Walk Along The Beach: Parque del Amor, Faro La Marina and La Rosa Nautical
Walk along Malecon Balta, the main road on the west edge of the parks, southwest all the way to the beach. Before heading down the cliff sides to the actual beach take the sidewalk to the right. This will take you to Parque del Amor where you will see a huge slightly risqué statue of 2 people kissing. This is where I imagine all the cool kids of Lima come to makeout in the evenings. You can also get a decent view of the cliffs and the surfers in the water below.
Continue walking northwest up the coast to the Faro La Marina lighthouse. The view is wonderful and you will pass a company that allows you to paraglide over the city. After exploring the coast from up top head back to the giant kissing statue and continue down the walking path to the actual beach. Walk southeast towards La Rosa Nautical Restaurant, which is located on a pier.
On your way to La Rosa Nautical you will pass what I call “surfers alley”. Car after car after tent of surf companies set up a long the beach just waiting for someone to want to learn to surf. I had no idea surfing was a thing in Lima and the water seemed cold and uninviting. If I was going to try surfing I would definitely do it somewhere warm and tropical so I don’t get the appeal here. Seems to be like it might be a bit of a tourist scam.
Interested in learning more about Peru? Check out my other Peru Travel Tips & Tricks
Why The Waves in Lima Sound Different
As you walk along the beach you will notice the lack of sand. The beach here is made up of tons of large, smooth rocks. Ok not super interesting (except that I found the most perfectly round rock of all time) but listen really closely as the waves crash in and out. The waves here sound a little different than most other places in the world. On their way out, the waves cause the rocks to hit and roll against each other as they are pulled back out to sea. It creates this really weird phenomenon where you have a normal wave sound followed by what kind of sounds like the hardest rainfall ever (or one of the rain sticks you were obsessed with as a kid). Check it out and tell me if I’m just crazy.
Make a note that past the Pier has nothing to offer you. It looks like there might be something interesting further down but there really isn’t so just turn around and head back the way you came.
3) Eat Lunch In Town
Head back into town and eat lunch! There are tons of restaurants near Parque Central. Have a Pisco sour and Lomo Saltado aka the most Peruvian meal ever.
4) Larcomar Shopping Center
After lunch walk through the parks to the east side and walk southeast down Ave Jose Larco to the Larcomar Shopping Center. Or if you skipped lunch you can just walk along the cliffs southeast. Note that you will want to walk along the cliffs not along the beach so head back up the stairs and walk up top along the pathway that lines the top of the cliffs. If you walk along Ave Jose Larco you will notice that this is the street to go to if you need to exchange money or buy souvenirs.
The Larcomar shopping center is literally an American or European shopping mall so don’t head here to shop. It has a wonderful view of the coastline although honestly if you have just finished walking down the cliffs then you’ve probably seen the view already. If you look online this is where everyone will tell you to go to see the view but I actually enjoyed the view up by the lighthouse more so you decide how you want to spend your time. If there is anything on this list I could have done without it would be this.
5) Evening Food Trucks and Artisan Market
On the way back to your hotel or on the way to dinner check out Parque Central for the food trucks and small artisan market(after 5pm).
That’s It For Lima, Folks
That list of 5 items is literally all we did in Lima but it felt like we saw a lot. The coast is definitely the coolest things in the city to see. The main goal here should be to see the main sites but mainly to get your feet planted and start to get a feel for what Peru is like. Depending on when you arrived you will likely get a bit of a late start to the day and whatever is on the agenda for tomorrow will probably mean an early morning so rest up and don’t feel guilty about not seeing more of the city. I promise there are way cooler things to do in Peru than wander around Lima.
Whatever your plans, be sure to leave plenty of time to get to the airport. Ask your hotel front desk how early to leave and listen closely to their advice. The traffic at the airport starts to build before 5am…fair warning.
For ideas on where to head next check out my 9 Day Peru Itinerary.
14 Days In New Zealand
When I began to plan our trip to New Zealand I was immediately overwhelmed. An abundance of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, incredible landscapes and endlessly friendly people are what makes New Zealand appealing. Unfortunately the same things that make it appealing make it painfully difficult to plan because you won’t want to miss a thing!
Most blogs will tell you to spend as much time as possible in New Zealand which I absolutely agree with. However, I know that for a lot of people it isn’t realistic to spend 3-4 weeks on vacation. This itinerary will make the best of your 14 Days in New Zealand. You will see some of the best sites in the country and split your time between the north and south island. Keep in mind that this itinerary assumes you have rented a car which honestly, is the only way to go.
