Things to do in London in Autumn and Winter (Christmas in London)

Things to do in London in Autumn and Winter

The amazing thing about living in London is all the possibilities and the changing plans every season. I feel truly blessed to live here. A good source of inspiration for great London activities is Timeout London,  Le Cool London and the Nudge.  Living in London for the past four years has given me an inside knowledge of what type of events are likely to happen and when. 

Read: How Can You Afford Living in London? 

In this post, I am going to give you a few ideas of things to do in the autumn and winter, which is basically the Christmas period. Although Christmas festivity don't start till mid November. 

One. Things to do in London in Autumn and Winter: Ice Skating

This has been on my list since I moved to London. Every time I pass by an ice rink I get the urge to go, but I change my mind last minute, but this year I am going! There are a few options . The two most popular -over crowded- ones are the Winter wonderland one in Hyde Park and the one outside of the Natural History Museum. There is also the very cool ice rink at the Somerset House. A slightly less crowded one is the Canary Wharf Ice Rink since it is located in the business area of London. Canary Wharf is usually very quiet during the weekend when all the business men and women are in their homes, but who knows about this year.  Full list: Ice skating in London

Two. Things to do in London in Autumn and Winter: Christmas Markets

I know this is very christmasy, but I love markets. Markets are great when it's not raining and you want to just walk around and chat. Many of them popup close to Christmas time to entice people to buy even more gifts. 

There is the usual Winter wonderland market, but I just avoid Hyde Park at all costs. Too many people! A little one in central London is the Southbank market. There is also a high end market in the Design Museum for a weekend in Dec. I personally love the Renegade Craft Fair (second weekend in December in East London)There are many handmade and Etsy sellers there that have unique gifts. 

Three. Things to do in London in Autumn and Winter:Kew Gardens

I know it's a bit too cold for parks, BUT the colours of autumn are too gorgeous to miss! Get those winter boots out and warm coat and go. On my list is Kew gardens for all the beautiful shades of autumn. Some more park ideas: Hidden gardens and green spaces in London

Read: How to find cool events and things to do in London

Four. Things to do in London in Autumn and Winter: International Films

Going to the cinema all together is a very winter activity for me. I am not going to waste a good sunny day indoors. I haven't been to the cinema to watch a normal American or British movies in months. I only watch them on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I go to cinemas now just for international movies that I can't get a hold of otherwise. During October (until the 15th) there is the British film festival with really cool films. End of October is the UK Iranian film festival as well and I try to go to at least two of them. It's worth looking up independent cinemas in London to see more intriguing options of films that you might have not seen before. I usually go to the Curzon Cinema for that and they have a few branches. There is also Greenwich Picturehouse, which can be a good option if you are based in South London. For more quirky options you can go to the Prince Charles Cinema

Five. Things to do in London in Autumn and Winter: Chase up the lights

Winter nights are very long, but thankfully in some parts of London, night is as bright as day! There are a few lit up spots around London. Most lights start popping from end of November in preparation for Christmas. The most obvious lights that you will eventually see without even trying are the light at Oxford Street, Regent Street and a few other street in Central London. Basically keep on walking in central London and you will see lights all over. If you want more street lights then the winter Canary Wharf lights might be fun to see as well. 

There are three gardens that will have lights as well: 

Photo from Kew Gardens

Photo from Kew Gardens

Six. Things to do in London in Autumn and Winter: Country Walks

If you are done with all the city activities, you can head outside of London and go on one of the possible country walks. It will be worth it especially if you go in October or November where you get to see all the beautiful coloured autumn leaves. I think it's a magical time of the year. If you need ideas of country walks near London then check out the books below, or check some of the walks I have gone on previously! 

Over to you: Are there any events or activities happening in London in the autumn and winter that you are planning on doing? Share away in the comments below! 

Muslim Friendly Travel Retreats (Five Options)

Muslim Friendly Travel Retreats

Starting to travel the world might not be the easiest thing to do and not everyone can get the courage to just up and leave. Building courage and confidence to travel is a real issue. Although, I was living independently abroad for years, I was still worried about travelling by myself even though that I was already "travelling by myself!" Somehow staying in one location, London, where I figured out everything became comfortable. I wanted to break out of that comfort zone especially as I felt that life was passing me by! So in 2014, I decided to go on a workshop abroad (details on that below!). The workshop was set up by a group from London. I have previously done a workshop with them locally, so I felt that an international workshop will be ok. It was only five days in Granada, Spain. The organisers said they will give me a list of recommendations, so I went for it! After proving to myself that I can do it alone, travelling became much more frequent to the point that I decided to become a travel blogger because many people started asking me about my trip and everything else.   

Also, going on a study tip or a Muslim specific retreat will make your partner or parents sleep easier at night. My mother used to be really worried when I travelled. She still does, but going with a group eased her fear a little. If your parents or partner are not sure about you travelling alone, I would recommend starting with one of these!  

In this post I want to suggest FIVE Muslim friendly workshops, retreats and group travel run by Muslims for Muslims. 

One. Art of Islamic Pattern Workshops Abroad

Let me start with the three I went on. The Art of Islamic pattern  is the group I mentioned in the introduction. I went with them to Granada, Fez and Istanbul. They are truly wonderful and the workshops include constructing and painting Islamic geometry and visiting the major sights. The group is usually 20-25 people (90-95% females) and because all have a few common interest, the vibe is always fabulous. I made really good friends from these trips. My only time alone was going from my house to the airport and sleeping. It didn't even feel like I was on that trip solo. I managed to connect with a few on Instagram before I went as well. If you are into art and travel then this is made for you!  

