The Family Travel Show

Family Travel ShowDo you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of choice there is when you’re planning a family holiday? The whole world is out there to explore but how do you decide where to go and what to do?

Do you go skiing, on a safari, a cruise or a city break? And how do you decide where to stay once you’re there? Is it better to pick a large hotel with kids’ clubs and activities on tap, a campsite or a self-catering villa?

We’re hoping to find the answers to these questions and lots more at the Family Travel Show in London on October 1st and 2nd. It’s the only UK event dedicated to family holiday inspiration so it will be packed with family travel experts and holiday companies all keen to answer your questions and inspire you with lots of ideas for your next holiday.

Family Travel ShowWith exhibitors ranging from ski and safari companies to cruises and adventure travel, it’s a great opportunity to find out about lots of different kinds of holidays. There’s a big fun element at the show too, with competitions to win holidays and lots of activities to keep the children entertained.

You can dress up and have your photo taken in front of famous landmarks, try on scuba diving equipment, go on a climbing wall or find out how to build a fire without matches with London Bushcraft.

Lonely Planet Kids is offering discounts on its children’s travel books, an activity sheet competition and the chance to explore different environments using a virtual reality headset.

Children can take part in a 45-minute photography workshop too, learning the basics of how a camera works and how to take pictures of moving wildlife and landscapes.

Family Travel ShowThe Family Travel Show is taking place at Olympia in London from 1st to the 2nd October. Tickets for adults cost £10 on the door or £8 in advance. Children under 16, free. If you’d like tickets for only £6 use the code, SUITCASES. The photography workshops cost £10 per child and should be booked in advance to secure a place.

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Is Santorini really worth the hype?

Santorini is regularly voted one of the most beautiful islands in the world. It has all the qualities you dream of when you picture the perfect Greek island: whitewashed houses, towering cliffs and spectacular sunsets.

But Santorini is made that bit more special by its extraordinary location. Thousands of years ago, a massive volcanic eruption caused the centre of the island to collapse, leaving a caldera or crater, with towering cliffs along one side of the island.

Santorini’s sunsets are indeed spectacular, particularly from Oia, the village perched at the top of the island. But how spectacular an experience can it be if you’re struggling to watch it behind a large crowd of people all holding up their phones to take a picture?

Is Santorini really worth all that hype? The trouble with places on the ‘Most Beautiful’ lists is that they tend to be very popular and Santorini is no different. Two million tourists visit the island every year and there can be as many as 57 flights a day in the summer. When you consider that Santorini is a relatively small island with an area of approximately 28 square miles you can get an idea of how busy the island can get – and that doesn’t even count the people coming off the cruise ships that dock from March to December, adding as many as 25,000 people a day to the island’s congestion.

Nobody could argue that the views over the caldera aren’t stunning. It’s definitely a wow moment when you see it for the first time. There’s an ethereal quality to the light here. Shades of blue appear to merge into each other, from deepest indigo to the palest turquoise. The mists in the sky melt into a sea that looks like velvety ink.

I first visited Santorini with a girlfriend before I had children. We walked to the top of the volcano, we visited the archaeological site of Akrotiri where you can see the remains of the Minoan city destroyed by the volcanic eruption and we sunbathed on a black sandy beach.

This summer I went back with my family. We flew into Santorini on our way to the smaller island of Folegandros, also part of the Cyclades. Due to the difference between our flight and ferry times I’d worked out that we had three hours spare on each leg for a mini tour of the island.

On the way out, we’d get a taxi to Imerovigli, the village at the highest point of the caldera’s edge and on the way back, we’d visit Oia, the village at the top of the island famous for its blue domed churches and incredible sunsets.

But things don’t always work out as you’ve planned when you’re travelling, do they? Our flying trip to Imerovigli was a good idea – it was relatively quiet and we had enough time to admire the views before heading to the port to catch our ferry. But on the way back, our ferry was an hour late. I assumed this would still give us enough time to visit Oia but we abandoned our plans when our taxi driver told us that the relatively short 11.8 mile journey from the port would take an hour and a half because the roads were so clogged up with all the tourist traffic.

So we went instead to Fira, the main town, which was much closer to the airport. It was a huge disappointment. The narrow lanes were packed with tourists and lined with tacky souvenir shops. The view over the caldera was spoiled by the masses of restaurants and hotels huddled together on the hillside.

Our couple of hours in Santorini came at the end of a two-week-long holiday on the tiny island of Folegandros and all we could think about was how lucky we were to have chosen to stay there rather than here, no matter how good the views. The food was more expensive, the streets were a lot busier and there were so many more tourists. It was a long way from being the Greek island of my dreams.