The Plan At A Glance:
- Day 1: Auckland explore Mount Eden, Ponsonby and the city
- Day 2: Waitomo Glow Worm Caves
- Day 3: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
- Day 4: Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland to Rotorua
- Day 5: Rotorua Te Puia Geyser, Redwoods and Mitai Maori Village
- Day 6: Travel from North to South Island (Rotorua-Christchurch-Kaikoura)
- Day 7: Kaikoura Whale Watching Tour and Seaside Walk
- Day 8: Christchurch City Tour
- Day 9: Christchurch: Orana Wildlife Reserve Lion Experience
- Day 10: Queenstown City Exploration and Skyview Gondola and Luge
- Day 11: Queenstown AJ Hackett Bungy Jumping and Coronet Peak Hang Gliding
- Day 12: Milford Sound: Drive from Queenstown and overnight on Milford Sound
- Day 13: Milford Sound and Return to Queenstown
- Day 14: Finish Exploring Queenstown Flight Out
Day 1: Auckland
Almost any itinerary for New Zealand will begin in Auckland simply because Auckland International Airport will likely be your port of entry. Auckland has everything you need and a couple cool things to see but in general don’t spend too much time here. There is nothing wrong with the city but there are just too many way cooler things to do that you need to get a start on ASAP. Check out how to get acclimated to New Zealand via Auckland in just 1.5 days here.
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Auckland and a place to get sweeping views of the city and coastline is Mount Eden. Take a leisurely hike to the top of this volcano to get oriented and to get a taste of the incredible landscapes in your future.
Day 2: Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Get an early start this morning for your 2.5 hour drive to Waitomo to see the incredible glow worm caves. Make sure you leave plenty of time to get used to driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road. It can be tough and nerve wracking at first but you will get used to it fairly quickly. Just be careful not to hug the line too much and it is best to have a passenger to keep you on your toes.
You will love the drive from Auckland to Waitomo. You will be literally driving through postcard perfect landscapes. Bright green rolling hills dotted with fluffy sheep and rainbow after rainbow it is truly a dream.
If you did not book your glow worm tour in advance then you will want to head straight to the information booth in Waitomo so you can figure out a plan. You might have some time to kill before your tour begins and Waitomo is pretty tiny so booking in advance is ideal. Check out all the details you need to know about Waitomo here: Waitomo Glowworm Cave.
After your tour you will be making the 2 hour and 15 min drive on to Tongariro. The earlier you can get to your Tongariro accommodations the better as your day will start very early in the morning.
Day 3: Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Depending on the season you are visiting you will start at a different time but either way it will be an early morning. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is listed as on of the most beautiful hikes in the country. It is recognized for both its physical beauty as well as its cultural and historical importance to the local indigenous people of New Zealand. The trek is 19.4 km in total and takes on average 6-8 hours. You will ascend between the peaks of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe, two volcanoes that were active fairly recently. Maybe don’t look too much into that if you’re easily scared.
The hike itself is definitely challenging not only because it is long but the hike to the peak gets very steep. There are also some steep descents where you are essentially just sliding down a hill trying your best to stay upright. The weather along the track is very unpredictable so be sure to pack for anything and wear or bring lots of layers. We thought we were prepared but in reality we should have brought more wet water gear and another warm layer or 2.
You will see some incredible sites along the way to your hard fought efforts worth it. My absolute favorite was the emerald lakes which are just after the summit. Bright, light icy blue gems glow in your eyes as you catch your breath from hiking the summit. To read all about what can go right (and wrong) check out the Tongariro Alpine Crossing post.
One more important thing to note, be sure you arrange a drop off and a pick up from the start and end of the track before you leave in the morning. Most local hotels offer this service but be sure you have it situated as the crossing is NOT a circle. This means if you drive your self to the entrance then do the crossing you will be very sad at the end because you will be about 19.4km away from your car.
Day 4: Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland
You might be hurting a little bit this morning after such an intense day yesterday so take your time, sleep in and eat a hearty breakfast. Once you are ready set off on a 2 hour drive to the Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland which is about 20 minutes outside Rotorua.
On arrival there is plenty of parking, wear your walking shoes again but don’t fret because the walk around this park is pretty easy. You can explore the entire wonderland in about 60-90mins depending on how long you take to stop and look at things. Tickets are $32.50 each for adults with discounts for children, families and large groups.
Once inside the park you will see some of the most colorful and unique geothermal pools and elements you can imagine. There are stunning and bright green ,yellow and orange pools of every shade. These are separated by thick hot boiling mud pools and strange lava and rock formations. This area is definitely one of the most unique places I have ever been on my travels. To read all about it and more details on what you will see check out the Wai o Tapu Thermal Wonderland post.
On the way out get a recommendation for a nearby hot spring. With all of the volcanic activity they are prolific in the area. After such a grueling day at Tongariro you will really need it! Waikite Valley is a common recommendation and only a short drive away. The hot springs were very busy and just average but it felt great to soak your sore muscles a bit, they’ve earned it. If you’re lucky you can catch a sunset through the steam of the volcanic activity of Rotorua. Cool!
Make the short drive (20-30mins) into Rotorua and settle in at your accommodations. If you are looking for a dinner spot, Eat Street is the place to go for tons of choices and nightlife too!