Read about the study trips I took with AOIP:
Art of Islamic Pattern Workshops Abroad 

All the suggestions below seem really good, but I haven't tried them myself. They all look good and run by people I have only met online. They are 100% legit though! The only reason I didn't go with any is my very limited budget, but if you have the means, it might be a good idea to go. 

Two. The Big Reconnect Retreat (Female-only retreat)  

The Big Reconnect Retreat is run by one of my online friends, Brooke Benoit. It is basically a female-only retreat to rejuvenate one's self and relax. You can even bring your daughter if you like! 

"Imagine a week away in the company of great sisters from around the globe in a private lakeside Riad with an indoor heated pool."

Their current retreat is in Morocco, but there is some talk of them going to South America next year, which will be amazing! They also have a writing retreat in 2018 and a women only (no kids) retreat

'only female family' retreat organised by the big reconnect sleepover

Three. Burgundy Roots Retreat

I have only met Wafa Judas on instagram. She organises and plans the Burgundy Roots Retreats (It used to be called Sip of Love Retreats). She has retreats in Morocco, Jamaica and a few other destinations. The Jamaica Dreaming trip looks really good and she has a good itinerary with healthy food, yoga practice and beautiful scenery. 

Jamaica Dreaming Retreat by Burgundy Roots Retreats

Four. Rahhalah Adventure travel company

Rahhalah is an adventure travel company based in Dubai and Kuwait. I only know about them because popular Arab vloggers have been on their trips and spoke about them. They have monthly adventures (up to eight months in advance). All the trips and prices are mentioned. I only interacted with them on email once, but their options seem good! You can also search by destinations. It's a Muslim company, so they should be aware of all the Islamic needs. It's usually a mixed group from what I have seen on their social media photos.   

Rahhalah is an adventure travel company based in Dubai and Kuwait.

Five. Qaflh Group 

This is run by Rasha Yousif, a Bahraini photographer and a blogger on Not Just A Photo. We keep trying to meet up, but our travel schedules are so different! She started a female group travel platform called Qaflh. One of her previous trips was to India with a group of females that looked great!  I am not sure how often her trips are, but might be worth contacting her to see what she has planned.

qaflh: Hello from Delhi 💛 نامستي من دلهي

By the way, this is NOT a sponsored post. I just thought these are beautiful options that you should be aware of! 

Travel Blogging is harder than you think and here's why

Travel Blogging is harder than you think and here's why

What does it really take to become a successful travel blogger generating an income? By Income I mean enough money for the basic living expenses: rent, bills, food on the table and more travel. Some people actually do that, which makes it even more tempting to make it as a successful blogger. The longer I am in the travel blogging field, the more I realise how difficult it really is. I have been a travel blogger seriously since 2015 and I am still not living off my blog. I did however get very rewarding opportunities that I wouldn't have if it wasn't for travel blogging, such as, the collaboration with Skyscanner and Philadelphia Arabia (yup the cheese company). I also got to work with small, local business in the countries I travelled to. These perks are very encouraging and keep me going. However, it is still really difficult to make a consistent income to fully support myself. Travel blogging in general is very difficult and have many sides to it that are not apparent to most people who are not blogging themselves.   

In this post, I want to tell you about the reality of travel blogging. 

There are two parts to this: the visible part that you can see on this blog and the invisible part that you probably don't know much about unless you blog professionally yourself. Don't get me wrong, this post is not a rant about travel blogging, it's about the reality of travel blogging that people might not fully be aware of. In fact, I myself as a travel blogger was not aware of all these points and considerations until I made the decision that I want my blog to generate an income! I thought it was just a matter of going on a trip and writing about it, but it's much bigger than that. 

Part One: Visible Blogging Work

The visible side of travel blogging is what we get envied for. People see this side: a blogger on a trip, laughing in their photos, exploring gorgeous destinations and having lots of fun. This is true. This happens. This is the whole point of this new field that emerged in the past ten years. There are three main visible parts in a blogger's life: their fun trip, the blog post they have written and all the social media sharing.

Going on a Trip

The best part about being a travel blogger is going on a trip! After going on a few international trips and living abroad for years, I decided to blog about my travels to share stories, advice and inspire. Exploring the world is truly magical and my only regret is not travelling enough previously and not taking all travel chances I had. Being away "on holiday" is what people notice the most and that's the most visible. 

Writing a Post

This is what people expect from you as a travel blogger and rightly so. This is also what people get to see. This written documentation is the evidence. The spoken writing style of my blog make people think that it is very easily done. 

Promoting on Social Media

It feels like this is the only thing people see from travel bloggers. The pretty photos we post on Facebook and Instagram. Some bloggers actually make their income by being visual ambassadors for companies, but that's only a very small percentage of travel bloggers. 

Part Two: Invisible Blogging Work

This is the part that most people are not aware of. The part that really exhusts me. This is why I am busy all the time and why I stay home when I am not travelling. When I tell people that I have a lot of work to do, they are always puzzled and I get comments like: "what do you mean? Didn't you just write about your last trip?"

Take a look at my humble Travel Blogging Posts Checklist to see what I mean by all the invisable blogging work. All the details are below the photo! 

Travel Blogging Checklist

Emailing Companies

Emailing companies is the first thing I do while I am planning a trip. As a full time student and a part time blogger/vlogger, the finances are usually very limited. So, I contact companies, accommodations and tour operators in the destination I intend to visit to provide them with services and marketing options. This takes a lot of prior planning and can be soul sucking! I don't do it as much now because it requires a huge amount of work and sometimes all of that work is not appreciated. It also turns the holiday into a work venture because you will be required to record everything, promote it on social media instantly and later on and photograph everything. It gets really intense and I end up with only a little time for myself. This is also dependent on the company. Sometimes they are such a joy to work with, but other times they get too much.  