I wouldn’t say it’s not worth going to Santorini – it is certainly beautiful and perhaps it is one of those places you should see in a lifetime, but if you’re looking for a more traditional, easygoing Greece then you’re not going to find it.

If you’ve got the chance, see Santorini at its best outside of the main tourist season. As a family with school-age children we’re restricted to travelling during the school holidays. It’s always going to be busier over the summer so consider going in the spring or the autumn. If, like us, you have to visit in the summer think about a short stop at Santorini before heading to a quieter island.

I’ll be writing shortly in more detail about the perfect Greek island we found but in the meantime take a A Photo Tour of Beautiful Folegandros.

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Linking up with: Wanderful Wednesday

The August Chronicles

It’s hard to believe that the summer holidays are almost at an end and that the children will be going back to school next week.

The month started incredibly well with the amazing news that Suitcases and Sandcastles has made it into Vuelio’s Top 10 UK Family Travel Blogs. I’m really excited about this and looking forward to sharing more of our family adventures with you.

Our August has been filled with fun days out, lazy days in the sunshine and long evenings spent watching sunsets and eating delicious Greek food in local tavernas.

After a brief stop in Santorini, we spent two fabulous weeks exploring the picture-perfect Greek island of Folegandros and fell in love with its easygoing charm, stunning views and secret beaches.

Back in the UK we discovered some of the fascinating secrets and stories on a Houses of Parliament tour in London. We watched knights jousting and let the boys get soaking wet in the water maze at Hever Castle in Kent and had a picnic on the beach at Durdle Door on the Dorset coast.

For me, one of the joys of a summer holiday is the chance to indulge in some reading time. My suitcase is always packed with books and this month I spent many happy hours reading while basking in the Greek sunshine. I travelled to 18th-century Australia in Kate Grenville’s ‘The Lieutenant’, to Detroit in the wonderful ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides and relived the horrors of London during the Blitz in Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life after Life’. All three books were fantastic reads and I thoroughly recommend them.

I’ve also enjoyed reading about other people’s travels in some of my favourite blogs. As a travel writer I’m always thinking about the next trip and looking for inspiration for where to travel next. These are the blog posts that have really given me itchy feet this month:

Pretty Towns of the Italian Riviera – Untold Morsels

Top Family Beaches in Nantucket – Fifi + Hop

Do Denmark in the Fall – Oregon Girl Around The World

Must See Scotland – the North East Coast – The Smalls Abroad

In September I’ll be writing about Greece: the wonderful island of Folegandros and the more well-known Santorini. My boys remain as obsessed as ever with royal palaces so we’ll be visiting Windsor Castle and a couple of London’s museums as well as exploring more of the English countryside.

And finally, here are this month’s blog posts in case you missed them:

The Best Things to do with Kids in Paris



The Best Things to do with Kids in Paris



Best UK Castles for Families      The UK’s Best Castles for Families


Nine Reasons you should visit the Lisbon Oceanário       Nine Reasons You Should Visit The Lisbon Oceanário


A Photo Tour of Folegandros       A Photo Tour of Folegandros


Eleven Things to Spot on the Houses of Parliament Tour        Eleven Things to spot on the Houses of Parliament Tour


The Best Things to do with Kids at Hever Castle       The Best Things to do with Kids at Hever Castle


Thanks so much for reading. What have been your best trips and reads over the last month?




Eleven Things to spot on the Houses of Parliament Tour

Eleven Things to Spot on the Houses of Parliament TourWhat could be more thrilling than standing in the steps of the Prime Minister, the Queen and Braveheart? A tour of the Houses of Parliament is a fantastic opportunity for children to see inside one of the world’s most iconic buildings. You’ll find out about Guy Fawkes, the man who tried to blow up the building; Charles I, the king who had his head cut off for abusing his power; and secret doors leading to even more secret toilets.

The Palace of Westminster has been a royal palace for over 1,000 years. Originally King Canute’s hunting lodge, it was the main residence for the kings of England from 1042 until 1512 when King Henry VIII moved out after a fire. The Houses of Parliament were built on the site of the medieval palace in the 19th century after another large fire. Although most of the buildings look really old they are in fact all, apart from Westminster Hall, only 150 years old.

These are the things you should look out for.

Stand on the spot where Charles I was condemned to death in Westminster Hall

Westminster Hall is the oldest part of the Houses of Parliament. It was completed by William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus, in 1098 and it’s where the law courts used to sit. It is a real thrill to walk around here. So many of the most exciting moments of British history have happened within these walls.

For my boys and I, the biggest thrill was standing on the exact spot where King Charles I  was sentenced to death in 1649. It is also here where the Scottish ‘Braveheart’, William Walace was sentenced to death for treason in 1305 and where Sir Thomas More was condemned to death in 1535.