Day 5: Rotorua Geysers, Redwoods and Mitai Maori Village
Ok so there are literally tons and tons of things to do in Rotorua so you need to pick and choose your favorites. The volcanic activity is unique, the nature is abundant and the culture is incredible. Rotorua literally has something to offer everyone. Unfortunately in this itinerary there is only one full day here but if you have the ability to add an extra day or so, spend some more time in Rotorua. It is a very cool place with a nice vibe and you will definitely not run out of things to do and see.
One thing you should not miss is some sort of Maori Village experience. There are a couple different options to choose from so take a look and see what you prefer. The Mitai Maori Village was the only one that performed a sunset waka on a boat at the time of my research! This makes it a unique choice. To read more about that as well as the other things to do in Rotorua please check out the Rotorua blog post.
Interested in learning more about New Zealand? Check out my other New Zealand Travel Tips & Tricks
Day 6: Travel from North to South Island
Today will be spent traveling by both plane and car. It is an unfortunate way to spend the day but the only way to get to the South Island’s must-see attractions that you will definitely NOT want to pass up. Step one is a flight out of Rotorua to Christchurch. Along with Queenstown, Christchurch is the only other major airport on the south island.
There is no need to plan for tons of time at the Rotorua airport. It took us 10 minutes to drive to the airport and another 5 to return the rental car. There is one counter where there was no line and there was no security area. What I am trying to say is we ended up being at the airport about 2.5 hours early for no reason. At an airport where there is 1 gate, 1 restaurant and 1 check in counter. On the upside, the view was great, the restaurant had options and the wifi was free and unlimited.
It is only a 2-hour flight to Christchurch and the view out of the windows is lovely. Upon arrival, catch a shuttle to your car rental location. Make a note that as with most things in life, you get what you pay for and Jucy car rental is not different. Take from that what you will (*cough* Jucy rental sucks *cough*)
On The Road Again
Next up is a 2.5-hour drive to Kaikoura, located on the east coast of the south island. The regular driving route to Kaikoura, if open, is breathtaking. Just like when driving on the north island it seems like every direction you look at any moment could be the cover of a book or a postcard. The vibrant colors and wide open landscapes of New Zealand do not disappoint.
Take note that the restaurants and stores in Kaikoura all close around 8:00pm so plan accordingly for dinner and breakfast the next day if you have an early start.
Day 7: Kaikoura Whale Watching & A Seaside Walk
Kaikoura is a one-stop shop for marine wildlife. Take your pick from several excellent options including whale watching, scuba diving and swimming with seals. The whale watching is SO good in this location that most tour operators actually offer a money back guarantee if you do not see anything. It didn’t turn out super well for me but you can read all about that here if you’re into sad stories.
The seaside walk is a must do. It doesn’t take much time at all but is one of the best location I have found to make you feel like a tiny speck of dust on a rock hurdling through space.
After your done exploring Kaikoura make the 2.5 hour drive back to Christchurch. Not that I would know from personal experience but you might want to keep an eye out for the police and/or watch your speed on this drive. A super fun fact about New Zealand is that if you exceed the speed limit by too much your license gets automatically and immediately revoked for 28 days! These Kiwis don’t mess around when it comes to speeding! So AJ got kicked off the rental agreement, license revoked in New Zealand and a big old whopper of a fine! And that is the story of how I had to drive for the reminder of the trip….not that I know from personal experience though…
Day 8: Christchurch City Tour
This day is a little more low key and a bit of a recovery day. At this point you have been going pretty hard for 7 days do take this day slow, sleep in and rejuvenate for the second half of your trip.
Christchurch is a really interesting little city due to the hardships it has had to endure recently. The city was hit hard by earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and the landscape and vibe of the city have changed completely. The best way to start your day is to learn about these events at Quake City as you will continue to see evidence of them wherever you go. For a daily itinerary check out this Christchurch post.
Day 9: Orana Wildlife Park Lion Experience
Hopefully you have booked your tickets to the Lion Experience in advance but if not, head out to Orana Wildlife Park anyways as there is a chance you can get same day tickets. It is only about a 15 minute drive from Christchurch airport making it an easy day trip. Arrive earlier than your Lion experience time or plan to stay late so you can look around the rest of the park. As one of the only open range zoos in the world, it is a breath of fresh air from the typical metal bars and glass walls of most other zoo’s.
When it is time for your Lion Experience meet near the lion enclosure. Try not to pass out as the lions jump right up next to your face and wander around above your head with little more than a cage between you. Bring your camera because this is one experience you are going to want to brag about and words just won’t do it justice. More specific details about the Lion Experience here.
Have a relaxing evening and get plenty of sleep as you will be entering the fast-paced and adrenalin-pumping phase of your trip next!