Documenting The Trip

This could be part of the visible part of blogging because people see some of the documentation on social media. For example, I usually post one or two photos on instagram daily during my trip with some highlights and a location. Off the social, I document everything there is to know about that location and place because when I write about it later I want to have every possible info to help my readers. This is basically travel journalism and since this was not what I studied in university (I studied/studying design hence the Designer Esra name), I have to really prove myself even more. 

How to Be A Travel Writer (Lonely Planet)
By Lonely Planet, Don George

Editing Photos  

Photos are a huge part of blogging. They are just more enticing. Imagine a post with photos verses one without. Personally I am put off by websites that hardly have any pictures. I like to see the place I am going to! I use the photos I take in the cover for the post, in the content and on social media. 

I usually take lots of photos to edit after every trip! Let me give you an example, on my two-week trip to Iran, I took over five thousand photos! I am not even exaggerating. Editing all of them was not an easy task. I ended up reducing that number to 100 because my blog would have exploded if I uploaded all of the photos I took. That 100 was divided on various travel posts though. 

Ps. I use Adobe Lightroom CC to edit all my video. Check out their packages.

Editing Videos

I also do vlogs, which means double the work! I don't make it easy for myself now do I? Editing video can be a lot of fun, but it is the longest process ever especially that I am teaching myself as I go along! I can easily spend 16hours on a 4minute video. Shocking, but 100% true! I use Adobe Premier Pro, which is really helpful. I love Adobe products because I use them all the time for my design work, so trying the Premier Pro was an good transition. I watch a lot of Youtube videos to help me figure out the settings and edits. I feel like I am improving slowly. I think even if you go to film school, you will take a while to get the hang of it and develop your style. 

Ps1. I use Adobe Premiere Pro CC to edit all my video. Check out their packages.

Ps2. If you are interested in becoming a travel vlogger, you might find the how to become a travel vlogger online course useful. It is run by two of my favourite travel Youtuber: Hey Nadine and Kristin Sarah. I would only recommend the course for beginners. If you have previous video experience and you have done so much research then you would have most likely already come across most of the content.

Read: The Vlogging Camera I swear by (Review for Canon G 7X)

Creating Social Media Content

With every blog I write, I have to have at least one pin-able photo (like the one at the start of this post), which means creating something like a poster that has an attractive photo related to the subject plus a written title for Pinterest, which is considered a really good visual search engine. I use Canva for that. It's a free website that requires signing up. It's really good because they have the exact sizes for everything and it's super easy to use. Alternatively you can use Photoshop or Illustrator. 

There are also the other social media outlets like twitter, instagram and Facebook. Each is slightly different, which means creating something for each is not the same. Not to mention all the engagement you have to do with others to notice you as well!    

Blog post Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) 

Now that I have followed the list above and prepared everything: the information, the photos, the poster and the video in some cases, I am ready to write the post. For years I have been writing useful travel advice posts with high quality photos, but I have only realised recently that my website traffic is so low! I thought that was because I was still new to the game, but it turns out, my blog lacked good keywords that optimise search engines! I even did a little test for a post I wrote about clothing in Iran. The previous title was "Outfits I wore in Iran" and had zero search. Literally, no one looked up that term. So, I spent three hours revamping that post using the suggested and searched terms. I changed it to "Iran Women's Clothing + What to wear when visiting Iran" and that is preforming much better. I find the SEO to be the hardest thing about blogging. SEO is crucial for travel blogs and anything written online. This is basically what makes strangers on the internet find you! Otherwise your blog will only be visited by family and friends forever. 

The tool I currently use to help me find searched-for keywords is called Key Search and I pay for it monthly. It is kind of easy compared to other tools, but learning it is still hard and needs lots of focus! Here's a very useful blog post from Digital Nomad Wannabe that tell you about everything you need to know when it comes to Keywords.

Adding Affiliate links

One of the way to make an income from blogging is to share affiliate links meaning links to products or services that you endorse resulting in a very small percentage. For example, I am an affiliate to a number of companies like Amazon, Adobe, ShopStyle and a few others. Although, I want people to use my links so I make that tiny percentage, I am always aware of what I am telling people. I am very honest in my reviews and opinions. When I usually hate something I don't even mention it on my website unless I am warning people against it. So, after I write my post or during writing, I find ways to add these links in a "natural way".    

Read: How to Monetise Your Travel Blog?

An extra step must be considered if adding affiliate links: the nofollow link. Again something I only recently learnt about and it's causing me a lot of pain to go back to all my previous posts to fix. There are many tips about this subject, so a quick search online will tell you all you need to know. This is very important otherwise Google gets annoyed with me and my site gets blocked.

Ps1. If you want add a nofollow link on SquareSpace (the platform I use for this website), then use the markdown block and this: <a href="the affiliate link" rel="nofollow">Name/Sponsor/title </a>

Ps2. To avoid adding nofollow links on SquareSpace, use the Amazon block instead, but make sure you enter your Amazon ID in the external links in the settings, so you can get the rewards.  

I also add Google AdSense inside the posts and other types of affiliates in the side bar and within posts in the hopes of generating an income. The money I made so far using every possible affiliate is below $25 -before you start thinking I am making a crazy amount of cash-.

Working really hard and getting such a little financial return is not too fun and sometimes very discouraging. I have to remind myself that I am blogging to share my tips and routes rather than to make money. Although, some money is always nice because we need it to stay alive! 