In more recent times, this is where Nelson Mandela addressed Parliament and where the bodies of people like Winston Churchill and King George VI were laid in state before their funerals.

We enjoyed looking at all the statues of animals and admiring the 600-year-old roof. Our guide told us that when they did some repair work up there recently they found lots of medieval tennis balls up in the rafters left over from people indulging in a spot of royal tennis after work!

Follow the processional route taken by the Queen

The Queen opens Parliament every year and the tour follows the ‘Line of Route’, the route the Queen takes for the State Opening of Parliament. She arrives in a horse drawn coach at the Sovereign’s Entrance and makes her way from there to the Robing Room, through the Royal Gallery and Tudor Room to the Lords Chamber.

We were fascinated to discover that before the State Opening, the cellars of the Palace of Westminster are searched by the Beefeaters, the Yeoman of the Guard from the Tower of London, in order to prevent another Gunpowder Plot. The Yeoman Warders search the cellars with their lanterns. This is the cellar where, in 1605, Guy Fawkes was found guarding a pile of gunpowder with which he and a group of Catholic plotters were planning to blow up the Houses of Parliament in an attempt to kill the protestant King James I.

Find the secret door in the Robing Rome

The Robing Rome, with its highly ornate ceilings and copious amounts of gold leaf, is probably the grandest dressing room you’ll ever see. There’s even a throne in here, a ‘Chair of State’, built for Queen Victoria. This is where the Queen comes to put on her state robes and the Imperial State Crown. A copy of Charles I’s death warrant is displayed in here as a stark reminder of what can happen to a monarch who attempts to interfere with Parliament.

The most thrilling thing for my boys was the discovery of a secret panel which leads to the Royal Apartments or, in other words, a toilet which only the Queen is allowed to use.

Admire the glitz of the Lords Chamber


The Queen addresses Parliament in the most lavishly decorated room of the whole palace. The Royal Throne is based on the early 14th century Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey. In front of the throne there’s a big cushion like a giant beanbag where the Lord Speaker sits. It’s called a Woolsack because it’s stuffed with wool. All the benches are red here, which is the colour of the Lords as opposed to the Commons which is green. There are lots of microphones dangling down from the ceiling which my boys thought looked like the candles hanging down from the Great Hall at Hogwarts.

See if you can work out where Churchill damaged the table

A bomb fell on the House of Commons during the Second World War so the government had to move into the Lords Chamber. Winston Churchill was prime minister at the time and he used to pound on the desk during his speeches to the Commons. The table in the middle of the Lords Chamber is that same table and if you look closely you can see the mark where Churchill’s signet ring scratched the table from Churchill banging on it so much.

Look at the statues of the prime ministers in the Members’ Lobby

IMG_1428-Commons-from-Members-Lobby-with-ChurchillYou can find more bomb damage in what is now called the Churchill Arch in the Members’ Lobby outside the entrance to the Commons Chamber. There are statues here of various prominent prime ministers including Winston Churchill, Clement Atlee and Margaret Thatcher.

There’s a marked difference between the size of Churchill’s statue and that of Lloyd George. Our guide told us that Churchill deliberately commissioned his statue to tower over that of his predecessor. Apparently Lloyd George’s widow complained that he looked ridiculous so they put him on a plinth to make him look taller.







Stand in the Commons Chamber


We would have loved to have sat down on one of the famous green benches but unfortunately it’s not allowed. The Commons Chamber is the room we really wanted to see for ourselves, the room we’ve seen countless times on the television. The first thing that struck us was how much smaller it looks in real life. There are 650 members of parliament but there is only space in the chamber for 450 people on the benches.

Another interesting thing we learned was that the Queen is not allowed in this room. No British monarch has been allowed in since King Charles I stormed into the Commons – and we all know what happened to him.

Find out where the Speaker used to go to the toilet

Oh, the joys of toilet humour! The grand Speaker’s Chair is raised up so that the Speaker can see what’s going on and control the proceedings. It looks all the grander for having a canopy over the top of the chair. This is because they used to hang drapes around the chair whenever the Speaker needed to use the toilet.

There is a rule that the Speaker has to be present for the parliamentary session to carry on. Nobody wanted to interrupt the session if the Speaker needed the loo so for 600 years the poor Speaker had to draw the curtains and use a chamber pot behind the canopy whenever he had to relieve himself. This went on for centuries until it was decided that a Deputy Speaker could stand in if the Speaker had to leave the room.

See where the Suffragettes used to chain themselves in St Stephens Hall

Suffragettes regularly used to chain themselves to the statue of Lord Falkland when they were protesting about the women’s right to vote at the beginning of the 20th century. The women caused such a disturbance that they banned women from the Central Lobby for ten years from 1908 to 1918.