Day 10: Queenstown City Exploration
Take the earliest flight you can muster out of Christchurch to Queenstown and be sure to book yourself a window seat. Landing at the Queenstown airport is an absolute dream. Located in a valley between the peaks of the The Remarkable’s, your descent into Queenstown will be exactly that…remarkable. If your flight is early enough the fog overlaying the mountain lakes and surrounding the tips of the snow peaked mountains will leave you breathless.
Queenstown is where you will ditch your rental car game but there are plenty of options for transport to your hotel on arrival. You should always ask your hotel in advance if they offer airport transports but if not there is a shuttle that leaves regularly. Ask at any info booth and an incredibly friendly Kiwi is sure to help.
After dropping your gear off at your hotel, catch a nice breakfast before heading out on some activities you have hopefully pre-booked. If you did not pre-book or just have time to kill, head into town and right on the main street you will find tons of info booths that are just waiting to book you on the vast multitude of adventure excursions available to you here. I would HIGHLY recommend the bungy jumping but for more details of all your options, learn all about Queenstown. If you did not book a Milford Sound tour in advance today is the day to try your luck and hope something is still available.
Day 11: Bungy Jumping and Hang Gliding
Spend the day living your most adventurous life again! If your heart rate didn’t increase well above its normal limit yesterday than you might not be doing it right. This is your last full day in Queenstown so be sure to not skip anything that you will regret later (*bungy jumping*). If all else fails at least make an effort to get up high somewhere to see a birds eye view of Queenstown. Hang gliding is great for this but for those more chill folks you can always just take the Queenstown Gondola.
When you get a good view you really notice that Queenstown is nothing but a tiny mountain town that has been totally taken over by adventure tourists. Even in the winter it is full of skiers and snowboarders, so there is very little tourist downtime for the locals. It is a truly stunning location that has something for everyone. The Queenstown post will give you all the details you need to make the most of your time here, so live it up!
P.S. If you don’t have any go buy bug spray for your Milford Sound trip, the sand flies are unreal there!
Day 12: Queenstown to Milford Sound
Your day will likely start off early today as you are picked up by your Milford Sound tour for a long drive. hopefully you chose a tour with a larger, more comfortable bus to take you through Fjordland National Park. The drive is about 4 hours and you will pass through lush green valleys, drippy rainforests and snowy mountain passes to get there. Understandably, these tours can often get cancelled due to weather as the roads can literally become impassable during the winter months. If the weather is nice enough the drive is fantastic.
Although you have likley become immune to the excessive beauty that envelops the entire country of New Zealand try to take a step back for a second and remember the concrete jungle you likely came from (if your from the urban USA). Fjordland National Park contains so many unique ecosystems, you will feel like you are driving through the pages of a science book on your way.
Cruising Milford Sound
Once you arrive at the dock you will unload your bags and load right onto your boat. There are several activities on board that you can choose from. The weather is very unpredictable and often rainy so plan accordingly and don’t get flustered if it rains a lot. In fact you might want to encourage the rain as the storms send water cascading down the mountain cliffs surrounding you creating walls of waterfalls, a true feast for the eyes.
Although your experience will vary based on the tour you chose, I would definitely recommend doing at least 1 night onboard a boat in the sounds, this way you can catch a sunrise, sunset and a couple different weather experiences. The Milford Sound post has all the details you need for an incredible trip.
P.S. If you have the chance to jump into the glacial waters..do it…make the jump..its gonna be freezing but you NEED to swim in glacial waters, you just don’t know it yet.
Day 13: Milford Sound to Queenstown
Spend the morning in awe as the sunrise adds an incredible backdrop to the already picturesque mountain range and waterfall cliffside’s surrounding you. No seriously, read that last sentence back and then tell me you don’t want to see Milford Sound in real life. If you’re lucky the sea lions and dolphins will be out to play this morning! Have a leisurely breakfast on board before disembarking and heading back to Queenstown the same way you came.
Day 14: Final Goodbye’s and Bug Bite Balm
Depending on when your flight leaves today you may have more time to spend in Queenstown. We just had time for a nice breakfast and a quick trip into town for emergency bug bite balm. The sand flies in Milford Sound are absolutely brutal so plan accordingly. If you still get eaten alive and the thought of spending the entire plane trip back with itchy bites all of your body is excruciating then head into town and get the local Tui Balm bug bite balm. It works wonders and might be the best money you ever spend.
Remember to nab a window seat out of Queenstown especially if you didn’t have one on the way in. Try not to cry as you leave on of the most naturally stunning countries in the world.
Your trip to New Zealand will not be the shortest or the cheapest but it very well might top the list as one of your all time favorites. I know for sure it will be a hard one for me to top! Happy Travels!
How To Get There
Milford Sound is not easy to get to located about 4 hours from Queenstown. Your drive will be through the huge mountains and lush rainforest of Fjordland National Park. Despite its name, Milford Sound is actually a fjord created by the erosion of ancient glaciers. It is one of the wettest places in the world and the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand due to its high levels of rainfall. It is, after all, surrounded by rainforest so don’t forget to pack your rain gear. You should actually hope for good rainfall because it sends water cascading down the cliffs surrounding you with waterfalls.