Blogtacular 2015 Official Photos by Piers MacDonald. Thanks Mollie Makes

Blogtacular 2015 Official Photos by Piers MacDonald. Thanks Mollie Makes

Sharing on the web

After following all the checklist above, you now have some content. As Sharon says (the lady behind Digital Nomad Wannabe) says: Content is king, but market is queen. So, marketing the post is a MUST! It's not as simple as tweeting a link or posting it on Facebook and Instagram, but this also means finding Facebook groups and communities that care about your content or want to exchange shares. For example, I am part of Blogtacular and everyone shares a new blog post every Monday. I am also part of Female Travel Bloggers and participate in their #BlogPostSaturday. These are the two specific FB groups designed for bloggers that I use. I am also part of three other female travel groups -that are not for bloggers- for any female traveller. I frequently check them and respond to other members who are looking for advice and posts about certain destinations such as Muslimahs Who Travel, Girls vs Globe and Girls Love Travel

Why am I still a travel blogger even with all of these difficulties? 

The short answer is I really enjoy all the aspects of travel blogging and the travel blogging community and TRAVELLING! 

Yes some parts can be tedious and difficult, but I don't mind doing them as long as I see the result and impact of that. Every time I get a positive comment from a fellow female traveller who was inspired, I get a kick of happiness and a sense of purpose. I love it more when people use my practical tips and find them really helpful! I find travel blogging rewarding and enjoyable. 

Blogtacular 2015 Official Photos by Piers MacDonald. Thanks Mollie Makes Spot the green scarf that's me!!

Blogtacular 2015 Official Photos by Piers MacDonald. Thanks Mollie Makes
Spot the green scarf that's me!!

Useful resources to make your blogging journey easier: 

  • Digital Nomad Wannabe
    This website and Facebook group have been really helpful
  • Video Influencers
    I have learnt so much from this Youtube channel. Their advice and useful tip are wonderful not to mention FREE!
  • Blogtacular
    They really helped me and started me on the right path of blogging. 

Another amazing resource is other bloggers. Make sure you go to blogging events and make blogging friends. I learnt so much from my friends plus they make blogging an even more fun field to work in!

Over to you: Are you a travel blogger? What are the hardest things you face while blogging? Do you have any tips to make the process easier? Even if you aren't a travel blogger, feel free to leave some feedback in the comments below!  

DISCLAIMER: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive a small commission. This helps support the blog and allows me to continue to make posts like this. Thank you for the support! 

How to find cheap flights on Skyscanner?

How to find cheap flights on Skyscanner

Travelling is my favourite thing to do. I managed to visit 27 countries so far and lived in three different part of the world long term. I like to travel fast and I like to travel slow. Travel is the one thing I am very happy to spend my money on. However, I prefer to spend my money on the local experiences of the destinations I travel to rather than getting there. So, I try to get the cheapest plane tickets I find. The price range I love is anything under £50 for a return ticket! Most of my trips were on budget airlines, which might not be the best option for some people. Think of planes as a way of transportation. Some of my tickets on budget airlines were much cheaper than national train tickets within the U.K. In fact they were even cheaper than a meal in London! For example, I went to Romania for £12, Athens for £30, Italy for £40 and so on.

I find most of my flights on Skyscanner and in this post I want to tell you about four features I use to search for cheap airfare: Everywhere Search, Multi-city Search, Weekend Feature and Price Alert. I added a few bonus tips at the end of the post as well!

Watch the video: 

Everywhere Search on Skyscanner

The Everywhere Search is actually my absolute favourite feature and it helped me find destinations that I did not even consider.

I am happy to travel to most places as long as they are safe. My only travel requirement sometimes is a specific time of the year or weather. With this feature, you get to see destinations from the cheapest to the most expensive and it’s all very well organised by country and city names. That is how I picket my November destination. My friend and I have a free week at the end of November and all we wanted is to get away from London to some nice weather. One of the everywhere search options that popped up was Madeira Island in Portugal and that’s exactly where we are heading. Keep an eye on Instagram to see the upcoming updates.

Everywhere Search on Skyscanner

Multi-city Search on Skyscanner

I usually use the multi city search when I am going to more than one place in a country, where the trip starts somewhere and ends at another. I also use it to find better flight possibilities. For example, when I wanted to go to Greece in April, the flight from London to Santorini was a joke it was £175 return ticket. That was way more than I was willing to spend. So, I looked up a flight from London to Athens then from Athens to Santorini with a return from there to London. Surprisingly that route plus two hotel nights in Athens were still cheaper than the first direct flight I found. London to Athens was £40 then two nights at hotel in Athens were £60. After that, I flew to Santorini and the national flight was SIXTEEN pounds only.

This search feature also worked on Italy. I booked from London to Rome then Milan to London. I travelled by train from the bottom of Italy to the top. That made my trip so convenient. I just love all the possibilities that the multi city search feature bring! If you haven’t tried it you really should!

Multi city feature on skyscanner
Photo in Santorini 

Photo in Santorini 

Weekend Feature on Skyscanner

Weekends away are the best! When anyone wants me to suggest a gift for his/her friend or spouse, my first idea always involves a holiday. I don’t think people realise how doable weekend travel is. It’s not the cheapest time to travel to popular destinations, but sometimes there are really surprising deals! This feature shows you the upcoming weekends with their prices. It doesn’t get easier than this to plan a weekend getaway.

Price Alert on Skyscanner

Sometimes even when you try really hard, the ticket price is still not right, setting a price alert might be the best option. That way you can get a notification when the ticket prices are going down.

Price Alert on Skyscanner

Bonus tips to book a cheaper flight:

Using the features I just mentioned above should save you a little bit, but if you want even more money saving tips on plane tickets then keep on reading because I have three extra for you!

How to find cheap flights on Skyscanner

Book a ticket before payday

Check tickets the week before payday. This is not scientifically proven, but it's just what I have noticed. Every time, I got a ticket a week before the end of the month, which is payday for most people in the UK, the price is much lower!