See who you can spot…

IMG_3672The thing about the Houses of Parliament is that you never know who you’re going to bump into. As we walked outside, a Rolls Royce pulled up and there was the King of Ghana and his entourage…

Don’t miss the Jewel Tower

Your tour ticket gives you free entry to the Jewel Tower opposite Westminster Palace. It was built in 1365 to store King Edward III’s personal treasure and was originally surrounded by a moat to make it harder to attack.

The official records of the House of Lords were kept here from 1580 to 1864 so this is the place to see copies of thrilling documents like the death warrant of King Charles I and the act of parliament that abolished slavery.

How to book a tour of the Houses of Parliament

Tours are available on Saturdays thought the year and on most weekdays during parliamentary recesses including the summer, Christmas and Easter.

There are several ways of booking a tour. You can either book a tour online or from the ticket office at the front of Portcullis House. A self-guided audio tour costs £18.50 for adults. One child is free with each paying adult, £7.50 for each additional child. There is a family version of the audio tour. The 90-minute guided tours cost £25.50, adults; £11, children. It’s best to book in advance but some tickets may be available on the day from the ticket office.

UK residents can do a guided tour free of charge by contacting their MP. All you need to do is contact your MP or a Member of the House of Lords. You can find your MP and a list of Members of the House of Lords on the UK Parliament website.

There are regular Family Guided Tours of the Houses of Parliament. Check the website for details.

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The Best Things to do with Kids at Hever Castle

The Best Things to do with Kids at Hever CastleHever Castle in Kent is one of our favourite castles to visit in the UK. The childhood home of King Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, is a picture-perfect castle in beautiful grounds. There are so many great activities for families here from trying your hand at archery and rowing to watching knights jousting and getting lost in the mazes. Here’s a list of our favourite things to do at Hever Castle.

Explore the castle

The 700-year-old castle has everything children require from a castle: a moat, an impressive drawbridge and a gatehouse filled with armour and instruments of torture.

It also boasts one of the UK’s best collections of Tudor portraits. The connections with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn make Hever a must-visit for anyone interested in the Tudors. You can see the bedchamber where Henry VIII is believed to have stayed and the signed, exquisite prayer books belonging to Anne Boleyn.

Our favourite time to visit is at Christmas when all the rooms are decorated with Christmas trees.

Find your way around all three mazes

There are no less than three mazes at Hever Castle. Kids love the Tower Maze in the adventure playground and my two love the challenge of finding their way around the traditional Yew Maze in the shortest time possible.

The Water Maze is the most fun of all and a brilliant place to cool down on a hot summer’s day. Stepping stones lead through the reeds to a stone tower in the centre. Step  on the wrong stone and your path will be blocked by jets of water. Most children positively delight  in getting soaked so bring a towel and a change of clothes.

Watch a jousting tournament

You can watch knights jousting most weekends over the summer. King Henry VIII and Queen Anne Boleyn lead the procession of spectators all the way from the castle to the jousting field where big crowds gather to watch the Blue Knights battle the Reds.

The hour-long show is a real spectacle. The knights knock each other off their horses, spear metal rings onto their lances and engage in hand-to-hand combat. Children are invited to join the King’s Army. The raggle-taggle bunch are given helmets, swords and pikes and made to parade around the field.

Take a boat out on the lake 

We love rowing on the large lake at Hever. You can hire a rowing boat or a pedalo and spend a very happy hour mucking around on the water, rowing over to the Japanese Tea House and ringing the bell in the middle of the lake. See if you can sport the ducks’ house in the shape of a miniature castle.

The lake is a great place to teach children how to row. It’s usually fairly peaceful and you can see dragonflies, herons and kingfishers on the lake. There’s also a steamboat cruise.

Wander around the gardens

The extensive gardens are a pleasure to explore and there are plenty of good places for hide-and-seek. The formal gardens are a delight: the Italian Garden has shaded grottos and classical statues and there’s a colonnaded loggia beside the lake with a fountain and sculptures inspired by the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

The giant topiary chess set in the Tudor Garden will make you feel as if you’ve wandered onto a film set for ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Don’t miss the lovely sunken garden hidden behind a hedge in the Italian Garden – it’s a wonderfully tranquil spot often missed by the crowds because it’s so hidden away.

Walk around the lake

With 125 acres to explore, there’s no surprise that there are some lovely walks around the grounds and the wilder parts of the gardens. Our favourite is the Lake Walk which goes all around the lake. You can download a nature trail to complete as you go round. It’s a great place to spot birds like kingfishers and crested grebes and even on busy days it’s always quiet here, right in the middle of the countryside.