It can be tough to schedule 2 full days when there are so many options of things to see. I really think Milford Sound is not to be missed and something you should consider making time for.
Tours and Attractions
As you guys know I HATE tour groups but the only way to fit Milford Sound into our tight New Zealand Itinerary was to make it as quick and efficient as possible. Since we did not need a rental car in Queenstown it did not make sense to rent one just to drive there and back. There are tons of options and tours from Queenstown so pick your poison. You can even choose to fly there if you’re rolling in dough.
We chose to take the Milford Mariner Overnight Cruise which began in downtown Queenstown where we caught a coach. I say coach because it really was better than a bus. There was even windows on the ceiling making it easy to see the incredible sites along the way. It was a very comfortable ride which was a major concern of mine.
The tour made several stops along the way including a cute little coffee shop/cafe and some scenic stops for taking photos. On arrival in Milford Sound we were taken directly to the boat where we were assigned our cabins and loaded up. It all was very quick and efficient and the place where you load onto the boat is your first glimpse of the amazing sites you will be seeing on your tour.
Interested in learning more about New Zealand? Check out my other New Zealand Travel Tips & Tricks
All tours will be a little bit different but ours included a cruise around the sound. Before sunset we got into a smaller boat to travel closer to the incredible cliffs that will be surrounding you. There are tons of waterfalls, even more if it has rained recently. Some of the waterfalls start so high up that the water evaporates into mist before even hitting the ground below. Before heading back to our large boat to watch the sunset we spotted some seals splashing along the rocky shore.
Before the sun goes down completely be sure to look up at the mountains above you as there are still glaciers near the top. The glacial waters that fill the fjord are just that, glacial. Our boat crew was encouraging people to jump off the back of the boat regardless. They said it was a once in a lifetime experience to swim in glacial waters. They made a good plea so we did it….it was cold but you should definitely do it if you have the chance. How many people can say they have done that!? We stayed up late star gazing on the top deck of the boat.
The next day started super early as we sailed out to a good spot to watch the sunrise. We also got to kayak through the waters on our own and explore for a period of time. The last activity on the way back to the dock was too sail underneath a waterfall which was an awesome experience. It is hard to capture the enormity of the cliffs in photos but the landscape really is one of a kind.
I cannot recommend a trip to Milford Sound highly enough it truly is breathtaking and our tour was very informative, comfortable and well done.
Queenstown is the adventure capital of New Zealand. Here, nature and tourists alike come to play and you can choose from a vast array of options to spend your time and get your blood pumping.
Pro Tip: If flying into our out of Queenstown during daylight hour be sure to get a window site as the airplane view is absolutely breathtaking. You also literally land in a valley between multiple mountain ranges (The Remarkables which is the best mountain range name of all time) which is a pretty unique experience.
We stayed at the Lomond Lodge Motel and Apartments during our stay. They were very accommodating when it came to holding our bags during our multi-day excursions. Day time and multi-day excursions are hugely popular in Queenstown so I am sure all of the hotels offer this service but it might be something to check when booking. Lomond Lodge is located just off the main strip of restaurants and shops making it a little cheaper. We only had to walk about 5-7 minutes to reach anything so it was still very convenient.
If you will be arriving during busy season I would absolutely recommend booking your hotel in advance as it is a pretty small little town with limited resources. The place comes alive during the warmer months with adventure seekers and then again in the winter for snow lovers.
Shopping, Eating and The Basics
Queenstown is really quite tiny with only a couple major streets and one town center. The shops and restaurants are nearly all located in the town center which is very easily walked. Definitely take the chance to walk near the lakefront where you will also find a large park that sometimes has festivals.
Note that most things in Queenstown are rather pricey as the location is bit remote and they know there is a captive audience with the tourists. If it is a souvenir that you know you can by elsewhere you might be better off waiting.
Unless you are planning to do trips far outside of town without tour groups there is really no need for a car in Queenstown. All of the activities and excursions include transportation from the main street of Queenstown. There is also a local bus system that can be used to hit some of the local communities nearby.
There is a very nice shuttle service from the airport that you can also schedule in advance to pick you up whenever you need to head back. This can be scheduled at the airport, with the taxi company itself or through your hotel or using their phone app. There are tons of airport transportation options no matter what your needs are. Everyone at the airport, hotels, drivers and tour operators are incredibly friendly and helpful so don’t be afraid to ask around.
Interested in learning more about New Zealand? Check out my other New Zealand Travel Tips & Tricks
Activities and Excursions
There are information booths and places to book activities and excursions EVERYWHERE in Queenstown. This tiny little mountain town is built on tourism and they know it. You can book anything you want to do right on the spot and often the same day or just 1 day prior. We booked our bungy jumping adventure and Milford Sound cruise in advance because we did not want to miss out.