Book a ticket after a major holiday

Book plane tickets after major holidays. Again this is just through observation. For instance, after Christmas, I booked a holiday for the last week January to Romania for £12! The return ticket could also have been £12, but I picked the most convenient time for £30. The total was still under £50 and I thought it was amazing! I think it’s just that most people are broke at that time after spending so much money on Christmas presents.

Follow the most obvious tip

Just going to point out the obvious here. Go to unpopular destinations and choose the off-season time to go. Seriously going during peak times is not as fun as you might think. I went to Portugal in July, which is considered peak season then and it was just too hot and too crowded. I am planning another trip for the off-season now because I want to experience it when there is space for me on the pavement!

Planning a trip on Skyscanner

Download Skyscanner from the app store:

Over to you: What are your favourite Skyscanner features that usually help you save on plane tickets? And do you have any extra tips to save even more?

Disclaimer: This post is in collaboration with Skyscanner. This post includes affiliate links that will give me a commission if they are used with no extra cost to you. 

Women Driving in Saudi Arabia وأخيراً بنسوق في السعودية

It was just a regular Tuesday night until I heard the news! I was at an art show in London when I noticed the stream of what's app messages begin to pop up on my phone. King Salman orders driving licenses for women in the kingdom. I read that and I was like: "yah right!" I didn't believe it. It was only last year when I attempted to go around the corner in my dad's car just to see how it feels to drive in Saudi. It was only for 5 minutes in my dad's presence. The excitement and the fear were a strange mix. 

Then the messages continued from my female family members confirming that it's true!! Women are now allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. My eyes widened and immediately started looking it up online in disbelief! It is TRUE! All the major news outlets have reported it: Saudi Arabia to allow women to obtain driving licences. Immediately thought, how good Saudi life will become without drivers and all their hassle. Having a driver takes 40% of the Saudi woman's wages! According to AlMadinah newspaper, There are 1038 Million drivers in Saudi, which is 60% of domestic works in the Saudi Kingdom. It costs the Saudi families 25 Billion Saudi Riyals annually to have drivers!! In addition to the high financial costs, it's road safety. Last year (1437 Hijri), 5334 thousand accidents happened and 45% of them were caused by a foreign driver. 70% of those drivers are not even aware of the driving rules in Saudi!  

In 2013, I wrote that one of the big issues women face in Saudi is not being able to drive because it restricts their mobility therefore their freedom. I am happy about  Saudi Arabia's major milestone and the amazing step our King Salman took towards the future! This move goes perfectly with the 2030 Saudi vision. The Saudi vision wants to include more women in the work market and change the percentage from the current 22% to over 30%. So, giving women their right of movement will surly encourage them to be more active in society.  
Now, I can see the Saudi vision becoming a reality! 

Read: Saudi Issues: Women Driving
Read: Saudi Women's Biggest Issue
That time I got in my dad's car for few minutes! 

That time I got in my dad's car for few minutes! 

Get this book from Amazon 

Get this book from Amazon 

In 2010, Saudi females became vocal about the need to be allowed to drive. Saudi women activists such as Manal AlSharif, have been advocates for women driving in Saudi for the past seven years! Other females have also been fighting towards the cause and even risking jail time.

Manal wrote about her journey in her Daring to Drive book on Amazon. She also *just* released her Arabic book "Driving towards freedom" that is hot off the press in time for the very happy news! 

 

Why is women-driving in Saudi Arabia a huge accomplishment?  

First, let me tell you something about the reality of mobility in Saudi. Saudi Arabia does not have a public transports system and Saudi women have to rely heavily on being driven around by male relatives or foreign drivers that have been brought to Saudi for this purpose alone. There are also no pedestrian crossings, so she cannot even go walking across the street not to mention that Saudi heat doesn't help either. Saudi women have three choices: to beg a male relative to go basically anywhere, to bring a driver from abroad and pay ridiculous amount of money and/or use Careem or Uber (taxi apps), which weren't cheap either! But now hopefully things will change! 

Saudi women can finally take care of themselves without the mercy of a man. A Saudi woman can *FINALLY* get herself to university, work and even the grocery store. She can get her kids to school or to the hospital or other places! Saudi women can feel safe in their own cars rather than feel uneasy with all these random men that are NEEDED if the woman wants to step out of the house. 

Read: 15 Facts About Saudi Women

Having a driver in Saudi is NOT the solution for three reasons:  

  • Costs
    Bringing a foreign worker to become your driver in Saudi costs a fortune and is such a pain because you pay a fee to bring them, then take them to do all the medical checks. You also need to give him a salary, a car and a place to live! Not to mention that some drivers don't care about the car they are given and end up recking it so badly! So, the costs always keep on increasing!  
  • Safety
    After all, this driver is "imported" from his country without a criminal check or real behaviour analysis. Some can be dangerous and some women feel so unsafe, but their need to get to work or to get their kids to school outweighs that fear for their safety. Saying that, a lot of the drivers are decent people that have been with some families for years, but that's not always the case. 
  • Cultural difference
    Drivers in Saudi usually come from less fortunate countries: India, Indonesia, Philippines and other places. They have a different culture and a different language. A lot of the times there are clashes with the drivers because of their behaviour or their reaction to Saudi behaviour. Not to mention that the language barrier could cause many problems. 
I Believe I Can Drive - Saudi Arabia lifts ban on women driving
Women Driving in Saudi Arabia

I have to admit though that the jokes and the memes about driving makes the news even better! I have been chuckling at my phone the whole day! But putting jokes aside, what's next? This change is not going to take place over night and this change will take a while. The male dominant Saudi society will have to get used to it, families will have to make different arrangements and so on. It will take affect on 24th of June 2018, which will hopefully give everyone time to sort everything out and be ready to drive! 