Have a picnic in the grounds

The stunning grounds are perfect for a picnic. Spread out your rug on one of the big lawns in front of the castle and watch the ducks and swans in the stream nearby. There’s lots of space here for children to have a run around. If you prefer to be away from the crowds, you’ll find quieter spots along the Lake Walk.

If the weather’s not good enough for sitting outside, there are two excellent cafés serving sandwiches, cakes and hot meals.

The next jousting tournament at Hever takes place this coming Bank Holiday Weekend. 

Hever Castle is open every day until 30th October, then from Wednesdays until Sundays until Christmas. Adults, from £13.10; children, from £8.30; under 5s, free.

For more castle inspiration, take a look at The UK’s Best Castles for Families and The Best European Castle Stays for Families

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A Photo Tour of Folegandros

A Photo Tour of FolegandrosWe’ve just got back from an idyllic two weeks on the tiny Greek island of Folegandros in the Cyclades. It has everything I dream of when I think of the perfect Greek island – pretty little harbours, beautiful beaches and great local tavernas. It was delightfully laid-back and despite the fact that we were there during the peak summer season, it wasn’t heaving with tourists.

I’ll be writing more about Folegandros over the next couple of weeks but in the meantime I thought I’d share some of the photos of our trip.

Folegandros has the unspoiled, old-fashioned feel that I love about Greece. We watched local fishermen untangling their nets at the harbour. We passed farmers using donkeys to get around and saw octopus hanging out to dry in the sun outside local tavernas.

We stayed in Chora, the main town on the island, perched on the cliffside, 200 metres up from the sea. Chora is considered to be one of the prettiest towns in the whole of the Cyclades, with its gorgeous white and blue buildings, picturesque squares and bougainvillea-draped houses.

The Castro, the medieval centre of the town has remained the same for hundreds of years. We walked down its narrow streets and covered passageways.

We took a boat to beaches virtually inaccessible by road and swam in the translucent aquamarine waters of the Aegean Sea.

There are churches everywhere you look on the island. We hiked to churches standing alone on top of steep hills. A zigzag path leads up to the main church in Chora, a regular evening pilgrimage for anyone wanting the best sunset view on the whole island.

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Nine Reasons You Should Visit The Lisbon Oceanário

Nine Reasons you should visit the Lisbon Oceanário

The Oceanário in Lisbon is easily the best aquarium we’ve ever been to. It’s also one of the biggest, with a fantastic variety of fish and other animals. You’ll find puffins and penguins, sharks and jellyfish as well as the more unusual creatures such as the cartoon-like sunfish and the adorable sea otters.

Here are all the reasons why you should visit.

It’s the largest indoor aquarium in Europe

© Mafalda Frade

The Oceanário is Europe’s biggest indoor aquarium, containing about 25,000 different fish, seabirds and mammals from around the world. But it’s so well designed that it doesn’t feel too big to enjoy.

What’s more, the building itself is really cool. My James Bond-obsessed 12-year-old said it looked “just like an evil villain’s hideout”. The eye-catching building appears to be floating on the water and you enter by crossing a footbridge.

It’s extremely well laid out

The aquarium is on two floors surrounding a massive central tank. The tank is seven metres deep so that visitors can look into it at different levels for close ups of the creatures living at the top and the bottom of the ocean.

The four main areas around the central tank showcase four different habitats around the world: the North Atlantic rocky coast, the Antarctic coastal line, the Temperate Pacific kelp forests and the Tropical Indian coral reefs.

As you wander in and out of the four habitats you keep coming back to the central tank and you’re guaranteed to see something new and fascinating every time. There are lots of helpful signs all over the walls so that you can find out interesting facts as you look around.

The central tank is truly incredible

The central tank is as big as four Olympic-sized swimming pools and contains 100 different species from around the world. Because it’s on two floors you can look into it from different levels which gives you the chance to observe some fish that you wouldn’t normally be able to see.

On the ground floor you can get a better look at the fish that spend most of their time at the bottom of the sea, like the zebra sharks and the guitarfish that look like something halfway between a ray and a shark. You can watch flatfish like plaice, sole and brill burying themselves in the sand and you can sometimes spot penguins diving in-between the rocks.

On the top floor we loved watching the graceful moray eels and the ‘devil fish’ Mantas whose horn-shaped fins work as giant spoons to direct small fish into its mouth.

Like most people, we were particularly taken with the numerous sharks. The sharks here are fed with ten kilos of fish twice a week. We learnt that sharks often shed their teeth and that some of the sandbar sharks have more than 20,000 teeth throughout their lives.

It’s a rare chance to see a sunfish

© Pedro A Pina

We were fascinated by the Ocean Sunfish. It looks like something a child would draw – I’d never seen anything like it in my life. It’s the largest bony fish in the world – more than three metres long and weighs over two tons. It looks exactly like a rock and often lies on its side on the surface of the water to sunbathe.