If you are unsure of what you want to do or have several days to fill I would recommend just heading to an info booth on arrival to explore all of your options. A lot of places also offer packages if you want to do multiple things. There are so many options of things to do that it can be a little overwhelming when looking online. I found it much easier to speak with an actual person and prices were pretty comparable.
Queenstown is where bungy jumping was invented so we definitely chose to take advantage of that and jump of Kawarau Bridge with AJ Hackett Bungy Jumping. As with almost all of the tours in Queenstown, you meet at a local shop in town to start your tour. Transportation to and from the location of your activity is included in the price.
I had never bungy jumped and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If we went back again I think we would do the higher jump because it was SO much fun!
Para Gliding and Hang Gliding
On a total whim we decided to go para gliding. We had some time to kill so we walked into an info booth to see what our options were for the day. We booked immediately with Coronet Peak and left about an hour later for our trip. It was only a 3 hour excursion but it was wonderful! We had no idea what to expect as we had never even thought of para gliding. Anything you can do to get up high and see the view of Queenstown and the nearby Remarkable Mountains you should absolutely do. You will not be disappointed.
Queenstown Gondola and Skyline Luge
The gondola and luge was recommended to us by our hotel since we arrived too early in the day to go into our hotel room. You can walk there from the center of town easily. I would recommend going early in the morning unless you are keen to waiting in line. You take a short gondola up to a little visitors center and then take the luge down. You can purchase packages with 2, 3 or 5 luge rides. We did 2 and that was more than enough as there are 2 different tracks to take.
Be sure to wander around the visitors center as there are stores, a cafeteria and balconies with amazing views. Just note that you are not able to take backpacks and other loose objects on the luge. There are some lockers at the top you can use but they fill up super fast. Better to pack light for this one.
Milford Sound Cruise
The drive to Milford Sound is still quite long, about 4 hours. However, Queenstown is one of the most popular jumping off points for this trip. If you can spare 2 full days I would recommend it, if you can afford to fly to Milford Sound that is another option. It was so cool that is deserves its own post so head over to Milford Sound for the details.
Other Queenstown Activity Options
The list of activities is much too long but the Queenstown website does a great job of listing your options. Again, if there is anything you absolutely do not want to miss I would book in advance. Otherwise, I would show up with an open-mind and a brave face and see what you are up for.
During our time in Christchurch we stayed at the Southwark Apartments. The price was right but it would be an especially good place to stay if you were going to need laundry and a small kitchenette as all of these things were included. Just note that you must book parking in advance or you will need to find your own street parking which can be a little challenging to due its central location.
You immediately notice two things about this city, the artwork and the destruction. Two large earthquakes hit Christchurch, one in September of 2010 and the other February of 2011. Back to back destruction and the city center still shows the very obvious signs of damage. There are construction projects happening everywhere but still a lot of empty or abandoned buildings. In the midst of all this sad damage is tons of gorgeous street art. Huge murals coat the plain and crumbling walls and it is really quite an interesting mix.
Christchurch Activity Guide
You should absolutely learn the recent history of the earthquakes while you are in town. These events have played such a large role in shaping the city and the experiences of it’s residents. There is a great museum right in the center of town Quake City that does a wonderful job of explaining the immediate and ongoing impact of the quakes. Admission for adults is $20.
Re:START Mall or Container Mall
After the earthquakes there was a serious lack of buildings and operational businesses. This mall opened on October 29th, 2011 with retailers selling their goods out of shipping containers instead of buildings. By the residents of Christchurch and others as well, this was seen as a symbol of the innovation of the Christchurch community in the face of such great hardship. The mall has since been updated and the name changed to Container Mall. It is right near Quake City and an awesome place to peruse.
Explore The Murals and Street Art
Take a self guided tour of the local murals and street art. It is literally everywhere you look around the city and can make for a fun afternoon if the weather is nice. I found it to be one of the things that makes Christchurch unique as I have not travelled anywhere else that takes street art to the same level. Watch This Space offer a map of some of the best pieces if you want a little bit of guidance. Christchurch is a very walkable city so grab a nice drink and get to exploring!
Interested in learning more about New Zealand? Check out my other New Zealand Travel Tips & Tricks
This would be a great stop on your street art walking tour and is right in the center of town. Check out the destruction done to the large cathedral in the geographical center of town and the work being done to repair it. A pretty popular gathering place for people and activities. There was food truck festival going on here during our visit.
Orana Wildlife Park
I am going to be honest, this is pretty much the main reason we went through Christchurch. This and the Whale Watching tour in Kaikoura. Orana is an awesome open range zoo which plays a huge role in the conservation efforts of endangered species. It also houses the only gorillas and orangutans in the country. As soon as you enter you notice that it is unlike any other zoo you have probably been in to. The animals are in HUGE areas that are much more similar to their natural habitats than a zoo enclosure like you would normally see in other countries. There is no glass walls for kids to bang on and harass the animals, just open fields, fences and motes.