Florence Eats

The food experience in Florence was on another level especially after the disappointing and mediocre food we found in Rome. I was only in Florence for three days. My friend S is a foodie and it was her mission to find delicious eats for us there. We read reviews and local recommendation websites to find these restaurants. 

Ps.This food post includes vegetarian and sea food options. I did not find any halal Italian recommendations. 

Florence Eats

Lunch in Florence

We only had two lunches in Florence. Both were at the market. We loved the variety and the ease of the location so we went back there the second day. The Market has two main floors. The ground floor is Mercato di San Lorenzo, which is old fashioned with food stalls and shops selling delicious balsamic, olive oil, truffle and honey. The first floor is known as the Central Market and it is like a food court with restaurants on the sides and tables in the middle. It was very crowded, so if you don’t like the crowed then this might not be for you. You can go to the market to only shop for Italian ingredients and gifts as well. I managed to get some delicious balsamic vinegar, honey with truffles and sun dried tomatoes. 

We had some pasta downstairs from Nerbone. Their Pesto pasta was fresh and it was like a salad pasta, but the coolness of it made it taste like a light lunch. The caprese and artichoke starters were good as well. Two mains and two starters and drinks cost us 20 euros.  

The second visit, we went to the Central Market upstairs and the pizza stall looked the most tempting, so we got some from there. There was only one pizza stall with the longest queue! It was very fresh and stone oven baked. It took 15 minutes and it was very yummy! The pizzas were 8-11 euros each. We treated ourselves to some Italian snacks and gelato from there too! 

Gelato 

Of course right!! I had about two a day from most stalls. I don’t discriminate gelato. Most was nice and refreshing. Plus being there in the summer you need a few whenever you see a stall. I made a specific journey to a well recommended spot that I thought I will share with you. 

Dinner in Florence

Simple and proper Italian Pasta (Osteria Santo Spirito)

I wanted to eat every possible type of pasta when I was in Italy and I really enjoyed this place! It was a 40mins wait, but the food was worth it. Simple, but GOOD. 

Pizza with a twist (Berbere)

This pizza was the best one I have had hands down. I had a special one with mozzarella, tomato sauce and capers. The bread served in this pizza place is actually the best I tried in Italy. I also tried the cucumber and watermelon salad, which was just perfect for the weather!  

They have a few branches around Italy, so you don’t only have to be in Florence for this pizza. Though, I can’t really vouch for the other branches. 

Creative Dinning Experience in Florence

Leaving the best dinner for last! Garga was a feast for the stomach and the eyes. It was decorated with a number of very interesting art pieces. You can even draw your own art on the table too! They might keep it and even print it! The food was so creative and REALLY yummy! We also got complementary starter from the chef then he came and said hi at the end of the meal, which was really sweet. It's a pricey meal, but if you want to treat yourself a little I would recommend this. Not to mention that the spinach prawns I had there were the BEST! The dessert had an unusual mix of chocolate mousse with salt, olive oil and berries. Having all of them in one bite is SO GOOD!! 


Over to you:

Which one of these would you try when you visit? and do you know of any MUST TRY restaurants in Florence?

Florence Highlights 

Florence was hands down my favourite city in the two weeks I spent in Italy. It just had everything I wanted and then some. I only spent three days there with my friend S, but I could have stayed there a week! The city has such a great vibe. I had the best food there as well! Unfortunately, I didn't plan what we wanted to see before hand and all the tickets for the main attractions were sold out for the next three days, which is the amount of time we were spending there. It was a shame going all the way and not being able to go inside the Duomo or see David. We still made the most of our time there regardless and LOVED IT! 

Florence highlights

Florence Free walking tour

We found this online and since I have tried a number of free walking tours that I enjoyed like the one I went on in Oslo and Sarajevo, I thought this will be a good choice. I mean the amount information and some of the things you will see is interesting, but the tour guide was so monotone. We got so bored and left after an hour. It might be worth it for the education though! Here is their website in case you are interested.  

Florence Cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore) and The Famous Duomo

Seeing this in person (from the outside) was magnificent. The level of detail and beauty is unreal! Because we didn't book ages in advance, there weren't any tickets online and the queue was INSANE! There were legit people outside selling the full experience for 50 euros, but I din't want to spend that much, so I only gave it some love from the outside and left! I previously read some of the Brunelleschi's dome book about how that dome was built, which I would highly recommend if you are into reading a story of the place before you go. It was an interesting story. 

San Lorenzo Basilica + Treasure Museum (Han Bing gallery) 

We only stumbled upon this because we couldn't go inside the Duomo and wanted to keep on exploring. The cool thing about the basilica is that they had an audio guide with a visual guide (something like an ipad or a tablet) that shows you pictures of previous structure and it gives you so much information. It was very interesting and you can spend over two hours listening and looking! I really liked the court yard of the treasure museum, the arches and the temporary exhibition of Han Bing work that they were hosting. 

Uffuzzi Gallery

Thankfully, we managed to get some ticket for this famous gallery at least! We got them online for the last entry. It was a clam gallery with lots to see. We got the audio guide, which was a good call otherwise we wouldn't have enjoyed it as much! 

The Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens

This garden was fantastic. We had a full on photoshoot there! We couldn't help ourselves. The view from the rooftop was stunning as well. I wasn't a huge fan of the ceramics museum they had there, but the garden itself was so peaceful and lovely for an afternoon. We booked the tickets online for the 4pm slot and stayed there till 6ish. 

Plaza Michelangelo

This was my favourite. We went there two hours before the sunset for the view, but we got to walk around it and went into the little rose garden next to it. It was free, but it got SO CROWDED half an hour before sunset. Like there were too many people! I still managed to get a good photo, but be warned. I imagine that it would be much quieter in the sunrise.  