We were very lucky to see it – the Oceanário is one of very few aquariums in the world to have a sunfish because they are so difficult to care for.

You’ll fall in love with the sea otters

The sea otters, which come from the North Pacific Ocean, were some of my favourite animals in the whole aquarium. They are the only marine mammal to rely on their fur to maintain their body temperature so as a result they’ve got the densest fur in the animal kingdom and spend most of their day grooming their hair.

You can watch the otters doing just this at the Oceanário. They swim to the surface and lie on their backs, rubbing their cheeks with their paws, holding their paws over their furry tummies then rolling around in the water. It’s one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen – my youngest son and I literally had to be dragged away so that we could see everything else in the aquarium.

You can walk through a rainforest

The Tropical Indian Ocean part of the aquarium recreates the coralline beaches of the Seychelles. The rainforest and the coral reef are two of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Planet Earth. In this area you can go on a walkway through the forest listening to the sounds of birds and monkeys.

…and into the Antarctic

In the Antarctic area you’ll get to see Rockhopper Penguins and Magellanic Penguins from the Falkland Islands – always a huge favourite in any aquarium we’ve been to. Here the experience is made even better by having Inca Terns flying right above our heads.

It’s a great place to shelter from the sun and rain

Lisbon can get really hot in the summer months and when you’ve had a few days of intense heat it can be a big relief spending a few hours in the cool, tranquil space of the indoor aquarium. It can be a blessed escape from the rain too. Despite its reputation as one of the sunniest cities in Europe, it was pouring with rain when we arrived in Lisbon in February. Spending the afternoon in the Oceanário on that first day was a great way to escape the awful weather.

Even the shop is worth a visit

I’ll usually avoid the gift shop if at all possible but I had to make an exception for this one. It’s packed with great products including soft toy penguins, puffins and sharks. I think they’re missing a trick though – we couldn’t find any soft toy sea otters. We’d have bought those for sure!

The Oceanário de Lisboa is open daily from 10am until 8pm, until 6pm during the winter months. Tickets, adults, €14; children, €9; under 4s, free. Family tickets cost €36 for a family of four.

Disclosure: We were very kindly given free admission to the Oceanário but all opinions are honest and my own.

Pin It!Nine Reasons you should visit the Lisbon Oceanário


The UK’s Best Castles for Families

Best UK Castles for Families

Who doesn’t love visiting a castle? Children can really fire up their imaginations by dressing up as a knight or princess and walking over the drawbridge, climbing the tallest tower and finding out about the people who used to live there.

Over the summer holidays, the best castles offer a huge range of activities for families from dressing up boxes and jousting tournaments to dragon quests and live shows. Here are a few of our favourites:-


Best UK Castles for Families

Harry Potter fans can learn how to fly a broomstick at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland which was used as Hogwarts in the first two films and now offers broomstick training sessions for aspiring witches and wizards.

There has been a castle here for 1,000 years and it is still lived in by the Duke of Northumberland. Families can dress up in medieval clothes and watch longbow demonstrations and jester shows, take part in the Dragon Quest and make magic wands and herbal soaps in the craft area.

Alnwick Castle is open daily until 30th October. Adults, from £13.95; children, from £6.97; under 5s, free.


You can sit on King Henry II’s throne at Dover Castle and then explore secret wartime tunnels. Dover is a fantastic example of a medieval palace, with burning log fires and costumed characters walking around, but it’s also a great place to find out about World War II as its network of tunnels housed an underground hospital and a secret naval command centre during the war.

Activities this summer include siege warfare and battles through the ages, with fighting knights, Romans and the redcoats from the war of 1812.

Dover Castle is open daily. Adults, from £12.70; children, from £8.


Best UK Castles for Families

If you go Medieval glamping at Warwick Castle you can stay in a luxurious Medieval-themed tent and enrol your children in the Knight’s School.

There are lots of activities for families here from the new Horrible Histories Maze, the gruesome castle dungeon tour, the Princess Tower, where you have to break the evil sorcerer’s curse, and the largest working trebuchet in the world. Children can also let off steam in the adventure playground and spot the peacocks wandering around the gardens.

Warwick Castle is open daily. Tickets, from £18.50; under 3s, free.


©National Trust Images/David Levenson

©National Trust Images/David Levenson

Corfe Castle in Dorset was the inspiration for Kirrin Castle in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books. It was a royal palace and dungeon in medieval times and was besieged twice during the English Civil War in the 17th century when the Cavaliers defended the castle against attacks from Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads.

Nowadays, children can learn about its history by dressing up as a knight or princess, doing brass rubbings and going on a castle quest with an activity booklet. You can even ride there on a steam train!