By far the BEST part of this zoo is the Lion Encounter where you stand in a caged trailer that is driven behind a truck into the lion enclosure during feeding time. There are 2 zoo employees with you in the trailer who will bring giant buckets of raw meat and feed the lions through the cage literally 1 foot from your face. The lions also jump on top of the cage to get food. Ok so I did this and it was the coolest thing EVER. I have no idea if you can do this anywhere else in the world but holy cow you do not realize how big lions are until they are standing on top of you. During the feeding the zoologists will also teach you all about the lions.
The cost is $45 per person on top of the zoo entrance and you should definitely book in advance. That is an absurd price for something that would cost hundreds in the USA. This is one of the coolest things I have ever done, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
That Foodie Life
There is not shortage of good eats in this eclectic little city but for a truly awesome dining experience be sure to check out C1 Espresso where your food will be delivered through Pneumatic tubes!
On any trip to Seoul one of the royal palaces has to be on your “must-see” list. There are 5 palaces in Seoul for you to choose from on your visit and all have unique features making their case. This blog is always honest with you so here it is, you probably don’t need to see more than one palace. Now obviously if you have plenty of time and need a good activity then you could see more but they are all pretty similar and there are so many other things to see. So I am going to do my best to show the pros and cons of each so that you can choose which palace you want to see the most in order to maximize your time exploring Seoul!
The 5 Royal Palaces In Seoul:
This palace was the first one built out of the 5 back in 1392. The palace was burnt down and rebuilt during one of the invasions of Korea. Geyongbokgung is now one of the best examples of a traditional Korean refined palace.
-The largest of the 5 palaces
-The most extensive and beautiful gardens
-Hyangweonjeong Pavilion is stunning in every season
-Expansive grounds with a lot of shady areas to sit and rest
-Busy as it is incredibly popular
-Literally nothing else I can think of because this is my favorite palace by far
Admission: 3,000 won per person -Closed Every Tuesday
Location: Gyeongbokgung Station Exit 5
The second palace built in Seoul and a UNESCO world heritage site, Changdeokgung is said to be built according to nature. This palace was originally built as a back-up to Gyeongbokgung in case something were to happen to the primary palace.
– One of the most historically relevant sites in Korea (UNESCO)
-The secret garden tour (Huwon) is stunning. If pagodas set against immaculate gardens are your thing then this is the tour for you. English secret garden tours are only run 3-4 times per day for 8,000 won per person
-Second largest palace in Seoul
-Rear garden has a 300+ year old giant tree
-The secret garden is fantastic but the regular gardens don’t compare to Gyeongbok
-The secret garden tour is great but you have to go in a group and it can become a little tedious
Admission: 3,000 won per person -Closed Every Monday
Location: Anguk Station Exit 3, walk straight 5 mins
The only palace located on flat ground, this palace used to have the city wall built around it in order to protect it from the threats of its time.
-This palace has the changing of the guards ceremony 3 times per day, a major tourist attraction
-To the left of the palace entrance is the famous stone wall road and a great noodle restaurant
-located at one of the busiest and most lively intersections in town
-Very few structures are actually intact within the grounds
-The gardens are lacking compared to Gyeongbok and Changdeok
-The changing of the guards ceremony is a little bit silly and runs long in my opinion. Designed specifically for tourists, it lacks authenticity
Admission: 1,000 won per person -Closed Every Monday
Location: City Hall Station Exit 1, 2 or 3
Interested in learning more about South Korea? Check out my other South Korea Travel Tips & Tricks
Built in 1418 this is the only one of Seoul’s palaces that faces East. This change was implemented to emphasize independence at the time of building.
-Much less busy than the larger palaces
-The greenhouse is beautiful
-Fairly large gardens
– Difficult to get to, not near a subway station
– Lacking color and adornment of other palaces
– Due to construction, the greenhouse has been closed for years
Admission: 1,000 won per person -Closed Every Monday
Location: Anguk Station Exit 3 walk along Yulgok-ro for 1km, make a left on Changgyeonggung-ro for 300m, entrance on your left.
Just opened to the public in 2002, Gyeonghuigung Palace is the least well-known palace in Seoul. It lacks the vibrancy and extravagance of the other locations since it is not fully refurbished.
-You can walk to Deoksugung Palace from here and see both in one day
-Definitely the least well-known palace and will be the least busy
-The palace is not 100% intact. The Shilla Hotel is currently using the front gate as their own
-Gardens are nearly non-existent
-It is free for a reason guys…I would not recommend this palace
Admission: Free -Closed Every Monday
Location: Seodaemun Station Exit 4, walk straight 400m entrance on left
So what would I recommend? Gyeongbokgung Palace hands down, it is the best combination of traditional Korean architecture and incredibly manicured gardens. Second best is Changdeokgung Palace with the Huwon tour. If you choose this option be sure to wear comfortable shoes because you will be walking a TON. Have fun and let me know what you think of my list in the comments 🙂
The When, Where and Why of the Seoul Cherry Blossoms
Just like anywhere else the cherry blossom bloom cannot be predicted very far out. It usually occurs from the end of March to the middle of April but cannot be predicted with any real accuracy until less than a month out. The bloom occurs earlier in the South and works its way North so you can adjust your trip accordingly. Seoul, being very far north, will see the bloom very late into the season.