The view from Plaza Michelangelo

Muslims in Florence:

There were plenty of Muslim tourists not to stand out! Everyone treated me really nicely and I didn't face any problems, which is great. I think people there are used to Muslim tourists.  

Halal Food in Florence:

Just like Rome, I didn't find special halal Italian food, but I still had a fantastic food experience with being a vegetarian and eating some sea food. 

Transportation in Florence:

It's affordable to get the bus and no one really checks tickets. I followed the suggestions made by google maps for the buses. There were few times were the bus route wasn't exact. It's always good to check the destination with the driver. I liked that the buses were air conditioned at least unlike Rome!

Related Posts:

Where I stayed in Florence
More about Italy

Over to you: Have you been to Florence? What were the highlights for you? If you haven't what would you like to see? 

Where I stayed in Florence

B&B in Florence

Italy is one of the most common destinations and it's on most people's travel list. So, when it comes to finding a place, the choices are endless. 

I looked at many options in Florence until I found the lovely B&B Fifty Seven

It is a family owned B&B.The owner of the B&B, Lorenzo, took a risk and changed this long term renting property to a B&B. I think his bet is paying off! His mother and girlfriend have transformed the interior and chose everything personally. That's why the rooms are full of little personal touches. His mother comes every morning to make sure that everything is tidy and in place. It's true teamwork.

There are only four rooms in the flat with two shared bathrooms, a big open kitchen and a balcony, so the place never feels crowded.  

It's truly a bed and breakfast because breakfast is provided with no extra cost. There is a choice of cereals, spreads and crunchy biscuits. The kitchen is fully equipped, so you can make more elaborate breakfasts if you like. The neighbourhood is really good, so the close by stores sell high quality things.   

B&B Fifty Seven is tucked away from the tourists areas on the other side of the river.

It's a short walking distance from the famous Michelangelo Square (Piazzale Michelangelo). I found the whole of Florence to be walkable, so going from B&B Fifty Sevento the attraction could be walkable (20-30mins), but you can also get the bus from there. There is a direct bus to the station (Bus D) and that same bus stops at all the popular spots too! 

The location of  B&B Fifty Seven 

The location of  B&B Fifty Seven 

My friend S and I totally loved this place. It was so pleasant and we felt at home. I think it added so much to our experience in Florence. Lorenzo and his mother were very hospitable and very helpful. It was such a nice find and I would highly recommend it if you are visiting. 


To book this B&B:

You can contact Lorenzo directly via his website. If you do that you can receive a 15% discount!

 Or you can book it via Booking.com   . I contacted him personally and he was very professional and quick in his responses! 

Read more on Italy! 

Over to you, have you stayed in Florence before? Was there a specific area you loved? 

Disclaimer: This was a discounted press stay, but all opinions are my own. 

First Time in Rome

First Time in Rome

This visit was my first one to Rome. Everyone knows that Rome is a big deal! After all, all paths leads to Rome! In general Italy has been on my list since forever, I mean who doesn't have Italy on their list? I kept pushing the idea of going until my Italian friend announced her Italian wedding, which meant by default that Italy is finally happening! My other friend, S, who is also invited to the wedding have not been to Italy neither. Therefore, we decided it's time for a girls Italian adventure. We decided to go two weeks before the wedding to visit the main cities: Rome, Florence, Venice and Milan. The only problem was that all of this was happening in July! One of their hottest months and apparently the summer we went was the hottest in 40 years according to a lady who was walking on the street. 

This post is all about Rome and the sights we managed to see. To be honest, the whole city is a big museum. Just walking around aimlessly gives you sights to see. We were spoiled for choice really. You could spend days from one museum to the other and from a church to the other. All that choice made Rome very hard. We didn't want to fit everything in, but we wanted to at least see the main sights. We took it at leisurely pace and the level of July heat is insane that you would DIE if you try to cram everything in! 

Villa Borghese + Borghese Gallery

I arrived to Rome at midnight, so I just hurried to the last train from the airport to the city's main train station then got a taxi from there. I wanted to take a bus, but I couldn't figure it out and thought a taxi was the best option. I was staying a little far from the main city centre, so the taxi was 20 euros. I wanted to take it easy on my first day, so I only went to one park and one gallery. I headed to Villa Borghese, which is a lovely park away from the busy city centre. I packed a picnic and stayed there for a couple of hours. The park houses the Borghese Gallery, which consists of a few rooms with impressive ceiling paintings and sculptures. It's a modest size, but full of impressive artwork there. As you leave the park you can continue walking to Pincio Promenade Passeggiata del Pincio to see statues in the open air and head to Piazza del Popolo. That walk was scenic and gives beautiful views of the city of Rome like the photos below! The Piazza has plenty of restaurants.  

Ps. architecture students get a free entry to Borghese Gallery

Vatican City

Obviously! We booked our tickets online from the official website. There were so many options! So, we settled for an individual Museum + Chapel guided tour. It was slightly more expensive to be on a tour with a guide, but it was worth it! We learnt so much and we were glad that we opted for that option. That way we weren't walking aimlessly.  

Full ticket: € 32.00.

Fun fact: The Vatican used to be its own country. They even have their own Vatican city passports *still*!

Colosseum + Roman Forum

Another expected one! But, I cannot go to Rome and not visit right?! We went after lunch, but man oh man the sun was on FULL BLAST! It was so hot, which made it extremely hard to enjoy the place! Thankfully, we reserved and paid for our tickets online. That saved us from waiting in the endless queues. It was still hard to fully appreciate it with the heat. It was 27 degrees at 8am, so even going earlier would not have made huge difference. Just don't go in July! I think it will be a good winter activity though!   

Muslims in Rome:

I was wearing the turban and everyone was nice to me and I wasn't picked on or stared at. I haven't seen Italian Muslims, but I was only in touristy areas. I saw a few Muslim tourists though.  