This summer, there will be Tudor Adventures where you can follow a trail to uncover a spy network, a Victorian Villainous Thriller Walk and an open-air theatre.

Corfe Castle is open daily. Adults, from £8; children, from £4; under 5s, free.


English Heritage

English Heritage

You can watch amazing horse shows at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire where riders dressed in the Cavalier style of frills, feathers and high boots show off their dressage skills. Aspiring actors will also love the Theatre Room where they can try on theatrical costumes, learn their lines and perform a play.

Visitors to the castle this summer can join the army of King Charles I as he prepares for civil war and learn all about medieval torture.

Bolsover Castle is open daily. Adults, from £10.20; children, from £6.10; under 5s, free.


Best UK Castles for Families

There are jousting tournaments most weekends over the summer at Hever Castle in Kent. Families can meet King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn at this, her childhood home, and process with them towards the tournament ground to watch knights on horseback show off their skills.

The water maze is great for cooling off when the weather gets too hot and children can also go rowing on the lake, try their hand at archery and run around in the adventure playground.

Hever Castle is open daily. Adults, from £13.10; children, from £8.30; under 5s, free.


National Trust for Scotland

National Trust for Scotland

This 18th-century Scottish castle has a dramatic clifftop setting and is surrounded by a large country park which is ideal for families. Children can explore Culzean Castle by trying to spot the Lego figure hidden in each room. The castle also boasts one of the world’s largest collections of swords and pistols and there are special family tours at weekends.

You can visit the beach, see the deer and llamas in the Deer Park then head to Adventure Cove, the fantastic play area complete with dungeons, boats and smugglers’ caves.

Culzean Castle is open daily. Adults, from £15.50; children, from £11.50.


English Heritage

English Heritage

Ruined castles are so much fun to wander around and Tintagel in Cornwall is extra special because of its dramatic headland setting and connections with the Legend of King Arthur. When you’ve explored the Great Hall and the ruined chapel, go down to the beach where you can look for Merlin’s Cave and search for crabs in the rock pools.

Over the summer, families can have fun being archaeology detectives, laugh at the castle jester and listen to Merlin and King Arthur tell tales of monsters, heroes and princesses.

Tintagel Castle is open daily until 31st October and then at weekends and school holidays. Adults, from £7.90; children, from £4.70; under 5s, free.

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Why you should see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy

Why you should see The Summer Exhibition at the RAThe Summer Exhibition  at the Royal Academy of Arts is one of the must-see events of a London summer. Held every year since 1769, it’s the largest and most popular open exhibition in the UK. Any living artist can submit works to be considered so you could find a piece by a complete unknown hung next to a Hockney.

Most of the works are for sale so it’s a great chance to pick up a first piece of art. Prices start at £50 and run into the tens of thousands for the most well-known artists. Over £50,000 prize money is awarded each year and past winners have included Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, David Hockney and Jake and Dinos Chapman.

I love the history of the exhibition. Artists like Gainsborough, Turner and Constable showed their works in these same galleries in the Summer Exhibitions of the past. I love the contrast between the contemporary art on the walls and the grand surroundings of 17th-century Burlington House.

Why you should see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy

© Stephen White

There are lots of traditions associated with the Summer Exhibition. ‘Varnishing Day’ used to be the artists’ last chance to put finishing touches to their paintings. In 1832, Turner upset Constable by adding an eye-catching red buoy to his seascape, thereby upstaging his rival’s work. Nowadays the artists do a procession down the street from Burlington House to St. James’ Church, walking to the sounds of a steel band.

Another bizarre tradition is the secret Beef Tea that the Academicians are given to drink while they’re hanging the exhibition. It’s believed to be a mixture of Bovril and sherry!

The show is always curated by artists and this year is the turn of the British sculptor, Richard Wilson. He’s chosen to highlight the work of two artists working as a pair so you’ll find work by artists like Eva & Adele, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Gilbert and George.

But the most fantastic thing about the Summer Exhibition is the sheer diversity of the exhibits. It’s a celebration of contemporary art in all of its forms so there are sculptures, architectural models, paintings, videos, photos and prints. This makes it a unique place to come and see a wide variety of art.

Perhaps this is why there is such an eclectic mix of visitors to the exhibition every year. On the Sunday afternoon I went I was struck by the sheer variety of the people looking at the art. Hip 20-something couples stood next to old men in cream linen suits, children gazed at sculptures alongside middle-aged women out for the day with their friends.

It’s a great exhibition for kids because there’s so much variety that you’re always going to find something to interest, entertain and fascinate them. My 16-year-old goddaughter loved it. “The art here is so much fun!” she exclaimed as she walked around. For her, it was a far cry from the staid atmosphere of some of the art exhibitions and museums she’d visited in the past.