Now most blogs will tell you the same list of places to see the blossoms which means that you will be seeing the flowers with thousands of your closest friends. There are several secret little spots I found while living in Seoul where you can actually see the flowers without having to push your way through a crowd. Another great plan is to go very early in the morning, especially if you want to take photos, the crowds will be much thinner.
My Top 3 Picks:
The Typical Viewing Areas for the Seoul Cherry Blossoms
Yeouido Spring Flower Festival
This is by far the most popular cherry blossom festival in Seoul. Located on the island of Yeouido right on the Han River in the heart of the city it is PACKED. The general sentiment is that it is too busy to even be fun. The blossoms are only on one side of the street so you will not get the iconic flower arch photos. In true Korean fashion there are tons of people pulling the flowers down in order to get the best selfie and it is just all around chaos. This just isn’t my scene so I avoided this location like the plague during the bloom.
Yeouido Station Exit 3 walk 5 mins towards National Assembly Building
The palaces are stunning on their own, add the cherry blossom in and you are in for a major treat. I will not lie and tell you that the palaces will be calm during this time because they will be packed. It still might be worth it to go check out just so you can see the cherry blossoms with the traditional Korean architecture and bright paint colors in the background. I mean doesn’t that sound amazing? I prefer the Gyeongbok Palace gardens but Changdeok Palace with a secret garden tour would also be an excellent choice. Check out my Palaces of Seoul for more info on which palace to choose.
Namsan park is the open area that surrounds Seoul Tower. A lot of locals hike up to Seoul Tower regularly for exercise so it is a popular spot year round. The park is huge but I would recommend just doing the actual walk up to Seoul Tower. You will be walking along a paved street and the cherry blossoms will be high above you from both sides of the walkway. You will also be able to catch glimpses of Seoul Tower through the flowers as you work your way up. This is actually my all time favorite spot to see the flowers.
You will enter the walking path right near Namsan Library, you can either walk/hike to the library or take a taxi. Once at the top you can take a free neon green Namsan Tower bus back down to the city or just hike back the way you came.
Interested in learning more about South Korea? Check out my other South Korea Travel Tips & Tricks
The Way Better Secret Spots To View The Seoul Cherry Blossoms
Yongsan Family Park
This is the location where most expats and military families will go see the blooms. This is right near the military base and a much loved park for all those nearby. The family park is connected to the National Museum of Korea Gardens which are also stunning. The family park has its own tiny parking lot (which will likely be full unless you go in the early morning) or you can park in the National Museum garage ($2-$3 for 1 hour) and walk. The best blooms are right near the small parking lot described above.
There is a pathway lined with trees on both sides which creates a stunning backdrop for photos. Many people will set up blankets or tents and just hang out under the flowers all day.
Ichon Station Exit 2, straight for 10mins
On the south side of the Han River is Seoul Forest. This park is very large and will take some exploring to find the best trees. One of the paths near the entrance does have cherry blossom trees along the sidewalks and then go just over the hill to your right to find more in an open area. Pack a picnic and enjoy your afternoon under the blooms! If you walk far enough away from the parking areas you can also see and feed a population of wild deer that live within the forest. For the kids, this park also has an awesome playground.
Seoul Forest Station Exit 3, 5min walk
Seoul National Cemetery
One of the most under appreciated viewing spots. This location features weeping cherry blossom trees making it incredibly unique. The grounds of the cemetery are immaculate and since it is a cemetery it is much quieter and less busy than all of the other locations. Just be sure to remember where you are and remain respectful.
Dongjak Station Exit 2 or 4
Jeongdok Public Library
Located in the heart of the Bukchon Hanok Village this is a popular spot for younger generations. There will be cars backed up all around the block trying to get into the parking area which is where the blooms are best. The cherry blossoms trees here are very old and much larger than those you will see elsewhere. This is a great choice if you don’t have a ton of time to see the blooms and just want to incorporate them into your other activities.
Anguk Station Exit 1, walk 10mins towards Deokseong Girl’s High School
Outside Of Seoul
Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival
The most popular festival outside of Seoul by far. Jinhae is popular for photographers who wish to get a photo of a subway running through an archway of cherry blossoms. The trees are prolific here so if cherry blossoms are what you crave this might be the place to go.
Jeju Cherry Blossom Festival
Jeju has it’s own blossom festival in Seogwipo so if you are in that part of the country you are still in luck. I have never attended the festival here but the landscape on its own is epic so I can imagine that the combination of the two would be pretty epic.