Halal Food in Rome:

I did not find Halal Italian places sadly. I mainly had vegetarian pastas and pizzas. There are a few halal indian places, but I wanted to only Italian food in Italy.  

Getting Around and Public Transportations: 

I used google maps for getting around including all buses. The bus times are estimation. Some were on time and others were over half an hour late. For some reason, google thought buses were better to take so I just followed! The bus get extremely busy and hot, but they are cheap. It's actually almost free since it's impossible to get to the little validating machine inside the bus.  

3G and Data in Italy: If you have a UK sim card with a contract or a prepaid package then the internet then you have access to the internet in the rest of Europe. That was the most helpful thing ever! 

Over to you: Have you been to Rome before? If you haven't what would you love to see?

Eight reasons every Muslim woman should travel solo at least once 

Over protective parents and rigid cultural teachings have held Muslim women from travelling the world and embarking on journeys to explore the world. Thankfully, this has changed and it could be seen with the increasing numbers of travelling Muslim ladies. You can see some examples on the Muslimahs Who Travel Instagram Account. A good number of them is doing it solo. I am just happy to see people going out of their comfort zones and embarking on different adventures. However, I think every Muslim woman should try travelling solo at least once. It does not have to be an epic trip of backpacking around Asia on foot. Anything would do! Even a weekend getaway in the same country. Here are: 

Ten reasons every Muslim woman try travelling solo at least once

ps. If you are a female from other faiths  you will benefit from this post too! 

1- It will give you courage

Travelling alone doesn't always come naturally and there is so much fear involved, but after you do it, you will feel more courage and pride. You will feel proud of yourself for being able to do that.

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.” ― Coco Chanel

2- Independency

Most of my friends are independent Muslim women that are working important jobs to support themselves and to impact their societies. Travel Independency is slightly different though. When you are travelling on your own, you are depending on yourself to plan the trip, to find your way in unknown streets and to enjoy yourself. After moving across the world to live in the US and then the UK, I have learnt to be truly independent in every way. When my dad visited me in London, he was so impressed in my ability to find my way around the transports system and keep him well fed and entertained. 

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” ― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
Every Muslim woman try travelling solo at least once 

3- Recharging Escape

Alone time away will give you the needed escape to recharge and be ready to face life difficulties. I would encourage you to mute your social media on such escapes. Social interactions, going out and being around people is wonderful, but could be very emotionally exhausting and recharging is a must. Escaping from the day to day life to spend time just with yourself is needed.

“Reality doesn't impress me. I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.” ― Anaïs Nin, Incest: From a Journal of Love

4- Educating Others

Travelling as a Muslim female, always peaks the interest of the locals and other travellers. I know this might be a weird reason, but enlightening others come from our will to teach them. I sometimes feel exhausted from answering questions about Islam and the Arab culture but then I remind myself that without me giving the correct information to others then they will probably get a wrong one from the many pointless available propaganda. 

Read: Travel Blogger in a Headscarf Q&A

5- To know the locals

when I travel solo is when I get approached for conversations. When I am with a group, people are not as brave to say more than a comment. Let me give you few examples:

- When I was in Athens, I made friends with the table next to me. First, we politely smiled then before you know it I was with them on the table talking about art in details because the girl happened to be an artist too!

- when I was on the train in Sri Lanka, people sat next to me and they were very thrilled to tell me about the upcoming waterfalls so I get my camera ready to capture them!

6- More awareness of people and places

When you are by yourself, you will have to depend on your instinct to tell if a person or a place is safe or not and that will just make you more aware. 

“Be present in all things and thankful for all things.” ― Maya Angelou
Reasons to travel solo

7- Enjoy your own company

I think this one is the most important lesson I have learnt from travelling. I truly learnt how to enjoy my own company. People still don't understand this one. I even get asked: "but how can you travel alone? and go to restaurants alone!" Well first off: alone doesn't mean lonely and second that teaches you to appreciate yourself and value your own time. I did get asked in Sri Lanka once about why I was alone when I entered one of the restaurants, but I just said because I like it. The waiter still prayed for me to return with a partner one day not knowing anything about me, but I didn't mind. I still had an EPIC trip!!   

“You are not an option, a choice or a soft place to land after a long battle. You were meant to be the one. If you can wrap yourself around the idea that you are something incredible, then you will stop excusing behavior that rapes your very soul. You were never meant to teach someone to love you. You were meant to be loved.” ― Shannon L. Alder

8- get lost and discover

That can be done with others, but it's different when you are by yourself. I take a much longer time to find my own way when I am alone because I can't always remember the routes I take. It feels like walking on a cloud that's how much I am in my own world, but that's ok because I get to discover new spots!

“How To Be An Explorer Of The World?
1. Always Be LOOKING (notice the ground beneath your feet.)
2. Consider Everything Alive & Animate
3. EVERYTHING Is Interesting. Look Closer.
4. Alter Your Course Often.
5. Observe For Long Durations (and short ones).
6. Notice The Stories Going On Around You.
7. Notice PATTERNS. Make CONNECTIONS.
8. DOCUMENT Your Findings (field notes) In a variety Of ways.
9. Incorporate Indeterminacy.
10. Observe Movement.
11. Create a Personal DIALOGUE With Your Environment. Talk to it.
12. Trace Things Back to Their ORIGINS.
13. Use ALL of the Senses In Your Investigations.”
― Keri Smith, How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum
Muslim Woman Travelling Solo

Note1: Usual Safety Cautions Apply When Travelling solo!

Read: How to stay safe when travelling?

Note2: You can still awesome travel photos of yourself even when solo! 

Read: How to take pictures of yourself when travelling solo?

Over to you: Why do you think women should travel solo at least once?