The fun starts in the stunning courtyard of 17th-century Burlington House. In this space, the designer and architect, Ron Arad, has set up ‘Spyre’, a 16-metre high steel oval cone which twirls like a snake above visitors’ heads. It moves constantly, its elegant acrobatic postures recording live footage of what it sees from the camera in the eye at its tip.

Why You Should See the Summer Exhibition at the RA“Normally we are looking at sculpture,” says Arad. “Now it is looking at us.”

The idea of being looked at is carried through into some of the other exhibits too. In some rooms it feels as if there are eyes everywhere, some looking at us from portraits, others gazing down from the ceiling.

Why You Should See the Summer Exhibition at the RAIn ‘The Portrait of Sakip Sabanci’, Kutlug Ataman has created a shimmering blue carpet hanging in the air – it’s made up of 10,000 LCD panels like passport photos, each with the photo of someone who the Turkish philanthropist encountered before his death.

Then there’s the sinister new sculpture by the Chapman Brothers in which the eyeless mannequins are holding their eyes in their hands.

You need to look up, down and all around you or you’ll miss something, like the figure of the girl cowering being one of the entrances. She’s hiding her face in her hands so that we can’t see her properly. Even the sculptures of dogs are positioned to look up at the art on the walls.

At the Summer Exhibition you’ll find a bit of everything. Some things appear designed to shock; others to amuse, inspire or make us think about the world in which we’re living. There’s a video of a cat licking cream, a huge tyre made out of cardboard and an iridescent tapestry woven out of beaten bottle tops.

Why You Should See the Summer Exhibition at the RAAono Fumiaki’s sculptures explore the theme of rebirth and healing after the devastating earthquake in Japan in 2011. He has gathered up household objects like books and sake bottles found at the scene and transformed them into sculptures.

The Royal Academy is running a series of creative family workshops over the school holidays inspired by the Summer Exhibition. The workshops last for two hours. Adults, £15; RA Friends, £5; children, £3. Booking is required.

The Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts is on until 21st August. The Royal Academy is open every day from 10am until 6pm, until 10pm on Friday and Saturday nights. Adults, from £12; 16 to 18-year-olds, £10; under 16s, free.

For more ideas of art activities to do with children in London, take a look at The Ten Best Art Experiences for Kids in London

You’ll probably also enjoy Lego, Bicycles and Prison Cells: Why children should see Ai Weiwei

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Try It For Free! GPS-Guided Travel Articles

Have you ever found yourself exploring a new city, guidebook in one hand, map in the other, and still been unable to work out exactly where you are or how to get to that amazing sounding restaurant you’ve just read about?

Or perhaps you saw a great blog post with lots of ideas on the best things to do in a particular city but now you’re here, you don’t have free internet access so you can’t look at it.

Frustrating, isn’t it?

Fortunately there’s now a solution to this problem. GPSMyCity has come up with the brilliant idea of producing GPS-guided travel articles. These are travel articles or blog posts that have GPS coordinates embedded into them, together with a map of the route. You use the GPS tracking to chart where you are and make sure you don’t get lost. It comes up with a detailed route map, with turn by turn walking directions.

Once you’ve installed the app onto your GPS-enabled mobile phone or tablet, you’ve effectively turned your phone into a personal tour guide.

GPS Guided Travel ArticlesWhat’s more, once the app has been downloaded onto your device it works offline so you don’t need to have internet access to read the articles or follow the routes.

On the GPSMyCity website, you can find over 5,000 self-guided walks in over 600 cities all over the world. In each city there are loads of different walks: some are cultural, some are focused on food, others will tell you where to find the best parks or family-friendly activities.

You could look for the best cafés in Florence, where to shop in Havana, take a walking tour of New Orleans or follow a three-day guide to St Petersburg.

You can download any travel article free of charge. Several of my best city guides are already available as apps. If you decide you want to turn them into a GPS-guided article you just pay a small fee (typically about $1) to upgrade.

I’ve teamed up with GPSMyCity to offer you all a free upgrade on a couple of my latest article apps so that you can see how it works without having to pay anything.

For the next week you can upgrade:

The Ten Best Free Things to do in London

(My guide to all the great things you can do in London without having to spend any money)

City Breaks with Kids: Seville

(A guide to all that’s brilliant about the Spanish city – especially with children)

To get your free upgraded app you need to click on the link for the article you’re interested in. Now follow the instructions to download the GPSMyCity app and you’ll be taken to the page for the article app. Click on ‘upgrade’ and the app will be automatically linked to an offline map and the GPS navigator.

Enjoy your guided tours and let me know what you thought!

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